‘Live document’ = handy list of bookmarks for me.
I specialise in never winning a race ballot. Ride London, London Marathon, any race with a ballot you can usually guess that I’m not going to win. So why would this be any different?
Oh. I’ve got a place. Well, my other half will never let me disappear for three weeks leaving her with a house full of hounds. Oh. She will? Not to worry, I’ll never get three weeks leave in peak summer season…
So July 27th saw me stood on the start line in Burgas, and I scratched 6 days and 1200km later on the forecourt of a petrol station in Serbia. So what went wrong?
On the whole, my kit was about right. Room to trim, but it wasn’t so outrageous compared with the winner’s pack list. Navigation worked, bike was in the ball park (but the gear set was full of wrong).
Honourable mention goes to the wheels – Hunt Dynamo Superdura with Panaracer Gravelkings in 700x32mm. Not a single puncture, although I’ll permit the tubeless fail after Bulgaria’s biggest pothole…
I was the weak spot. I wasn’t quite prepared enough. Didn’t do enough long/overnight rides, underestimated the elevations and my bike fit was well out – it wasn’t one thing, but lots of things all at once. My mental game wasn’t strong enough, 1200km is a lot of time to yourself and I wasn’t in the mindset to start padding saddle sores with sanitary towels. That’s a young man’s game, frankly.
Serbia. No offence, chaps, but you’re not a great country.
So, a brief list of things that worked and things that did not:
Frame – RTD. Fine. No complaints.
Gearset – Apex 1x (44t, 11-42t). God no. Not enough at the top end saw me grinding away rather than spinning and is probably the biggest factor in my fatigue and consequential issues. Like the big cassette, but will have to consider two cogs up front as I’m just not strong enough.
Wheels – Hunt Superdura dynamo discs with Panaracer 700×32 gravelking SK tubeless. Flawless, even after an almighty bang on a pothole which put a massive great dent in the rim. Had to put a tube in after that but not a single puncture. 1200km including over a 100 of dirt and gravel (plus awful balkan road surfaces) and not one puncture. Not one.
Electrics. SP Dynamo hub powering B&M IQ2 and Secular rear light. For the most part, fine. Let down by my shoddy wiring, so will have to investigate a way to make better looms. If significant climbs(!), can’t rely on having enough power to charge nav kit especially if you’re climbing at night.
Backup battery lights were both Cateye – Volt 800 up front and a rear red. Also bar end lights which were a waste of time as they ended up lighting up my knees.
Primary navigation was a Wahoo Element Bolt. A little bit of a compromise as it can’t route itself, but if you’re not carrying a smartphone these days, are you even human? Unless you’re relying on the unit to re-route you on the fly, I think its perfectly adequate. Plenty of battery life, easy to get a route off Kommoot/RWGPS (but struggles for big routes if you’ve only got Bluetooth). Basemaps are Open Street Maps and reasonably detailed with zoom which can help you get back on track without too much difficulty.
Backup was the Huawei P20 Pro on a quadlock glued to the back of a spigen case. Decent battery life, plenty of navigation options. OSMand+ was my personal choice as you can do all sorts with any old GPX file you throw at it and it’ll work completely offline.
Bike fit. Nope. All the niggles were amplified to the point where I could barely manage three pedal strokes without having to adjust. Neck, shoulders, hands (compressed ulnar nerve on both sides), major saddle sores and a right knee issue. Also a numb big toe, strangely.
Up front, Apidura bar bag and expedition pouch. Carried bivi kit in the bag (it’s only accessible by taking it off the bike) and all the gubbins I needed day-to-day went in the pouch. If the bag could be compressed laterally (and I may have to invest in a strap for that) it would all be spot on.
Alpkit bar bag for charging bits and more gubbins. Alpkit stem bag which was basically a dump pouch. On the one hand, it interfered with pedalling while standing, but on the other hand it was indispensable because you could just shove stuff in rather than mucking about.
Frame bag was a full custom made Alpkit bag. Top had the water bladder in, and I’m a firm convert. Lower had various tools, but it’s not got enough structure so ended up abrading from pedals. Needs a tweak, especially if I’m going to consider a front mech.
Rear bag was Alpkit’s race bag which was good (the tracker pocket on top was spot on) apart from the time it inexplicably folded on itself and fouled the rear wheel…
Helmet was a Kask Mojito X. Good lid, no complaints.
Hat was my TCRNo7 cap 😍, but bugger me is it bad for heat management! I know it’s traditional, but if it’s going under a lid then something a bit more breathable would be nice.
