Cycling, Ride Reports

Transcontinental, part 4: the scratch

The final stretch: CP3, CP4, Burgas. This was the part where I was expecting things to get a bit wild. Questionable road surfaces, rabid dogs, bears, vampires and who knew what else.

But at the same time, the end was in sight. My other half, Miranda, was volunteering at CP4, so there was not long before I’d be seeing her. And then of course she’d be at the finish, too. The light was very much appearing at the end of the tunnel.

But first, I had to get there.

Day 7: Montenegro

I’d stopped for the night only a stone’s throw from CP3, which lay just over the border in Montenegro, on the edge of Durmitor National Park. I was awoken once or twice by bike headlights passing me by – other riders who were presumably following the same route and hoping to reach CP3 before sleeping. I stuck to my plan and went back to sleep, waiting for my alarm to wake me.

I got up at the usual 2am ish, as planned, and set off. My USB charging was still flaky and I was running pretty low on battery juice across all my devices, not having been able to charge them properly while riding. My route would take me over a mountain and down to the lake on the other side, where CP3 was waiting. The traverse involved a very steep climb in the dark, where I couldn’t really see anything. I was crawling up it so slowly that my dynamo light was barely bright enough to see by, a feeble pool of light on the ground ahead of me flickering with the slow revolution of my front wheel. I didn’t want to use up precious battery from my high-power front light, so I kept going like this.

Eventually the road turned left, but the route on my GPS screen kept going straight on – onto a very rough gravel track. It kept going up. It was still dark. My dynamo light was barely useful on such a steep climb even on tarmac, and would be totally inadequate for off-road use. I’d be going even slower, but would need much better illumination. I really didn’t want to get stuck on a mountain side in the dark like that.

I checked the battery level on my other devices. My phone was at little more than 10% and my main light battery display was showing about 20 minutes of burn time left on the lowest power setting. My battery pack was already empty. This was not good. There was no way I could take the gravel track in the dark without proper lighting, and yet I didn’t have any obvious alternative. The road to the left might lead over the mountain to CP3, but I didn’t know.

I was starting to feel a bit panicky. My battery reserves were almost gone and I didn’t know what to do. Waiting until daybreak wasn’t an option, of course – I’d concede several hours in doing so. And yet soon I’d be stuck.

I spent a few minutes pondering my situation. I’d downloaded offline copies of OpenStreetMap for every country I’d be passing through, so I scoured them for alternative routes. This was another case of having no idea why I’d chosen this particular route – whether it was a calculated decision and the gravel would be short-lived, or whether I’d just been careless. Either way, given my circumstances, I didn’t have much choice. I had a very vague recollection from my planning many weeks ago that there might be a slightly longer paved route and, yep, there seemed to be one there on the map.

I took my chances and followed the tarmac to the left. To my great relief, the tarmac did not turn into gravel, but continued around the mountain and down a long descent to Lake Piva as day broke (in the course of which I got very cold). It transpired later that this route over the border was actually illegal. In hindsight, this was fairly obvious, the border having no staffed crossings where one could get a passport checked and stamped. This is something I should’ve thought of while route planning, but presumably having seen a road of some description over the border, I complacently assumed that it was OK to use it. When you live in the Schengen area it’s easy to forget that open borders are not the norm in most parts of the world.

A map of my border crossing from Bosnia & Herzegovina into Montenegro, which turned out to be illegal
My illegal border crossing from Bosnia & Herzegovina into Montenegro

The next closest legal border crossing was many tens of kilometres north and would’ve cost hours of riding time. Presumably there would’ve been a more efficient approach to the border area that would’ve diminished the extra distance. Nonetheless, a lot of people got fairly hefty penalties to their finishing times for having used this route to compensate for any potential advantage they might’ve gained in doing so. I would too had I actually finished. Well, lesson learned.

I reached CP3 at dawn to find a bunch of people sleeping under the tables. I spent a little time chatting in hushed tones to the volunteers while charging my devices. After 5 minutes or so, having munched through my last börek and charged my battery pack by about 5%, I set off again for the parcours through Durmitor National Park. Krystian had left a few minutes earlier.

