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From Slovenia across the Balkan

After I left checkpoint 2, it quickly became dark. A short gravel section, maybe 200 m, just after the checkpoint I pushed. It was just too steep for me after all the sandwiches. Then it went further uphill to the border with Austria to 1200 m altitude. There followed a short descent towards Bad Vellach, but only to pedal sharply right again uphill towards Slovenia after a few kilometers. This second ascent had it in itself. The gradient percentages varied between 12 and 14 percent. Many participants later reported that they had to push. I was able to continue, albeit sometimes adding “extra switchbacks” from one side of the road to the other. It was humid, and rain was forecast for the night. At the border crossing to Slovenia, I decided to end the day. I found a shelter behind the customs building with hopefully enough eave overhang.

Around 2:30 a.m. I woke up. Light rain splashed in my face. The wind was not particularly favorable for this side of the building. So my sleeping place quickly moved to the other side, facing the street, and continued to sleep. Again and again I heard participants who drove on through the night and the rain. I wanted to take the upcoming gravel piece but neither in the rain, nor in the dark with my battered tires in attack. The weather app promised that the rain would stop around 7:00. I slept until 6:00, ate my breakfast (2 Snickers and a pack of TUC bell pepper cookies), packed up, and headed out. Right on time with my start, it stopped raining. Beautiful scenery, great road surface. One could let roll. The Garmin beeped once again and warned of dangerous curves or so. But no, I had missed the departure to the Gravelpassage and am sovereign only once 2 kilometers a 12-percent descent further downhill cycled. So turn around, and 2 kilometers uphill again to the gravel passage. I took it with humor, at least I have seen things that most participants did not get to see … The Gravelstück was quite OK. Certainly at the limit for my tires, but looking back on what was to come later, not worse than federal roads in Albania.

Parcours 2

At the end of the gravel section, it went onto a bigger road. Unfortunately, I did not find a bakery. It was Sunday, and on Sundays the supply is always difficult. A gas station, which I reached around 10:25, allowed me to buy bars and drinks again. Also a pack of Haribo gummy bears had to come. After that it went on well, roughly in the direction of Croatia. Around 12:50 the next gas station stop. It had become very warm in the meantime. Bottles refill, and above all an ice cream had to come. Another participant reached the gas station shortly after me. He was in the rain, like some others, the complete electronics abgesoffen. He took a longer break to dry his stuff in the sun. I was again impressed by the fact that my bags were really 100% waterproof. After the gas station we went over a mountain range again. Not particularly high, but brutally steep. The twenty percent was then but with the luggage too much of a good thing. I walked the last 500 m to the top. Afterwards it went on, again and again also up to 16% upward gradient, until I met after a departure on a broad and well developed cycle track. This I left after a few kilometers in the direction of the east, where I reached the border to Croatia shortly before 15 o’clock. An abandoned old border crossing in nowhere, at 35 degrees Celsius. I first took a power nap before continuing through the afternoon sun towards Zagreb.

Halfway to Zagreb, there was a well in a village. No drinking water, but good enough to cool down. I pedal effect further south, over busy roads into Zagreb, where I had planned my way right through the center. How often I was professionally in Zagreb 10-20 years ago I can not say. About once a month for 2-3 days for years certainly. I wanted to see again some of the places where I had stayed then. The hotels, the cafes, and also the many sports fields on which I ran so many laps. And there was also the hotel where I had set fire to the spinning wheel. The felt rag was dry at the time and went up in flames. What can I do about it if they don’t maintain their spinning bike properly? I had a couple of hot dogs at the gas station, drank a coke, bought some cookies and other stuff, and drove on south. In the “rear view mirror” I could see that a thunderstorm was coming up. Already came also a storm warning for Slovenia and Croatia on the cell phone. I was far enough away, it would no longer hit me.

At least that’s what I thought until 8:30 pm. Then all hell broke loose. I took refuge in a gas station near Ivanić-Grad, shopped, ate something, and decided not to continue in this thunderstorm and rain. Fortunately, I found a hotel only 4 kilometers away. I cycled the 4 kilometers as fast as I could through the storm. An early stop, so also again early out of the feathers. After a shower I could wash my clothes and dry them with towel and hair dryer as far as possible and also write a few lines in the liveblog and post a few photos on Instagram. Around 23:00 was then night’s rest.

The alarm clock rang at 3 o’clock, and at shortly before 4 o’clock I left the hotel, after I had “enjoyed”, as on many days, the 7-days croissants for breakfast. It went on first over small ways. After a few kilometers I had to change my glasses. The humidity was so high that my cycling glasses were permanently fogged up. So I continued with my normal glasses. It soon went on a bigger road, but without traffic. This road went basically all the way to Bosnia-Herzegovina and stretched almost 100 kilometers. In Kutina, I found a great bakery around 6:30. With coffee machine, great baked goods (sweet or savory), and tables and chairs. Things were not going well, my motivation and morale were at rock bottom. Rain on and off, I was so sick of it. Then this never ending street, with many abandoned and shot up houses. When then Frank Sinatra “my way” ran on the radio, and the two saleswomen sang to the song I was finally at the end. The first low point during the TCR was reached. I would have gladly thrown everything away and taken the next train home.

