This race is only in its second year but will undoubtedly grow into one of the top self-supported bike races around. It has a very unique format—after starting in London you are given three check points which change each year (for 2014 it was the cafe near Paris where the Tour de France started in 1903; Stelvio Pass in northern Italy; and Mt. Locven in Montenegro) and you choose your own route between the points, ending up at the Rumeli Hisari in Istanbul (where the finisher’s photo below was taken). You have just over 14.5 days to finish the race, although you can complete it outside that window but the results will not be included. There were 101 riders entered, 88 started, and at the time of writing 18 scratches.I ended up finishing in just over 13.5 days after 3,400 km of riding and two ferry trips for a 34th place tie. The race was challenging, rewarding and all I could have hoped for. I’ll definitely come back and ride it again!
My wife Lis and I arrived in London five days before the race and stayed with our friends Mike and Alison. It was great being back in England and we were graced with excellent weather. I managed to get the bike built, sort out some last minute equipment issues, and even get in a nice moderately long training ride.
There was a pre-race meeting and we had a nice meal with Marion and Keith who were keen cycling enthusiasts and followers of the Tour Divide. It’s always great to get together with fellow enthusiasts and talk cycling. I hope that one day we can return the hospitality!
We went with Marion to the pre-race meeting where she was helping out. It was a good thing she was with us as I had put the location in my diary but they had changed it and I hadn’t noticed. The cafe had a cycling theme and it was great to meet a number of riders who I had heretofore only known on Facebook. There was the usual incredible buzz and energy which proceeds a race. As the noise and heat increased Lis wisely moved outside while I stayed on for Mike’s race briefing. Not a lot of news outside of what was in the race manual. They took our photos for the SPOT GPS tracking page, we signed a waiver and that was it. The most useful information was from Mirko who last year had done my planned route to Bari. He said not to do it as the traffic was horrible and slow. I took his advice and went to Plan B: Ancona – Split.
What can I say but starting from Westminster Bridge which was closed to traffic is such a unique experience. As you can see from the photo, Lis came and saw me off at the start, along with my friend from the World Bank Anna, and Mike. In fact Mike and I rode down to the race which was a good spin for my legs.
Compared to the other racers I was quite heavily laden, with my bulging rear seat bag containing a sleeping bag and rain gear. The frame bag was for food, and I had three water bottles.
The race organizer—Mike Hall who won the 2013 Tour Divide race—did an excellent job and there were lines across the road with our numbers on them. We lined up in three rows over our number. I was between Andreas Bader from Germany—who I met later in Ancona at the ferry—and Barry Duncan who I didn’t see again after the ferry to France. They were both to finish about two days after I did. Especially impressive for Andreas who was taken out by a taxi in Italy and had to find a new wheel, then cycle 25 km in an hour not to miss the ferry!
At the eighth chime of Big Ben’s clock (08:00) we were off! We cycled behind the pace cars to the Elephant Circle roundabout and then the race began. We peeled off into two groups: the fast riders who went to Dover and the survivor riders who went to Newhaven. If you were trying to set a record or get a really good time you went to Dover as you could catch a ferry to France on the hour. By comparison, for Newhaven you had a 10 hour wait to catch the ferry. However, you also saved some 125 km of cycling. So if you planned to win, or at least have a really good time, then Dover was your point of embarkation. If you wanted to finish and do fairly well then Newhaven. I chose the latter. Having said that, the female winner (Pippa) departed from Newhaven—so there goes my theory!
It was on the way to Newhaven that I realized that my efforts for route planning using ‘RideWithGPS.com’ may be problematic. Rather than being on lowly trafficked roads, I ended up a number of times on what could at best be called unpaved walking paths. Like the one to the left where some hikers took my photo. By the time I got to Newhaven my bike was covered in mud and I was wondering what was in store for me. It was clear that what counted for a road in RideWithGPS.com (and thus Google Maps upon which it is based) was not what one would want to ride in a race. While it didn’t matter on the leisurely Day 1, it would later on …
It was a perfect cycling day and I enjoyed the ride to Newhaven. Several other riders who had better routes planned than I did arrived earlier and we camped out in the terminal before our 22:00 departure. I had booked a cabin so as to have a few hours sleep before our 03:30 arrival in Dieppe. It was great catching up with the other riders, many of whom I would meet over the next two weeks as we wound our way to Istanbul.
The race really began after we were off the ferry at about 04:00. I had to fiddle a bit with my gear so others were off before me but I soon found myself on a lovely ‘Route Verte’ (Green Route) which was a very long bicycle path heading east. My plan was for a very big first and second day over the relatively flat sections in France, then tackle the alps. It felt great to be on my bike and I made good time—the riding was perfect.
Unfortunately as the day progressed the weather deteriorated and we were presented with very strong headwinds. I took this photo of some flags showing what we were dealing with. It was hard work! I saw two riders ahead of me drafting each other which was against the rules. Disappointing to see this so early in the race, but I understood the temptation.
Although it was Sunday morning, there were still bakeries open in the smallest villages so I was able to sustain myself with excellent French pastries. The best I had on my entire trip were in France! In one village I met up with Rickie from Wales, Andy and Jane from Yorkshire and enjoyed their company for a while before we parted ways with our different paces and route selections. The weather deteriorated until we were in very heavy rain by the time we hit Paris.
I had chosen a slightly longer route to the south of Paris to avoid cycling through the city. However, things worked against me as my Garmin 800 acted up and would not display the route. I tried scrolling the map to make sure I was going in the right direction but this was to no avail as the screen would not refresh. I tried to enter the GPS location of Control Point 1 (CP1) but the Garmin would not even open the screen to enter the data. In the end I asked Lis and Alison to help and they texted me the address of CP1. Unfortunately, Garmin took me to the address—in the north of Paris rather than the south—and I only knew this when I arrived and there was nobody there. With my high school French I established that I needed to be about 20 km south so it was back on the road again until I was able to get the right location in Garmin. This wasted about 3-4 h of riding, and ended up traversing Paris twice! So much for avoiding the traffic.
