The last third of the race. By this point the field of riders had elongated to cover half of Europe, and the order of things was becoming a bit clearer. I’d come back from my routing gaffe a few days ago and, mentally speaking, was fully back in the game.
The next couple of days would have some of the race’s toughest terrain, which I was pretty anxious about, but I’d also be crossing my last border (into Greece) and taking my last actual sleep stop before the final all-nighter to the finish.
And most importantly, I’d soon be getting my EU data roaming access back 🥳🇪🇺
Day 7: The Hell of Parcours 3
I woke up by my abandoned restaurant to find that, despite someone having watched me clean my teeth a few hours earlier, no one had stolen anything while I’d been sleeping. Good.
Back on the bike, down the road to Shkodër, and off towards CP3 at last. I had 100 km of flat ground until I reached the foothills leading into the hilly terrain around CP3 and the parcours.
The last stretch to CP3 had me crossing a long bridge with veritable trenches in its tarmac, behind a screaming goat tied up on the back of a motorbike. It was a bit weird, but as I came off the bridge I went straight through a market with all kinds of animals and produce, which I guess the goat was to be sold at.
My route took me through the market and onto a very sketchy track that skirted the forbidden A1 road up to a junction that lead into the hills toward CP3. The track wasn’t tooo long, but it was more like a red-graded mountain bike trail than a gravel track, and had me pushing my bike up slopes and falling off in places. A taste of what was to come in the parcours.
I arrived at CP3 around breakfast time and it was the same quick turn around as usual. James Robertson and Charlotte Gamus – who I knew from last year – were in attendance. I had a quick chat with them while they took a few photos and then I got going again. I was apprehensive about parcours 3, knowing it was fairly long, gravel-strewn, and potentially a bit hairy.
I neglected to stock up on food in a supermarket before heading downhill in the direction of the parcours, which I came to regret. I’d seen there was a petrol station just out of town and figured this would be quicker than a supermarket, but hadn’t realised that Albanian petrol stations are a lot like Italian ones. They don’t sell food – or even drinks. It was too late to turn around and go back up the hill to Burrel to find food there, so I decided to risk waiting until after the parcours. The guy running the petrol station outside the town had been kind enough to give me some of his own water, out of his personal fridge, and that would, I estimated, be enough to get me through the parcours in the midday heat.
I started the parcours and once more bumped into Robert Müller, my constant companion in the race. We chatted for a few minutes on the opening slopes of the climb – while it was still tarmac – and then he went ahead as I tried – in vain – to find food at a local café. Only drinks.
I’d already climbed 400 m by this point, but there was still another 600 m or so to go, and from here on it was “gravel”. I put this in quotes because it wasn’t the kind of gravel you’d want to do on a gravel bike.
The 40 km parcours took me the entire morning to complete and was, frankly, awful. The ground was so rough and rocky that I spent the entire time staring at the ground in front of my bike. On the uphill part, I had to pick my line so carefully that even a couple of seconds’ lapse of attention to look at the scenery (heaven forbid) would have me stalling and falling off the bike. On the downhills, I was being rattled to death and hanging onto the brakes for dear life. The only appropriate bike for this route would be a mountain bike, ideally with full suspension. I’m sure some people enjoyed it, but I suspect they were in the minority. Do I have good memories of it in retrospect? No, I still resent it.
This agony continued unbroken for almost 5 hours, and sadly I don’t remember seeing much of my surroundings. And here is one of my issues with parcours like this. The race is 95% tarmac, so anyone wanting to ride competitively has literally no choice but to optimise for that. The consequence of this being that you are setting yourself up for misery on the “gravel” parcours sections. If you want to contest a strong position, you’re forced to ride these parcours on an inadequate bike because ultimately it will still be faster than a more sensible one. I think there can be merit in forcing some hardship in a race, but there is a fine line between type-2 fun and type-3 fun.
So I bumped and rattled my way along this bone-shaker of a parcours. Somewhere around halfway I realised that my tracker was no longer in the side-pocket of my top-tube bag. This had never happened to me before, but is the stuff of nightmares for any ultra-cyclist. I stopped the bike and shouted something profane into the air – just as Robert Müller once again appeared on the scene. I tried to compose myself a little while I said hi to him and explained my situation. We agreed that the parcours was a joke, and not a funny one.
