At the beginning of 2015 I took a deep breath and resigned from my job of 18 years, I was on the look out for a few new adventures. In the first few months of being out of the office I spent my time booking holidays; snow boarding in Val D’Isere, walking the West Highland Way, beginners tennis lessons, cycling in Majorca and a charity bike ride from London to Utrecht for the start of The Tour De France. The plan was to spend more time on my bike and really give this years TT season a good go, I have ridden time trials for a few years now and enjoyed the competition but any improvement in my times was getting harder to come by.
I had just completed a charity ride for the Light Fund from London to Utrecht for the start of the Tour De France and was in Amsterdam airport when I received an email from a friend with a link to Katie’s facebook page. Not being a member of Facebook I asked him to elaborate “It’s a 4,000km race across Europe in about 3 weeks time. Similar to RAAM, but self-supported. Get home, have a look & if interested, I can give her your email address via FB, or ask for hers.” I didn’t need to get home and investigate further I was looking for my next adventure and this sounded right up my street, he forwarded my contact details. I then waited anxiously for Katie to get in touch, I had to wait 7 days, it turns out she was somewhere in Switzerland on a TCR practise run.
On the 14th of July Katie and I were officially teammates!
The race started at midnight on 24th of July and we were to ride @ 4200km from Belgium to Istanbul through France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey with an estimated 38,000m of climbing. Totally unsupported, so no fancy hotels, hot showers, sumptuous evening meals or mechanical assistance provided. In fact this race doesn’t even provide you with a route, just a start and finish line and 4 check points inbetween through which you must pass (in any order). There is an official finishers party 14 days after the start and a further 48 hours following this for you to get the final stamp on your brevet card and be listed as an official finisher. To put that into perspective the Tour De France tends to be around 3500km spread over a 3 week period.
Having come so late to the race, I had only 8 days until the start in Belgium, I simply bought what Katie suggested and did anything she asked me to; receiving parcels containing kit bought last minute, Katie lives in the ski resort of Courcheval and struggled to source some items locally, downloading the routes she had so excellently prepared on to my Garmin bike computer, compiling translation sheets of key phrases for each country and buying local currencies for as many of the countries as I could outside of the Euro Zone. No time for anything as insignificant as actually riding my bike.
Following one Skype call and a dozen emails Katie and I arranged to meet at Redhill station just outside of London on the morning of Thursday the 23rd of July, Katie’s Dad had very kindly agreed to drive us over to Belgium for the start. A couple of days before this as Katie and I were discussing how we should organise the finances for the trip it suddenly struck me that this may be a very elaborate scam, I was about to transfer a sizeable amount of money to a person I had never met and who just might not turn up as agreed. As such I suggested we split the budget 50/50 both of us carrying a pre-paid credit card “just in case 1 gets damaged”, I only admitted this to Katie once we were in Istanbul! Needless to say we met as arranged, loaded my bike into her Dad’s van and set off for Calais and the ferry.
Once in Belgium the plan was to build Katie’s bike, still in a box since her flight from France to the UK, register, do a recce ride of the cobbles of the Muur, which is where the start line would be later that night, eat and most importantly get a few hours sleep. Having started endurance events at midnight before I know how hard it is to keep your eyes open through the early hours of the first morning. Best laid plans and all that…Katie unpacked her bike to find that the top tube had been damaged in transit and now sported 5 horizontal fracture lines on each side, disaster. We sought advice from numerous competitors and TCR officials all of whom shook their heads, given this years course and particularly the unpaved section over the Assiette the general feeling was that the bike wouldn’t survive and would be dangerous for Katie to ride. What to do? We discussed buying a new frame, too expensive, loan bikes were even offered but this would likely cause injury and make race completion unlikely for Katie. The situation seemed hopeless then mid afternoon we were told about a Specialized store in a nearby village who might be able to help. Off we set. Amazingly the shop were able to help, they drilled a hole in the frame and injected resin to hopefully strengthen any internal damage to the carbon frame. Satisfied this was as good a repair as possible we grabbed a pizza and set off for the start line.
Nervous tension filled the air at the top of the Muur whilst we waited for the official start. Flaming torches were lit by the towns people who had come out to support us adding to the atmosphere. The town crier started the proceedings followed by a few words from the mayor of Geraaldsburg and we were off. A lap of the town followed by the cobbled climb of the Muur then we were on our own, the race had officially started. I had no expectations of what was to come but was ready for the adventure to begin.
