Sigh. Day 5.
I won’t forget the feeling of waking up and looking at Instagram/WhatsApp that morning. People had commented on my “different” route and were asking what my plan was. That didn’t sound good.
I opened up the live map to see that everyone else (and I mean everyone else) had gone east immediately after CP2, setting a blistering pace over the flatlands toward Zagreb. Meanwhile, I’d been faffing around in the hills and was going south toward the Adriatic coast at what felt like a snail’s pace.
Day 5: What have I done? 😰
There’s a lot for me to unpack here, so join me as I try to make sense of my emotions and thoughts that day.
My thought process on waking up went something like this:
- Oh crap
- Everyone else is on a different route
- They’re going faster than me
- My route must be wrong
- My race is over
I lay there in my sleeping bag for a while, trying to process what I was seeing and what it meant. Much like that time last year when I woke up under a bridge in a rainstorm in Italy, I suddenly felt a long way from home. I just wanted to turn off my alarm and curl up in my sleeping bag. My confidence in myself had been building gradually since CP1 and I felt like I’d found my place in the race at last. So seeing myself completely isolated on the map and seemingly heading in the wrong direction… All that evaporated in an instant.
After lying there for 10 minutes (or maybe longer… I don’t remember) I got up. I didn’t know what to do with myself, but I couldn’t just lie there. I needed time to process what had happened, and I knew that this was not the time to make rash decisions. The only decision I could make in that moment that wasn’t irreversible was to stop wasting time and just keep riding. So I got back on my bike – if only to buy myself some time to think.
I once read somewhere (was it Mike Hall? perhaps Emily Chappell?) that at some point you’re probably gonna have a mental breakdown. That’s OK, but just make sure you do it while the pedals are turning. And then, when you’re done with it, you’re still in the race.
But I still had to get done with it.
So I was back on the bike and moving. But I was still miserable. I’d sent a message in a WhatsApp group to some close friends/family inviting them to feel sorry for me, but of course everyone was still asleep. All I had for company for the next few hours was myself, so I tried to ignore what had happened and just turn the pedals until sunrise. Still, those hours of darkness were hard.
I decided I’d lost at least 10 positions in the race (don’t ask me where I got that number from – my addled brain was doing strange things). I wanted to just throw it all away and leave the race. It sounds dramatic, but you live in an echo chamber while racing. WhatsApp/social media can briefly puncture that echo chamber, but it only helps so much. Your thoughts bounce around in your head, reinforcing themselves until you’ve convinced yourself that it really is the end of the world. At least that’s what I do 🤷
Going by my (confused and premature) calculations, my immediate rationale for scratching was that I just wouldn’t get the place I wanted. A top 5 finish had been within my grasp last year, until my bike self-destructed, and this is what I had now set my sights on. With that chance gone, what was the point in continuing? These were the thoughts that accompanied me through the night and into the morning.
Meanwhile, I was having a miserable time on the Croatian roads as well as in my own head. I found that the drivers there either were not used to finding cyclists on the road or just didn’t care about their safety – or perhaps both. I had several close shaves with other vehicles, two of which involving lorries, where I was lucky not to be hospitalised or killed.
The first happened on a narrow, bendy country road, while I was going downhill at maybe 35 km/h. A huge lorry appeared around the bend right in front of me, moving toward me at 50-60 km/h and occupying the entire road. I couldn’t slow down, the lorry couldn’t slow down, and the road was not wide enough for us both. The edge of the road on my right gave way immediately to a steep downhill slope, so that wasn’t an option. To the left was a wall. But just a few metres ahead, between me and the fast-approaching lorry, there was a gateway in this wall, recessed from the road by roughly a metre.
It was one of those moments where your body responds automatically – there was no time for thought. I steered the bike hard left – across the path of the oncoming lorry – and grabbed the brakes as hard as I could. I came to a halt in the gap between the gate and the road as the lorry roared past half a metre to my right. I was too shocked to be frightened or upset about it, so I just thanked my lucky stars and carried on. I don’t like to think about what would’ve happened if that gateway hadn’t been there.
The next encounter rattled me a lot more, though. In some areas you don’t have much choice but to take the same busy, long-distance road that everyone else is using – in their cars, vans, and HGVs. People didn’t seem to think it necessary to wait for an opportunity to pass me safely, instead preferring to do so close and at full speed.
A horn blared behind me, and suddenly I had the huge wheel arches of an artic tearing past at 60-70 km/h with less than 50 cm to spare, the cab towering above me. As the cab passed me, it started moving back over to the right, with the trailer following and the gap between me and it starting to shrink. With the lorry passing at such speed, the wake created the feeling of being sucked into it, and I felt as though I was about to be dragged under the trailer wheels.
