Transcontinental Race 2016: Durmitor

I wrote this little piece as a comment on a TCR Facebook group. Re-posting it here to preserve the memory.
On the CP4 parcour, Durmitor, Montenegro

Croatia had been hard on me. A small crash at the border left me a little concussed, and with a slightly bent disc rotor that was dragging me down, perhaps more mentally than physically. Then the heat of Rijeka and the bora wind of the coast nearly beat me to a pulp and I thought my attempt on TCR was all over. Passing through Sinj, things started looking up. I met Rory Bear Kemper in a bus shelter; we shared a few words, the first company I’d had in days. Then a roadside bike workshop appeared like an oasis in the desert, and they straightened my disc in moments. I was rolling again. Bosnia seemed to go by in a flash, and I spent a cheap night in a doss house in Capljina.

Up before dawn, I started on the deserted road through Republika Srpska to the ‘secret’ border with Montenegro, the beginning of maybe the most perfect day’s cycling of my life. Herdsmen led their sheep flocks down the road, but not a soul otherwise. I tweeted there might be radio silence because I had no data allowance in Montenegro, and Kevin, who’d been enjoying my gastrotour, said he *needed* to know what I was eating. I reported it was Nutella straight from the jar, as I rested in a shady grove next to a rough gravel path. The final 5km ascent to the frontier – the unmanned secret border crossing from which some riders had been sent back – was pure rock, a steep hike-a-bike for me (though I later saw photos of Carlos Mazon riding it I think). For all I knew it could have carried on like that all day, or I could have been sent back down for an 80km detour to one of the official crossings. But no! At the border, entering Montenegro and Durmitor National Park, the gravel turned to silky tarmac (https://flic.kr/p/2aA71xJ) for a gorgeous descent to Pluzine. The cool and funky (but very slow) cafe marked the start of the parcours. It was late afternoon by now and I dawdled – my weakness – using the slow service as excuse for a longer rest. Riders passed through. Mark Booker, with his legs all scraped from a bad fall. Vinicius looking fit and organised. And Hilde, bright and cheerful despite a very painful knee. Eventually I dragged myself back onto the bike leaving Hilde finishing her food. As Mikko describes, the road climbs up from the lake via tunnels dug from the rock. But afterwards it’s bucolic. In the warm, dusky evening, farm workers rested beside the medieval-looking haystacks they’d gathered that day, swigging well-earned beers. The sun set, the air grew cooler and eventually I climbed to the double peak of Prevoj Sedlo in darkness. A pair of motor-bikers passed me and stopped to talk. They told me they’d met Hilde behind and she planned to sleep part way up the climb; I think a family had offered her a barn. Descending was tricky in the darkness. A few days earlier I’d descended the San Pellegrino pass in darkness to reach CP3, and that had been scary enough, even with the benefit of road markings and chevrons at the bends. This descent to Žabljak had no such help. But eventually Žabljak was reached and as I rolled past a restaurant with TCR riders, super-helpful CP volunteer (and future TCR5 finisher) Martin called out to me. The Highlander hostel was full, but Martin arranged a place in an overspill room. I was too tired for food, but elated to have reached CP4. With ‘only’ 1000km to go, and the major climbs all done, I had flipped into the ‘you can do this’ mindset that had deserted me in Croatia.

Next morning I woke up with the ever cheerful Giorsio, who told me that my loud snoring overnight wasn’t a problem at all, as he had noise-cancelling earplugs for *exactly* that purpose. It was the first of a few encounters over the next several days that would see us getting into various scrapes. The weather had turned cold and rainy overnight; I hadn’t expected that. Hilde had rolled in early that morning. The Highlander hostel promised breakfast, and Hilde and I waited, keeping warm under that same blanket Mikko is wrapped in. Martin had contacted a doctor to check out Hilde’s knee, and, after breakfast she sadly climbed into a car. We all thought it was the end of her race. Happily it turned out not to be so, and after a day’s rest she was declared fit and rolled into Çanakkale a day or so after I did.