Day 1: That first day we rode 325km as per Katie’s gruelling schedule, rain jackets were on and off so many times I think in the end we decided just to get wet. Then came the cross winds for the next 6 hours. We were to become very familiar with strong cross or head winds and rain over the next 2 weeks. Even with the terrible weather conditions it was exciting and we met many other TCR riders along the route particularly where there was a bakery offering a natural stopping point. Early evening we pulled in to a McDonalds for dinner. After about 20 hours in the saddle in the wet/dry/wet conditions I was feeling a little uncomfortable, I wasn’t suffering from saddle sores but worse had open wounds were my damp skin had simply been rubbed away. I was expecting some discomfort along the way but nothing so bad so early. The only thing to do was tape myself up with medical tape to reduce the friction and get used to the pain. The wounds didn’t heal until I got home to London and I became somewhat of an expert at re-applying tape roadside whilst maintaining my modesty! We completed that first day with no great dramas and Katie and I seemed to be getting along just fine.
Day 2: We were heading South straight down through France, basically on a tour of the wine regions, had we thought this through in advance I am sure we could have planned much more interesting lunch stops. The rolling terrain of this region of France is stunning but wearing when you have to pedal up and down all of the small hills and as the day wore on I became more and more aware of a growing pain in my left knee, I’ve never had a knee injury so was a little confused. I didn’t think I had pushed too hard yesterday and although the route was undulating there had been no serious climbing, it had been cold yes but nothing compared to the winter rides I am used to in the UK. The pain became so bad that I feared I might not be able to continue to Istanbul, I didn’t ever tell Katie how bad the pain was nor that I was worried about my being able to continue. Finally I worked it out, it had to be my shoes/cleats. At the last minute I had decided to ride in my MTB shoes rather than my road shoes but had not adjusted my seat height to a slightly lower position to allow for the change in footwear and perhaps my left cleat was slightly at the wrong angle. After making many stops to ease my knee I decided to remove the cleat from my left shoe which left me balancing for the next 100km on the small SPD pedal, awkward but the pain was easing. Of course my right knee then came out in sympathy so I removed the cleat from my right shoe too. Then came the daily rain storm. It was almost impossible to ride balancing as I was on the pedals like this my feet would slip off of the pedals every 50 yards or so. By the time we made it to a hotel in Macon with our standard McDonalds meal I had resolved to change my pedals to traditional flat pedals at the closest bike shop the next day. It might not be stylish and would vastly reduce my power on the bike but at least I would not be damaging my knee further
Day 3: we diverted to a Decathlon, with some very slick navigation from Katie, and with a knee support in place and flat pedals fitted we were once again back on course and heading to Mount Ventoux and our hardest day on paper. I have not ridden with toe clips for perhaps 12 years and it took a bit of re-learning particularly at roundabouts where if I didn’t have my feet inserted into the clip it would hang below the pedal catch the road surface and flick the bike over as I leaned into the corner. A few of these stomach dropping incidents were enough to teach me.
Katie had planned that we should spend that night in the village just below Mont Ventoux, the first checkpoint, and tackle the climb in the early hours of the morning hopefully getting to the summit before dawn. I was complaining for probably about the last 20km as to why we had to end the day with a significant climb, why couldn’t we stay lower down, it had been another long day and I think our lack of sleep generally was catching up with us. We arrived late at the hotel, perhaps about 9pm, but managed to get steak for dinner at a nearby restaurant.
Over dinner Katie managed to persuade me to leave my SPD pedals behind. I had been carrying them since our trip to Decathlon loathe to discard them as they weren’t actually broken. I bowed to Katie’s experience of how big a climb we would be facing tomorrow and with a heavy heart left the pedals on the dining table in the hotel, I should explain I am from Yorkshire! By the time we had finished dinner Katie didn’t even get into bed she just slept on top of the bare mattress.
