TCR No. 4 Part 6: The Final Push to Çanakkale – Part 1

While resting at CP4 on the Sunday afternoon, checking Facebook when I saw some from family indicating that sadly, my Nan had passed away over the weekend. This was a bit of a shock. My gran was a vibrant character, even at 95 years of age was very active. I made some calls home to see how my mum and sister were doing, and came away lost in thought, but also with some added determination to get to the finish for my Nan. Before the race she had been really interested in all the training and the riding I had been doing and had sent a good luck card to wish me on my way. I had meant to give her a call before I left for Belgium to say thank you, but with all the preparations and last-minute packing, I sadly didn’t get the chance. My mum reassured me that this was OK, I had asked her to pass on my thanks before the race and she told me how proud my Nan was of me. This gave me a powerful determination to ride – to finish and finish strong.

She told me how proud my Nan was of me. This gave me a powerful determination to ride – to finish and finish strong.

I love this pic of my Nan, mum and me taken a few years ago:

 

I woke on my alarm at 4am. I’d spent the previous evening sleeping, eating pizza and drying my clothes and shoes with a hair dryer. Putting them on in the morning it was clear that they were still quite damp. I’d resigned myself to getting wet anyway, so wasn’t too bothered. Most of the riders that had arrived the previous day had already pushed on, including the #212’s and #223 Sylvian. A couple of others, Daniel Fisher #133 and Stephane #12 arrived in the night and were also getting up ready to move out in the morning. I was quite organised and after a quick chat with the checkpoint night shift, rolled off down the hill towards Kosovo.

First a long twisty wet and foggy road down, then a couple of moderate climbs, but nothing too challenging apart from one shortcut through a ridiculously steep back street that thankfully didn’t last too long. The last of the climbs was the gentle road up to the Kosovan border shrouded in yet more fog.

One of the lasting memories I have of Montenegro is its familiarity. The place reminded me of my home, Wales in many ways. Steep misty valleys, rocky mountain tops. It was a feeling, and outside of the Durmitor National Park and the road to Kosovo may have little reality beyond my own mind. I regret that I didn’t really see the place, mainly thanks to the shroud of darkness or the aforementioned cloud and mist, and as such I took no photos in Montenegro. This is something I’m going to fix one day!

Check out some of the vimeo videos from the Durmitor National Park here, part of some of the incredible photography and videography from inside the race this year – https://vimeo.com/178151522 

And the official Transcontinental Race YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKRsd5HOKbR2O4517b7cmLA

Kosovo

The border of Kosovo was shrouded in fog in the early morning. It wasn’t that cold, but visibility was fairly low. After a short chat with the border guard I was off down the misty hill into Kosovo, following a very cautious car. This was fine for me, as the car was a good marker for all the hairpins on the way down. It was about midmorning by the time I was down the and into plains of Kosovo.

I really had no idea what to expect from Kosovo. It was poor, that was obvious. Despite this the friendliness of the people I met was fantastic. Each time I stopped, I would be invited to sit down and talk about my bike and the trip I was on.

Sadly, my impressions of the place went down a few pegs as I moved through the country. The traffic, pollution and driving standards were all worth a few swears as I made my way. It had heated up a little bit as well, and in general really didn’t enjoy my time there. Being driven off the road by a lorry was not fun.

I’d not seen any riders since leaving the hostel in Montenegro, but I did spot some carelessly discarded Haribo Golden Bears on the road (a shameless waste of a favourite) – a clear sign that there were some TCR riders not too far up the road. I still had no data so couldn’t check, but it was a nice incentive to pick up the pace a little.

Going via Pristina was not part of the plan, more of a miscalculation – I skipped my tuning from my GPS file and used offline maps to take main roads. The town was gridlocked and a little hairy at times. Once through it was a relatively straightforward road down to the border. Again, no photos, but don’t feel an urge to go back and correct this. I made the border in the late afternoon, feeling fairly pleased with my progress and glad to have Kosovo behind me. I found the people incredibly friendly, but it was not a fun place to ride my bike.

