- Cafe au Reveil Matin, Paris – the start of the first ever Tour de France
- Stelvio Pass – The second highest road crossing in the Alps
- Mount Lovcen – One of the highest mountains in Montenegro, above Kotor Bay.
Apart from these three checkpoints riders must plan their own route to Istanbul and are not allowed any form of external support on the ride. To ensure a level playing field the competitors must rely purely on commercially available services, no support vehicles, no private lodgings etc. They should also ride the route alone to ensure no unfair advantage from drafting.
After a serious amount of consideration I entered the TCR in late 2013, there were a few reasons to be concerned;
- The distance was more than twice as far as any ride I had done in the past.
- It is an unsupported event requiring total self-reliance.
- If your bike breaks ….. fix it.
- If you get lost …… get un-lost.
- Need food, somewhere to sleep …. find something.
- I’d also read the stories about the crazy driving, poor roads and the packs of wild dogs who just love to chase lone cyclists.
To be honest from the moment I entered I was seriously scared by what I’d let myself in for and this feeling only intensified as the event drew nearer.
After nine months of preparation including over 10,000km of cycling and many hours of route planning and equipment preparation it was with great trepidation that I lined up at the start on Westminster Bridge. My only objective being to get to the finish in time for the Finishers Party, two weeks after the start. Finishing would be winning ……
Day 1 – London to Argenlieu 339 km
At 8am on the 8th stroke of Big Ben the race got underway and my finely honed race plan swung into action. My strategy was simple; start slowly, don’t speed up in the middle and hold back at the end. Unfortunately, as the military say, “no plan survives contact with enemy” and that was to be the case here.
As the flag dropped I was having difficulties with my Garmin (bike sat nav) and I couldn’t actually see where I was supposed to be going, not a good start for a self navigated 3,500km race! Initially this wasn’t a problem as I adopted the age old tactic of simply following the person in front, which was fine until the rider in front took a wrong turn, splitting us off from the rest of the field. After figuring out what had happened and then stopping to get my Garmin working properly I was right at the back of the field, so I set off in hot pursuit. To add to the pressure I was also worried about making it to Dover in time to catch my planned 13:55 ferry. So this delay, coupled with the general adrenalin rush at the start of the event meant that I pretty much hammered it all the way down the A20, way above my target effort level. Only when I reached Ashford with 2 hours in hand could I persuade myself to slow down a bit. I reached Dover at 13:00, well ahead of my schedule, only to find that the ferry was delayed by an hour …………..
At least the ferry was a good opportunity to re-fuel and I had a chat with some of the other riders including Paul Alderson and Ralf Hemman from Germany.
In total about 20 of us rolled off the ferry at Calais. Having refused to pay £2 for a small bottle of water on the ferry I immediately stopped at the first garage to restock and after that I was riding on my own, next stop Paris.
Luckily by now I’d managed to calm myself down a bit and was riding at a steady pace, my Garmin was working fine and everything seemed under control. About 35km into France, just before St Omer the D road I was on suddenly turned into a dual carriageway, plus a hard shoulder. It was a great road to cycle on with a hard shoulder all to myself. Unfortunately my presence there seemed to completely incense the French drivers and there was much blaring of horns and gesticulation in my general direction. It was pretty clear I was on a road that I shouldn’t be on. For an awful moment it dawned on me that somehow or other I’d wandered onto a motorway. My mind raced, how on earth could this have happened, I’d literally spent months and months checking my route to make sure that nothing like this could happen, and here I was about to get arrested by the gendarmerie! I’d probably be on the news like that bloke on the M25 and would be the laughing-stock of the race. Spotting a parallel road next to the dual carriageway I quickly heaved my bike over the barrier, crossed a drainage ditch and cycled to the next town to take stock.
I figured out that it wasn’t a motorway it was definitely a D road, which are generally OK to cycle on, except this one had a section that was for cars only. I concocted a workaround and was soon back on route having bypassed the illegal part. My confidence in my route was badly shaken though and I was concerned that if this were to be a frequent occurrence I would waste a huge amount of time. Shortly afterwards though I bumped into Ben Thompson and Gaby Leveridge and also the legendary Mikko Makipaa who told me they’d all done exactly the same thing, so that made me feel a bit better.
I rode on into the night leapfrogging Ben and Gaby several times and eventually formed a small grupetto with them plus Tim Arnold and a French rider. Tim, who lives in Switzerland, had turned up on spec at the start line without an entry and basically pleaded to be allowed to ride. Luckily for him, because of some very last minute dropouts, he was allowed to race. He made it all the way to Istanbul and was subsequently awarded the “Spirit of the Race” award.