I got to CP1 around 19:00 and was in 70th place. People I’d passed earlier had been there before 15:00. What an unfortunate start. At least I was better than the fellow who sheltered in his space blanket during the rain. His suntan lotion had reacted with the blanket and he now has silver ‘glitter’ all over his body.
My plan was to stay the first night in Troyes and had I not done the needless detour through Paris I would have made it. I ended up going off route to Sens and grabbed a hotel there at 01:00 after a 370 km day. They would not let me put my bike in the room so I was a bit worried, but managed to sleep anyway.
I started before 07:00 and was in Troyes by 11:00. I passed another rider on my way into town and then met her again after a toilet stop at the railway station. Vasiliki was from Greece and had also ended up being taken off road by her Garmin, messing up her brakes. She was looking for a bike shop but the entire town was closed. I gave her a hand and fixed her brakes, as well as confirming with her that her tyre was not in need of replacement. After we had lunch together we left, but she was much stronger than I am and soon took off.
I met up with Andy and Jane again at a petrol station. They were in good spirits except for the fact that they had had some five punctures. I was running the same tyres (Continental 4 Season) and I suspect that my advantage was having 28 width rather than the narrower 25’s they were running. I managed to do the entire race without a puncture!
I was hoping to reach Belfort that day but in the late afternoon my Garmin 800 took me on what proved to be an unnecessarily long and indirect diversion. I don’t know who did the navigation facility in the 800 but it is definitely someone with a very sick sense of humour. Almost totally useless. You can see what I mean from the map below. I’m heading straight towards Belfort then have this 90 degree right turn … At least an extra 2 h of riding with some serious hills over the sensible direct route.
In what I thought was a fortuitous finding, I came across a rustic restaurant that was open. I used my poor French to order an omelette and enjoyed my first hot food in two days. The only problem was that I got food poisoning which was not what I needed. I continued on towards Belfort and at 00:30 I saw two bicycles parked outside a bar! It was two Italian riders who had also been taken on a ‘Tour de Garmin’ around the back roads of France. I continued on but about an hour later became really sick and needed to bivy as I was shivering with cold—even though it was 15 degrees C. The joys of food poisoning.
I found a place by a school and got in my sleeping bag with my down vest on. Couldn’t sleep as I felt really poorly. By 03:00 the nausea and cold had passed over so I hopped back on my bike and continued on. I got to Belfort about 05:00. I will say that this part of France was very lovely and I wouldn’t have minded seeing it in the day!
From Belfort it became a bit hilly as I headed towards Basel. After a short break where again I couldn’t sleep I got back on the bike and arrived at Basel at 09:30. Not too far off my original schedule, but having not slept at all and with recovering from food poisoning I was not in the best of shape.
Switzerland is my favourite country in Europe so it was great to be back. I stopped at the Basel train station for some ablutions before heading out again towards Zurich. Again I had some routing problems but eventually made it out of town.
The mountains and countryside in Switzerland are just so beautiful and the cycling was brilliant. Lots of good paths running parallel to the road, and when on the road drivers who were considerate of cyclists.
I was in Zurich by lunch and found some great vegetarian sandwiches from a petrol station for the first real food since my ill fated dinner some 18 h before. It’s hard work cycling so far with no nutrition but it wouldn’t have stayed down. I sat by the lake in the sunshine enjoying my meal, watching the boats sailing by, thinking how great life is.
I cycled along the south side of Lake Zurich (good advice from my friend Nora!) before heading further east. I was finding that bread and yoghurt were the best things for my delicate system and they kept me well fuelled. I thanked my high school German teacher Mrs. Genno for being so tough on us as I was able to communicate in the most remote places.
I eventually found myself on a bike path going through tunnels next to the expressway which was amazing. I was high above the lake to the east of Zurich. I ended up in the town of Walenstadt where I got a nice hotel room and was able to have two falafel rolls for dinner—nice to have some solid food again. The Swiss were far more civilized than the French and didn’t mind my taking my bike to the room. It was 43 h since I had checked into the hotel room in Sens and slept so I really looked forward to a shower and some sleep.
Refreshed after 7 h of sleep, it was back on the bike heading east. Today was a big day as I planned on knocking off the alps. The route to Davos for bicycles seemed to be well sign posted. It was part of a trans-European route to Prague. As I headed up into the hills imagine my surprise when I saw Vasiliki cycling towards me! She was on a ‘Tour de Garmin’ being directed the most inappropriate and irrelevant route possible to Davos. I pointed out the signs were in the opposite direction so she turned around and rode with me for a while. Then we came to an intersection where she was directed at 90 degrees away from where we were going. I told her I was going to follow the signs and in frustration she said she was going to head down to the expressway. Later on she told me she was stopped by the police on the expressway and berated. She simply told them she was Greek and lost—and got away with it!
My clearly posted route worked well for a while, but then led me to an unpaved road. Then to two tracks heading up across a field. Then a single track which ended. So much for Swiss efficiency. It was raining heavily and to add insult to injury I crashed the bike in a deep mud puddle! I saw a footpath heading into the trees and a very rickety bridge across a stream. I didn’t want to head back down again so pressed on and eventually found myself back at a road. Rickie later told me she had the same experience so I can’t blame my navigation!
I was in Davos by 11:00 and got some food from a supermarket then it was the long uphill climb to Fluelapass at 2383 m. Just as I started the climb I met up with Rickie. She told me she had bought warm clothes in Davos but they would not sell her rain gear as they were going on sale the following day! How Swiss Like a lot of riders she had started off too light on the gear and was now regretting it. She climbs mountains like a rabbit and so soon took off saying “I will see you at the top of Mt. Stelvio”.
