Day 9: Kotor Bay to Shkodër – 147km
Being extremely tired isn’t fun. I remember being onto it and first ready on this morning. I think it was mainly due to the fact that I’d worked out that if I kept busy and focused on small tasks like packing my filthy belongings into my filthy little bag, then it limited the potential for me to think too deeply, thereby minimising my propensity for a massive mental meltdown. We left the hotel and got our first glimpse of Kotor Bay in daylight and it was stunning:
The beauty of the bay was scant consolation for the fact we were then faced with the task of hauling our acutely tired, slowly failing bodies over the top of the f*ck off-mountain that rose abruptly out of the sea up to the third checkpoint which was inconveniently located at the top, seemingly somewhere near the edge of the stratosphere. Cycling through beautiful places by this point, I was starting to feel like the unloved street urchin, scrounging for food at the gates of the Palace. We started the climb and Ron was on dog attack alert 5, the highest state of alert. I don’t know how long he climbed with his dog attack repulsion whistle in his mouth, cocked and ready, but it seemed fairly obvious that when the dogs did attack, the whistle was going to prove ineffective.
My morale was low but stable for the main part on the climb. We trundled up and it took ages. There were some stunning views but don’t make the mistake of thinking that this mitigates the unshakable sense of foreboding in any meaningful way. I spent the morning just plugging away. I was amused by the fact that Ron was greatly irritated by the inclusion of the Mount Lovcen (Lovchob) checkpoint in the route. He suggested that it was neither on the way, nor of any significance to cycling culture and was just included as a cruel twist of the knife. The greatest thing to happen on the slopes of Mount Lovchob, presumably ever, was the advent of ‘the Dutch Lady’. When you’ve cycled 12-14 hours a day, with ~2-4hrs sleep a night, for a week and a half, your body has certain ways of reminding you that it doesn’t want to cycle anymore. Most of these involve pain. ‘The Dutch Lady’ is an advanced manoeuvre pioneered on Mount Lovchob whereby the experienced endurance rider sits completely upright, extending one’s arms and fingers as completely as possible so one is just able to control the bicycle with ones fingertips. The upright riding position not only enables the rider to generate unprecedented power output, but also stretches ones back and rests ones hands, all whilst resembling the unparalleled grace of a 1930’s Dutch lady daintily riding home from the bakery on a Sunday morning.
As we neared the top of Lovchob, we got lost and scammed out of €2 each entering the national park but after an almost completely unfeasible length of time, a not insignificant amount of which i spent fairly sure that we were lost, we finally got to the checkpoint. It was a nice hotel which I felt was taking the p1ss, dangling the carrot in front of our faces. We decided that rather than crack on, we stopped for a nice lunch round the corner. K-Ron immediately fell asleep at the table, I had a big lunch, 4 coffee’s and 4 Fanta’s.
You might think we’d be feeling refreshed after a good feed and a bit of rest. This is far from the reality. It felt kind of like letting someone who you’ve kept awake for three straight days sleep for 10 minutes and then slapping them in the face and sending them back to work. All the time you’re constantly trying to balance on the knife edge of resting enough to be able to continue whilst knowing that each minute you’re stationary is a minute out of your sleep time that night. Fortunately, it started raining to wake me up and save my tyres from all that friction which wears them down and keeps you from sliding under oncoming vehicles. Coming down the mountain I had one of my first experiences with what I presume was extreme fatigue. It felt very much like when you’re driving down the motorway to go visit your family after work on a Friday night and you’re screaming along with the radio and slapping yourself in the face with your head out the window desperately trying to focus your eyes on what’s in front of you while racking your brain as to how you might stop the noise and vibrations you later realise were being caused by the rumble strip. Funnily enough, the only way address either scenario is to pull into the nearest service station and dose up on sugar and caffeine. I should note the rejuvenating powers of both substances have notable limitations.
Anyway, once we were off the mountain I was so tired that I suggested that we all split up for a bit. I just felt so tired that avoiding crashing into other people on bicycles seemed an almost insurmountable task. Pootling along alone for a while was actually really nice. I didn’t feel like I was holding anybody up if I eased up for a bit or stopped for any reason. With the whole open road ahead of me, my greatly inhibited reaction times weren’t such a worry anymore, I could just cruise along like an oil tanker in the ocean.
As we crossed over into Albania the scenery rapidly got weird and awesome. Changes in the landscape were really noticeable. The earth and rock were scorched red and basic roads trundled through massive open tundra’s framed by massive mountains. The first person we saw in Albania was a lady walking a cow on a rope along the roadside. Behind her, in the direction she was coming from, there was nothing as far as the eye could see. Ahead of her, in the direction she and her cow were heading, there was nothing as far as the eye could see. Where that pair were going from or heading to I pondered for quite a while. I wonder what they’re up to as I write this….