I rode on through Amiens with Ben and Gaby who shortly afterwards found a good bivvy spot and decided to stop. I carried on for another hour or so reaching the village of Argenlieu at about 2am and spotting a convenient bus shelter decided to stop there for a few hours. As accommodation goes bus shelters are overrated. It was cold, uncomfortable and noisy as cars kept going past all night. I had a poor night, sleeping for maybe 30 minutes of the 3 hours or so I was stopped.
After a poor night I set off at first light heading for Paris. The first stop was a garage in Chantilly for breakfast and after that made reasonable time to the outskirts of Paris.
The first checkpoint was in Montgeron on the south side of Paris at the cafe where the first Tour de France started from. I’d spent a huge amount of time trying to find a decent route through Paris that would hopefully be safe but reasonably fast. To be honest though I had no real idea what cycling across Paris was going to be like. Luckily as it was early on a Sunday morning there was very little traffic on the roads which was good news. The bad news though was the number of traffic lights which robotically go through their sequence regardless of traffic conditions. I seemed to be stopped at each light for about 5 minutes and was making inexorably slow progress. Not until I got past the Bois des Vincennes and onto a major road did I actually seem to be getting anywhere.
As I approached Checkpoint 1 I was fairly downbeat. I was pretty sure that the route I had taken must surely have been much slower than others and was expecting to be at or near the back of the field.
Shortly before the checkpoint I met George Mihakis, a Greek rider, going in the wrong direction. He was lost as his Garmin had failed so he followed me to the checkpoint. On arrival I was truly stunned to be told that far from being last I was actually in 14th place!
By now George had got his Garmin going again and headed off. He’d had a lot of trouble with it and I found out it was the same type I was using, so that gave me something else to worry about. I did have my iPhone as a backup but it would be a poor substitute. I also later found out that the routes George was following had been made up by his friend and loaded onto the device. Basically George only had a very vague idea of where he was meant to be going. This would cause him a few problems later in the race……
After Paris my objective for the day was Troyes about 160km away, where I had an F1 hotel booked. After a while I bumped into Andy Allday, a Dubai expat, and we rode together for a while. At this point we were overtaken by a competitor that shall remain nameless. Given the nature of the event and the fact that you might not see another soul for hours on end the usual practice was that if you overtook someone you had a bit of a chat, or at least exchanged pleasantries. In this case though they just sailed past not even raising a hand in acknowledgement of our presence, which to be honest I thought was a bit off. Definitely not a candidate for the “Spirit of the Race” award!
Eventually, because of the poor nights sleep in the bus shelter, I felt deadly tired and decided I needed a nap and found a nice picnic table to crash out on for 20 minutes. Feeling refreshed I set off again shortly to bump into Gunter Desmedt emerging from some undergrowth having also had a nap. He is an experienced ultra distance rider who told me tales of the Tour Divide Ride, 4400km along the Rocky Mountains and of riding 400km in a day on a mountain bike!
It had been a warm afternoon and eventually the skies started to darken ominously and I could see large thunderstorms in the distance. Just after Nogent sur Seine I was caught in the open in a huge thunderstorm with golf ball sized raindrops and a ferocious wind. There was no real shelter available but riding was impossible so I eventually found a bush to get under to shield me as best I could. After 10 minutes or so the worst was over and I rode on to Troyes having to stop every now I again to take shelter.
I arrived at the F1 hotel looking like a drowned rat. The first problem was that the restaurant next to the hotel was closed and as I’d cycled about 10km past Troyes there was nowhere else around and no way that I was cycling back. I then spotted a food dispensing machine in the lobby but unfortunately I had no change so in pidgin French I asked the receptionist “vous avez monnaie?” “Non” was the reply!
She did eventually take pity on me and managed to scrabble together a few euros so I got a couple of bags of crisps, yum yum.
This was planned as a pretty big day, 360km with over 3000m of climbing. I hadn’t felt that great yesterday and I was seriously concerned that I wouldn’t make it to Basel in a reasonable time. I left the hotel early at about 4am, in the darkness, and set off at a steady pace knowing that it would be a long day. Having had no breakfast (and not much in the way of dinner) I was on the lookout for food but it was very early and I was in the most rural of rural France. After about 3 hours I came across a garage, it was closed! Eventually after 5 1/2 hours and after making a diversion off route I found a bakery and some croissants! The main thing to realise about rural France is that it’s closed. In the unlikely event that you encounter a shop or any form of eating establishment it will invariably be shut, unless of course its a pharmacy and then it will definitely be open. All towns and even small villages have multiple pharmacies which are always open. So if you’re travelling across France with a serious medical condition you’ll be fine, just take your own food with you.
