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Trans Balkan Race - Tales From the Race

We are exploring. Sometimes exploring a new country, a new culture, but often we are also exploring our limits, reaching deep inside ourselves and understanding more about what we are capable of.

The lightening bolt struck the mountain side 500m ahead of me, the crack of thunder deafening my ears as I leapt off my bike to prostrate myself on the ground, hoping this would make me a smaller target for the storms wrath. I'd been caught in this raging thunder and lightening show for the last hour and I was genuinely scared. The recurring thought, what was I doing here.

 

It's a question I often come back to. As a coach specialising in ultra cycling, understanding the why is important. I reflected on this question a lot on Trans Balkan. We are exploring. Sometimes exploring a new country, a new culture, but often we are also exploring our limits, reaching deep inside ourselves and understanding more about what we are capable of. Trans Balkan was an exploration in every dimension. 

 

Ultra racing is flourishing right now. More and more riders are looking to challenge themselves and more and more riders are looking to showcase the kind of ultra racing that inspires them. There are so many race options at the moment. Knowing what makes a good one can be hard. One of the biggest aspects, if not the most important aspect, is the route. And wow does this route deliver. The riding experience that Bea and Luca have put together as you traverse four countries of the Balkans is incredible. There has been a trend of late towards super tough routes where hike a bike is not just an outcome of trying to reach a certain point or enable a certain way forwards but a reason in itself. Trans Balkan doesn't follow this path. The route is nearly all rideable. I counted about 4-5 km of hike a bike during my ride, but only about 1km of that was genuinely unrideable due to the steepness or technicality of the terrain. Most of the time I was walking because my legs needed a break. This doesn't make the route easy. This is one of the hardest races I've ridden. The very fact it is all rideable makes it hard.

gravel cyclist
gravel cyclist rain gear

Slovenia always feels like the best bits of Europe all packaged up into one country. Setting off at the start of the race the riding felt like this too. Wonderful gravel tracks through woodland gradually gave way to high open pastures, swift pace as 103 riders made their way under blue skies and the occasional fluffy cloud. I rode alongside others, a chance to chat and be social whilst we were still close together. There would be plenty of time for solitude later. Hugo from France sharing stories of common friends in the community. Eddie over from Australia, excited to take on the race and riding strong. Femke doing the race with her husband, happy to let him ride on at his pace as she took a more considered approach. Our paths would cross many times over the next 7 days but for now we were all settling into our own pace and rhythm. Resupply was not too challenging with water fountains and towns providing a few options in the first 75km.

 

Soon a small sign at the side of the trail indicated we had just crossed into Croatia. Speaking to riders after the event, Croatia was often seen as a long series of forests, a somewhat repetitive means to get to the interesting stuff in Bosnia and Montenegro. Not for me. For me Croatia was where this race started to reveal it's true depth and challenge. But first we did have a day and a half of long climbs and descents in the forests. The tree cover providing shelter from the sun, the trails generally smooth and easy to navigate. Finally towards the end of day two I begin the final climbs and then descent to CP1 and the promise of a warm plate of food and possibly a bed. That would be a nice improvement on the hard concrete of a picnic area high in the national park on day. The final climb reaches an end, my Garmin indicates 12km to the CP. Should be there in 25 minutes if the descent is like all the others we've done so far. Only it's not, this sense that all might not be as easy as we thought starts to creep in. The track turns into deep mud before dropping you into a steep technical single track descent with rocks and branches keeping you on your toes to keep your bike upright. 

gravel cyclist
gravel
gravel cyclist with mountain landscape
gravel cycling gear
gravel cyclist with mountain landscape
sunset landscape

The next day the weather is glorious as the route takes you out of the grand forests and into the typical karstic terrain of the region. Dry limestone rocks push up through the countryside as I battle steep climbs. So far the route had been, dare I say it, easy. Lulling everyone into a false sense of security. Even convincing those on gravel bikes that they may have made the right choice of bike. Then the route fights back with a punch to the stomach and a body slam to the floor. A steep boulder garden descent dropping in a straight line down the mountain side, front and rear suspension working overtime to contain the rocks, marks the start of the fun and games. Then after another long climb into the sun filled sky it just gets better. I reach the top alongside Femke and Jonno on hard tails and Tony on a gravel bike. The descent that follows is 45 minutes of the most exhilarating, fast, loose, rocky fun. The double track made single by the encroaching trees, hairpin bends where the tyres struggle for grip. Whooping and hollering I fly down the mountain. So much fun. Further interesting corkscrewing single track takes us towards Knin and the first big refuel option of the day. A quick check of the tracker reveals that the three of us on mountain bikes have put 90 minutes into the gravel bikes in the last 3 hours. The course had well and truly bared its teeth!

