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Vintage bicycling

Text: Janez Mihovec Photos: Janez Mihovec

More than a thousand years have passed since the Bishop of Freising founded Škofja Loka at the confluence of two rivers, the Poljanska Sora and the Selška Sora. Dominated by a powerful castle, the old town grew up behind enclosing walls. The centre of the wider Škofja Loka Hills and Sora Plain area, it has remained practically unchanged to the present day. The cluster of stone houses with their red-tiled roofs offers one of the most recognisable townscapes in Slovenia.

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Today this ancient town and its inhabitants live life to the full. With great dedication and tireless enthusiasm, the members of Škofja Loka's "Rovtarji" club work hard to make the town even more beautiful and in this way give extra purpose to their own lives. The last patches of winter snow have barely disappeared from the streets and preparations are already under way for the vintage bicycle ride. These are not just any old bicycles.

Many club members are enthusiastic collectors of antiques, which naturally also includes bicycles.

The older the better. But it is not only about the bicycles themselves. The machines also have to be maintained and fitted out properly. And their riders must also dress appropriately. This is partly for fun and partly serious: the idea is that the bicycle and its owner should become one.

The vintage bicycle ride thus consists of two very unequal parts. Preparation and maintenance of the bicycle, the search for spare parts that have long since disappeared, making and maintaining clothes – all this takes by far the longest. The actual cycling only happens at the very end and is like the cherry on the cake. These preparations, the numerous discussions and the business of organising the event are above all a social occasion both for the participants and for the many visitors who come to admire the results of many years of effort and the colourfulness of the event itself.

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Every year, when the appointed spring morning arrives, the old town square or Plac teems with life. Cyclists ride into the medieval square from every direction.

Some riders are older than their bicycles, while the younger participants – their offspring – arrive in the square on a variety of unusual machines of an even earlier vintage.

It really is a sight to see!

Next comes a light-hearted event in which the assembled cyclists demonstrate their marvels of engineering: a penny-farthing with an enormous front wheel and a small stabiliser wheel behind, a fireman's bicycle, a bicycle with an auxiliary petrol engine, and so on. The proud owner of the last of these puts his machine through its paces on the spot. The engine sputters noisily into life and the owner sets off across the square. He has to use the pedals to get up the slope, but that is no matter. It's the appearance that counts, more than practicality.

The noisier the machine, the prouder its owner and the greater the admiration of the onlookers. Then comes a presentation of a bicycle soldier and a cycling fireman. And a bicycle fitted with the authentic lights of the period. At one time cyclists used paraffin lamps rather than today's battery-powered bike lights. Not so much in order to find their way at night as they roamed the dark streets, but so that others could see them coming down the road. To cap it all there are also bicycle-drawn carriages to allow graceful young ladies to place themselves on display

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The older ladies make a particularly charming sight. With their hats, their lace blouses and their tucked-up skirts, they are admired by everyone and are guaranteed to raise a smile. It is important to look the part, cost what it may, and this is the real charm of the event. There is also a house band – Suha Špaga – to keep the mood jolly. The old-timers' club would not be the same without a musical accompaniment. Until you have seen and heard it for yourself, you would not believe the sounds that an old ski and a piece of string, a washboard, a clarinet and an accordion are capable of making. Feet start tapping and within minutes the display of old bicycles has turned into a dance party.

Then, just as the event is reaching its climax, it is time to set off. The cyclists set off in a long column across the square, leave the old town centre and ride off across the broad Sora Plain among the flowering orchards and fields in which the corn bends its ears in the gentle breeze and the sunshine. Simply because we are having a good time and life is beautiful.