Following the great midday climb up to Dutovlje we sat in a small cafe in the center of town and drank ice cold ‘Lasko Pivo’, a typically good continental beer, and ate damson plums that we found growing along the roadside earlier that morning. Only recently introduced to strong sunlight and with tans still absent, our faces all looked burnt and rosy. The first few days had been a hard start and I noticed a tired, fuzzy expression washed over our parched faces as we slumped down in our chairs under the shade of the cafe.
Before long the rest of the group had arrived and had entered a shop across the square. I finished my beer and went after them, I didn’t need to buy anything but I thought I’d find out what the atmosphere was like, and try and gauge whether people wanted to push on for an early camp to get some proper rest.
The next few days consisted of some great riding through lush, green mountains in Slovenia, the terrain was quite mountainous and every road seemed to follow a river. Just as I’d battled my heavy bike up a steep incline towards a border crossing to Croatia a police car pulled up beside me and flagged me down, he explained that this was an unofficial crossing and that we had to turn around and head for another entry point. Within the EU I’ve never had a problem taking small back-roads over borders and I’ve never even needed to show my passport on previous tours but in hindsight I should have realised that the end of the EU would mark the start of passport control. So with very little ground for an argument I reluctantly freewheeled back down the hill, rounded up the rest of the group and consulted the map. Telling people I’ve lead them the wrong way is never much fun, but regardless it still happens on every tour.
Some hours later we had arrived at the official border which I think was worth every extra hot and sweaty mile. To our delight we found the crossing had a facilities block housing sinks with mirrors, perfect for shaving, hot showers so powerful that they washed away the arid dust that had bonded to our hair and scalp, and cold fresh water suitable for drinking. Clothes were washed, food was consumed and water replaced, after an hour or so of cleaning and preening everyone was eventually chased off by wasps but with cool damp hair and good hygiene.
The next great event came after climbing up over the Croatian mountains that separate the coast from the interior. The road was under construction so as well as battling against steep inclines we were navigating over sand, blocks of cement and rubble, as soon as one uphill straight was complete a hairpin bend would realign us to face another, and another. This is where I was first truly impressed by peoples riding, everyone just battled on turn after turn hauling their laden bikes up the hill as a stunning panorama of the Croatian coast emerged behind them. Spirits were high for the majority of a grueling afternoons ride and only started to wane right at the very end when every last effort had been spent.
As we crawled around the last hairpin to something resembling a flat road people were very quiet, the sun lay low in the sky and the heat of the day was subsiding. I knew I needed to find people a place to camp very soon so I raced on ahead to scout out some flat land. After eying up some locations, but none that seemed that promising because it was too hilly, Lallo and I followed a small track heading away from the road to discover a small hunting cabin. There was a man mulling around outside and with the help of Lallo’s Italian language skills we managed to land a place to camp and it also became apparent that there was food and drink available to us. Everyone made camp in record time as we raced to order our drinks and decide on what to eat. We settled for a huge shared meal of goulash and vegetables, rice and a plate of deer and some other mystery meat all accompanied by a plentiful amount of bread, beer and water. It had been perhaps one of the toughest days ride and everyone had coped exceptionally well. That evening I was pleased to see people settling into the tour and really enjoying the gratification and rewards of a challenging days cycling.