I continued at my languid pace up the mountain and eventually summited. The photo below shows what the conditions were like. Horrible. Cold and very wet. I was grateful for my rain gear.
The downhill run was cold and wet. I was very pleased that I had changed the bike to have a front disc brake as it ensured I could stop in such poor conditions. Then it was up another mountain to climb up to Pass del Fuorn (2149 m). There is a law that when something can go wrong it will at the most inconvenient time. There was some construction going on early in the climb and I mis-shifted with my chain going all the way over the back of the rear cog and getting stuck between the cog and the spokes. I had checked this before I left and was not able to replicate it afterwards so I really have no idea how this happened. Anyway, here I am on a single lane section of road, no shoulders, construction going on, lots of traffic and having to fix my bike. Not fun—but eventually got it sorted out.
As I ascended to the Pass del Fuorn it had stopped raining and I was treated to a brilliant sunset over the alps. Apologies for the poor photo. Around 20:30 I hit the town of Val Munstair. This town has a road up to Mt. Stelvio from the back but we had to descend all the way to the bottom in Italy before ascending. Why make things overly easy?
I was tempted to stop there but felt really good so kept on running downhill into Italy. I decided to get a place to stay for the night and then tackle Mt. Stelvio in the morning.
I reached the town at the junction towards Mt. Stelvio around 21:30 and after trying unsuccessfully to find a place to sleep decided that I’d try closer to the mountain. I had no success which left me two choices: bivy and be cold or ride up the mountain and be less cold—at least until I got to the top. Being of the sensible nature I chose the latter so at 22:30 I started the climb up Mt. Stelvio. In the rain.
There was several towns on the lower reaches and they were still relatively busy, but things got quieter as I climbed. In the last town there was a woman cleaning tables. She came over and watched me riding my bike at night up the mountain in the rain and gave me the universal look: you are crazy. Shortly afterwards I stopped for some nutrition and chatted with a mountain guide Marco who told me this was the worst summer they had had in 18 years. I’d believe it.
The total climb I had to do was vertically about 1600 m. In New Zealand I regularly train on Takaka Hill which is 800 m so I figured all I had to do was two training rides up Takaka Hill. Not a problem—except I had already crossed two mountains that day and had only 7 h of sleep in the last three days. So I simply broke the problem down into small chunks focusing on riding up 100 m of elevation at a time, and frequent rests. It’s probably a good thing I could not see what was ahead—this is what I saw in the morning looking down.
For some inexplicable reason I had the road all to myself—only about five vehicles passed me during the entire climb and there were no other riders. As would be expected I began to tire and I only hoped I could hold on to the top. I couldn’t. Two kilometres from the top I bonked. So I stood there in the rain, the temperature was 0 C, basically out of fuel.
One thing I have learned from endurance racing is that the brain tells you the body is out for the count before it really is. With two kilometres to go that is about one thousand turns of the pedal. I’ve done that more times when I’ve been tired than I can count. So I told myself that I only had one thousand turns of the pedal before finishing the climb and being rewarded with shelter so time to get moving. I crested Stelvio Pass at 03:00 after about 980 turns.
Control Point 2 was located just over the top of Stelvio Pass at a hotel so I went looking for it. I could not find it. There was lots of rain and fog and I could not see more than 100 m at most. After eliminating all the places at the pass itself I saw one last option about 200 m downhill to the right. The problem was that I knew that if I went down those 200 m I would not make it back up. Those 980 turns had really emptied the tank. So I took the ‘easy’ way out. I bivied in the ATM machine at the top of Stelvio. It was dry and the temperature was above freezing.
It was a short, cold, hungry and miserable night. Which was only compounded when I found out that the other hotel was indeed the correct one, that they had left the door open, and there was fire which would have warmed me. Anyway, I made the best decision I could based on the information I had available …
In the morning after seven hot chocolates, breakfast (for three), I checked in. It was embarrassing to say that I didn’t make it past the ATM machine. I was disappointed to find out that Rickie had not climbed the mountain yesterday as promised but had wussed out and stayed in a hotel, leaving early in the morning and actually checking in before I did! So much for her call to see me at the top.
I had to do some recovery before heading out. It was a cold morning and several riders were taping cut up emergency blankets on their legs and using garbage bags to try and stay dry. I was very pleased that I had been ‘over’ prepared with my full rain kit, a down vest, etc. I grabbed a room for a hot shower and tried to sleep for a few hours but that was not to be so about 11:00 I came down to hit the road again.
Vasiliki was there, shivering with cold and about to head out. Greek’s are used to heat, not cold—even though she is a tough as nails cyclist. I gave her my cycling vest so she could stay warm (I still had my rain jacket and down vest so was not seriously disadvantaged). She zoomed off and I was also on my way. There were hordes of cyclists ascending Stelvio—and also cars. One of the cyclists was in the race so I stopped and chatted. Van was having a tough morning and asked how far to the top. “Do you really want to know?” I asked … then gave him the bad news it was another 8 km. At one point there was a fellow sitting on a chair taking photos of the cyclists zooming down. At 10 Euro a copy he probably has a very nice business.
My RideWithGPS planning told me I had over 5,000 m of climbing to do between Mt. Stelvio and Ancona. After the previous night’s effort I was in no position to do that sort of climbing so I rode for about 200 km along what was mainly flat cycle paths. I met a couple and chatted with them about the race. They offered to let me draft behind them to save some energy and were perplexed when I declined saying that was against the rules. “Who would know?” they asked. It was hard to get across to them that I would and following the rules is really important for one’s own integrity. I grabbed a hotel for the night. I enjoyed the best pizza I had ever had while lounging in a hot bath to relax the body.
