Transcontinental Race 2016, part 4 – Storms, scars of war, a friendly dog and bears in the forest

Day 7 – sleepy before a storm, twice

The morning after climbing the Giau, I was up at dawn, and started the new day in fine style by immediately losing a chunk of time to a routing error.  I decided I could save a couple of hundred metres, perhaps all of half a minute, by traversing the wide valley I was in.  Instead of the smooth, still empty main road I had been on, on the far side I discovered – as it took some searching for – a cycle path of strada bianchi.  Some sections – hewn out of the rock – were not even rideable (by me, on narrow, slick tyres, first thing in the morning, that is), but, still half asleep, I decided to just walk those bits and, after maybe 20 minutes, I regained the road.

As the morning progressed, there was a little bit of climbing to be done, up from a pretty lake, and then more fast descending, back down to continue my journey along the northern Italian plain, only perhaps 50km on from where I’d left it for my evening on the Giau.

My poor sleep meant that, by 9am I was very drowsy and craving a nap.  I detoured through a town, looking for a park or a bench, but by the time I saw a spot it had started to rain.  So I pressed on, detouring through towns rather than bypassing them on the main road to help me stay awake.

The rain proved short-lived, but I managed to ride through my sleepy patch.  However, a bigger storm was clearly coming: The sky in front of me was blue and benign, while behind, it was black and angry.  The wind picked up and I found myself flying along!  Branches were now being blown off trees and restaurant tables being scattered.  The real rain came, I got soaked pretty quickly but didn’t care because it was warm and I was going fast.  It only lasted half an hour, but I was making great progress to make up for my dozy morning.

Once the rain stopped, I dried quickly.  At the town of Codroipo my route took to some minor roads.  This was silly as I lost the fast dual carriageway and assistance from its traffic, but it was a bit more interesting seeing some small, sleepy Italian towns.  I stopped briefly for a couple of slices of pizza in one of them.  Along with the McDonalds in France, this was my only other sit-down meal of the whole trip; I ate everything else on the move or, where I’d bought more than I could carry, while standing outside the shop.

The Slovenian border took ages to arrive.  A smallish hill bypassing Trieste seemed to last for ever.  While climbing it, Max, who I’d last seen in France, passed me and we exchanged brief greetings.  Before he passed, Max took a picture:

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I gave in to tiredness and climbed a small wall into a convenient field for a restful hour’s sleep.  When I got going again, I soon reached the top of the interminable hill and, very shortly, I was in Slovenia.  This was my first new country, but I saw very little of it – just a 30km stretch along a busy, but undulating, main road.  As the evening approached, the sky ahead became angry; black with flashes of lightening and clearly full of rain.

I stopped and did some searches.  Booking.com showed only one place anywhere near where I wanted.  It was a guest house and they were asking an extortionate €135 for the room, but it was right on my route, and I reckoned I would get there between 11 and midnight, so I went for it.

Another rider, Jack Thompson from Australia, came past.  We chatted briefly and he asked if I was going to stay in a hotel.  Smugly, I said I had a place booked, while he said he was going to head for Rijeka and take his chances on finding something.

By the time I reached the Croatian border – my first proper border with passports, customs and long queues of cars – it was dark, but it wasn’t yet raining.  It started shortly after, though.  I stopped and put my waterproof jacket on but, as I was bending over the bike, putting away my phone, I could feel enormous raindrops penetrating my jacket.  The rain was so heavy that it was hard to see, unless a flash of lightening lit up the road which, frequently, it did.  At one point, roadworks meant that I was on an un-surfaced bit of carriageway.  I’m sure it would have been clearer in the daylight but at night it wasn’t obvious which bit was the road.  I tried to ask some locals leaving a bar but I was relying on sign language, the woman, driving, didn’t speak any English, German or Italian and her partner, who had a few words, seemed a bit too drunk to make sense, so I waited to see which way they drove and followed them.