The atmosphere in Albania was strange. The road quality was good which was a bit of a surprise but everything seemed totally random. People either rode donkey’s or blacked out Mercedes and the roads seemed to just go wherever they wanted, turning not because of some geographical feature or urbanisation but just because that was the way. After a few heavy days we were keen to call it a day early. We had made amazing ground to this point in the race but we were suffering. We wanted to finally achieve what we had tried but failed to do nearly every day of the race and finish in the daylight. Morale got pretty intertwined with that idea.
Someone suggested we should stay the night in Shkoder. It was at that point that I realised I knew literally nothing about Albania. Apparently Shkoder was a city, but I probably wouldn’t have used that word to describe what I saw there given my previous understanding of the word. It was quite different from, say, Coventry or Berlin. First of all, everyone on the street was staring at us as if we’d just appeared out of thin air in a DeLorean. I guess they don’t get many people riding through there wrapped in skin tight lycra and riding race bikes with dumb little bootbag’s on their pannier racks. I found this point a little unnerving. To say we didn’t blend in is a bit of an understatement. It wasn’t the type of place you’d see the reassuringly recognisable outline of the golden arches or a holiday inn, although, if you were in the market to purchase a heavily worn car tyre, your luck was in.
We rode into the town and I pondered how on earth we were going to find somewhere to sleep. We saw a cash point and stopped. We didn’t have any local currency as the Albanian Lek isn’t sold anywhere outside of Albania. We established our own exchange rate after Ron saw Steak and Chips on a sandwich board for 800 odd Lek so we guessed this was about £6 or £7 so we spared our fragile minds and rounded up to 100-1. We carried on down the road to the big roundabout of chaos which presumably must be exempt from any form of traffic laws or etiquette. On the busy massive roundabout there were two cars stopped side by side as the drivers discussed something they seemed to find relatively amusing. Once we and the rest of the traffic got round them there was a guy stood in the road stamping a car tyre down an open manhole. I found this experience fairly surreal. We carried on, fingers crossed and then we saw it. Our ivory tower. Grand Hotel Europa *****. I think it may have been Stoney who went in and came out with the incredible news that we could stay for €25 each and keep our bikes in the secure underground car park. We finally finished a day’s riding before dark and even had some beers on the roof terrace looking down at the intriguing, bustling, frightening city beneath us, safe in our five star, luxurious, very reasonably priced ivory tower.
Day 10: Shkoder to Pogradec (Hotel QAFE Plloce) – 240km
This was the first day I woke up to the call to prayer at 5am. That was pretty surreal as I wasn’t expecting it. I found it strangely beguiling and I wondered what life was like in Shkoder… for about thirty seconds and then got back to packing my filthy kit into my filthy little bag again. After the supreme luxury of beers and a decent sleep the night before though, morale was high (relatively speaking). We got going early and I was well keen to crack on before anything too weird happened to us.
The first couple of hours were flat and fast which went down well but things, from an already elevated level, were getting increasingly weird. Look right and there’s a man riding a tiny donkey laden with 4 full sized suitcases. Look left and there’s a petrol station forecourt with a couple of hundred chickens running free on it next to the highway without so much as a wire fence keeping them from wondering onto the road. I realised just how weird everything was when i saw all those chickens next to the freeway and didn’t even mention it to the boys because it was completely in keeping with the rest of our surroundings. We just cracked on towards Tirana which is the capital city. About 20km away the road turned into a motorway. Our Garming’s had the purple line to follow but not much mapping outside of that. It seems Garming don’t map Albania. We stopped at the side of the road to discuss whether we take a punt and turn off into the mountains or crack on down the hard shoulder. We’d passed a policeman and he just waved us down so presumably it was tolerated. The mountain punt seemed almost certainly ill-fated and its incredibly difficult to turn away from a straight, flat road going directly towards your destination when you’re exhausted, so we went down the motorway. It must be a strangely liberating experience driving in Albania, nobody seems to bog themselves down with the small stuff like concern for human life. They just cruise to their intended destination and repair the dents later.
Tirana wasn’t our favourite place, the constant threat of death was a little uncomfortable, as was the consistent stench of rotting garbage. We could not get out of there fast enough. Consensus at this stage was fairly stoutly anti-Albania. However, after getting out of town and into the countryside of the south, things started to look up. The landscape was gorgeous and the weather was roasting. The quiet roads of the south made for quiet riding between the scorched red mountains which was an absolute pleasure after the trauma of Tirana.
