This was supposed to be a nice holiday, if you can call 850km of gravel riding up and down 16,000 metres worth of hills a holiday... but I’m on top of a hill near Ljubljana in the pissing rain and sloppy mud, exactly the same hill I was at the top of what feels like bloody hours ago, because it probably was. I’m only about 10km into that 850km and it’s all gone to shit, quickly.
I’ve been sold the Seven Serpents gravel event by my partner Claire, who visited the area a while back and professes that it’s a lovely place to ride a bike. Pictures do seem to back up that claim, plus it’s an area of Europe I’ve never visited before and I’m always keen to colour in new bits of the map.
The Seven Serpents is an unsupported bikepacking challenge with a set route that starts in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana and snakes its way down through Croatia, across the top of the Adriatic via ferries and the islands of Krk and Cres before finishing in the port city of Trieste in Italy. It has a sister event called the Mini Bite that’s run the week previously over a shorter, more relaxed 500km distance for those that want a nice warm-up to the season, or those less experienced in bikepacking. This year it was held in perfect conditions, with riders pedalling up sunny off road hills and through dusty deserted villages.
It seemed like Claire was right, it was going to be lovely... until the weather forecast thought different, and a massive bruise-coloured mass of rain was going to sweep across Europe just in time for our Severn Serpents trip. And so we find ourselves on the start line in the rain, with a long day of rain ahead of us and plastic bags between our socks and shoes. If I wanted this sort of thing I could have stayed home in the UK.
We’ve not even summited the first hill when my rear tyre feels a little squishy. It’s the prefect damp and gritty conditions for something sharp to weasel its way into a tyre, so seems reasonable. I tell Claire to carry on while I pump the tyre up, hoping the hole seals and I’ll catch her up.
I’m riding the Seven Serpents together with Claire, and while we have both done lots of multi-day events separately and loads of bikepacking trips together, we’ve never entered an ultra event as a bona fide pair.
Riding in a pair brings with it the benefits of safety, the shared experience and shared snacks, cheering along the other person when they’re having a bad day in the knowledge that it could be you the next day, drafting where possible and a thousand other bonding experiences. The downsides are that you have to share any misfortune as well, and while sometimes they’re unforeseen and impact both riders, working as a pair can ease the way out and then once a while, the fault lays squarely on one person. This is where we are, because this is entirely my problem and it isn’t just my problem.
There doesn’t seem to be any obvious hole or damage, so I whack some air in and set off down the hill. I’m right off the back of the pack now so haven’t got other riders to follow, and my Garmin is making all sorts of noises as I switchback down the hill, which it often does in trees presuming I’m off course. When I get to the bottom and into the clear, I discover that I am very much off course. Bugger.
I grind back up the hill and head down a path I missed initially, and this feels even more wrong than my first descent as the GPS is doing hardcore Belgian techno beeps, and I end up in the same place I was a short while ago. Fus'sake.
My tyre is flat again so I put even more air in, hoping it forces sealant all the way to the edges so I can actually make progress. I zoom and scroll out on my Garmin and try to get myself back on track, barrelling along a main road into a suburb where I have to put some more air into the sickly tyre, and then again a couple of kilometres later, and then again when I finally admit defeat and put an archaic (but actually able to hold air) tube in.
Lord knows where I am, apart from in a bus stop. I cross reference my Garmin and where Claire is on her activated phone location beacon and she’s a long way away. I could head straight down the road to the small village of Ig and intercept her there, but that would mean I’ve cut off a large section of the route and would effectively disqualify myself from the ride within the first few hours of day one, meaning our Seven Serpents attempt wouldn’t count. I resolve to be the good guy and punch Garmin buttons to get me back on the route.
Along the road, turn right, up a gap between the houses, into the woods again and up the hill again. I’m following a line on the screen when it all starts to look horribly familiar, and I’m heading down the track we came up first thing this morning. Swear, turn round, swear, go past where I first stopped to tend to the soft tyre, swear and muttered swear again as my Garmin decides to finally recognise the tiny right hand turn it missed, swear and start to follow the spaghetti mess of tyre tracks from everyone else that passed this way.
