Day 10 – Goodbye Hungary, Hello Croatia and Bosnia
318 km, 2,064m @ 26.1 kph – Total 16:54 hours with 12:09 hours moving
On the road at 5.20am with a wait – a tailwind? Well it didn’t last long before the headwind returned. Hungary in the main continued to be…. Hungary. Early morning mist on cycle lanes, ditches along the road side with ramps to the houses. I did see another cyclist, I guess a Postie. The roads, yes still rough, but at least they put up warning signs!
So remember I needed a good breakfast? Remember all Hungarian supermarkets are boring? Well what I really needed and somehow miraculously appeared in the town of Barcs was:
I took my fill and stocked up for the road ahead. A do it yourself Bircher Muesli with fresh Blackberries – Yum. This fueled me out of Hungary at last and into Croatia. Croatia was remarkably similar to Hungary at first but with one major difference. The tarmac was smooth! The scenery got gradually more interesting with some rolling hills
The headwind however on the south easterly Drava flat past Slatina became worse and it was really hot in the high 30’s once again. Dousing of clothing, ice cream stops and cold drinks were frequent requirements. My eTap shifting had been a godsend throughout my journey but never more so than in a headwind. My homemade bar end shifter buttons allowed me to maintain the efficient aero position whilst effortlessly changing gear, even when eating and having only one hand spare.
Turning south, a 500m climb from Orahovica provided relief from the headwind and flatlands. There was shade, a welcome change in position on the bike and a good descent to enjoy after. I had a coke stop at the bottom in Kutjevo where I also bought the largest Monster size Cornetto I have ever seen! Apple Pay proved very useful and I never had to change any money in Croatia. After the descent more hot and flat roads took me to the Bosnian border at Slavonski Brod. Here I was held up by police on account of a convoy of exotic cars on a rally. Many of the occupants waved like they were royalty, but in fact everyone else just wanted them to get out of the way!
I was quite excited to reach Bosnia, it represented a truly foreign land compared to any of my previous travels and I was eager to explore.
First I needed another new iphone cable. I visited an ATM, found a phone store and sat down for a coke at a bar. The first question I was asked by a local was how much my bike was worth. This was repeated a number of times in Bosnia, none of it was threatening but it did make me uneasy at first!
I wasted too much time in Brod and got back on the road kicking myself for not filling my bottles, but a free re-fill at a restaurant on the road solved that.
Some climbing ensued on the busy M17.2 but the evening traffic was not too bad. Most lorries would toot to make sure I was aware of them. A couple of coaches went by extremely close but I did not have the terrible experiences that other riders would complain about in Bosnia. Some riders would tell me they would not return to a TCR if they had to ride through Bosnia.
Before long I had my first dog encounter. Dogs had been my single biggest fear in my race preparation. I had promised myself the first time this happened I would use the tactic of stopping, shouting then walking away. I’m sure I picked an easy target as I spotted the two dogs from a distance and one was wagging its tail, so were probably domesticated. Nevertheless, as soon as one saw me, it barked aggressively and readied to chase. My tactic worked and it backed off immediately which gave me a great confidence boost.
I passed a couple of weird looking themed hotels and enjoyed a tailwind assisted (finally!) downhill where I even got a lengthy KOM! As darkness started to fall, I sat down at a restaurant in Doboj where a Bosnian family helped me and the waitress with the menu. I ordered pasta and a pizza followed by Ice Cream and fruit. The family told me how most young people leave Bosnia to work in Germany or Austria, however it was the holidays and many people had returned to visit their families.
With dogs probably preying on my mind and hotels cheap, I decided not to bivvi. Instead I booked a Motel another 30 km down the road.
Riding in the dark now, my senses were tuned for dogs in the otherwise quiet of the night. Then I jumped out of my skin when an almighty horn blasted. Unknown to me I was riding alongside a railway and the slow moving train ahead of me was warning of its approach. A second blast made me jump just as much!
Later I turned a corner to arrive in Maglaj where a floodlit Mosque stood in front of me, prayers broadcasting on loudspeakers. The sudden reveal made for a surreal moment and it made me realise just how far I had ridden on my bike to this very foreign land and how independently I was travelling, still riding on my own at 9.30 pm with my stop for the night not yet found.
My planned route had avoided the main road but I hadn’t figured on the hotel being on the opposite side of the river meaning I had to back track 5 km. My room turned out to be a luxurious suite which explained why the price was so high at €30! Again I was asked again how much my bike was worth, it was definitely staying in my room! The bathroom was complete with hi-tech multi jet shower which I couldn’t work out how to use. I had to laugh at how hard they had tried to make the apartment so luxurious but then had used a doormat as a bath mat!
I was pleased with the days mileage. I was now consistently covering around 300 km each day. My route had departed from most other riders so it was difficult to judge my progress. It seemed however that I may have gained a lead over Chris 129 and Lee 229. Despite the late night, the alarm was set for 4:15 as I wanted to leave extra early, avoiding traffic on the E73 road which was warned against in the TCR Race Manual. Leftover Pizza would fuel my morning early distance.
