Every pedal stroke gets me closer…….

Every pedal stroke gets me closer…….I have cycled across the continent of Europe to Istanbul as fast as I possibly could.  3680km(2300mims) in 15days and 15 hours. That’s an average of 235.5km(147miles) per day, no days off, no masseurs and no support team.  The Tour de France 2015 was 3360km(2100miles) over 21 days with 2 rest days averaging 177km(110miles) per day, fully supported, hotels every night on super light bikes with no load to carry, sounds easy 😉.

Matthieu(TCR)whom I met at MacDonalds in Nis and we continued to bump into each other at different points on the way through Serbia and Bulgaria to Istanbul first put the idea in my head of getting to Istanbul before the last checkpoint closed on Monday evening. I could have stuck to my original plan of a relatively leisurely 150km ride per day it’s just not in my nature,  call it a defective gene, lack of oxygen at birth or a form of insanity but while resting in Plovdiv Bulgaria I decided that riding 450km over the next day and a half was a good idea.

  
View from my hotel room in Plovdiv that pool looked so inviting.

I left Plovdiv just after 8 heading for the Turkish border with a goal of 300km(180miles) that day. The next section of road was one I wasn’t looking forward to it was mentioned in the race manual as one of the worst sections of road reported by previous TCR riders. There is only one road for all the German cars racing to the sun and the Artic lorries  racing to meet their deliveries. An artic thundering past you is a frightening experience you can only hear them just before they pass you and the shock wave of noise and buffeting wind shakes you to the core, all the while your hoping they will leave enough room as they pass and if it’s one of those double carriage attics that they won’t cut in before the last carriage is last you. There were posts on FB of other riders retiring due to such traffic. You can imagine my trepidation.

Luckily on a Sunday trucks are not allowed on the roads between 14:00hrs and 20:00hrs.  There were trucks but overall the amount and concentration was much less than expected and a lot better than the last section of road in Serbia.

I made great progress in the first 2.5hrs averaging my highest speed to date. I felt buoyed by this but like the Scittish weather the TCR does not remain constant but is an ever changing beast. It become hotter and with that a headwind significantly slowing my progress. 

  
Closer to the Turkish border I followed some more minor roads. What isn’t obvious from this picture is the two foot drop off on the right from one level to the next. At least there wasn’t much traffic I had gone where trucks fear to tread.

  
Crossing into Turkey was a major milestone however I still had 140km to comets that day. I met Mattieau and another rider at a restaurant just over the border exchanged my Euros for Turkish lira and we ate a dinner of kebabs together before setting off soerately on our journeys to Istanbul.  The self supported aspect of this race often presented this situation where you would sit, eat and chat with other riders until it was time to leave when we must go separately on our own.

At this point I had discovered a feature on my Garmin which I was going to seriously regret. This feature was the elevation profile its a little graph that shows you how the road ahead goes up and down. Loading the route to Istanbul I flicked to the elevation profile and my heart sank. Imagine a hard point panel saw looking closely at the teeth they go up and down sharply all the way along the length of the saw😰. My elevation profile was much like this except some points were much higher than others. Not only that but on the map its shows little points for high and low points. I could very clearly see that ALL the way to Istanbul I would be going up then down repeatedly, continuously seemingly never endingly.

I set off repeating in my head “every pedal stroke gets me closer”. I’ve blanked it out in my head now but this section was very unpleasant, I rode into the night which made it a little easier as I couldn’t see that bloody garmin screen which reminded me the top of the hill that I had sweated up gritting my teeth with my legs screaming at me was about to be repeated again in 5mins. Every pedal stroke gets me closer…….

The road I had been on had a big hard shoulder but when I turned off it was onto a standard two lane road and there was no hard shoulder and there was lots of traffic. It was midnight I spotted a bivvy spot within 200metres and set up my bed. It was 28c, humid my body was soaked in sweat, I didn’t care I almost went to sleep lieing on the ground in my kit.

  
My bivvy spot just out of sight of the road in the grass. Of course I slept in my kit the washing facilities were nonexistent.

I rose at first light and soon realised I had made a mistake

 
The sunrise was lovely and there was no traffic. My mistake was food intake I had made sure I had drunk enough I hadn’t eaten enough for cycling all night them starting again first thing.

I had to be in Istanbul by 5pm before the checkpoint closed.  With not enough food and those bloody hills i was severly struggling. I calculated in my head that I had 164km(102miles) even if I cycled at 16km/h(10mph) for 10hours I could get there. At that point I thought that this may actually be my speed my legs were dead and I hadn’t realised yet that depleting my reserves the night before was a major factor. It also takes time to refill these reserves it’s not something that happens instantly.