I let Claire know I’m finally on track and will do my best to catch up, and if she finds somewhere to hide and get a coffee then to let me know.
It feels very odd to be alone in the wake of every other rider on the Seven Serpents, and I try my best to maintain a calm head. Panicking in these situations only has the habit of making things worse, so I steadily and determinedly pedal on.
Conditions are appalling, it’s still raining and the ground is muddy, slippery, rooty, rocky and hard bloody work, especially when trying to manoeuvre a heavily laden bike with tread averse gravel tyres on. I am actually thankful that I live in the UK and have ridden and raced in similar no control drifting sideways crap too many times, and this feels totally normal. Even the constant rain isn’t too much of a problem as it’s warm rain and not near freezing. It's almost a holiday...
I check in on Claire and she’s still too far away for comfort, so I make my way up and over another off-road hill when my Garmin dies. Swear. Probably due to water ingress and stress absorption. That’s it. I let Claire know about this further spiralling down of my day, but luckily she’s found a cafe to shelter in Borovnica, somewhere she remembers from her previous trip to Slovenia, and she’ll wait for me there.
The way things are unfolding it’s going to take me forever if I follow the Seven Serpents route, so I detour round the big hill in the way and time trial it round on the road, navigating by my phone. It feels desperate, but as I chunk along the valley it hits midday, and a chorus of churches chime the time which is a brief moment of nice.
Approaching the town a wave of relief washes over me, to be followed by a tsunami of emotion as I roll up to the cafe and see Claire’s bike outside. I’m trying not to cry at the stupid absurdity of it all. She gives me a hug and orders me coffee and food, I ask for more food. I feel totally retched that I’ve ruined our chances of officially completing the Seven Serpents route, and it’s only just lunchtime on the first day. Day four, lying in a ditch in the rain with a hurty knee is a more traditional time to scratch from a race. I. Am. An. Idiot.
I’ll put my hands up and confess that in the weeks preceding the Seven Serpents, my head really wasn’t focused on the event because of Too Many Things To Do, and I wasn’t paying much attention. You could say I was too blasé, because it was a race that wasn’t really somewhere nice. I’ve done this sort of thing before, I know what to do, it will be fine. I’d done a cursory run through of the route to note down places for food and possible accommodation and campsites, but it’s safe to say I’m very underprepared compared to usual. The bike and the tyre had been fine the previous weekend on a puddly, gritty, bumpy gravel tour round the delights of north east London, but today with the added weight of bags on was just too much. I should have checked the tyre that wasn’t sitting quite right on the rim, I should have replaced the rim tape that was old and a bit scrappy, I should have just put a pair of new tyres on. Shoulda, woulda, coulda.
There’s no easy escape from this situation anyway. We still have to get out of here and make our way towards the finish in Trieste, so I finish all the food, pick up my resolve and we shortcut it to our already booked accommodation in Postojna. This involves an 18% tarmac climb immediately out of town that goes on for some time, and it's still raining.
At some point in the afternoon without us noticing, the sky stops falling. By the time we get to town and dry chain squeak our way up to the campsite, it’s almost sunny and there’s the surprise of Adam already waiting for us. Claire had convinced cycling friend Adam that the Seven Serpents event would be a great way to spend his precious family-free holiday riding bikes, and currently he’s not so sure. Thanks to our morning shenanigans he was well ahead of us, but also decided that 200km of riding through rain and slop wasn’t for him, so he let the train take the strain for a large part of the distance to reach the place we'd booked overnight. He even has time for a full Chinese meal before our arrival.
The weather forecast for the next few days doesn’t offer much in the way of respite or encouragement and Adam is already considering his options - but we remind him of the ultra racing rule of never scratching at night, and wait to decide in the morning.
It would be justified if I packed it in instead as we wake up to discover my tyre has completely died, with a large gash near the bead and an exploded inner tube. Fuggit.
Claire mends the tyre as best she can by sewing it together with dental floss and we shove a tyre boot in there for good measure, but it really isn’t up to several hundred more kilometres of gravel. We head into town for the google-promise of a bike shop, which is shut. There’s an Intersport just down the road, which is a long shot and only offers up some inner tubes. I buy them for backup, plus a handful of energy bars that would be useful for later in the day.
