710 kilometres, 17000 meters vertical, 146 hours.
As the bikepacking scene grows across the world, local races are popping around like mushrooms after the storm. It was only a question of the time when this trend hits Slovakia as well. Slovakia Divide 2021 was the first bikepacking race [as far as I know], that traverses the country the long way – from west to east. The route was assembled by Ales Tajtak, who had a tough time linking only legally rideable segments together yet keeping it interesting enough for a modern mountain biker.
I didn’t know about that till an email with a bikepacking frame request hit the inbox of Devonic Bikes. At that time, we were already working on the new bikepacking specific frame to extend our existing range.
It’s sounded like a logical test ground. To test our first bikepacking frame on the first bikepacking race in Slovakia. That’s how the Devonic Divide prototype frame was built.
Packing and preparation
I was green as fuck. My biggest bikepacking experience was the TransAlp self-supported ride, where I had ended disabled in the hotel bed with a fever and muscle pain. Definitely not a good base to build upon.
I’ve packed heavy. I’ve taken so much gear, that I was ripping my brand new Topeak Midloader frame bag every time I’ve tried to close it.
In terms of the training, I’ve already known, that high-intensity training has a limited effect on my performance during such a long race. The golden rule is to simulate the race in your training most of the time. Therefore I’ve done some callisthenics and I was riding my bike more.
The goal was to not get overtrained for the race.
My goal for the race
When I was starting, my goal was to get to the finish line within the time specified. That was 220 hours [more than 9 days]. From my previous bike experience, this looked like a tough goal to ride 80 kilometres a day and 1900m vertical day after day. Therefore, I didn’t expect more…
Start of the race
We’ve met all together on Friday night, in Restaurant Bowling in Modra, had dinner and some beers together, and got some beta from event organizator Aleš Tajták. When I’ve looked around and talked to the others, it seemed to be quite an experienced field of bikepackers. Many riders have already done the 1000 miles race in the Czech Republic and were coming with minimalistic gear and no tent. This has shown to be a good tactic later in the race.
After all this new Infos, I’ve felt overwhelmed on Friday night, but I’ve decided not to change a single thing.
Day one. Modra to Kalnica – 120km, 2265m vertical, ride time 10:03
The race was launched on Saturday morning at 8:00 as a mass start. I’ve chosen to position myself within the first 15 riders of the pack. This gave me a comfortable pace, and an approximate heart rate of 60% of MAX. I knew that with this pace, I can pedal for long hours.
The atmosphere was non-dramatic, everybody knew that this is the first day of many. We were chatting together along the ride. Soon, I’ve met one biker, Frederik who is such an easy-going bike buddy, that I’ve decided to follow along. Anyway, adventure is more fun when shared…
Day one was a blast, with good weather, and supportive dirt. After a good burger in Nove Mesto Nad Vahom, we’ve pedalled to well-known bikepark Kalnica, where we’ve camped for a night. Close from public toilets, opened 24h a day.
That night, we’ve got the first storm. I’ve enjoyed my tent, while my friend was fighting with a tarp setup getting undone. It’s turned to be only a minor issue, so he managed to stay somewhat dry.
Day two. Kalnica to Omsenie – 43km, 1456m vertical, ride time 5:13
In the morning, those public toilets were a blessing from the sky. To be able to clean up normally is a luxury in races like these. So we did, packed up our stuff and went up to Inovec. Five minutes after our start, the rain kicked in, which has transitioned into a proper storm. I was wet upside down. Frederik was kind of tired and started stopping often. With every stop, I felt colder and colder, until I’ve decided to pick up a pace and wait for him under the shelter at the top of Inovec.
As I was speeding up, warming my wet body with muscular power, somehow I’ve engaged the parasympathetic nervous system. As I was nearing the top of the climb, the grade’s got steeper, rain’s got wilder and the wind’s taken steroids. My response was just plain laughter. I was shouting: “give me more!” “Is this all you’ve got”. I didn’t care about the lightning, I was picking up the speed and started overtaking peers.
Once I’ve made it to the Mountain Hut Inovec, parked my bike and changed into dry clothes, the other 3 bikepackers came and the Supercellar Storm right after.