A view down to Plužine and Lake Piva from the climb up to Durmitor National Park
Plužine and Lake Piva, seen from the climb up to Durmitor National Park

The road climbed into an expansive, grassy upland that formed the preamble to the national park proper. The sky was grey and the distant hilltops were covered in cloud. With the wide open views and total lack of trees I felt almost like I could be in the Elan Valley in Mid Wales.

The volunteers at CP3 had promised me a real treat in the national park itself, James Robertson in particular telling me it was “ridiculous (in a good way)”. So I was pretty upset when the road led straight up into the clouds. The visibility was little more than 20 metres and there was no such ridiculous scenery to be seen. This continued for 30 minutes or so of climbing until I crested the top, the clouds vanished, and I was rewarded with my ridiculous view:

A shepherd and his flock in Durmitor National Park
A shepherd and his flock in Durmitor National Park

The highlight of the parcours came as the road descended from the clouds into a great big bowl-shaped valley. The landscape was totally devoid of trees, being covered instead in rocks and grass. There were some distinctive-looking houses right in the middle – low walls and tall, steeply sloping roofs. The place felt markedly different from the arid, scrubby landscapes of Croatia and B&H.

Not my video, sorry

My brief sojourn in Montenegro (I was only there for 10 hours or so) made quite an impression on me. The terrain – and general feeling of the place – were unique among the Balkans, at least in my memory. It seemed like it should be much further north than it is, with its bare, rocky terrain and unusual buildings. Of course, this could just have been a result of the high elevation of the area I was passing through – over 1,500 m for the most part. Whatever the reason, I’d like to go back and explore the place properly.

After Durmitor National Park itself, my route went back downhill. From here on it was only hills. First I had to descend a casual 700 m into the Tara River Canyon (the deepest canyon in Europe) and then climb back out. It was now some time in the afternoon, and my eyelids were drooping on the way down into the canyon. I stopped at a stand selling tickets for a zip-line over the canyon, which had a nice, out-of-the way wooden platform for me to lie down on and asked the people running the stand if I could plug in my electronics for a while (they were super friendly and obliged immediately). Then I set my alarm for 10 minutes and lay down for a nap.

I’d been having a couple of power naps per day for most of the second half of the race. I think it started some time around Italy, but I’d started getting drowsy during the day. A power nap of 10-15 minutes is a pretty good way of fixing this for a few hours without resorting to caffeine (which I try to use only in emergencies). Napping for this long revives you for a bit without leaving you with “sleep inertia” when you wake up. Or so the theory goes.

The route from here into Serbia continued in kind and I lost count of the number of hour-long climbs I had to tackle. The one highlight of this was the Montenegrin-Serbian border crossing. It was super busy when I got there, with a queue of cars stretching nearly a kilometre back from the border itself. I rocked up at the end of the queue and started worrying (quite naively) about how long this was going to cost me. After talking to some people in a car, who suggested I just jump the queue with my bike, I was about to get going again when a people carrier/van approached from the other direction and stopped next to me. The doors opened to reveal two whole families inside who immediately shouted in unison:

Congratulations Will!

I felt that the congratulations were maybe premature, but I chatted with them for a few minutes. They had of course been dot-watching. One of the women explained that her son was really interested in self-supported racing and wanted to get into it himself. He’d been following the race avidly, and they’d seen me in the area and taken the opportunity to say hello. Pretty cool! I’ve never been greeted by a van-load of strangers on the road before (or off the road, for the matter).

I set off again, crossing the border into Serbia with no trouble from the border officials for my misdeeds at the previous border crossing. With a big grin on my face!

A perfectly-sized sandwich
A perfectly-sized sandwich – or a perfectly-sized box?

The rest of the day went by in a blur of enormous hills. I don’t remember how many there were, but it was too many. Toward the end of the day, I was preparing for one last exertion before finding somewhere to sleep. I was looking forward to the route flattening out the next day as I made my way through northern Serbia and toward the Romanian border.

