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Classic climb: Vršič Pass & Mangart, Slovenia

In-depth
24 Feb 2021
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With two Slovenians on the Tour de France podium, it seems only fair to offer two climbs in Slovenia that make for one epic ascent

Words: Henry Catchpole Photography: Alex Duffill

Without wishing to denigrate the achievements of Jani Brajkovič, Simon Špilak and Borut Božič, Slovenia has only recently come to the fore in professional cycling.

But now, with Primož Roglič and Tadej Pogačar battling it out for supremacy at the pointy end of the biggest races in the world, the Republic of Slovenia (as it is officially known) has the eyes of the cycling world on it.

Nestled between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, about half the size of Switzerland and with a population of just over two million, it’s fair to say this state of the former Yugoslavia is not large.

However, diminutive though it may be, Slovenia crams in a lot of mountains and has the sort of roads that certainly inspire you to throw a leg over a top tube. It’s no wonder that Rog and Pog are not the only Slovenians currently gracing the pro ranks, with the likes of Matej Mohorič, Jan Polanc and Luka Mezgec also holding up the Slovenian end.

 

Double dealing

Arguably the most spectacular climbs are nestled in the mountains in the northwest corner of the country. Yes, climbs plural. Normally we only look at one ascent at a time in our Classic Climbs features but these two go together like a saddle and seatpost, so we hope you don’t mind but you’re getting a two-for-one deal with the Vršič Pass and Mangart.

Starting in the ski town of Kranjska Gora, the Vršič Pass (road 206) has a gentle introduction. You wind across the Pišnica river a couple of times, there are some intriguing views of distant pale limestone peaks and the gradient is kind to cold muscles.

The smell of pine is prevalent for this first part of the climb and it’s all rather pleasant, which makes the arrival of the first hairpin after 2.5km all the more surprising.

Not only does the incline ramp up rather alarmingly as you approach the switchback, cobbles also jolt you to attention.

Then, as soon as you’re round the bend, the vibrations disappear. They’re back again as you approach the second hairpin less than 100m later, but rough is always replaced with smooth as soon as the road straightens.

Each one of the 24 hairpins has cobbles. It’s almost identical to the beautifully laid pavé of the St Gotthard Pass in Switzerland (featured last issue), with the same fanned pattern to the stones.

It’s not quite the brutal experience you see in Flanders or Roubaix. It certainly makes you concentrate a little more and removes some of the relaxation that hairpins can provide on a climb, but it’s interesting rather than irritating.

After the initial pair of switchbacks you have a couple of kilometres to psyche yourself up for the next set. Each hairpin is also numbered and the story goes that this is where the idea came from for numbering the hairpins on Alpe d’Huez.

If you’re looking for a reason to give your legs a moment’s rest the perfect excuse comes just over halfway up the climb at hairpin number eight.

Hidden in the trees is a beautiful little wooden Russian Orthodox chapel that was built in 1916, a year after the road was constructed. The pass became strategically important during the First World War because it led to the Isonzo Front and, to improve access, a road was built using Russian prisoners of war as labour.

The pass had to be kept open year-round so the Russians were also forced to clear the road of snow in winter, which led to the death of more than 100 prisoners and several guards during an avalanche in 1916.

The chapel was built in memory of all those that died in both the avalanche and the construction of the road. In 2006 this side of the pass was also renamed The Russian Road.

 

Top of the country

From here to the summit at 1,611m the gradient gets progressively harder, culminating in a final kilometre that averages a stiff 12%. The steepness that you can feel in your legs is matched by the steepness of the scenery, with a savagely saw-toothed skyline visible across the valley.

These are the Julian Alps – named after Julius Caesar – and they have a beauty that is arguably a match for their near neighbours, the Dolomites.

For an even better look at the mountains, you need to continue over the summit of the Vršič Pass and descend to the base of the second of our pair of climbs. The Mangart is not a pass, simply a toll road (free to cyclists) to a summit, but it’s a dead end worth exploring.

It was built in 1938 by Italian troops, which is not as strange as it might sound because this region of Slovenia was part of Italy at the time and had officially been so since the Treaty of Rapallo after the First World War (before that it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire).

You’re now on a very narrow road and at times it feels like it’s barely clinging to the side of the mountains, but as it twists and turns through 13 hairpins and five tunnels it tests you even more than the Vršič, averaging more than 9% and at times hitting gradients of over 20%.

 

As with the first climb the Mangart begins in the trees, but when it reaches the altitude of the Vršič’s summit the pines begin to melt away and the final 3km feels incredibly, wonderfully exposed.

The slim strip of tarmac teeters along under the peaks and above them all is the extraordinary dome-like mass of Mangart Mountain. It is Slovenia’s fourth-highest peak at 2,679m but its isolation makes it looks much more impressive than that figure suggests.

The last part of the climb swings round under huge cliff faces and there is plenty of evidence of rocks having fallen from above, which is unnerving but definitely spurs you on to the summit.

Then as you pedal out from under the cliffs you’ll find yourself at the junction of the one-way loop that takes you to the top. This is the highest road in Slovenia and from the 2,055m summit it feels like it. The view is certainly worth stopping to admire before you begin the plummet back to the valley.

And while we’re talking about going downhill quickly, I feel I should mention what is just a handful of kilometres to the west of the Mangart road’s summit…

 

Jumping ship

Perhaps it’s because most cyclists don’t have a life before cycling and therefore when one does it takes on an inflated fascination, but it seems impossible for commentators to talk about Primož Roglič without slipping in the fact that he used to be a ski jumper. And cradled in these mountains is Planica, the home of Slovenian ski jumping and the highest ski jumping centre in the world.

It was here that Roglič set his personal best jump of 185m and it was also here on the Letalnica bratov Gorišek hill (the largest in the world) that he had a horrendous crash in 2007. Although he continued ski jumping for another four years, it has been said that he was never quite the same and so turned his attention to another sport.

With roads like the Vršič Pass and Mangart on the doorstep of the ski centre, it’s no wonder that sport was cycling.