Macedonia

Shortly after the border, I stopped in Skopje for some food and refreshments, only really the second stop of the day. I bought a feast at a service station that also had free wifi. This was a first chance to check on my position on trackleaders, as well as getting in touch with friends and family. I had been fairly pleased with my progress since Montenegro, but the encouragement I was getting was blowing my mind and driving me on even more.

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Taking stock in Skopje – in the pack chasing the top 10

One of the good things about Kosovo had been the road surface. This kind of fell apart in Macedonia. After setting off from Skopje, I took the only road I knew was available – a sort of back road to Veles. This had to be the worst road on the trip so far, and was just unrelenting. It all started off harmlessly enough, with some minor cobbles exposed under some fading tarmac. As I left civilisation, the road just got worse.

I heard there had been some floods in Macedonia while holed up in the hostel in Montenegro and that it was best to avoid roads to the south of Skopje, and looking at trackleaders I could see other riders had done the same.

This back road surface had deteriorated even further as a result. It was broken, warped, potholes, even large sections of cobbles thrown in. On top of this there were places where large amounts of gravel, sand, mud and debris had been washed across the road. It was tough on the contact points, with my hands taking the brunt of the impact, with my hot feet and saddle sores also wholly unimpressed.

Dogs

So far, I had little to worry about from the canine threat. I had one huge dog chase me in Croatia after passing his patch of burning rubbish. No barking, growling – just chasing. Another dog I came across in the Durmitor national park, a huge sheep dog guarding his flock of sheep. I stopped in the road with nowhere to go. The dog slowly walked towards me – in a moment of genius I reached into my food pouch and broke off a stick of Twix chocolate bar. I made a friend there and then, and passed happily through the flock.

At the foot of a hill late in the rural Macedonian evening, I passed a small house with a dog barking. At first I thought little of it – he was barking away seemingly inside the borders of the property. All of a sudden this beast burst through a hedge and was snapping away at my heals. The burst of adrenaline and pace and the surprise at my own shouting at the dog was fairly intense. The unexpected burn up the hill used up a bit of energy, and only added to my frustrations.

Keep Going…

It was difficult not to let these frustrations get to you, but when its dark and you’re tired it can be tough. The only thing you can do is keep going. Before long I arrived at the vibrant town of Veles. I thought about stopping and take on food and water, but felt the need to push on. Not long afterwards I was rewarded by the company of James & Andy, the pairs #212’s, after meeting them on the side of the road.

It was great to have some company and chat away, and was one of the nicest evening rides I’d had. Obviously riding side by side, listening to some of James’ music and chatting away the kays time flew by for a bit. With the frustrations and dark times I’d had that evening, it was a welcome relief.

We kind of took a wrong turn at one point, and ended up at a dead end that allowed a hop over the fence to a service station. I didn’t need to stop and was keen to get back on my GPS route, so I said my goodbyes expecting to bump into them when they caught me up.

This decision felt like a really bad idea shortly afterwards. I found my road fairly quickly, and almost as quickly as that there wasn’t really much of a road. It was about 15/20km of unpaved gravel track. Early on, there was a tunnel rudimentary carved out of the rock. It was only short, but was teaming with bats chirping away. I’ve referred to this road in conversations many times, and have named it the ‘Bat Cave Road’. I swear, the bats were laughing at me. The thunderstorm started then, and thats when I knew I was going to be in for a very long night.

I swear, the bats were laughing at me. The thunderstorm started then, and thats when I knew I was going to be in for a very long night.

I was trying to keep moving, keep pushing to get through the road. Lots of deep muddy puddles with all sorts of surprises lurking underneath came and went and was starting to feel quite confident. That of course is when I noticed my back wheel was feeling more than a little soft. Great. My first puncture after 3,000KM in a thunderstorm on some unknown road in Macedonia. I checked the tyre to find a large length of wire sticking out. I was still impressed the stones hadn’t pinched the tube, but I was soon to be less impressed by my light situation.

Running dynamo lights means that when your wheel stops moving, your light stops working. I had no cache battery to run it off, so had to resort to the iPhone torch. Not the most practical, but really glad I’d been saving the battery.

I worked quickly to get a spare tube out, hiding at the bottom of my pack. I emptied the contents onto the road, and made quick work of replacing the inner tube. It was filthy work, and was a bit hurried, but I managed to get it all back together in relatively good time.

