Gravel Culture: Serbia Upside Down - Into the unknown


Serbia Upside Down is the story of eight adventurers from Serbia and Germany who traversed over the most stunning mountain ranges of western Serbia in order to reveal and film preserved natural landscapes and send a different image of Serbia to the world.

From all places we have ever been to and people we’ve met, most of them have never been to Serbia. Not only have they never been there, they somehow never got an idea and made a plan to do so.

People all over the world know very little about Serbian culture, heritage, people and values. And even less about quite a special vibe that can be experienced on the streets of large cities such as Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, as well as tiny rural roads. Yet, the most intriguing element in the entire story are well kept natural wonders, chains of mountain peaks connected by curvy gravel paths and picturesque villages underneath. Something you would easily see on the cover of Lonely Planet. However, Serbia up to today remained a hidden gem and an alternative destination to many.

The thoughts that follow may sound like a cliche, but you are thinking about it every morning during your coffee ritual while you are scrolling pages and piling up ideas where you want to ride next. Cycling is the thing that is giving us the absolute freedom of movement. For us it represents the purest and the most honest form of transportation that has the power to erase country borders and teach you how to blend in with nature. Exactly those were the thoughts and the values behind when we loudly asked ourselves the question: “Why hasn’t anybody visited this goddamn country yet? And what can we as individuals, as cyclists who are familiar with digital media do to change that?

It sounds impossible at first sight. Without travel organizations, NGOs, mass media, ministries, nationwide celebrities, funding, whatever… How can you possibly create that reach? If we bring the powers of friendship, cycling, nature… somehow together. And, this was the turning point indeed. Hence, we brought together buddies from Serbia and Germany and said: Why don’t we ride our bikes across the most beautiful landscapes in Serbia together, and film a documentary to tell the world about it? Let’s turn Serbia upside down and send a new image to the world! They loved the idea, and in August 2019 we started working on something we today call - Serbia Upside Down.

In the blink of an eye, two years have passed since our first discovery tour over the mountains of Western Serbia. Despite all the challenges, this time Serbian and German members of the crew reunited in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, preparing for the start of the very harsh but epic tour in warm days of July.

Just a week before the 2021 Serbia Upside Down tour, we were checking the weather forecast which was radically changing on a daily basis. There was quite a high probability that we were going to be struck by thunderstorms and heavy rain which would make some parts of the route unrideable.

We aimed to have a 5-day adventure across signature mountains of Western Serbia, covering 500km and 11000 meters of elevation in 5 days. Gravel roads and roads less travelled only. Tarmac and traffic are not for us. Together in that combination, they don’t let our mind and soul break free.

Monday was dedicated to packing of the entire gear and departing from Belgrade. Not an easy task as we needed to load 8 bicycles, camping equipment, food, spare parts and cameras. Although there was a certain level of preparation and logistics behind, this was one quite a nomad alike adventure as we were always on the move. Every night we would be 100km further away than the previous day, sleeping either in tents or mountain huts.

The evening before the start, we gathered at Pedja’s grandparents' mountain hut located in the village that was entirely hidden from main roads and civilisation and counted only 30 inhabitants. An ideal place to let Serbian and German folks get to further know each other and exchange local bikepacking stories. We sat by the fire, cheered up with a local craft beer and discussed what would be in front of us in the days to come. Everything seemed very uncertain and questions started to pop up such as: “Are 40mm tyres gonna make it?”, “Is 40 on the front and 11/42 on the back going to be sufficient?”

Day I: Valjevo - Tara

The first day started with a cold, foggy and rainy morning. Breakfast was all about traditional Serbian delicacies such as a salty cheese pie, a yoghurt and a homemade marmalade. Full of carbs and sugar, everybody is loaded like there is no tomorrow. Soon after, those typical morning bike and equipment preparation rituals started.

There was a tight line between nervousness and excitement as we were about to spend the following 10 hours on a bike, riding on unknown terrain, unstable weather and untested tracks.

On the 15th kilometer we crossed the Rovni dam and continued to head towards the Debelo brdo mountain whose literal translation from Serbian would be The Fat Hill. Heavy rainfall that morning gave a special flavour to the surroundings.