I carried on riding at a steady pace and was making reasonable progress and as the day went on I felt stronger and stronger and was eating up the kilometres at a good rate.
I bumped into George again a few times. I think at one point he was just about to go the wrong way down a dual carriageway but a motorist had stopped to point him in the right direction.
Crossing the Swiss border I rolled into Basel just before dark, well ahead of when I thought I’d get there. Today had given me a lot of confidence, by riding well within myself and by keeping going at a steady pace I was able to make good progress without having to stop often for food, perhaps one quick stop every 4 hours or so. At the start of the race some wise person had said that “to go fast you have to go slow”. I think I was beginning to understand the meaning of that paradox.
I think today also marked a turning point in that I realised that I was probably going to be physically strong enough to make it to Istanbul. There were still plenty of other things that could go wrong that would stop me but on the riding side all I had to do was keep cycling at my own pace.
Because I thought I’d be likely to arrive late I’d booked a hotel with a 24 hour front desk, in this case the Airport Hotel, which was very nice. After a shower, nice dinner and a glass or so of wine things were very definitely looking up. This was turning into my kind of race!
On paper today’s objective of Davos didn’t look too bad, 215km with 3000m of climbing taking me from the flatlands into the Alps. Going anywhere beyond Davos was not really feasible as you are then into the high alps with limited accommodation and temperatures too cold for bivvying.
I left the hotel at 5am and made a brief incursion into Germany before heading towards Zurich. From Basel to Zurich was basically just one huge urban sprawl with lots of traffic and all of the paraphernalia that goes with it; traffic lights, roadworks and diversions, all of which slowed progress. After 4 hours I’d only covered 60km and it took a frustrating amount of time to reach the lake in Zurich where things freed up slightly.
The road from Zurich to Davos has lots of tunnels which are out of bounds for cyclists. If you are found in there you will get a police escort out and an on the spot fine. In any event I find cycling through long alpine tunnels to be seriously scary so was quite happy to stick to the cycle paths that the Swiss have constructed to get around the tunnels. The only problem was that sticking to the cycle paths wasn’t that easy as they weren’t that well signposted. The surfaces were also pretty bad with lots of gravel track or worse.
All of this conspired to turn what should have been a relatively easy day into a long and frustrating one.
Worse was to come at the end of the day when I hit the final 20km climb up to Davos. For some reason I had it in my head that this was a relatively easy climb at a gentle gradient. It wasn’t. It was a brutal introduction to the Alps with the last 10km or so at a gradient of 7 to 8%. At the end of a frustrating day with a fully loaded bike it hurt, a lot, and I was mentally unprepared for it.
Eventually I made it to Davos and the great thing is when there is no skiing and the World Economic Forum isn’t on the hotels there are pretty cheap. So for about 50Euros or so I booked into the 4 star Kongress Hotel which was very nice indeed.
After a nice bath and dinner I checked the weather forecast for tomorrow. To say that it didn’t look good would be an understatement, with heavy rain and cold temperatures forecast for most of the day. In the flatlands this would be unwelcome news but in the high mountains it spelled real trouble. Tomorrow was going to be tough anyway with climbs of the Fluella Pass and Pass del Fuorn before descending to Prato for an ascent of the mighty Stelvio Pass, all 48 hairpins of it. In total I was planning to do about 200km with 4500m ascent. Even on its own this would be a pretty tough proposition but in bad weather, carrying camping gear, with 900km already in the legs this was going to be a big challenge.
I set my alarm for 4am but for some reason I woke at 2.30am and checked the weather forecast again on the iPhone. It was looking even worse with serious storms forecast. I decided to set off straight away to get as far as I could before the weather turned.
Leaving Davos in the darkness I bumped into Rob Goldie who was heading into town. He had been trying to bivvy but at that altitude the cold had forced him to look for a hotel.
The first objective was the Fluella Pass and I steadily made my way up in the darkness. As I approached the top the heavens opened and I started the descent down to Susch, about 20km away, in torrential rain and freezing temperatures. It was not yet light and within minutes I was frozen to the core. The road had turned into a river and the amount of water was making my brakes ineffective. The worst thing though was that my bike developed a serious wobble, at first I couldn’t figure out why but then realised it was just because I was shivering so violently!