When putting my kit back into the pack I discovered I’d piled it all onto an ants nest. Everything was covered in large ants. A bit of a shock in the dark – like something out of a horror movie with bugs crawling everywhere, but I quickly shook off as many as I could, packed up and pushed on again.

I maybe lasted about another 3 or 4 km before I accepted the next puncture. I hadn’t put enough air in the first time so made sure I put more in this time to prevent another pinch flat. Getting the wheel back on was a nightmare. I’d managed to dislodge the brake calipers, so had to reset them in order to allow the wheel to turn. I must have spent an hour on fixing both punctures and brakes.

The relief of leaving this road was immense. Buy now it was raining steadily, so took some shelter in an underpass in order to check everything was ok in some street light. After a short stock take and composing myself, I realised I lost my knee warmers and my Sportful Hotpack rain jacket on that one bit of road – the two specific items I was looking for to continue through the night. I wasn’t going back down that road for them. I accepted the loss and pushed on towards the Greek border.

Stats (part 6 & 7 combined)

  • Distance: 1,096.6KM
  • Ride Time: 42H 44M
  • Elevation:  6,160 m
  • Calories: 23,471

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TCR No. 4 Part 5: Storms and CP4

I finally plucked up the energy to push on. A few km’s down the road before Sinj, I found a grocery store and loaded up on food and water. I was fairly baked from the last couple of days and a really bad night so refreshed my water and food reserves, enjoying the ‘delights’ of 7 day croissants yet again. Once I sorted myself out, it was time to push on in a break in the weather.

This break didn’t last that long as the rain and storms kept escalating. At one point I swerved off the road and took shelter under someone’s porch in a torrential downpour. The rain was intermittent but heavy, however I was already soaked so soon realised I was just wasting time hiding from the rain.

I managed to push on for another 20km or so. Each time I crested a hill a clap of thunder would drive me on seemingly chasing me. I finally gave in and found a cafe at a roundabout shortly before the Bosnian border. This was a good stop, as it gave the weather a chance to clear, to load up on some coffee, and for me to get a little extra charge into the iPhone by MacGyvering the cable by holding it at angles. Sadly, this will be the last time this cable worked.

I set off after a couple of hours, followed over the hill by yet another thunderstorm. Keeping low and plodding on.

Moving closer to the Bosnian border the signs of the war are still very visible. Many burnt out buildings riddled with bullet holes. For the most part there had been little I had spotted before this apart from a APC turned memorial next to the road not long after Gospić the previous day, but the signs were becoming more frequent.

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Every chance I got I stopped looking for a new cable for the iPhone, but it seems the whole of the Balkans runs on android phones that use the micro USB over the iPhone. I’ll remember this for next time!

Moving down into Bosnia was uneventful except maybe for the loss of all mobile internet, right up until Mostar. The only internet I was able to use was to photo a cheese and ham baguette stowed on the aero bars. When back in the UK this short Instagramming session cost about £20 in roaming data and was probably the reason data stopped working as it maxed out.

I thought I had been making great progress, but had foreshortened the distance from here to Pluzine in my mind, the start of CP4 parcours. This was frustrating.

The road down into Mostar was fast and horrendous for a number of reasons.

  1. The road. More badly laid tarmac that hurt every contact point with the bike. Hands, Feet, Butt.
  2. The horrendous wind. It was blowing in every direction at about 70-80 kph. I still don’t know how I made it down that hill without laying the bike down.
  3. The heat. Coupled with the wind, it was quite brutal.
  4. The dust. Combined with the heat and the wind.

I found myself swearing at the wind, dust and heat many times in Mostar. The dry and dusty wind made it tricky to see and control where I was going.

I finally managed to navigate my way out of the town heading towards the local border crossing after Gacko. Between a massive long climb and Gacko there was a small matter of the most oppressive valley I’d found. It went on forever, seemingly trapping me in with no obvious end to it.

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No way out… this valley was a struggle.

