This is just the stuff I can remember and may not necessarily be the correct order of events. Serbia in particular is a bit of a blur. In no way do I promise to be a very reliable narrator.
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I stare out across dawn over the Black Sea on the beach at Burgas before heading to the start line at the Pantheon of the Fallen Antifascists. I feel strangely calm, quietly excited but no nervousness. I chat to Jenny and look around for Josh and Beccy but can’t see them. At 6am a horn sounds and we’re escorted out of town by a police convoy at a speed which is a bit faster than I’d hoped for. I spot Tom and Adrian who I met at Normandicat and say hi and wish them luck. It’s pretty much a time trial up a dual carriageway until we’re directed into the hills and left to our own devices. A long line of red lights and hi-viz vests stretches away into the distance. The fact we’re all having to ride almost all of the first 400km on the same route it feels more like an audax than a race for now. I suspect it is unlikely I’ll not see other riders all the way to CP1. At times I also share the road with horses and carts, cows, goats, and sheep.
I’m planning to use hotels for the first few nights through Bulgaria and Serbia. This is partly due to the stories of feral dogs in Eastern Europe from previous editions of the race. Also I’m expecting the first few days to be particularly tough due to terrain and off-road sections in the official parcours. Some proper rest now will hopefully mean I can push on harder and for longer each day as I get further west and bivvying becomes more appealing. For this first day there is a large town at roughly 300km with plenty of hotels, this is my aim and with a bit of luck I can get there at 10 so I can get a good few hours kip and still be out by 4am tomorrow.
I see Beccy on the first off-road section of the Start parcours and we end up overlapping and bumping into each other all morning. I also cross tracks with Jesko somewhere along the way. The parcours winds through low hills for a while but I know there’s a bigger climb coming towards the end before it throws us out onto route no.6, the main road between Burgas and Sofia. It’s really hot, high thirties, but finding water isn’t a problem, there are plenty of drinking fountains and springs to be found. However food is proving problematic and the food I’m carrying won’t last all day. I can’t find much in the way of proper food so eat junk most of the day. The easiest way to get carbs in is fruit juice but the constant ingestion of sugar isn’t going to be sustainable for very long.
A village where kids crowd around all of us that stop at the shop. Ice cream and water. Wiggle along a river, pass another rider, “Hey, I like your bag – Ride Like A Girl” I slow to chat, she’s called Andrea and from Germany. She asks where she can get the bag, I explain a friend made them a few years ago, the wording is reflective at night but they are sadly no longer available. The road starts to rise, we drift apart. Ivan passes me having to keep his fixed gear turning. I bump into Tom and Adrian again at a spring. Top up with ice cold water. A rider is sat on the ground blood covering his arm and leg.
The descent off this first big climb of the day into Sliven is awesome fun, smooth tarmac carving a line along the edge of the mountains, a rock face on one side, a view out across the central valley on the other. The roads deteriorate as they level out on the outskirts of Sliven. Petrol station hot dog and ice cream in the shade of a wall staring at petrol pumps. This is a view I will no doubt get used to over the next couple of weeks.
I use a quiet road to cut a corner out of town to route no.6 but some confusion over a road sign means I mess up my route and add in a bit of unnecessary ‘scenic option’. Eventually I get myself onto the 6 and within a kilometre or so Beccy passes me. How the hell did I get in front of her? Turns out she had to find a bike shop in Sliven due to a puncture.
She soon drops me and I pull into yet another petrol station to yet again only find crisps and sweets. Crack on, need to get to Gabrovo where I’ve now booked a hotel room. Just have to get over a mountain and through CP1 first. I can see the Bond villain lair (or rather the Buzludzha monument) atop the mountain ahead as dusk falls. I reach the top of the mountain in the dark. It’s breezy and cold at the summit. Get the brevet stamped at the control at 22:19, that gives me an hour and 41 minutes to do 35km to the hotel. Should be easy as it’s mostly downhill. I hadn’t factored that there is a bit of a false summit to deal with first and the road surface is dreadful. Second light turned on so I can see the potholes and gravel better, it’s slower going than I would like. I’m sure reception closes at midnight, I need to get this done. The road improves and I click down some sprockets and crank it as hard as I can. I pass the town sign for Gabrovo and pass a couple of riders. “Hey, I see Ride Like A Girl!” I shout hello and carry on. I turn off the parcours towards the hotel, ten minutes to spare. A light follows me, turns out Andrea is staying in the same hotel and mentions it’s 24 hour check in. Phew. Make it seconds before midnight anyway. Check in. Carry the bike up the stairs. Plug in phone, rear light, and powerbank. Wash kit. Fall asleep.
