I’d reached the Alps. A couple of hundred kilometres to go and I’d be at CP2, which marked a major turning point in the race. Up until this point, the route had been in the familiar territory of Western Europe.
But now the race was turning east. This was where the real adventure would start, as if there hadn’t been enough of that already. The temperature would climb, the landscapes would dry out, the culture, language, and even alphabets would change. The familiarity of home had provided an emotional safety net, which I’d now have to do without.
I started the day as usual at stupid o’clock outside a bank somewhere in a small town on the southern side of Fernpass, which I’d gone over the night before. Until this point I’d been studiously avoiding the race coverage. I wanted to just keep my head down and focus on my own pace. But curiosity got the better of me that morning and I had a quick look. I saw that Christoph Strasser was stationary on the other side of the pass, presumably having stopped there for the night. The three frontrunners – Robin Gemperle, Adam Bialek, Ulrich Bartholmoes – were several parsecs up the road around CP2, with Ian To, Krysztian Jakubek, and Pawel Pulawski bridging the gap. I set off into the pre-dawn darkness.
There was effectively one route through the Alps. After Fernpass, it led south down a series of valleys, following the course of the river Inn through Tyrol, and toward the Italian border at Reschensee. I’d already done this route twice before (once in 2019, once just a few weeks before the TCR itself), so I knew what to expect. To be honest, these valley-floor routes through the Alps are not a lot of fun. You get the occasional nice view (see below), but for the most part such valleys are terribly overpopulated and traffic-laden, being the only areas of flat ground that you can build a town on and drive through. The constraints of mountain topography mean that a great volume of traffic is funnelled down a small number of arterial roads, which are crammed into narrow spaces against the steep valley sides. The result is a contorted and confusing road network that isn’t very well-suited to cycling (although this got much worse when I reached the Trento area of northern Italy).
Usually there is some kind of cycle path that follows the valley too, but it’s not always clear where/when to join it, or what you’re going to find a few kilometres down the valley.
Still, one of the pay-offs of such absurdly long days in the saddle is being able to ride your bike while everyone else is asleep. I covered most of the distance to the Italian border before there was much traffic on the road, and was treated to some nice views along the way. Rain set in on the climb up to Reschensee, but I didn’t mind. The ride had been very dry so far and it was nice to get a bit wet for a change (though I was a little worried that the higher passes that were yet to come (Umbraile, Gavia) might pose more of a challenge in the wet).
I followed the familiar route around Reschensee – with its famous half-sunken church steeple – and continued down into Vinschgau. This is a pretty cool descent, by the way – you zig-zag your way down what must once have been a glacier, but is now a loooong, exposed, grassy ramp down into the valley, 500 metres below. The visibility is excellent, so you can see whether the road ahead is clear, and the corners are wide enough that you can take them at full speed – no braking necessary. Great views all the way down!
After this it was into Switzerland briefly for the climb up to Umbraile Pass. Honestly, it’s not the most interesting climb in the Alps, the valley being tight and enclosed and not offering much in the way of views. Stelvio – in the next valley over – makes for a much more interesting route from Vinschgau to Bormio, but it would’ve added 10 km and 300 m of climbing to the route – a diversion that would’ve cost at least an hour. So that was off the cards. I said hello to the TCR people perched near the top of the climb with their cameras, crested the pass, and began the descent to Bormio.
Down in Bormio, I stopped to stock up on food, knowing that Italy can be complicated when it comes to resupply options. The usual mainstay of ultra-cyclists the world around – the petrol station, favoured for its reliable stock of junk food and energy drinks – doesn’t work so well in Italy. Most of them have self-service pumps and no shop at all. Those few that do have shops tend to feature car parts and the occasional espresso bar, but nothing that a ravenous ultra-cyclist might find useful.
Not only is there a dearth of useful petrol stations, but the shops they do have often close over lunch, so I knew I had to take the chance when it presented itself. I’d been here a couple of months ago, so I knew of a decent shop that had a small amount of fresh food behind a counter and I popped in to re-stock. I came out to be greeted by a bunch of dot-watchers who’d found my bike propped outside. We chatted a bit, and they told me that Christoph Strasser had just passed me and that I should try and catch up. So off I went to the foot of Gavia to begin the climb.
I found Christoph applying suncream at the bottom of the climb, and went past him. I remembered that I also needed to put some on, but not wanting to be caught immediately by Christoph I rubbed it onto my arms, legs, face, and neck while riding – a skill I’d mastered last year in Norway. But despite my best efforts, he soon caught me up and left me plodding along at my own pace.