This last experience was especially terrifying. I was really shaken by it, and it only compounded my feeling of despair and loneliness. My thoughts turned back to my routing predicament – and the idea of scratching.
I was now going past the Plitvice Lakes, which Miranda and I had visited more than a decade earlier, and which I had been looking forward to seeing. I’d noticed overflowing bins in many of the lay-bys I’d passed recently. They clearly needed emptying, and sure enough, I was soon passed (mercifully this time at a safe distance) by a rubbish lorry. It was a hot day, and the vile smell of the lorry lingered with me like a cloud of flies as it passed me. This happened again and again as it would stop in a lay-by to collect the rubbish, I would go past it, then it would overtake me again. We kept leap-frogging each other like this for several kilometres, and by the end of it I was ready to throw up 🤢 But at least it distracted me briefly from my inner troubles.
Despite my near-death experiences, I eventually realised it’d be puerile to abandon a race just because I wasn’t going to get the placing I wanted. If I was going to throw in the towel, I needed a better reason. What I had really lost, I realised, was the prospect of a finish that truly reflected my capabilities. If I came in mid-way down the field, could I really say I’d done my best? Would my result speak of that? No, all it would show is that I’d taken a dumb route. It would say nothing of my abilities (except my awful route planning) so what was the point in pushing?
This seemed like a much better reason to scratch. But still, it needed refining.
The real reason I just could not go on, I told myself (and Miranda via WhatsApp), was that I no longer had a concrete goal to drive me. If I was going to continue, I knew that I had to do the very best I could under the circumstances.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the problem is that ultra racing is haaaard. Ironically, if my only goal is to “do the best I can”, then I will not be able to do the best I can. If I’m going to push myself right to my limit, I need a hard, specific goal to latch onto. Something I really want. Something that will keep me from spending a couple of minutes at that shop getting an ice cream and a cold drink; something that will drag me out of my warm sleeping bag at 2am with no alarm snoozes; something for which I’ll forego every little comfort I might indulge in, however small, lest it slip through my hands.
But this understanding that I lacked a goal was a revelation to me. It made me realise that if I could just set one for myself… Maybe I could stay in the race and still give it my all. If I was going to stay in the race (both literally and competitively), I needed a goal that was both realistic and meaningful to me. I might not get the top 5 finish I’d hoped for, but what if I could claw my way back into the top 10? Perhaps that would be worth a shot… I chewed on this thought for some time while riding.
I eventually managed to recalibrate my ambitions on a top 10 finish, and by mid afternoon my mojo was reestablishing itself. The fight in me was coming back. I put my earbuds in, whacked on a 2-hour Velobeats mix, and hit the gas. The roads were smooth, the hills were not as awful as they had been earlier in the day, and things were starting to look up.
Meanwhile I’d been in touch with some friends/family via WhatsApp. I’d
foolishly bravely handed the keys to my Instagram account over to a couple of individuals before setting off from Geraardsbergen, so that they could be my PR team for the duration. Now that I was feeling more OK about my situation, I’d said that they were free to start posting jokes about it on my Instagram account. If you followed my Instagram account during the race, you’ll know how that ended (and I’m sorry to reveal to Josh Ibbett that it was all ghost-written).
One good thing about my unusual routing choice was that I was retracing my steps (or wheel tracks?) from last year. With Velobeats thumping in my ears I started to recognise the scenery around me. This, combined with the road having flattened out since the morning, was a strange kind of morale boost. It certainly wasn’t homely, but seeing something I’d seen before made me somehow happier to be there.
This turned into actual excitement as I came into a town and realised I knew exactly where I was. I remembered from last year that there was a decent petrol station on the way out of the town, but more importantly, there was also a bakery on that corner I’d just passed that did the best börek.
I screeched to a halt, got off the bike, and went in to stock up on my favourite Balkan pastry. I came out with my musette stuffed with 2 kilos of fresh börek, hot out of the oven and burning a sweaty hole in my back. I got back on the bike and trundled down the road to the petrol station to pick up more sensible supplies like water and a blueberry cheesecake ice cream.
A couple of hours later I’d found a reasonably comfortable sleeping spot in the form of an alcove tucked behind a shopping centre the small town of Hrvace.
Day 6: Back to business
The Croatian-Bosnian border crossing was another familiar place for me. I’d crossed at Gorica last year, too, where I’d been struck by the sudden change of alphabet from Latin to Cyrillic and the sudden need to pay with (non-Euro) cash. From this point on I’d be out of the EU until I reached Greece 2 days later. No more Euros and, more importantly, no more mobile data allowance.
So it was ironic that this was the moment that I got a voice message over WhatsApp from David Ayre, the race coordinator. He asked me if I could send him a voice message back describing how the last day had been, how my routing choice had panned out, how I felt about it, and what my plans were for the future.