We hoped to cross the border into Greece that night after riding through the mountainous region further south but after taking a mountain pass rather than risk a tunnel (Davos experience front of mind), we had a big hill and then long flat section next to the massive Lake Ohrid which we hoped to fly down and then a few hills before Greece. There was a town on the side of the big hill which was in keeping with our other experiences in Albania i.e. it was properly weird. The air of hostility I felt in the bigger cities was replaced by one of excitement. Drivers beeped and waved, kids pointed and cheered, It was like they thought we were one direction or something. I have no idea what was going on. Also, every single household in the village, and it was dusk at this point, I’m talking like 30 blokes all at the same time, were watering their tarmac’d driveways….? No idea.
After the hill, the 30km flying down the flat lakeside road we thought would take an hour actually took more than two as we found the lakeside road had no surface whatsoever and was covered in boulders. Before long the familiar feelings of being exhausted and behind schedule somewhere properly random in the dark of night returned. We stopped on the side of another decent hill to put our lights on and prepare for the evening. We agreed, now we were well on track to finish within the 14 day cut off, not chasing a ferry crossing and had had a decent day all challenges considered, we’d stop at the next hotel. I mean, why not? Why do we have to ride through the night to get to Greece? Feeling good about the plan, I pushed off first while K-Ron adjusted his ridiculously inadequate lighting solutions to his favoured slow pulse setting. About 20mtrs down the road with K-Ron still stationary, there was a hotel on the side of the road. Sweet. Obviously, it was weird, but not in a scary way. We put our bikes in what may have been intended to be a conference hall and commenced our usual routine. Ron asked to come and use our shower after K-Ron flooded their bathroom and bedroom which I hoped didn’t cause anyone (mainly us) too many problems. We went down for dinner and the hospitality was outrageously fantastic. The owners, a couple of brothers, made us incredibly welcome and even called up a friend who spoke English and made him come over to translate. The food was fantastic and we feasted like skinny, exhausted, ravenous little kings.
Day 11: Pogadec to Thessaloniki – 267km
We went down for breakfast at 5am. The brothers assured us they could make us breakfast at this time and, rather harshly and I assure you not at our request, forced their English speaking mate Endrei to get up, come over and translate at this ungodly hour. We had a big breakfast and chatted to our hosts. We were aware that taking our time at this point would come back to bite us in the a$$ but it’s easy to brush that aside when you’d prefer to sit drinking coffee and eating bread soaked in honey. I don’t think we left until nearly 7 which kind of undermined the 5am start but not to worry. The theme of dragging our heels was sticky on this day and, after we got to the Greek border which wasn’t too far away, we spent ages buying and eating ice-creams and soggy, vacuum packed croissants filled with a variety of rank goops. We did bump into fellow rider Chris Dobbs though who’s a lovely bloke. It’s nice to chat to someone new on the road and I think he was glad to see us also. After our extended stop we pushed on. Past the Brown Bear warning signs and towards one of the last mountains we would have to climb. I was properly knackered at this stage, just so sleep deprived that it’s hard to stay on your bike or do what you want to do. Its not like you’re puffing and panting and have to slow down because you cant keep up the pace like if you’re running a marathon or something, it’s more like the universe had decided at what pace i could move and increasing that pace, no matter by how small an increment or what the circumstances, involved overhauling the will of the universe. I didn’t enjoy that, however, while I struggled to keep up with Ron, Stoney and Chris, K-Ron was falling behind. His ankles were giving him a lot of jip. He was dosing up on pain killers and trying to push on but stopping regularly. As much as its very difficult in that scenario, after a couple of stops, we just kind of had to carry on slowly to encourage him to either sort it out as best as possible and push on, or make a call and seek some help for it. We waited at the top for a good while for K-Ron and, on arrival, he had a rest at the top. We plunged down the other side and K-Ron needed to stop again. His ankles looked bad. I didn’t really see how it would be possible to ride the 6 or 7 hundred km’s to the finish on them, they were swollen up like tree trunks. At that point, Ron had a quiet word with him and pointed out the fact that we couldn’t go on like this, that we had to sort it out or think about what options we had. After the incredibly effective pep talk, K-Ron strapped his ankles extra tight and we pushed on. I don’t know what Ron said but we didn’t wait for K-Ron to nurse his ankles after that until we got to the stairs in our apartment in Istanbul. Fair play, it looked excruciating and you could see it was deeply affecting him. He constantly had pain etched onto his face from that point on and i’d suggest he may not have stuck to the recommended dosages of painkillers either. It was another one of those situations where for a bit you wish that you could do something to help before fairly swiftly getting back to worrying about your own problems.