I stopped briefly at CP2 for some water (it was the hottest part of the day and climbing is a sweaty affair) and then got right back on the bike, not wanting to concede time. A couple of hours later I was at the top, trying to recover from the exertion while admiring the views. Christoph caught me once again and this time we indulged in a few minutes off the bike for a chat and a selfie, wondering at the insane pace that the three at the front were setting. He told me he’d been taking it easy so far, wanting to be strong in the second half of the race. Something I hadn’t been doing. We started off again down the descent to Ponte di Legno.
On the way down, I took the gravel bypass around the infamous unlit tunnel (which I almost crashed in last time I was here). The bypass around the side was a bit of a white-knuckle experience, being very rocky, very steep, and with a sheer drop on the right-hand side. Probably fun on a mountain bike, but on a fully laden road bike with 32 mm tyres, it was a bit too sketchy. It was good to do it once, but next time I’ll just take the tunnel.
I had a bit of fun on the way down after that by going hard into the corners, but that came to an abrupt end when I slid out on a switchback in front of a bunch of motorcyclists who were admiring the views. I quickly got back on the bike and fled the scene, getting down to Ponte di Legno before inspecting the damage properly. I’d come down on my right side and gained a big patch of road rash extending from my upper leg to my lower leg (sorry, I didn’t think to take a photo).
It looked like it should at least be disinfected and dressed, so I scouted around on Google Maps for a pharmacy. Luckily there was one right on my route, opening in about an hour at the top of Passo Tonale. I used what I had left of my water to clean the wound and then set off again on the last climb of the day. From my last time here I knew there was a drinking fountain at the top, but it was a long and miserable climb in the midday heat with a stinging leg and nothing to quench my thirst. This was punctuated by Christoph passing me for a third and final time.
The pharmacy at the top was just opening when I arrived, and I bought the necessaries and set about patching myself up. It was kind of difficult to cover the wound on my knee properly, so I ended up with a piece of dressing flapping around and not doing a whole lot of good. But better than nothing. I filled up with food from a small supermarket and, not being able to find a bin anywhere in the town, disposed of the remains in a commercial dumpster outside a restaurant. A woman came out and shot me a dirty look as I was riding away. Whatever. Krysztian had just passed me, so I sped off down the mountain to catch him.
At this point I realise that maybe I’m trivialising the whole thing a bit. Make no mistake – this was a really tough day in the office. Steep, extended climbs require you to keep your core muscles engaged pretty much permanently, since there is no rest at any point in the pedal stroke. With my weak lower back, taking on four major alpine climbs back-to-back was a serious undertaking for me. Umbraile and Gavia – two of the biggest climbs in the Alps – each took about 3 hours, with Reschenpass and Tonale weighing in at around an hour each. So what I’ve casually described in a few words really took the best part of the day. It’s plenty of time to think about how much you actually enjoy climbing. The wonderful scenery that tends to come with such climbs does make up for it a bit, but I was really glad when it was over and I could just pedal normally again and give my back a bit of respite.
After this it was downhill all the way to Trento. I thought this would be nice, but in fact the valleys were horribly crowded and busy with traffic. Most of the main roads were off-limits for cyclists, the only option being a maze of side roads and fleeting sections of cycle path jostling for space at the edges of the valleys. This part of the Alps is so terribly overpopulated that there’s barely room to breath.
Around this point, I noticed an unfamiliar creaking noise coming from somewhere around the front of my bike. Now, I built my bike from scratch, including the wheels, and I do all of my own bike work. I know it inside out. So when I hear a noise I’m not expecting, my ears prick up. I stopped by the side of the horrible, busy road I was on to have a look, but couldn’t find anything. I wobbled the bike a bit at the front. Nothing. Held the front brake and rocked the bike back and forth to test the headset for play. Nothing.
I shrugged to myself and got back on the bike, hoping it would go away. I realised I could reproduce the noise by tugging at the left side of the handlebar while riding, but could not make sense of what would cause that. I stopped again, loosened and re-tightened the stem front-plate bolts and the steerer clamp bolts. Snugged the stem down against the headset. Maybe that improved it? Surely it wasn’t so bad now. Perhaps it was just something wrong with the headset bearings. Yeah, that must be it, it’s fine.
Spoiler alert: It wasn’t. But more on that next time. My bike was still working and I’d successfully convinced myself that everything was A-OK, so I carried on.
