I could sense them watching me, I was surrounded in the dark and I lay dead still frozen with fear for what seemed like hours. Then they came for me. I struggled to escape but was trapped, trapped in my bivvi bag and unable to find the zip to escape. I writhed around in the long grass in terror, my hands unable to locate the zip for what seemed like eternity before finally I found it and ripped it open to escape. The night air was fresh and snapped me from my nightmare. The mosquitoes were still buzzing around me but were somewhat less intimidating now that I was awake and alert. Finding a bivvi spot had proven tricky, tiredness had overcome me and pushing through the night to chase down the race lead was becoming dangerous as my self-awareness and self-control was beginning to deteriorate. The Croatian village that I had chosen to find shelter in seemed to have a barking dog guarding every house and they had sensed the presence of a stranger and were barking and howling loudly whenever I moved. I carried on riding through the village and the road turned to gravel with high hedges either side and eventually the dogs settled down into silence. I found a small grassy track leading through the hedge row and decided this would have to do as a place to sleep for the night. It was far from ideal but I was tired enough not to care and despite being on edge about being discovered I quickly fell into a shallow sleep. I slept less than 2 hours before the nightmare woke me. I was dripping with sweat and had mosquito bites on my face so decided the best thing to do was to carry on riding towards Vukovar.
Haribo’s are a fantastic breakfast for a Transcontinental racer and soon the sugar had filtered into my muscles and was powering me onwards. Around dawn a huge wave of fatigue washed over my body. My eyes began to lose focus whenever I looked down to check my GPS and eventually my vision became so blurred I could barely see the road stretching out ahead of me. Through the haze I spotted a bench so pulled to a stop, set my watch alarm and then fell into a deep sleep. Ten minutes later I was awake again, a little dazed but able to see so I remounted and carried on hunting the lead of the race.
With relief I reached check point 3 in Vukovar. The concentration of the hard chase had taken its toll and I was mentally fatigued and craving some social interaction. As I pulled up to hotel Lav I was delighted to see Anna, Tori and Red waiting for me on the steps. “Congratulations you are the first rider to CP 3” said Anna. I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing, I was sure that I would catch James at the checkpoint but was equally as sure that he would leave as soon as I arrived. The plan to crack him in Bosnia was now out the window after he stopped in a hotel for the night while I battled the wild Croatian mosquitoes. The race was now mine to lose, I had gone from second place a few hours behind to suddenly leading by 6 hours. I couldn’t hold in my smile and this was the single happiest moment of the whole race. I had pushed myself hard the whole of the previous day and the relief of being in front was immense.
After a relaxed breakfast and a quick wash in the sink I decided to reward myself for my efforts. I had carried a fresh pair of socks with me from Belgium and now was the time change them. Never in my entire life have I appreciated a clean pair of as much as I did that day in Vukovar.
I left checkpoint 3 happy, relaxed and very much aware of my surroundings. In 1991 Vukovar was the site of a major battle and siege during the Croatian war. The vastly out gunned Croatian National Guard held the city for 87 days against the Yugoslav People’s Army before finally being overcome by the sheer firepower used against them. The city was predominantly destroyed and large numbers of civilians were massacred. It was sobering riding through the city nearly 25 years later, passing by both derelict and inhabited buildings riddled with bullet holes. I remember reports on the news as a child mentioning the wars in the former Yugoslavia so seeing these places for myself really brought home the damage that war can do to people’s lives. The fact that I had just cycled there reinforced how small the world really is and how close to home many of the troubles we see on the news really are.
Bosnia is an incredibly beautiful country. The mysterious misty mountains reminded me of cycling through Laos earlier in the year and this particular stretch of the race satisfied my need to see the world and explore new places. The traffic north of Sarajevo was particularly heavy and it did wear down on my already fatigued mind but generally they were very respectful of cyclists, especially compared to the aggressive nature of Croatian drivers. As far as my race plan went I just needed to maintain by gap. The hard push through Slovenia down to CP3 was beginning to tell and I had to stop more times than I would have liked to stock up on food. I reached Sarajevo as the night closed in and despite my fatigue I decided that I should push on a little further before I slept. I made it to the top of the next climb before the haze of tiredness began to affect my vision and co-ordination so I began to search for a bivvi spot. As luck would have it about 5 minutes later I passed a small café and hostel so pulled up and staggered in. The old man was charming and insisted I take a seat and have a drink. He spoke no English and I spoke no Bosnian but somehow I managed to explain what I was doing and that I needed some where to sleep for the night. 6 Euros later and I had a large dormitory room to myself. I was too tired to shower but managed to rinse my kit, plug in my charger and set the alarm on my watch before falling instantly into a deep sleep.
