Col, Slovenia to Zagreb, Croatia (204km → 1703m ↑)
After avoiding last night’s take-a-tourist-to-a-party-and-mug-him-trap I kept on up the hill to find a wee hiding to bivvy for the night. I say night but what I really mean is an hour or so before I headed off in the morning. I tried to find a place with a bit of a breeze to avoid the mosquitpes. This in the end backfired as it was blowing gale to the point that I actually felt a chill, which then became freezing my tits off, in Slovenia, in July! This just lead to me getting up, putting every single item of clothing I had on and hitting the road again. I was initially frustrated/angry/tired at the lack of sleep but that was quickly put to the back of my mind as the sun rose and the shear beauty of Slovenia.
I was utterly shocked with how beautiful this country was. I knew nothing of Slovenia and the stark contrast of the last few days in Italy made for one of the best days of the journey. An odd observation but one that pleases my sometimes neat and tidy sensibilities was the love the Slovenians clearly have for groomed veggie patches and immaculate wood piles. I find it strangely arousing and if not for it’s lack of coastline Slovenia would be my utopia.
Today’s plan again was to get to Nova Gradiska, a sweet 353km away. After eventually getting into Logatec I was starting to feel really drained. I knew I needed just a quick sleep to recover but being 8ish in the morning I was a bit more cautious of just pitching out on the side of the road this close to Ljubljana. Eventually out of sleep desperation I just sneaked around the back of a church beside the road. It was distant from the nearby villages and looked quiet enough. To my surprise after getting a quick half an hour I found a bottle of water and two nectarines had been placed beside me. Deeply grateful I sat there pathetically chomping down the fruit, bits running down my chin and then legs and started to cry. I don’t really know why, perhaps the act of generosity or just simply through mental exhaustion but I was really overcome. To the point that it took me a good twenty minutes to eat, drink and get my shit together. It sounds really pathetic I know but in the end it was actually incredibly cathartic. It’s like my body was just needing a emotional release. I never got to meet my secret Slovenia psychologist, instead I left a wee note of pretty much only two words I had for this part of the world, “Prosim, Kolesar” [Thankyou, Cyclist].
The long day yesterday took it’s toll on my Garmin and iPhone so navigation today basically forced me into memorising roads and place names to make the route as I go. Thankfully the roads in Slovenia were sublime and navigation towards the capital was relatively easy. This was all fine until I got to Zagreb, probably the largest of the Balkan cities, which is a death trap to enter by bike, well at least if you’ve no idea where you are going. Needless to say a lot of today involved going to wrong way, backtracking and trying again. I made Zagreb with absolutely no appetite to crack on towards Nova Gradiska. I just wanted to feed and recharge. Looking over my route plan I could see that I could make Vukovar in a day so planned to smash it CP3 and hopefully get a good night’s recovery in Hotel Lav before the voyage to Mont Lovcen, Montenegro (CP4) via Bosnia.
Zagreb, Croatia to Vukovar, Croatia (294km → 1163m ↑)
After a buffet dinner, a plush sleep in the Palace Hotel (thank you booking.com) and a huge buffet breakfast I felt great and actually looking forward to a good day tracking from west to east across northern Croatia. That feeling didn’t last long though, wet roads + tram lines = Jim covered in blood and tram oil. I’ve tried to train myself over the past few days to spin positives from minor negatives as I knew only too well how a minor blow can manifest itself into a full blown public cry session at a melting Magnum Classic in a busy petrol station. It was still only 6am, clean yourself up, get a drink, crack on out of Zagreb, you’ll feel better when we get to the countryside.
It was meant to be relatively easy with only 1000m climbing but the relentless heat and monotony really got to me. The route I chose via Nova Gradiska is essentially a 300km+ street. There were signs for villages entering and exiting but there was very little breaks of countryside and when it did it was usually flat and barren. The heat was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before, riding in at least. I clocked up to 37C at one point in the day. That wasn’t too bad as cycling created it’s own breeze to keep you relatively cool. However when you stop to take a rest, getting in the shade does nothing for you, the air you breathe is like gasping from an oven. I lost count of the number of times I had to stop to get more fluids.
By this point of the race I’d completely lost track of days (and reality), more importantly I’d forgotten it was Sunday. Hoping to get to Nova Gradiska for lunchtime and now some suncream I was behind schedule and it was nearing 2 o’clock when I arrived there. Nothing was open. Going from supermarket to supermarket they had all closed jsut five minutes before my arrival. I started to panic, how was I going to ride another 150km in this heat, I had already burned and there was no where open to stock up now with on-the-bike fuel. Eventually I found a guy closing up a wee shop that looked like it might sell suncream, food can come next, suncream was the only thing I had on my mind at this moment. “PROSIM, PROSIM, krema za sunčanje, krema za sunčanje, PROSIM” I begged to the poor guy trying to close up. I looked at my with a distanct Balkan pity for a peely wally tourist. Grabbed the closest bottle and took 5 Kuna (all I had at the time, it didn’t dawn on me the utter genoristy of the man, 5 Kuna ~ 50p). It was cheap greasy shite, I didn’t care though, it provide moisture to my burning skin and probably a placebo against the next 150km ride to Vukovar.
One thing you couldn’t help notice was the obvious scars of war to hit Croatia. I’d say at least half of the houses where covered I bullet holes. I’m a wee bit embarrassed to say that I don’t know much about the break up Yugoslavia but it’s clear even centrally within the ‘nation’ rather than on the fringes of the to-be-borders, war was happening.
