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Highway? To Hell with this Gravel!

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  • Post category:2023 / TCR09

The break was longer than initially planned, but I needed a little rest, especially my knee. This had now recovered after the interruption and I went with fresh courage to the challenge of the third parcours. Already the way to the start of the parcours was fierce, steeply the road climbed uphill. I could not imagine that the course could also have such slopes. On the asphalted piece to the start of the course I was medially accompanied by a photographer in the car. She probably found my backpack exciting. Again and again she took photos from the vehicle, drove forward to take photos standing at the edge, climbed for it on walls etc.. Admittedly, the scenery with the slowly setting sun was fabulous. Unfortunately, I have no idea who it was or where the photos ended up. Maybe I’ll somehow get to find out who the photographer was. I’m sure there were some great pictures.

Around 7:30pm I reached the starting point of the parcours. This was a pure Gravel Parcours, and over 40 km long. First about 1000 vertical meters uphill, and then 1100 vertical meters with a few small interruptions and counterclimbs down. Already here I had to swallow. That looked fierce. Steep, sometimes stony, sometimes sandy, hard to ride with a loaded bike. The sun was now just above the horizon. As long as it was light, I continued cycling for the most part. When the darkness set in, the condition of the route became noticeably worse at the same time, and to a large extent impassable. Not only for me, but also for most of the other participants. The first 10 km had it in itself. I would have liked to have had another gear ratio with a few more teeth than the largest sprocket available. Often I had to push longer sections. Once standing, a start was largely because of the slope and nature of the track no longer possible. I was glad when it finally went downhill again. But really smoothly, it ran then also not. We were several participants who wanted to complete the course at night. And all “crept” equally through the darkness. Some decided to spend the night not far from the trail. You could see the corresponding “dots” on the livetracker. But I didn’t want to camp in the middle of the gravel route. Unfortunately, on the downhills (despite moderate and careful riding) it knocked me down two or three times. Mostly the front wheel just went away on the stones, and splash. Fortunately everything was OK, because with the partly large stones one could have hurt oneself even at low speed. As you can see in the replay on, I was not as slow as I thought I was during the race. After one more encounter with dogs at a farm, I reached the end of the gravel section around 0:40 on Thursday, August 3. Around 21:00 I had booked a hotel in Peshkopi from the way, with the remark that it could become late. Midnight was there still my goal. Ok, still a little over 10 km of road, so maybe it would be 1 AM. Somehow I had in my head, it would go after the end of the course only downhill, but it was exactly the other way around. Steeply uphill, although on asphalt-like paths, but with partly double-digit gradient percentages. Somehow my gearshift no longer worked 100 percent. Maybe something was bent, or the derailleur hanger defective? I would look at with in the light. First of all further. Still while I tormented me uphill, it made then with a switching operation the typical noise, if the shift cable of the rear derailleur tears. Wonderful when you have only the heaviest gear available in the middle of the night. It was almost 2am when I turned into the street where the hotel was located. One last hill, maybe 6%, and then 3 dogs behind me again. I don’t know where I got the power to ride up this last hill at full throttle. Arrived at the hotel, I noticed that everything was dark, and the reception of course no longer occupied. A look at the phone showed 3 missed calls from the hotel between midnight and 12:30. I called the number, and after ringing for a while, a not very amused voice rang out. I apologized, and explained my problem. “I’ll be there in 5 minutes” they told me. After just under 15 minutes, I was there. It took another 15 minutes to make it clear to the dear man that the bike must go with me to my room, no matter if third floor without elevator.

Eventually he gave up, I got a freshly renovated room on the second floor. But only if he could come along to be sure that I would not put my bike against the freshly painted walls. After he had left my room again, I took a shower, and then went to bed. With an early start in the morning it would become nothing more, because before it went off, still a defective shift cable waited for me.

The alarm clock rang at 6 o’clock. After all, 3 hours of sleep. Quickly stuffed some food, not much was left, I set about changing the shift cable. Tired as I was, it took about 20 minutes before I had everything fixed, no record time, but ready to go, at least as far as the bike was concerned. After stowing the stuff, I carefully carried the bike down the stairs and left the hotel. I left the key, as the porter had told me during the night, at the cafĂ© next door. I then met a French participant at the hotel exit. He was cursing about the gravel section. He said he was fed up, there was more gravel coming, and he would not go on with this nonsense. My attempts to change his mind were not successful. While we were still talking, he switched off his tracker and said that he was now going straight on roads to Thessaloniki. I, on the other hand, first drove to the next supermarket to “refuel”.