 

In Bosnia I found what I was looking for on this race. Tough, uncompromising riding in a sparsely populated landscape with resupply options few and far between. Yet just enough major towns and cities to mean it never felt too far to go before finding a nice bed and good pizza. Crossing the border with Croatia late on the 3rd day I found Bea and Luca taking photos. I could not contain my delight at the fun I was having so far. A welcome relief of a road climb leads to the border itself then a winding ribbon of new tarmac shooting you from one corner to the other as I descended towards Livno, head down, arms on aero bars, tapping out a fast rhythm to beat the impending thunderstorms. 

 

Climbing out of Livno the terrain is straight forward but hard. A rough old road through the mountains with deep cobbles gives way to a high mountain plateau, rain clouds all around threatening your progress. The rain holds off until the descent into Suica where it becomes torrential. A check of the tracker shows a cafe with 4 dots in it. That would be a good place to hide from the rain. And it is, a great breakfast washed down with endless coffee. I find these moments to be such an important part of the race experience. With the rain hammering down outside I gave myself permission to hit the pause button for 45 minutes and to just enjoy it. I could almost be on holiday. Onwards to Mostar, the terrain is high and remote. The challenge of an off-road ultra where progress can be slow, the 70km taking what seems like an eternity. But there is always the amazing scenery to distract you. You become aware of the changing landscape being the marker of distance passing. The high plateau with it's long rolling ascent giving way to a forest before finally more alpine terrain where civilisation makes an appearance again with hotels and other signs of tourism. Soon I enter the bustling chaos of Mostar and the best pizza of the race.

 

Montenegro is the highlight of the race, but also the hardest part. I wasn't alone in thinking that once Durmitor was out of the way it was easy rolling all the way to the finish line. Durmitor is as epic as I remember from last year on TCRno7. As the route is on road or easy tarmac I have plenty of time to take in the splendour of the peaks as I just about avoid another rainstorm before resupply in Zabljak. Then the next 70km becomes an epic struggle against the trail. Easy double track climbs lead to an amazing series of tracks through the high mountains, but the sun setting coincides with the trail deteriorating into a slippy mud fest, my lights trying to pick out the dry lines to avoid a fall. Finally through the darkness the lights of Kolašin below mean it's not far to the hotel. My tired legs and mind wouldn't settle for a wild camp tonight.

gravel event
gravel event
gravel event
gravel event
gravel event
gravel event

Finally daylight on what I thought would be the last day of this race. An incredible start as the road gives way to a trail climbing high into alpine mountains. Nothing up here but a few summer huts and grazing sheep. The occasional bark of the dogs reminding you of their presence. The scenery is breathtaking. Only one more big climb to go and then downhill all the way to the finish. The mountains, however, have a different ending to this story. Things go from amazing to terrifying very fast. One minute I'm looking at the lightening and sound of thunder way over the other side of the mountain range. The next minute the storm is upon me. Rain comes from nowhere as the rapid fire crashes of thunder indicate the storm is now right above my head. I could not be in a worse place for this to happen, half way through a high traverse, no way down other than to move forwards. I'm in the heart of the storm for about an hour before it finally recedes and my breathing returns to normal. Drenched I make my way over the final pass and start the descent to Nikšić. Physically I feel fine but my mind is overloaded from the challenge of the last couple of days. I want to enjoy the run into the finish line and see it in daylight so a decision is quickly made to find a hotel in Nikšić.

Sometimes stopping feels like a guilty pleasure, the drive to keep moving forwards can be overwhelming, but this serves as a great reminder that this is about enjoyment. The feeling of contentment sitting in a hotel restaurant in a stinky thermal and some running shorts with bare feet, eating through 2 main courses and a pint of cold lager. It's another take on the euphoria. Recognising that I'd been able to ride fast enough and hard enough to gift myself this time. This carries through to the next day. The reward of that decision to stop the night before is a glorious morning of sunshine and sweeping views as I head along easy roads towards the finish line. A final turn off the main road onto an old line of concrete carved into the mountain. No longer used by cars, the environment is slowly taking the space back. I weave between the trees and shrubs, suspension active to soak up the square edges of the broken road.

And then it happens, the inspiration behind the race. You sense it's coming as you know you've crossed over the saddle of the final pass and Kotor bay is somewhere beneath you but you can't quite see it. Until you reach that first hairpin bend of the descent and the trees give way to show the most incredible view of the sea some 400m vertically below you. My breath is taken away and I pause to soak it all in.

Photo and text credits: Exploro.cc 

Text by: Niel Copeland

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