But there was no train here, so onward. On Instagram I asked to send me a few new legs. As a result, I received some photos of legs, and my mood increasingly improved. The landscape continued to be spooky, with fog. Then I turned right and reached Banovsko jezero lake. There was still fog over the lake, although by now it was already 7:30. But the sun was slowly making its way through this fog, and I took off my leg warmers and arm warmers, as well as my reflective vest. A man came walking along leaning on a stick. He stopped and asked if I was headed to Greece. I was so perplexed that he knew that, I didn’t even ask how he came up with it. After a few sentences in English, and my explanation that I was from Germany, he continued talking to me in a very good German. He told me about his stroke, that he always goes for a run in the morning in order not to get rusty. This short conversation completely blew away all my gloom, and the next two hours until we reached the border to Bosnia-Herzegovina flew by.

There was a lot of activity at the border crossing. All cars, buses and trucks were closely inspected. It is, after all, an EU external border. For me, it was still easy, and it went quickly. I showed my identity card and entered a country that was unknown to me until then. Everything looked different, mosques, churches, buildings, the people. First we went to a large gas station to “refuel”. The road from the border to just before Banja Luka was very busy, and quite narrow for this traffic. I was constantly honked at. Where should I go, my dear? I can’t disappear into thin air! Only gradually I understood that they didn’t want to honk me on the side, but that honking only indicates “hey, I’m overtaking now, watch out”. Once understood, it was very relaxed and clear when you were being overtaken. The same principle existed later in Montenegro, Albania, and northern Macedonia. I still find the principle very good. And there was not a single really dicey situation in traffic for me. Meanwhile, the front of the race was already far ahead. Reports were circulating in the media about the condition of the course in Albania. That with my battered tires? My decision was made to make an attempt to buy new tires in Banja Luka. It was not going to be as easy as I imagined. First, I searched Google Maps for “bike store nearby.” Google is not as smart as you might suspect. 

Google is not as clever as one might suspect. Bicycle stores in Austria and the German-speaking countries were displayed. So another try with “bicikl” and several variations. Ultimately, I found a store “Sport Shop Shimano”, which I reached via many major roads. Once there, it was quickly clear that I would not find here. A few road bike tires were there, but nothing really durable. The owner was very helpful, and referred me to another store. Of course on the other side of the city, but at least again near my actual route. Through heavy traffic, nothing like there. And indeed, at “Soković Sport doo” I found everything my heart desired. “Do you participate in TCR?” Was the first question. “Yes,” was my answer. After that there was alarm in the store, 2 salesmen were trying to get me. All tires were brought, it was discussed and talked shop, what was good for the Gravel section, but still have low rolling resistance.

Then came the boss himself. “I have what you need, but not here, is still in the box in the basement, got in last week.” he gave to the best and disappeared. After 2 minutes he came back with a pair of “Vittoria Terreno Zero Graphene 2.0” in 38 mm width. They fit the bill. Certainly on asphalt far from the Conti GP5000, but they were cut anyway. The guys hurried with the assembly, while I treated myself to a Coke and an espresso in the neighboring café. The whole action with searching, wandering, and assembly has ultimately taken almost 3 hours. But I was glad to have confidence in my tires again. And I had on the remaining kilometers to Thessaloniki, whether asphalt, sand or stone, not a single defect more.

After a stop at a supermarket, we continued on small roads. I had chosen a path that would surely be used by only a few other participants. A great, slightly uphill road over a mountain, instead of hefty climbs on the larger road. That was the plan. Almost at the top, I got hungry, and I stopped at a small store that also prepared food. I quickly became the attraction of the village. The owner made it clear to me that there was no road where I wanted to ride my bike. Google and the apps would be out of date for years. Getting through was impossible. The mobile network was weak, I was hungry and tired. Rescheduling therefore difficult and tedious, but I also didn’t want to drive another 10 km up the mountain for nothing. Sometimes it’s better to make a bad decision than none at all. So I decided to go back down the valley to Kotor Varoš to take on the steep climbs on the big road. After all, the road was 100 percent there.

Another 2 to 2 1/2 hours wasted. On this day it did not go really well, but I was still happy whether the new tires. The climbs were steep, it was getting dark, but I had to keep going. Too few kilometers so far. At Kneževo there were gas stations. Dinner consisted of chips, Coke, Snickers, ice cream. Everything that had calories somehow. I also bought the 7-Days croissants for the next morning. You never know if or when the next opportunity will come. I continued to fight my way through the hills and mountains. My goal was to somehow still get to Travnik. It was now finally all the altitude meters back down on a good road. Suddenly a wolf stood at the roadside. He must have wondered what a cyclist was doing here in the middle of the night. I had never seen a wolf in the wild before. Impressive animals. In contrast to the wolf, the dogs in Travnik gave me more trouble. So a hotel or motel had to be found, because I didn’t want to camp outside here. Fortunately, I also found a cheap motel in town, where I could shower, and after a long day quickly slumbered away.