After passing through a town called Prijepolje I happened to glance at the upcoming elevation profile on my computer. It was coloured red and looked steep. I’d known I was in for a long and unpleasant climb (well over an hour), but this looked like way too much for my poor, exhausted back muscles. I opened up the tracker page (using some of my very limited non-EU data allowance acquired at great expense) and saw that Pawel and Krystian were close by and had chosen to take a larger, faster road around the mountain toward another town called Nova Varoš. Looking closely, it seemed like their route was actually no longer than mine, and somehow managed to cut out a large chunk of climbing while having gentler slopes. I’d have to double back on myself and ride back into town, which would cost me 20 minutes or more. I kicked myself. How had I missed this in my route planning? Still, it was clearly better than dying on the slopes of this near-vertical climb, so I pulled a u-turn and sped back down into town. I passed Robin Gemperle along the way, who must’ve wondered what the hell I was doing.

After reconnecting with my original route beyond Nova Varoš, the road had once more turned from tarmac into gravel, and once more was heading steeply uphill. I had no idea from the map on my phone how long this was going to last, or whether it would even be passable by bike, and it would soon be getting dark. But the countryside was beautiful in the evening light, so I stopped to take some photos while pondering my predicament. I vaguely remembered having deliberately chosen a shortcut with what had appeared at the time to be a questionable road surface, but now I was worrying that I’d made another terrible mistake. In the midst of this train of thought, I was greeted by Robin turning up behind me.

He’d been having exactly the same thoughts as me, so we were glad to see each other. The two of us having both chosen this route somehow validated it and showed us that it wasn’t a terrible idea after all. I’m not sure that logic really works, but it was reassuring nonetheless to be in each other’s company. We set off together, but Robin soon left me in his dust with his mad mountain biking skills. I think I was on the track for around 20 minutes, and actually had quite a lot of fun on it. Even if I couldn’t keep up with Robin, I was glad for having some degree of mountain biking aptitude from the formative years of my cycling career, before I’d ever ridden a road bike. In places it was akin to MTB singletrack and demanding in terms of bike handling. I got to the end having only crashed once, landing in a soft heap of grass. No harm done.

Looking back at the replay (below), this whole episode – from chasing Krystian and Pawel to getting caught by Robin – happened over the course of an entire afternoon, but in my memory it’s compressed into a single event. Just goes to show how ultra-racing distorts your perception of time.

A view of the Serbian countryside near Nova Varoš
The Serbian countryside near Nova Varoš
Getting spooked by Pawel and Krystian’s routing choices between Prijepolje (Пријепоље) and Nova Varoš (Нова Варош), then getting caught by Robin

After the impromptu MTB session, the route continued down one last descent for the day. It was long and winding, probably about 10 minutes in total, and by this time it was totally dark. My eyelids were drooping. About halfway down I noticed that I was starting to fall asleep. You know that feeling you have when you’re going to sleep and your thoughts are drifting off in all sorts of weird directions that don’t make any sense? Well… Yeah. I was starting to dream while at the same time guiding my bike around corners at 60 km/h.

This realisation scared me enough to keep me upright (or leaning into corners) for the rest of the descent, but when I reached the town at the bottom it was clear that I could not continue without getting some sleep. I had to stop. The problem was that now I was in the middle of a town, and there were a lot of people around. I rode around a bit, looking for a Lidl carpark somewhere safe and out of the way to sleep, but found nothing. No bus shelters. The carwash on the edge of town looked a bit too dodgy (and wet) to risk using. Eventually I opened up Booking.com, found a hotel in the middle of town, and checked in. My first time sleeping indoors.

Day 8: hills and dogs

I woke at the customary 2am. I’d had my first shower in a week before getting into bed, which felt nice and strange at the same time. I hadn’t really wanted to stop in a hotel. It didn’t seem quite in keeping with the idea of the race that I had in my head. For me, a self-supported race was (and is) one in which you are maximally independent, which includes minimising your reliance on infrastructure. There’s a limit to that, of course, unless you plan to to abstain from asphalt road surfaces and survive by hunting boar and foraging for herbs and berries. I’m not into that.

But for me, I preferred to avoid hotels. Roughing it outside makes the ride feel somehow more “real”, more of an adventure. So I was reluctant to have given in. Still, it had allowed me to freshen up and properly recharge my electronics, which I was still struggling to keep alive on my USB charging kit.

