KRANJSKA GORA, SLOVENIA (AFP) – Thousands of Slovenian cycling enthusiasts flocked to the mountain resort of Kranjska Gora on Saturday to honour the ‘Pony’, a formidable 20-inch-wheel foldable bicycle, in an uphill race that has little to do with the country’s world cycling champions.
The little city bicycle was produced in Slovenia – the home of Grand Tour winners Tadej Pogacar and Primoz Roglic – between 1965 and 1985 with millions sold throughout the former Yugoslavia.
“At the time it was the only small wheel bicycle available and everybody had it, anyone over 40 must have had one,” one of the organisers of the Goni Pony uphill race Tomaz Kosir told AFP.
“The idea was to put together this legendary bike and the legendary Vrsic pass,” said Kosir.
It is an imaginative idea although perhaps not an obvious marriage – a gearless bike with tiny wheels being asked to flog up the highest mountain pass in Slovenia, indeed the highest across the Julian Alps. In Slovenian vrsic means ‘little peak’ but the cyclists who take up the challenge on their Pony bikes are going to feel every bump and rise as they head from Kranjska Gora up Vrsic, covering a distance of 13.5 kilometres and dealing with a height difference of 800 metres.
Adding a revival and carnival atmosphere to the event, participants are invited to dress or wear outfit from the period when the Pony bikes were originally produced.
“It’s the best city bike ever, especially for women,” Janja and Barbara, nurses in their early 30s, told AFP posing for a picture in their old-fashioned polka dot dresses, with fitting black glasses and the corresponding shoes.
Nearby, 64-year-old pensioner Franci Valas, with a pair of old football boots and a ball, is ready for his seventh race.
“I usually get to the Vrsic pass, maybe have to push the bike from time to time, but I get there,” he added.
Some of the cyclists turn up dressed like a football team, others like paramedics or musicians. A group of four Italians from nearby Trieste wear banana outfits.
“We heard about this competition and decided to come,” Sofia and Lara told AFP sweating under their disguises at over 30 degrees centigrade before they had even started the climb.
Due to the many hills in their hometown they usually ride mountain bikes, but the fold-up “is good for getting into an elevator!”
Many of the cyclists, however, arrived with beautifully decorated bikes without having adapted them for the toughness of the challenge.
“We had to repair an immense number of bikes,” said bike mechanic Anze Pecar close to the start. “Some were in good shape but others were really bad.”
Pecar shakes his head at joining the throng heading up the pass.
“Tried it once, that was enough,” he said firmly, making a swift exit to make some last-minute repairs to a troublesome seat.
Needless to say there are some who take the race more seriously and it was no great surprise to see a Slovenian double with Laura Simenc winning the women’s event and Luka Kovacic the first home in the men’s race.
But the real winner, as it is every year, was that 20-inch-wheel foldable bicycle – the Pony bike.