I had changed my route planning to take the ferry from Ancona rather than Bari as originally planned. It was clear that the RideWithGPS elevation data were nonsense, and Mirko had told me in London that the ride was horrible with lots of traffic heading south in Italy. I had booked the ferry for Friday night but with the efforts of Stelvio and the subsequent short day, it was clear that I would miss the ferry by about 4 hours. Bummer.
I had to pass through Verona which was pretty crazy—and a great example of the RideWithGPS experience. A number of sections were perfect, cutting through quiet roads, then suddenly you find that the road you want ride on doesn’t exist as a real road so you are into dead reckoning. Not easy in a busy city. It was in Verona that one of the riders got taken out and had to have major surgery. Martin Cox withdrew from the race and rode back to be with him. What a valiant man. He has a thoughtful post on it and I hope that were I in a similar situation I would do the same.
Once you leave the alps into northern Italy it is really flat and the riding becomes a bit boring. It’s strange to non-riders but having a few hills to break the monotony is better than totally flat. At least the wet and cold were behind me—at least the cold. I got caught in a very heavy afternoon rain storm for 45 minutes which saw me sheltering under a bridge.
It was a holiday in Italy and everything was closed. Even petrol stations. I found a bar and got some pizza and well as other ‘calories’. With my poor French I was able to explain to the other patrons what I was doing. I realize that it is better to butcher a language and make yourself understood, than to be too shy to try. Later on in places like Albania and Turkey my atrocious German was to come in quite handy!
One frustrating feature of Italy is that you would be riding on this road and suddenly with no warning it would turn into an expressway with cyclists forbidden. No signs for alternate routes etc. so you’d have to dead reckon it. During one of these reroutes I passed an airport and figured they would have some food. I had two of the most delicious watermelon pieces ever. Not only were they wet, but very cold and refreshing. The aerodrome was a training site for parachutists and they invited me to join their BBQ. Very gracious considering what I looked (and probably smelled) like, but I declined as I had miles to travel. One of them was a vegan and I gave her one of my vegan energy bars from Nelson NZ as a thank you for their friendliness. She was most appreciative.
Since I had missed the ferry I decided to treat myself to a hotel room. Fat chance. I ended up in a coastal area near Ravenna, north of Ancona, where there were many thousands of people on the streets ambling around, eating, enjoying the evening—even doing group dancing. I was totally lost but never have I enjoyed it so much. Very entertaining. At least there were a lot of restaurants open so I had another pizza and continued to wind my way south. Since there was no hope of a hotel I decide to ride through the night to Ancona and get a room there for the day before catching the overnight ferry.
About 02:00 I saw what looked to be a crashed racer next to the road! It was Vasiliki and she was covered in a space blanket and intertwined with her bike. She looked like she had crashed and covered herself to keep warm. She woke when I approached and told me she had taken a 1 h sleep break and it was time to move on. I was pleased she wasn’t hurt and we decided to ride together to Ancona. She was fun to ride with, and was doing exceptionally well having only taken up cycling two years ago! She also didn’t fit the usual endurance cyclist profile: when we stopped for a short break she took out lipstick and put it on! Later at the finish photo time she showed up with high heels.
The road was quite busy in places and she had no working rear red light so I took my spare helmet light and insisted she put it on her helmet. I felt a lot better since at least she was now visible. The traffic became quite light and I was pleased not to be riding this in the day—as mentioned earlier Andreas wiped out his front wheel in a collision with a car outside of Ancona.
About 03:30 I saw a bar that was open with an ice cream freezer by its door. I told Vasiliki time for calories so we went over and ordered some ice cream. As we sat outside we were ‘treated’ to quite the show. There were five patrons and the woman who served us. They were playing music really loud, dancing and having a really good time. At one point the waitress took her breasts out from her shirt and pushed them into the face of one of the men. Later two women had some ‘fun’ with another guy. It was amazing to watch and Vasiliki took her phone out to record part of it. She didn’t get much detail but you could get the gist of what was happening—with our bikes in the forefront. Anyway, we had miles to do so bade them farewell (after another ice cream!) and headed on towards Ancona, eventually arriving around 05:00.
The hotels were closed or full and Vasiliki was in very bad shape with her legs swollen. We put her in the waiting room at the train station and I went searching for somewhere to crash. This is her sprawled out.
I found a much better place to bivy but when I went back Vasiliki was totally out of it so I didn’t wake her. I went back and slept under this tree in a quiet corner next to a Roman arch dating back to the second century. Put my head down and I was out for five hours of really deep sleep.
When I awoke I went back to the train station and could not find Vasiliki (she had been kicked out at 08:00 and found a hotel room) so I went and got some fantastic pizza and spent the day snoozing in a cafe, eating and relaxing. I was really pleased to find an organic grocery store so got some excellent and healthy food. Then it was on the ferry in the evening with quite a few other riders before departing at 22:00 for Split. As soon as I got in my cabin I showered, took a sleeping pill, and was out for the count.
Croatia – Bosnia Herzegovina – Croatia – Montenegro
Our next Control Point was the top of Mt. Locven in Montenegro, some 1400 m climb above the town of Kotor. The road from Split south to Dubrovnik was quite busy but also had lots of places to stop for refreshments which was great. I bumped into Rickie a few times at the same places—we were riding at a very similar pace. While it was hot, it was not unbearable, and with the good road and lots of food I was in a good frame of mind. It was a lovely ride along the coast, and not as hilly as I expected—but mighty windy in places!