I’m not sure why I haven’t mentioned this before now but Greece is hot in August. Like, really hot. Over the other side of the climb we went through a town and suddenly emerged on a newly built road in the desert. We were chalking the k’s of fairly swiftly which was good but heat beating down on the barren land makes you weary. On the long straight roads the heat haze fills your vision and the overbearing sunshine evaporates your energy. There were a few little hills you could see far away in the distance and they weren’t the interesting fun kind. We were all pretty cognisant of our water supplies given you need a lot of it to cycle 200 miles in up to 40 degree heat and we picked it up at every opportunity. There was one point where the feeling of panic got very unpleasant as we passed the third abandoned petrol station in a row and water supplies were running dangerously low. The first one being closed is annoying, the second one seems unfortunate but when you get to the third one and you know there’s no water for 30 or 40km’s in the direction you came from and you have no idea about the direction you’re going to, it starts to become concerning.
We did come across a petrol station after a while and we got a good feed. Going back out into the blazing afternoon heat to cycle through the rest of the daylight and into the night is bad for morale. I reassured myself that we just needed to push on until we got to the Ocean and things would improve, I envisaged there would be a sea breeze, ice creams and hydration aplenty. I also, despite numerous examples as recently as a couple of days previously, was under the impression that roads by the sea are flat. As night began to fall, K-Ron got a puncture somewhere in dogsville (almost everywhere in Greece could qualify as dogsville) on the outskirts of Thessaloniki and we stood around fixing the puncture whilst morale faded with the light. I won’t be going back to Thessaloniki and don’t recommend it unless you take some pleasure in being literally hounded by aggressive and potentially rabid packs of wild dogs. We’d planned to ride through the other side of the city and stay there but it was dark, it had been a(nother) long and tough day so we pulled into the nearest hotel. This happily happened to be the elaborately dinosaur themed Hotel Nouvelle. We convened at the poolside restaurant for pizza and beer which sounds delightful but the weighty spectre of sleep deprivation and the continued accumulation of extreme fatigue definitely takes the edge off.
Day 12 Thessaloniki to Alexandroupolis -333km
The familiar yearning of your body compelling you to not haul yourself out of bed after another ridiculously short sleep for another ridiculously long day in the saddle was something I tried to placate by desperately clinging to the thought that this would be the penultimate time that I would stuff my filthy stuff into my filthy little bag. Rummaging around sorting your bike out in the black of a 5am start in a Dinosaur themepark when you’re exhausted is a pretty gross feeling. Following the familiar pattern, things didn’t improve much as we set off in the dark to head out of town. I’ve often heard that warming up is important, but I’m not sure starting 300+km days with full gas sprints away from packs of wild dogs is the ideal way to start. One of the positive aspects about being really tired is that you tend not to care very much about stuff like being filthy, eating vegetables or being attacked by rabid dogs for instance. Some of the times we got attacked I couldn’t even be bothered to sprint once I thought the dogs were chasing someone else. It would be fair to say we were glad to see the back of Thessaloniki. At least we could just get on with it back in the desert traveling in straight lines with minimal danger of being attacked by wildlife.
We were really motivated to get cracking on this day. The end, whilst not in sight, was within reach. I struggled for the first few hours, I had that feeling of when you feel bad before you get going, apart from I didn’t get going. Nonetheless, of course, we cracked on. I finally got my ice cream on the sea front after 100km when we bought copious amounts of junk food off a massive lady in a tiny kiosk. We went on to cover the first 200km’s of that day in 7 hours and before 2pm. That’s very good going. There’s always a price though and a long lazy lunch followed by continued extreme heat made for a tough afternoon and night. The supermarket we stopped at was odd in almost every capacity and stood in the midst of a town you could say the same about. We purchased the most normal food available and I drifted off for a couple of mins sleep before we pushed on. Getting back on your bike after doing 200km in 7hrs followed by 3 minutes sleep towards the end of a non-stop transcontinental race is hard yards. The heat and tiredness continually jabs you in the face all day long setting you up for the big right hook of nightfall. It messes with your head when you set off in the dark, ride through every ray of sunlight as the temperature rises up to 40 degrees and back down again to leave you again riding in the dark. Keeping track of days becomes challenging, especially as you’re just as tired when you set off as when you arrive, on the occasions you think back to a time earlier in the race, it seems almost impossible to rationalise whether an event you remember happened earlier that day, yesterday, two days ago…
Half way through our final 100km’s of the day we reached a big milestone. Unfortunately only Ron and I were aware of the milestone but it was a big one for us. We hadn’t talked about it but I knew Ron would share my excitement and anticipation about reaching it as he was a fellow Garming bearer. We’d split our route up into 20 .tcx garming files of roughly equal size. They varied significantly in distance as the size of the file was dictated by the quantity of information like turns and whatnot, but next to a random little patch of grass with a picturesque little tree offering shade to a bench, we loaded up the final map (406km to go). I lay down on the grass for a bit of a rest as I soaked in this satisfying fact. It wasn’t very long before we had to get going although we were delayed a couple of minutes as the lads brushed the oversized Greek ants off me that I was now covered in after lying on their nest. K-Ron reminded me as I was writing this that I clearly didn’t give a shit I just stood there like a zombie as the boys brushed them to the floor.
