There’s nothing like being told you can’t do something to spur you on. The fire was already burning but last night’s conversation with the two riders sharing the hotel had stoked it good and proper. Today’s earworm was the Beastie Boys. “You gotta FIGHT…for your RIGHT… to PAAAAAAARTY!” Separating me from the finisher’s party was 950km and four countries, and it started in two days. I was fired up to prove to everybody (and myself) that I was better than my performance so far.
The girl on reception had other ideas. It was her first day and she spent 20 minutes trying to work out how to check me out. 20 minutes I could’ve been sleeping. Whatever, I was still buzzing for the challenge. The air was frigid but my route pointed immediately skyward so I quickly warmed up. 50km of climbing, up to 1,800m and the border with Kosovo. Fully expecting Kosovo to be a desolate battle-scarred wasteland I made a point of stopping to resupply at Rozaje, the last town before the border. I also cursed my idiot self for plotting a shortcut through the town without realising the gradients involved. Saving 700m of riding was great but the price was a vertical climb through crumbling residential streets, peaking at 28%. The achilles loved that.
Upwards again and the beautiful morning disappeared into a thick blanket of fog, with visibility down to 10m in places. Every so often the clouds would clear and I get a momentary glimpse of the beautiful mountainscape I was riding through, but it would quickly envelop me again. This was the final major mountain pass on my race route, which meant the other side would also be the last big descent to enjoy. I was a bit bummed to hit the summit and realise the fog blanketed both sides and would force a cautious descent.
First I had the border to deal with. Another delay as the border guard’s computer had frozen. I opened up Google Translate and typed in “Have you tried turning it off and on again?”. Border guards seem to get more and more friendly the further east I travel. Beginning to pick my way carefully through the gloom and down the switchback descent, I spot two teenage boys emerging from the bushes of a hairpin, begging from people who had just crossed the border, I think. I’m already a little on edge entering Kosovo so as they rush towards me I speed up to avoid being cut off. Soon I emerge from underneath the cloud cover and can see the vast flat basin that is the bulk of the interior. It looked hot, dry fairly featureless, but hopefully that would make for quick progress.
Brace yourself. If you’re reading this over lunch, maybe come back to it later. We’re going to cover some digestion truths. If you’ve ever run or ridden for a full day you’ll probably have experienced the impressive calibre of farting that comes with processing that much fuel. Now imagine putting your digestive system under that kind of strain for two weeks straight and then layer it up with the kind of low quality junk food that a TCR racer is shovelling in. Farting became something of a danger sport from around day 3 onwards. Every parp was a roll of the dice. And then there’s the smell.
“Farting became a danger sport from Day 3 onwards. Every parp was a roll of the dice.”
I’m gathering supplies in a tiny store in a modest rural village in Kosovo. There are two other customers in the store when a portal to the realm of Hades opens in my shorts and silently spews forth a cloud of pure evil. If I’m ever in this situation in daily life I find you can get through by simply scowling at an innocent and tutting, but in my race-weathered state that simply wasn’t going to fly. It was painfully obvious who the bad man was. This particular dirty bomb was also perhaps the most potent thing I’d ever smelled in my life. Even I physically couldn’t stand to be in the same place as it. By this stage in the race the valves were open almost continuously, which did at least have the effect of speeding up my stops. On the bike I’m wondering about Newton’s Third Law and the propulsive effect of my noxious exhaust. How much distance have my farts contributed since Belgium? Marginal gains and all that.
“I’m contemplating Newton’s Third Law and wondering how much distance my farts have contributed so far.”
The allure of Trackleaders proved too strong and I’d been following the progress of the riders around me, using them as mini targets to keep up motivation. I’d already passed one of last night’s pessimists, who’d got an hour headstart on me leaving the hotel, somewhere on the climb to the border. Another was slowly reeled in on the open roads of Kosovo. I also had one eye on the weather. The forecast was for heavy rain so I pushed the pace and hoped to reach a major town before the storm dropped. Across the next border there had been a deadly freak storm, dropping 9.3cm of rain (one month’s worth) on the capital, Skopje, in just two hours. It caused flash flooding and killed 21 people.
I got incredibly lucky with my timing. The skies started falling just as I was rolling through the town of Ferizaj. At the exact moment the storm hit I was on the main street, passing a restaurant with a canopy. That’ll be lunch time then! A few minutes later a young American couple asked to join my table and we chatted over lunch. “What brings you to a town like this on your holidays?” I asked. They were medical students making their annual visit back home to see family. It’s been 20 years since the Kosovo War which forced around 25% of the population to flee as refugees. We talked about life, politics and the world; an unexpected treat after two weeks of grunting and charades where my deepest interactions were ordering pizza.
The storm has passed and it’s time to crack on. It’s now 18:00 and I figure it’d be wise to try and reach and clear the flood-ravaged town of Skopje before darkness. The Macedonian border took just a few seconds to clear and I dropped the last of the altitude I’d gained as I cruised into Skopje on primary roads that skirted around the centre. I couldn’t see any evidence of the devastation caused by the floods. A petrol station provided dinner: a grim sandwich, a Coke and two Magnums. The sun was just setting but Greece was only 175km away and I fancied that before I took my last power nap of the race.