As the day wore on I decided that I would try and knock off Mt Locven that night. No, I hadn’t learned a thing from Stelvio. I got to Kotor bay around 21:00 and then did the ride around the bay rather than taking the ferry across to Kotor which would have saved me an hour of riding and some climbs. This was *not* allowed but for some reason the race leader, Kristoff, had missed that and ended up taking the ferry. He only found out after cresting the 1400 m mountain and going to CP2. So he turned around, went back down, took the ferry back to the other side, cycled the bay and re-did the climb. He still won the race in 8 days. Mind blowing.
Kotor Bay at night was lovely with lots of lights, and the town of Kotor even better with its ancient walls climbing up the hills, illuminated in spot lights. There were hordes of people about at 23:00 when I passed through the town so there was no way I would have found accommodation or a good place to bivy had I wanted to. Soon I was climbing up the mountain, taking a few breaks to admire the view and have some food. It was another story like Stelvio of climbing and climbing. There were a number of people partying on the slope, and a few dogs, but it was uneventful for me.
For some reason I thought CP2 was before the crest so I was quite surprised to reach the top not having found it. Since my plan was to continue down the other side I wasn’t worried as my SPOT GPS tracker would validate my ride. After a short respite at the crest I began the downhill ride and was pleasantly surprised to soon come across a hotel with the Transcontinental race vehicle parked outside. It was about 04:00 and since 09:00 I had cycled 336 km, with 4,546 m of climbing. I was tired. And a bit cold.
I went to the front door of the hotel and it was locked! I saw Vasiliki and Rickie sleeping on the floor so I knocked. Vasiliki rolled over, opened her eyes and looked at me, then rolled away and went back to sleep! Thanks mate. I knocked louder and the night guard came and let me in. I joined the ladies bivying on the hotel entrance floor. About 30 minutes later Jonathan Elliot from Tasmania arrived and also bivied on the floor.
About 07:00 the night guard came in and roused us. Vasiliki was most apologetic and convincingly claimed not to have registered me so I forgave her. The four of us were more worried about food and we managed to get the hotel to give us an excellent breakfast – ordering everything they had available.
The ladies and I headed out a bit late, but refreshed, and enjoyed the downhill run. Rickie had planned to head through Serbia but her supporters at home said that there was travel advisory so she had changed her plan to head through Greece instead. Since she didn’t have a route on her GPS I gave her my memory card with the route on it (I always have the routes in the main memory and the card as a backup). We then decided to ride together as we were doing very similar distances—although she was far faster up hills than I could ever dream of being. It was the start of a delightful ride which really made the race for me. We were very complementary riding partners and together were stronger than separately.
We had a fantastic downhill run for well over 1000 m through beautiful terrain. A great reward for last night’s efforts.
As we were approaching Albania we were caught by Chris who was rushing to Istanbul. He was taking a different route to us and soon bade us farewell. As we headed on my planned route Rickie got a text from a supporter telling her it was not the best way to go so we followed his (?) advice. I’m still not convinced it was better but after a round about route we ended up at the Albanian border.
Let me start with an apology to any Albanians who are reading this. You have been very unfairly slighted. Before I travelled to Albania my friends from the region (Croatians, Romanians, Serbians, Macedonians, Greeks, etc.) *all* warned me about my personal safety in Albania. I would be robbed—probably at speed while riding—there were nasty people lurking behind every corner, etc. Nothing could be further from the experiences that I had. Every person I met was friendly, helpful and engaging. I heard the same from several other riders. Not sure why Albanians have such a bad reputation, but at least my experience could not have been more positive.
I will say one thing for the route we ended up on—it was flat. Rickie and I made good time until the afternoon when she punctured. Her bike shop had used too narrow a rim tape and with the heat the adhesive was slipping which meant that the spoke holes were exposed and so *bang* there goes another puncture. She was very adept at changing but we were being baked: it was 40 degrees C and the pavement was reflecting the heat back up at us. This had been an on going problem for her and she had put on some duct tape at the worst locations. I had some tenacious tape with me so we cut it and made a new rim tape out of it. Worked really well and lasted until we were in Turkey.
Later in the afternoon we came across Jonathan who was not in a good way. He was at a restaurant where having eaten he was trying to get himself going again. He went into a very deep sleep while Rickie and I had our dinner. An interesting ‘sandwich’ comprised of ham, cheese, and French fries, with lots of mayonnaise. I passed on it while Rickie managed to eat hers. I gave mine to Jonathon when he resurfaced. By that time Van had also arrived. He had a bad experience of cycling down a long mountain to be told that cyclists could not continue along the road so back up again.
The four of us decided to ride together to Tirana where we would overnight. As we navigated through a town we were on the outskirts when a dog was frightened by us and ran across the road, only to be hit by a Mercedes who was overtaking us at speed. Bits of the Mercedes went everywhere and we heard the cries of the dog behind us. Van and Jonathon must have had a nasty scene. We rode on and Rickie set off at her normal quick pace. I held on about 10 m back (when riding together we are either next to each other or far enough behind that we are not drafting). Van and Jonathon were behind us and we soon outpaced them—they ended up grabbing a hotel before Tirana. I suspect we ended up on a motorway but I’m not sure and there were not signs (or an alternative route) so we just put out head down and rode on.
As we approached Tirana there was a lot of dust and smoke in the air and I began to have some problems with my asthma so had to take a few hits from my inhaler. Overall I was very fortunate not to have any major problems—and that as in spite of the poor diet I was having (lots of ice cream!).
The World Bank’s office in Tirana had kindly suggested a route through the city and it served us very well. There was a lot of traffic on the road and I would not have wanted to ride through Tirana during rush hour. The only problem was that I hit a major pothole in the dark which gave my wrist a major jarring. I had shattered the cartilage in my wrist in a bike crash years ago and the pain was about a 9/10. It stayed with me for a while before subsiding to something less bothersome. It was to reoccur for the remainder of the race—my only major complaint.