The tide can turn quickly. We were well on, if not ahead of schedule after doing 200km by 2pm, however, shortly after our TCR20 final map break Stoney got a puncture. Not long after that, we had another puncture. A while after that, the garming took us up and over a big hill, down the other side towards the ocean where we’d follow the coast road to Alexandroupolis. However, towards the bottom of the descent of the hill, garming wanted us to turn onto what could fairly accurately be described as a steep gravel death path. Turning around is a blow, going back up a hill you’ve just come down is really bad for morale. The days light finally running out leaving you absolutely knackered, in the dark, f*ck knows where in Greece. This is also bad for morale. The route started taking us up into the hills on a small road kind of parallel to the main road. There were no street lights and the more we climbed, the colder it got. There are many reasons that normal people choose to ride their bikes in the day and not at night. It’s fairly depressing in that situation how time and km’s can pass so slowly in the context of a 12hr+/300km+ ride.
When we finally dropped down into Alexandroupolis, I was relieved to be amongst civilisation. Ron made a characteristically positive comment about how lively the city was in a bid to buoy morale and K-Ron tiredly responded, “I don’t give a shit”. The city was very bright and lively and we sort of got a hotel room at the second port of call. I say sort of as Ron, Stoney and I had to share a double bed with K-Ron on a camp bed beside us. Ron and I went out in search of food while Stoney and K-Ron repaired some of the tubes we’d punctured. We got some kebab type things and brought them back for everyone. Everything is such a mission when you’re exhausted. Especially communicating in any capacity with someone who isn’t in the same position as you, particularly if neither of you have a language in common. Its stressful when it takes 40 minutes to get food and so it takes your 4hr sleep down to a 3hr sleep. K-Ron unwrapped his ankles and they did not look good. Well, I say that, but you couldn’t actually see them beneath the swelling.
I was too tired for even the Walrus noises that K-Ron seems to make in his sleep to keep me awake. Last day tomorrow…
Day 13 Alexandroupolis to Istanbul (347km)
I thought that the jubilation of it being the last day would carry me to Istanbul on a cushion of air. It did not. It did not even carry me from my bed to my bicycle. 347km is always a long way on a bicycle, more so when you have more than 3,300km’s in your legs from the previous 12 days riding and have been averaging around 4 hours sleep. I stuffed my filthy stuff into my filthy little bag in an acutely tired haze one last time and we set off into the dark again. I remember desperately indulging the thought that at some point on this day (early following morning actually) I would be able to throw my f*%king filthy, tiny little bag in the bin and never see it ever again. I epically struggled with tiredness on the last morning. I have never experienced anything like it before or since. I was keenly focused on keeping my eyelids open while we were riding through the darkness but even with them open, my brain just wasn’t processing information. My reactions were so delayed it was scary and I was frequently genuinely unsure if my eyes were open or not. Focusing on staying awake is ironically very tiring. There’s no daydreaming as an easy 20km breezes past, you have to concentrate, all the way around every pedal stroke. Its acutely soul destroying.