Up early and petrol station breakfast followed by vending machine espresso. Back into the hills, a podcast in my ears. A narrow badly surfaced road winds down the other side of the hill and straight into another off-road section. I feel some discomfort in my backside, the start of a saddle sore? It was really hot yesterday and the terrain hard going. To avoid pinch flats I’m running my tyre pressure way higher than I normally would, giving myself a harsher time than I could be. Descent into another village, another shop, another ice cream, more water. A pattern is definitely emerging. As I’m about to leave Josh appears. We chat before I head off. He catches me again by the next big town, we pull into a petrol station together. He has a message that ‘Tom Probert has your bank card, you left it in a shop’. I say I know Tom and just then he rides past. Josh goes to collect his bank card then passes me before I’ve hit the next climb. I doubt I’ll see him again.
Next up, big mountain, a thousand metres of ascent to Beklemeto (or Troyan Pass) with an additional bit of climbing to a monument to The Liberation of the Bulgarians. It takes a long time to climb and hardly any time to descend. It reminds me of the descent from Monte Grappa on TCRno5, surfing the edge of the mountains down to a wide open plain. The Bulgarian landscape is knocking my socks off, way beyond my expectations. I overtake mopeds and cars but it’s like dropping into a sauna after the strong cold wind at the summit. Cold drink, ice lolly, and some fruit but it’s so hot I’m struggling to eat anywhere near enough or properly. I pay for this on a tedious and seemingly everlasting climb on the 6 that peaks at over a thousand metres. I’m starting to cramp. At one point I’m lying in a layby unable to bend my legs, my calves and my thighs are spasming as I silently scream and not so silently curse. The payoff for this climb is a lovely lengthy downhill section towards a town, the benefit of being on a main road across the country is decent tarmac. Soft pedal to try to spin the lactic out of my legs.
Another petrol station stop. Bags of nuts and a coffee. I’d quite like a crappy petrol station sandwich. I’ve got a couple of options from here as I’ve plotted two routes; one through Sofia and a northern route to Serbia, the other looping east and south of Sofia on smaller roads to pick up a southerly route to the border. Through Sofia means it’ll be easier to find a hotel but does mean more traffic and the inevitable slowness of getting through a city. There is another option which is to take the main road to the south of Sofia to Pernik and then on towards Kyunstedil where I can pick up that southern route into Serbia. However I remember researching this route for TCRno5 and not liking the look of it. The road to Pernik and out the other side looked a busy dual carriageway, parts of it to all intents and purposes pretty much a motorway. I check the tracker and see that only one rider has taken the northern route and there’s a long line of people on the Pernik route. If that many people are going that way it must be safe. OK, book a hotel on this side of Sofia and then head that way early tomorrow. Flick the lights on, clip back in.
Another sodding climb, more cramp. Once over the top I know it’s pretty much gradually downhill all the way to Sofia. Hammer as big a gear as I can all the way, the earlier I get there the more sleep I can get. The orange glow of the city appears on the horizon, nudge the speed up a tad more. Out of the saddle, sprinting. Miss the turning for the shortcut bit that avoids a busy junction and find myself spat out onto what feels like a motorway. Nothing honks it’s horn but I’m really not sure I should be on this bit of road. A blinking red light ahead, I’m not the only one. Pull into a petrol station, buy a cheese, salami, and salad roll, fuck yes, something resembling proper food. Stuff it the musette. Hit up Google Maps to find the hotel. Check in. Shower. Eat. Pass out.