While the rain soaked me, I could almost taste the warm shower that was going to be waiting for me at my guest house.  The rain and roadworks slowed me down and it was 12:15am when I got to the town.  Using my phone was tricky as it was still raining heavily and my fingers were too waterlogged to use the touchscreen reliably but I found some shelter and pulled up the map.  I went to where it said the guest house should be, but I only saw rows of dark houses.  I called the number – no answer.  I searched up and down the street, and the adjacent street, for anything that could be it.  I tried to call the booking.com helpline, but was in a queue for 10 minutes so gave up.  After 45 minutes of searching, I realised that my guest house with warm shower and dry bed had been cruelly snatched from me!

My first thought was to ride on.  The rain was stopping by now and it was a fairly mild night, so I continued to the next village.  But I reflected further: I’d had little sleep the previous night, I was wet and it would get colder, and I didn’t have a lot of food.  While the clothes I was wearing were pretty wet but (thanks to my mudguards, which only about half a dozen other riders had) not completely soaking, I had dry hayseed-free shorts in my bag and my down jacket.  Spotting a large, dry, clean, brick-built bus shelter, I dived in and made myself at home on one of its two benches.  I took off most of my wet kit, but decided I would sleep in my damp jersey, as the lesser evil than putting it on cold and wet in the morning.  My down jacket went on top and I went into my bivvy bag, waterlogged feet in dry socks.  Earplugs helped to drown out the noise of the adjacent church which chimed loudly every 15 minutes.  I got a decent amount of sleep, my body heat helped to largely dry out my jersey and, in the morning, I reckoned that I had made the right decision.

The day had only been about 250 km, plus about 10km riding around looking for the guesthouse, so a bit disappointing given large sections were either downhill or downwind.  My late finish the previous day and the weather were mitigating factors, but I hoped for a big day to get me back on track.

Day 8 – The Bora and Bosnia

My route headed down to the coast and, on the descent, I made acquaintance with the Bora, the local prevailing wind.  I felt it get hold of the bike a few times, making me slow down and keep a good distance in from the edge.  The wind got stronger and bike handling became more difficult.  I was having to lean significantly to windward and pull the bike towards me – putting into practice lessons from dinghy sailing in Greece the previous month.  I sought respite at a petrol station and, while devouring a sandwich, was joined by Jack.  He had found a hotel in Rijeka but for dinner all he’d managed to lay his hands on was 6 cups of hot chocolate from a machine.  He wasn’t feeling great and had stopped eating.  I persuaded him to persevere with triangle-pack sandwiches, which the petrol station sold.  We shared our concerns about the wind and recognising that it was going to be tough day, Jack said he was only hoping he could manage 200km.

I checked the weather on my phone and it was saying that there were hurricane-force crosswinds gusting from the North-East out to the sea.

After the stop, the wind got progressively stonger.  The traffic also picked up which was problematic, as any passing too close could take away the wind holding me up.  Given that the edge of the road sometimes had a significant drop-off and that, as the wind gusted, I was prone to moving sideways by a couple of feet before I could regain control, I needed to use a good proportion of the lane. Most of the drivers were considerate – probably many realised what I was dealing with – but the odd one was indignant that I was on ‘their’ side of the white line at the side.  I particularly recall the driver of a white car with French plates making a waving signal out of his window as he passed to indicate where he felt I should be.  I blasted him with the Ambrosian repeater gun installed in my right aerobar. 

The Bora was at its fiercest around the town of Novi Vindolski.  I’d already had to walk a few sections – trying to keep, if not my pedals, at least my wheels turning – after having been blown off by a gust.  But on one particular corner I was pinned down, unable to walk into the wind or even to stand still in its face.  Finding myself being blown backwards towards the edge, all I was able to do was manage my retreat to ensure I was blown against a section of solid wall, rather than over a low crash barrier.  I then focused on getting my bike wheels back on the ground – as the wind had picked the bike up like a kite – leaned on it with all my weight to keep it there, and applied the brakes to help me stand my ground.  At this point, a Dutch family in a camper van pulled up to rescue me.  In any other situation I would have jumped in but they were shocked when I declined their help.