Danube: Baia – Tulcea


80% of our hotel bookings have been made via booking.com, and we have found some great places. The review scores and comments are really helpful but occasionally you get a misery-guts who pans a nice place. “Orange Juice with breakfast was charged as extra, but not mentioned when served” said Istvan about Hotel Mondial. We found the place very nice, the staff were helpful, but when the waitress asked us “would you like Orange Juice with breakfast” I shot Caroline a look to say “it’s a trap!”

Baia to Tulcea was effectively our final bike tour day. The Danube has already divided into multiple branches, and Tulcea is where land turns to swamp. We will take a boat trip to Sulina today, where swamp turns to sea, and then return here for one more day ride to the railway station at Galati, from where we travel to Bucharest and fly home. It’s been a long trip and I think we are ready for home.

Strava: here

Danube: Constanta – Baia

Slightly awkward departure from Villa Anticus, our hotel, this morning. When we checked in, the proprietor was at pains to tell us not to allow any strangers to follow us us in through the front door. “There are many people passing here. Guests have their own key. Do not let anyone enter!” Pause for emphasis. “Do not forget!”.

This morning, ready to leave and waiting for our bikes to be brought up from the cellar, I thought I would step outside and ring the doorbell to get attention. Step back inside and conscious of someone following me. Put shoulder firmly against door to thwart the invader. Eventually realise it is our host and I am expelling him forcefully from his own house!
North of Constanta, the Mamaia beach strip stretches for miles and miles. It’s extraordinary how much accommodation capacity is available on this coast, and more part-built on the way. Then again, Romania has less than 100km of beachy coastline, for a population of 7 million, so they have to pack them in.

Picnic lunch in Säcele, where an old fellow with a long staff was sitting on a nearby bench. A few spots of rain and he retreats into a covered bus stop. Rain dries up and he emerges again. I become convinced he has been engaged by the village as a life-sized Austrian weather house.

Half an hour before we were due to arrive at our isolated hotel in Baia, the heavens opened with an almighty thunderstorm. Absolutely pelted with rain. But welcomed in to a comfortable room with whirlpool bath. It seemed like fun to share the bath but forgot that cyclists at the end of the day are prone to cramp; cue comedy leaps, splashes and stretches.

Strava: here

Danube: Vama Veche – Constanta

Stefan, our young host at Vama Veche, spoke great English. We found out why. “I worked for a year in Scotland, at Blair Atholl.” Hmm, that sounds familiar, in the Highlands, right? “Yes at the House of Bruar”. Suddenly we remembered, we had been there on our Scottish bike tour of 2015, a very large, roadside, shopping complex with would-be posh restaurant, designed for coach loads of mostly American tourists. Caroline just bitterly reminded me “you couldn’t buy a newspaper there”. Stefan loved the area though, Pitlochry was nice and he would go for runs in the hills, which he won’t do in Vama Veche because he’s scared of the dogs.

Speaking of which, we have not been bothered much by roaming dogs since a week ago back in the west of Romania. Yesterday a few big ones gave chase. You’ll read many recommendations about how to deal with them. Ultrasonic hooters, pepper sprays, make eye contact, don’t make eye contact, etc. This time I’ve been following advice to greet them with an enthusiastic “Hello Johnny!” It works just as well as anything else.

Reaching Constanta was an ordeal, on the manic E87 again, which poured its traffic into the city as if the M1 just dumped its load into Watford. Although our hotel is lovely, and we enjoyed a really nice Lebanese meal, we’ve found the city a bit crap. It’s got a glorious history, Jason of the Argonauts visited, but recent improvements haven’t really tamed the Communist-era concrete and poor planning.

And it feels a little bit intimidating. Small children selling flowers at the waterfront restaurants are nothing unusual, but I’m not sure why this one thought hitting me with a stick multiple times would help make a sale.