I didn’t really know what to do with myself but the Turkish border wasn’t too far away so I just did what I could and hoped that when I got there something would help me out, a conversation, stretching the legs, a red bull, I didn’t care, anything. I remember cycling early on in the dark sure my eyes were open but not being able to see and I remember the desperation of fighting to get up the last hill (tiny gentle rise) to the Turkish border. I was in a bad way when we got to the border. I wasn’t alone in that although I was definitely fairing the worst which is not ideal. We crossed the border and went into the services. I got myself knee deep into anything I thought had even an outside chance of altering my situation in any capacity. Food, coffees and those ridiculously large cans of energy drinks which usually seem a ridiculous size aside from on this occasion where I drank two with coffee chasers. We sat down and had a rest. I think we’d done about 30km so it’s not ideal to be quasi-delirious with over 300km’s of riding to go. I remember Ron saying that we could just take our time and get there safe, that it was the last day and it didn’t matter what time we arrived. I found some comfort in that momentarily. I refilled my disgusting bento box with an array of stomach turning sugary diabetes tokens and we set off again. It was light by this time which was good for morale. Ron’s words stayed with me for what my mind has compartmentalised as the first section of the day. I chugged along slowly but surely and it felt kind of sustainable. As the caffeine, sugar and daylight started to lift my head out of the haze, a few things which I’d not previously paid any attention to started to stand out. Firstly, we were riding down the motorway. Not like a big road or a duel carriageway, clearly a motorway. Secondly, on at least half a dozen occasions, cars turned around and drove up the hard shoulder (where we were riding) going in the wrong direction down the motorway. To be fair, they did all do so while regularly sounding their horn to alert oncoming traffic. People seemed generally very friendly, all tooting horns, waving and shouting what I assume was generic words of encouragement. That did buoy morale. For hours we rode up the motorway toward the finish as the day grew hotter.
Seeing the first sign for Istanbul was exciting. There was a big number next to it, 200km maybe, I don’t know, but nonetheless that was a fathomable number. By our calculations, our destination was 60km further than the road signs had Istanbul pegged for as we needed to skirt the city and get to the edge of the continent, the Bosphorus River, on the other side of which is Asia. We had our 100km stop at a power station somewhere near the motorway and I was still majorly struggling. I sat down on the first perch I found and was asleep literally within 5 seconds. I woke up a few minutes later and the boys were going about their power station chores recognising that I needed to sit. I have mentioned it a number of times but it was really, really hot. Like 40 degrees hot. We had our lunch in this little weird restaurant next to the power station. Fuelled up on millions of sesame snaps which are seemingly the only food available in Turkish power stations, we reapplied a generous helping of chamois cream and headed back out into the morale wilting heat. Just before we set off I remember getting a text saying something along the lines of ‘You’re doing amazingly, only 200km to go’. Whilst I deeply appreciated the support, despite numerous attempts, I couldn’t read the message without sarcastically emphasising the word ‘only’. It seemed a bit unfair that I felt somebody envisaged us victoriously cruising to the finish line when we were actually scraping along on the bones of our ar$es… ‘only’ 200km…
The motorway turned even weirder as we got closer to Istanbul. One section was a ridiculously steep and long straight downhill section where we were going like 70+kph down the hard shoulder alongside the cars and lorries and whether you’re coming off or staying on, sliproads always provided some form of terrifying experience. With our relaxed attitude and determination to plug away, very slowly but almost surely the numbers ticked down on the signs to Istanbul (always remembering to add your 60km back in). We had a couple of wrong turns which took us onto a strange sort of housing estate that I really didn’t enjoy being on and then we got fleeced by a power station attendant that charged us like £20 for a couple of mars bars because we weren’t sure of the exchange rate having only crossed the border that morning. At that point, a familiar feeling started arriving once more. Sat on a power station forecourt as the light fades and you start to get your head around facing the night. When you’re very tired and night time arrives your body naturally and decreasingly subtly reminds you that you should sleep. When it’s been slowly shutting down for a fortnight already this can be a problem. When your exhausted and you’re riding down the motorway in the black of night with lorry after lorry thundering past and jumping on their horns, presumably to recommend that you come off the motorway, the problem becomes pretty scary. When you look back over your shoulder to check you can pass the sliproad without being vapourised by a hurtling Lorry and all you can see is a sea of headlights, it’s fairly unpleasant all round. Going into Istanbul the advice we’d received was the best, easiest and safest way was to head in on the motorway until a certain point and then come off, so that’s what we did. The motorway was a deeply traumatic place to ride so we got on with it. Shortly after turning on K-Ron got his first puncture. The hard shoulder was littered with glass, wire from tyre carcasses and an assortment of other generally unhelpful materials. This was potentially a blessing in disguise as it was actually right by a power station and we got some hot food, without which, in hindsight, we may have been in more trouble. K-Ron and Stoney fixed the puncture, we ate the food, realised K-Ron’s tyre was going down again, fixed it again and had a discussion about the motorway. It kind of went along the lines of, we all hate the motorway, its shit scary, but we just need to get to the finish as soon as possible. We consulted the garming, it was either a big detour into the unknown or 20 more km down this god forsaken motorway. We got back onto the motorway and ploughed on with some serious impetus. Before long we were all diving over the crash barrier and lying down in a storm drain performing some form of role in fixing another puncture, this time for Stoney. K-Ron went straight to sleep which I enjoyed because it was a strangely nice feeling in the storm drain. It felt kind of insulated from the motorway of despair despite not really being so in any capacity. We had another couple of punctures meaning after having one or two in the first 10 days we’d now had half a dozen in the last day or two. Stoney’s tyre was so shredded by whatever he’d ridden over there were some further emergency talks about getting off the motorway, one of which resulted in a brief cyclocross bikes on shoulders run up a grass bank only to end up back down on the motorway. It was very scary on the motorway. We agreed nobody would say anything at all unless it was vitally important as it was hard to hear and slowing to communicate was dangerous. At one point, a police car passed us shouting something in Turkish out of their loud speaker and flashing their lights. We don’t speak Turkish.