It was daylight and I was inside. Both these facts set alarm bells ringing as I slowly regained consciousness from my slumber. I took a moment before I realised what I had done. It was nearly 6am and I wasn’t moving. I had slept so deeply that my alarm had failed to wake me and I had wasted 3 hours of my lead. After the initial panic I regained my composure and quickly dressed and prepared my bike to leave. I was angry at myself, over sleeping is a schoolboy error and although it didn’t affect my race situation drastically I was aware throughout the ride that the race winner from the first two editions of the race, Kristof Allegaert, was not present. If I was to win the event I knew I would not be satisfied unless I could post a time comparable to Kristof’s and sleeping for 6 hours is not a mistake that would have gone unpunished had Kristof been present.
A ham sandwich and orange juice for breakfast helped ease the frustration but none the less I decided that under no circumstances would I allow myself to stop for more than ten minutes that day as my lead was now under three hours. I felt physically strong and was comfortable that the gap couldn’t be closed. However three hours, as I had demonstrated with my unplanned lie in, could be lost with ease. I was climbing again and the weather was moody as high level thunder and lightning rumbled above and a light drizzle fell. The climb I had just crested left me on a high plateau covered in what looked like giant craters. It was a unique landscape which had a mysterious beauty to it. This was a magical moment and is the reason I love touring by bike, you never know what might be round the corner.
I soon found out what was round the corner; gravel. This was genuine gravel unlike the boulders of the Alps but I still had an uneasy feeling. I stopped to check my GPS and phone map as the thunder continued to rumble above. The next high point on my GPS was 5 miles ahead and the road I had found myself on stretched for a further 30 miles. At this point I was glad for my long nights sleep as my mind was fresh and able to make a reasoned decision about the next course of action. If I continued along the gravel road then it certainly wouldn’t turn to tarmac again before the summit. In fact the chances of it turning to tarmac again in the next 30 miles were slim and for all I knew the road might be climbing right up into the thunder storm above. I turned back. The valley road may be longer but was less risky, I had already wasted nearly another 2 hours with this error and if I continued on the gravel this could have been double.
I didn’t know at the time but I came perilously close to losing the lead, 5km in actual fact. I’m glad I didn’t know as it would have spoilt the ride. In some ways I’m even glad that I made the route planning error that led me to the gravel road in the first place. If I hadn’t made that mistake I would never have experienced the mysterious plateau and I may have chosen a totally different route through Bosnia altogether. My diversion took me through some of the most stunning and imposing landscape I have ever experienced. I cycled down a deep, steep sided gorge and the road cut through tunnels in the great walls of rock. Its moments like these that I realise how insignificant humans are in the grand scheme of things. These huge natural rock formations have existed for billions of years and will last for billions more, we are just a speck on the timeline of their existence. My thoughts were deep and focussed on anything but the race as I cycled through the imposing landscape. My emotions from visiting Vukovar were rekindled as I passed by signs warning of land-mines at the side of the road, a stark reminder of the recently history of Bosnia and surrounding countries.
The magically misty mountains of Bosnia ended abruptly. The road led into a long tunnel through a mountain and when I was fired out the other end it was down a long fast descent to the scorched wind swept plains below. I stopped at a petrol station in the town of Gacko, to replenish my food supplies and apply sunscreen. The border with Montenegro was close and the final check point of the race was reachable by sunset. Check point 4 was perched atop Mount Lovcen overlooking the spectacular Kotor bay. This was familiar ground for me having ridden through the same check point in last year’s race, so it was comforting to know exactly what was coming up for the remainder of the race.
I reached Kotor at sunset, happy to be close to the checkpoint and social interaction it entailed. I remembered the climb to mount Lovcen well and especially enjoyed the hair pins on the lower slopes. It’s a climb that suits me, not too steep, fairly long and some nice views. The checkpoint was located in a restaurant a few kilometres below the summit so I decided that I would be able to order a proper meal at the top. I was feeling good and fancied riding fast, so had a quick pit stop at a petrol station and filled up on some high octane fuel; a can of coke, an ice cream and two bags of Haribo. I was also aware that there was a fairly good chance of the cameras rolling on the climb so decided that it would have to be a big ring climb… I wanted to send a message to anyone that might see me climbing that I was feeling strong, fast and wasn’t going to be caught!
Buzzing on caffeine and sugar I rode the lower slopes of the climb at a good tempo, conscious to save some energy to attack the hairpins further up the climb. As I exited a small village around a kilometre up the road four small boys playing in the street spotted me coming. Laughing they linked arms across the road to try and stop me passing. I chuckled to myself and stood up and sprinted towards them in a game of chicken. They broke apart at the last minute screaming and laughing with joy as they ran alongside me, racing me and trying to give me a push.