My journey into Istanbul was on the D20 which used to be a quiet country road, which it was until it turned into a 3lane highway. The Turkish development of a third Bridge over the Bosphorous and a new airport meant a bigger road was required and the highest concentration of trucks I have ever seen in my life.  Its not something I ever want repeat.

An impromptu sleep in a layby, I sat down for a drink and a bar then woke up some time later, plus a steady intake of food meant I cycled the last 50km in one go. It was such s relief to see the Bosporous and cycle the last 11km along the water front to the final checkpoint.

Every rider recieves a big cheer, photos are taken, stories exchanged and hands shaken. There’s a big comaderie for everyone who has attempted the TCR it’s only after you’ve tried it do you truely realise the range and depths of emotions you will go through.

Stuart arrived looking clean and well we had a big hug, a beer reliving the good memories we have. Completing the TCR remains unfinished business for us both its too early to say when the next time will be.

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A new day a new country

A new day a new countrySerbia is not a place I’ll be rushing back to. It gave me an easy feeling and I never found it welcoming. The large amounts of litter dumped at the side of the road didn’t help they don’t seem to respect their own country.

My digs were just beside the border so I rose early wanting to get as much riding before the sun turned its full beam on me. Unfortunately all the German tourists heading to the sun had the same idea I sat in a queue to leave Serbia then moved into one to enter Bulgaria 45mins wasted.

Thankfully it wasn’t to be as hot a mere 32C it felt just right, oh dear I am going to suffer in the cold of Scotland.

Immediately into Bulgaria it feels more welcoming. Signs welcoming you and places to eat something that I struggled to find in Serbia.

City’s I’ve cycled in now include Sofia. I’m always on full alert cyvling in cities a few TcR riders have come a cropper I don’t want to be one of them. As cities go it wasn’t as good as Lyon but it’s stillbetter than any Italian city to cycle in.

 
They still use horse and carts in Sofia 

  
I took this pic outside the fantastic bakers in the Serb border town Dimitrovgrad. It looks ok from this angle.

  
Randomy this was in a small village of course I can’t understand the signs

  
I could understand this one it’s the first time I’ve seen a sign for Istanbul.

  
Other signs are not so easy, thankfully my Garmin route was working well until…. 

 
Surely this can’t be the actual road. A quick check meant I had no choice but to continue, I caught the car up ahead as he weaved back and forth across the road trying to avoid the worst pot holes. Generally pretty traffic free otherwise like riding a road that time forgot.

  
Similar to the Russian helicopter garage entrance a propellor on the side of the building no idea why!

I stopped in a Bulgarian town to get something to eat. The centre was being redeveloped so you have this picture of a sculptured water feature and on the background s building with flaking paint and a roof in dire need of maintenance

  
About 60km from my final destination I stopped at a restaurant for some food there seemed to be lots of choice

  
I couldn’t understand a word. In the end the second waitress spoke English and I had pork in a mushroom sauce with chips and two cokes for the princely sum of £2.50

On the 60km straight flat road into Plovdiv I added bumpy straight flat roads to my mastermind repertoire.  It was like riding a mini roller coaster the Tarmac was so distorted. 220km/138miles today.

Tomorrow Turkey

My mastermind specialist subject is…….

My mastermind specialist subject is……

.Get an early start I thought although no one told me the wedding guests from the night before would also go for breakfast at 7am. Don’t they know they are supposed to be still drinking or hungover at that time.

On the road at 7:45 it was a bit chilly I even had to zip my jersey all the way up 23C.

It was bliss till around 10am when normal scorchio stifling heat resumed.

    
One of the places I had a wee snooze today, concrete in the shade is sooo cool.

I met another TCR rider in Nis while debating whether to leave my bike outside macdonalds so I could order food. I had decided NO way when he arrived.  We TCR riders are easy to spot european bike hobos dirty cycling gear, un shaven 1000 yard stare. So we watched each other’s bikes and had lunch together he was doing the same as me missing the last checkpoint so he could get his flight in time.

I clocked the 3000km mark today if I was doing last years TCR I would be finished tomorrow after another 200km 😢

Looking forward to leaving Serbia tomorrow morning it’s not a country I’ve loved. I am on the Bulgarian border after cycling 186km today.

My specialist subject is best explained in pictures

   
   When a car passes you at 60 and you can still see it on the horizon 10mins latet IT is a looooooong flat straight road. My specialist subject is cycling long flat straight roads mental torture and mindfulness😉
Good bye Serbia hello Bulgaria. 