So here I was in the cold and dark with torrential rain, bordering on hypothermia and barely able to control my bike, trying to negotiate a steep, twisty alpine descent. The worst thing was that it was still quite early and I knew that even if I made it down to Susch there would be nowhere open where I could warm up. I started to look for some shelter and luckily after 10 minutes or so I came across a large building that had a small shelter tagged on to the end of it. I dived in and after 15 minutes of running on the spot and arm whirling had restored some feeling to my body.
The rain was still hammering down and I decided to stay put at least until the cafes would be open in the valley below. As I would be there for a while I got most of my wet gear off and crawled into my sleeping bag and was actually quite cosy and warm.
Eventually, having spent about 3 hours in the shelter it was time to start moving again. There was still no improvement in the weather but at least it was slightly warmer now. It was quite an effort of willpower to put all my wet gear back on and set off downhill, immediately getting cold again. Just after setting off I bumped into Jorg, a German rider, who was stopped in the middle of the road taking a photo of a llama. At least I think that’s what happened or maybe I was just hallucinating?
I slowly made it down to the village of Susch and then on to the next climb. Normally when cycling in the Alps it’s the climbs that are feared and the descents that are looked forward to. Today that was absolutely reversed. Climbing was fantastic as it give you the chance to work hard and get warm. I dreaded the descents as I was reduced to a shivering wreck after the first couple of minutes. Eventually I made it to the top of the Pass del Fuorn and spotted another bike next to a cafe. Inside I found Paul Alderson, who I hadn’t seen since Calais and we treated ourselves to multiple portions of Goulash soup as we plucked up the courage for the long 30km descent to Prato at the base of the Stelvio.
In Prato the effects of the torrential rain were clear to see, the river was in full spate, with large trees were being swept downriver and firemen had been posted along the river to check for debris blocking the river.
My mind has blanked out most of the awfulness of climbing the Stelvio that day, except that counting down through 48 numbered hairpins was quite a mental challenge.
Eventually I reached the top of the pass and the Hotel Albergo Folgore which was the second checkpoint. The hotel was an absolute refuge from the abysmal weather and although my plan was to descend the Stelvio that day and do another 75km I pretty much knew straight away that wasn’t going to happen. Sitting next to the log fire, the staff having whisked away all of my wet gear to the drying room, I just couldn’t face going back out into the cold and wet again and so I checked into the hotel. It was actually the sensible thing to do anyway, my next objective was to make it the 8pm ferry in Ancona, 600km away. I was pretty confident I could do that in a day and a half so as long as I got away early the following day there was no real advantage to going down now, especially as the forecast was for the weather to improve overnight.
There are not that many rules in the Transcontinental Race, but one of them concerns the route that must be taken to the top of the Stelvio, it must be made from Prato via the iconic 48 hairpins, ascending by any other route will lead to disqualification. I heard later that George Mihakis, the one whose friend had made up his routes for him, climbed the Stelvio via the Umbrail Pass which is not allowed. George is a big guy and climbing the Stelvio by any route requires a massive effort. You can only imagine his emotions, after battling to the summit in truly awful conditions, to be told that if he wanted to continue in the race he was going to have to descend to Prato and reascend by the correct route. I think it was a situation that literally did make grown men cry ……… To George’s eternal credit he got straight back on his bike and 4 hours later was back at the summit having completed the climb from Prato.
Day 6 – Stelvio to Ferrara – 365km
Breakfast was from 5.30 and I was there on the dot and was surprised that I was the only one as there were quite a few other riders staying there. After making the most of the buffet breakfast I was on the road by 6am and had a fantastic descent of the Stelvio at dawn, validating my decision to stay at the Folgore overnight. There were quite a few riders making their way up, including Ben and Gaby who I had a quick chat with.
I needed to get to Ferrara today to put me within striking distance of Friday’s 8pm ferry from Ancona. Fortunately the 365 km journey was largely flat or downhill and I was on the aero bars for large chunks of the day and made great progress. By mid afternoon I reached Verona and was out of the Alps and had about 100km to go when I met David King, a bike courier from Edinburgh. He had strained his knee on the Stelvio and was now taking an alternate route to give himself a chance of recovery but had no route to follow. We rode together towards Ferrara until he punctured and I carried on alone. For him every cloud has a silver lining though because I rode straight into a thunderstorm and got another soaking whilst he managed to stay behind it!
