Day 11 – Montenegro, Kosovo and Skopje
After rising from my forest sleeping-place, I enjoyed a breakfast of cream-filled croissants. Along with byrek, they are the main food memory of the TCR. I probably ate 4-5 per day. They are available everywhere, are a good source of calories, come in a variety of flavours. What is there not to like about them…?
Well, you do get a little bit sick of them after a while. I would have no regrets if I never saw one again.
Riding across Montenegro, I once more spotted Max at the side of the road, and he caught me. Before doing so, he took another picture (which I liked, so I used as the main image for the home page)
We swapped accounts of our various journeys through Bosnia, agreed on the difficulty of the Durmitor climb, discussed who else we had bumped into and other such news.
I pulled in and let him go when I spotted a pharmacy. My left index finger had some kind of infection and had become swollen and I’d been looking for some antiseptic cream for a few days. But with Sunday, then the remote territory I’d been through since Sarajevo, I’d not seen anywhere to get any since it had flared up.
From that point the road started a gentle climb which became gradually steeper, as I edged towards the border with Kosovo. When I was on the main bit of the climb, in the heat of the day, I recognised someone descending, on a steel bike with a Carradice saddlebag, as looking like a British rider so shouted ‘hello’. To my surprise, the rider answered, ‘Is that Frank?’. It was Greg Melia, a friend from the UK long distance time trialling and audax world, who I knew was touring in the area, but still wasn’t expecting to bump into him on the road.
Greg rode back up the climb with me for a while, and I didn’t think it was unfairly assisting me when he told me that it wasn’t, in fact, the final climb before the border that I was on, but that there was a descent and then another climb to follow. He then gave me a few tales of ferocious Macedonian dogs and other terrors that awaited me! He also took a couple of photos:
The descent to the town of Rozaje, was straight and flat. Late, I spotted a wide expansion joint. It really needed a bunny hop but I was on the aerobars so couldn’t do it. My main light, a Hope Vision One, attached to a piece of broom handle wedged between my aerobars, jumped out (along with its fixing). I went back for it; it having landed about 30 metres down the road from the expansion joint, and was pleased to see that, while it had a small scratch, it was otherwise fine.
The climb after Rozaje was a pleasure – although my short cut through the town was not. The actual climb was a gentle gradient on smooth roads, sweeping through forests which gave frequent shade from the hot sun. The lanes I took through the town were extremely steep, in full sun, bumpy and with much interest from the local youths, wanting to race me on their BMXs. I might well have walked if they hadn’t been watching.
Half way up the climb I was joined by Urs. We chatted for a while, riding side by side. He took this picture of me:
He told me that he had not made it to Berne for his pizza, getting there only at 1am (see part 2). He had at least had a chat with his wife but, as the TCR rules forbid use of accommodation not available on equal terms to other riders, he could not sleep in his own house but ended up camping out in a nearby park! In return I told him about my ridiculous route through the forest paths to Neuchatel, at which he laughed.
We shared our hopes and plans for the finish, which were similar: we were both aiming to get to Skopje that night (Tuesday) which would leave about 720km. We both then hoped to wrap that up without stopping again, aiming for a Thursday evening, or night, finish.
The Kosovan border was at the top of the mountain. The view from up there, overlooking the whole of the country spread out like a tablecloth in the late afternoon sunshine, 1000m below, was possibly the finest of the entire ride – or at least of those that I saw in daylight.
Unfortunately I didn’t take a picture – and google is not throwing one up, but it really was a stupendous view. Edit – Urs took this one:
The descent was exhilarating – a long straight sections, followed by dozens of switchbacks overlooking the Kosovan plain.
At one point I saw something at the last second in the corner of my eye as I passed – a dog had jumped out from the hedge right next to me. Turning back, I saw it clamber back in and, 30 seconds later, jump out again as Urs passed. I expect he does it all day!
Urs went on ahead when we got to the bottom. I found a bakery and filled my food bag with byrek for the evening and set off.
Of my whole route, Kosovo was the place I which had held the greatest mystery for me. I’d heard mixed things about it, from busy roads to people rattling off machine guns at parties. But what I saw of it – which was only a late afternoon and evening, was great. The road was busy but the traffic was bearable. Some new road sections were smooth and fast. The driving wasn’t perfect: I recall one short new stretch, where the road smoothed out and the traffic speeded up, was marked by a succession of little piles of glass from shunts and then a dead dog.
Night fell and I went through a couple of busy towns with lots of people out enjoying themselves. It would have been good to linger but it was pleasant enough to ride through. And passing a house in the country where there was a party in progress, I did hear something that sounded like machine gun fire – but it all seemed to be in good spirits.
I tried to call Uta and was dismayed to find my phone didn’t work. I thought it might be something to do with 3 not having an agreement in the territory (as it hadn’t featured on their roaming lists) and hoped it would work again in Macedonia.