Wake up and the first thing I do is check Google Maps for McDonald’s. Big Mac, black coffee, and a pint of orange juice for breakfast. Compared to what I’ve eaten for the last two days this is a glorious feast. The cyclepath out of Sofia is slow going but looks preferable to the cobbled roads. The rest of the morning is pretty quiet, a long climb out of the city and then an equally long descent to Pernik where I bypass the town on a dual carriageway and out into the countryside, undulating up and down and up and down. The roads are nowhere near as bad as they looked on Streetview. [Also worth noting that Google appear to have Streetviewed the whole of Bulgaria in winter. Don’t be fooled, it’s not as bleak as it looks. In fact it’s bloody beautiful]. I see other riders at regular intervals. I stop and grab some freshly made sandwiches – I need to start fueling sensibly – and a coffee. The road flattens down onto a plateau but I can see I’m heading towards mountains. It’s in the high thirties again and drink stops are often. Petrol stations are my friends, thankfully they appear with regular frequency. I start to climb but the road twists itself through what might be a gap in the mountains? No such luck, I haul myself up to a thousand metres again. I pull into a petrol station for an ice cream and water after whizzing down the other side and find an English pair hiding in the shade around the side of the building. They used the same route I had originally planned through the hills around Sofia and spent the night being chased by dogs and didn’t get to sleep until 3am. My re-routing seems a wise choice.
A meandering gradual climb up a wooded valley takes me to the border with Serbia. I bump into an Italian dude Cento who it turns out rode Single Speed CX European Champs in Brighton. We yo-yo all the way to the border controls. Quick and easy through the Bulgarian side but the Serbian border guard disappears with our passports into an office. Returning he hands me my passport silently but from what I can make out he is telling Cento that Italian girls are hot. There’s a clutch of riders sitting outside a bar in the town before the start of the CP2 parcours. Cento and I join them and order food. Josh appears. He also stayed in Sofia last night but further south than me. I saw his dot was still translucent when I left but I honestly thought he would have caught me before now. We catch up while Cento heads off to the CP2 parcours shortly before me. These next few hours are going to be difficult, two mountain summits and most of it off-road so I buy some emergency food from the shop across the street.
I see ahead Cento just as the tarmac turns to gravel and the road rises. Seeing as he’s done the CX champs I decide to watch his line and follow the tyre tracks visible in the gravel and mud. Somewhere Josh flies past, young lightweight sod. The climb is long but I’m enjoying it, the gravel isn’t too bad and the views good [you’ll have to take my word for this as the photos are on a broken phone yet to be explained], well they are until I ride into mist at the top. My butt is hurting, I’ve definitely taken some skin off over the last couple of days. Over the top I find Josh with his bike on the ground, the rear wheel out and an inner tube strewn across the gravel. I stop to chat and eat some food before the next climb. The descent is tricky and I ride as light as possible to avoid puncturing, hover just above the saddle, knees as suspension, hold the bars loosely, let the bike find it’s own line. I hear the front wheel dink a couple of rocks. Not a sound I want to hear.
The next climb to Besna Kobila is utterly hateful. A short steep bit of tarmac dumps me onto gravel where the gradient pitches about all over the place. The front wheel dives into sand almost throwing me off. The gravel becomes rocks and I get off and walk. What feels like an eternity of hike-a-bike later I’m at the summit in dark cold drizzle. Josh has caught up with me again but seems to be in a bad place. He’s talking about scratching and sleeping on the mountain. I tell him there’s no way he’s staying up here, he needs to get off the mountain and leave any thoughts of scratching to the morning after some sleep. Turns out we’ve both booked rooms at the same hotel in the village at the bottom of the mountain close to CP2. We layer up and walk the rubble and sand section together down to where the tarmac starts again. If it had been daylight still this might have been rideable but in the pitch black of night it’s not worth the risk. Many riders pass us pushing bikes on their way to the top, poor bastards. Once we hit the tarmac I make sure Josh is OK and say I’m going to head down off the mountain.