Stayed at the Hotel Ferrara and made the mistake of ordering the set menu for dinner. It was fantastic but there were literally about 10 courses and I was virtually falling asleep into my Sorbet by the end.
Day 7 – Ferrara to Ancona – 236km
Today’s objective was to get to Ancona in time for the ferry at 20:00. As there is only one ferry a day making sure I arrived on time was critical so Dave and I set off at 6am to give ourselves plenty of time to deal with contingencies.
It was a pretty flat and straightforward ride the only difficulty was the increasing heat which was now around 36 deg C. Dave’s knee seemed to be improving, it certainly wasn’t slowing him down and after a while it became clear that we had bags of time in hand. We kept agreeing that we may as well slow down and save some energy but it never seemed to happen. Dave only has one speed, …..fast!! I suppose that’s what comes of being a bike courier!
The only snag had been near Ravenna when our route suddenly turned into a motorway requiring a workaround and quick spin along the seafront to rejoin the route further along. I heard that others faced with the same situation carried on along the motorway and ended up with a police escort.
We made it to Ancona with a few hours spare and hung around the ferry terminal. There were a few others on the boat including Chris Dobbs, Andy Allday and Rob Goldie. Chris Dobbs had lost all of his money so I lent him €50 to get some food on the boat.
Day 8 Split to Kotor 310km
In some ways arriving in Split marked the start of the real adventure. I had plenty of experience of cycling in Western Europe but absolutely none in the East. Today was going to be another big day and I wanted to get as close to the base of Mount Lovcen and the third checkpoint as I could get, which was going to mean over 300km of cycling with 4,600m of climbing. The Croatian coastline was really beautiful and the kilometres passed quickly on the coast road to Dubrovnik.
I was feeling pretty good and rode past Dubrovnik and as darkness fell crossed into Montenegro. There must be some kind of border dispute between Croatia and Montenegro because the queues of traffic heading back into Croatia from Montenegro were truly horrific. It was at the very least three miles long and with each car taking around 5 minutes to process those poor unfortunates were in for a very long wait indeed. Luckily I was going in the other direction which was not so bad and in any event managed to weedle my way to the front of the queue.
The first town in Montenegro was Herceg Novi, which seemed pretty wild and shortly after I hit Kotor Bay which I had to cycle all of the way round to the base of Mount Lovcen. Here I experienced my first dog attack; the best advice I had been given was to shout at them, which I did, loudly. Unfortunately it had no effect on them whatsoever and the two dogs remained in hot pursuit so I resorted to my backup plan which involved cycling as fast as possible. This form of interval training was to repeat itself many times over the coming days, ride for 5 hours at heart rate zone 1 and then 45 seconds in zone 6, repeat until Istanbul.
I’d been feeling fairly good all day and was starting to have thoughts of perhaps doing all of the 1,600m climb to Checkpoint 3 that night. The dog attack put me off though, evading them on the flat wasn’t too bad but uphill would be impossible and attacks are much more likely at night-time. Just before Kotor and the foot of the climb I bumped into one of the other riders who was booked into a hotel close by. That made my mind up and via the magic of booking.com was quickly booked in. Things got slightly tricky when I arrived at the hotel as despite being meant to have a 24 hour front desk the place was locked up and in darkness. Luckily a couple of locals helped me out by waking the manager from his bed.
Day 9 Kotor to Tirana – 250km.
I left the hotel at 6am, slightly ahead of a group of four other riders also staying there. The climb to Mount Lovcen was great and for the first half was at a nice gradient. In terms of scenery it’s as nice a climb as any I’ve ever done and is highly recommended.
After stopping midway up the climb for the most disgusting coffee I have ever had I arrived at Checkpoint 3 at Hotel Ivanov Konak in 15th place with Sergei Konov and the four guys from the hotel arriving shortly after.
With most of the climbing for the day done all that remained was to descend to Podgorica and then on to Albania and the capital Tirana. Albania has a certain notoriety about it and to be honest I was slightly apprehensive about what lay ahead.
The descent to Podgorica was very gusty and with a fair amount of traffic whizzing past didn’t feel particularly safe so I was glad when that was over and I was heading for the Albanian border.
Once in Albania I was actually pleasantly surprised, the roads were wide with a good shoulder and very little traffic. I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about and I cruised along to Shkoder where I stopped to get some Albanian money. Unfortunately after Shkoder things started to go downhill. The nice wide road wasn’t so wide anymore and the shoulder had disappeared and there was a fairly constant stream of traffic in both directions.
