250km, 4900 alt gain, 18 hours riding
The efforts of parcour 1 and the whole bike fiasco had really left me quite overwhelmed at Sofia. A morning WhatsApp video with kids proved just that and had a moment on the phone with them – shame poor kids on way to school seeing a tearing dad in a random foreign city is not a normal start to the day – fortunately they bought the story that the riding ‘was making my eyes water’ !
After a pep talk from Tash I set off to the airport to try and get the bike swap sorted. The you folks at lost luggage Sofia where again amazing, explaining that they can’t swap contents on a return box but suggest DHL where they have good rates around the corner. So checked out the box, hauled it across to DHL where the young service guy was taken with the race and situation and did some amazing fancy footwork to keep process quick and costs down. A quick build of the Niner (all perfectly in one piece) and a bosh of the Cube into same box and it was dispatched off home !!
Navigating out of Sofia was a bit tricky and a shock to the system dealing with trams, cars and huge intersections, but boshed the nav and was soon out into the countryside reconnecting with my gravel baby – what makes the ride so much more comfy is the 32mm wide tyres, relaxed geometry, slack and well padded bars, and my trusted Fizik Gobi MTB saddle.
The 120km out of Sofia went well without incident through lovely countryside and quaint towns. Each little village has that classic way of life of families and couples sitting directly outside their door on the street, just watching life go by – they don’t have allot here but somehow this way of life feels more connected with there partners and communities than we ever will.
Before dropping into the Serbia border I stopped at what looked like a curio cabin – this turned out to be extremely fortuitous as the ham and cheese I bought and stashed leftovers would come to my rescue much later that evening. The border crossing itself was a great boost and went with no problems, just friendly waves of good luck.
Then came Parcour 2, and boy has this kicked the fields ass. By numbers it’s not so bad. 46km climb up to a weather station and sweeping drops for 50km all the way back down to check point 2 on Vranje – let’s do this?!
Well as with parcours, all was not what it seemed. I started the base of the climb at dusk (8pm) and the first 20km went great. Legs felt good and the Niner was built for that terrain. By 10pm the rain started, first light but as we hit the 15km to the peak it started dumping down and howling. My Freedom Challenge experience has taught me to protect your ‘dryness’ very dearly. So while the others forged on I stopped under a tree. Put every dry item of clothing I had on (base shirt, arm warmers, leg warmers, buff etc) then instantly put thick shell jacket with hoodie over. This keeps you core dry while the wind and rain batters extremities but most NB protect from hypothermia – if the under jacket layers also get wet you start to decline quickly in that wind. The next 10km of climbing where on horrible heavily rocked road, bouncing around on the pedals and the saddle (ouch). We then made the turn to crest up to weather station – this turned into a 5km home a bike on loose rocks the size of cricket balls at a spicy gradient. Wind whipping rain and fog in sideways, it’s was a full on alright! Turning to come back down I opted for speed over safety, and promptly went over handle bars twice – time to relax and suck up the walk down. At the base of the crest turnoff I noticed a hostel of sorts so thought lack me asses my options and check it out. 50km of switchback descending at 1am was not looking like a safe option, and my promise to Tash to make ‘good calls’ in compromised situations was very true here. Luck!! The hostel security guard was doing a roaring trade taking 10 Euro for a bed for 3 hours and Turkish coffee. Hilarious scenes inside at those of us that found this gem grabbing and hot shower while others fought the elements in the dark outside.
At 5am we were up and at and quickly got down and out of the rain of the summit and rolled into check point 2 at 7:30am. The hotel looked like a war zone with bodies and lit everywhere, all in a state of recovery of drying bodies and kit, all with that ride through the night glaze on there faces. Chuffed to have reached CP2 and put some extremely mountainous parcours behind me. Now the rout opens up for 1200km into more traditional touring style.
After 100km since leaving the hostel I made the call to put my mental and physical health first and stop early. I was fighting sleep monsters on the road and my mental alertness needed work. So have stopped at a nice spot. Washed all my clothes, had an afternoon nap, now doing blog and route planning. Will get up at 3am and start making up some km before the heat.
Sometimes you have to go slow to go fast / put matches back in the box (ok cliches over), but seriously, ride your own race, listen to your body and keep it set for the long haul. No point blowing up in week 1.
I am in good spirits and excited for the journey through Serbia, Croatia and into Italy 😁😁😁