It’s poured like crazy for more than 90 minutes, while we were sitting inside and eating hot soup. It was nice to see that from inside. However, the weather forecast was predicting rain for the next 5 days, so there was no way to wait until the rain will stop. So we’ve chosen the less rain-heavy period, jumped on the bikes and rolled it down to Omsenie.
We’ve found the best restaurant and sat down for a good lunch. I’ve chosen a chicken breast with rice, and half of the parmesan spaghetti with a lot of olive oil.
As we were sitting there, eating and drinking coffee, my “ride team” has checked the weather and there it was: “super cellar storm coming in 30 minutes”. Good. Exactly in 30 minutes, a shitload of lightning, wind and rain has come and turned the street in front of us into a river.
With only 43 kilometres in our legs, we’ve called it a day and booked an apartment in Trencianske Teplice, approx 5 kilometres of the track, to dry our wet asses and our muddy riding gear.
Day three. Omsenie to Banska Bystrica – 124km, 3347m vertical, ride time 12:45
6 AM alarm. pack the shit up, headed to small Tesco to resupply. This has proven to be a waste of the time, there were 3 other markets right on the track.
We’ve hammered in the breakfast and hit the route. Well, the route was exactly as we’ve thought it will be – wet, slippery and full of that annoying mud that likes to stick to your tires, get in your gears and stop your bike. So we’ve rolled, pushed and cleaned our bikes as we were doing slow progress forward.
My friend has fallen on the bike the day before and now, his shoulder was in a pain, decaying his confidence at those slippery descents.
This is the time when my competitive spirit started kicking in. I was full of energy, angry at myself because of the slow progress from previous days and I wanted to hit the throttle. However, my friend was riding slower and slower, making me feel even more frustrated. Something had to give.
We’ve had a talk and decided to separate. This was the last time I’ve seen Frederik. He has left the race because of a dislocated shoulder.
I’ve got in a rush and did the longest day in my life. I’ve pedalled 124 kilometres and 3347 vertical meters on a loaded hardtail. Fuck yeah!
Around 21:00, I’ve reached Banska Bystrica – a beautiful town in the heart of Slovakia, where I’ve spent many years of my life. I went for a burger and beer with my good friend Vladimir Hucko, the owner of Devonic Bikes. It was an amazing feeling to have almost half of the race done, celebrating a little while discussing the details of the frame I was racing with its creator.
However, every good moment eventually comes to its end, and this one was over as I’ve gulped the last bit of the tasty beer in Klubovna. We’ve shaken hands and went home. Vlado to his proper home, I’ve lied on a painting plastic foil, under my wet tent shield.
Day four. Banska Bystrica to Zbojska – 84km, 2564m vertical, ride time 8:00
I’ve woke up in the morning and as I’ve packed my tent, I’ve decided to tweak my gear a little. I’ve jumped on the bike, pedalled to Devonic Bikes and dropped a good amount of my gear. Tent, foil, rain jacked and a lot of unnecessary repair gear. I’ve cleaned and lubed my bike, packed my reduced gear back on and hit the road. Everything was uno perfecto, until my friend has told me: “I’ve got diarrhea from my kids” Maybe you should buy some Immodium at the pharmacy.
Shit, this is not good with the bigger part of the race in front of me. So I went to the pharmacy, resupplied and went on.
This morning, I’ve felt extremely tired, I was sweating and thinking about if it could be that diarrhea slowly taking over my body. I’ve never had it, as far as I remember. I am a healthy person, but with the immune system weakened by extreme effort, lack of rest and rain, I could get any sickness easily. Mine mind was not ready for such a setback i.e. sitting on the tree in the forest for 2 days, shitting every 10 minutes and wiping my ass with the ground and leaves, because I’ve taken only a half roll of toilet paper. Damn. That must be awful.
As I was daydreaming about my not yet happening gastric issue, I’ve met one racer pedalling in the opposite direction. “What happened?” I’ve asked. “I cannot sit on my saddle anymore. My ass is too sore. I’ve quit”
It was probably a good idea to buy chamois padded underwear for this race, I’ve said to myself. I’ve ridden 300 kilometres in the Alps the last year without them and it was a pain on the ass. I’ve just didn’t realized that I can allow myself to quit because of that…
Slowly, I’ve made it to a small village Poniky, where I’ve sat on the bus stop bank and started to think about the potential gastric problem again. After a while, one racer has caught me, and we’ve started to chat together. Soon we were pedalling together and I was picking up the pace again. A couple of minutes after I’ve left him behind and started pounding pedals again.
