XXELEVEN/COLLECTIVERIDERBLOG – INTOTHEUNKNOWN Pt.3
When we last heard from Sheila, in part 2, she was separated by meters from her bike and sat on the grass holding her head in her hands, crying (scroll down to read the blog if you haven’t already)! Renewed in spirit and lighter on the pedals, she cycled off into the distance leaving the locals mouths agape and heads shaking in disbelief. She picks up the story on the way to Greece in the Czech Republic…
The very idea of being able to cross multiple European borders by bicycle is just mind-blowing. Over fourteen days I had cycled around 3500 kilometres with “just” 500 kilometres left to cycle down the corridor from the Czech Republic to Greece. This stage of my journey through Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Albania was completely unknown. The only images I could recall of the countries I was about to travel through were leftovers from Martin Bell’s war reports for the BBC in the early 1990s. It still feels incredible to cycle through these countries and I was curious as to what the reality looked like twenty-eight years later. I had my sights set on Bosnia and the penultimate Control Point No. 4 so Hungary and Croatia passed in a haze. The next “Parcours” had been devised by the organisers to come after the Control Point and involved a twelve-kilometre climb to Bjelasnica, an abandoned ski lodge atop the mountain.
The treacherous loose gravel road had already claimed wheels of the TCR leaders and had left them cursing by the side of the road – it had also been rumoured that many a taxi had been summoned from Sarajevo laden with spare tyres, new wheels and replacement spokes. Me? I had a plan. Knowing your weaknesses can sometimes be your strength and so I had carried a lightweight pair of shoes especially for this climb. I knew my skills were limited on this sort of terrain so from day one my race plan had been to rest my legs, save my wheels, and walk when needed up and back down the Parcours. I had calculated rightly that the time needed to walk was a lot less than that needed to repair my wheels. I also had strict instructions from Glen to “look after those tyres!” – being sympathetic to the bike can save you time everywhere else; I have to say that I truly enjoyed this stretch, the summit was wild, remote, and very peaceful.
After cycling around Sarajevo at night I left Bosnia to make my way through Montenegro. A lush, green country scarred with deep valleys and home to fast-flowing rivers of clear aquamarine water. Montenegro for me became the country of torrential thunderstorms which came most evenings at around six o’clock and lasted well into the night. It wasn’t cold, but the water was soaking as it bounced off the road, glittering red from the tail lights of the passing cars. One car passed me and then a few moments later it returned – the driver shouted to ask if he could help me. I shook my head, grimly smiling. He was shocked that I had refused and again asked if he could at least give me a lift to somewhere dry. He obviously wasn’t a “dotwatcher” and he was clearly troubled by such lunacy but he accepted my reasons and drove off, tooting in support. Meanwhile I headed into another forty kilometres with no shelter and on toward the border.
My crossing into Albania started well but came to a sudden and abrupt stop. Cycling along a busy road I suddenly realised that the rock in the middle of the road I was just about to avoid was moving. It was not so much a rock as a tortoise making an intrepid bid for the other side [of the road]. I gestured to the cars behind that I was slowing and then brought my bike and the cars behind me to a stop. I raised my hand to halt the traffic in the other direction and climbed off my bike, laying it carefully down at the side of the road. Much to the surprise of the drivers around me, I ran back into the road picking up the tortoise and sprinted like a seasoned rugby player to the other side of the road. A perfect touch down saw the tortoise on safe turf as I sprinted back to my bike. I cycled off leaving car drivers and passengers with mouths agape or openly laughing. I would have been happier if the tortoise had shown me a little gratitude, but he preferred to remain hidden in his shell. Probably just too embarrassed by the spectacle to show his face, but I’m sure he was smiling on the inside!