As for the tracker, this could be a disaster. What if I’d dropped it right at the beginning of the parcours? That would mean almost two hours of backtracking. Four hours in total. Unthinkable. But I looked at the live map and to my huge relief saw that my dot was only a few hundred metres back up the hill. It was a 10 minute climb to get back there over the appalling terrain. But there it was, lying in the middle of the track. It could’ve been so much worse. I continued with the
Not long after this I once more came to a halt, this time with a flat tyre. There’d been a section where someone was trimming back the trees lining the sides of the track, and there were fallen branches lying all over the place. I’d decided I’d try and ride through the 20 metres or so of debris rather than walking the bike. This didn’t pay off.
I unmounted the tyre and inspected the tube to find no fewer than 3 punctures. I’d already used both of my spare tubes (and of course abandoned the tubeless setup in my rear wheel on the first night), so all I could do was get the other tube out – the one that already had a puncture – and fix that one instead. My first attempt failed, as I’d apparently missed a thorn that was still lodged in the tyre, causing a puncture immediately as I re-inflated it. I cursed and started again from scratch, patching the second hole in the tube. I eventually got the damn thing back up to pressure and set off once more.
An hour and a half later I was off the parcours and – finally – back on tarmac.
I’ll note here that the roads in this part of Albania’s back-country aren’t consistently tarmacked. They’re peppered with enormous craters, fissures, and trenches, to the point that road traffic had to constantly veer left and right to avoid them. Cars too, not just bikes. Sometimes the tarmac just ends and is replaced with rock and gravel for 10 or 20 metres before turning back into tarmac. I navigated this obstacle course together with cars, lorries, and motorbikes, all travelling in both directions. It was tiresome.
Anyway. I stopped at a small corner shop in Peshkopi, the town directly after the parcours, and filled up with biscuits and crisps, and not a lot else (that’s all they had). After this it was a quick 20 km ride to the North Macedonian border.
The quality of the tarmac improved dramatically as soon as I crossed the border – thank god. No more gravel-filled craters to contend with, at least for the time being.
The route headed south toward Lake Ohrid and back toward the Albanian border. It was a pleasant night, not too hot, but really busy. I passed through several villages on my way to the border, around 22:00, and seemingly every one of them had a thumping party going on that had the whole village out dancing and singing. But what struck me was that it sounded just like the official music of the TCR (which you can hear at the beginning of every podcast episode).
The central Balkans are the TCR’s heartlands, with most editions passing this way. I’d read somewhere a couple of years ago that its music was written and/or sung by a musician from here and that it was a take on the traditional music of the region. So now, riding through these North Macedonian villages buzzing with energy, music, and dancing, the sound made sense to me. The TCR podcast’s intro will forever remind me of that warm evening heading for the Albanian border.
I crossed back into Albania and started searching for a sleeping spot. I was on a major road heading south along the western shore of Lake Ohrid toward Pogradec – the last major town before Greece. There was precious little in the way of shelter on this road, until I came across a church with an arcade around it that would be just perfect for sleeping in. It was down a short slope and set back from the road. I’d be able to hide out of sight in the arcade, where I’d be sheltered from the wind. Cosy!
I wheeled my bike down the slope,
talking to myself like a madman verbalising my joy at having found such a cosy spot. Just as I was unpacking my stuff a man turned up out of nowhere right next to me saying something in what I guessed to be Albanian.
He seemed a bit confused by my presence, and didn’t speak any more English than I do Albanian. At first I thought he was fine with me setting up camp there, but he got agitated when I started taking my sleeping bag out. I got out my phone and tried using Google Translate to ask him whether I could sleep there (having downloaded the language packs for all the countries I’d be passing through). After about 5 minutes of back-and-forth with the phone I realised it wasn’t gonna work. Apparently the border police tended to stop by in the night for a rest and he, the church warden, didn’t want any trouble from them.
I was very disappointed not to be able to sleep there, and moreover frustrated at having wasted a good 10 minutes in the attempt. I carried on down the road looking for another option, but knowing there wouldn’t be anything quite so good.
