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Trans Julius: Mountain biking trails that follow the tradition of our ancestors

We offer an insight to the backstage of the MTB movement Trans Julius, which has been linked to Continental from the very beginning, and even this year’s adversities have not put our collaboration to a halt. Vesna Stanić, the heart of Trans Julius, wrote about how the team pushes the boundaries in their endeavour for a better tomorrow and for responsible mountain biking. With good grip on the way, of course!

Early morning, and the alpine valley was bathing in a sea of haze slowly penetrated by sunrays. The weekend eagerly awaited by many people who plan to set out on a new mountain biking adventure is only one of over thirty weekends of the year when I get up in the morning hoping to do something good for what is my way of life – mountain biking.

In the language of Trans Julius, to do something good for mountain biking does not mean only to pedal, enjoy a descent or occasionally maintain mountain biking trails. The majority of the mountain biking community knows Trans Julius as the first Slovenian multiple day stage mountain biking race. However, the name mainly stands for a search for old trails which, after several hours of shovelling, raking, and pounding with picks become suitable for mountain bikers, for communication with land owners and competent institutions, for coordination with local MTB teams regarding maintenance of trails, and for hours spent researching virtual databases, maps and land register, and filling out forms. The list of tasks is always too long and voluntary work days are always too short!

Once we map an old-new trail, hours of shovelling, raking and picking follow: we clean the trail, maintain passages and bends, reconstruct the parts which were destroyed by landslides or avalanches.

Roads formerly used to haul cannons nowadays make the most scenic mountain roads

The Trans Julius trails are in fact never newly constructed, instead they were built several decades, centuries or millennia ago. Our ancestors most frequently constructed them to haul cargo or, during wartime, military hardware. The ravages of time, along with landslides, torrential waters and windsnap, have left their mark on these roads.

Bridle paths are among the most widely known old tracks. In Slovenia, they were mainly built during World War I. These are in fact the oldest paths in the alpine region and they used to be built for a faster transport of goods. Former bridle paths over the Reschen pass on the border between Italy and Austria, and over Passo dello Spluga in Italy at an altitude of over 2000 m are the most popular among motorists.

Many of the bridle paths were not as strategically located and have been forgotten and left to nature to reshape. Some of them are now in use as hiking trails, but many still exist that are nowadays only used by wild animals.

Buried passages of otherwise drivable trails are frequent, especially in spring following the thawing of snow. In such event we inform local forest service and land owners and if necessary, help remove fallen trees.

Stubborn search for a trail: blame the double black line on the dog

The double black line was one of the most eagerly awaited tracks of Trans Julius 2019. Its name comes from its demanding second half. With over 1200 m of difference in altitude and starting at one of the most beautiful vantage points by the hut on the Ratitovec mountain ridge, it consumed more time and energy of the entire team than any other track in the history of Trans Julius. And then the Saturday of the competition came to Bohinj, along with too much rain for the ride to be carried out safely.

In comparison to the starting points on its south side, the north side of Ratitovec is not widely frequented. This is mostly due to the long slopes, making hiking less interesting. For biking, however, they are all the more fun. The first half of the track was easy to mark, it was more a pleasure than work. Even in snowy and rainy weather, numerous caves, mountain pastures and undemanding yet interesting paths recharged my batteries for the demanding part.

The second half of the trail, which ends on the right bank of Sava Bohinjka, gave us grey hair from the very beginning when we were searching for a good line. The infestation of the spruce engraver beetle led to the emergence of many new skid tracks which in some places were connected to old ones. These have steeper gradients and a less rough surface, making them much more interesting for mountain bikers. Three consequent weekends of exploration and marking of the track, which in practice means walking the same slope five or more times each day, have not given us that “wow” effect. There was always something missing for us to agree unanimously: yes, this is the line that Trans Julius competitors want.

A more recent skid track covered by trees from a recent summer storm and windthrow.

