Nope, that’s just not happening. My alarm goes off after two hours of ‘sleep’ in the damp concrete bus shelter. With the sun beginning to think about rising there’s now enough light to make out the full madness of the storm I’m sheltering from. This is a ‘snooze’ moment if ever there was one. With the alarm reset I spent another 45 minutes shivering with my eyes shut until I could pretend no more. I wasn’t doing very well at bivvying and I doubt I’d slept for more than a third of the time I’d spent in my bag since leaving Belgium. It perhaps hadn’t helped that I’d chosen the grottiest nights to be sleeping rough in.
“The wind is funnelled into gusts of ridiculous strength. Somebody has swapped my bike for a rodeo bull.”
As I pack my kit and slip my shoes on a local man walks into my bedroom and takes a seat, nonchalant as anything. He seems oblivious to both me and the storm that threaten to carry the shelter away.
20 minutes of pedalling along the coast brings me to a kidney-shaped bay at Bakar. As I round the corner any shelter from the wind has disappeared and I’m also now riding directly into it. Mercifully, the road is gently sloping down which means I can focus entirely on managing speed and reacting to the faintest hint of speed wobble as the front wheel flails around in the wind. It’s a tense descent that plunges into insanity as I reach the middle of the bay. The hills at the south-eastern end of the bay are funnelling the wind into gusts of ridiculous strength. Somebody has swapped my bike for a rodeo bull.
Several times I’m forced to hurriedly unclip and take a wide stance across the bike to avoid being blown over. When the strongest gusts have subsided I whip out my phone and snap some photos and video. Of course, these don’t capture the full madness because at the craziest moments it was all I could do to stay upright. I say upright but I was bent over at unnatural angles leaning into the wind, with legs splayed wide, holding onto the brakes to try and keep the bike in one place.
The next 400m took me quite a while as I had to stop so many times. I’d made it to the shelter of a small row of buildings at the end of the bay and dived into another concrete bus shelter, where I could finally stand up with out fear of flying away. This was absolute madness. I checked the weather reports and read that the peak gusts were up to 215kph. “That can’t be right, can it?” I thought. Then a tree flew past me towards the water. “OK, yep, fair enough.”
“Jayne Wadsworth walked past my shelter, pushing her bike, like a bike-packing Terminator.”
Minutes later this was followed by a lesson in being a badass. Jayne Wadsworth walked past my shelter, pushing her bike, like a bike-packing Terminator. There was absolutely nothing that was going to stop her. She was fully in the zone and didn’t even spot me. Suddenly I’m forced to ask myself if I’m being soft. A pair of riders then dived into my shelter, also struggling to stay upright. This allowed me to consider the vote 3 to 1 in favour of it being too dangerous; democracy had legitimised my cowardice.
I mulled over Jayne’s example and eventually decided I’d do the same. I couldn’t stay here all day and even walking would be progress, however minimal. I tried pedalling to begin with and got lucky with a short break in the gusts. Then the final curve around the bay turned me onto a hill with the wind on my back. This was one of the most bizarre experiences of the race: without any pedalling at all, 100kg of bike and rider was blown up that 6% hill (similar to Surrey’s Box Hill, if you need a reference) and at a fairly decent pace too. The grin would last only as long as it took to turn the final corner out of the bay and back into the head-crosswind. The rest of that hill took a bit more effort. To the right was a metal barrier to prevent traffic from veering off the road and down the steep sloping verge and into the sea. After nearly coming to grief several times I spot Jayne on the wrong side of the barrier, almost hidden by the sloping verge and the light shrubs. She and her bike were in a less than choreographed pile on the ground. Had she finally taken shelter or had she been blown off the road? “Are you OK?” I asked her. She said yes but was clearly a little shaken. “Are you absolutely sure?” I checked. She repeated her insistence that she was OK. It wasn’t fully convincing but I could tell that, whatever had happened, she wasn’t injured and didn’t seem in any immediate danger, so I pressed on. I later heard that at least four cyclists had been blown off the road during this storm.
“215kph gusts? That can’t be right?” I thought. Then a tree flew past me. “OK, yep. Fair enough.”
