2 months in Bulgaria

As You have already heard about the Bulgarian economy going down I will instead focus on me going down… the hills in Bulgaria.

I’ll be working here during Spring and of course brought the bike 🙂

Bulgaria has several mountain ranges and provides fantastic opportunities for mountain biking, skiing, hiking, kayaking or whatever you like. When it comes to downhill biking, there are three places that provide lifts (that I know of now…): Sopot, Bezbog and Vitosha.

Sopot is where some events are taking place apperently – a couple of hours from Sofia and the most developed. Bezbog is in the Pirin mountains a few hours south of Sofia, but there is still snow up there at this time of the year. Vitosha is the mountain right by the city of Sofia.

Part 1

I live in Sofia and obviously focused on going up the Vitosha mountain first day possible. The peak is 2,290 meters above sea level and overlooks the city located at 600 meters above sea level. The ski resort is at 1800 meters and you can go there by car, gondola, or two connecting chair lifts. At the chairlifts they are accepting bikes – I’ve drawn some lines in the picture below to get an idea of where they are. A day pass is 16 Leva (approx 8 Euros).

It’s Saturday morning and without the normally so hectic traffic it took only 15 minutes to reach the foot of the mountain. Stuff out of the car and ready to go!

It’s worth mentioning that the lifts most probably weren’t made the last 40 (or 50, 60?) years. You have to turn you saddle and hook it onto the chair and let the handle bar rest on your knee, but what the heck… It works and the staff is helpful

There were supposed to be snow further up so I and my guide Orlin from Penguine travel (25€ for a full day) stayed in the lower section until lunch. He was using a hardtail and I was comfy in my sofa 😉

As you can see it’s far from A-line in Whistler, but more than OK singletracks and very aggressive downhill trails with some built stuff. The winner of the Bulgarian DH championships in Sopot was on site with his friends. Many of them on the local brand RAM, which has reached UK with good reviews in the news. Check out RAM-bikes

The surface was kind of hard dirt with some loose gravel. Orlin crashed and bent his saddle and I had some rocks hitting the frame, chain guide and breaking some spokes.

Anyway…. lunch time half way down

After lunch and with some rain in the air we tried the next chair lift taking us to 1800 meter. On the way down it was like a ski pist to start with but more and more ridable even though wet and with patches of snow.

Covered in mud, done for the day and ready to rinse the bikes… and no water in the hose. We got all the stuff in the car and got it all cleaned up at the closest car wash.

Stopped by a local bike shop. They fixed the chain guide, spokes and got my wheel straight for only 3€. Got stuck sitting on the stairs outside for an hour with the owner. He owns half of RAM-bikes and is running the retail business with some surf and snowboard gear as well.

First day biking in Bulgaria came to an end and you realize that there is a lot to discover even though not as well organized as in other places…

Part 2

A week has gone by and there is more to tell… Time to explore the bike park in Sopot – Shambhala bike park, but the day before I was told that the lifts wouldn’t work and there would be heavy rain. Well, rain normally doesn’t scare me away so I hooked up with some new  friends from Sofia and we jumped into the cars. With that nice company and absolutely no rain it became an awesome day!

First some facts… So the place is called Shambhala bike park, even though it’s a bit of an overkill calling it a bike park. There are lots of XC trails, a 4X-track and some DH tracks but the level of organization and maintenance is far from what you expect… It’s a Russian guy running it and previous main focus has been paragliding, which I think it still is. World cup competitions are held here, but that doesn’t really mean anything to me. But OK… so the Russian guy, who also owns a hotel downtown has brought another Russian guy: a silver smith from Moscow who is supposed to be some kind of MTB legend… This dude is hiring a lot of – extremely underpaid I presume – gypsies that have to work their asses off building berms, jumps and stuff on the trails. A bit odd with our standards? Yep but it works fairly OK. It’s noticeable that the stuff isn’t built by bikers but I guess they will do some tuning going forward. The mountain is big and offering a total vertical drop of 1000 meters out of the lifts – if they work.

I should be mentioning that next weekend there’s the Shambhala cup – the biggest event of the year. Check out a clip here.

In order to not create expectations I better tell you already know that I will be out of the country next weekend 🙁

So… a lot of talking. To the riding… We started off by playing around on the poorly maintained 4X-track. New to me, but fun.

The winner of last years DH race – Rosen – is practicing some 4X on a HT. He is on the DRAG team, which is the second local brand in Bulgaria. Their DH bikes are sold under the DRAGOMIR brand

I got to know more guys on the team so we hung out all day

Time for some serious work-out. We pushed some 450-500 vertical meters to try the new DH track. Here’s a rock garden that was included also in last years race – and caused some casualties…

Nice view!