A little further on I picked up the checkpoint staff who had driven down the mountain in the Volvo support car. I had a brief chat with Mike as he drove alongside while Camille and Barney took photos and filmed, but the adrenaline was pumping and all I wanted to do was race up the climb as fast as I could. I attacked the hairpins as the sun sunk behind the mountains and as darkness finally fell I was left alone in the darkness for the final few kilometres to the restaurant. I arrived at checkpoint 4 just in time for last orders in the restaurant.
Since my mishaps earlier in the day my mind had wandered away from the race situation. I was busy just enjoying the ride and the landscape so it was a sharp snap back to reality when I was sat eating a large bowl of pasta only to be informed that James Hayden had dropped into the bay of Kotor. It was around a two hour ride around the bay and up to the check point but none the less I was on edge again all too aware of how quickly time could be lost. I struggled to finish my meal, after days of constant small meals it was a shock to try and fit in a large one. I had boosted my lead back up to 2 hours since lunch time so was aware that I was riding much faster than James but was still keen to maintain and grow my advantage. I wanted to stay and chat at the check point but I knew I needed to push on so left as soon as I could. I climbed the remained of the mountain the dark and enjoyed the long descent to sea level and the town of Podgorica.
Experience played into my hands over the last few days of the race. I knew there was a 24-hour petrol station on the run in to Podgorica and sure enough I was able to top up my water and sugar levels when I reached it. I had hoped to reach Albania that night but at this stage in the race it was becoming harder and harder to stay awake late into the night. The petrol station attendant told me that there was a hotel 5 km down the road so I decided that this should be my stop for the night. It would only be a short sleep, punishment for oversleeping and aimed at keeping the pressure on James as rumours had begun to surface that he was nursing an injury. I just about managed to stay awake on the descent to the hotel but when I arrived outside it looked shut. It was a warm evening and I spotted a nice shadowed spot in the garden next to the hotel, perfect for a passing transcontinental hobo. I set my alarm for 3 am, 2 hours’ time, and made sure that I slept with my watch next to my ear. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice.
Albania seems to have a bit of a bad reputation but personally I really don’t understand why. I love Albania, yes it’s a bit rough around the edges in places but has a certain charm to it. I passed through the border just after dawn and made good time along the flat plains that run parallel to the mountains. I knew that the mountains ahead would be tough so stopped for a large breakfast of an omelette and some kind of meat stew with rice. I’m not quite sure what the meat was but it tasted good and didn’t look like it came from a dog so I was content. A quick wifi check showed me that James hadn’t actually made it to CP4 yet and was obviously enjoying a cheeky lie-in in Kotor.
I entered the mountains in a more relaxed state of mind, my race lead back to an acceptable gap should any further mishaps occur. In actual fact I was so relaxed that when I saw the large brown bear in a cage at the side of the road I had to turn round and take a closer look. I don’t condone animal cruelty but it’s not often you get a chance to see a creature this big up close. It was a hot day and the keeper of the bear was hosing him down to keep him cool. I lent my bike up against the step in front of the cage, a good gap between it and the cage bars. The bear was obviously bored and wandered over to look at me while I took a quick photo on my phone. It was particularly hot and I wasn’t sure anyone would actually believe what I was telling them if I didn’t have some evidence. Mr Bear was obviously quite taken by my bike and before I knew it had reached through the bars and had his claws around my rear wheel. I managed to topple the bike forward before it was pulled into the cage and decided that was probably karma for photographing the poor animal. Luckily my bike was unscathed so I sheepishly set off on my way, it was my race to loose and I could have just lost it in a bear attack!
The mountains of Albania were tough. In last year’s race my gear cable snapped forcing me to ride single speed through this section but this year even with gears it was so hard. The heat was unbearable (no pun intended!) and I had to refill my bottles once an hour. The extra 200 miles of mountains through Bosnia had taken the spring out of my legs and it felt substantially harder than the 2014 race. Energy levels were particularly low as I crested the summit of the mountains and my mind was spinning after such exertion in the heat. I was aware that I probably looked especially dishevelled by this point and I was aware of my own stench. I needed food so stopped in a nice airy restaurant. I managed to order a large tray of bread and some meat and despite my waning appetite forced it down. I needed a quick break half way through so took the opportunity to wash my shorts in the toilet sink. I had been suffering with a saddle sore since Italy and the heat and salt had started to make it especially painful and I was concerned that it may get infected if I didn’t pay close attention to hygiene. I scrubbed my shorts as best as I could and hung them to dry over my aero-bars, applied some alcohol hand wash to the afflicted area, stifled a yelp, donned my gore tex shorts and then returned to my table to finish my meal. The restaurant owner probably thought I was a bit strange.