I discovered that Albanians have no concept of slowing down and waiting till it’s safe to overtake a slower moving vehicle. They just assume that if they overtake in the face of an oncoming vehicle the road will be wide enough for three vehicles to fit, providing everyone shuffles over a bit. So for a cyclist this means that things can get quite stressful with a constant stream of traffic passing within touching distance, buses and lorries providing by far the scariest moments.
Some relief came midway to Tirana when the road I was on suddenly turned into a motorway. There was a very clear “No Cycling” symbol right next the “No horses and carts” one. By now I was pretty desperate to get to Tirana and the thought of having to figure out a workaround on dodgy Albanian back roads didn’t exactly fill me with glee. I stopped and consulted the map but then remembered a story I’d heard before the trip. Faced with a similar situation a cyclist and had asked a policeman if it was OK to cycle on a particular road, the policeman had replied ” Hey, this is Albania, you can do what the hell you like!” So with that thought in mind I carried straight on down the hard shoulder of the motorway. The decision was immediately vindicated when I found it was also being used by pedestrians, horses and carts and cars going in the wrong direction along the shoulder. It was the safest road I’d been on and I was really disappointed when it stopped about 25km before Tirana to be replaced by a massively potholed single carriageway with drivers intent on scaring the living daylights out of me. At this point I also suffered my one and only puncture of the trip which I repaired in some dodgy suburb of Tirana watched silently and sullenly by a couple of Albanians.
By now my nerves were pretty frazzled and I was keen to get to the hotel as quickly as possible. Unfortunately my sat nav, normally pretty good at guiding me to the hotel decided to play up. Fiddling with the sat nav, in the dark, whilst evading potholes and crazy drivers pretty much finished me off and I arrived at the hotel in a state of mental exhaustion. I was also covered from head to toe in grime and I was really worried the hotel wouldn’t let me in. They did look at me a bit strangely but did let me in and also ordered me in a pizza as their restaurant was now closed. After a shower, the pizza and three Albanian beers things didn’t seem quite as bad but I really wasn’t looking forward to doing battle with traffic again the following day.
It turned out that my worries of the previous night were groundless. In daylight the roads were much more navigable and I was quickly out of Tirana into the countryside on quiet, decent roads.
I was initially heading for Elbasan and decided to avoid the new Tirana to Elbasan highway which included a long downhill tunnel section. It turns out that a few other people took it and it was fine but personally I didn’t fancy it. Instead I took the mountainous route using the old, now deserted road and apart from the obligatory early morning dog chase turned out to be one of my favourite and most scenic parts of the whole trip.
One of the main things to realise about Albanians is that they have a real love of cars. They love them so much they’ve collected them from all over the world. I was astounded at the number of new, mainly high end, German cars that the Albanians were proudly driving, still sporting the original number plate from the country of origin. The majority being British, Italian or Swiss registered. One can only speculate at how they came to be being driven around the pot-holed roads of Albania!
Another consequence of their passion for cars is the huge number of petrol stations and car washes. They must surely have the highest number per capita of any country in the world!
Another observation is that the roads were all helpfully labelled with the gradient of any ascent or descent. The less helpful aspect was that regardless of the actual gradient, shallow or steep, they were all labelled as 7%. Every single hill was 7% apparently, I speculated that some Albanian official had managed to get a good deal on a job lot of 7% signs. It probably also made things a lot simpler for the people who put the signs up, only having one type to worry about.
After Elbasan the road became worse again with more traffic and a poor surface and there was a long, hard, hot climb up to Macedonian border. Just before the border I passed through a small village that must surely have been the car wash capital of the world. There must literally have been 30 car washes in the space of 200m, each one having a large fountain of water permanently spurting into the air in some kind of demonstration of washing prowess!
I later learned that it was near here that Sergei Konov, a rider from Canada, was hit by a car and hospitalised and his bike wrecked. The remorseful driver insisted on taking Sergei from hospital to the airport, once he was sufficiently recovered to travel home. The car journey was apparently terrifying!
After crossing the border to Macedonia I descended to Lake Ohrid, a huge inland lake that attracted lots of tourists and was like being at the seaside.
In Macedonia I immediately felt more at ease. I know that others had different experiences but I can’t say that on the whole I found the Balkans a particularly friendly or pleasant place to be and was relieved to be somewhere that felt culturally more familiar.