Praying for rain 

Praying for rain The forecast said thunderstorms in the afternoon. Every other thunderstorm within a 100mike radius had hit Stuart and I when we didnt want them riding through France and Italy. Payback time..,

The leisurely approach still entailed 160km or 100miles in old money and my afternoon evening ride had been good arriving in Belgrade Ready for shower and food. It’s quite bizarre going from sleeping in a field to a newly built holiday inn express, fabulous service and most importantly air con.

I had dinner in the bakery beside the hotel. I was unsure when the receptionist suggested it as the hotel restaurant was shut however I had freshly made Sicilian pasta. Given I couldnt understand anything on the menu except pasta and Sicilian it was a lucky choice. It was also the most expensive, however in the Balkans us Brits are rich men I took out 5000Dinar  which equates to £25 and it goes a long way.  My meal including coke and bottled water was under £4.

Returning to the hotel I sat in the bar watching a local football match on TV and chatted to the barman. He was very keen for me to try the local spirit drink Rake

 
Check out the special glass it’s like a lab test tube  
 

There were three varietys to try Quince, plum and apricot. I felt obliged to try them all, I’m cruising now not racing.

In the morning I made use of the hotels pc to plan my routes and upload them to my Garmin and book accomodation. My field sleeping days are over for this trip at least  for the next two days. This delayed my start despite breakfast at 7 I didn’t leave till 10:30.  The Garmin and my route did take me out of the city faultlessly.

It was hot 38c and humid I was so looking forward to the rain later. The ride was pretty hilly to start with. Riding up a hill when it’s 38c is bad enough add in the humidity and no wind, it’s a scenario that no Scotsman should have to bare. I was sweating out of my forearms I could see the beads of sweat forming and then dripping off.

Emergency measures meant I stopped at the top of every hill and bought chilled drinks from the conveniently placed shops.  Sitting on the concrete base of a parasol consuming my chilled goods an old guy wandered up said something to me and went into the shop. When he exited the shop continued his chat in Serbian to which I asked him if he spoke English. Not much as it turns out but we managed to understand each other he offered me a cigarette I guess cycling and smoking go together in Serbia. As he left he turned to me and in a perfect Australian accent said “guid day mate” surreal.

So it was supposed to rain. I was praying for rain in fact I was begging for rain some clouds formed and it even started to spit with rain. I stopped made sure all electronics were sealed up and waterproof. Then the sun came out again and I could see Big puddles at the side of the road, I had missed  it just when I needed it most. I continued on stopping regularly and falling asleep whoever I did. It’s not till the temperature drops to 30C that I can actually cycle properly above that moving the pedals with no effort is only possible and its uncomfortable as hell.

  
View from the bench I was sleeping on after drinking 2litres of fizzy water.

  
View from the seat I was sleeping on after drinking 1litre of fruit juice at a petrol station. I couldn’t decide what it was but came to the conclusion It’s a cheap tractor without the bits that normally go round the engine.

After 6 it cools to 30c and suddenly I can pedal with some conviction. After 155km I arrive at my 1970s Eastern block inspired hotel  

 “And sir you have booked a single but we have upgraded you to a apartment with jacuzzi”

  
Fine as long as my bike can come into the room. Not bad for £21

  
Strange pic of the day what do you do with that unused Russian copter? Make it into your garage entrance of course😉

Longer day tomorrow last day in Serbia onwards to Bulgarian border 186km

Scratching from the race

Scratching from the race.

Slovenia is a lovely country I recommend everyone skip Italy especially Nothern industrial Italy and go straight to Slovenia.

The roads are quieter scenery better and the people at every friendly. At the top of an unnamed climb on the way to Lublijana fearing I would be without water I approached an old couple going into their house asking for water. Well more like doing my best miming impression, luckily the dripping sweat forming a pool around me was easily understood they gave me glasses of fresh water filled both my bottles then gave me a chilled bottle of Water from their fridge.

We met Eric another competitor on this climb. He had been knocked off his bike in Turin his bike frame had snapped and he was riding a 1980s bike he had bought from a bike shop and was continuing on. Hardcore.

That night we stayed in Lublijana capital of Slovenia in a very fine hotel. We looked very out of place eating dinner in our grubby cycling gear and even more so the next morning at breakfast in flip flops and cycling
shorts

We used this time to plan for the remainder of the race to get to Istanbul before our flight left. It looked possible but there was little room for error.

The next day started well following the river Sava a good 3hr block then refuel at Spar. The idea was to do 3or 4 blocks like this getting a high 200k day. The reality was cumulative fatigue the sun and after negotiating Zagreb we rode till 1am bivvy at the side of the road with 220k ridden. Next day rise and back on the road for 6.

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View from the bivvy.