A good thing about pushing it up is that you can check out all the features properly. Looks gnarly…

Not to mention the road gap… Flying straight into the horizon. Luckily it was too windy and the kicker wasn’t properly prepared so we didn’t have to proof ourselves to anybody

Time to rip some berms

OTB… Poor Georgi lost the flow for the rest of the day. Heavy crash…

Is that really possible?

Well, chicken style it is…

Absolutely awesome day. Rounded it off by a dinner downtown all together, including the Russian MTB legend

Ain’t stoppin’ there. There is more to come…

Part 3

Did some riding on Sunday as well. Just cruising along with more and more sun shine. Of course I stumbled across a dirt park with a pump track and some nice people hanging out there. One of them the photographer at mtb-bg who is claiming that a guy with a red Santa Cruz will appear on their homepage soon. Hm…

Some more pics:

Mirian and Peter

Got myself some laps on the pump track. Not the right bike for the job and first time, but super fun

Just hangin’ out in the Spring sunshine. Very open attitude and easy to get to know people! Me like!

Part 4

Back in Sopot and Shambhala bike park. The lift was only open for a bunch of paragliders going to the mid station. Anyway, managed to hop on to try out the DH track that they used for the race the passed weekend.

The first lifts is taking you up to 1390 in elevation (800 vertical climb) and the second one is an additional 300 meters, but closed for today. I joined in with some XC guys and pushed it up the last part and suddenly got this idea of going solo to the Levski peak at 2166 meters. Well, why wait? Bit of a different trip but fantastic experience. Climbing like an adventurer to the peak and bombing down 1600 vertical meters in one go!! 800 meters drop of pure freeriding and 800 meters drop on the DH track (partially tested before). Awesome downhill all the way! I got some pics on the way up but not so many on the way down as I was enjoying the speed too much…

The mid station and start of the DH track

Botev Peak (2376m) in the background. A bit chilly on the top… the watch is not totally calibrated. Should be 2166 meters.

As mentioned. No pics on the way down, but it was a blast!

Part 5

The boarders between DH/FR/XC/Street/etc are being wiped out and it feels like going back to the mountain biking I once grew up with in the 80’ies. Playful, long trips, sometimes just a quick one downtown, technically, physically challenging and all along an eager to explore and of course, in good company. So fun!

This part is about an absolutely epic ride in the Vitosha mountain during the weekend and then some pics from riding the streets of Sofia.

I had a good friend from Sweden visiting me, so we rented a RAM bike at 10€ per day and met up with my friend Mitko in the outscirts of the city; Boyana. Through forests of beech trees, pine trees, medows, big rocks, high alpine plateau, snow and gravel roads we made it to Chernu Vrah (Black Peak) sitting at 2290 meters above sea level. A nice vertical climb of 1500 meters.

Getting back down again we first used a gravel road and then absolutely epic trails down to Mitkos home village Bistritsa. According to the signs for hikers a 2h40min walk… we did it in 15 minutes… Natural berms, drops and high speed. At the end we arrived at some meadows and from there we just coasted the 10 kilometers back to the car

Some pics…

Sofia is so close, yet so far away As we make our way up the mountain the noise is disappearing and it’s almost strange overlooking all that civilization being so quiet

At this time of the year you need to be prepared for some snow. Above 1700 meters elevation someone rolled out the flower carpet

Only a 500 meter climb left, vertical…

At some places we had to push through big patches of snow to get to the top. On the other hand… It’s only after the last two weeks of 30 degrees downtown that the snow is actually melting away. So, could be worse!

At the top!! Rila mountains in the background, but hard to see in the haze…

Mitko took a nap – pretty exhausting climb we did. Last part to the actual peak without bikes…

Going down…

As usual we went full speed downhill. The trails would definitely qualify as some of the best downhill trails I’ve done and consequently I couldn’t stop for taking pictures. Well, except for the moment of a flat tire…

After almost 1300 meters of decent we have reached Bistritsa and when looking back it’s hard to actually understand the huge distance we’ve made in no time

The day after we did some sightseeing by car and then just a nice evening cruise on the bikes downtown. Why don’t they have places like this back home?

At the “house of culture” all the skaters and BMX guys are hanging out, and some 26″ wheels also… The Nomad goes BMX style riding…

Part 6

The adventure is never far away in Sofia. Grab you bike, ride it to the train station, buy a ticket, enjoy the view for an hour and 20 minutes and you’ll find yourself in Lakatnik – in a canyon in Stara Planina. Those are the mountains crossing the country from West to East, ending up in some beaches by the black sea.

This trip I did with some pals working as guides at Penguine Travel; Orlin och Dobrian. Orlin was the guide that helped me out on my first ride here in Bulgaria. We got along well and became friend beyond the guiding. Here’s the story from another fantastic day in the mountains. We biked for 6,5 hours, 50km and did a climb of approx. 1200 meters.

