TCR No.5 - Part 4
The huge effort has taken its toll. I eat two pizzas then sleep for over 6 hours in a hotel in Poprad. Heavy rain the following morning sends the temperature plummeting; finding motivation and using my hands become equally difficult. This is a low point of the trip. In the afternoon the sun returns and with it high-spirits as I find ultra racing veteran Doug Migden out on the road. We awkwardly try to ride side by side, dodging passing cars and potholes while we chat and I try to soak up some of his knowledge. Eventually he waves me on, mindful of the race's solo spirit. Things are finally back on track and going well, which sends alarm bells ringing. Something is about to go wrong. And right on cue I get my first puncture of the trip. What would usually be a routine pit stop is complicated by the repair job done by my Hungarian mechanic pal, and somehow it takes 3 hours to get back on the road.
A herd of cows wandering down the road signals my arrival in Romania and as soon as the sun goes down I'm immediately acquainted with the next big hurdle of the race: mad dogs. Entering and exiting every town I'm escorted by a pack of dogs who race out of the darkness, barking and snapping at my ankles. I employ a range of tactics from barking and growling, threatening them at full volume with worryingly graphic and creative scenarios, finally settling on a policy of ignoring them altogether. Once I establish that they stay at a safe distance and aren't going to bite me I relax, until I get a text message from Adrian saying he's just had to scratch after being badly bitten by a Romanian dog. Shit. Now I picture every incoming dog sinking his teeth into my (unvaccinated) calf. After a few hours of nerve-fraying riding I'm starting to freak out. Spotting (what I'm still convinced was) a bear crossing the road in front of me is the final straw. I stop at the next hotel I find and check in, accepting the charge with no idea how much it translates to (it turned out to be about £20). As I hand over my passport the guy on the desk remarks that it's my birthday and gives me a hearty hand-shake. I'd completely forgotten!
In the daylight Romania seems less hostile and I soak up this strange culture as I pass through small towns, stopping at ramshackle shops and bars to re-supply. The Romanians have a joi-de-vivre that I'd missed in Hungary, locals staying up into the early hours drinking and laughing in tiny roadside bars and cafes. As the heat ramps up I find it increasingly difficult to stay awake, needing to stop almost every hour for a 10 minute sleep - often on hard concrete. A shadowy wall of mountain looms up on the horizon - I've finally made it to the CP4 parcours which will take me up and over the Transfagarasan highway. The climb is as spectacular as it is badly timed - I'm hitting the lower slopes in the heat of the midday sun. Built by Nicolae Ceaucescu in the 70s, it's a caricature of a mountain road with hundereds of switchbacks ascending a vertical wall of rock. The climb is punctuated by a delightful stop where I meet an eccentric Romanian bee keeper in his bee-hive truck. He gives me a tub of honey which will eventually leak all over my pack and provide a midnight snack for an unidentified Macedonian creature. The descent is spectacular, dropping down through thick forest and past vast lakes. The extreme heat is unrelenting as I roll across the flatlands of Romania and head west to cross a small corner of Bulgaria to enter Serbia. To avoid overheating and provide motivation I'm forced to employ an 'Ice cream every 50 miles' policy.
Serbia instantly feels more developed, as summarised by the road surface, which refreshingly isn't made of sand or corrugated cement. The Balkan mountains provide relief from the monotony of the flat lands, but my legs are finally starting to really complain as they are forced to work an unexpected night shift on a long climb into the small hours. I meet some fellow racers at the summit which lifts my spirits enough to ride down half the descent and camp on the road side for a couple of hours' sleep. The next set-back is waiting for me on a searing, exposed stretch of Serbian tarmac the following day. Another puncture again results in an extended repair session as I discover my patches are useless in this heat. I squeeze the final drop of super glue from a crusted-up tube I peel from my jacket pocket (the remnant of an earlier dynamo repair) and pray it seals the hole in the tube. Miraculously it works and I limp slowly into the next town, Vranje. After hours of searching and phone calls, Goran, the owner of Art Bike comes to open up his shop and immediately sets about completely overhauling my front wheel. It's taking ages, but I appreciate his thoroughness so I go to buy us some drinks while he works. Wheel re-built and straightened, I leave on what feels like a brand new bike...straight into a huge thunder storm. I ride directly towards the storm, waiting for the rain to start with no real plan - images flashing through my head of fellow rider Tim France who had been struck by lightening.