Strava: here

Danube: Balchik – Vama Veche

The E87 road from Varna (Bulgaria) to Vama Veche (Romania) has a reputation as busy and dangerous. Thanks to Bulgarian Bob we avoided much of this, by-passing via local resorts and villages.

Spent the last of our Bulgarian Lev on a delicious lunch at Tyulenovo Bar and Restaurant (“Cool drink, cool food, cool people”). The fish soup reminded me of one we tasted in Copenhagen, at ten times the price. A cool Romanian guy asked to have a close look at our bikes… seemed like a dawning realisation when he saw essentially road bikes carrying luggage.

Some long, shallow descents on the way to the Romanian border, so, in honour of our 82-year-old cyclist friend Bryce, who is hosting a freewheeling contest in Winchester today, we tucked chins to handlebars and rolled as far as we could.
Luckily heads were back up when we spotted a large object in the road. Some kind of roadkill… a European wildcat, about double the size of a typical moggy.

Even during the Ceauşescu regime, Vama Veche attracted Romanian free-spirits, for wild camping, skinny-dipping and respite from totalitarianism. It continues, albeit a little more commercialised, though, out-of-season on a chilly evening I declined to skinny-dip.

Danube: Fântânele – Ruse

We didn’t really get the hang of Southern Romania. Lodgings so far apart and village shops so poorly stocked that we mostly lived on spready cheese sandwiches and tinned puréed beans.

Though we found some outstandingly kind and generous Romanians. In Ziminicea, after half an hour’s cycling I realised I’d ridden off with the room key from last night’s stay. Wrestled with what to do. One hour round trip, or find the post office and post it back. At the counter in the PO, the lady is helping wrap the key, when a young woman walks and says “Oh, I know the people from the Pension in Fantanele really well, I will take it!”

In Corabia, Andrea, a teenage boy with outstanding English, approached and said: “This is gonna sound weird, but is there anything I can do for you?” Well funnily enough there’s this Pension we’ve been trying to book and they don’t respond to text or email and we’re too scared to call because we know they won’t speak English. “No problem, I’ll call”. He tried the three numbers we had. One wrong number, one disconnected, one no response.

This was a pretty big blow because this Pension at Ion Corvin is the only one in that region, and now we knew, thanks to Andrea, that we couldn’t rely on it. We were missing a stepping stone to reach the Black Sea.

But Ruse! Known as Little Vienna. A glorious pedestrian town square, surrounded by cafés​ and restaurants. Lovely room in a gorgeous, friendly hostel. Just what we needed. We quickly decided to stay an extra day, get some rest and take a Bulgarian train to Varna. Not exactly en route but it allows us to cycle on to later bookings on the Romanian Black Sea coast, and reach the Danube Delta at Tulcea.

Feared Bulgarian train would have wooden benches, nightmare to load bikes, etc, but nothing of the sort. Bikes loaded fine. Smiling guard: “OK no problem”. Comfy carriage to ourselves, will be in Varna by 10am.

Danube: Bechet – Fântânele

I’ve been struggling to write something about Mike Hall’s funeral and celebration yesterday. Marion’s photos seem better than anything I could say. We’ll miss Mike so much. I hope yesterday’s events help begin the healing for Pat, Anna and Russell.

Our #rideformike yesterday was a tough one. My dearest Caroline only signed up for a holiday, but got an adventure/challenge instead. 120km fully laden in 80 degrees and headwind. Together with poor eating opportunities, she is done in. Also, one of our accommodation plans for Friday night fell through. We completed today’s shorter leg into Bulgaria, but the time has come to take a couple of days off the bikes, and fill in the gap with a train. Easier said​ than done, but I think we may have a cunning plan.

Danube: Port Cetate – Bechet

Today was the day for meeting other touring cyclists. In 11 previous days, we’d only encountered one couple, French, with baby in trailer, who were on their way home from a climbing trip in Bulgaria and Greece.

Today, we met Roland and Jana, from Norway, on a honeymoon tour from Budapest to Bucharest. They stayed in the same hotel as us in Bechet (not so much of a surprise as there is only one) and we ate dinner together and compared cycling notes.