The route behind Peshkopi went again and again steeply uphill and downhill. Nothing was flat here. It was the section of the race where the former third-placed rider, Marin de Saint-Exupery, had given up exhausted. I could somehow understand it. But just a few kilometers further on, I reached northern Macedonia, and my spirits were rising. But I was tired. There had been little sleep in the last few days, and it was getting warmer and warmer with every kilometer south. A first power nap before noon was urgently needed. After that, it ran noticeably better, past bodies of water, and finally once in the shade through forests. But soon the forest was passé, and the sun burned relentlessly. Before the border back to Albania it went on newly asphalted road once again steeply uphill. In blazing sun, hot tar, lots of traffic. I decided to sit down in the shade and take a break. Somewhat recovered, I tackled this straight and steep road to the border crossing, and was glad to be over the mountain. After that there was a descent on, you can hardly believe it, perfectly tarred road. Up to Pogradec one could let it run well. I would have liked to join all the bathers in Ohrit Lake in the high temperatures, but no time (and no bathing suit). In Pogradec it was time again for an ice cream, water and something hearty. I started to worry about reaching Greece the same day.

The border crossing on my route was closed between 8pm and 8am. Getting there before 8pm was out of the question. A bypass was possible, but much further and too complicated to plan, as there was also a road banned by the organizer. At worst, I would have to take a longer break. I was not so negative about that. It went on toward Korce, the last larger place in Albania. I reached Korce in the late afternoon, or early evening. In front of a large supermarket sat a participant, visibly upset. She told me how she had fared on the road towards the border crossing. “I was so tired that I drove from right to left across the entire width of the road, then left against the guardrail and back across the road. Then on the right side I fell over the guardrail into the ditch,” she recounted. I told her that we were only on the road for fun, that we were only fighting against ourselves, and that health and safety came first. She was young, certainly not 30, and I couldn’t keep my fatherly advice to myself. She endured my sermon, went to a hotel, and quit the race the following day due to heat stroke. I went on strengthened, and already shortly after the city I had to turn on the light. The farther southeast I went, the earlier dusk set in. I calculated how far I could still drive and booked myself a hotel in Leskovik. The road led through a mountain range (what else). After the first kilometers on a wide and quite well paved road, it went left and the following kilometers by means of serpentines up and down. All on a road that was worse than the piece of gravel in Slovenia just after the second checkpoint. 

You could only drive slowly downhill. Potholes so big that you could hide an elephant in them without any problems. At some point it was clear that I would not make it to Leskovik. I canceled the hotel and continued driving for the time being. Around 23:00 I booked a hotel, which I should reach in the next hour despite desolate road, which I did. Arrived there, the usual procedure. Electronics to the charger, shower, eat, briefly post something, set the alarm clock and sleep.

last border crossing, reaching country number 13

It was already five when I got out of bed, still 4 hours of sleep. After a quick breakfast, we continued on the bad road. Only gradually the road improved and it went all the altitude meters of the last hours back down. Around 7:30 a.m. I passed the long-awaited sign indicating the turnoff to the border crossing. It was still closed, but already full. We were three participants at the border, were checked in at quarter to eight, and before we set off into no man’s land towards the Greek customs and crossed the border river, we still used the localities of the border station. Cars and trucks had to wait a little longer. At the Greek customs we continued briskly, but also steadily uphill again. Rivers are natural borders, but unfortunately rarely on a mountain.

The route to the first of the three courses around checkpoint 4 was demanding. Many meters of altitude, and unbearably hot. On the other hand, there were magnificent views and I saw landscapes that I will long long back and remember. Two steep climbs before parcours 4a in blazing sun demanded everything from me. I was glad when there was a fountain at the top. For the water I had to “fight” with bees. They were also happy to find something liquid. Since my wife and I have bees ourselves, it went off relaxed and harmoniously. No reason to panic.