I set off again. After a couple of small (30 minute) climbs, I finally had the flat ground I’d been so desperate for. More than 100 km of it 🥳

Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side. The Serbian countryside was very pretty and varied, but the day really dragged on. While Pawel was now heading north on a totally different route to Romania, I’d somehow overtaken Krystian since the previous day and we were both heading along the same road. It was the middle of the day and he seemed to be quite close behind me – perhaps 5-10 km.

A pot of porridge in my bento box
Breakfast on the go in Serbia

I was having a really tough time. The flat terrain I’d so been looking forward to somehow didn’t seem much easier after all. It was really windy and my energy was all but gone. The road dragged on and on and on, and I was getting really demotivated. Eventually I couldn’t take it any more and stopped at a petrol station. I still had plenty of food and drink on me and shouldn’t have needed to resupply for at least another couple of hours, but I was craving a cold drink and needed an excuse to rest my legs. I stayed there for 10 minutes or so and exchanged waves with Krystian from the forecourt as he sailed past.

I got going again. Still felt rubbish. The route turned north and the wind got stronger. I got a puncture in my rear wheel. I cursed the stupid scooter driver in Regensburg again for breaking my tubeless valve, and set about replacing the inner tube. Another 10 minutes wasted thanks to that damn crash. Ugh, what an awful day.

Cruising along in Serbia en route to the Romanian border

I eventually reached the Serbian-Romanian border at the Iron Gate II dam (what a cool name!) on the Danube. I was expecting a similar experience to previous border crossings: a long queue of cars. But when I got there, the place was practically deserted and I wondered if I’d made a mistake. I saw one other car driving toward the border area, so figured I should follow it.

The Serbian border guards were pretty blasé about my being there and just waved me through with a cursory glance at my passport. Over on the other side of the dam, the Romanian guards took more interest (in me as well as my passport). The man there asked me where I was going, so I explained that I was racing and was heading for the Transalpina and thence to Bulgaria. He said that was very nice, but insisted that I should be going to visit Transfăgărășan instead because it’s really much nicer. And it was featured on Top Gear, he hastened to add. I thanked him for the suggestion and promised to go there next time I was in Romania. He seemed satisfied enough to stamp my passport and let me into his country.

While he took my passport away to stamp it, his colleague asked me if I had a cigarette. I smiled and told her I don’t smoke. She wrote something on her notepad and went back into her office without saying a word. I learned later from one of the volunteers at CP4 that there’s an illicit cigarette trade between Romania and Serbia, and the border guards are quite keen to crack down on it. Good thing I didn’t reveal my secret stash.

Border crossing dealt with, I was now in Romania. Immediately, I was confronted by stray dogs. I’d met a few of them in Serbia the day before, but yelling at them had been enough to deter them. These ones not so much. They continued to chase me until I’d left their turf, which was quite a long way.

Having escaped my first dog encounter, I continued into the evening. The next few hours were largely dog-free. I should probably mention at this point that I’d been suffering from terrible saddle sores for most of the day, despite having had a shower the previous night. I was doing all I could to find the smoothest, most pothole-free line along the road, but it was a struggle. I’d been riding pretty slowly all day (or so it felt) and it was difficult to tell whether it was exhaustion or the saddle sores that were responsible for it. Even when the pain is unrelated to the action of pedalling, the constant, nagging insistence of it deprives you of your ability to pedal harder. You slow down, and as a result your morale drops. To top it off, the pain in my right knee, which had surfaced earlier in the race, had been making a comeback.

Dusk was setting in as I skirted my way around a bend in the Danube heading for a town called Drobeta-Turnu Severin. There’d been relatively few dogs so far. As I entered the town I found lots of them milling around by the side of the road, thankfully not that interested in me. It was a very busy road and as an HGV (giant lorry) passed in the other direction, there was a loud “thunk” followed by a desperate yelping sound. I looked around to see a large dog half running, half limping away from the road in clear distress. Given the speed and bulk of the HGV, and the pitch of the dog’s squealing, it must’ve broken quite a few bones. There were some people by the side of the road who went to tend to it, but I wouldn’t’ve put great odds on its long-term survival, sadly.