Day 4: We were on our bikes at 04:00 and in the dark headed towards Mt Ventoux. This is the longest climb in the Alps, steep, with sections between 9 & 12% and so windy. I struggled up, with nothing holding my left foot to the pedal I was unable to apply any power to the upward stroke of each pedal revolution. What’s worse is that whilst my knee was now supported there was still quite a lot of pain so I couldn’t even stand up on the pedals. I was also becoming aware of a tearing sensation in my lower back on the left side, a compensatory injury as my body tried to remove as much weight from my knee as possible. In a race like this there is no back out plan, no broom wagon to jump in, you just have to keep going, slowly. I seem to recover a little as we leave the tree line, and can keep Katie who is ahead of me in my sights as motivation. We both make it to the top and at last have our first stamp in our brevet cards, this is a huge psychological lift and having seen none of our fellow competitors for a couple of days we are surrounded by them at the checkpoint making it feel like we are actually in a race.
The next 100km were through the spectacular countryside of Provence then into the Alps under bright blue skies. Sounds lovely but after 240km and 4000m of climbing we were 2 very tired cyclists. We had a further 2000m of climbing over 50km to meet our schedule but it was just too tough. The last climb we managed up into Briancon was a nightmare, it just seemed to go on forever, the dark night skies removing any visual points of reference to spur us on to the top. I was struggling and I knew Katie would be suffering even more but the best I could do was stop and wait at the top, I couldn’t go back down to support her I just didn’t have anything left to give. After another dinner of steak and chips we had only 3 hours sleep until the alarm went off to signal the start of another day which would see us cross into Italy.
Day 5: We finished the final climb of yesterday to CP2, we were the first females to arrive which was a great lift, got our cards stamped, ate breakfast and turned Katie’s trunk bag into a rucksack with the help of an innertube and hair clip! This cunning innovation would hopefully remove much of the stress from Katie’s cracked bike frame, if we got her bike over the next section it should make it to Istanbul in 1 piece.
We were headed to the Strada Dell’Assietta a 60km military carriageway in the Province of Turin more commonly known as an iconic mountain bike trail some 2000m above sea level. This was described in the TCR Rider’s handbook as a gravel track so I was expecting something like a fire road, fine gravel which would be slow and sticky to get through and would slow us down but nothing which would require technical skills and nerves of steel. The reality of the carriageway is a dirt track strewn with rocks, rubble and gravel, awful, but you truly are on top of the world with the most amazing views over the Alps.
We were expecting this section to take us around 4 hours….8 hours later we were over and down the other side. I was so tired, the sheer concentration and nerve that this road surface demands is incredible. We were lucky with no mechanicals, falls or punctures. We came across many people repairing multiple punctures, I think 8 was the most endured by any single rider. We ate pasta at the café at the bottom after which I was expecting an easy run into the next town. Not at all. Another coll to get over and another gravel track descent, the Colle delle Finestre – the Giro D’Italia rode up this gravel track earlier this year. I was ready to call it a day there but Katie urged me on and after ice cream and a coke in a nearby café we rode to Turin and found a hotel.
Day 6: and we were heading along the flat roads of Italy, what a luxury that would have been had it not been for the block headwind all day through the valley. Katie was close to quitting I think but after the first 150km she had resigned herself to pushing on with the thought of cocktails in Istanbul, Coca-Cola, Ibuprofen and Red Bull spurring her on! There is little to tell about this stretch as the roads were just long and flat and the wind never faltered. The only “event” of the day was that I ran over a rat as we rode out of Turin at 04:00! It was the most horrible sensation as it squished under my front wheel, according to Katie it screamed and ran off – urgggh.
Day 7: more of the same across Italy. We were incredibly tired although the food had improved even if what was put in front of us rarely resembled what we thought we had ordered, the steak below should have been pasta as far as we were concerned.
We are on the hunt for caffeine tablets to help to keep our eyes open, unfortunately in a nation famous for its coffee they don’t seem to exist and neither of us drink coffee, averaging 15 hours a day is taking its toll.
