In the time I’ve spent thinking about writing part two, the founder of the Transcontinental Race, Mike Hall, was killed by a car whilst racing the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia. I met Mike only briefly at the end of my Transcontinental, but he left a lasting impression in my mind, as well as the physical toll his imagination had taken on my legs. I remember him talking about how worried he had been in the race the year previous when the competitors had to ride a long stretch of road to Istanbul that was very dangerous, how he was sat next to his phone, dreading a phone call saying that someone had been hurt. Thankfully no one was, but his care for everyone who rides shone through. In the time since his death what’s been clear is that this care shone back at him tenfold. The cycling community around the world has united in mourning Mike. There have been hashtags used to connect places, people, bikes, rides, vistas and more that celebrate Mike’s spirit. These hashtags have connected us in the way the roads we ride connect the places we go. A vascular network, like the veins and capillaries we cycle so hard to create and strengthen. A celebration of the very air we breathe, we ride a bike to demand more of it, ride up mountains to gasp it in. Mike embodied to me all of this and more. Recently I’ve had the recurring idea that a bike on a road is like a bow on a string, making the world music. That makes Mike one of the most prolific musicians I’ve heard.
Rest in peace Mike.
I was born aged 30 years old in a slightly run down Croatian coastal resort called Senj, under the neon sign of Hotel Libra. I stepped out into a sunny but windy morning dressed in filthy lycra, determined. Something had clicked overnight. I’d like to say some old randonneur had come to me in a dream, but I was so tired by this point my sleep had become a black hole from which I tore myself free, confused about where I was, with the nauseating pressure to get moving. But this morning was slightly different. I was born. Stopping in Senj at 6pm and choosing not to continue had played on my mind, it was the second time during the race I had taken a much shorter day than I should have. I went to sleep feeling guilty. I awoke feeling enlightened – just stop fucking stopping!
Did Einstein feel similar in part one when he created relativity, two moving frames moving relative to each other are fucking different, Albert! Maybe. But that metaphor has been ridden into the Balkan dust. This is part two, and I need new images.
It really felt simple though. Just don’t stop. Or stop, just not for very long. I repeated this like a mantra at the buffet breakfast bar. I got the bike out of the cleaner’s cupboard and I was ready to go, a 700m climb out of town. The zip burst on my frame bag as I was packing up, so I stuck what I needed in my saddle bag and threw the broken one away. I’ll feel the cost of that later. I started out of town and realised my light was no longer working. I had been charging it all night but it wasn’t doing anything, still full of water from the Italian tsunami I surfed, I threw it away. I’ll feel the cost of that later too.
Up the climb and I’m feeling light. I pass a couple of other riders and say hello, but keep on at my own pace, the climb’s gradients are gentle and I’m grateful. I’m rising out of the town and the switchbacks afford me views over Senj and it’s pink bay, that pink again. For the next two days, all the way to checkpoint four, I don’t so much move through the environment as it moves through me. The interior of Croatia I find absolutely beautiful.
As a side story, you remember Forrest Gump when he “just felt like running” and there are those scenes where he’s running through America, those long flat roads and flat landscapes like rambling sentences punctuated with rocks, not mountains, just big rocks. The earth, tired from making itself, put down its tools and said, that’s enough. Or a story more to the side, when I was a little kid and the furthest point you can see is the horizon and that’s where I want to go but my conversation with the curvature of the earth is never ending but never boring. Croatia was all these things. The road was gently rolling and I had a slight tailwind. I’ve probably only experienced majesty two or three times in my life but the Krka National Park was majestic. Everything is green, sand, pink and blue. I hardly pass a car all day, or see any other riders. I feel completely alone and it’s bliss. I said the landscape was like a sentence and it’s content became more complex when I started to see burned out tanks and buildings that had been shot up. Self-awareness washed over me and I realised I’m right in the heart of the Balkans, I grew up watching the news of the Balkan wars and had never really considered it in real life. This is the first time I’ve been through a recent war zone and history was palpable. That only added to the intensity. I realise I’m at a bit of altitude when I’m faced with road snaking down and down to the horizon, where there are lakes and it starts to take the shape of a massive valley. I must have descended for about an hour, I feel like I don’t turn a pedal once which adds to the feeling that everything is moving through me. I’m experiencing something very important. Everything is tangible and the horizon is open and approachable. The environment is burning itself onto the back of my eyelids, an experience i’ll return to again and again in quiet moments. I’ll have it with me always, like my name. I’m going to share this when it’s finished.
The day continues like that.
Pink sky returns and pulls gently down on my eyelids. I’ll bivvy tonight and with almost 300km done I see the soft grass of a churchyard with seven evergreen trees to watch over me. The village is called Sinj. Senj to Sinj sounds good. I fall asleep to the sound of crickets and a gentle breeze.
