Storms, Ferries, and Gravel: Racing Seven Serpents
The 2023 edition of Seven Serpents surprised riders with heavy rain and harsh conditions as they pedaled 850 kilometers from Ljubljana to Trieste through the Croatian islands. In this recap, Marcus Nicolson shares his perspective of racing between ferries, cranking up long climbs, and encountering bike-stopping mud…
The bike shuddered to a halt again. The clay-like mud had clogged the tyres once more, and my efforts to push the bike forward were proving futile. There was nothing for it but to stop and use a short branch to try to poke out the worst of the sticky gloop from the frame. I then sloshed the mud-laded bike back and forth in a deep puddle to remove a little more.
The rain was hammering it down, and the clock was fast approaching 2 a.m. I was on a muddy walking track traversing a field somewhere on the Slovenian/Croatian/Italian border, and I had been awake since 4 a.m. that morning. This was to be my final night in the Seven Serpents race, and I was hoping that these conditions would have pushed a few of the other riders to their beds a little earlier in the night. However, I had no way of knowing for sure, as my water-logged phone had died earlier in the race.
A Wet Start in Ljubljana
Many of the riders had anticipated hot, dry, and, dusty conditions for the race and were somewhat surprised to be greeted at the start line in Ljubljana with a torrential downpour and stormy conditions early on the morning of Sunday, May 14th. Instead, we found ourselves trapped in an unusual week of Mediterranean storms that were plaguing southern Europe. Bright waterproof clothing and mountain bikes were the wise choices of those in the know about the harsh weather and trail conditions that waited ahead.
This was to be the second edition of the 850-kilometre gravel race that runs between Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Trieste, Italy, via a rough selection of gravel roads, rocky singletrack, and quiet tarmac. It also takes in large parts of the Croatian islands of Krk and Cres and involves careful ferry calculations. A shorter version of the race, called the Quick-Bite, had run the week before in near-perfect weather, with some riders even suffering from sunstroke.
The first day of the race passed in a soggy blur, with heavy rain continuing to pour down as we made our way across fast-rolling Slovenian gravel interspersed with some sloppy singletrack. This was quickly replaced by chunky gravel as we crossed the Croatian border and climbed up high to Checkpoint 2, where large patches of snow lay near the summit. The high winds and heavy rain made descending the final climb at night extra sketchy.
Croatian Island Hopping
The second day brought riders near the front of the race over to the island of Krk, with the temperature rising considerably after crossing over the Krčki bridge. Riders circumnavigated the island, taking care with the sharp rocks and technical descents before tackling the toughest hike-a-bike section of the route. I took the opportunity to cool down and load up on calories with a large gelato before pushing on to catch the ferry to the isle of Cres.
Cres is a mountainous island where riders faced long, energy-sapping road climbs and isolated gravel sections before arriving at the second ferry crossing point. Storm-force winds had resulted in ferry cancellations, and several riders were left stranded at the terminal for up to 11 hours before the winds died down enough to cross. This made for an interesting shake-up in the leaderboard. As we fuelled up on the ferry, we were surprised to see race director Bruno emerge in the passenger lounge armed with a film crew and an air horn to boost morale among the assembled riders.
The Final Push
The final stretch of the route wound around the Istrian peninsula back on the Croatian mainland. It felt surreal to set off in a pack again after riding so much of the route in isolation. By this stage, first-place rider Justinas had built up a substantial lead, reaching the safety of the mainland the previous day before the ferry cancellations. The remaining top 10 positions were all to play for as we each settled into the effort of a ridiculously long climb.
So, there I found myself in the field full of sticky mud at 2 a.m. with an unmovable bike and considerable fatigue from the previous days’ efforts. I decided that I’d need to take a short break and try to get a power nap before taking on the final 100 kilometres to Trieste. At the next town, I crawled into a bus shelter beside the main road and rolled out my emergency bivvy on the bench. I got inside with my soaking riding kit and set an alarm for an hour’s time on my Casio watch. I awoke shivering but determined to reach the finish line.
Rolling into Trieste after three days and five hours felt like a massive achievement. To be greeted by Bruno, Justinas, and others at the finish line at the Piazza Unità d’Italia was a fantastic feeling. I was happy just to survive the course, but to finish in the top five made the competition feel even more rewarding. My good friend and fellow Scottish rider, Kirsten Cluley, rolled in as the first female finisher the following day.
Over the next few days, as riders continued to flow in, Bruno would always make it his priority to meet all riders with a cold beer and a hug, a testament to the care he puts into organising this event. I joined various bedraggled riders in eating copious volumes of pasta, followed by delicious gelato. We each shared stories of the difficulties we’d faced and overcome while racing out in the wild. Race winner Justinas told us about the bear family he had encountered on the first night and how he had sung out loud to warn them of his presence.
Yes, the weather made things unbelievably tough at this year’s Seven Serpents, but it didn’t detract from the beauty of the wild landscapes and the amazing route that Bruno has pieced together. I’ll be there at the start line in Ljubljana again, but maybe next time, I’ll consider packing rain pants!
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