Day 8: we left Italy and crossed into Slovenia and what a difference, we are once again back in the hills surrounded by lush green vegetation, this is more like it. The motorists also give us all the room we need on the roads, unlike the Italians. This was scheduled to be a just a day trip across Slovenia with us crossing into Croatia that evening but about 10km from the border disaster struck. As we were pushing up a climb there was a bang and a spoke in my front wheel had broken. What to do? I had packed spare spokes really as a preventative measure, you know if you pack them you wont need them, I am not capable of actually fixing this myself and the wheel wouldn’t even go round even with the brake caliper completely released so I can’t ride anywhere to get help. I sat down at the side of the road for the next 10 minutes staring at my wheel with not a clue what to do next. The only thing we can do is to walk back a few kilometres to the nearest town and see if we can find help. It’s Saturday about 5:30pm and whilst we are confident of finding a bike shop we know nothing will be open until Monday morning so either we are stuck here until Monday or we can make enquiries in the bars and cafes and see if any one knows a mechanic. Amazingly as I was walking into town, bike on my shoulder luggage slung over my other shoulder and broken wheel in hand looking very sorry for myself, I come across a guy cycling with his young daughters who is very happy to try and help me. He packs me into his van and directs Katie to the nearest affordable hotel. I am taken to a mechanic he knows, a guy who I am told can fix anything, sadly not my Dura Ace wheel. He does give us a number of another guy who might be able to help. Back in the van and I am driven across town to another house. By this time I am resigned to the fact that we will have to wait until the shops open on Monday morning but as we enter the man’s garage a smile lights up my face. The walls are decorated with cycling posters, there is a row of wheels hung from the ceiling and all of his tools are carefully mounted on the wall. If any one can fix this he can and he did, even hammering out a spoke of his own when we discovered the spokes I had been given by the bike shop at home were the wrong size. He spent about 40 minutes truing the wheel so that it was perfect for me to ride again. Back in the van and I was driven back to Katie in the hotel whilst our new friend phoned ahead to a restaurant and asked them to keep the kitchen open for us. I frantically plugged everything in to charge, we jumped back in the van and were driven to the restaurant. What a night and what incredible generosity we were shown, no-one would accept any payment for their help they were just happy to help us. We went to bed looking forward to tomorrow’s early morning crossing in to Croatia.
We are now halfway to Istanbul.
Day 9: Yesterday’s incident lost us a further 65km from our schedule so today we are going for a mammoth day of 350km to get us to CP3 at Hotel Lav in Vukovar, Croatia. It’s a long day 20 hours, but the Croatian roads are good to us and the petrol stations even better stocked with the largest array of snacks we could wish for. We make good progress stopping every 50km just to keep mind and soul together.
Today there were 2 incidents. The first happened early in the morning with a heavy fall by Katie, a moments loss of concentration saw her just drop off the road on to the gravelled edging at the side and then she hit the tarmac. It was her first ever fall from a bike but dazed and sore she was a trouper and got back on the bike and pedalled on.
The second saw us riding into a huge electrical storm at night. Initially we marvelled at the impressive lightening strikes to our right as we rode towards CP3 but as our route turned us directly into the storms path our mood changed. We were the only objects on a wide open plain with lightening literally striking the road infront of us lighting up the landscape around us, it was like being in an action movie. I told Katie not to worry we had rubber tyres, I am not actually sure that would have saved us but it seemed to reassure her a little, I was just acutely aware that we had to get off the road as quickly as possible. As we rode on the wind picked up tremendously, a cross wind, so that we had to ride leaning hard into it. Finally down came torrential rain. We decided we couldn’t beat the elements at this point and pulled in to a perfectly placed corrugated plastic bus shelter. Wrapped in our emergency silver blankets we sat for an hour and a half waiting for the storm to pass, we couldn’t even talk to each other the noise inside our shelter was so loud. So much for making good time, we rolled in to CP3 at around midnight. Another stamp on our brevet card and off to bed.
Day 10: Each day Katie set the alarm for 03:30 to ensure that we were pedalling by 04:00 allowing us on average around 5 hours sleep. Today thankfully Katie granted us a lie in setting the alarm for 05:00 after yesterdays late night. After a fantastic breakfast of pizza and coke, honestly the locals must think we are mad, we set off on the final few kilometres to the border crossing in to Bosnia.
Croatia and Slovenia had been fantastic hosts so I was expecting more of the same from Bosnia. It started well enough with a shopping centre just across the border with a chemist who stocked everything we had run out of: Vaseline & Sudacreme to deal with the saddle sores and skin loss we were both suffering from (we had actually run out of anything resembling chamois cream a day earlier and in the absence of any suitable replacements had bought lube from a Croatian petrol station who stocked an extensive line of sex toys behind the counter!). I was also able to buy caffeine powder and a honey spray to hopefully try and repair Katie’s ulcerated mouth.
Vaseline aside the caffeine powder was my best buy ever and is something I will pack for every forthcoming endurance event. Having taken my first sachet immediately and being so impressed with the results we quickly adapted our daily schedule as follows: find a flat preferably grassy road side spot about 10:00/11:00am, spread out our silver emergency blankets, empty the contents of 1 sachet directly on to our tongues, set the alarm for 10 minutes, lie back head resting on a bike wheel (to alert you should any one try and steal the bikes), enjoy the power nap. 10 minutes is all we needed for the body to absorb the caffeine and be fooled into thinking it had actually enjoyed a good nights sleep!