My sleep stop that night ended up being under a bridge. My route took me along a seemingly endless cycle path – the nearby main road looking too big to be safe, especially after dark. Cycle paths don’t tend to have a lot of bus stops on them, so I wasn’t sure what I was going to do for sleep. The forecast indicated a lot of rain that night, so sleeping out was simply not an option. I diverted onto a road and went past some buildings and towards a small town, hoping to find something that might work as a bivvy spot. Nothing.
I was wasting time looking for somewhere to sleep and was getting desperate. I returned to the cycle path and kept going, hoping something would present itself. Thankfully the cycle path led under a large bridge of some description (with a railway on top, I think?). The ground was slightly slanted beneath it, which isn’t great for sleep quality, but it would have to do. I stopped and bedded in.
Day 5: Italy, Slovenia, Croatia
Three countries in one day! Exciting stuff. But first, I had to get out of Italy.
I started somewhere in the labyrinth of mountain valleys that is northern Italy, under the bridge I’d found the night before. I’d had some pretty weird dreams in the few hours’ sleep I got, and waking up to the sound of heavy rain, I remember being totally convinced that I was only there because the TCR organisers had put me there. I definitely didn’t want to be there, and clearly hadn’t chosen to be there either. Who would be stupid enough to be under a bridge in a rainstorm at 02:00? Those damn TCR people put me up to it.
Once I’d come to my senses – and come to terms with the reality of being under a bridge in a rainstorm at 02:00 – I hauled myself out of my sleeping bag and started the miserable process of getting back onto my bike. This was the one time in the race that I really did not want to be there. My knee was still painful from the crash on the way down Gavia, my dynamo USB charging setup was now barely functioning (thanks to the motorbike crash the day before), and I was trying to figure out how or if I could continue the race in this condition. It didn’t help that I knew I was going to get utterly drenched the moment I stepped out from under my bridge. In my heart of hearts, I knew that scratching was not the right thing to do – and I don’t think I was really close to doing it – but my god I just wanted to go home.
When morale is low and you’re faced with a scratch-or-continue decision, it helps that it’s often “easier” just to keep going. If your plan is still mostly intact – that is, your bike and your body are still working – it’s much less complicated to stick to it than it is to change it. Abandoning here wasn’t worth the effort, and at any rate wouldn’t save me from having to go outside into the rain. I got on the bike and ventured out. The rain began to slacken off. It’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be.
The rest of the day took me over the Padan Plain toward Trieste, briefly through Slovenia, and at last into Croatia. (Somehow I have no photos between the Alps and Croatia – sorry.)
The final escape from Italy was frankly rubbish, being nothing but long, straight, super busy roads with absolutely nowhere for a weary cyclist to escape the traffic. Fast, but not fun. The one highlight was finding the best pastries I’ve ever eaten for lunch. Being Italy, petrol stations were not an option for a quick resupply, and being Italy, most places were closed over lunch. Finding myself in a small town just before lunch time, I made a beeline for the one bakery that hadn’t yet closed. The pastries I found were divine. Crispy, fresh, creamy in the middle. Delicious. I’ve been fantasising about them ever since.
In the past I’ve had problems keeping my appetite up, but no such trouble here! I must’ve bought several thousand calories of pastry goodness and devoured them in short order. If you’re ever in Villa Opicina, check this place out (and send me some too). Definitely the culinary highlight of the TCR.
The ride after this proceeded through Slovenia and Croatia without much to write home about. The roads continued to be fast, busy, and unpleasant most of the way through Slovenia. Eventually, the traffic subsided as the roads wound their way up into the hills above the Kvarner Gulf. I continued along these high coastal roads as the day gave way to dusk. The views really were beautiful.
It was getting dark when my right knee started hurting – a lot. I’d had a sudden stabbing pain there earlier in the day, somewhere back in Italy, which had subsided for most of the day, but had now come back. The previous day had been such a brute in terms of climbing that I figured this must be the reason. Even as I’d thought it was all over, I’d met a whopper of a climb coming out of Trento in the evening: 200 m at an average gradient of more than 15%. It had taken everything I had just to get to the top.
My knee was getting painful enough now that it was difficult to keep going. I started worrying again about a potential DNF. But I could make that decision in the morning. First, sleep.
I was in a small town called Otačac somewhere in Croatia. There had been no bus stops outside of towns for the last 20 km or so and I wasn’t confident finding one any time soon, so I figured I’d have to find somewhere in the town itself where I could sleep. This is never fun – towns have a lot of people, and I don’t feel comfortable sleeping around too many people.