About 21:00 we hit the southern outskirts of the city and decided we needed some food and if possible a hotel. Rickie suggested we head off the road at a certain point and we were greeted with a bakery. She went in and bought something to eat while I watched the bikes. Rickie told me she had bought me two cakes. My Garmin claimed there was a hotel 75 m away so while she waited I munched on a cake and went looking for a room.
The Garmin was correct! I went to reception and requested a room. They told me they did not have twin beds, only king size beds. I got Rickie her own room and went back to get her. She was diligently waiting—and told me sheepishly she had eaten the second cake. Good thing as it was far too rich for me.
When we went to the hotel the clerk refused to let Rickie carry her bike upstairs and chivalrously took it from her arms and showed me up by bounding up to the top floor where we had our rooms. When we went in it confirmed that we were, in fact, staying in a hotel which catered for very short stays—i.e. prostitutes. Explains why there was someone available to make up rooms that late at night. When Rickie closed her door she called out that I had to look at the back of the door. Leather with studs. Went well with the red vinyl beds etc. I went out and grabbed some more food—from very friendly vendors who welcomed me to Albania and told me they hoped I had a good visit—before crashing to a very good night’s sleep.
We were out at 06:30 and the morning clerk would also not hear of Rickie carrying her bike. He insistently took it from her hands. Nice guys these brothel operators. We then hit the road and started the climbing out of Tirana.
It was a nice day for a ride, if a bit hot. After a few hours we had a fellow wave us down towards a new motorway with a tunnel! This looked hopeful and as we approached the tunnel Rickie called out that a policeman was waiving us over to the side. I told her to ignore him and within a few seconds we were in the tunnel. Having experienced tunnel construction when building expressways in China I must say that the quality of construction—and the safety features—were excellent (as was the quality of the expressway!).
I was expecting to be pulled over when we exited the tunnel but there was nobody in sight so we happily continued along the expressway enjoying the low traffic, wide shoulder, and excellent pavement condition. Rickie suffered graciously through my commentary on the design and construction features of the expressway. We rejoined our original route and then hung a left towards Macedonia. The ride towards the border was excellent, following along a river valley. Unfortunately it ended and we had a very long and very hot climb out of Albania towards Macedonia. It hit 42 degrees C before the border. That was hot. Rickie of course bounded up the mountains while I plodded along. She kindly waited for me at the top. As we crested the border there were a couple of German travellers hiking along, one of whom had actually been to Nelson New Zealand where I lived! Small world…
Our visit to Macedonia could best be described as fleeting. After clearing customs we barrelled down the mountain. The road was really poor and I hit another pothole at speed which exacerbated my painful wrist. Still it was a lot of fun! We circled the lake and were treated with lovely views of the water, before heading inland.
We stopped for supplies in a small town and chatted with a local. He worked as a truck driver in Sweden and spoke excellent English. He was very surprised that we had found our way through Albania with no issues. He shared with me his perspective on Macedonian history which I must admit was somewhat at variance with what I had read elsewhere. Suffice to say that Balkan history is very complicated and there is a lot of different interpretations of the same events. Factionalism and nationalism remains strong.
Our plan was to try and make for Greece and we made excellent time. We had another amazing downhill run towards the border. I was almost taken out by a Bulgarian bus which was the closest I came to being hurt the entire race. Before long we found ourselves at a very empty border crossing into Greece. The passport control fellow was amazed we rode our bikes all the way from London. The end was in sight …
Our first objective in Greece was food and we found a cafe in a small town about 20:00 where we sat outside and had some excellent sandwiches. It seemed to be the meeting place for all the young people in town who reminded me of young people everywhere—sitting in groups with their faces in their smartphones. Except they were all smoking. Something we don’t see so much of in New Zealand.
We still felt good and so rode on into the night. We reached a town about 23:00 but there was no hotel so we headed up to the town’s church which was on the hill and surreptitiously let ourselves in the gate. Even though it was late there were many people still on the streets and spilling out from cafes. Rickie’s light was annoying in that it stayed on for five minutes after we stopped cycling, but nobody seemed to see us. We found a covered door way and rolled out our sleeping kit. Rickie was out for the count in minutes while it took me a while to fall asleep. I envied her for her ability to fall asleep so quickly and to sleep so soundly.
We were on our way very early and made good time in the morning. As we headed towards Thessalonica the day heated up, but at least there was no headwind. The biggest problems I had with navigation were related to cities and once again I was presented with the option of taking a motorway. We decided on another route and ended up due to a navigation error on my part on a quiet road with a 10% grade heading not exactly where we wanted to be. To add insult to injury it was 42.7 degrees C as we climbed. Ouch. Not wanting heat stroke we decided to stop in a school where there was some shade and flaked out on the ground. Unfortunately before too long someone came by and told us we had to leave as they were locking the gate so it was back on our bikes, eventually dead reckoning our way to a village where we took a longer break and got some ice creams.
We eventually found our route again and were out of the hills so made good time heading east. By 19:00 we were hungry and stopped in a town where we had a proper meal. What that means is that the two of you order food for four, and that is just about enough to tide you over. I ordered five vegetarian dishes/ salads and Rickie had—very apologetically—a steak, which she said was fantastic. We had decided to ride a few more hours but as we were heading out of town I asked if Rickie would rather have an early night in a hotel, a suggestion she jumped at. I’m quite happy riding very late at night while she is an early morning person. She found us a room at the first place we asked, and they even didn’t mind (too much) our taking the bikes into the room. Hats off to Greek hospitality. After bivying last night it was great to have a shower and be clean again before our run into Turkey.