The border came and, shortly afterwards, I reached Skopje just before midnight. My phone still did not work – but I wouldn’t be able to sort it out until the morning – and I found Skopje a bit dull for a European capital. My route took a fast ring road rather than the city centre, but I failed in my mission to find a hotel. Heading out of town on the far side, I’d still not seen one by 12:30am so, when a few drops of rain fell, I decided to take the bus shelter beside me, and set up camp for a patchy few hours’ sleep.
Day 12 – The R1102 through Macedonia and Dogs in Greece
Happy to have got about 10km past Skopje the previous night, making almost 310 for the day and leaving me just 710 to go, I resumed my journey the following dawn. The first thing I spotted was a hotel, just 200 metres further down the road where I expect I might have had a better sleep to set me up for my last push.
The road I was on was described somewhere as the ‘old main road’ now superseded by a couple of motorways but, I hoped, still a decent route, numbered R1102. Leaving Skopje it was cobbles but, shortly afterwards, it deteriorated to a rough surface, and there was a long, steep climb. It was very slow going, all the way to a descent into the town of Veles, 50km on from Skopje.
There I met a couple of local cyclists out on Pinarellos. They spoke a bit of English so we chatted for a while. One had a daughter who worked as an architect in London. We parted when my route crossed the motorway. They explained that, while they were going to ride down it, I, as a foreigner, must not! Thankfully the R1102 was much better on this section, although, as the day warmed up, I got increasingly sleepy. After falling nine-tenths asleep and essentially waking from a dream to discover that, to my alarm and also relief, I was still cycling, I made aerobars off-limts as it was far too easy to nod off while on them. When it happened a second time, I decided I had to stop and, seeing a tree in the vineyard by the road, dragged my bike in and slept for an hour in its shade.
One feature of the road was that, other than Skopje and Veles, it had entirely avoided any towns or villages, so I was pleased to find the village of Demir Kapija, and visited its shop to stock on food, and enjoy an ice cream in the afternoon heat. After the town, my road reverted to rough cobbles.
At the time, I thought that I had made a stupid navigation error and that the road that I should have been on was on the other side of the river. However, checking the map again to write this, I realise that I did actually select the road I’d planned to use: I was on the R1102. The road on the other side of the valley was the motorway which I couldn’t go on. The roads in this part of Macedonia had clearly gone straight from the unsealed stage to motorways, missing out the evolutionary stages in between.
Checking the map, I realised it would be like this for 20km until a bridge to cross the river to the other side of the valley. I had to press on, fearing punctures, shredding my tyres which were not suited for this kind of terrain, or even a fall. To minimise the risk, I walked any moderately steep downhill sections.
Finally, when I could see tarmac just a couple of hundred metres ahead, I got the puncture I had been expecting all along – a pinch flat in my rear (tubed) tyre. I carried the bike to the road and sat down under a tree to fix it. A friendly local came to chat in English. He explained that he was working at a tomato factory that day and would like to give me some tomatoes. Churlishly, I pointed out that, while it was a very kind thought, I had limited capacity (or desire) to carry them, but he brought them anyway – a large bag containing a dozen or so big tomatoes weighing perhaps a couple of kilos, saying take what I could and leave the rest. I ate one but then left the bag so that others could see its contents and, I hope, help themselves to it.
The rough sections of the R1102, including my puncture, had made me not less than 3 or 4 hours behind where I’d hoped to be at this stage, given typical Balkan roads. Thankfully, the last 50km to the Greek border was on smooth roads, the last section being via Lake Dojran, which was clearly a holiday resort for the Macedonians but also the site of a large refugee camp until earlier in the year when it was broken up by the Greek police as part of the recent arrangement with Turkey.
As I entered Greece, the customs official asked about my journey and she was somewhat amused to think that I’d come from Belgium by bike.
The sun was now fading, leading to cooler temperatures, but also villages full of dogs. Packs of stray dogs are a bit of a vexed issue on the Transcontinental but I had encountered hardly any thus far, but I found lots that night in Greece. They tend to be nocturnal and I found pretty much every town and village had a pack of maybe four. They would chase me, whatever speed I went, bark a bit but, while they were unpleasant and annoying, I never felt in danger of being bitten. I concluded that:
- They wanted to show me who was boss and to have a bit of fun, so they liked to chase.
- Unless I was already at full speed down a hill, I couldn’t outspeed them. They would always run fast enough to go alongside at me and bark at me.
- After a short while they got bored and left me alone to go back to their patch.
- If one wanted to bite me, there was probably nothing I could do about it.
- I was pleased I’d had my rabies injections.
- The best thing to do was to ignore them. No eye contact to threaten them and don’t try to speed up as they would catch me anyway and it would just excite them
After a few hours, when I reached the town of Gazoros, I was getting tired so decided I’d look for somewhere to rest for an hour or so. Pulling off the main road, I immediately spied a few benches in a little park and lay down on one, intending only a short sleep, so did not bother to unpack my bivvy bag.
I’d done about 280km which, given the roads I’d encountered in Macedonia, was ok, but was really at least 60km short of what I’d hoped for by this stage as it left me around 420km to ride to Canakkale – a tall order for the following day.