I eventually settled on a lay-by for lorries that was set back from the road enough to be quiet, and was seemingly unoccupied. It wasn’t perfect, but I’d already spent another 10 minutes trying other places (an underpass filled with filth and excrement, a lay-by with too many cars, etc.). This would have to do. I settled down next to the cab of a lorry and went to sleep.
Day 8: Hellenic Heat 🇬🇷
The day I’d be making my final border crossing! Phew, not far to go now.
My first stop, in Pogradec, was just a few kilometres down the road from where I’d slept, and I needed two things before I set off for the Greek border: food and a toilet. The food presented itself at a street-side kiosk that was for some reason still open and selling junk food at 3am on the town’s empty streets. I reluctantly parted with my last 10 euros in cash in exchange for a heap of 7 Days croissants, getting change in Albanian Lek that would soon be useless to me (I eventually managed to redeem it with an Albanian colleague at work a month later).
The toilet stop was trickier. There were a handful of petrol stations still with attendants sitting by them. They’d have toilets, surely. I tried a couple of them, and in each case was shown round the back of the building to a disgusting and unusable toilet. Neither of them had any toilet roll available, and with a broken flush, the second seemed to have been accumulating its contents for several weeks. I decided it wasn’t worth it – I’d have to try and wait a few hours for the border crossing.
The route from Pogradec to the Greek border would take me through a sparsely populated area of Albania’s hinterland. It had seemed pretty straightforward on the map; Street View imagery was lacking in parts, but from OpenStreetMap it seemed like the surface would be tarmac for most the way, with perhaps a couple of gravelly spots.
For the first couple of hours the road was indeed tarmac, and it was very pleasant riding along an empty road as the sun came up. For a few minutes I even had a stray dog for company. It came over to have a look at me as I rode past, and ended up trotting alongside me for a kilometre or so. Who said Balkan dogs are vicious?
Anyway, the nice smooth tarmac didn’t last that long. This part of Albania is quite the backwater, but even so the road was surprisingly quiet with no more than a handful of cars passing me over an hour. I found out why as I came to a junction where the main road continued for a bit before just… stopping. The road was unfinished.
I must’ve seen this in my route planning, because luckily my route was telling me to take the left turn onto a smaller road. Unluckily, that road promptly turned into a gravel track. A long, unbroken stretch of gravel would’ve been OK, but instead the remaining 60 km to the Greek border alternated between tarmac and gravel every kilometre or so. Every time the tarmac returned, I hoped that it was for good, and every time I was disappointed.
Somewhere close to the border I was passed by Ben Chadourne. I’d last seen him back in Italy when he’d passed me shortly ahead of Robert Müller toward the end of day 3. Funny how 5 days later he could pass me again, with neither of us having seen each other in the meantime. We chatted for a few minutes about how things were going for each of us, and ended up bitching about parcours 3 the day before. Neither of us was impressed with it, and both of us felt it could easily have been a third of the length and still made the point that it was supposed to make. “OK, it’s gravel, I get it”, Ben had said. Quite.
I was disappointed to be passed by someone, of course. You very rarely actually see anyone else, even if you’re overtaking one another on the map. So when you do see someone going past you, it affects you more than it perhaps should. I knew that I’d been consistently ahead of him until now, so for him to pull ahead now meant he’d likely stay ahead (or so my line of reasoning went at the time). Nonetheless, I didn’t change my pace as he left my side and the gap widened. I figured that ultimately it didn’t matter, as long as I was doing the best I could. If he was going to finish ahead of me, then that was OK – I would get a placing that reflected my abilities, and that was enough. The crisis of self-confidence I’d been through a few days ago helped me see this with a bit of perspective, so I was content.
As for the route, I’d tried to avoid this part of Albania when planning my route, firstly because it was doubtful how navigable the roads would be, but also for the difficult opening times of the border crossing itself. But the only other practical route would’ve been around 2 hours slower (using a larger 24-hour crossing further north), so that would do only as a back-up in case I wouldn’t make the “plan A” crossing in time.
Google Maps indicated that it closed at 10pm. A Greek friend of mine had even phoned the border crossing for me a few weeks before the race to double-check that it definitely wasn’t 24-hour. He’d reported back that it was in fact open 24 hours for pedestrians, but that a bicycle counted as a vehicle 🤦 Strange, given that the closest settlement was several kilometres away on the Greek side, and more than 10 km away on the Albanian side… Who were they expecting to arrive on foot? But whatever. I’d have to be careful with timing.