In the morning we had breakfast—Rickie with her usual two coffees—before we were back on our bikes and heading east. We were essentially following the coast and as we were climbing up a hill saw a cyclist parked by the side of the road. It was Chris—a bike mechanic from Lusanne who is married to a Canadian. He had bivied near the beach the night before as he was not able to find a hotel and was now battling a chain problem. At one point he turned to me and said “You would’nt have a pair of pliers would you?”. Of course I responded, giving him my Leatherman PS4. Rickie rolled her eyes and said that she was waiting for the time when someone would ask me for something that I didn’t have. I also gave Chris my spare three chain links since he was potentially running out of options and we left him to continue our ride.
About 10:00 we decided it was time for some more calories and a cafe seemed ideal. Rickie had another coffee and we shared three pastries, before ordering another two just to show them our appreciation of their good food. I do enjoy the fact that we can eat as much as we want on these endurance rides. There was a family from Norwich sitting next to us and Rickie encouraged the young son to go to a local mountain bike centre and get riding. She is such a great ambassador for cycling.
We stopped for a late lunch in Xanthi and then had a sleep next to the restaurant in the children’s play area. We were learning to try and avoid the heat of the day. Rickie was woken up by a turtle walking across her face! That was a portent of what would happen later in the day when we found a turtle in the road which Rickie rescued just before a car arrived which would certainly have crushed it.
As we headed out from Xanthi we passed two other riders, one of whom picked up his pace to keep up with us. Rickie commented that she had experienced this several times during the race that men did not like being ‘chicked’—i.e. having a woman show them that she was their equal (or stronger) on the bike. Some time later we stopped to check our navigation and he passed us. We soon peeled off onto side roads which offered a much shorter route than the main road we were on.
It was beautiful cycling through the Greek countryside on quiet roads. It was late afternoon, the sun was shining and we had a tail wind. We stopped for a break in a small town where we met an American woman named Laura who was married to a local and lived in Athens. Like most Americans she was very friendly and filled us in on some local history as well as answering some of our questions (like why are there only ever men sitting in cafes in Greece?).
The route I had identified followed the coast and we were rewarded with lovely views of the ocean and beaches. It wasn’t overly hilly and we made good time, admiring the villages, especially the churches. This really was a 10/10 ride—until the road ended and turned to gravel.
We were not keen on riding the gravel—especially given the tenuous nature of Rickie’s front tyre—so we headed due north into the hills with the hope of eventually connecting with the main road. Lots of climbing, but at least we were rewarded with brilliant views (and I had a Magnum ice cream!). Eventually the road intersected with the main expressway heading east so we decided that was our best option: especially as it had wide shoulders and little traffic. So we headed through the grass, hoisted our bikes over the fence, and soon found ourselves flying along the expressway. It was great—we were doing 20-25 km/h uphill, and 50-55 km/h downhill. As night fell the traffic got even lighter and we made excellent time towards the border.
It was about 22:00 when we reached the border, and stopped for some food on the Greek side before heading over to Turkey. The line of trucks before the border stretched for what seemed to be kilometres and I felt sorry for the drivers who would waste so much time there. We saw a woman who we had earlier seen at a rest stop and figured that there was a business for prostitutes to help the drivers pass the time …
As we crossed the bridge into Turkey we got a photo of Rickie in front of the Turkey sign. There were two Turkish soldiers on guard duty who were happy to join in the photo and welcome her to Turkey. At the passport control Rickie learned she needed a visa so popped over to buy one while I waited, chatting with another racer. I was fortunate insofar as my New Zealand passport let me into all the countries in the race visa free.
Although we had decided to ride a few more hours, Rickie was not feeling well so about midnight we pulled into a petrol station where they offered to let us bivy by the road where there were some other cycle tourists camping. Rickie fell asleep immediately while I couldn’t sleep—far too much noise from the road and vehicles stopping at the petrol station. So about 04:00 we hit the road again resolved to finish that day.
Perhaps it was the lack of sleep but much of the ride through western Turkey is a blur for me. Eventually the road intersected with the coast and that is where things got interesting.
Firstly we had an enforced rest stop when Rickie punctured her tyres. She had six punctures from thorns which had been thrown onto the road by people cutting the verges. I had four of the thorns in my tyres, but my trusty Continental 4 Seasons had not allowed them through the casing to puncture the inner tubes. We stopped at a petrol station where Rickie used my spare tubes and got herself mobile again. She really appreciated my valve adapter which let her fill the tyres from the petrol station compressor. So much so I gave it to her to keep after the race.
One of the key things which had sustained us over the last days—especially as the temperatures had hit 40 C—was ice cream, in particular Magnum’s. Our record was six each on a particularly hot day. As this was my last day of the race I set myself the goal of eating ten. As Rickie said, it was a race of extremes: distance, hills, heat, cold, rain, and so why not ice creams? In my ‘defence’ I would often have little else during the day ‘food’ (OK – calorie) wise as my system simply did not want to know about food. Later in the day Chris caught up with us and when we met him again at a petrol station he got this photo of my working on my goal of ten.
Chris took off while Rickie and I rested a bit. Much to our surprise about 30 minutes later we came across him sitting under a tree next to the road holding a wheel in his hand. “Do you have a vulcanizing tyre repair kit with you?” he asked. The self adhesive patches were not sticking in the 40 degree heat. Of course I did and so gladly shared it with him. At the finish line he introduced me to his wife Heather as the only person he’d ever met who was more prepared for emergencies than him. She was incredulous that was even possible.
The pre-race briefing had advised us to exit off the D100 road we were taking just before Siliviri. Bad advice. It should have been about 20 km earlier. This road was off the scale when it came to danger. Not only did we have no shoulder to ride on, but there were broken edges, pavement failure, and other hazards which pushed us out into the traffic which was heavy and travelling at a great rate of knots. Eventually I said to Rickie that we needed to get off the road and find another way. We tried to go along the waterfront, but she was almost knocked off her bike immediately by an oblivious Turkish driver. The traffic was jammed solid and it was a nightmare so we headed inland to regroup and work out our options.