That first shopping experience was the highlight of Bosnia for me. Most fellow competitors have described Bosnia as a magical country but for me it was an uphill drag. The countryside was scrub and boulders punctuated only by the occasional road side BBQ cooking goat on a spit, head still intact, a few locals selling some small black berries and then a huge mining town where I was almost knocked off my bike by a car with a trailer who after over taking us pulled in much too sharply, the trailer brushing my shoulder. The countryside is still littered with landmines which Katie only remembered when she came face to face with this sign after nipping into the bushes roadside for a quick pee, a sharp reminder that this country was at war not so very long ago.
The day finished with us climbing through the Olympic ski station and descending through the rain into Sarajevo where we promptly got lost. Between us we were carrying 3 Garmins each loaded with the daily routes unfortunately due to the numerous rain storms all of them chose today to fail, this we discovered was not unique to us. Eventually we found the outer ring road of the town and checked into the first hotel we came across. The kitchen was closed but in the spirit we had become accustomed to when hoteliers are faced with tired, dirty and bedraggled cyclists the manager phoned his cousin who rustled up a 3 course meal for us. We shared dinner with a fellow competitor whom we had come across on our ride into Sarajevo, he was very despondent and at the point of quitting. Katie and I did our best to encourage him to continue, as we headed for bed we were not sure how persuasive we had been but Katie had at least kept us smiling throughout with her comedy attempts at holding a fork after having lost all feeling in her left arm and hand. As we left in the morning his bike was still in reception so we didn’t know if he continued, we later found out he had but had then suffered from a bout of food poisoning in Bulgaria which ultimately forced him to stop.
Day 11: More climbing through Bosnia but with the thought of Montenegro just around the corner I was feeling much more motivated today, I’d heard Montenegro is beautiful. We crossed the border in the afternoon and it didn’t disappoint, it really felt as though I were cycling towards a holiday destination. The weather was bit cooler than the 42 degrees in Bosnia and if all went to plan we were planning to reach CP4 by night fall. The riding today for me was much smoother and I felt really strong. We bumped into a couple of other TCR riders and chatted for a while. Katie seemed to be having a much harder time of it and as the day wore on she was falling further and further off the pace. We were headed to Kotor situated on beautiful lake beneath Mt Lovcen, our final checkpoint. The approach to the lake is on a long, flat, fast road, a time trailists dream (my usual cycling discipline). I pushed on assuming that Katie would be making the most of my slip stream but when I looked back Katie was nowhere to be seen. I waited and as she came closer she looked in a bad way and was in tears. She still had no feeling in her left arm and her right leg now seemed to have given up so she was unable to put any power through it. The only thing I could think to do to help was to carry her luggage for her in the hope that she would cope better with a lighter bike. We unstrapped her bag from the back of her bike and turned it once more into a rucksack using the inner tube and hair clip as we had on the Assiette. The descent to the lake was fast and spectacular but with Katie’s bag on my back I was unable to turn my head so had to take it easy. I was sure that on this downhill section Katie would be right behind me but she had gone too far into the red to recover and was literally limping along.
It was dark as we rounded the lake to reach the base of Mt Lovcen where we spent the night in a rather fancy hotel too tired to spend any time searching for anything more reasonably priced. We had dinner, bought sandwiches and pizza from the all night bakery for the next day and managed to reset all of the Garmins and restore the maps to 1 unit so that we would be ready for a quick start the next day. Katie was so close to quitting but following Mike’s advice decided to sleep on it.
CP4 is half way up the road to the top of Mount Lovcen (naturally) so we decided to stay in a hotel at the town closest and tackle the ascent at dawn the next day.