Whether this dog was a stray or belonged to someone, I didn’t know. I was told that it’s quite common for people to just let their dogs out on the street, even over night, which of course gives rise to a large stray population. A surplus of free-running dogs therefore seems to be the norm in most parts of Romania. This lead to a few high-profile dog attacks in Bucharest in recent years, including one in 2013 in which a 4-year old boy was killed. A large-scale cull was subsequently undertaken in Bucharest to round up and euthanise the city’s 65,000 strays – with no shortage of controversy to accompany it. But the rest of the country is still full of dogs.

As for me, the trouble began when I left town. It had seemed too early to stop in Severin (it wasn’t yet 22:00), so I opted to continue to the next large town on my route: Târgu Jiu. In my addled state of mind I somehow managed to miscalculate the time it would take to get there. It was almost 100 km away, and I figured I’d be there around midnight. Obviously I cannot cycle 100 km in 2 hours, even when I don’t have a bike weighing 20 kg and 3,000 km in my legs. I don’t know what was going through my head.

The road from Severin to Târgu Jiu went through many villages, each with far more dogs than I was happy to see. These ones definitely were interested in me. They’d immediately make a beeline for me and chase me along the road for quite some distance. I eventually realised that if I just hit the brakes and slowed down to less than 10 km/h, they would immediately lose interest and walk away. The effect was quite remarkable – it was like flipping a switch. Either they didn’t like the fact that I was barrelling into their territory at 25 km/h and were fine with me just moving a bit slower, or they didn’t want the confrontation they were expecting from me slowing down. I don’t know.

Either way, this didn’t always work. One time, out in the countryside between towns, I came across a pack of 10-15 dogs on top of a hill that really wouldn’t lose interest. I tried the slowing-down trick and they just circled closer. I was worried at this point that they actually meant me harm, and with such a big pack there was very little I could do to dissuade them. It was lucky, then, that I had the option of accelerating down the hill and leaving them behind. If I’d encountered them going uphill, it would’ve been quite a different story.

I eventually reached my hotel in Targa Jiu. I’d chosen again to sleep indoors because my saddle sores were by this point incapacitating me. I needed to take my lycra off and wash myself. I’d told the hotel earlier that I’d be arriving at midnight-ish, and had had to revise that to around 02:00 when I realised my timing blunder. They’d said that would be fine and gave me a phone number to call. When I turned up at the door and phoned the number, the person on the other end did not speak any English. She came to the door bleary-eyed and confused, having been fast asleep and not at all expecting anyone to arrive at this ridiculous hour. Nonetheless, she checked me in and showed me to my room and I set about making myself comfortable for the few hours I could spare.

Day 9: it’s all over

Well, this was a short day.

I figured I had about two days left before the finish. First it was around 90 km to CP4, which involved first traversing the formidable Transalpina mountain road. After CP4 came the much anticipated parcours of the Drumul Strategic, an off-road track including hike-a-bike sections that had caused the frontrunners plenty of difficulty the night before. Then there was the ferry crossing over the Danube, which introduced frustrating elements of logistics into the race, before the home straight to the finish at Burgas.

Not having stopped until 02:00, and feeling like I needed more rest than usual, I didn’t get going again until well after daybreak. The dogs didn’t cause me too much trouble on my way to the Transalpina, but my knee did. It was starting to get very difficult to pedal, but I pushed on.

The Transalpina itself, when it arrived, was an absolute brute. It was without question the toughest climb of the route and one of the least enjoyable I’ve ever done. It was considerably steeper than any of the Alpine climbs I’d done, with gradients on switchbacks often exceeding 15%. As I climbed, my knee was getting more and more painful and pretty soon I was unable to stand on the pedals. I had to stay seated the entire time, even on the steepest parts, which only made matters worse. The thumbs-up I got from a passing motorcyclist did little to sooth my anguish.

The 1,600 m climb took almost three hours, by the end of which I was suffering a severe sense-of-humour-failure and cursing the race with all the invective I could muster. My knee was becoming so painful that I was starting to wonder whether I’d actually be able to complete the race.

But that turned out not to be a problem, given what happened next.