I wake up about three hours later, pack my things and continue. Breakfast is once again on my mind, eyes hungry and open. I don’t speak any other languages but I always felt familiar in France, Switzerland and Italy, knowing a bit of vocabulary and what to look out for. Croatia is new though, and I know nothing of the vocabulary. I’m cycling down a hill and I see a couple of people sitting outside of a building with some bread. The sign says pekara. Heaven.
I only have euros, forgetting to take out some Croatian money but I’ve learned that every person is their own bureau de change, perfectly happy to do a deal for you. Everything looks amazing and there are these long sausage roll type things with cheese in them that the kind pekara woman cuts like a rope. I’ll have some of that. Or a lot of that, eating a bunch and sticking more into my pockets. I climb out of Imotski and towards the Bosnian border. I hope to be in Montenegro and the fourth checkpoint by the end of the day. The temperature is roasting, taps aff they say in Scotland. I climb a bit more. I thought all the climbing was done after Italy but that was a mistake. I swoop down into Mostar and almost crash into in ice-cream stand at the bottom, convenient. I put my bike down to enjoy my magnum and realise that my bivvy bag has fallen from bike. I was descending for about half an hour so it could have fallen off anywhere, I cycle back up the hill for about 2 minutes but it’s too hot and too hard and too much so I decide it’s a goner. It’s going to be warm from now on in so I tell myself so it’s ok to not have it anymore. I’ll feel the cost later. My new mantra gently reminds me to not stop for long. I’ve got a 25km climb towards the border with Montenegro at the absolute hottest part of the day, joy. I meet a couple of riders who’ve stopped for a juice at the start of the climb and we try and laugh the heat off. It works for about two minutes. The climb isn’t steep, just an enormous drag. My cycling computer is reading 45 degrees centigrade. I know that’s probably fiction or a fault but it doesn’t help. It’s hot but like all things, some time passes and the climb ends. I’ve routed via an unofficial border crossing into Montenegro and I know that a section of it is off-road, but I’m not sure how off the road it is, and the not knowing makes me anxious. The fear of shredding my tyres on the sharp stones of Bosnia, being stranded in the middle of nowhere, is making me feel anxious. My psychology turns to meteorology and the thunder rolls in the sky but also in me, but I keep pedalling. A flash of lightning makes the landscape glitch and it starts to rain. This could be trouble, but on the 2nd day of my rebirth the rain fades out and everything calms down and the pink returns.
The gravel isn’t so bad but there are some really steep parts my tyres can’t grip so I have to push a couple of sections. I think how hard everything is when I hear the sound of an engine behind me, and I kid you not, it’s a taxi! An old estate with enough space at the back to accommodate my bike too! I contemplate thumbing it – the Titwood bar please! – but that would be fiction, and this is a non-fictional account of cycling across Europe, so what I actually do is stare at it mouth agape as it passes by, and the driver does exactly the same to me. The two riders I met on the climb out of Mostar catch up with me as the gravel turns back into tarmac and we tell ourselves that surely it must be a victory parade to the finish now, it can’t get more precarious than that.
It’s dark when I arrive in Pluzine Montenegro, checkpoint four. I’ve made good time and arrived at a reasonable time for dinner. The two other riders I was with aren’t behind me anymore, we got split on the descent and I wonder what’s wrong. They come in about half an hour after me, one of them crashed on the descent and thinks he’ll have to scratch from the race now. It’s always precarious. (It turns out he didn’t need to scratch, he just rested for a day and ploughed on, we shook hands in Turkey). Steak and chips and bread and cheese and coke and blueberries and jazz and a poster of Jeremy Corbyn and smoke wood and the smell of night and grass and other riders and sweat and bookshelves and 1000km to go is what Pluzine is like. In the morning I’ll realise I’m in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been, all greens and lakes and gorges. But in the dark it’s the Zvono guesthouse which is really hip. The owner has long hair and a moustache and I ask him about the Jeremy Corbyn poster and he says he’s a great guy. I ordered a steak the size of a plate with chips in a bowl next to it and multiple slices of bread and took a room in someone’s flat they were renting out for 10 euros.