We needed a big day but it wasn’t to be. Stuart and I stopped at a service station and had a long chat about our options it was a difficult time for both of us. We had equally wanted to get to Istanbul but the demands of 10days on the road pushing every day are severe. Stuart made the difficult decision to scratch from the race the fatigue impacting his coordination making every passing car and lorry a harrowing experience. We set off our seperate ways while I attempted to complete the race.

The morning went well then the 35C heat and sun came on full 3 bars. There was of course a headwind but I was averaging a good average pace but as time went I I could manage less and less time in the sun. Riding in such heat you can’t afford to over exert yourself and become overheated its a fine balancing line. My water consumption was huge, I was frying.

Arriving at checkpoint 3 in Vuckovar I decided to stay the night and review my options. Stuart also joined me late at night where he will stay for A few days recovery. The plan before sun and heat had been to ride on but I was done in. I had dinner with a rider who had gone to check point 4 in Kotor after taking the ferry from Italy. He had taken 3hrs to do the climb and had suffered on the way over to Vuckovar on the hills it presents. As he had raced the race across America the year before in a very respectable time I decided it was a challenge too far for me. I couldn’t afford to miss my flight and the heat was likely to be worse in Greece I would have to average 220km a day to make sure I made the flight.

Decision made I have set off to Istanbul via Serbia and Bulgaria. A more leisurely pace of 150km per day is possible, so I can take my time if I need to.

I’m gutted not to complete the race my consolation is to ride to Istanbul. I am however done in, with the adrenaline of the race gone I rode for 2hrs and couldn’t ride anymore. A call home to Lindy got me going again but all I really wanted to do was cry and fall asleep there and then. The TCR is definately type 2 fun the type of fun that you enjoy after you have done it. At the time it is harrowing, exhausting and painful.

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View along the river Danube between Croatia and Serbia.

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A stark reminder of recent history with bullet holes in the walls.

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The Vuckovar water tower has been left as a memorial to the town when it was under siege by Serbia. Zoom in and you will see the shell holes in the walls.

It’s getting tough

It’s getting tough

Nothern Italy was terrible 2 whole days of a headwind held us back a lot. We negotiated Venice and the traffic in the surrounding area making the decision to eat dinner and ride into the night when the traffic was quieter

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Our mixed grill dinner for two was great.

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We even had some wine it was supposed to be s glass big the waiter insisted on bringing a carafe

After dinner we set off just as it started to rain. A thunder storm had swept in earlier than expected. The roads were now busier than before and we spent a very terrifying 15mins cycling on a road with no turn offs and heavy traffic each way going fast in heavy rain. Italian drivers don’t slow down for cyclists nor do they move over they just expect you to stay perfectly in your line while they whisk by. We cycled a bit further before looking for a hotel our goal had been to reach Slovenia that night. We had cycled 200km that day and it was very frustrating to be held back again by the weather.

The enormity of the task still ahead of us has sunk in for both us. We each have our aches and pains to contend with each day, the heat saps our energy during the day and that target of 300km per day seems ever further away.

We did make it to Slovenia today

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Which then presented us with a 800m climb during the hottest part of the day

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It was so hot I was sweating out of my shoulders.

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2200km left to ride…….

1week completed, today was supposed to be an easy day?

1week completed, today was supposed to be an easy day?

After losing time the day before getting lost in Turin then the thunderstorm cutting our night riding time, we were looking to complete a big distance today………

North Italy is completely flat, boring cycling but good for distance. Except when there is a strong headwind in your face. Sleeping under a bridge the night before meant neither of us were in top condition. The first part of the ride was pretty fast and easy pedalling. The storm had passed and we enjoyed a great breakfast of coffee and pastries with the locals at a road side cafe. The Italians know how to make good coffee.

It then rained it really rained, monsoon rain, it was quite cold but refreshing after the heat from the day before. The wind was also relentless. The rain stopped and the sun made its self known again after lunch it was unbearable to stand out of the shade. Cycling meant adjusting your effort so that you didn’t become too hot while the hot dry air blew over us. We wished for the morning cooling air to return. This was supposed to be an easy day but we had to battle the wind and now the heat,

Our day extended and we eventually rolled into our hotel at 23:30. Tomorrow we want to get out of Italy the roads are flat boring badly surfaced and the heat is s killer.

One week down we have ridden 1650lm sitting on the bikes pedalling for 78hrs we have been through 3 countries and our diet has become need and abasbilty driven usually pizza, ice cream or MacDonalds. Our bodies ache in different places and yet we still have another 2550km this isn’t a race its s survival challenge.

We celebrated our first week with a hotel and a bottle of fizzy

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Our bottle of fizzy chilled in the fridge 😃

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Cycling into the night we get to see the blue moon

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Of course Italy does brilliant ice cream/gelato as well as coffee. Mix the two and it’s heaven.