On the road, we met Karlis from Latvia, cycling home from the Bulgarian Black Sea coast on an ordinary street bike. A “get on a bike and ride” kind of cyclist, he made all our OCD about equipment seem ridiculous. He was thrilled to be wild camping next to the Danube and waking up to the sound of the bullfrog chorus.

Besides the cyclists, we chatted with a young long-distance lorry driver, who had been visiting grandparents in Nedeia. He explained that only old people live in this part of Romania now. With the arrival of mechanised agriculture, young people moved to the cities, and old people sold their land to Italian and French agribusiness. Now the old people sit on their benches by the roadside, and the arrival of a couple of cyclists seems to make their day.

In Carna, we enjoyed passing the Non Stop Disco Club Bar, where three people quietly dozed in silence.

Strava: here

Danube: Hinova – Port Cetate

The hangover from last night’s shenanigans hung on for a couple of hours, aided by a headwind that shouldn’t have been there. The route took us West, further from our destination, following the meandering Danube.

At Tiganasi we turned East, picked up a pristine road and the promised tailwind, and the world seemed a better place. Every 10km or so, we passed through a different wild west town. Nothing much open. In Izvoarele, a funeral procession, with brass band celebrating the life of the poor old fellow whose face poked out from the back of a hatchback. In Gruia, chased out of town by vaguely intimidating youths, we picnic’d on the outskirts, on a kind of marble dais outside a Roma mansion with loud gypsy dance music playing through an outdoor speaker. Friendly Vrata, where we were high-fived and cheered by almost everyone; mostly in Italian. “Ciao” and “Com esta”.

Unlike last night we were booked into accommodation, at Port Cetate Cultural complex, a former grain port, made obsolete in 1945 when communist Romania was ordered to send its crop to Moscow instead of Vienna. Restored from 1997 by a satirical writer (think Private Eye) as a culture centre with restaurant and accommodation. Food nice, wine from the estate delicious, showers to die for. What a change from last night!

Strava: here

Danube: Donji Milanovac – Hinova (Romania)

The Ethno Complex at Kapetan Misin Breg was a brilliant place to stay. Styled as a traditional Serbian village and set on top of a hill with fantastic views over the Danube and the village of Donji Milanovac. We were met on arrival by the boss, Surjan, who asked if we wanted dinner and were we vegetarian (I hadn’t requested special meals). Within a few minutes we were presented with an enormous vegetarian feast of local produce (more than we could eat) along with honey Rakija. Breakfast was equally lavish. Everyone there was so nice to us; we loved it.

On the road today, we completed the set of 19 tunnels through the Iron Gates, and the valley scenery got even more spectacular. We climbed one long hill, labelled 10% but nothing like. Before long we were crossing the border into Romania, and hit the shocking traffic of the E70 motorway.

Accommodation options in Romania are very limited. It’s forced us to plan for some longer than comfortable days, longer than Caroline’s 100km stipulation. Today was only 95km but Pension San & Gino, which we were hoping to get into, hadn’t responded to multiple emails, so we approached with fingers crossed. The worst happened. They were full. Asked if there was anywhere else, the suggestion was Calafat, about 120km away. Ridiculous. We decided he just didn’t like us. Few options, but we pressed on to a location where a guesthouse was marked on OpenStreetMap. It was a small marina, but the buildings were fenced off and seemed abandoned. A man was there and I asked if we could get a room, and at first I thought he said yes. Then he played with his dog a while and disappeared into a house. Then emerged with his wife who spoke a little English. “No rooms”. We turned the pitiful looks to maximum. “Do you have a friend with a room?” Romanian husband & wife conversation. She looked pitying but he looked to be taking a hard line. Eventually she said “we make phone call”. Long wait. Long, long wait. Finally: “We have called Pension San & Gino, he is my husband’s friend, they will give you a room”. Back to Pension S&G. All smiles. They find us a room.