Getting off that motorway felt amazing. Potentially if I’d have known of the trauma’s which still lay ahead I might not have felt so relieved. However, for the time being I was very relieved. We hit up a power station and got some supplies. A local guy took the time to come over and tell us that all his countrymen are crazy drivers and we were almost certain to be killed on the roads before the night was through. Thanks mate. From the power station forecourt I could literally see the dog that subsequently attacked me as soon as I headed down that road. We’d gone the wrong way and it attacked me again on the way back through. Then K-Ron got another puncture. Then we got lost in a graveyard for 15 mins, and this is all within about 5km’s of the motorway trauma. We’d ridden through some cities that were pretty awful for riding bicycles but Istanbul is another league. Before long we were cycling up perilously narrow flyovers in heavy traffic in the middle of the night. I fell off on a railway crossing (so I was lying on what was effectively both a busy road and an active railway line) because there was such a big ditch on the near side of the rail that I couldn’t get over it. Morale just continually bounced along the bottom. I mean, we were in Istanbul, that’s the end isn’t it? Ride to Istanbul?… It wasn’t the end… at one point we genuinely stood at the side of the road for what must have been getting on for 15 minutes in the middle of the night because the traffic was so bad we just couldn’t cross it. We got out of the busiest section of the city and headed towards the Ataturk Arboretum (4.5 stars on tripadvisor, my experience was more 0.5 stars) which was the way the race prescribed you must get to the finish line. Whichever source of deep trauma we got rid of was invariably replaced by a new source. The motorway was replaced by traffic then the traffic was replaced by packs of aggressive dogs. Irritatingly as we headed away from the traffic and into the darkness it got freezing cold. I have no idea why, at no point after that night did it ever get cool enough to even sleep in Istanbul nevermind get cold. We had 3 hills to climb and then a cruise down the waterfront to the finish. It sounded easy enough but predictably it wasn’t. I got a puncture on a particularly horrible section of busy contraflow and we had to scramble into a ditch to fix it rather than get flattened by unconcerned cars and then the dog attacks stepped up a gear. Frequently there were packs of up to maybe a dozen dogs just littering the street waiting to attack and try and bite us. I remember sprinting away from one at one point, having to dive ultra-aggressively into an elaborate evasive manoeuvre to avoid Ron who was sprinting away from a dog and into my path. After completing what ended up being a relatively impressive evasive manoeuvre, I was then stuck going down the wrong side of the road sprinting away from dogs hemmed in by a central reservation. Not ideal. It was tiring, I was exhausted 300km and 14 hours ago and this point was not a high for me. There were aggressive, big, scary, skanky dogs everywhere. On the quieter sections with no street lights you could just see their eyes and then hear them start chasing. I had a knack for spotting them first, not sure why. We didn’t want to get separated by the dogs so we made sure we stayed together, this slowed us down and we found that if we went really slow and rode two abreast, the dogs seemed less likely to attack us. On the downhill sections, you could barely see where you were going so had to go almost as slow as on the uphill sections, plus the dogs would still attack you. Dreamy. Our progress was now outrageously slow just ~50 odd km’s from the finish.
At one point I got (another) puncture going down a hill, we’d had like a couple in the first week and then a dozen in the last day. Thanks E80 (some wretched motorway in Turkey). I had been a bit off the back because I felt I could see better if I did. I rolled a few mtrs to the nearest lamppost for light and shouted to the boys who were 10m ahead. However, they were now getting chased by a pack of dogs and disappeared into the night. I didn’t enjoy being alone in the dark with a puncture as the pack of dogs returned to their patch. It’s particularly difficult to deal with when you’re emotionally exhausted. I started trying to fix my puncture but it felt like someone had kept me awake for a few days then thrown me a rubicks cube. After a bit of a while, once the boys established that I wasn’t going to ride through the dogs on a flat, they came back and we fixed it.