After a minute or two, the gust subsided and I was able to leave that corner, crossing to the left hand side of the road where there was more shelter.  After walking a few hundred yards, I was even able to remount and ride a bit more.

After Senj, my route turned inland.  Initially this was just as bad, with me having to walk the first kilometre into a headwind and then, when I had dared to re-mount, getting blown off again while I was on the phone to Uta.  But as I climbed, the road became sheltered and the wind subsided to normal levels.

There climb took me from sea level to almost 700m, and was followed by a good descent.  On the way down I spotted Max by the side of the road and waved.  Shortly afterwards he caught me and we rode side by side for a while, chatting about wind and other subjects.

We were now entering an area which had seen fighting during the 1990s.  In Otocac, where we also saw a wedding in progress, several buildings still had bullet holes.

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Building in Otocac, photo: Edelweissbike

Shortly after re-stocking our food supplies at a handy Lidl, our routes diverged.  Max took the slightly longer but flatter route via Mostar while my route headed inland, via Sarajevo.  I remember making my decision after looking at the gradients of the hills and, while there was more climbing on my route, it was all at gentle gradients.

The friendly dog

In the next village, I acquired a new companion: a dog started trotting along beside me.  He was very quiet and friendly, neither begging nor barking, but just looking at me with his big sad eyes. Medium-sized, black with one white leg and a white tip on his tail, he appeared in good condition, although a bit thin and with no collar.  I guessed he was a recently-abandoned pet, and felt very sorry for him and his prospects.

However there was little I could do, and I tried to ignore him and hope that he would leave me.  But it was the start of a long climb, so he had chosen his spot well.  I tried a quick burst of speed to see if he would go, but to no avail.  The climb went on for almost an hour and he faithfully trotted alongside the whole way, panting slightly as he went.  He was clearly hungry, as he would check out bits of rubbish for any scraps of food.

The road flattened out as I approached the town of Vhrovine and I picked up speed, but he ran after me, and I was then slowed by another rise in the road which allowed him to resume his place at my side.  Finally the road did turn down and I was able to pick up speed.  I dropped a couple of chocolate biscuits on the ground, if only to pay him back for the calories he would have expended on climbing the hill, but he ignored them and still chased after me.  It made me feel mean, to have thought that he wanted food from me while he craved friendship.

Scars of battle

Vhrovine showed more signs of war with several abandoned and derelict houses and bullet holes in other buildings.

After Vhrovine, I turned left to enter the Plitvice Lakes National Park.  After the unsettled feel of the town, and the sorrow I felt for the abandoned dog, this was a welcome change of mood.  My road snaked through the forest, climbing and falling, past lakes and streams.  But the main sensation was of utter stillness – the coastal wind now long gone –and silence, on a car-free road.  As sunset approached, I stopped my bike and got off just to appreciate the calm and peace of the place.  Another rider later told me that he had seen a sign to beware of the bears.  Had I spotted it, I might have kept going to make sure I was out of the park a bit quicker in the fading light.

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A brown bear in the Plitvice Lakes National Park, photo: bestofcroatia.eu

After the park there was a big descent, down from the hills of the Croatian coast towards Bosnia.  There were more derelict houses to remind me of the area’s history.  Dark fell as I crossed the border and, on the other side, I was struck not by the silence but by the noise – in every café and restaurant, people were having fun, singing and dancing.  I entered Bihac, the first large town, and found a hotel.  I asked the receptionist if it was a special day to merit such partying.  ‘Oh yes’, she said, ‘it is Saturday!’  I’d like to go back.

I had a lovely sleep, happy to have survived the Croatian hurricanes, and content to have covered just 165km – my shortest daily distance of the ride but probably the worst conditions I had ever ridden, or walked with, a bike in.

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2 thoughts on “Transcontinental Race 2016, part 4 – Storms, scars of war, a friendly dog and bears in the forest

  1. Yes, I was very upset about the dog.
    In a novel called ‘Billy Liar’, the main character coped with his mundane life and dead-end job in a provincial town in England in the 1950s by inventing a parallel fantasy world. This included his machine gun, which he would (in his imagination) turn on anyone who annoyed him!

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