Fast forward a few weeks again and I’d finally made it to the Greek border, happily around midday, and so none of this mattered. I used their facilities, got the necessary passport stamps, and continued on my way to start the most mountainous part of the route.
Before this year’s TCR, I hadn’t known Greece as a particularly hilly place. I mean, I didn’t know much at all about the country, other than that it had some nice islands. But during route planning I started to realise that there are quite a lot of mountains there. I mentioned this to my Greek friend (the one who’d checked the border times for me) and he’d replied as though it was obvious: “yeah, Greece is mostly mountains”. So along with the Alps, this was the part I’d become nervous about in the run-up to the race. The Alps had shown me that I was perfectly capable of handling a lot of climbing (something I’d had problems with in the past), so I wasn’t feeling so worried about it now. But it was hot, and the climbs were steep.
Each of the other control points in the race had been accompanied by one section of mandatory parcours – either before, around, or after the control point itself. But CP4 had three parcours sections: 4a, 4b, 4c. In themselves, these parcours were all very short and not particularly challenging (the longest being 14 km). The challenge lay instead in how to get from one to the next.
4a and 4b in particular were geographically close to one another, but separated by a mountain range. This could in theory could be traversed by way of a 20 km off-road track that went directly over a mountain pass, but it was impossible to tell what this would look like on the ground. The only alternative was a 75 km detour that had nearly three times as much climbing as the pass itself. I’d spent hours and hours in the weeks and months leading up to the race wringing my hands over which was the best option.
The mountain pass option had been part of the infamous Hellenic Mountain Race earlier in the year and I’d managed to track down the ride report of Quinda Verheul and got in touch with her via Instagram. She sent me what photos she had of the route and commented that I might not have a lot of fun trying to do it on a gravel bike. From her photos it certainly looked hairy, but not enough to rule it out. In the end I gave up trying to plan it out and decided to make the call when I got there, hoping that the choices of the riders ahead of me would give me some intel.
For the time being, I had a bit of flat ground to recover on before the real climbing started. My route wended its way around Ioannina. Somehow the sun seemed much brighter now that I was in Greece. Uncomfortably so. I realised that my photochromic sunglasses weren’t actually doing much good, and wearing them wasn’t much better than not wearing them. I’d had them for a few years and I noticed that the lenses were yellow-ish, so I guess the photochromic treatment was perishing. The amount of light was really uncomfortable and I had to keep my eyes squinted, so when I went past a shop that had a rack of sunglasses outside, I screeched to halt, picked out a reasonable-looking pair with big blue lenses and bought them on the spot. Problem solved.
After Ioannina the climbing started in earnest as I headed to parcours 4a at Melissourgi. I stopped for water at a fountain I’d found on my offline copy of OpenStreetMap at the base of the first climb (around 600 m; a bit more than an hour of climbing)… Only to find that it’d been boarded up and there was no water flowing. Dismayed, I asked a man who happened to be passing in his car if he knew of a nearby water source. It turned out that he was also a cyclist, and was surprised to see me tackling such climbs in the hottest part of the day. He told me what to expect from the coming climbs, and warned me to take it easy in the heat. He didn’t know of any fountains, but gave me a bottle of water that he had in the car and wished me luck.
I survived the climbs (approaching 15% in places, with more goats than cars for traffic) and a couple of hours later I was in Melissourgi. It would soon be dark, and I’d pretty much made up my mind by this point that it would be safer to take the detour around the mountain. I’d estimated that it’d lose me an hour or so, but the risk of getting stuck on a potentially impassable track in the dark didn’t seem worth it.
But when I reached the end of parcours 4a and saw the road going off up the mountain… Well, I changed my mind. Having doubled back for the detour and ridden a few hundred metres, I then threw caution to the wind and turned back around. It was a big risk, but I was here for adventure. I’d seen that Robin Gemperle had done it overnight in pursuit of Christoph Strasser, so I knew it was possible. I’d regret it if I didn’t try.