Claire suggests popping back up to the first shop, and as if by magic they’re open and have a large stock of tyres. Mostly in the wrong size, but after a lot of riffling and measuring I buy a 27.5 semi-slick MTB tyre which looks like it’ll squeeze into the frame, then throw the tyre of much troubles in the bin.
All of this mucking about has given Adam plenty of time to dwell on his situation, and the weather here vs that at home has made up his mind - he’s going back to Ljubljana for a hastily arranged flight home, where it’s sunny and his partner will put him to work making a garden gate.
Claire does some kind of wizardry with her phone and GPS and conjures up a route to get us to Fuzine, where we should have been by the end of this second day if things had gone to plan. After a stiff climb out of town, where the routing does its usual trick of going the pretty way round, we’ve got a whole afternoon of gravel. And what gravel it is, from perfect fast-rolling, hardpacked doubletrack to tongue-out, saddle--up-bum rocky climbs that see us pass quietly through 100km of empty forest. We see no one apart from two riders doing the long route, when our path suddenly becomes imprinted with other tyre tracks.
While the silent nothingness is absolutely wonderful, there is the downside that there’s nowhere to stock up on food and water for the entire 100km. We weren’t hungry enough to try the dead horse that hunters had left out for whatever eats horses in these parts...
It’s big country here, and there isn’t a Starbucks or 24hr petrol station at the bottom of every hill. We eventually roll into the ski station at Platak hoping for an open cafe and at least a water tap, but the whole place is very much out of season shut.
Claire spots a vending machine on the edge of a car park that could be our saviour, but it’s being annoyingly choosy. It doesn’t want to give us our first choices of a Snickers bar or a bag of peanuts, but is happy to dispense a couple of bottles of orange Fanta and a bag of Bruschette Chips. Even then it puts up a fight by dangling them in the dead air above the delivery flap. It’s not textbook ride refuelling, but it gets us across the last bit to Fuzine where we’ve booked an Airbnb for the night in anticipation of bad weather.
What follows is a display of kindness that only seems to happen on such trips, and is what a large amount of their appeal is for me. The owner of the Airbnb is an old man called Boris, and his dog Igor. We had made acquaintance with Igor before we met his owner, as we scuffled him in the street whilst checking to see if we had the right house.
Boris immediately lights the fire in the log burner for us, and insists we try one of the three flavours of his homemade schnapps that he’s left in the kitchen. Then while we’re holed up the next morning waiting for the weather to clear, he returns with two extra bottles as gifts to take with us. We try to explain with our no Croatian and his no English via shared German (ours a mostly forgotten 30-year-old C grade O level) that we can’t take it with us, and resort to leaving a thank you note via Google Translate.
The weather is, as predicted, atrocious. It’s hammering down outside, gutters are gushing and it’s quite a bit blowy. We’re meant to cross to the island of Krk, but they’ve shut the bridge to all traffic. This is a problem for the more serious Seven Serpents riders who are all huddled in a transport cafe, but less of an issue for us because we’re staying in a comfy room with an endless supply of coffee pods. And some schnapps.
There’s a whole morning of checking all the weather apps before we decide that there’s enough of a window to make a break for it, and we step out into - let’s say - slightly less bad conditions. This doesn’t last, and as soon as we hit the long descent towards the bridge we’re hit by the full force of wind and sideways stinging rain.
I’ve done some stupid stuff on a bike in my time, and this is up there in the top ten of scary. The roads are rivers and the wind is having great giggles pushing a heavily laden bikepacking bike across the road, as frame bags and large seat packs make effective sails. We’re relieved to be safely down at the bridge we have to cross, but there’s no way we’re mixing it with the cars and trucks hammering across. We take to pushing our bikes along the tightrope of a walkway that’s separated from the traffic by a insufficient barrier, and from a 60 metre drop to the Adriatic on the other side by a worryingly low fence.