After Albania I was feeling tired and think it was more down to mental rather than physical exhaustion and I felt that I needed a decent break to recharge the batteries. By the time I got to Ohrid it was only 5pm and I had only cycled 150km that day, albeit with quite a lot of climbing. I had to decide whether to stop here for the day or carry on to the next logical stopping place at Bitola, about another 70km and 2000m climbing further on. There was a fair amount of pressure to keep going, after all it was a race and somehow or other, after finding myself in the top 20, I wanted to try to retain that position. I knew from the tracker that there were people close behind and that I would be overtaken by a lot of them if I stopped now. On the other hand by carrying on I risked riding myself into the ground and instinctively felt that the right thing to do was to stop early, have a good rest and then push hard from here all the way to the finish and hope to regain any lost position. Ohrid was such a nice place it made the decision for me. I booked into the Hotel Alexandrija, right on the lake front and wandered into town and ate pizza, calamari, steak, ice cream, pretty much anything I could cram in really and drank a couple of nice Macedonian beers. Definitely my kind of racing!
Day 11 Ohrid to Asprovalta – 325km
Initially there was a lot of climbing that I was pleased to be able to do in the cool of the early morning. Just after crossing the border to Greece there was a dodgy moment on one of the descents when a very large dog guarding a flock of sheep gave up its guarding duties and leapt out in front of me as I was doing about 70kph downhill, luckily I narrowly managed to avoid a collision that wouldn’t have done either of us any good!
Shortly afterwards I bumped into Andy Allday again and passing a convenient cafe we stopped for a morning coffee. Andy had developed the habit of ordering two cappuccinos, because one just wasn’t enough. I decided this was an excellent idea and when the waiter arrived we both ordered two cappuccinos. Unfortunately the waiter was completely bemused and just couldn’t get his head around the idea that we both wanted two each and no amount of sign language, or the usual “english abroad” tactic of gradually speaking more loudly and slowly could communicate this to him. We ended up with one cappuccino and a bottle of water each which was a reasonable start I suppose.
I was making reasonable progress through Greece, the scenery and the roads were pretty good with little traffic. The only snag was the heat as it was now well into the mid 30’s. It didn’t feel too bad as long as you were moving as you generate your own cooling breeze but stopping at road junctions felt like being in an oven
It was on one of the descents near here that Chris Dodds’ carbon wheels actually melted! The ambient temperature coupled with the heat of braking was just too much for the rims and his tyres basically fell off. Chris had already had more than his fair share of bad luck and this proved to be the last straw. What a shame to get so far and have to scratch. I really felt for him but at least he was able to make his own way to Istanbul to enjoy the party at the end.
I reached Thessalonika just before nightfall and then pressed on to my planned stop at Asprovalta. About 20km before I arrived there I spotted a Transcontinental Race type bike parked outside a restaurant and so wandered in to find Michael Wooldridge. He was looking for somewhere to stay and was concerned about camping because of all the wild dogs. I told him about the hotels in Asprovalta and we eventually ended up in the same hotel.
Asprovalta was a seaside resort and arriving there not much before midnight I was very surprised to find all of the shops still open. Not just the bars and restaurants virtually every shop! This was good news and I wandered up and down the main street and the sea front buying food. This included two kebabs, a pizza and three ice creams. A bit like Ohrid the night before Asprovalta had a great, relaxed atmosphere to it, much different to midnight at a British seaside resort.
Day 12 – Asprovalta to Kesan – 330kmToday was going to be another long day so I was on the road by 05:30 and watched the sunrise over the Thracian Sea.
The first major town wasKavala, which was nice apart from some cobbled roads that would have put Paris-Roubaix to shame.
Shortly after Kavala I had my first major mechanical problem when my rear gear snapped leaving me stuck in my biggest gear. I’d debated whether or not to bring a spare cable with me and decided against it on the basis that as the bike was less than 2 months old I would be very unlikely to need one. I needed to get to a bike shop and luckily I was only 20km away from Xanthi, a major town. A couple of Greek cyclists were passing in the opposite direction and they confirmed there were bike shops in Xanthi and that the route there wasn’t too hilly. Bizarrely, one of them had also just snapped their gear cable so we were able to sympathise with each other!Using the iPhone I identified Flowride bike shop in Xanthi and gave them a call. After explaining my situation they were really happy to help. They’d heard about other racers passing through and when I arrived they dropped everything to get the new cable fitted.
