A fair night’s sleep failed to bring any improvement in my condition, but there was no time to sulk about it. I coughed up as much muck as I could, swallowed a few Haribo and set off alongside the river towards CP4, with one eye on the clock. The checkpoint closes at 17:00 and there’s a lot of climbing to be tackled between here and there.
My route crosses the pretty Tara River to find the border with Montenegro. The guards have clearly seen a few TCR riders pass through and they’re calling out to each other. I speak no Montenegrin but I imagine it was something like:
“Hey, Dave, we’ve got another one of those spandex nutters. Belgium. Fucking Belgium! Hahaha.”
It’s all got a bit lumpy but the landscapes here are seriously pretty. The river forked at the border and I’m now climbing upstream through a deep canyon. The skies are clear and it’s a beautiful day. The prospect of seeing friendly, understanding faces at the checkpoint is also helping my mood, which is useful because I’m in quite a lot of pain and I’ve managed to run out of ibuprofen.
“My arse looked like a dropped pizza by Day 3 and saddle sores don’t exactly improve under TCR conditions.”
I’m trying to avoid repeating it on every blog entry, but my arse looked like a dropped pizza by Day 3 and saddles sores don’t exactly improve under TCR conditions! Getting on the bike and even getting out of the saddle is excruciating. The achilles aren’t grumbling as much today, perhaps drowned out by the pain in my throat. The infection means I’m riding along breathing through my mouth, drying it out and making things worse. Fortunately I was about to enjoy the most amazing distraction.
As I emerge from a road tunnel with a lay-by on the right I spot a Citroen Picasso parked up and a family of five lined up next to it having a shit. I can’t help but stare – mostly to be sure that I’ve read the situation correctly. Yep… Mom, Pop, the two kids and the teenage daughter are squatting in a line, curling one out. Exploring the possible origins and etiquette of the situation keeps me thoroughly entertained for the next few hours. What are the odds of all five family members needing an emergency dump between service stations? Who decides when it’s time to go? Why a formation instead of all seeking the privacy of a different bush? Does the paper pass from left to right or right to left? Once you’ve produced do you stay there until everybody has finished or step forwards and walk around the line (looking neither left nor right)? So many questions.
The canyon opens up to a beautiful aquamarine lake on approach to Pluzine. Somewhere here is an ‘information control’ – some question or something to discover that proves you’ve visited the location. When I planned my route I used the coordinates supplied by Race Control as it’s the most accurate method, but all I found at the location was a closed café. I did three runs up and down the hilly road just to be sure my GPS wasn’t off but I found nothing, so I went back to the coordinates and took lots of photos in case they were needed for evidence. I can see it now in the photo but I’d missed the little stamp resting on the fence.
Food was the next requirement. I’d not eaten a decent meal for a while and ahead of me lay the parcours over the Durmitor National Park. 80 very lumpy kilometres separated me from Checkpoint 4 and I needed to put some fuel in the tank. The small town seemed well developed and the local convenience had attracted a handful of other racers, all converging on CP4 as the clock ticked down. After a few days of crap food it was exciting to see pots of instant porridge, milk drinks and other nutritional goodies. Jackpot! I loaded my arms up and then found the entire population of Montenegro at the checkout, queuing to pay for their weekly shop. I wasn’t prepared to wait that long so I rolled down a steep hill to the only restaurant that was open this early.
It was a beautiful spot, crowned on all sides by steep hills. The waiter was immaculately turned out, like a fine dining restaurant. It was probably more used to well-heeled tourists than two-wheeled tourers but as I was the only diner they didn’t seem too concerned. Two orange juices, two baskets of bread, a kebab, chips, fried cheese. Then it was back up the hill and retracing my steps across the causeway to find the tiny road that led up the mountainside and into the National Park.