I’ve overtaken a bunch of racers this day both uphill and downhill. In the morning I’ve thought that I’m screwed and now I am flying. A good example of the power of the human mind. Remember that.
I’ve made it to the Salas Zbojska, soaking wet, get the best furmanske halusky I’ve ever had and I was ready to book in for a night stay. Bummer! All booked out. I’ve searched everything around through AirBNB and Booking.com for anything I can sleep in comfortably. Without the tent, in a colder climate of Muranska Planina, at this elevation and only a cheap 15 degrees celsius Decathlon sleeping bag, it was a no-go for this night. Especially when I didn’t know if I will spend a night on the toilet or not.
The closest cheap accommodation was in Brezno, 17 km off the track, downhill. Whatever. There was no discussion whether I go or not. I’ve hit the road and checked in.
Day five. Zbojska to Dobsinska Masa – 75km, 2148m vertical, ride time 7:01
I was lucky. There was an early train going from Brezno to Zbojska, where I was able to reconnect to the route and continue. I’ve got some junkfood from the train station vending machine for a breakfast, jumped in the train and reconnected to the route.
After a couple of minutes of hesitation from another pouring rainy day, I’ve kicked in pedals, with the understatement that this is not going to change. Just stop whining and get used to being wet.
I’ve dug deep into my mental reserve, picked up the pace and started grinding. Every while, I’ve eaten something small, got on the top of hydration and salt pills and I’ve felt great again. I understood, that this race is just a bunch of highs and lows connected to the long chain. If you don’t quit, you can be certain, that the good wave will come again.
I’ve ridden a good wave till the mountain pass near Dedinky at Dobsinska Masa. It’s a beautiful place and I’ve decided to rest and eat good food there because the was the last refreshment point before a long stretch of wilderness.
It was only 5 PM sun was shining, and I was sitting at the patio, eating pizza and drinking beer. I’ve done some food shopping and went to sleep. I’ve slept for 3 hours, woke up at 9 PM, ate more food and went to sleep again. Clothes washed. Yeah!
Day six. Dobsinska Masa to Dlhe Klcovo – 193km, 3808m vertical, ride time 16:48
I woke up at 4 AM, well-rested. I’ve put my wet, put clean clothes on, made a coffee, ate 2 bagels and cheese, get to work again. As I’ve pedalled around the lake to reconnect to the route, I was getting ready for a long day. There was something more than 260 kilometres if front of me and 4500 meters vertical.
However, the winners Matej Orsag and Lukas Koprivy have already finished. They’ve done 390 km at a single push, 39 hours on the saddle to the finish gate. What the fuck? Once this info has been transferred through my retina to my neocortex, I’ve understood that I am just messing around here.
I didn’t check before how long distances are normally ridden at bikepacking races, so when Ales has mentioned prior to the race that he thinks it can be finished in 3 days, I thought it’s a joke. Now, I’ve seen this on the Facebook feed of Slovakia Divide. It was basically telling me: “Adam, you suck.”
I’ve started to pound my pedals at a race pace, cutting down the breaks, overtaking others. I’ve tuned in Billy Alsbrooks, my favourite motivational speaker and set my eyes on the track.
I was moving fast, having a great time. After a couple of hours, I’ve stopped for a quick lunch and coffee in Helcmanovce and went back grinding. In front of me was the steepest climb of the race. Kojsovska Hola. No factor. I’ve done so many climbs that it was no longer important how long or steep it is. It was just a part of the route.
The climb has started, with the rain hand in hand. Good, the rain will cool me down and motivate me to grind harder to warm up, I’ve said to myself. As the gradient’s steepened, I’ve responded with more force. My heart rate went up. When it got even steeper, I’ve started pedalling from the stand. There was nothing that could stop me from beating this hill. Nothing.
Here, I think I’ve unplugged the governor. Everybody has it. It works like the limit switch in the car. It’s set for 220 km/h, but the car can go faster if you override it. The governor is here to protect you. But if know it and you push through with your willpower, you will start flying.