Green nature turned into a darker green colour and sky ranged between dark grey and intensely dark blue, covered with edgy clouds that are characterised in strong contrasts and sharp lines wherever you look. As much as we tried to ride together as a group, it somehow did not seem possible. Riders reacted differently on the 7% average and 15km long ascent. Constantly chased by the thunderstorm, someone would get even more motivated, but someone would get more desperate. Probably 1.5 hours later, the Fat Hill was conquered and we used the chance to stop by Kapija Podrinja / Podrinje gate viewpoint.

That was the point when the German riders realised that this was indeed something very special, very authentic. After you’ve ridden across the Alps and Dolomites, you won't easily get impressed. However, these Serbian landscapes put you in another dimension and teach you a different way to experience them.

After a long and gravelly descent through curvy village roads, we made a first proper break at our friend’s Vladimir house on the Drina river. He welcomed us with a homemade rakia - Serbian moonshine and stone oven baked specialties such as the over baked bun filled with egg and cheese, locally known as komplet lepinja. His specialty was roasted lamb under the bell traditionally called jagnjetina ispod sača.

A quick bath in the cold river, a power nap in a hammock and an espresso doppio later, we were ready to continue. A few members came up with an idea to stay for the night at that cosy village, but that would have endangered the planned routes in the days to come.

With an average of 100km and 2200m of elevation per day, every change of plan directly correlates with the level of fatigue you are going to feel at the end of the day after.

Therefore, quite the contrary, as soon as we continued to roll, everybody pressed harder on their pedals trying to make it to the finish line on Tara mountain before the dark.

Around the 80th kilometer we diverged from the local road and started the gravel ascent towards one of Tara’s peaks that lies at 1,055 meters. Absurdly steep and insanely long, if there was a way to give up, we would have. Hike-a-bike remained the only weapon of choice, as it allowed us to at least keep moving forward, giving us a hope that soon there would be an end. Probably 12km of climbing later we reached Vidikovac Osluša / Osluša viewpoint which felt like a symbol of victory.

Victory over your body, your mind and an end to the first day’s indecisiveness. Although in the dark and with temperatures close to freezing, the last kilometers towards the Zaovine lake where we spent the night were “acceptable” as the guys described it.

Day II: Tara - Zlatibor

A sunny morning, several cups of coffee and we finally realised where we were and what was going on. We had a long and relaxing talk with the wonderful family who hosted us in the hut by the lake Zaovine. After guiding them through our komoot route for day II, they brought a few books about Tara mountain and suggested we slightly change the route. We gladly followed their advice.

That is the prime example of what Serbia Upside Down is about: understanding Serbian culture, interacting with locals, blending with surroundings and respecting nature around you.

Our host’s young sons, who were 12 and 15 years old, accompanied us for the first 20km and set another example that gravel and bikepacking adventures are for everybody, no matter the sex, bicycle, age and skills. Just a positive mental attitude!

From Zaovine lake we headed further, riding on the edges of Tara mountain where gravel paths started turning into proper mountain bike paths and started to challenge the manoeuvring skills of all riders.

After an unremarkable lunch break powered by sandwiches from the nearby supermarket, we continued towards the very silent and in a way intimate part of the route. Namely, we haven't seen any person or anything human-built for almost five hours. It was just eight of us going up and down on paths ranging between gravel, dirt, and crushed red stone.

Everything felt so silent and so pure until we reached a point that was difficult to describe. This is something that everybody should have an opportunity to experience. An array of intensely yellow hills, one after another.

Wherever you turned, everything felt so golden. None of us have probably ever used this adjective before, but that felt like the only word that could properly depict the scenery. Climbing and descending those golden hills somehow felt like riding on an endlessly long carpet.

We were surrounded by immensely preserved nature characterised by long dark yellow grass, something you would see in pampas fields in Argentina. On that note, once you are there, after reflecting for a second you would not know if you were at Strade Bianche in Tuscany, Unbound gravel race in Kansas or more something like the Migration Gravel Race in Kenya.

Twenty kilometers, two flat tyres and a slight level of dehydration later, we reached our destination - Zlatibor mountain whose literal translation from Serbian would be Golden pine tree mountain.

Day III: Zlatibor - Uvac

Mountain lodge Tornik hosted us nicely for the second year in a row. The evening before, we washed our cycling clothes, so we kind of looked forward to jumping in a fresh pair of bibs. Breakfast was an absolute carbohydrate bomb! It was actually Lael Wilcox’s favourite Balkan dish called burek. It’s a crispy greasy pie usually made with white cheese or minced meat. Shortly after we made the usual adjustments of derailleurs and brake pads that did not want to cooperate, the third stage with 82km and 1820m of elevation ahead was ready to be started.