A woman’s stubbornness knows no elevation gain

I am determined that the trail has to reach the lowest point, so I take another weekend to walk across every inch of the slope. In search for a trail, we always look for gentle slopes with only a gradual incline. I want to chase away boredom, so I decide to start at the top point of the plateau and descend toward the ravine. Right before the end of my third climb, as I already begin to moan loudly due to shoulder pains from having to carry my bike, my four-legged security guard starts to wag its tail and follows a scent in the direction of a steep canyon. While exploring, I spot animal footprints in the puddles on the more recent skid tracks virtually every day, and I know they do not all belong to deer. I sometimes say to myself they are most likely my dog’s footprints from many weeks ago. I delete the bear claws from my memory card, saying to myself that the bear is afraid of humans anyway.

The dog’s nose first leads me to a quite fresh deer skeleton. Great, my heart was already pounding furiously because of the climb, and now with a proof of wolves’ presence laid out before me, it was heading for a world record. While I am staring at the remains of a chamois or a roe deer, loud barking calls me to follow further into the canyon. I follow my dog, the exemplary owner that I am, and I spot, hidden under numerous tree branches, remains of a stone-built bunker with a flat roof. Then comes a surprise: my dog joyously darts out on a barely visible wavy path at the canyon’s edge. I forget about the leftovers of the wolves’ meal (and my bike) the very second. After a couple hundred meters, I am grinning from ear to ear. After the first hundred meters, the forgotten path looks a dream: gradual incline of the slope, good shape of the turns, and no large rocks or roots. Here and there I fall into a deep pile of leaves. There are quite a few sections of the path that will need thorough renovation. I count over 50 bends before the path ends. This could be the Slovenian Soelden!

What follows is months of the work that is usually not seen, nor thought about when we enjoy the descents: preparing the documentation to obtain consents, searching for land owners and reaching agreements with them, and a month of trail maintenance. We also set the rules with the wolves that we will work during daylight while they can have the rest of the days to themselves. We often come across leftovers of their lunch and notice their footprints on newly built parts of the trail. If on any given day there are not any, we start worrying that the wolves abandoned us.

The search of paths of bygone times also has its perks of finding long-forgotten views: the view of the Nomenj village in Bohinj and of the Bled Lake.

Universal weather forecast for Bohinj: rainy with a chance of sun

The weather forecast for the eagerly awaited Saturday already looked bleak in midweek. We therefore decide to cancel the Saturday stage, in which the contestants would ride the double black line for the first time. The participants would, however, be allowed to ride it in the morning before the rain. I kindly explain to all the disappointed contestants that safety comes first, despite the adrenaline that is abundant in our DNA. But the images of all the steps of the infinite search of a trail, of picking, of sleepless nights keep playing in the back of my mind. There was probably no one who wished for this stage to be carried out more than me, but nature always has the final say. And there is a good reason why.

The double black line is not only a mountain biking trail which used to serve messengers and foresters, and then lay forgotten for a while before we re-discovered it. The whole process is also a lesson, teaching us that impossible things are possible and that our goal is not to conquer the top.

The goal, the purpose of Trans Julius is to do something good for mountain biking the best we can. One person does it by riding his or her bike, another one by enthusing and teaching youth, another one again by maintaining and building trails, etc. Every one of us contributes to the mosaic in order to improve the conditions each day. The conditions are of course still far from ideal, but we make new opportunities to build a better tomorrow by collaborating, connecting people and experts, discovering forgotten paths, and encouraging responsible mountain biking.

We want to preserve the initial state of the paths as much as possible. This makes some parts a bit more difficult to ride, but we set up warning signs to advise bikers to slow down or ride more carefully.

TRANS JULIUS – from the first multiple day stage MTB adventure to a movement for responsible mountain biking

Trans Julius was formed four years ago with the objective to connect the small Slovenian towns in which mountain biking has been the leading sport for many years: Cerkno, Most na Soči, Sorica, Bohinj and Tržič. We add new places on the map of the mountain biker Julius Caesar, which Trans Julius was named after, every year. These locations have one thing in common. They are all far removed from all the hustle and bustle of cities, and they provide breath-taking views in previously forgotten places. Ever since we first started pedalling under the name Trans Julius, we have been collaborating constructively and responsibly with nature conservation organizations, forestry authorities and agricultural communities, and with their experts, while at the same time encouraging mountain bikers to enjoy nature responsibly through different events and socially responsible initiatives and campaigns. Today, Trans Julius stands for all mountain bikers who, with their bike, enjoy nature responsibly and prudently.