Unfortunately, the water tasted like chlorine. Maybe good because of the germs, but regrettably not tasteful. I used it more for external cooling. And only a few kilometers further I found another well, whose water tasted fresh. It went to the parcours once again down the mountain, and on the other side again up. At the start, I did some shopping first. Ice cream, chips, granola bars. Then there were Fritt chewy candies in the middle of Greece. A pack of “Orange” had to go into the backpack. Now a decision was due. Either after the parcours the same again back, approx. 60 km by the mountains on asphalt drive, in order to drive then the next parcours in opposite direction first up, in order to drive this then again in the given direction down. Or alternatively, ride about 20 km across the mountain and be prepared to walk parts of the way. I opted for the latter. Was it the better decision? Despite what came next, looking back I think it was the better one. I headed out onto the short course, and at the end of it, I headed further into the mountain. The first bit was extremely steep, I pushed. After that it was possible to continue on a mixture of tar and gravel. Again, dusk was starting to set in. My timing with gravel was not really good. A dog yelped at me, but he was more fearful than I was. A French competitor approached from behind, clearly making faster progress uphill. As he passed me, I saw that he had a more suitable gear ratio and also purebred gravel tires mounted. He pulled ahead.

It was dark by now, and I could still see his taillight flashing, when suddenly several big dogs came after me. Pretty big guys. Actually, it’s best to stop then, put the bike between you and the dogs, and keep going slowly. Usually the dogs then lose interest at some point. But that’s theory. I jumped on my bike, rode like hell, and caught up with the Frenchman again. The dogs turned back, and I set about pushing my bike again.

20km cycling and walking. Can you see the switchbacks ahead of me? Just 1800m high, but steeper than it looks on the picture…

The trail got narrower and narrower, and there were many switchbacks on this trail. First uphill, from the end of the trail to the highest point on the mountain a total of about 1000 meters of elevation (so an average of about 10%). I was relieved when I reached the apex, now it was back downhill on the narrow trail. Later it was possible to roll a bit on the bike again. It went better and better. I became faster and faster and in the end also more reckless. When I realized that I was going too fast, it was already too late. A violent somersault downhill, and I remained lying on my back for the time being. I had seen a deep crevasse too late.

Nothing seemed to be broken or more affected, but I looked at the many stars (there was no stray light here) first in peace. At some point I got up again, checked the bike. A drinking bottle was missing. Black bottle in black night. The search was unsuccessful. It was already the fourth crash of the day, and I was mad at myself. “You’re buzzing around here like a rookie” rang through the night. After that I drove on more carefully. At some point I came to the place where course 4b started. Some Greeks were still partying late at night, it was already 1am.

I am toast!

They asked me if I needed a room, but I denied. It was getting close. Still the 4b course, some sleep and another 100 km to checkpoint 4, which was only open until 13:00 on the same day. I still drove the course and at its end I sat down at the roadside, completely exhausted, tired, and only a pack of Fritt Orange in my backpack. I had that for dinner. I slept not far from the crossing, I think it was a transformer house or something like that, the base of which gave me a flat surface to sleep on. It was 2:30 before I could lie down.

I had set the alarm for 4:30, somewhat mercilessly. Still about 100 km to the checkpoint. I noticed that I had lost my tool bag in one of the crashes. A bad feeling. Too often in the last few days I found that the climbs and roads made it almost impossible for me to reasonably estimate how long i would need for a given distance. Tired as I was, nothing worked in my head anyway. The rule of three was impossible. But all complaining did not help, I had to go on. First without breakfast through tunnels, and slightly uphill. Another chain of hills had to be crossed. Halfway uphill, another participant overtook me. It felt like I was standing still. Shortly after, another light appeared behind me. “Not you,” I said to myself, and increased the pace slightly (there wasn’t much left in my legs either). It was enough. The light disappeared again. Slowly it became uncomfortable with the hunger. Still I had no hunger pangs, but if I would not soon find food, it would become a problem. Once you have a hunger pang, it can take hours to really regain your strength. Shortly after the last mountain, I came to a small mountain village with a store around 7 o’clock. The lights were on, the door was open, and in front of the store an elderly lady was chopping vegetables. I stopped and hoped to find some bread here. That was also the case. I bought a, no longer fresh, wreath of 8 rolls, a package of sliced cheese, cookies, bars and water. I ate the rolls and cheese right outside the store. Meanwhile, the owner continued to chop her vegetables.

Finally some energy in my body again I went downhill towards Trikala. I briefly considered whether I should go to Trikala, there would certainly be a bike store to get my lost tools and spare material again. But I discarded the thought directly again. The checkpoint had priority. So I turned leftf as planned shortly before Trikala in the direction of Kalambaka, where the last checkpoint before the finish in Thessaloniki was located. It quickly got hot again, and shade was non-existent on the flat section (I repeat: flat section). I made good progress, although tired, and reached the checkpoint before half past ten local time. In total I was now 12 days and 11 1/2 hours on the road.