I crested the first summit (that cursed road has two of them) and began the descent to the foot of the next climb. There were several switchbacks to be tackled before the road straightened out, and there was a car in front of me that I didn’t want slowing me down. I managed to sprint around it on the first corner and get out in front. Approaching the next switchback, the bike seemed to be flexing slightly underneath me, and as I leaned into the corner I could feel an unnerving wobble that definitely should not be there.

I immediately grabbed the brakes and stopped at the side of the road as quickly as I could. Pulling the strap of the frame bag away from the down tube, it was clear what the problem was.

A photo of the gigantic crack in my frame's down tube
Can you spot the problem?

The crack I found extended all the way around the down tube, with only about 1 cm of unbroken metal remaining. I knew pretty much immediately that this was the end of my race. I was lucky to have stopped when I did, as the stresses induced by another switchback or two would probably have been enough to fold the frame in half.

I now knew the origin of the disconcerting creaking noises that had been following me across half of Europe, and that the crash in Regensburg had done far more damage than I’d realised at the time. I phoned Miranda to discuss the situation with her. I wanted to try and figure out some way of staying in the race, however remote the possibility, if only to be sure I’d exhausted all my options (if I even had any) before scratching.

There was a convenient flat area by the side of the road that made for a nice place to sit down and think. Could I get the bike repaired? Highly unlikely; it’s titanium, which requires very specialist skills and equipment to work with. Could I get another bike and finish on that one instead? Maybe, but for some reason the rules of the race state that it has to be your bike. Rental is not allowed, so I would have to actually buy one. And first I would have to get off the mountain and to a bike shop somewhere. Then I’d have to buy the bike and do something with the broken one. It’d take a day or more, and I’d end up with a new bike that I didn’t really want. Buying a bike just to finish a race seemed disproportionate. As Mike Hall would say: it’s just a bike race.

Contemplating my scratch on top of the Transalpina pass in Romania
Contemplating my scratch atop the Transalpina

While I was going through these scenarios in my head, Anna (the race director) turned up. My dot had stopped moving for long enough that my race monitor had figured something was wrong (these are volunteers who are each assigned groups of riders and charged with keeping tabs on them, in case something should go wrong). Anna was in the area, so she came to see what was up.

We talked a bit about what had happened, and how I’d got to where I was. I described the situation and the different options I’d considered, and said how I figured that a scratch was the only sensible course of action I had. Anna listened and helped me think the options through, but without saying anything to sway my decision. CP4 was only about 10 km away, and so it would be very simple to just get in the car with her and go down there to where Miranda was waiting. When I told her that’s what I’d like to do, she asked me if I was totally sure, as there’d be no going back. I figured I’d take a little more time to mull it over, and would call Miranda when/if I made my decision. Of course, I did.

I’d had a few hours in total on top of a beautiful mountain to contemplate my position (waving to Fiona Kolbinger as she went past). Anna had helped me with her wise words to reflect on the situation and to make the decision as rationally as possible. So when Luca, one of the CP4 volunteers, turned up to collect me, I was at peace with my decision. We drove down to CP4, and that was the end of my race.

Me reliving my scratch days later at the finish line in Burgas

What’s next?

Well, there’s no more bike riding to talk about, so this seems like a good place to finish this particular blog post.

But that wasn’t entirely the end of the TCR. I now had a few days to spend “on the other side of the desk” with the volunteers at CP4, before Miranda and I would head to the finish at Burgas. There was the finishers’ party to attend, war stories to be told, and in the meantime I had to start making sense of my own emotions. My body was also in a pretty sorry state.

But this blog post is quite long enough now, so I’ll leave reflection for one last instalment. Thanks for reading this far!

Image credit: Charlotte Gamus & Lost Dot

Straaaavaaaa

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One thought on “Transcontinental, part 4: the scratch

  1. Adler says:

    Thank you for sharing Will. What an amazing adventure in many regards. Your determination is impressive!

    I imagine the emotional rollercoaster when the bike broke and you considered your options.

    The journey is more important than the end. That’s where living happens.

    There are more journeys and more ends to aim, and they will be greater with the past journeys.

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