Even pushing our bikes across is a struggle, constantly covering the brakes in case a gust threatens to whip it from our grasp - or in Claire’s case, lifting the rear of her heavy bike clear off the ground at one point. This is a situation where it’s best to keep a calm head, and the only way out is through. We totter off the bridge and ride a few kilometres to a shopping centre cafe, where we can grab random pork and cheese-filled snacks and reset ourselves.
From here on in we’re going to be following the Small Bite route all the way to Trieste, and while it’s not necessarily easy, it’s easier than the full Seven Serpents as it bypasses the needless climbs and hike-a-bike sections. The weather has also cheered up a lot as well so we don’t have to wear all our clothes, and our bags are heavily crammed full with the extra thicker layers we thankfully don’t need any more.
A large part of the draw of doing these events is that whatever route you do, they take you to parts of the world that you’d never normally visit. And, because they’re pre-planned, they take all the guesswork out of landing in a foreign country and wondering where to go, and hopefully the organiser's GPX will take you to some special places. This does mean that you have to bend to the interpretation of what the organiser considers a good time on a bike, and there might be times when your opinions differ.
Usually you end up on roads that no one’s ever heard of that are better than any of the famous ones people have. This is one of my favourite things, and the first bit of the singletrack road down to Beli on the island of Cres fulfils this criteria. It’s an absolutely spectacular swoosh off the main road, swinging right and then a sharp left with a view across to Krk. Then there’s Beli itself, a tiny warren of a village - although village is too big a word as it has a heaving population of 35. It's somewhere I’d never have experienced if it wasn’t for escapades such as this. Then there were the vultures...
There are long road ascents, but the tarmac is perfect and cars are infrequent, so it’s not entirely a chore. There are some very long gravel climbs. The 18km one continuing the already chunking road ascent out of Lovran back on the mainland was particularly testing in the heat, and seemed to take all afternoon - but cresting the hill to the view over the Adriatic and the ferry we’d been on earlier in the day was worth the effort and a sit down to munch on the emergency bag of cashews/M&Ms mix.
Our Mini Bite route crosses paths with the proper Severn Serpents enough that we bump into other riders at ferry ports, and inside restaurants where they point at our food and say “That”. It’s always a good chance for everyone to forget about any hardships, relax for a few minutes and swap tales. The sweat and dust-caked rider we pass who is exhaustedly zig-zagging up a small rise, and who doesn’t have the strength or inclination to return my encouraging greeting, is the exception. Poor chap.
Thanks to a variety of social media channels we can keep tabs on riders and friends who are working their way round the full route with varying degrees of fun and success. One sadly had to pull out because of Achilles pain, that ultra racer’s favourite, especially when there’s lots of pushing a heavy bike involved.
The finish in the large open Piazza Unità d'Italia in Trieste brings with it a certain amount of culture shock in having to suddenly mix it with swarms of scooters and people after a week of mostly quiet and solitude - but soon a huddle of finishers congregate, and provide a safe space for us to lounge around and exchange anecdotes and fetch ice creams.
Everyone is sympathetic to our story as mechanicals can happen to anyone at any time, but I feel an empty imposter and novice stupid, and also feel deeply sorry for Claire that we didn’t get a chance to even attempt the full route.
Could we have completed it? Maybe. Would we have had a hissy fit on one of the hike-a-bike sections? Probably. Would we have said sod this and resorted to the Quick Bite route at some point anyway? Who knows. But we still had a great time on our truncated route, had a bit of wrestle up some of the climbs, whooped on the descents, saw lovely things, laughed and shared memories, and the spare time we had at the end meant we could hop up to the Soča valley for a couple of days and have a holiday by mistake.
Jo Burt has spent the majority of his life riding bikes, drawing bikes and writing about bikes. When he's not scribbling pictures for the whole gamut of cycling media he writes words about them for road.cc and when he's not doing either of those he's pedaling. Then in whatever spare minutes there are in between he's agonizing over getting his socks, cycling cap and bar-tape to coordinate just so. And is quietly disappointed that yours don't He rides and races road bikes a bit, cyclo-cross bikes a lot and mountainbikes a fair bit too. Would rather be up a mountain.