When the rain hits I dive into the nearest petrol station and end up pinned down for hours in complete darkness as the storm has taken out the town's electricity supply. With unlimited supplies of snacks and a piece of cardboard to sit on donated by the cashier, it's the perfect spot to ride out the storm, but having covered a feeble distance that day it's a frustrating few hours. As soon as the rain eases I pack up and head for an abandoned building I'd spotted on the way in. With no walls yet, but a solid concrete roof over my head it's the perfect bivvy spot to ride out the rest of the storm and get some precious sleep.
Tortoise vs Hare
I approach my penultimate country (Macedonia) in high spirits and belting out some of my finest singing of the trip, when a military border patrol jeep intercepts me and orders me to ride on the motorway as far as the border. I retrace the last half hour of cycling and Haul my bike over the security fence, cross the motorway then nervously ride to the border. I report what could be seen as a misdemeanour to the race organisers and press on. Macedonia is charmingly weird and exotic with characterful buildings, lush forest and wild tortoises wandering across the roads. I feel comfortable here and mentally note how good the road surface is. Error. In retaliation for my unchecked optimism, the road promptly turns into a gravel road then a steep, rocky hiking trail. Already on a tight time frame for finishing, meeting my parents and getting a flight home, this is a real setback. Taking some solice that other TCR riders are on the trail ahead of me, I get my head down and press on, sporadically riding the bits I can and pushing my bike up the sections that I can't.
The final act in my race is about to play out. For the millionth time, I clip in my right foot and push off up the slope. There's a horrible cracking sound, the pedal jars and locks in place. I look back to the rear cassette to see a mangle of cogs and chain. It doesn't look good. On closer inspection the rear mech has sheered clean off the frame. All I can do is completely remove the broken bits, leaving me with no forward drive – not an immediate problem as I've been pushing my bike anyway. As the light fades, I push my bike around switchback after switchback for 5 hallucination-filled hours until I reached the summit and set up my tent under a buzzing electrical pylon. The night is interrupted by some kind of creature attacking my food supplies that are attached to the bike, but I'm too tired to do much about it other than shine my head torch through the tent to send him scuffling away. In the morning I visit a monastery to refill my empty water bottles than coast down the remaining 10 miles to Prilep where I have a decision to make: Find someone to replace my rear mech and ride the final 170 miles to the finish, or scratch here and find transport across the border to reach my parents and get to the airport. I run the numbers and realise I simply don't have time to ride to the finish.
I wasn't distraught at not finishing the race. Because I felt I'd suffered a lot of bad luck, and because I felt physically and mentally up to the challenge, I was satisfied at having given it my best shot.
It's made me determined to finish the race next year in the sort of time I now know I'm capable of, with the experience to cut out many of the delays I suffered this time round. I loved the whole experience but it was so immersive that it's taking a while to adjust to normal life. For a full week after I was home, I woke up every night thinking I was still out on the course, confused that this Eastern European hotel room looked suspiciously like my bedroom!
It will take months to regain full use of my right hand after 2 weeks of constant gear changing has left it seized up in a claw shape. I'm on a course of physio for a tendon issue in my upper glutes that towards the end of the race made walking almost impossible. Despite all this, I'm hoping to be lining up in Geraardsbergen again next summer, ready to take on whatever crazy route Anna and her team can dream up.
It's under my skin now, so it looks like I can kiss goodbye to my evenings and weekends for another year!
CP3 (high tatras) - macedonia
952 miles (2,322 miles total) | 43,984 ft ascent (124,257 ft total) | 8d 02h 14m (16d 18h 08m total)