Despite the charges on my phone bill that this would rack up, it was a pretty nice thing to find in the post. Loneliness is always a challenge, so when people take an interest in what you’re doing it’s a big morale boost. Just hearing the voice of someone who understood what the hell I was doing perked me up. I’d had plenty of time to reflect on my situation by this point, so I was over the initial panic and was not feeling so doom-and-gloom any more.
I kept riding for a bit, hoping to find a quiet road where I could record a response for him on the hoof (stopping was of course not an option). Eventually I gave up on this and did it in the gaps between cars passing. Please excuse the car noises. 🚗💨
I’ll admit it took a bit of rehearsal and several attempts to get me sounding so eloquent and composed. It had kept me occupied for a while on the road, deciding what to say and trying again and again to record the messages without being passed by a hundreds of cars in the process.
In the end, though, I needn’t have bothered. Later in the day, close to the Montenegrin border, I spotted a photographer perched behind an old tractor, taking photos of my as I approached. Guess who?
I rolled to a stop and said hi to Ross (race reporter), David (race coordinator), and Tomás (race photographer). I guess they’d got bored of waiting for my reply and decided to drive all the way down south to meet me instead. How nice of them! I spent 5 minutes chatting with Ross and David (with the microphone in front of me) about how the last couple of days had gone, while Tomás took photos. Ross told me how nice it was to have an opportunity to get out of the car and stretch his legs (like when he’d run alongside me on my way up parcours 1), having spent most of his time in a car driving around Europe. It made me feel good about myself that they’d come all this way just to talk to me.
I said my goodbyes and headed off to the Montegrin border at Vraćenovići. It was mid afternoon by this point, and the queue from the border stretch more than a kilometre back down the hill. People were milling around by their cars with the engines off. I wasn’t going to wait hours just to cross the border, so I just continued up the hill past the queue, hoping no one shouted at me. Luckily no one did, even as I squeezed through the gap between the border officers’ cabin and the car at the front of the queue.
Passport stamped, I kept going up the hill and into Montenegro. As I did so, a car pulled up beside me and the woman in the passenger’s seat asked me if I wanted some water as it was such a hot day. She handed me a lovely, cold bottle of water from the back seat, no questions asked, and she and the driver wished me well and continued up the hill. This put a big smile on my face 🙂
One thing I found (and still find) quite disturbing about this part of the Balkans is the number of unofficial/illegal landfill sites. The countryside was beautiful – especially in B&H and Montenegro – but it was peppered with illicit open air rubbish tips. More than once I spotted the bloated corpses of animals (dogs? pigs? I don’t know) dumped among the rubbish sacks and abandoned sofas, carpets, boxes, and who knew what else. The smell of flesh rotting in the midday heat was sickening. I’d often smell a nearby tip even if I couldn’t see it.
Even outside the large-scale tips, there was a depressing amount of junk just strewn along the roadsides. Illegal waste disposal is supposedly a serious problem in these parts, and causes water and air pollution (when fires break out in the landfills). It’s sad to see this ugliness juxtaposed with such natural beauty.
A couple of hours after my free bottle of water I was approaching a town called Nikšić, where my route would finally rejoin everyone else’s. The descent from the high ground above had been thrilling, with magnificent views over Lake Slano. My photos don’t do it justice sadly, but it was one of my favourite views from from the whole race.
I stole a look at the live tracker and found that I was slightly behind the bunch that I’d been ahead of at CP2, but not by much. After all the doom and gloom of the last couple of days, I’d only conceded an hour or two.
Indeed, replaying the last couple of days on Follow My Challenge, it doesn’t look quite as dramatic as it had been my head at 3am the day before. How much time did I really lose with this manoeuvre? I’d rejoined the group not far behind where I’d left it, but was this time loss because the route was slower, or because I was slower? Or maybe both? Or perhaps I’d been faster, and the route had cost me even more than I thought.
It’s impossible to know, really. There are so many factors that decide the outcome of a self-routed race and you can never know how much any one of them contributed. I’d had some mechanicals along the way (punctures, almost-broken rear wheel), and of course my morale was at rock bottom for a good 12 hours on day 5. My discipline had slipped and I’d stopped a lot more than I should’ve done. On the other hand, maybe other people on the “main” route had had their own problems too. I’ll never know.
Either way, I was back in the race, not far from where I’d been before. Best to just put my worries behind me and get my head down.
The end of the day took me through the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica and on to the Albanian border, around Lake Skadar. It was dark by this point, and going around the lake I spied a magnificent tall ship in the bay with its sails all illuminated. But it turned out to be a tree as I got closer. Time to get some sleep, perhaps?