Gravel

It finally relented and I came out into the industrial town of Gacko. I had a couple of options here, and was especially nervous about the border crossing into Montenegro. There were many discussions in the lead up to the race over the validity of it, and I knew that there was a long gravel road involved with a local crossing point that I might not be allowed to cross. My original plan was to enter Montenegro from the north, with this as an option to cut some distance and time and after spotting a few riders ahead of me using it on the trackleaders site, I took the chance and went for it.

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Nearing the gravel road watching the last of the day drift away

I got to the bottom of the gravel road about an hour before sunset, and slowly edged my way up. It was kind of a bad time to try it, as if it failed I would have had to navigate the gravel road down in the dark, re-routing about 120km.

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Sunset from a gravel road on the Bosnia-Montenegro border
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The road that mostly destroyed my shoes

Fortunately, after a bit of disagreement with my loaded strava route I found my way over the mountain, part walking part riding right until the border. The road literally changed instantly from gravel to possibly the nicest tarmac of the trip. Heaven!

This was a beautiful road winding down the side of the valley down towards Pluźine and my only regret was that it got quite dark and I didn’t get to see it in its best light. You could still get a real sense of the road and environment though, and the road was a real joy.

I rolled in to Pluźine really hungry, so went looking for some food. Literally as I came into town the place went pitch black in a power cut. Yet another thunderstorm had followed me here and had taken out the power. I wandered around a little aimlessly in the dark for a bit until I found a disco bar and pizza place next to the closed hotel at the bottom of town. While ordering my food I weighed up my options, either find somewhere to stay in town or push on up through the CP4 parcours in the dark and stormy night. I really didn’t fancy the later so I asked around for a place to stay and came up trumps with a wooden cabin at the bottom of town for €12. A fair bargain! I ate my Pizza washed down with a coke and headed down for the night.

CP4 Parcours

The next morning I woke late again and had a really good omelet washed down with a thick Turkish coffee. It was my first time drinking one of these, and had a bit of a surprise at the bottom of the cup!

I settled up for the breakfast and coffee and headed up to the petrol station at the edge of town to get some supplies. Here I bumped into Sylvain Blairon #223 and Stuart Bernie #142. I grabbed a few bits from the service station and we all started up the climb together.

I was fortunate to have had a good night sleep and feed, where both Stuart and Sylvain had arrived later in the night and slept rough in a carpark and I don’t think ate well. Before long I was pushing on ahead of them both and made my way up the mountain into the misty rain.

At first, the climb was really pleasant. The whole place kind of reminded me of Wales. Hilly and a bit damp with some lovely fresh air. As I gained some altitude, it was clear the weather over the Durmitor National Park was not going to be good. It started off with misty drizzle that developed into driving cold rain over the top. What I could see of the views was fairly spectacular, but for the most part the entire view was hidden behind cloud. I had to use all my layers to keep warm.

After about 50km I made it to Žabljak. I was frozen and needed to get out of my wet gear, but couldn’t find the checkpoint hostel. I went up and down the street a few times asking for directions until I spotted a TCR and Apidura flag half way down a sidestreet. I was welcomed by the Apidura team manning the checkpoint and got my brevet card stamped, somewhat stunned to find I was in 10th position overall. I decided there and then after a few really tough days that I was going to get clean and dry, refuel and dry out my kit.

The hospitality and friendliness of the family running the Hostel Highlander was fantastic, and shortly after a hot shower and change I was feasting on eggs, bacon, bread, granola, jam… everything on offer. All washed down with more of the Turkish coffee that I was starting to get a bit of a taste for. Stuart, Sylvain and Samuli Mäkinen #84 arrived shortly after me. Stuart & Samuli didn’t stop long and pushed on. The #212’s arrived mid afternoon and were also in a bit of a state from the cold.

 

Take a Break!

By now I had resigned myself to staying the night, making sure my clothes were dry and I was well rested. Many other riders arrived through the day, all the while my position slipping ever further back, but it was good to take the step back and stop. It was a really difficult thing to do, but I think it was a really good idea to recover some energy and make a push for the finish the next day.

It was the shortest day of my TCR but seems I needed the sleep.

Stats

  • Distance: 327 KM
  • Ride Time: 15H 47M
  • Elevation:  4,645 m
  • Calories: 7,335

Strava Files