As we reached the outskirts of town Rickie had another puncture—my tenacious tape repair was failing. After fixing it, we started following the route suggested by Garmin but it turned to a gravel road which was unwise to ride on given the state of Rickie’s tyres. So we tried dead reckoning it north east on paved roads which had limited success, and then outside of larger town Rickie punctured again. While she walked/ran her bike up the hill I headed into town to try and find some electrical tape we could use as rim tape. Not the sort of thing everyone carries but God is good and I found some in a shop.
Sitting under a tree with what seemed to be the entire male population of the town sitting in cafes watching us, we worked on the tyres. Rickie didn’t want to risk retaping the rim but after one tyre repunctured as soon as we inflated it she accepted defeat and we stripped the rim down to bare metal, rewound the original rim tape, and then put on electrical tape on top of it. With patched tubes that held to the finish.
With help from the locals we were able to find a town on my planned route and with that we were on the home stretch. It took us north and then on an eastern arc towards Istanbul. It was perfect riding weather with the afternoon sun behind us, no headwind, good roads and little traffic. I said to Rickie that I was sad that this was the last few hours of my cycling holiday as the end was in sight. She kindly agreed that we needed to go out in style and so we agreed to hammer it all the way to the finish line.
As I’ve mentioned before, Rickie is lightening fast up hills so it was impossible for me to keep up with her, but I tried. After one particularly gruelling climb I complemented her on getting my maximum heart rate to 10 bpm above what is normal for someone my age. No complaints. It was really fun. We caught up and passed another racer. As the sun set the traffic increased and there were some road works, but I still enjoyed the riding.
Rickie’s dynamo light was not working—probably due to cable problems arising from removing the wheel so many times. I gave her my spare light which had not as yet been used on the ride. With that every piece of my backup equipment was used—albeit seldom by myself. We met another rider Matt who was stopped for refreshments. We didn’t wait and headed towards the parcour that would take us past the Ataturk Arboretum and then down to the Bosporus.
It had been some time since we had anything to eat so we stopped at a kiosk on the way up and got a couple of drinks. I was also able to get some spare batteries for my Noxgear reflective vest—I gave my spares to Rickie when her GPS tracker stopped working. I felt naked at night without my vest and was pleased to be lighted up like a Christmas tree again!
Rickie shot up the climb fast as ever, with my trailing in her wake. It was over too soon and we stopped at the summit of our last hill for a moment before starting the wild ride down. It was Friday night and we passed a lot of raves along the way. Rickie and I had agreed that we needed appropriate music to finish the race so we rode to Phil Collin’s tune ‘In the Air Tonight’. Very appropriate.
At the Bosporus we hung a right and headed for the finish line through very heavy traffic. Rickie zoomed through with confidence while I did my best to hang on behind her. We were surprised to pass Matt—not sure how he managed to get ahead of us—and after 5-10 km of what can best be described as a surreal video game we were at the finish line where my wife Lis and Rickie’s partner Laura jumped out to greet us.
The race organizer Mike Hall was there with a number of other racers and supporters and we checked in. The final results were 3,400.5 km in 13 days, 12 h and 21 minutes. Rickie and I were tied for 34th place out of the 88 starters, and some 70 finishers. I slept on the order of 62 hours, most of which on the ferry from Ancona. Oh, and I only managed seven Magnum ice creams on the last day, short of my goal of ten, although I did have a large ice cream sundae at the finish which counts for at least two more . Here is my final route.
We mingled with the other riders and supporters for a while, also getting some food, but I was stonkered so we grabbed a taxi back to the hotel. I was squeezed in the back with my bike and the traffic jams were such that I regretted not riding—especially when the leg cramps started. It took what seemed forever to travel the few kilometres to our hotel but we eventually got there and I enjoyed a soak in a hot bath with some delightful muesli. It was really hard to believe that the race was over but unfortunately it was, and soon I was enveloped in a very long and much needed deep sleep.
The race officially ended the following day at midnight. Lis kindly took my bike to a local bike shop for boxing while I lounged around the hotel. Lis and I made our way over at 16:00 to the finish line for the finisher’s photos. We passed Vasiliki on her bike heading to the finish line but she didn’t arrive in time for the main photo at the beginning of this post. While we were waiting I indulged myself in one final ice cream, the diet starts soon. Riders were still finishing and one arrived just after the photo shoot. There was special award for the last rider to check in before midnight and we thought it would be him (when I left the end of race party at 22:00 I saw a cyclist who was just arriving and directed him to the party—I’m sure he got the award).
When Vasiliki arrived she did it in style, pulling out some high heels from a bag and putting them on. The girl has style and panache, as well as being one tough cyclist. She stands out from the crowd!
We went to the finisher’s party at the Bosporus Brewing Company which was fun—but loud! Mike gave awards to the top three men and the top woman. There were also a number of other prizes. Rickie got one for telling the story of my having so much spare kit on hand and readiness to share—even to this Albanian fellow who had a flat tyre. I was pleased to see that she got the same Lenovo pump that I was using—hers sucked big time and with the number of punctures she gets she needs a good pump!
I was sorry to say goodbye to Rickie who was such a great ridding buddy. I’ve hopefully convinced her to come down to NZ to do the Tour of Aotearoa in 2016. She’d crush the race. With the 24 h World Mountain Bike Championship coming up in October I hope that the riding we did in the Transcontinental Race has helped give her a good base to build on. She has incredible talent, and is also very personable and fun to ride with. Others such as Vasiliki, Chris, Van and Jonathon made it a really great experience.
This is an excellent race and I hope to do it again one day in the future. I’ve learned a lot from this ride and could hopefully knock some two days off my finish time—depending on the route. Thanks to Mike Hall for his vision and efforts, and to all the racers for making it so special.