The road was a super-condensed version of an Alpine pass, punching through narrow tunnels of rock and switching back tightly to climb the almost-vertical face of this canyon wall. Yesterday the pass had been lashed with rain but today the skies were clear and the midday sun beat down on me. Physically I think I cope with the heat better than most (and fare worse than most in the cold) so the timing had worked well. I crunched the numbers and was fairly confident of making the checkpoint with around an hour to spare. Despite the arduous challenge of scaling Durmitor’s mountain, the carrot of a checkpoint, the beautiful location and the bright weather combined to make this one of the highlights of the race.
Rising up on the plateau I find a narrow rollercoaster ribbon of tarmac draped over the mountain.What a stunning place. There are tiny clusters of humble buildings scattered across the vast plateau – never more than half a dozen – but there seems very little human activity. At the highest point I round a corner and find a basketball hoop next to farmers home. It’s an incongruous find but it gives the place some humanity and makes life here more real. I imagine a young kid passing his time playing ball and occasionally cursing a long rebound that forces a three hour hike to retrieve it from the valley!
Up ahead I spot a shiny modern van parked up in an unlikely spot. Behind it two guys are peering into what looks like a television camera, pointing at the ground. As I get closer I can see the second guy is operating a remote control. “It looks like a drone crew. They must be making a movie. I wonder what it’s about.” Then the penny drops. I try to spot the drone without looking like I’m looking, all the while attempting to look a bit less broken. I never saw it and I doubt it ever saw me. They were a private media crew for another rider, Oliver Wolff, an hour behind me. I was the test dummy.
After two hours of climbing the road finally dips downward, but only briefly. A chance to cool myself down slightly before it ramps up again for another 20 minutes of toil against gravity. At last, a steep descent leads me all the way to the town of Zabljak and my GPS unit guides me to the unassuming hotel that is Checkpoint 4, where race crew offer an enthusiastic welcome. I pick up my fourth stamp with 43 minutes to spare.
Despite looking forward to reaching the checkpoint, once the initial joy had passed I was overcome with embarrassment at my performance. It sounds silly writing this now but I felt ashamed of the amount of rest I’d taken. There was guilt about the number of hotels I’d used, as if my sickness was just an excuse for being too soft. I’d clawed back 15 places since the low point in Cortina, but I’d been hoping for more before picking up this chest infection.
I cruised into the town proper to find some food and a chemist. Two OJs, a risotto, a carbonara, two ice creams, two packs of ibuprofen and more throat lozenges. That was the final checkpoint so the next target was Turkey. Asia. The finish line.
Descending out of the mountains it was head down for the next four hours, into the evening. An efficient petrol station raid and then back in the saddle for a final hour to the major town of Berane, arriving at 10pm. The night air was again damp and the next part of the route involved climbing two high mountains to the Kosovan border. The internal debate over whether to continue or to rest here didn’t take too long.
I was the third rider to check into this hotel tonight; an obvious choice given it’s location and gaudy lighting drawing us in like moths. I limped to the room (why is it always on the top floor!), plugged everything in to charge and then shuffled back down to the restaurant and joined my fellow riders for dinner. We talked about the deadly storm up ahead in Skopje, Macedonia, which had claimed 21 lives and destroyed infrastructure. We knew it was at least passable as the race map showed a few riders’ traces passing through earlier today.
“Are you going to make the party?” I asked them. They almost laughed at me, as if the idea was absurd. “The fact that we’re here, now, means that none of us will be making the party. You have to accept that”, one of them told me. Earlier in the day my wife had also tried to convince me of the same, no doubt conscious that my stubbornness is stronger than my sense of self-preservation. That stubbornness kicked in big time. “I am making that party. Watch my dot! You’ll see.” I must’ve sounded so petulant as I doggedly explained all the hurdles I’d faced and reasoned exactly why I was ‘out of position’. My resolve was now bubbling over. I was the clichéd child who’d been told he couldn’t do something.
“I am MAKING that party. Watch my dot. You’ll see!”
I decided there was no point pandering to this chest infection any longer. The extended sleeps weren’t helping at all. In hindsight I’d been naive to think there was any hope of recovering while I’m still racing! Better to smash out the remaining distance as quickly as possible and then start the recovery process for real. No more fucking about! I have 950km to turn my race effort into something I can be proud of.
Time: 12h 36m