Another 100km down the road, with about 50km to go, I was really beaten. I took a bit of shad under a tree at the side of the road. I don’t know what part of the conurbation of Zagreb-Vukovar I’m in but there are people outside enjoying the later summer evening. I try to hide a bit from the crowds to get some rest when an old boy rocks up at my side with some chunks of watermelon. He speaks to me but we’ve no idea what each other is saying. It was nice to talk to someone regardless of the fact that we weren’t really communicating. He left me to the melon, just in time as I had my second wobble in two days, can you see the pattern emerging. I’m not sure what it was now, the genuinely kind gesture of a person who really looks like he had nothing, the loneliness, the desperation of the situation or just some sort of emotional crisis.
Back on the bike, the sun goes down and the mosquitoes come up. Swarms of the fuckers, just thick clouds, to the point that i had to put the sunglasses on to even ‘see’. My face, arms and legs building up a decent black coat made of millions of dead insects I was now desperate to get this last 50km complete and get to Hotel Lav. About 10km from Vukovar an incredible electrical storm started to swell and crack all around me. I initially thought it was just infront of my over to the east in Serbia, then realised it was north, west and south of me. I started then to understand the situation I was in. I was the single tallest point for miles around in a flat plain, riding a metal object. I completely lost it. I rode like a maniac to get into town and started cursing everything that brought me to this ridiculous situation. I was convinced I was going to die, being struck by lightening. Of all the risks I’d faced on this trip, lightening would be the most ridiculous but at that moment seemed completely inevitable.
You’ll be glad to hear I didn’t get struck by lightening. I got to Hotel Lav, checked in to CP3 and straight away headed to the restaurant where they were putting on main meals for €4!. I rolled in there to find #3 Gregory White strutting about in a dressing gown and #20 Alain Rumpf grammin for Cycling Tips. Two main courses each, a few beers and some excellent chat and my day had been totally turned around. I rested up feeling for the first time that I was going to make it to Idtabul.
Vukovar, Croatia to Sarajevo, Bosnia (253km → 3004m ↑)
Target Sarajevo (250k). I decided that I wasn’t going to try and bivvy out anymore. It’s a more restrictive way to travel but I couldn’t do any more nights with my blood thirsty bedmates. Next time, midgies body bag.
It wasn’t the greatest start to the day, I had a review of the route and noticed a straight route to the Bosnian border, it was on Strava but not on Google. So when the Garmin started beeping at me to turn right, I cracked on, it was gravel – fine by me. Then it was muddy gravel, then thick clay to the point my wheels clogged up and then mud with trees growing out the middle of the track. Usually I’d just go back but it was only 1km to the main road again or 5km back and 30km around. So I threw the bike on the shoulder for a bit of early season portage. It then hit me, dirt track, less than 1km from the Croatian – Bosnian border, not been ridden on in decades, this was land mine territory if ever there was one. It’s mad where your imagination takes you when you’re hungry and exhausted.
5km of backtrack portage later I was back on the road again, covered in shite heading for Bosnia. The ride in Bosnia was hectic, the scenery after Tuszla is stunning but the drivers are utterly reckless and altogether it was a really stressful ride to Sarajevo.
Then comes the fun, after three long, long climbs I start descending down to the capital. I descended for more than an hour and was on a massive high to see Sarajevo for the first time. About 10km from Sarajevo I got caught out crossing train lines (AGAIN) and rattled into some broken tarmac at 50kmph. After pulling out some teeth sized chunks of blacktop out of my knee I thought I best check if I needed stitches. I still needed to ride in to town, get to my hotel, get rid of the bike and then get to the hospital.
Covered in tar and sweat and shite sun cream and mosquitoes and blood pure coming out my leg I tried again to focus on the good things. I then remembered “at least I’ve not been chased by dogs yet”. An unbelievably bad timed jinx as this manky staffy-alastian devil mongrel burst out of the bushes and started to bite my wheels and ankles. I tried to kick the fucker in the puss but it was my freshly busted leg so instead opted to shout at him. In my head it was a deep, manly, agressive threat but in reality I squeled, like my baws were just dropping, “fuuuuuucckkkkkkkk offfffffff”. To my immense satisfaction the wee dick shat it and with a surrendering whelp bolted back into the dark. After that I completely lost it. I start just belting out with all my might “NOBODY FUCKS WITH ME, NOOOBODY!” again and again. I passed a wee boy and his elder sister walking along the road with a mix of terror and disgust in their eyes at this person destroying the calm of their suburban neighbourhood.
Patched up, checked in, kebab smashed I tried to get as much sleep as possible. The next day I’d be riding to CP4 the top of Mont Lovcen, Montenegro.
Sadly that was to be the end of my Transcontinental Race. The following morning I could barely bend my knee and it wasn’t a wound I wanted open to road detritus/mosquitos/suncream/amateur gel use. If I’m honest I’d probably scratched the race the night before but I knew all I needed to change mindset was to feed and rest up and see how things were in the morning.
I cannot thank everyone enough for all the support I received. It was physically and emotionally an exhausting experience and the support I got from home was always amazingly uplifting. I found drive and resourcefulness to continue on in ways I didn’t know I had.
Even through all the depths of utter misery something like this takes you through I find myself thinking back on it with fond memories. The amazing places I got to ride through will always out weigh the negative places my mind took me to. I’ll regret saying this but I look forward to seeing where Mike and his team are planning to route us through next year (I can only hope that there’s less of northern Italy). A part of me, i’ll admit, was massively relieved that it was over in Sarajevo. By the time I reached Istanbul a lot of the guys I had been riding ‘with’ were finishing and I couldn’t help feeling robbed and disappointed with myself for not finishing. I know I can do it and if there is a comeback I will be much better prepared for what lies ahead of me.
In the end I rode 2651km, climbed 22982m, moving 5days 11hrs, resting 4days 11hrs.
Finally, though many, many amazingly generous donations I managed to raise ove £1700 for MS Society Scotland. This too was a huge contributor to keeping me in the race. Thank you.