Further up the coast, passing a lay-by opposite a side road, the wind gusted so ferociously that I had to unclip and adopt an extreme brace against it. The power was such that despite a wide stance over my bike and leaning over at 30-40° I was still being pushed sideways across the lay-by and towards the barrier – my cleated shoes not offering me much grip. It was unrelenting and any time I dared to think about remounting the bike I was tossed around like a rag doll. I eventually realised that I’d found myself in a wind corridor, funnelled by the valley up which the side road climbed. If I could escape forwards just 50m I would probably be sheltered from the worst of it. During the small gaps in the wind I shuffled forward but was making little progress until a motorhome pulled into the lay-by just ahead of me. Once alongside it I was able to clip-in and burst back out into the madness with enough momentum to reach the opposite side of the road, where the hill was held back by a rock face just tall enough to shelter me from the wind. Very slowly I continued my ride, on the wrong side of the road, certain this was safer than wobbling around in the full force of this storm.
Paul got in touch on WhatsApp to find out where I was. When he called moments later he seemed almost delirious. He said he’d been holed up in a hotel somewhere on this coast for a day and a half. Any time he tried to get going he’d be thrown around and beat a retreat back to the hotel. He tried to tell me where he was but frankly he wasn’t able to think straight. I asked him for the name of the hotel and all he could manage was Zimmer Camere Rooms, which is the word ‘Rooms’ in various languages – something every hotel here displayed on their signage. He wasn’t even sure what towns he’d passed. Cross-referencing the description of what he could see with my maps I figured he was in one of two towns, neither of which was too far away. “Don’t worry mate, I’ll be there soon”. It felt good to have a higher purpose and a welcome distraction. Glancing left and right as I rode through the first town I almost missed Paul’s shout from the balcony of his hotel. After everything I’d suffered in the last 48 hours I was probably as glad to see a friendly face as he was.
A rest day (even an enforced one) on an ultra-race is a terrible thing. The body finds a way to cope in emergency situations – like non-stop racing – but as soon as you stop it goes into full recovery mode and that’s not a pretty picture. Everything swells and stiffens (stop laughing at the back!) and if you stop to let it catch up then the fatigue hits you so, so hard. On top of all that Paul was now struggling to cope with these crazy winds and it had really rattled him. It’s like he was shell-shocked. We traded war stories over whatever snack food the bar could offer and I tried to coax him out onto the road. Maybe it’d be easier for him if he could see another rider? He was having none of it though. Another rider arrived, with a similar expression, followed a little later by Jayne, who confirmed she had been blown over the barrier and was having a little moment. Human after all. I grabbed a chair cushion and found a sheltered spot to try and sleep in. I managed about 30 minutes but I was getting restless. In the seven hours since leaving that bus shelter I’d covered only 43km and I worried that another lost day would kill my chances of making the party. I had to keep moving, even if it was on foot.
“Seven hours to cover 43km!? I couldn’t afford another lost day. I had to keep moving, even if it was on foot.”
It was going to be 20km to Senj, where I’d turn inland and climb up towards Bosnia. I searched weather forecasts for all the towns along the route and it didn’t look like I was going to escape these winds any time soon, but the map got greener inland so maybe there’d be trees to shelter me? Outside the wind looked as it if was fading. I bid my farewells, wished the others luck and pedalled off towards Senj. I’d made it a single, slow kilometre up the road before I was forced to stop again. A motorbike rider had been blown over and was being tended to by others in his group. Now that I’d rounded a small hill I was once again feeling the full force of the winds and riding was impossible. It took ten minutes to walk the next 200m, stopping regularly to brace against the strongest gusts.
In the space of a few metres the geography changed enough to shelter me from the worst of the wind and I was finally able to get back on the bike. I caught up to Charles Batho and we rode together to Senj, where our routes diverged. Before that we stopped at a beachside cafe and had a pair of massive pizzas. It turned out Charles lives just a couple of miles from me in London. It was 15:00 and I’d managed a measly 60km. Now it was time to turn directly into the wind and climb a 600m hill, which took a soul-crushing hour and a half. Descending to 300m on the other side I could only manage 30kph against the wind – the sort of speed you’d normally do on the flat.