After crossing the border I started looking for sleeping spots. Something not too close to the noise of the road, something out of sight from prying eyes, something sheltered from above (not strictly necessary in such dry weather, but I sleep better like this). Unfortunately the long, straight road I was on didn’t have much of this. There seemed to be a lot of restaurants and bars along the side of it, every few kilometre or so, all of them still heaving with people at 22:30. Otherwise, nowhere I could shelter.
Eventually I found an empty restaurant, seemingly abandoned, by the side of the road. This would have to do. The building itself was locked up, so I’d have to sleep outside under the awning. It was quite windy that night, and the only side of the building that was sheltered was the one facing the road. Not ideal, but at least there was a low wall at the edge of the decking area where I was unpacking my things. I lay the bike down flat so that it would be concealed by the wall, and set about cleaning my teeth.
At this point, a car pulled into the car park in front of the restaurant and came to a stop right in front of me, its headlights flooding me. I stood there, dazzled by the light, and continued to brush my teeth as if it was the most normal thing in the world – what else could I do? Nobody got out of the car, and after a minute or so it backed up, turned, and left. This left me feeling a bit uneasy about sleeping there – would they come back? But I was committed now, so I took the risk and got into my sleeping bag.
- 🎯 CP3
- Being rattled to death on parcours 3
- 😰 Almost losing my tracker on parcours 3
- 👋 Saying hi to Robert Müller again
- Passing many North Macedonian parties in the night, and discovering where the TCR “song” comes from
- 🇦🇱 Cursing the endless gravel roads of the Albanian hinterlands
- 🇬🇷 Reaching Greece, and crossing a mountain track in the dark
Cleaned up to remove the ums and ahs:
Hey David, good to hear a familiar voice. It’s been a bit lonely in this part of the race, all the way down here.
Yeah, so I didn’t get the memo about this northern route that, well, everyone else seems to be taking. I’d love to say it was a calculated move, that I had confidence in my strategy… But it wasn’t, really. I was aware that there was a northern option and I’d looked into it a little bit during route planning but I’d discarded it because I thought it was going to be too mountainous.
But when I saw what was happening, Thursday night, people were asking me “Hey, where’s your route going?” “Good luck with this route!” And I was thinking “What route?” I looked at the map and saw the entire field heading off in a totally different direction, going considerably faster than me… Yeah, I really thought that was game over. It felt like I’d just completely taken myself out of the race just by making some stupid routing decision that the rest of the field hadn’t done. So yeah, I was kind of panicking actually. I was thinking “that’s it, it’s over”, trying to come to terms with that. But in the end I managed to pick myself up, not least with a bit of help, a lot of help and encouragement from friends and family. Lots of messages just saying “you can’t give up, you’ve got to keep going, you’re doing your own race now, it doesn’t matter, just give it everything”.
The route – my route – started to level out a bit, so I just whacked on a 2-hour mix – a Velobeats mix – music I normally listen to on the trainer, put my head down, just smashed the pedals. Got a bit of a rhythm going. Yeah, that lifted my spirits a bit. And I think in the end it looks like things have kind of evened out a bit anyway, so I’m actually feeling quite OK now. But I did have… I was down in the dumps a little bit, Thursday and Friday.
Physically speaking, everything’s working. The usual kind of stuff you’d expect after 5 days on a bike, so… [car noises] Lots of cars, sorry about this. [more car noises] I’ve been waiting for quiet roads and there are no quiet roads in Bosnia.
Okay, take 2. Yeah, physically speaking, everything’s working more-or-less. Aches and pains as you’d expect after 5 days on the bike. Saddle sores are coming and going. It’s manageable, but they’re there. A bit of a niggle with my left achilles. Again, manageable, but I’ve gotta be careful with that. I’ve dropped the saddle height just to ease the stress on that. It’s a balancing act, though because I also have problems with my knee sometimes and the lower the saddle, the more stress there is on the knee, so I have to manage that carefully.
As for plans for the future… Well, to be honest I’m mostly just taking it a day at a time at the moment, so I’ll see where I end up. I don’t think I’ll reach CP3 today, that’ll be tomorrow morning I expect. But yeah, just see how it comes. I’ve got all the border crossings planned out, so I know where I’m going there.
I think the one thing that’s giving me a little bit of anxiety is the CP4 “gravel question”. So, you know, go over the mountain or not? I did some research on this and I really cannot tell what it’s gonna look like on the ground when I get there. So my plan is at the moment actually just to look at Follow My Challenge and just see what the guys at the front are doing. I reckon they’ll have some good intel on it and they’ll be able to make informed decisions. So I’ll see what they do, and I’ll try and time it if I can to see how long it takes them and then I’ll just see when I get there. That’s my main anxiety. The rest of it, I’ll just take it as it comes.