This is what happened to me at Kojsovska Hola. My body was tired as hell, my knees were aching, my fingers were starting to lose sensitivity, the cold wind and rain were getting power as I was approaching the top of the mountain. Everything was telling me to stop. However, my brain was in a fight mode. The more pain I’ve felt, the faster I’ve pedalled.
I haven’t even stopped at the top to enjoy the summit. I was on a mission. So I’ve pointed it down to the descent. The terrain was wet and muddy, and I’ve enjoyed it as never before.
But what goes up, must go down. I can’t ride my energy wave forever and after the descent, I knew I am slowly getting tired again. There was a right time to find a food source. I thought this will be not a problem in the east of Slovakia, but I was wrong. If I didn’t want to get off track to find it, I had to endure the hunger.
There were too many detours at my race already. So I’ve decided no more.
As I’ve tried my little trick of pushing harder when I am tired, my left kneed went aching strong enough to consider my options. To push through the pain slow, or to push through the pain fast. None of them looked satisfiable. But what about the tried one? To pull out that cheap kinesiology tape I was carrying and tape my knee as in that youtube video I watched a day prior to the race?
I didn’t give it a high chance to help me, but I’ve done it exactly as it was showed in there. Boom! It’s worked. After a couple of spins, my knee pain was reduced dramatically. Now there was only the second problem to get rid of: “the hunger”.
Fortunately, after a couple of kilometres, there was a bistro called Chata Hresna at the top of Hriesny Trail near Kavecany. I’ve parked my bike, switched my upper clothes for dry ones, get out of my socks to dry out the skin. I’ve walked to the window and asked for the most nutritionally loaded meal they have. I’ve never thought I will say that.
I’ve ended up with homemade falafel, fresh salad with dressing, a heavy load of fries, some sweet bars, peanuts and a tea. I’ve left the peanuts and sweet bars for later, and gulped the rest. It was delicious. Especially that falafel. I wouldn’t say they had vegan food there, but they did.
Full, thankful, I’ve put my dirty ass on a saddle and moved on. A couple of hours later, once the sun has set down, I’ve found myself pedalling up the last big climb – Makovica. I was tired, beaten, the weather forecast was predicting a small tornado, surrounded by strong wind and rain just a couple of kilometres away. Also, I saw the other racers resting at the top of Makovica. I knew they are set for a night in a shelter there. This was my chance.
I’ve put the lights on and pounded the climb with everything I’ve had. It was a great feeling overtaking my peers in the complete darkness while they were sleeping. I’ve eaten something sweet on the top of Makovica and pointed it down to the descent.
Well, it was not exactly the best descent for riding in the dark. It was overgrown, muddy, with a strong side wind and rain. The only thing that has got me through, was my Garmin Edge 530 navigation. It has worked flawlessly all the time. Once I’ve to the lower part of the descent and thought that somewhere there will be a road, which will take me down fast, I was wrong as usual.
There was a destroyed fsr road full of deep sticky mud waiting for me. The same happened again. The mud has topped my wheels and I was pushing down slowly.
Finally, I’ve got down to the first village. Hungry, tired, I’ve sat under a bus station roof, pull my shoes off, and looked at my painful feet. My skin was white, wet with a texture similar to a human mind. This was a result of 5 days in wet shoes. Whatever. Just another minor issue. I could be happy that I was not puking in the forest with diarrhea. I’ve drowned some sweet cinnamon cake and got back to business.
I’ve pedalled and pedalled, slow and tired along the route until I’ve hit an obstacle I didn’t know how to overcome in the dark. The river crossing. I didn’t know this was a part of the route. I’ve never crossed the river with such a loaded bike. I had no clue how deep the river was after such heavy rains. Therefore I’ve decided to roll out the sleeping bag onto the ground next to the river and wait for natural light. I’ve drifted out to sleep at 2 AM.
Day seven. Dlhe Klcovo to Finish, Benatina – 67km, 697m vertical, ride time 4:05
I’ve slept for something more than 2 hours when I woke up getting bitten by ants in my sleeping bag and mosquitos on my face. Not a smart idea to sleep next to the river.
On the other hand, it was good, because I didn’t waste too much time. Till I’ve got packed again, there was a natural light around, which has painted the river in different colours. Now it didn’t matter if I will sink my dry gear in the water, I will not need it anymore.