From Geraardsbergen to CP3 in Alleghe, I’d been lugging around ridiculous amounts of ’emergency rations’. At any given point I’d have enough food to last a full day of riding, which was silly because Western Europe was awash with fuelling opportunities. Yesterday, leaving Cortina, I’d decided to knock that on the head and instead of buying supplies I committed to living off of what I was already carrying. Right now though I was regretting that decision. It was 6pm and now that I’d left the coastline Croatia was feeling very remote and sparse. Riding across the wide valleys I could see for miles and it was desolate. There were no towns, just the odd handful of houses that may or may not have been occupied. I’d just polished off the last of those emergency rations – a nusstorte I’d bought in Switzerland – and now I was hungry and a long way from anything that looked like civilisation. Passing a couple of buildings I glanced back and realised that one was a store. Salvation! It was closed but the family who owned it were playing in a courtyard behind it and opened up for me. I bought as much as I could carry and sank a cool Coke in the shade where I spotted Paul riding past. He’d also have missed the store if I hadn’t hollered after him, but I was glad to see he had shaken the monkey off his back and was looking in good spirits again.
He set off a few minutes ahead of me and, while I expected to catch him up, this was where our routes diverged. He headed south east while I continued east, climbing more hills into the Plitvice Lakes national park. Ahead of me my shadow was growing very long on the empty roads as the sun set behind me. Perversely, after dark, my route turned north for 15km – heading away from the next checkpoint – to take what I’d calculated as the most efficient route into Bosnia. It was already late and each time I approached a town I was so tempted to find a hotel. My route file is telling me there’s only 50km to the town of Bihac in Bosnia, which meant I was nearly out of Croatia. When I looked at my measly distance for the day I couldn’t bring myself to stop just yet. Crack on.
The roads were totally empty and the terrain was pretty much devoid of civilisation. As the darkness got deeper it became easy to drift into a surreal world. The 50km ticked slowly down and the sense of relief was immense. Before the race I’d never have thought Bosnia would become such a beacon of hope!? The distances were starting to get puzzling though. My Etrex was suggesting I’d arrive in 5km but I’d still not crossed the border out of Croatia. I soon realised the route file on the Etrex must’ve had too many routing points and it wasn’t showing the full route. Firing up Google Maps my heart sank as I realised I still had 45km left. It didn’t matter; there was no way I was staying in Croatia any longer than I had to. I’d ride for as long as it took.
Fortunately it was mostly downhill, though you wouldn’t know that from the speed I was moving. The wind had eased as I moved inland but we’re still talking about a headwind strong enough to make you think twice about riding, if you weren’t in a race across Europe. I rolled into the border crossing around midnight. Pausing there, I came to realise how cold and damp it had become. My arms, legs, helmet, glasses and bike all had a sheen of moisture. A shiver rippled through me as I waited to be let into Bosnia.
Bihac was 15km away and I’d already booked myself a hotel room. I’d convinced myself when planning the route that the name of the town was pronounced ‘be-atch’ and, with my fatigued IQ, this stupid joke kept me entertained all the way there. I’m not really sure what I was expecting from Bosnia, but entering the town it looked quite lively. In fact, it was the largest, most developed town I’d seen since Rijeka. It looked no different to much of Italy or France. Maybe the contrast from rural Croatia and the general madness of the day exaggerated the effect, but I was more than relieved to be here. I was actually happy. I checked into the hotel at 01:30 and was shown to an enormous room by a jolly old man. I’m always surprised at the lack of reaction when an Englishman turns up in the middle of the night, by bike, as if it’s such a common occurrence. I’m too tired to shower. I plug in some devices and give my Di2 a charge. I climb into the bed feeling quite cold and fragile. Hopefully this is just fatigue as I can’t afford to get ill now. I really need a big day tomorrow to get myself back in this. The final numbers for the day are unremarkable but this had been the most extreme day’s riding I’d ever tackled.
Time: 16h 19m