The road started off tame, but the surface (and daylight) deteriorated over the next half an hour. Soon enough I was riding on rough dirt/gravel in near-darkness, with the gradient getting steeper. I spotted a pair of lights up ahead in the gloom, which morphed into a pickup truck as they drew closer. The truck stopped beside me and the driver rolled down the window and shouted something at me in Greek. I asked him if he spoke English. “Bear! Bear on mountain!” he said, with a great big grin on his face. Uhhh, maybe that’s cool if you’re in a pickup, but it was more unnerving on a bike. Well, I’d just have to have my wits about me. Bears are solitary creatures, just like ultra-cyclists, so unless it was a mother with cubs, I should be fine.
The track got steeper and steeper and the gravel looser and looser. By the time I’d reached the last third of the climb, after a couple of hours of climbing, it was pitch black and I was alternating between pushing the bike and trying to ride it. I’d get off the bike and push, only to get frustrated with the slow progress and get back on when the gravel seemed a bit smoother. My bursts of pedalling would last maybe 30 seconds at 250-300 W before I’d wash out and lose my balance. I was way above my target power, but it was all I could do to keep the bike moving over the loose stones at inclines above 10%. Just pitch black and total silence all around, rudely interrupted by the crunch of gravel and my frantic huffing and puffing.
In the end, I didn’t meet any bears on the way up the mountain, but I did trigger a pack of dogs that were presumably guarding livestock on the mountainside. Although I never actually saw them (I guess they stayed with their wards) it was unsettling to be surrounded by a cacophony of barks in the darkness, with only a bike light to show me the way. If they’d actually shown their faces and things had got physical, my bike would’ve been no help in escaping them on that track.
Two and half hours after my about turn, the track began to level out and the loose gravel gave way to a slightly smoother, earthier surface. I could see enough of the surrounding topography to know I’d at last crested the pass. I picked up a bit of speed and enjoyed it for as long as I could. There was now the simple matter of the descent into Theodoriana to tackle, and then I’d be bedding down for the night.
In my head the descent was going to be easy, but of course it wasn’t. Granted, there was no pedalling involved, but the loose gravel was even more treacherous on the way down, and I slid my way down precariously in the dark with one foot clipped in and the other ready to break my fall. I’d reach a switchback and then have to switch my stance and clip in with the other foot instead, following the slope of the terrain. Still, I could see practically nothing around me in the dark, save for a small light of unknown providence high up on the mountain. Dogs barked in the distance, no doubt disturbed by the continuous clatter of dislodged pebbles accompanying me as I lurched my way down the mountain. In the end it took almost as long to get back down off the mountain as the climb itself had taken (2h vs. 2.5h).
I was sad not to have been able to see any of the mountain scenery around me, but it was a very weird and memorable experience. Compared to parcours 3 the day before, this had been even more wild, but while that had been miserable from start to finish, somehow I kind of enjoyed this. Or at least that’s how I remember it. Parcours 3 had been forced upon me, and there was no reward for having done it. In contrast, taking the goat track mountain pass was deliberate and saved time over the alternative. It was also less physically painful for my hands, so that might’ve had something to do with it too.
Down in Theodoriana, at last back on tarmac, it was midnight and I was hunting for a place to sleep. I must’ve looked quite conspicuous, as a woman came up to me and told me she had an apartment I could stay in for €30. I thanked her for the offer, but explained that I’d only be sleeping for a few hours and would prefer just to find a simple outdoor shelter. Did she know of one? To my surprise, she said yes, and told me to follow her through the village square and down some steps to the back of the church. There was an arcade against the side of the church building – much like the one I’d wanted to sleep in the night before – and I was welcome to sleep there, she said. She asked if I wanted a blanket or anything else to keep me warm and comfortable (no, but thank you very much) and told me where to find a water fountain in case I needed it. How lovely!
The final stint. No more sleep before reaching the finish line. Almost there.
- 🪰 Being mobbed by bot flies
- 🤦 Going it alone, again, while everyone else takes a different route
- 🎯 CP4 – the last one
- 🥱 Pulling an all-nighter and wishing I’d abstained from caffeine before the race
- 🥵 Overheating on Greek climbs
- 😩 Pushing my bike up the hills into Thessaloniki because I was just too exhausted
- 🏁 The finish line!