Day 11 – What a ridiculous Checkpoint!
247km, 3,200m @ 20.1 kph – Total 15:52 hours with 12:18 hours moving
The early start was a success with very little traffic on the length of the main E73 road that I needed to use. Elsewhere I successfully avoiding the long banned tunnel and used alternative minor roads. This meant a lengthy section of gravel which I’d not been able to identify from my route planning. In fact these alternative roads were probably unnecessary at this time of day, but precautionary in line with the race manual recommendation.
I felt pretty tired this morning and had a coffee stop which helped, but it took a while to feel like I was riding to speed. The route was also a steady positive gradient for 140 km until the real climbing began!
I passed a number of graveyards which I presumed were from the recent wars. There were many derelict industrial buildings and an awful lot of auto repair garages sporting a huge selection of half cars. “You want the front half of a VW Passat? No problem. They can probably match you with a rear half and sort you out a cheap runaround! British number plate? That’s no problem we don’t worry about licence plates here!”
Sampling the Burek savoury pastries as an early lunch, they resembled a long thin sausage roll curled up though with not much meat in. I made a stop to look for some cheap footwear for the Bjelasnica gravel climb. I’d seen pictures of the Bjelasnica climb and didn’t fancy destroying my carbon soled shoes, even though I had kept my cleat covers.
Stopping again at a fuel station before I turned onto the climb towards the mountains of CP4, I made an important discovery – Oreos! These are a fantastic fuel and a perfect size for one mouthful. I looked for these in future but never found them again until Greece!
I took my time on the long climb toward the parcours, still feeling tired. But then again I didn’t want to arrive too early, that would mean tackling the gravel climb in the midday heat. I passed more old bullet ridden buildings and memorials before reaching CP4 and my penultimate Brevet stamp.
I got a cappucino and chatted with the checkpoint staff. I realised I had not seen another rider for the last two days and I’m delighted to hear that I have moved up to 43rd in the race, gaining another 10 places since CP3. I then proceeded to mess around here so long that my friend Sophie commented on Facebook that I should be getting a move on! And so I began the ridiculous ascent of Bjelasnica.
It took about 3 hours and I walked 75% of that time up and down. I was determined not to risk tyre or carbon wheel damage in the deep gravel stretches and just put my head down, cursing under my breath and taking small fast steps.
At least the heat was not so bad. At the summit there were spots of rain and thunder echoing around the valleys below. I couldn’t tell if this was in the valley I would descend to next. The view was pretty impressive and I could see Sarajevo in the distance, but I was impatient just to get this checkpoint over and done with and turned back down the hill.
I passed some ascending riders on my descent including an Italian who seemed determined to ride the gravel but kept falling over and swearing loudly – somehow italian swearing sounds so comical!
And so eventually I reached the bottom with no punctures or mechanical issues (so I thought) and sat at a restaurant to have some food and determine my next move. The American pair were just setting off up the climb, this gave me a renewed sense of determination. Tempting though it was to find lodging in the mountain village, it was only 5:30 pm. The trouble was that the next section of my route was pretty remote.
Using booking.com I found a hotel in Brod na Drin, but it’s another 85km away. I reckoned I could get there in time for a meal and ensure I stayed ahead of the Americans I left another racer (who?) at the restaurant considering whether he can follow my lead but I didn’t wait to find out his decision and raced off.
A delightful evening followed where I finally found my legs for the day, re-invigorated with a target to aim for and another glorious sunset.
After taking the photo of the sunset, I discover my Dynamo isn’t working! Maybe the gravel has shaken it up and damaged it or broken the connection. A quick fiddle proves fruitless and I bring out the head torch for the onset of darkness. My wahoo and iphone have enough charge and my Exposure Joystick light mounted on my helmet should allow me to reach the hotel. Despite this I try to race to my overnight target as quickly as possible.
I got a lovely welcome at the hotel which had an open air restaurant and chalet style rooms. The waitress spoke good English and after I showered, and washed shorts / jersey, the Bosnian menu was translated for me. It sounds quite normal food, but I’m delighted when she agrees to prepare me a cheese & ham omelette with Fries and salad, something I just inexplicably was yearning for and I know would digest easily. I even treat myself to a beer after such a long arduous day!
Cap 77 David Sherrington arrived. I recall him looking remarkably muscular and fresh! I joined him for a short chat before bed. David was ahead of me through Czech so I have made good progress. The leading lady Ede 179 was also close by, another person I have caught up to. Both Lee 229 and Chris 129 appeared to be safely behind me.
After inspecting my dynamo once again with no joy, I would need to use hotels each night to recharge devices. Navigation would be OK, my Wahoo would last all day with one re-charge from my power bank and I had the unused Etrex as a back up.
I fell asleep pleased with the days progress once again.
Day 12 – Gorges, High plains and into the heat again. Three countries today!