Albania was just beautiful and I found the people generous and hospitable. At several points I stopped for coffee at local garages, most of which seemed to have nothing to do with car mechanics and lots to do with loud music, beers and young men tinkering or washing cars. My son has since enlightened me to the fact that these were most likely local gang HQ’s and had I been anything other than a travelling cyclist who happened to look like “someone’s gran”, I might have had a different experience – sometimes I think it’s best to be naive and I aim to go back to explore Albania at leisure. The crossing from Albania to Greece happened in the early hours of the morning – I planned to cross the border and find a nice spot to bivvy for a few hours before passing down through Greece to Meteora. Approaching the passport booth a weary guard glanced up from his desk, blinked, and looked again. He then craned his head out of the booth to look behind me. Frowning, he asked if I was on my own to which I grinned and said, “that’s right, I’m cycling solo.” As he looked at my passport he asked where I intended to stay? “I’m not sure,” I said, “but somewhere close”. He leaned forwards, and asked, “you are planning to camp?” I wondered (in my head) if a bivvy bag is technically a camp and I was not sure if bivvying was permissible, so I hedged my bets and tried to deflect from the truth. “Well, sort of”, I said – he looked seriously troubled at this and I thought the worst. A wave of panic set in. My grin faded and I quickly replaced it with my practiced, frightened rabbit stare. The guard let out a long sigh and sat back in his chair, his face softening, “You are high in the mountains here and at this point, we have bears and wolves and it’s not safe here to sleep in a tent” (glad I didn’t fess up to the bivvy then)! “You are forty kilometres from the local village, there you can sleep – don’t be silly, please, stay safe, and DON’T camp up here”, he said as he stamped my passport and handed it back to me.
Pedaling off I thought to myself, right… where shall I sleep? It is easy to develop a false sense of superhuman invincibility on this ride, and that’s no bad thing as you do need the inner strength and conviction to race, but sometimes it can be misplaced. As I turned off down the road heading down the mountain my solitary beam of light picked up a large square billboard in the distance. As I got closer it became clear, very loud, and very clear – the huge sign, as big as a motorway information board depicted a black cut out of a huge bear and a lone wolf silhouetted on a blood-red background. I did not need to be able to read or understand Greek to get the gist of the message. The guard was telling the truth. I raced down the mountain, hammered on the door of the village hotel and I managed to persuade the owner that this frightened rabbit needed a bed for the night! Meteora could wait till morning.
My final crossing of the TCR involved no borders but a line, the finish line – this line had seen some 90 racers cross it. It had been the line where family members, supporters, organisers and all manner of dot watchers had gathered to cheer in the tired but triumphant racers. But my line was not the same as it had been some 7 days earlier. My line was a quiet, solitary line. It had waited patiently for me and did not seem to mind when I arrived as it was not about to be erased just because the party was over. Yes, I had missed the celebrations, I had missed the chance of a category finish but I had not missed my right to cross this line. As I climbed off my bike I just wanted to cry, elated but sad there was no one, no TCR organiser there to witness my crossing the finish line. But what else did I expect? This is a self-supported race, you are responsible for how you choose to race the route and if you are too late, you are simply and understandably too late for the entourage of TCR organisers to wait for you. But the story doesn’t end there. I want to tell you about a loyal band of volunteers who were waiting in the nearby pub, waiting for lone racers such as myself. They had been glued to their phones watching the dots of racers arriving and were intent on celebrating each arrival at the finish line, day or night. Moments after I dismounted this happy band rushed out from the pub to fist pump the air and shout and cheer at my crossing the line. My phone was taken from me and my “finishers” picture was taken. I was then ushered back into the pub, given a drink, and told to tell my tale. I was not alone after all and the celebrations continued well into the early hours. It was indeed a special ending to an extraordinary race, a race in which I earned the right to say “I am a TCR finisher”.
TCRNo6 – 251 racers started (14 Solo Female), 152 finished (9 Solo Female). Cap No 127 Sheila Woollam Finished. 21 days, 4,200km 39,352 Metres of climbing.
Photos by Sheila Woollam
SHEILAWOOLLAM Sheila picked up a bicycle nine years ago and rode the Camino from Canterbury to Santiago de Compostella. That’s quite a first ride but since then she’s ridden unsupported around Iceland, from Tunbridge Wells to Budapest, completed the London-Edinburgh-London event and competed in the 2018 Transcontinental, riding 4,202km / 39,352m in 21 days. 2019 saw Sheila winning the long route in the Race around the Netherlands, and after a few weeks of rest, Sheila competed in the Pan Celtic Race around Scotland, Ireland and Wales placing 2nd Solo Female on the long route. What’s next? Watch this space for updates! #TCRNo6cap127 #RATNCapNo88