Long stretches of well-maintained road with virtually no traffic; views of open green fields and dramatic cliff drops; compact villages with friendly inhabitants; fresh water sources at regular intervals; the occasional dairy farm or orchard and roadside vendors of fruit and dairy products — the Bulgarian Northwest is a road biker’s paradise.
Elenko Elenkov of Sofia-based running and biking club Begach thinks so, too. He knows the region holds enormous potential: he has been coming to stay at his family’s house in the village of Mitrovtsi, a few miles from the border with Serbia, since he was a child and has traversed the entire area on his bike. But the region, considered the EU’s poorest, is virtually unknown among Bulgarians, and its relative remoteness from the capital and the absence of cycling infrastructure have kept it off the cycling circuit.
Elenko wants to help change that. His idea involves organizing regular cycling events in the region to suit a variety of ability levels. Scheduled over a weekend and usually involving an overnight stay, the events would promote the Northwest among a fast-growing community of individuals and families pursuing an active lifestyle and would also bring income to local businesses.
“Cycling tours are an easy way to attract nonprofessional cyclists and tourists and see the most in the least amount of time,” Elenko says. “The Northwest offers a mix of little-known sights and really good cycling roads with little traffic.”
The first edition of Northwest Bulgaria Bike Tour took place on Saturday, May 29, 2021, with support from the America for Bulgaria Foundation and several municipalities, and attracted nearly 400 participants and their families, making it the biggest road bike event ever held in Bulgaria. The tour included distances for every ability level: from 13 km for the youngest participants, through 45 and 75 km routes for more advanced cyclists, to 105 and 138 km stretches for the most experienced riders. Cyclists pass through breathtaking natural scenery en route and some of the area’s most notable sights such as the Belogradchik Fortress and Chiprovtsi Monastery.
The support of local officials and the dozens of volunteers — among them the mayor of Chuprene, who enthusiastically handed out snacks and drinks to tired riders — ensured that the event went as smoothly as possible and that participants and their companions had the best time they possibly could.
At the finish, visitors were treated to a truly authentic experience: the event was scheduled to coincide with Mitrovtsi’s annual celebration of its traditions, when the entire village gathers in the main square to share meals, music, games, and dance.
The upshot was overwhelmingly positive feedback by the participants who filled out Begach’s survey, with three out of four participants rating the event as excellent and 95 percent saying that they would participate in a next edition. “The organization was superb: everything from the website, through the email communication, to the organization on-site,” enthused one participant, while another wrote that “nothing was missing at the start or along the track. You did phenomenally well!”
For around half of the participants, this was a memorable first visit to the area, and the overwhelming majority (85 percent) said that they would return to explore the region further.
The local economy got a considerable boost as well. Hotels in the area were fully booked three months in advance, an unprecedented event that prompted a number of surprised phone calls to Elenko. And over the weekend of the tour, participants and their families spent a self-reported 100,000 levs in local hotels, restaurants, and shops.
Elenko says that the event far surpassed the organizers’ expectations. They were surprised by the overwhelming interest in the tour: the original capacity was 150 riders, but it was increased to 380 after the spots sold out in a matter of days. Unregistered riders joined in on the day of the event, too. “There were even top professional cyclists participating, not minding that we don’t issue cycling federation scores or [award] money,” Elenko says.
“Basically, we pulled off the biggest road cycling event in Bulgaria,” he adds.
A resounding success if ever there was one.
There’s plenty to see and do in the region after an energizing bike ride. Be sure to visit Chiprovtsi, the erstwhile capital of Bulgaria’s carpet industry. You would want to reserve a good part of the day for the tenth-century Chiprovtsi Monastery and the history museum in town, then head northwest toward the village of Chuprene, where you can admire the 120-year-old clock tower. Chuprene Nature Reserve, one of Bulgaria’s biggest and containing the country’s oldest conifer trees, is also worth exploring.
Further north, in Belogradchik, linger under the odd-shaped stone giants of the Belogradchik Rocks. Nestled amid them is the majestic ancient Belogradchik Fortress, one of Bulgaria’s best-preserved strongholds and a cultural monument of national importance.
Founded in 2012, Begach organizes amateur sports events promoting physical fitness and supporting a variety of charitable causes. Thousands take part in the club’s 15+ events every year raising money in aid of special needs children, the visually impaired, and many others.
The Northwest Bulgaria Bike Tour was one of several dozen initiatives funded by the America for Bulgaria Foundation in 2020 and 2021 in support of tourism development in northwestern Bulgaria.