We kicked it off by making a 500 meter vertical climb on an asphalt road – almost like an ad for road bikers, but enjoyable also on my heavy FR tuned Nomad

After a while we reach the dormant village of Milanovo. At the local joint you can get a bite while admiring a picture of the local football team Milan showing all seven players in the fog

3€ will get you a lunch, including a beer. You also get to sit next to the local nut case… A woman that just sat down at our table and didn’t say a word while taking out all kind of stuff out of a plastic bag. Then mixing Yoghurt with instant coffee powder while smoking a cigarette…

After the lunch we continue on a gravel road for about 15km – through different types of landscapes

Further up we enjoy the smell of garlic from the Ramsons. The ground is covered by it – they call it wild garlic. The beech trees are offering welcomed shadow. The hiking trails have been here for a long time and maybe this road is an old Roman road, judging from the pavement. Unfortunately the trails are no more maintained and the signs are being “swallowed” by the trees. …and by pellets from shotguns.

After the beech forest the landscape is opening up to a windows wallpaper

850 meters of climb. We reach a plateau. Time for a group photo…

We can live with some pushing. The landscape is just amazing. Four wild horses are a bit curious about the aluminum cousins approaching…

After 15 minutes of pushing it’s just to sit back and enjoy the windows based single tracks. Unreal beauty.

Helmets and body armor on – we’re dropping in! 1000 vertical meters waiting for us!

Down in the valley we did some 7km asphalt back to the train and the cold beers!

Part 7

This time I explored the mountains that the Bulgarians are not going to too often themselves, yet being considered to be a real beauty: Rodopi. The mountain range is wide with softly rounded off peaks up to 2200 meters. Time is passing slowly in these villages. Here you still find a lot of old Eastern European cars and the Turkish occupation that lasted for 500 years still have a grip on the people – the mosques are many even though it seems to be an own kind of Islam being used

If you are travelling from Sofia it’ll take you some 4 hours to reach the valleys in the middle of the range. Orlin at Penguine Travel was having the super mission to move luggage for a bunch of guys on a horseback riding week in the Rodopis. In other words: a lot of time for biking in between!

This is the last part of the Bulgarian adventure and I guess it’s about time to show a map where I’ve been:

On the way to meet up with Orlin I passed this valley that in only half a year will be filled up with water as the hydro power station will be finished. Strange feeling, driving on what will be the bottom of a lake.

The village Shiroka Laka is attracting a lot of tourists in high season and the ski resort Pamporovo is very close – that’s where a lot of Brits have been buying apartments the last years… Anyway, the village is supposed to be something like the real Bulgaria with all the small alleys, monasteries and still so popular folk music.

The road out of the village climbs up to where the Greek dude Orfeus supposedly was born: Gela. This was all new to both me and Orlin so after dropping off luggage at the newly built hotel “Eagle’s nest” we went for a ride based on some tips from Daniel, the owner of the hotel

The place apparently got its name from when the guys – pretty wasted – were building it and saw an eagle in the sky. It’s located at 1500 meters elevation with a lovely view.

The guy with the hotel, cool dude but with a bit strange sense of humor, put up some signs on the road up to the hotel. Some of them saying that you should stop looking for bears as there are no…??? The last one is telling you to stop looking at the signs and look at the road instead. Fair enough.

Well… we started our ride. Open landscape. Some ladies were herding their cows

Not totally easy to find the right trails, but we didn’t bother too much given the nice weather and landscape…

Finally we found a gravel round which runs horizontally on the mountain side overlooking the valley and mountains further away. But… snap! and caught on picture… Orlins derailleur hanger broke and no spare one around… We turned it into single speed.

It all worked out fine until also the chain broke… From 27 speed, to single speed and to no speed. But why be sad about it…

Chainless DH can be fun – until you’re in the middle of a creek forgetting that you don’t have a chain…

We got a bit carried away on the way down and ended up 400 vertical meters lower than the village. Orlin got a ride with the hotel guy and I insisted on going fitness style all the way up again on my own. Almost there and I hear some loud voices and spot Orlin next to some local dudes. There’s an old caravan connected to an old hovel with some tables and chairs where they are sitting. Absolutely horrible music is coming out of a horrible radio with a horrible signal. It was 17.30 and the guys had been drinking since early morning. I got myself a beer, said cheers in Swedish and dropped a name or two of Swedish football players and I was in the game and their best friend…

The guys are getting quite drunk after all the Rakia and beers during the day. Sometime during the day a crow just happened to be in the wrong spot… It had eaten from their snacks and had to pay with its life. And to scare away others it was hung on a pole…

It turned out to be hard to leave from these guys. Back at the hotel Daniel was insisting – now totally wasted – that I was his best friend and I should taste the lamb slaughtered earlier the same day. Apparently this took place around lunch time and was a procedure blessed by the local priest. He pulls out a jar with something that looks absolutely disgusting, buy jee I was wrong. Just lamb, salt and water – delicious!

Time to leave. A bit sad but still ok considering that the trip to Whistler is booked!

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