Day 12: Katie woke in good spirits and seemed much recovered, perhaps yesterday had just been a blip. The summit of Mt Lovcen is at 1560km and the check point is about half way up. As we turned into the first hairpin we were overtaken by an official TCR car carrying Barney the cameraman, Katie is convinced they have been watching our trackers to see when we set off so that they could film us on our way up. With this theory in mind we giggled an chatted our way up to the CP where Camille and Barney had kept the checkpoint open for us. The obligatory photo was taken, our lack of eyes shows just how tired we were
After the CP we still had a further climb through the national forest to the actual summit but after this it was a long downhill towards Albania, a country I was excited to see. The temperature soared to 48 degrees and it felt like we were cycling in an oven. There is a gentle drag up to the Albanian border and once again I was aware that I had lost Katie. I couldn’t stop it was too hot to stand and wait at the road side, if I was going to be stationary I had to find some shade in which to wait. The best I could do was to crouch beside a fence and try and tuck myself into the small amount of shade it offered. I tried pouring water from my bottle over my head to cool me down but rather than getting the usual cold water shock down my back it was more like standing under a warm shower. I waited and waited, I was getting worried as to where Katie was. Eventually she appeared pushing her bike, completely spent. I sat her down poured water over her and tried to make her eat all of my remaining food, sesame bread sticks, cereal bars, fruit chews, anything to try and inject some energy in to her. Revived slightly we were able to continue and cross into Albania.
Just 4km over the border Katie was once again showing signs of extreme fatigue, barely moving at all on the bike. It was 4pm and as we passed a restaurant I decided we should call it a day, get some food and have an early night there was just no point in us continuing when Katie was feeling so bad. We pulled into the car park of the restaurant to see if they had any accommodation and Katie collapsed, she struggled to actually get off the bike and couldn’t walk unaided into the building. The kindness of the hotel staff was remarkable, they couldn’t speak any English and my Albanian is terrible (!) but they realised we were in trouble and made Katie a make shift bed from chairs and a blanket in the office. We stayed there for a few hours whilst Katie slept a little and I force fed her coke, electrolyte fluids and our remaining food. We then just had the small matter of a 10km ride to the nearest hotel which she bravely managed. We couldn’t find any hot food that night so had to make do with crisps and cheese sandwiches in our hotel room, not ideal especially for Katie.
Day 13/14: The alarm as usual went off at 03:30 I heard Katie get up and then get back into bed. By 06:00 she admitted defeat and scratched from the race. I was to carry on alone so taking her Garmin, the only unit which still had the planned routes intact, and the paper maps I packed up and headed out alone hoping that Katie would some how make it to Istanbul to meet me on the finish line.
This was a defining moment for me although I didn’t know it at the time. In hindsight I realised that I hadn’t thought twice about riding through the remaining countries alone, Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey, I was confident enough to do this, my time with Katie had taught me that. This was the first event I had ever ridden where I was the stronger and more experienced person both physically on a bike and emotionally and I had naturally taken responsibility for our progress through the race from quite an early stage. So it was with mixed emotions that I left the hotel that morning, sad that Katie would not complete her challenge and excited that another adventure was about to start for me. Perhaps this is why I loved Albania.
I push on through Albania with no issues at all, it’s hot and the climbs are frequent and long but not too tough, I even came across this monument to TDF champion at the top of 1 long climb.
My next decision was whether to stop for the night in the town before the border crossing in to Macedonia or to try and cross before it got too dark. As I approached Pogradec a brief glance at my Garmin showed the end point of the day was in sight, Struga in Macedonia, and compared to the scale I was using on the Garmin it appeared to by only about 5 miles away. It was twilight but with just 5 miles to go I decided to go for the border. Big mistake. The border crossing between Albania/Macedonia must be one of the highest in Europe and as I approached the hill ahead of me the Garmin map unfurled itself to show switchback after switchback, it may have been only 5 miles but that was as the crow flies! Having left the town behind me I was committed and climbed slowly ever upwards eventually crossing the border in darkness. Katie’s fully comprehensive notes told me there was a hotel shortly after the border, unfortunately that night there was a wedding in full swing and I didn’t dare go in to the hotel looking as dirty and dishevelled as I did. So I decided to ride on to Struga. It may have been downhill to Struga but in the pitch black I found it a pretty hairy descent . I found a room as soon as I entered town and checked in, $15. From there on it was easy, Struga appears to be a German tourist resort and the evening was in full swing. I was able to change money, buy kebab and chips to take back to my room, and all whilst eating ice cream.
Travelling alone is easy I thought that is until my alarm didn’t go off in the morning. So my first night alone and already I had broken Katie’s schedule. I packed in a bit of a panic and headed off to Greece! Apparently Katie was watching my tracker chiding in me for having slept in too!