After Xanthi the roads were pretty good but the again the problem was the heat and it was now seriously hot. By the time I arrived in Alexandroupolis, just before dark, I’d been going for about 14 hours and was well and truly cooked, in all senses. I really wanted to stop and started to look for a hotel but deep down I knew that I had to press on into the night to put myself within striking distance of the finish and to have any chance of a top 20 place. It took a bit of willpower to carry on but the prospect of actually finishing was now starting to become a reality and I was gradually becoming more and more desperate to get the whole thing over with.I eventually reached the Turkish border and there was an immediate change in atmosphere. The laid back approach of the Greeks was replaced with armed guards on the Turkish side. It was in the no mans land between the Greek and Turkish border posts that I had the worst dog attack of journey when a large German Shepherd took chase. I was going reasonably quickly when I first saw it and was confident that it wouldn’t keep up for long. I was wrong and I eventually ended up in a full sprint and only just managed to get rid of it before my legs and lungs gave up. That dog really meant business, I’d heard that the dogs in Turkey were the worst and this seemed to confirm it! I spent the rest of the 30km to Kesan hoping that I wouldn’t see any more German Shepherds.It was almost midnight by the time I reached Kesan and I was fairly exhausted, unfortunately I had to go a few km’s off route, all uphill, to get to the hotel. When I arrived there was no food available and the staff were generally pretty unhelpful. I managed to find a bag of nuts in one of my pockets and ate those and collapsed into bed.
After pulling out the stops yesterday I knew that barring disasters today would be the last day of the race. Having not really eaten the night before I decided to wait to have breakfast in the hotel which didn’t start until 7am so it was relatively late when I got on the road. I checked the tracker and saw that Ben and Gaby had also stayed near Kesan for the night but had set off ahead of me and there were also a few others fairly close by. Using the iPhone it wasn’t possible to figure out exactly what position I was in and had no idea if I was likely to finish in the first 20 or not. In any event I didn’t actually want to finish too early as Sandra, my partner, was flying out today to meet me at the finish and I knew she wouldn’t be there till about 7.30pm at the earliest.
The first section to Tekirdag was a huge rollercoaster ride with one long unrelenting climb after another. There were a lot of roadworks going and at times this meant having a brand new but not yet opened stretch of road all to myself and at others being squeezed onto a single carriageway with lots of buses and lorries. As the style of driving in Turkey was pretty similar to Albania this caused a bit of stress.
After Tekirdag the hills relented a bit and the road was reasonably pleasant along the Sea of Marmara. About 20km before Silivri I spotted Ben and Gaby’s bikes outside a garage so stopped to have a chat. They had been considering taking a direct route to the finish but I think I persuaded them that might not be a good idea as the traffic gets notoriously dangerous the closer you get to Istanbul. We set off riding together and sure enough by Silivri the traffic was getting very hectic with lorries thundering past very closely. The route I had planned turned off the main road here and Ben and Gaby decided that was probably the best option too.
We rode together on much quieter roads but unfortunately the hills came back. Just when you wanted a nice flat road with a tailwind all we had was relentless roller coaster hills. From the tracker we could see there was no one near us so with no prospect of being overtaken there was no need to rush but in our desperation to reach the finish and get the whole thing over with we weren’t exactly dawdling. Nevertheless the last remaining kilometres clicked down very slowly indeed.
There are a lot of new roads being built around Istanbul and often the mapping I was using didn’t match the new roads we were cycling on which led to some confusion. At one point we stopped to figure out which way we should be going and identified the slip road we needed to take. Unfortunately it was occupied by a pack of about 20 very mean looking wild dogs. We had no real option but to cycle through the middle of them so we armed ourselves with handfuls of rocks and rode towards them waiting for it all to kick off. Luckily they completely ignored us but I heard of other riders who were chased in a similar area and guess it was probably the same pack?
Eventually, just as it was getting dark, we reached the Belgrad Forest and the last climb of the race. Ben set a scorching pace to the top and after that it was downhill all the way to the Bosporus and then a 10km dash along the river, through the traffic, to the finish line. This time we had the advantage over the traffic though as they were all stopped dead in the ubiquitous Istanbul traffic jams whilst we made pretty good speed towards the Rumeli Hisari.
You would imagine that at the end of such an epic journey involving months of planning and preparation there would be a tremendous feeling of euphoria. The problem is that as the race progresses there is a gradually increasing realisation that you are probably going to reach your goal. So by the time the finish line arrives you’ve used up all of your euphoria in advance! Initially all I was left with was a massive sense of relief that I could finally stop pedalling and not have to worry about being chased by dogs or squished by a lorry. Ultimately this did give way to great feeling of satisfaction and I was very proud to finish in 12 days 11 hours in 18th place.
Transcontinental Race Finisher