My route covered some fairly shocking tarmac, tracking alongside the motorway. At some point this improved and I was wondering if I’d found myself on the motorway, but it didn’t look major enough. I couldn’t figure it out from the map so decided to trust my planned route. It took me a while to register that it was a two-lane one-way road, with the opposite traffic wrapping the other way around a mountain. It looks like the two roads won’t meet up again for another 25km! Even if this was a motorway there was no way in hell I was going to backtrack against the flow of traffic now.
The immaculate road wriggled its way south, sandwiched between mountains on the left and the Pcinja River on the right. The night time wind gently kissed my back and settled onto the aerobars for one of the best moments of the race. I had two lanes pretty much to myself, with just the occasional lorry passing every 5 minutes or so. 20km later and I was bummed to see a toll booth straddling the road. “Damn, this definitely was a motorway then!”. I was briefly worried about the time penalty I’d incur before accepting there was little I could do about it. I pulled into a parking area and threaded my way through a barrier, with a nod of permission from the toll staff. After the race I’d find out that while it is a motorway the local police consider it acceptable for cyclists. It was some of the safest riding I’d done but Race Control may consider it a banned road.
“I turn and sprint back up the hill as fast as I can manage, with my heartbeat playing some sweet drum & bass.”
It’s 23:00 on a Thursday night in the historic city of Veles and the place is pumping. I spot another TCR rider at a roundabout, both of us doing that slow cruise that suggests we are looking for something without any real idea of where to find it. A wide boulevard in the centre of town is bustling with busy bars and restaurants. I’m trying to find somewhere a little more peaceful but there’s not much of that. I clamber up the steps and sit at the bustling bar, full of glammed up 20-somethings. I stick out like a sore thumb. The barman and a party of girls quiz me on the race while the food is being prepared and I have to refuse free beers several times. I’m still in rotten health and there’s almost 700km to cover in double time.
Fuelled up for the night I’m waved off by the revellers and retrace my steps to pick up the R1102 towards the hotel I’d booked on the Greek border. It’s 115km away and I’m feeling motivated. Four hours, I tell myself. It’s a patchy road; sometimes good, sometimes bad, but I have it all to myself and I’m making fair progress until I hit an awkward mess of a junction at Demir Kapija. My route files lead me back onto the motorway and I don’t want to knowingly ride forbidden roads. I stop to study the map and from the lonely darkness comes a loud, disturbed, zombie groan. “FUCK. THAT!”. I turn around and sprint back up the hill as fast as I can manage, with my heartbeat playing some sweet drum & bass. I look back but in the dim red glow of my tail light I can’t make out any undead hordes. I keep going until the lactate burns in my legs, just to be safe. It takes two more goes at this bastard junction before finding a route that isn’t a motorway. I didn’t yet realise how badly I’d fucked up.
My GPS trace shows what went wrong. The route I’d abandoned did lead onto the motorway but, crucially, just as it ended and became a regular road. My new route started out innocently enough, running alongside some residential buildings and on passable tarmac. There were some patches of gravel here and there but nothing to worry about. As the kilometres passed those patches grew more frequent and the tarmac gradually disappeared. The deterioration happened slowly enough that any time I always felt too invested to turn back. By now the other road had crossed the river and was on the other side of the gorge. My new route had slowly turned into a narrow, rocky, overgrown trail, riddled with puddles and bats. It’s 2:30am and I’m losing my patience. Google Maps suggests this bullshit is 20km long but as I’m already 10km into it I’ve little choice but to persevere.
My front light really isn’t up to the job and I can only see a few metres ahead of me. I should be going much slower than this but I just want to get it done. The trail undulates and the the small descents are terrifying. My rear wheel is flailing around, searching for grip; the bike rarely pointing in the direction I’m actually travelling. Every so often I’m mugged by a branch I didn’t see or startled by a huge rock or pothole in the crumbled trail. Adrenalin is coursing through me as several times I carry too much speed into bends on the shitty surface. It’s blind luck that spares me any serious incident and when I finally see tarmac an hour later I can’t quite believe I’ve survived without any mechanical problems or punctures. Whichever cartographer decided to categorise that goat track as a road needs a good hard punch in the face.
Until now my hands had been spared the palsy that most riders suffer but that hour of punishment at the end of a long day has left my hands and arse in a lot of pain. I can barely grip the bars. When I finally reach the resort town on the shores of Lake Dojran it’s 5am. The hotel is huge and for the first time I’m unable to take the bike to the room. I’m too tired to protest and park it in a junk room in the basement. The room is actually a suite but I won’t be awake long enough to enjoy it. A quick clean up, a scrub of the short and I’m into that soft bed with the alarm set for four hours. I was happy with the day but it was still a long way to Çanakkale. Olga had been wrestling with whether or not to meet me in Turkey but I’d made it clear earlier in the day that I will definitely be at that party and she was boarding a flight in the morning. Now I had another promise to keep and even more resolve to make the party.
Time: 15h 55m