Although the second day was considered to be the most beautiful to many, some riders satisfied their special gravel tastes on the third one. We began on tarmac, allowing our legs to spin and sore muscles to dilute all that lactate. Soon after we tried our chances in crossing a tiny nearby stream by bike. It was so much fun and almost nobody crashed, almost.

“Who cares about schedules, organised lunch breaks and average speeds… This is what it’s all about - blend with nature and go with the flow.“

We made the first break at Zlatarsko jezero lake with a default espresso - coca cola combo, without knowing that we will make another break just 15 minutes later. We passed by a very steep and deserted beach that we couldn’t refuse. Bibs down, freedom up, and we were swimming naked like there was no tomorrow.

An ascent across dozens of serpentine-like switchbacks led us to the top of the hill that awarded us with an amazing view and a beautiful downhill segment afterwards.

The next segment of our route was narrow, curvy and fast, but this time not in a dangerous way. It felt more like freedom. We took the right turn on a hard pack section and followed the path towards another large dam on this trip. Crossing the dam was magical. We were rolling into the valley seeing the Uvac meandering on both sides. The Uvac is an international trans-boundary river that rises under Golija mountain. It is known for being surrounded by canyon-like valleys where it flows through Western Serbia creating wonders of nature, after which it crosses to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Then we stopped for a moment to enjoy the surroundings and commented on the fact that the Uvac is the home of the indigenous species of Griffon vultures which can now only be found in a few parts of the world.

In front of us was just more elevation and a network of country roads which we managed to cover with a habitual amount of pain in our legs. We arrived right at the sunset into the rustic and authentic ambience of our accommodation where we shared stories as we ate the welcome dinner.

We sat in a typical Serbian dining room that featured a large red handmade carpet and traditional wooden tools for carpentry and tillage that hung on the walls. Dinner started with a warm soup followed by a homemade cheese pie and traditional Serbian stuffed cabbage rolls. This was our third day together and a cosy environment helped us to further get to know each other and bond.

Day IV: Uvac - Međurečje

Rise and shine, it was time for new challenges. In front of us was one long ride.

We firstly rode back to a dam on the Uvac and then diverged to gravelicious roads which took us to a splendid viewpoint. It was like an award for our efforts as the Uvac river meanders had spread everywhere that we looked. They portrayed magnificent pictures with different shades of turquoise, green and blue.

After just a few kilometers on red-alike gravel paths and trails, we reached proper dirt roads signalling us that we were on the way to Javor mountain. We were no longer riding near the river.

That meant less surprises but also less of those stunning views. It was mostly meadows, low vegetation and forest in the background which made a perfect spot for a lunch break. After a few small bike breakdowns and one crash without consequences, we got tired and slightly dehydrated. There were way too many signals for us to stop, which we did on a large grass field where you would usually see wild horses in the background. Pavle acted as our tour guide making sure that everything ran safe and sound. He went to a tiny nearby village and picked up vegetarian pizzas for the German guys and ćevapčići for the Serbian guys who were a bit less into a vegetarian lifestyle. It took us almost an hour to raise our energy level to a point where we could ride again.

In front of us was one more ascent, up to the top of one of Javor mountain’s peaks that lies at 1,215m, followed by 30 kms of descending to Ivanjica.

The descent was incredibly long, and with an average of -4%, not too steep. Long enough for you to desire a cup of coffee and even start thinking when it’s going to come to an end. At the end of the route, we were riding through the forest whose edges were surrounded by acres of raspberries. Serbia is one of the largest exporters of raspberries in the world. Who’d guess that! The guys from Germany commented that this was one of the top three gravel descents that they have ever ridden. And boy, these guys have been all over Europe - across the Alps, Dolomites, Black Forest and other epic mountains.