For some reason on the walk down I’ve decided that I won’t go to the apartment but instead go straight to the CP which is also a hotel and see if I can get a room there. The road off the mountain is initially easy to cope with in the dark but then the heavens open and 20km of steep twisting descent is done is torrential rain. A couple of corners almost catch me out and I have to bunnyhop a crater of a pothole. It’s stressful and involves a lot of concentration. Rolling into the village at the base of the mountain I realise my gpx file doesn’t lead all the way to the CP. I find the next gpx file that should start from it so at least I can use the map to find it. I pull my phone out of my pocket to double check the location. It’s soaked and doesn’t respond to my damp fingers. I pull a baselayer out of my drybag to dry both my hands and phone pretty unsuccessfully. Josh catches me and I say I’m going to head to the CP. More faffing when my gpx file turns out to not start from the exact location of the CP. I ride on and find what looks like the hotel but seems to be a nightclub. There is crazy load music and people everywhere. Is this it? Just then I spot a fi’zi:k TCR banner and bikes stacked against the wall.
I look for the volunteers to get my brevet stamped. I notice people in bivvy bags sleeping on the veranda which is under cover. “Is it OK to sleep here?” I stupidly don’t bother checking to see if there’s a room available. There’s a wedding going on, hence the people and music so assume the hotel is full. Never assume! The next rider in gets the last room. I weave through a lot of well dressed guests in my drenched kit and change into dry clothes in the toilets. I throw my wet kit all over my bike hoping it might dry out by morning, then unfurl my bivvy bag under a table and wriggle my way into it.
I’m not sure how much sleep I’ve got but it’s not enough. I wake up groggy and take one look the kit hanging over my bike. There’s no way that has dried. I pull myself out of the bivvy bag then thus starts a morning of total faff. My phone is dead and won’t charge. I try a few cables, nothing. I find a socket on a landing in the hotel and try charging from the mains. It sort of works but it’s not charging quickly. I leave the phone in a pot plant next to the socket and go back downstairs to sort out whatever kit is dry. None of it. The kit I was wearing is soaked, the kit in my dry bag isn’t exactly dry. Damp kit is preferable to wet kit though. I see some riders with plates of fried eggs and baskets of bread. I order the same from the receptionist but there seems to be a skeleton staff this morning so it takes ages to arrive. Oh well, means my phone gets a bit more charge. I ask the CP volunteers if they can see Josh’s dot moving. Not yet. I wait longer, still not moving. Shit, he’s going to scratch. Then it moves. Cool. I wait a little longer, I want to check he’s OK before I leave. I know it’s a race but I’m hardly troubling midpack right now let alone the pointy end and mates is mates. Then his dot stops. It’s gone 9am, I really should get moving. I’m heading back that way so I should pass him but don’t.
The morning passes without much incident other than some cobbles and a half-arsed dog chase. Flat boring roads, Lidl, petrol stations, more cobbles, terrible road surfaces. It’s not only hot today but also humid. The front mech changes to the small ring of it’s own accord – Di2 battery is dying. Today is not a day to be spinning away on the small ring. Charge it on a petrol station forecourt whilst eating ice cream and watching the last three riders I overtook pass by. As soon as I leave the road heads into hills and doesn’t stop for the rest of the day. Probably could have saved time and waited to tonight to charge the di2.
I watch the sun set over mountains, a red ball falling behind purple-blue silhouettes. It is stunning. For the first time today I remember why I do this. There’s an extended descent and flat road to Paracin where I’ve booked an apartment for tonight. I settle into the aerobars and catch a few other riders over the next few kilometres, many of them TCR veterans and there’s a lot of talk of this being the toughest start to date. I’m having conversations over my shoulder, I don’t need to slow up to be told what I already know. Settle back into the aerobars for 8km of straight road into town. Blinking red light ahead, a carrot to chase. Head down, pedal. Boot up the phone and follow it to the residential street where my apartment is located. After a bit of wandering around I find it before my phone completely dies and I can no longer access the address. I spot a message from Josh, “Punctured on way to CP. I’m done.” Pants.
