I wrote this little piece as a comment on a TCR Facebook group. Re-posting it here to preserve the memory.
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.