The Macedonian border marks the high point of the mountains. From now on it would be almost all downhill to Skopje and this was in my mind. I say almost all downhill, that is apart from a long draggy false flat through the Mavrovo national park. Last year it went on for what seemed like hours, this year was no different. I finally made the start of the descent, a fast 25 km of downhill, on treacherously pot holed roads. It was dark again and I struggled to pick out the holes under the white lights of my lights. My eyelids were drooping again and I kept rattling through rough sections on the edge of control. With relief I made it to the valley floor with my bike intact but as the time approached midnight I began to realise that my target of making Skopje was unrealistic. I felt especially disgusting after a day of heavy sweating and dusty roads and my saddle sores were at the point where I need Ibrobrufen to be able to sit in comfort. Mentally I was at a bit of a low point so I stopped in the nearest town and found shelter in the first hotel I came across. My phone charger had broken so I had limited contact with the outside world and felt particularly alone and isolated. I needed a good sleep, a good clean and to hit the re set button for the final push to Istanbul.
4 hours of sleep and clean dry kit makes the word of difference. The sun was rising as I cycled through a deserted Skopje feeling fresh and energised. It was nice to cycle across Macedonia in the daylight. In last year’s race I rode most of the way through Macedonia in the dark so was unable to appreciate the rolling hills. The heat was unbearable again but I knew that there wasn’t too much hard climbing before I’d reach the Bulgarian boarder. I also knew that there was a very fast very straight descent down from the border crossing so this was an incentive to keep pushing on.
I didn’t quite make 50 mph as I tore downhill into Bulgaria, I wasn’t far off though. This was the final leg for me and I wanted to finish the ride as soon as I could. Bulgaria treated me to a vicious headwind and eventually I took shelter in a petrol station for a ham sandwich dinner. Miraculously I managed to buy a new phone charger and make contact to the outside world. I also managed to check the race tracker and to my surprise was now leading by an entire country! It turns out that James had pulled out due to injury and second spot was now filled by Alexander, the same Alexander from France who had attacked me in the hills outside Dijon on the first day of the race.
Now I knew I had the race won and had just over a day’s worth of riding left. For some reason upon realising this I decided that trying to cycle the remaining distance to Istanbul without sleeping might be a cool thing to do. That idea lasted until around midnight before I spotted a patch of rough grass next to the Bulgarian equivalent of B&Q. My double vision had returned so I decided that safety was preferable over heroics and curled up in my bivvi bag for my last sleep of the race. Two hours later I was rolling again, keen to cover the next section of road, the notorious E80 trunk road, before the traffic was too bad. My plan worked and, despite a short 10 minute power nap when my eyes started to lose focus, the ride was relatively traffic free. I reached the Turkish border around 10am and cycled to the front of the queue, whacked my passport on the desk and was through in 2 minutes. Its amazing how far a bit of cheek can get you!
As any Transcontinental rider will tell you the final run into Istanbul sucks. Heavy roads, strong winds, lots of traffic, a ridiculous temperature and general fatigue from 2500 miles of riding all add up to make it an unenjoyable experience. I was miserable. It’s a good job I was now on schedule to arrive much later that anticipated as I was in a foul mood and would have made particularly bad company at the finish line. It even crossed my mind to not even bother with the finish line and just find a hotel in the centre of Istanbul and sleep away my temper. I was tired and hungry so decided to stop for one last fuel stop. I brought a carrier bag full of cakes, a can of coke and an iced coffee and was busy consuming an ice cream when two Turkish cyclists turned up. They were a father and son out for an evening ride and the brief conversation I had with them was enough to snap me back to my senses and out of my mood. I was being childish and stroppy and had become self-obsessed over the course of the afternoon. I knew I was nearly done and would be missing life on the road in a few days’ time so made sure I enjoyed the last few hours of my journey.
The final push into the city itself through the Belgrad Forrest sapped the rest of my energy. The short sharp climbs were a struggle but I knew I was nearly there so pushed on regardless. Hitting the Bosphorus was a relief and my body finally shut down. The final 5km to the finish line were a surreal experience. The past 10 days had gone by in a bit of a blur and I wasn’t entirely sure I was ready to be back in the real world. My mind was beginning to spin with hunger and tiredness and I had to stop to eat my final two cakes 2 km from the finish line.
I reached Café Hisar in Istanbul in first position after 9 days 23hours and 54minutes. I’d like to say it was the most fantastic moment of my entire life but in all honesty I was too tired to feel any emotion. Ending an adventure like the Trans-Continental race is always a bit of a disappointment. The real magic of the event is the journey itself, the people you meet and the experiences you have along the way so ending always feels a little bit sad.
After a few days of reflection and recovery the achievement of winning began to settle in. Overall I am happy with the way my race went. Compared to last year’s edition I was mentally much tougher, avoided injury, mechanical issues and equipment failure. I have learnt some lessons from this edition which will hopefully make me stronger in future editions of the race. Currently I am unsure if I will race the Transcontinental Race in 2016. There are plenty of other races on the calendar and many more areas of the world to explore, however I do have a soft spot for this event and will definitely be back again soon.