The owners of the apartment don’t speak English but do speak French so we’re able to make ourselves understood to each other. I want to leave early so I need to leave my bike in the garden rather than garage. I’m slightly nervous about leaving it outside but there’s a very big dog in a kennel in the corner and a “Beware of the dog” sign on the gate. There again it didn’t seem too fussed when I strolled in earlier. Quite honestly if someone nicks the bike I’m not sure I’d care right now [sorry Mark, sorry Damon]. I shower and wash all my kit then stroll to Lidl down the street to buy two dinners and two breakfasts. After eating I plug everything in to charge including the dead phone. I try different cables again in an attempt to get it to charge. Nothing. I wake up on the floor at 2am with the phone under my face. The floor is remarkably comfortable but I climb onto the bed and pass out again.
Sunlight is streaming in through the window when I wake up. Crap, overslept. No phone means no alarm. I turn on my Garmin; 05:37. Oh not so bad after all. Make coffee and eat one breakfast and stick the other in the musette. Make another coffee. The bike hasn’t been stolen so I strap on the bags, tucking the useless phone in a side pocket, won’t be needing that again and stroll out onto the quiet street.
Today is bloody awful, worse than yesterday. Somewhere along the way I’m bent over the side of the road retching. Not sure why but I think dust and muck from a passing lorry has got caught in my throat. A dog barks behind a hedge as I stare at my shoes, spitting on the ground. More retching. Fuck this shit. I could happily scratch right now.
The roads into a town called Smederevo are dreadful and the traffic worse. The hot humid air is thick with the stench of pollution. The centre of town is far more pleasant. I spot a restaurant so stop for spag bol and a pint of coke with ice. I ask the waitress if there is a nearby shop where I can buy a phone. She points across the square. An hour and 13000 Serbian Dinar later I have a working phone. That should make life a bit easier again.
The roads out of town are OK but worsen severely as I near Belgrade. I’m actually scared for my life. Lorries pass close and fast. A bus screams past with an open door within inches of my shoulder. Fuck this shit. I can’t ride any nearer the edge of the road, I’m already being forced into the gutter. Cars just pull out of side roads without bothering to look or stop. I hit Belgrade in the rush hour which involves some weaving in and out of traffic whilst remembering not to get stuck in tram tracks. I notice a McDonald’s and slam on the brakes. I need food and wifi.
I book apartment in Novi Sad which is about 90km away as it’s not quite 6pm, I’ve got hours yet. A heavy rain storm starts as I head out of the city. I cower under a shopping centre entrance with a load of commuters waiting for buses. I check online again and book an apartment in town half way between here and Novi Sad. My brain is short circuiting. I then book hotel on the outskirts of Belgrade. I am mentally exhausted, today has got so so close to breaking me. I know I’m making dumb choices, I’m spiralling into idiocy. I know exactly what I’m doing yet somehow incapable of stopping myself. All I need to do is find a cafe, sit down and relax for 15 minutes, think things through, carry on. I can’t remember how many times I’ve advised other people to do this. “It’s easier to not lose time than to make up time.” Here I am making precisely that error. It’s way too early, I’ve not gone far enough but I’ve had it. I am drained of all energy and sense. I find the hotel and order a beer and the cross the dual carriageway to a shopping park and find a restaurant and shop. I buy breakfast and wedge it into the hotel room minibar. Plug in the di2. Set an early alarm. Slump on the bed.
The next morning I realise I really did make a stupid error. Fuck you stupid tired brain! The roads to the north of Belgrade are nothing like those into the city yesterday. They are well surfaced, wider, traffic gives me more space. I knock out the kilometres quickly. I’m so annoyed with myself, I should have kept riding last night. Another 80km was possible and that would have got me to 250 for the day. Still not quite enough but a move back in the right direction after the first couple of day and maybe the start of stringing together a few good days. I stop for a second breakfast in Novi Sad but I could have got here last night. I should have been able to get across Serbia in two days or less, now it’s going to take two and a half.
Crossing the Danube into Croatia a couple of hours later I feel a weight lifted from my shoulders.