There was a Lidl on the edge of town, which had a covered area where the trolleys were kept outside. I went to have a look. There was a space behind the trolleys that was pretty much hidden from the main road, but still under cover. I figured this was as good a sleeping place as I was likely to find, so set about getting my sleeping gear out and getting ready for bed. Meanwhile, it turned out that the car park was a popular place for people to turn around in their cars. This happened 3 or 4 times, the car headlights sweeping over me each time. While I was brushing my teeth by the hedges, someone even came and took a photo of my bike and sleeping setup.
I settled down in my sleeping bag and went to sleep. Some unknown time later I was woken by the police. They asked me politely what the hell I was doing, to which I answered “I’m racing”. I don’t think they really got it, but I guess they figured I wasn’t a threat to any one except possibly myself. They told me to just be careful and then left me to my own devices. I didn’t sleep well for the hour or so I had left before I had to get up again.
Day 6: Босна и Херцеговина
My goal for day 6 was the Montenegrin border. I might even make it to CP3, who knows.
First, though, I had to get from central Croatia to Bosnia & Herzegovina. The day was dominated by a single featureless long-distance arterial road through bland, repetitive scenery. There was the odd lake and mountain to be seen, but otherwise really not much to write home about. I got very bored and will not waste effort trying to describe what I can’t remember anyway. The only important detail is that my knee was mostly OK and I did not scratch.
Things got more interesting when I reached Bosnia & Herzegovina, though. Crossing the border from Croatia, I immediately had the feeling of being somewhere else. Croatia had felt very European, while the border area of B&H reminded me more of a rural Kenyan town. The street was a bit grubby and lined with cheap plastic mannequins displaying cheap clothes in front of low, simple buildings. A shop selling I’m-not-sure-what had a giant loud speaker outside playing thumping music with no one there to hear it.
There were some delicious-looking baked goods (börek) on display in a small bakery, but I needed to pay somehow. I’d been trying to avoid getting local currency since leaving the Eurozone, as I’d need a new set of bank notes pretty much every day from here on. But paying by card here was a non-starter and I was hankering for food. I hunted down an ATM nearby and paid in cash, loading up as much as I could with the mouth-watering, crispy, cheese-filled pastries that lined the counter. Yummy!
I pushed on toward Mostar. Seeing road signs in Cyrillic added to the sense of otherness. I felt like I was truly heading east. With place names in the Latin alphabet, I could at least guess at how you’d say them, but Cyrillic?
Well, time for a nerdy digression where I get to talk about my secret interest: languages! As it happens, Cyrillic is derived from the capital letters of the Greek alphabet – with a few bonus ones thrown in for fun, because apparently Slavs can make sounds that ninth century Greeks couldn’t. Thanks to my dark and murky past as a physicist, where Greek letters were a feature of everyday life, I managed to have some fun teaching myself to read Cyrillic place names from road signs while cycling along. I knew what certain letters sounded like from their Greek counterparts, and by reading road signs that had place names in both alphabets, I managed to triangulate the letters I didn’t know. By the time I got to Bulgaria (which fittingly enough is where Cyrillic originated) I was
totally fluent just about able to transliterate a Cyrillic road sign into Latin. I’ve forgotten all of it now, of course. I may not be a master of many languages, but gosh they are interesting!
But enough pontificating! Back to the here-and-now.
Mostar was very beautiful in the evening light. I managed to get a photo of the Old Bridge from afar (crashing a wedding party in the process). I stopped at a Gazprom petrol station to re-stock and had a nice chat with one of the station attendants about cycling in general as I filled up on food and drink. Then I headed out of town and started the final climb of the day – a casual 1000 metres to the high ground between Mostar and the Montenegrin border.
It was dark, of course, when I reached the high ground. I was getting very tired and it was starting to look like I wouldn’t be reaching CP3 before having to get some sleep. This part of the country being rather remote, there was a dearth of bus shelters. Google wasn’t turning up anything useful in terms of “accommodation” and I was worried that I wouldn’t find anything and that I’d have to camp al fresco. There was no rain forecast that night, but I don’t like sleeping without a roof over my head, however basic. Makes me feel insecure somehow.
I decided I’d just have to keep pushing until I found something, wherever that might be. Luckily, an old disused bus shelter loomed out of the darkness. It was full of junk and a few ancient, fossilised dog poos, but it would do. I found a clean-ish spot to lie down and went to sleep. I had a view of the stars out of the door and it was perfectly quiet. I slept well that night.
In part 4…
- 🚨 An illegal border crossing (oops)
- 🎯 Reaching CP3
- ⛰ The terrible hills of Serbia
- 🐶 The terrible dogs of Romania
- 💥 A broken bike and the end of my race