When we got out of the black hills we emerged onto the waterfront of the Bosphorus. It’s hard to describe how that felt. I sort of acknowledged that this should be a relief but I didn’t feel any relief. As I had on innumerable occasions to that point, I just carried on. At one point, presumably out of pent up frustration from being chased by dogs, plagued by lorries and repeatedly kicked when we were down, Ron and Stoney cranked up the pace to near enough full gas. We barrelled down the waterfront at like 45kph for a while, which I found fairly remarkable given our state of fatigue, but I didn’t really understand why they were doing that and eventually got them to slow down. We followed the Garming towards where the Garming told us the finish was. With maintaining morale having been a constant war for a week and a half I didn’t want to tie it too closely to the end being imminent. At any moment, without warning, light can shine on a navigational error that sends you back into the darkness of the hills or the bridge you can see can turn out to be an hours ride from the bridge you thought it was. I didn’t really know what we were looking for and communication was tough through the fatigue so I just kept on riding. When you look at the race profile you tend to get caught up in how you might cross the alps or what might be the quickest way to cross Albania rather than what does the finish line actually look like. We felt we were close and kept on going.
In the days beforehand, when I’d had low moments, I thought of what it might be like to reach the finish line. I knew my girlfriend and some great friends had made the trip out to meet us there (planes) for which I remain truly grateful. I thought this touching gesture combined with the realisation of what I considered, in the most part, from inception to completion, a challenge which was genuinely incredible and at the furthermost reaches of my capabilities, would leave me lying in tears at the roadside. The plausible prospect of which I envisaged being uncomfortably embarrassing. The reality was very different. I looked towards the cheer and saw my gorgeous girlfriend and a dozen other friendly faces. Rather than a wave of emotion, I just thought…. ‘must be right here then…’. I turned up a short sharp hill and there was a wicked congratulations banner (thanks guys). I propped my bike and was welcomed by my girlfriend and friends. It was a very strange experience. Rather than being the massively emotional experience as I was expecting, it was very much the opposite. I didn’t feel myself, aware of my emotions or connected with the amazing people that surrounded me. I found myself thinking hard about what I was supposed to be doing, hugging this person, shaking that person’s hand. I smiled because I thought that was what I was supposed to be doing. I don’t have any similar experience to relate this to but my guess is it was just a result of extreme fatigue. One thing I didn’t need prompting on was getting a beer into my hand.
We arrived at the edge of Europe, on the Bosphorus river in Istanbul at 2.45am on the morning of Friday 22nd August 2014 having finished a bike ride that started from my front door in Camberwell 12 days, 18 hours, 45 minutes and 3,600km’s previously. I got to sleep quickly after reaching my hotel. Mercifully a cab took our bikes with us to the apartment. While it was a strange and vacant feeling arriving at the finish line, after a bit of sleep, a shower, some fresh clothes and constant eating, the emotion, relief and sense of achievement came pouring in as we celebrated on the rooftop wading into bottles of champagne, beer and Jagermeister with no discrimination as the call to prayer drifted through the air as the sun set. It was a beautiful moment followed by a beautiful few days and weeks as it all sank in. The Transcontinetal Race for me was a beautiful but merciless adventure I shared with some special people and from which I got a great sense of fulfilment. I definitely think the physical demands are within the reaches of most but it was the emotional and mental exhaustion which was the serious test of character. A week later I was still sleeping 10 hours every night, 2 hours each afternoon and struggling to stay awake more than a couple of hours at a time. Three months later and there were still patches of my fingertips and toes where I was waiting for sensation to return. I am immensely glad and proud that we did it. But make no bones about it, its fucking hard yards.
I will be amazed if anybody has actually made it this far and read my blog to the end, however, if anybody has, i have a couple of people it’s very important that i thank so i hope you don’t begrudge me a few more words…
Thank you to Oli and the guys at Morvelo for the absolutely top shelf kit, your support and your hankering for a big challenge.
Thanks to Cyfac for building me a bike that I never had to worry about once.
Thanks to Phil, Deebs, Rab, Ricky, Saurab, Booty and Laura for coming to see us at the finish line and ensuring we celebrated properly in Istanbul.
A special thank you to my Girlfriend Alice who supported me, not only through the race and the weeks afterward where i could barely stay awake or feel my fingers and toes, but in the months beforehand, through the countless hours on my god awful turbo trainer.
A heartfelt thank you to my dear friends K-Ron, Ron and Stoney for propping me up for a few thousand km’s.
A massive thank you to my family for their constant support.
And a final thank you to my Grandparents Jack and Phyllis and my dear friend Simon Fenn for the inspiration to give it a crack.