We reached our destination around nightfall. Pavle welcomed us to his cottage and where he prepared a delicious feast. Half of the crew was setting up tents in the backyard as we couldn’t all fit inside. We were happy that we had a chance to wash our bikes, which meant less squeaking and disturbing noises on the last day to come. We felt like this fourth stage had started to take its toll. Everybody was in bed at 10pm. Not even a beer? No, just a can of coke and magnesium tablets. Not sure how many of us managed to fall asleep right away. Waking up in the morning of the following day to the prospect of 3000 metres of elevation gain. It felt frightening at that point, kind of unimaginable. That day and night was not over with us that quickly though. Loud thunderstorms and torrential rain made sure that everybody got a reality check at 3am. Folks in tents without earplugs probably had one of the most exhausting nights ever. Pavle woke up and ran out to bring all clothes and shoes inside. Nobody was ready for wet feet in the morning.

Day V: Međurečje - Kopaonik

The morning was euphoric. How couldn’t it be, it was the last day of the tour. We truly wanted to start earlier this time as there was a long day ahead, but so many things came in our way. Flo was drying out the tent whereas David and Felix were bleeding a broken rear brake. Pedja was pumping up his tubeless tyre which rapidly lost air over the course of a few days. Loud baaaam noise shocked everybody. The tyre exploded, jumped out of the rim and sprayed tubeless milk all over. Eardrums peeped for the next five minutes but nobody was hurt. That was a hell of a morning - for sure not the idyllic one that we were hoping for. Tension was all over. Fortunately, a hearty breakfast and a double-digit number of cups of coffee gave us the energy to finally get ready.

A bit later than anticipated, we were on the way to Golija mountain. The road was covered in fresh tarmac, to our disappointment or perhaps excitement. Nemanja was writing his short daily reports on Twitter where he received a lot of encouraging comments, but also local tips related to regions that we were riding through. An ex-pro MTB rider Vladimir who just happened to be there, joined us on one part of the route. As the rider who knows every single trail and dirt road around Golija mountain, he gave us a few tips and suggested we change our route.

Riding together, we reached the top of Golija mountain and the highest point of the entire tour that lay at 1,748 metres (5,735 ft). Serbia is not renowned for intensely high alpine-like mountain peaks, but a climb from Pavle’s cottage at 450 meters of altitude to 1,748m in one go was quite something. Vladimir continued his tour and we took a short break just to stabilise our heart beats and to take a deep breath of fresh mountain air.

Everyone was ready for the 1-hour long descent to the city of Raška. It felt like meditation, you almost didn’t need to pedal. After you reached a corner, you would just need to lean a bike in a desired direction and a road would help you deal with it. No braking and no pedalling needed. Now imagine doing that for one hour.

Since the last day was all about climbing, the end of one descent meant the start of another ascent. This time, it was the hardest one on the whole tour – the ascent to Kopaonik mountain. Kopaonik is one of the largest ski resorts in the Balkans, with the highest point at 2,017 meters. Due to its climate, rich forests, variety of herbs and historical heritage that goes back to the Palaeolithic and the Neolithic period, it was proclaimed a national park in 1981.

We started cycling up to the mountain by taking an uncharted road known only to mountain bike folks. At some points it got so steep and rocky that a hike-a-bike remained the only option. The Germans didn’t refrain from commenting: “We should have brought our hardtails.” We enjoyed those moments though. They allowed us to admire the breath-taking views and hear the sound of silence since there was nothing and nobody several kilometers away.

The last few kilometers that signalled the end of our entire Serbia Upside Down journey were very sentimental. We were impressed and emotional, but still pumped with adrenaline and happiness. During a delicious dinner and countless rounds of Serbian moonshiner šljivovica till late in the night, we analysed each route we had been through, counting kilometres and made plans for next year.

If you would like to follow in Upsidedown.cc's tyre prints, you can check out their route here:

UPSIDE DOWN

First, there was a wheel. Then there were two. Then some crazy baron in the 19th century figured out how to ride a two-wheel contraption using only his legs. The next 200 years bikes came in all shapes and sizes and inspired Serbian-bike-aficionado living in Stuttgart to think: “Wait, why people around me don’t know about beautiful Serbian nature and culture? And why we are at it, why don’t we show them that riding bikes across those landscapes?” And that, my friends, is how the initial spark happened and how Upside Down was born.

And what the hell is Upside Down?

It’s our way of saying, let’s do something different in our natural habitat – on a bike saddle. We wanna promote raw nature, freedom of movement, and send some positive vibes to the world! We are burning to craft stories and organise bike rides that will tell you more about Serbia. To find out more about Upsidedown.cc please head to their website here

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