318 km, 2,926m @ 25.8 kph – Total 16:38 hours with 12:19 hours moving
I woke at 5 am and stowed my washed shorts, unplugged my devices and maneuvered my bike around some awkward opening doors making quite a noise. I later learnt that I did David in the next room a favor as he had fallen asleep without setting an alarm. My cluttering served as his wake up call!
The first 20 km were easy and apart from a few barking dogs were uneventful. The light was quite dim due to cloud and mist and I noticed a strange shadow on the road in front of me, well fancy that, my dynamo was working once again? I’ve no idea to this day why it had stopped but I can only guess the hub connector had been shaken in the gravel and my late night fiddling had made a good connection again. This was good news in that I could ride later into the night without any worries of failing battery lights.
I passed a campsite and saw two Swiss motorcyclists whom I had seen on the gravel climb at CP4. These guys had generous luggage panniers yet they were bivying!
The border into Montenegro was via a splintered wooden bridge with very large gaps between the planks, I rode diagonally to avoid my tyres falling into the cracks, a trick taken from my experience on the cobbles in the RvC sportive back home in the Pennines.
I was surprised by how much climbing there was to come, thought at least this meant I was out of the morning fog and could enjoy the scenery again. The route flattened out on reaching the Dam for the Piva reservoir, a huge sprawling expanse of blue water filling the deep ravines. The road was just fantastic, with awesome views.
I met Ede Cap 179, the leading women who had slept in a bivvi just short of me last night and had been on the road earlier than I. She had been ahead of me but had made a route error after leaving CP4. I later found that she’d felt unwell that day and may well have beaten me without these two problems.
I stopped in the town of Pluzine to withdraw Euros, I had run dangerously low since the recent hotels had all declined to accept card payments. It was a relief to have a generous amount of cash again.
Some more climbing and then a long descent into the high plains where I had a breakfast stop at the first supermarket. I gave my unfinished packet of cereal to a beggar and continued through Niksic. Then one more small climb before a 40 km plunge against a headwind again to Podgorica which was just above sea level. Unfortunately this meant the heat was back with a vengeance! Again I stopped at multiple water fountains and eventually decided on a Siesta just before the city where I ordered dinner. The food wasn’t long coming but I had to be woken up by the waitress when it arrived!
With 160 km in the bag, I wondered how far I would be able to get before I thought about sleeping arrangements, but decided to press on for a while yet before making any decisions. I would see how the heat and the wind direction developed and also what the road conditions would be like in Albania.
In fact the going was pretty good. Podgorica was a busy city but I pushed through to reach the border. My first friendly Albanian supermarket was happy to take Euros, prices were incredibly cheap and I was given change in Lek. I saw cows wandering around Petrol stations and wallowing in ponds, and enjoyed distant views across flat coastal to the mountains.
The route now needed some careful attention. The main SH1 road through Shkoder and Lezhe was fine, but I then needed to avoid the sections upgraded to Motorway. I saw two more Caps 130,144 in Lezhe (where I stopped for supplies) who were headed for a hotel in Tirane, and seemed to be operating as a pair.
In the end I think I avoided unnecessary sections of the SH1 but it did give me a better view of Albanian life on the way. All the kids shout hello as you go past. If you want to buy a large fan for your winter turbo training then Albania is the place to go, they were on sale everywhere! But no halves of cars sorry!
I caught up with Lieuwe Cap 3 and chatted a while before pressing on. My goal was now clear, I would enter Tirane the Albanian capital where finding a hotel would be easy. It would be a late finish in the dark, but from there I was thinking of an easy two day finish into Meteora to complete the final parcours in daylight, savor the conclusion to my race and still finish in time for the party!
Initially this plan went well, there were some rough roads but all the time I was making good progress over the 70 km passing some run down and derelict towns and factories before the daylight began to fail. The road itself also began to fail with long sections were apparently under construction with course gravel and clouds of dust. Traffic continued to use the road and it was hard work to make sure I chose the best route amidst the rubble, stay clear of cars but keep making decent speed to Tirane. There was a bridge closure which created mayhem with other riders who spent considerable time find a way around it. Luckily I had seen the headlights of mopeds which showed me a simple diversion and lost me no time at all. But the roads worsened and thank goodness my dynamo was working, I may not have reached the capital that night without it! Eventually I returned to tarmac and rejoined the SH1. Making a brief drink stop I pressed on to the outskirts where I stopped for a tasty kebab at a street food shack. Here I selected a hotel, quite at random but bang on my route through the capital and central for some late night amenities.
This turned out to be rather a luxurious 4* hotel next to many embassies. I needed to be very insistent on taking my bike into my room and then went straight out for food. Planning on an easy two day finish, I reckoned I could lie in and have my first hotel breakfast and so also treated myself to a beer.
Another great day with superb scenery, the fascination of Albania together with 318 km completed despite both the heat and the early climbing.
Lieuwe Cap 3 had also reached Tirane and David 77 seemed to have pulled up a few kilometres earlier, he was still a man to watch!