I’ve crossed the river, it was only deep to my balls. Cool, it was nice to wash my shoes as well. I’ve got on a bike and went for a food hunt. I knew that there will be something good in Michalovce. I went to the town and waited for 20 minutes in front of the supermarket just to realize that they are opening after the next 30 minutes. I guess I was sleep-deprived when I was incapable to read an opening hours on the doors.
Shell gas station has saved my ass, but it has taken a little detour. I’ve got coffee, snacks and went on.
Fast forward a couple of kilometres I’ve seen there is one racer approx 15 minutes in front of me. I’ve found myself picking up the pace again. This time, I was really tired, my knee was hurting more than ever even when taped, my back, my neck was sore but with only 15 kilometres to go it get no vote. I was aiming at the target again.
The finish line
I’ve come only a couple of minutes behind Peter Bujnak, I was following for an hour. I didn’t cut down 15 minutes what was necessary to overtake him, but I’ve done my best.
I’ve came to the finish line with the time 146 hours and 5 minutes.
There was Ales Tajtak and other finishers waiting for me there with a beer, Demanovka and some food. Normally I don’t drink hard alcohol, but this time, I’ve gulped one glass of Demanovka like water. Interesting. Maybe my Slovakian roots have shown off a little.
My little gastric issue has catched me finally.
In the afternoon, when I was eating a yogurt, out of the blue, my stomach started feeling weird. In a couple of minutes, this feeling has turned into serious pain, and it sent me running to the washroom. I’ve spent the next night either next to the toilet or on the toilet, shitting my stomach off. Diarrhea has chosen perfect timing. Fortunately, I was not pedalling through the forest, but lying in a bed in a warm room. I’ve got lucky the shit.
What have I learned at Slovakia Divide
- Talking to myself that I want only to finish the race and enjoy the views is foolish. When you have competitive spirit, it will eventually find a way to your head. To start treating the race as a race in the middle of it is horseshit.
- Fear is heavy. I’ve overpacked my bike just because I thought I will neet that extra gear. The race has proved that a lot of it I didn’t used. Instead of heavy tent, use warmer sleeping bag. Sleep under shelters.
- Minimize contact with other people. Your immune system is weakened, you could easily catch sickness that you normaly wouldn’t. Wash your hands often.
- Even when chamois padded pants are not cool, wear them. It can prevent you from quitting prematurely.
- Learn how to tape the joints, prone for cycling related pain. At least knees and neck.
- Use salt pills, collagen, protein and vitamin C they really work.
- Eat often. Even when you are not hungry. Eat like if it is your full time job. The same applies for water. Never miss a stream without refilling.
- Don’t waste your time. Most of the time was spent on th rests and accomodation detours. It is a race, not a wellness tour. You will never catch up that time you’ve wasted when you were off the bike. This wasted time will be only thing to regret at the end.
The biggest takeaway from the race is that whenever you think you are too tired and you mind forces you to slow down, you are only at the 40% of your full potential.
If this discovery was the only thing I’ve learned at Slovakia Divide 2021 race, it was definitely worth it.
I am thankful to Ales Tajtak and his crew for assembling such a route. It was stunning and challenging. I’ve seen the parts of Slovakia I’ve never been to. It would also take me a long time to find such a great riding that is fully legal on my own. With all those park restrictions in Slovakia, it is not easy to have fun in the backcountry while not breaking the law. Also, I’ve enjoyed the family spirit that was recognizable at the finish. Ales have taken care of all beaten bikers who have made it to the finish. You will not have this luxury at the Tour Divide.
I am thankful to Vlado Hucko and Devonic Bikes for constructing the bikepacking specific hardtail I’ve been racing on. This bike is called Devonic Divide and is already fully tested and ready to roll. You can buy the frame at devonicbikes.sk as one of the first bunch.
The Slovakia Divide has started a new era in my life. Riding my bike across the world, self supported is what occupies a big part of my brain working memory.
Therefore I’ve already set another objective: Racing the Tour Divide Race in June 2022 under 20 days. 4418 kilometres, 61000 meters vertical, fully self-supported from Banff Alberta to Antelope Wells, Mexico.