Day 15: Having successfully crossed the lesser known countries of Central Europe I relaxed as I crossed into Greece, it felt familiar, we’ve all been on holiday there afterall. Unfortunately it was not to be so simple. It was hot and incredibly windy and the unlimited supply of well stocked petrol stations which I had become accustomed to abruptly disappeared. When I did happen across a shop I realised that I didn’t have any Euros, I had inadvertently left these with Katie, and being alone I was unable to buy enough for them to accept a card in payment. I spent the day worrying about how I was going to keep myself stocked with water. In the end I stopped at cafes and asked them to fill my bottles, I knocked on a farmhouse door and filled up from their garden hose I even resorted to sampling apples from the road side orchards. It was a long day and I was happy to reach Thessaloniki and a hotel for the night where I could eat but not before I had been attacked by a pack of wild dogs in the middle of a thunderstorm. It’s not unusual to come across these dogs at night however today I thought they seemed more athletic and determined to chase me perhaps because I am alone, one dog actually jumped on to the bag on the back of my bike I had paw prints to prove it.
Day 16: This morning was a beautiful ride along the Greek Riviera and as I pulled into Xanthi I spotted a rare ATM. With Euros in hand I breakfasted at a beachside bar, very nice, almost feels like I am on holiday!
Then the winds struck again and I was down to an average of just 7mph as I battled for hours into a block head wind. I had started riding at 02:00 this morning with the aim of pushing through to the finish in Istanbul in 1 x 250mile day. That was not going to happen now. After having had a bizarre conversation with some taxi drivers, no shared language, they directed me to a small hotel about 10km further down the road. I found it, jumped over the roadside barriers with my bike and checked in. I was tired, so tired that when they refused to let me take my bike into my room and instead offered a shed as an alternative storage option I agreed even though the key to the locked door was hung directly above the lock all night. Friends later asked if I took the key with me after stashing my bike, of course that thought never crossed my mind, it was a locked door as far as I was concerned and that was good enough.
Day 17: Last night was so cold I slept in all of my clothes including my coat. I couldn’t work out how to turn off the air con despite standing on a chair to reach the controls. On waking I noticed the remote control was on the table next to my bed, so tired! Just 100miles to go today, a short one. The wind is still with us so it’s a battle to the Greek/Turkish border where I bump in to Olly who unfortunately due to a bad knee injury has decided he can’t continue, he promises to buy me a beer in Istanbul and I head off up the motorway alone. Cycling at the side of the motorway is not too bad the lane is wide but the road goes on as far as the eye can see and it’s an undulating road, the last thing I need right now. I always struggle with the last stage of any race, be it the last 5 miles of a 100 mile sportive or the last few hours of a multi day event, I am not sure why that is perhaps because I am tired or just maybe because I don’t want the experience to end? I soon came upon major roadworks and spent the next few hours alternating between shouting at the huge lorries who unable to pass me sit behind me pressing their horns and standing at the side of the road in tears because this day might just have beaten me. At such low moments I was acutely aware that no-one was going to come and rescue me so my only option was to keep pressing on the pedals after all each revolution takes me closer to Istanbul and that beer.
On through the national park outside of Istanbul and at last the Bosphorous was in view. Then it was just a tense ride around the bay, through manic traffic until finally I saw Katie at the side of the road outside of Café Hissar and I had completed the race, 16 days 12 hours & 5 minutes, the only female rider this year to finish.
I learnt so much from this race, it was a huge adventure and I am so lucky to have been able to ride with Katie for the first 12 days and then to have the added experience of riding solo for the last 4. I will be back next year, solo, hopefully with some training this time! Riding an event such as this with just 8 days notice was pretty intense but I loved it.
It just remains for me to say a huge thank you to every-one who supported me, the dot watchers I know and those I don’t who all sent some great words of encouragement. It is those words that got us through the really tough days especially once I was riding alone. To my fellow competitors who I met along the way and those who have been in touch since I returned to the UK, I hope to see some of you again at the London party. To the organisers and volunteers, Mike you have a warped sense of humour. To my Mum and Dad who met me at Heathrow, not sure how I would’ve got across London without you, and to Dez’s Mum & Dad who also greeted me in the arrivals lounge! To Katie, a great new friend, you were a legend, thank you so much for giving me this opportunity and I look forward to sharing many more hours on the bike with you. And finally to those in my final picture, without whom I wouldn’t have made it to the finish!