In the morning I found a bakery in the immediate vicinity of the motel. Well supplied, I changed the chain on the wheel. Maybe it was not even necessary to change the chain, but since I had a second waxed chain with me, this should also be used. I also changed the batteries of the power meter directly with. The reminded this with “battery low” already the evening before. The replacement batteries made after all the rain of the first week, however, no longer a good impression. Rust was removed and installed, but they did their job until the finish. I was approached by German tourists from the Black Forest. They were there camping, and I told them about the TCR, where it goes, how long it is, etc. You always get a mixture of incredulous looks, coupled with pity and admiration. What it was with the Swabians, I don’t really know. The verbal communication “Rhineland/Swabian” already took all attention. It went on in the direction of Sarajevo, which I passed to the west. It continued through a beautiful valley slowly but surely towards Montenegro and the Durmitor National Park. Great landscapes, but nothing flat anymore. Either it went uphill, or it went downhill. For the most part also through tunnels, and I was glad that I could quickly turn my lights on and off by means of the switch. In Montenegro, I was back in the Eurozone. There were gas stations and stores, food was no problem. The roads were also passable and there was little traffic.

In Pluzine there were supermarkets where I could stock up again with water, coke, cereal bars and other things. The view of the Durmitor and the Bobotov Kuk (a 2522 m high mountain) was gigantic. Also the light atmosphere turned the landscape into a fairy tale world. It was getting dark and because of many dogs I decided to book a room in Nikšić again. Also, the cost was bearable with under 20 euros for one night in a bed with bathroom. I reached the accommodation around 11 pm. There were basic amenities in the room, but the water was warm. The boiler construction was a bit adventurous, there would be tea, coffee, kettle and a bottle of homemade raki schnapps on the table. From the liquor I have tunlichst the fingers read. Neither I wanted to go blind, nor fall directly into a coma.

The following morning I forced down 7-days croissants and whatever I could find and continued on a smaller road. On the big road there was a tunnel that was forbidden, or at least its use was not recommended. Some dogs made my life difficult again, and after a few kilometers I decided to switch back to the big road after bypassing the tunnel (which of course required elevation gain). There it went well, and since it was not very early, was also knurr little traffic. Then in Podgorica I found a great bakery around 6:45. Huge chocolate croissants fresh and still warm, as well as savory stuff for later. Along with coffee, it was a great breakfast before continuing on towards Albania. The road to Albania stretched a bit like chewing gum. The temperature also rose quickly. But there were enough supermarkets to buy cold drinks. At 8:25 a.m. I reached the border to Albania, the second country of the trip unknown to me until then. The border was quickly passed and it went along the Skadarsko jezero National Park and the big lake to Koplik.

My route went through the middle of the city, where there was a hustle and bustle. Either it was the weekly streetmarket, or it is always Like that. All stores had stands on the street, many Albanians promenaded in sports cars, or pimped cars, in between many people on foot. It went only slowly, but I did not want to miss this spectacle. Afterwards further on the large road to Shkodra, an old city, which provided with over 100000 inhabitants for traffic jams, traffic and bustle. I made my way through the hustle and bustle looking for an ATM. I was not sure as of I could always pay with my smartphone in the Albanian province. So I exchanged for 35 euros in 35000 LEK. It was quite hard to get rid of the money again, because digitally you can pay almost everywhere now. But it was good to exchange and I have only 5000 LEK left, which I donate at the airport in the collection bins always positioned there for UNICEF or similar organizations. My route continued on small roads along a chain of hills. There were more meters of altitude than I actually wanted. Also, the sun was burning much stronger now than it had been the last few days. One automatically seeks shade, which is not always crowned with success.

About 40 km further south, in Lezha, there was a fountain, which I used to cool down a bit. I also bought some fruit before continuing my tour south. The next fixed point was the bridge “Ura e Zogut”, which can still be passed by cyclists or pedestrians. Gladly I would have jumped into the Lumi Mat, which flows from the mountains under the bridge to the Adriatic Sea, to cool down at lunchtime. But no time, and you can’t get to the shore so easily. So on towards checkpoint 3 in Burrel, which was followed by the dreaded gravel course. It went upstream and along the way there were springs where you could cool off or refill your water bottles. The last 36 kilometers to the checkpoint were ahead. Somehow the mountains did not stop. And suddenly my right knee hurt again, and really badly. I really wanted to ride the course, so no more breaks. Grit my teeth and push through. Somehow I made it to the checkpoint. Pick up a stamp, get my time entered. Post a few photos and eat something. I was already a bit groggy, tired and hungry, so the break was a bit longer than I wanted. But I needed some rest from the chase. After a kg of yogurt, bread, 1.5l Coke, fruit and more, slowly the spirits came back. Around 18:00 clock I started direction of the parcours 3.

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