Day 13 – A lie in?
374 km, 5,415m @ 23.5 kph – Total 18:20 hours with 16 hours moving
I’d promised myself a lie in for the hotel breakfast served from 7 am. But then I woke early anyway so I packed up the bike and headed to the restaurant. There was enough food set out and after a coffee I was on the road for 7 am.
Caps 3, 77, 130, 144 were already showing as ahead of me, that would teach me to start late! I also noticed Lee 229 making a comeback and was close to Tirane so it was no time for complacency! The capital was quiet on a Saturday morning and I navigated the city easily, unlike many other racers would report.
For some reason I felt I was a long way from home, not a homesick feeling but one of satisfaction that I had traveled so far and so successfully. The enormity of my ride and realisation of the imminent finish was starting to sink in.
A huge series of climbs were the order of the day for the next 200 km. The first was the 600m old road to Elbasan to avoid the motorway and a long tunnel. I overtook one rider on the lower slopes. saw a goat (I think) being butchered at the road side in the middle of nowhere, sleepy wild dogs and a great descent to follow.The climb rewarded me with fantastic views in all directions
The summit plateau was a special place for me. I paused to appreciate the view and felt unhurried and peaceful, knowing I would achieve a finish time beyond my wildest expectations. My charity page was also nearing it’s fundraising target – wow!
The sweeping descent led to Elbasan, a large city where everywhere had something “FOR SALE” or “SHITET” which amused me every time I saw it:
The route climbed again for another 150 km, up the SH3 Schkumbin valley. The main road narrowed and there was an annoying, filled in channel just inches from the side of the road, almost like a rumble strip. You could carefully ride to the right hand side or choose the left hand side closer to passing traffic. Many people reported this road as horrendous, but I didn’t consider it quite that bad. Perhaps the Saturday traffic was lighter than normal. I generally rode to the left of the channel until I saw traffic behind and switched to the right until it was clear again.
Figs and fruit were being sold everywhere at the road side and I used many mountain springs at the road side to soak my cap and clothes and re-fill my bottles. At some of these springs, families were gathering to fill large containers. Car washes were simply everywhere and I wondered at just how many a nation could possibly need!
Roadside stalls had cold drinks which you would pick out of the cool flowing spring water. I could find no ice-cream though and realised this was because they had no electric supply to power freezers.
The country also suffered a huge litter problem. Fly tipping was everywhere and even areas with refuse bins were overflowing and never cleaned up. It spoiled the natural beauty of the land.
After Perrenjas, a further climb reached Lake Ohrid at 700m altitude. This was quite a tourist spot with a newly built road along the lake side and sunbathers on the beaches. Pogradec at the far end of the lake offered a useful re-supply point. It was common for the supermarkets to keep stock behind a counter so I had to point at what I wanted to buy. Not that easy when you don’t recognise anything, but it was better than relying on petrol stations which rarely sold anything other than fuel.
The heat lessened as I gained altitude. I spent the last of my Lek on water and an Albanian energy drink then topped out the final short climb to a wide open, agricultural and peasant landscape. Horse and carts, very basic motorised vehicles and crops being spread over half the road to dry and grain being separated by hand. All the children in the villages shouted an enthusiastic “Hello!” as I passed. The litter wasn’t so bad here and it allowed the natural beauty to shine.
The last stretch to the Greek border was a hard slog with a dead straight and slightly uphill road against the wind to Bilisht. This was followed by a climb to the border itself which I had not anticipated. I hit the takeaway van using Euros as soon as I reached the border crossing. A double helping of Giro’s and Coke provided a McD type of satisfaction, it was great to eat some ‘proper’ food for the first time in 200 km! I chuckled when I got a text from my dot watching Dad. He thought I was in a long queue at the border when I was simply taking time eating Giros!
Then I simply rode to the very front of the queue as I had done at every other border crossing and was through in no time at all.
Only 170 km from the finish. Some of my dot watchers were now quoting the much shorter distance left on the Trackleaders site and expecting me to finish in just a few hours, but of course that distance was “as the crow flies”. My plan was to ride another 70 km and bivi, allowing a daylight finish the next morning.
The next section offered an obscure short cut, but was an unknown road surface in my route planning. Knowing few people before me had used it, I took a quick look at the course gravel and turned straight around to take the longer safe route. This was a very good decision, it was all downhill with a great surface and a tailwind. 40 km flew by!
I saw road signs warning of wild animals crossing with pictures of bears and wolves, I certainly wasn’t going to sleep around here!
