Rocking my bike from side to side, I crested the final rise and the landscape opened out before me. A high-altitude meadow freckled with cows rolled down into a shallow bowl surrounded by savagely contorted, parallel slabs of limestone sticking straight up from the earth. Beyond was 2,523-metre Bobotov Kuk, the highest point in Montenegro’s wondrous Unesco-listed Durmitor national park. Behind me were yet more staggering views, across glacial lakes to rows of mountain peaks, deep river gorges and pine forests populated by wild cats, bears and wolves.
We, eight middle-aged men in slightly bulging Lycra – yes, derided mamils – were at the high point of our four-day tour of the Balkans. Having had our fill of Surrey’s Box Hill, damp British sportives and Alpine cols, we were looking for a new adventure, on roads rarely cycled. We wanted to pore over paper maps again, take wrong turns, eat strange foods and leather our tongues with local vino. In short, we wanted to recapture some of the joy we knew when we were young of touring by bike.
Starting and finishing in Dubrovnik, we cycled a loop through a corner of Croatia, across Bosnia-Herzegovina and from the top of Montenegro to the bottom. By the end, we had clocked up 635km, with a hefty 8,650 metres of ascent. We rode in late September, to avoid the heat of summer and the winter snows, and had clear skies and sunshine for three and a half of the four days.
On the first and last nights we stayed at Hotel Kompas beside the sea, a kilometre from Dubrovnik; in Mostar we stayed in an Airbnb flat, and the other nights at small hotels in Montenegro. Everywhere, the food was simple, freshly cooked and good.
We rode a variety of bikes between us, from “adventure” or “gravel” machines to conventional, metal road frames. We travelled light, carrying tools and clothes in small panniers and “bikepacking” bags, navigating with a combination of digital and paper maps.
Cycling out of Dubrovnik was hectic. When we left the coast and crossed the border into Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, the traffic tailed off. Some 40km after that, heading west towards Mostar, there were almost no cars to be seen. Instead, we rode past tractors chugging out of the woods with trailers full of coppiced oak and hornbeam, herdsmen ambling along the verges to the sound of goat bells, donkeys and conical haystacks in fields. It felt like we had vaulted back in time, to the beginning of the 20th century.
All sense of pastoral reverie was punctured, however, by occasional reminders of the civil war that ripped through the region in the early 1990s. We pedalled past roadside graveyards and deserted farmhouses still pock-marked with bullet holes.
We weren’t war tourists, though. Rather, we had come to enjoy open roads and big panoramas. Leaving Mostar, we climbed 1,000 metres over 15km out of the Neretva valley, past the crumbling, medieval walls of Blagaj fort, to reach a vast, bare upland plain. In Sutjeska national park we flew down through a beautiful, deep canyon beside the Sutjeska river, through pools of dazzling sunlight, beneath hillsides covered in ancient forests of pines and beech. The descent to Kotor, the ancient city on the Montenegrin Adriatic fortified by the Venetians, was spellbinding: the 25 hairpin bends afford some of the best views I have ever enjoyed from a saddle.
As we pedalled round the aquamarine Bay of Kotor, and crossed from Montenegro back into Croatia, storm clouds blew in off the Adriatic. It hardly mattered… Dubrovnik, the hotel and the bar were close but we, a bunch of middle-aged men, were already intoxicated on a cocktail of hard riding, wondrous scenery and adventure. Box Hill would never be the same again.
• Hotel Kompas has doubles from €118. In Montenegro, Hotel Trebjesa in Niksic has doubles from around £50, and Motel Blue River Tara offers two-night packages from €86. British Airways flies Gatwick to Dubrovnik from about £120 return
Rob Penn is the author of It’s All About the Bike (Penguin, £9.99). To buy a copy for £8.49 go to guardianbookshop.com