Like I already said, I woke up realising I’m at the bottom of a beautiful green gorge, rode back to Zvono for some breakfast – eggs and ham. Green gorge eggs and ham. I order a pot of coffee and sit with some other riders who arrived in the night, I also meet Anna who is co-organiser of the race, and Mike’s partner. Sometimes I think I’m a quiet type but if you put me next to a bunch of people I’ll talk shite with the best of them. She listens generously and it recharges my batteries, she also gives me batteries for my GPS tracker. I’m chatting freely and we’re all laughing, talking about our various misfortunes, which aren’t really misfortunes just hiccups cause we’ve eaten our fortune too fast, because what’s more fortunate than being able to ride your bike across Europe? After the race I would check social media and realise that there was quite a bit of coverage, the directors cars covering the race with photographers and videographers. Obviously not everything can be covered and the photos that have been taken are brilliant, the superhuman effort of those at the front of the race being caught perfectly. But what maybe doesn’t get shown is the effort of let’s say the “middle pack”. The riders who are battling against time to make it to checkpoints before they close, which keeps them on track for making the finishers party in Cannakale. A lot of people start with the ambition of just making the finisher’s party, it’s ambitious which is an understatement given the distance covered but it doesn’t feel as gung ho as saying you want to finish in the top twenty. Everybody needs a purpose and the feeling that a door is closing slowly on you is a good one, you want to be on the right side of it when’s closed. I would see people suffering this urgency all through the race, people like me. There are also the people who do miss checkpoints and who don’t make the finisher’s party and their stories are beautiful and bonkers too. Anyway, we recharge our technology with plugs our bodies with food and coffee and our minds with stories. I tell a story about day three.
It’s 5:30am and I’ve just woken up in someone’s garden with a curious cat sniffing me. Bivvying isn’t as warm as I thought and I should have packed a sleeping bag as well, I’ll think about that for the rest of the race. But I’ve had a solid four hours sleep and I get my gear together and get on the road. I’ve got a snickers bar as a memento of the previous day and I guzzle it down gratefully. I’ve really enjoyed cycling in France and I had also been enjoying riding at night under the stars. I had never done this before and it was a bonus. The circle of light you’re casting on the road isn’t bright enough to spoil the view and I feel like a fisherman circa 300BC, navigating with the cosmos. I spoil this illusion by pulling out my phone to check the time when I hit a bump and drop it. I had been riding quiet roads and hadn’t seen a car for hours when lo and behold the headlights of Bahamut himself comes rearing round a corner. NOOO!!!! He flies by me and I scramble around trying to find my phone. Rightly so, the car has driven straight over it, and the screen is smashed to smithereens. I’d love to just chuck it in a bush but I do actually really need it for map checks and information so I’ll have to sort it out. It’s 2am though, so I decide to stress about it in daylight. In the meantime there’s a wall and a tree between which I sleep, in the morning I’ll realise it’s a garden.
The snickers bar glows in my stomach and I have to take a two hour detour to a larger town with a shopping centre. I’m not even sure if it will have somewhere that can fix my phone but I have to take a chance.
I just sat down nine months later with a glass of white wine after eating some pasta Mhari made, it’s 9:18 in the evening here in Glasgow and I’m listening to Bill Evans’ “Peace Piece”. I used the word have in the last two sentences I wrote about three days ago and upon re-reading I don’t think I had to do anything. I’m now in a comfortable chair and the evening sky coming through the window is covered in lilac clouds but that pink is round the edges. I can hear Mhari in the living room talking to Poppy, our dog we got three months after I finished the Transcontinental. The only thing I have to be is grateful. This is a deviation, just like the two hours to fix my phone was, but I have to get into the writing mood somehow. It’s confusing for me, so why shouldn’t it be for you too?
After two hours riding I arrive in Chalon-sur-saone, first things first however. McDonalds. I’ve learned the hierarchy of the race which is move, eat, everything else. I carry a McChicken sandwich in my stomach over to the shopping centre and the mobile phone shop is just a little hut in the middle, you know those little stalls you get that will do your nails or make you a balloon. One of those. After the bakers this morning… oh shit, I just checked back and I haven’t even mentioned the point of this narrative twist, the bakers! After I woke up in the garden I ate the snickers and I cycle on for about an hour when I reach a village. Coming through, it was about 6am, the sound of the baker raising the shutters on her boulangerie bäcker panattiere pekarna pekara furre пекара φούρνος fırın echoed out. Perfect. Pardon madame je parle un petit peut Francaise. She smiles. Great, this doesn’t normally pan out like this. I feel French. Je prend ca, and I point. Ca, ca, ca, ca, ca, ca, ca.
A total feast of warm pastry.
I sit down on the pavement and smile to myself for a successful interaction in French. I feel human and ordinary and full.
Back to chalon-sur-saone and I’m out of my depth getting my phone fixed, I can only point at it and shrug my shoulders. Luckily she knows exactly what to do. Vous etes angel, I say. She smiles and fixes it in half an hour, then I cycle off toward Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and into Montenegro where I’ll be sitting recounting this story to my fellow tired racers over a coffee at the bottom of the next 2000m climb we’ve got to do.