I reached Maniaki near Lake Kastoria in the late evening. I was very fortunate that it was Saturday and hence the supermarket was still open. I’d not really given much thought about what day it was, but had it been Sunday, then I would have struggled to find supplies. This Greek store had every conceivable item I needed. Chocolate milk, bananas, Oreos, cakes, croissants. I bought far too much really and packed additional water for my overnight bivi.
Back on the road with lights on, my thoughts started to change. Why stop with only 120 km to go? What if I ride through to the finish? I’d had the romantic idea of coasting down the finish parcours in daylight but instead I could do this after the race at my leisure and could even sit down and watch a sunset! Riding straight through would take my mileage to 375 km for the day. If my legs would last the course then I certainly had more than enough food and water to keep me going – and I had Oreos! Dogs may be a problem with 5 hours of night riding, but dogs counted equally against sleeping out!
All these thoughts switched me back into race mode and I checked the race tracking. There seemed to be some dots stopped on the Parcours who I might overtake. (I later learnt these people had finished and their dots had not updated). The only other person in front of me was Sam Thomas Cap 20 but he was too far ahead to catch unless he too stopped.
I had however regained the lead over the four riders who had overtaken me in the early morning including David 77 and I’d have to be mad to stop and let them catch me again! My long standing adversary Lee 229 was also a safe distance behind but he had a habit of creeping up on me!
Mind made up, I posted my intent, very politely, to all my dot watchers and put the hammer down!
Dusk and darkness arrived and I focused on eating up the remaining kilometres. I was so glad of my nicely oiled, quiet SRAM Red chain and I made sure I kept pedaling each time I entered a town to keep my freewheel silent. I figured a quiet entrance might gain me a head start on any dogs. I found myself holding my lungs full of air ready to shout, but whilst I saw several groups of dogs, I had no encounters where I was not already carrying sufficient speed to escape without even a sprint.
The most frightening looking dogs were out of town and would suddenly appear in my headlamp, with the appearance of zombie wolves! I’m not kidding they would have been perfect in horror movies, but they were just padding slowly at the road side and were gone in a split second. I had only time to draw breath and breathe out in relief! Maybe in the darkness they just thought I was a car.
The final 100 km was a sequence of long rollers and then two long climbs. My dot watchers couldn’t understand why this was taking so long but I could see my wife Alison explaining to them on Facebook about my required route to the race finish. Friends back home seemed to warm to my racing finish and I received a very special text from my eldest son Sam who was in the middle of his own adventure in the Pyrenees.
My legs were feeling fine and I don’t think I stopped once in all this distance apart to transfer water from the extra bottle and dump the empty one into a bin. I passed a couple of late night parties in the towns with children still playing and shouting so it didn’t even feel late at night. It did get a little cool, but not enough to need any extra layers.
My dot watchers became excited as I reached the last climb. I couldn’t believe how many people were staying awake until midnight in the UK watching what must surely have been agonising slow progress! I still felt good, the Oreos were working well and the barking dogs that I heard frequently never appeared on the road ahead of me.
My tracker updates weren’t as frequent as people wanted, so I provided some updates along the way and let them know when I reached the summit. For the descent I switched my head torch on full power. With my dynamo as well it was like having car headlights which was pretty useful, there were a few places where gravel and rocks had spilled onto the road and the last think I wanted now was a puncture!
As my excitement grew, I found I was talking to myself….. “I’ve actually done this!” but I was also telling myself “don’t mess this up!………” (I crashed out on a descent in the 2015 Transalp on the penultimate Stage and ended up in A&E)
I could see vague shadows of the rock towers and the twinkly lights of Kalabaka below peeking between them. I hadn’t realised how long the descent would be, including a couple of cheeky little rises but eventually I coasted into the town at 2 am. Before I spotted the finish line I heard cheers and applause and headed straight for the small group of people outside Pub 38 who were making as much noise as possible. I got hugs and congratulations from the volunteers James & Maxine and Sam Thomas Cap 20 who had finished and waited two hours for my arrival. Together they made my arrival truly special. They had even kept a warm club sandwich and a cold beer for me!
I remembered to post to Facebook so my dot watchers could rest easy before spending a wonderful hour winding down and chatting. Maxine plucked up the courage to ask if I had somewhere to stay. Oh No! In my excitement and chang of plan, I realised my oversight! But not to worry, Sam led me to his hotel and though his was full, I managed to find a room just across the road.
13 days, 3 hours, 15 minutes. Nearly three days faster than my target!
36th over the line and 35th in GC subject to validation etc. etc.
Needless to say I didn’t wash my kit that night, but I still drank my chocolate milk and I was definitely having a lie in!