Sungod glasses (with a spare clear lens), non polarised. Love them.
Top was a Rapha merino string vest and the fly knit jersey (because it was half price). My one possible issue is that I think the pink arm band may have been an issue in the notoriously homophobic Balkans. I can’t be sure, but some abuse from drivers did seem a bit more sustained. Equally, they may have simply not liked me for cycling. That aside, a combination that worked very well in the conditions.
Pactimo shorts. Generally comfortable, but the saddle sores are a thing – will need to investigate that issue. Easy to clean as well, after a bout of gastric distress (I won’t elaborate).
Socks were the finest Karrimoor DryMax from sports direct in hi-viz.
DHB Polartec Aplha gilet worn a couple of times, surprisingly warm for its weight.
Alpkit Gravitas waterproof
Shoes were Shimano MTB. Surprisingly a decently wide fit, and SPD cleats were the order of battle given the exciting terrain. No real feet issues at all even in the 40 degree heat. Very much like the boa fastening system.
Bivi kit – Alpkit Hunka bag, cloudbase inflatable mattress. I made a mistake substituting a down jacket for the sleeping bag, I think. The weight saving was miniscule. But all up front in the bar bag.
Toolkit – although my gerber multi tool is relatively heavy, I think it’s worth the weight. Same with the real allen keys rather than a cycling multitool.
The Specialized pump, however, can die in a fire. Horrible thing.
Spares I didn’t use all that many of but better to have them and not need them, etc. These included:
Parktool patches and tyre boots
Spare valve core
Valve core remover
3x chain links
‘Black mamba’ gear cable
Spare dynamo loom + electrical tape
Now the latter was a failure. A crimp gave up in a thunderstorm on day two and I found myself, on three hours sleep and 50km in at 4am, trying to splice a set of connections out of all the cabling and discovering that the tape no longer stuck to anything. This was on a deserted petrol station forecourt when, out of nowhere, a chap dropped his missus off to open up. With a flourish he produced a length of heat shrink and a lighter from the boot of his car and I was up and running. He left me with both and drove off.
Long story short, crimps are shit.
In retrospect I would have half emptied the chain lube as I would never need a full bottle, and possibly just top the tyre sealant up before setting off.
Other misc kit:
Running shorts & t-shirt as off-the-bike clothes, plus a pair of xero shoes sandals for general schlepping about (mainly pre and post ride, tbh)
Anker battery pack for topping stuff up
Two salomon soft flasks, weigh practically nothing and give you an extra half litre of water carriage with no real penalties. Sit happily in the Jersey pockets when full.
Euro USB charger (in hindsight I would have got one without the bright blue led strip…)
Salt-caps and electrolyte tabs. I’m not sure if they had the desired affect, but as severe dehydration or heat stroke was avoided I suspect they probably did. Would be inclined to put them in a spare flask rather than in the main bladder this time.
Amber Solaire sports sun block. Far cheaper than the P20 stuff but just as effective. Only issue was that I missed a spot on the back of my calf which is not usually exposed, but is very exposed on the bike. So the uncovered bit burnt badly while everything else was fine and, being naturally averse to sunlight, I think this is a testament to its efficacy.
First aid kit was mainly paracetamol and ibuprofen with some creams, ungents and plasters. Big pot of Assos chamois cream, for the good it did. Toothbrush and paste, because a good scrub does a lot for making you feel cleaner again.
Baby wipes were a life saver. Proper sized ones, it’s not something I’d like to try and save weight on
Leaving aside the fundamental contact point issues, there’s not a huge amount I’d change. I’d pack another micro USB cable, definitely, and a splitter for the USB c on the phone so I could charge and use headphones.
Water was fine, but nutrition was an issue as the first thing to go in the heat is appetite. No such thing as a meal deal, either. It’s all sweet croissanty type stuff or ingredients so after a while I just started drinking my own weight in Fanta (and because the sugar tax hasn’t caught on it worked out better than it could have done).
I’m not really sure how that can be improved and makes me realise how spoilt for choice we are when travelling in the UK.
Right, decision time. Day 6 has not gone well – technicals, hills, heat and legs that just won’t push. Five hours in and I’ve not even hit 100k.
Doing the numbers, there is no way I’m going to get to brest via the last two remaining mountain checkpoints.
So the plan is to get across the border to Croatia and then scratch. And then try to get home, bike in tow.
Narrator: He scratched in Debrc, Serbia and rode back to Belgrade.
Day 5, 188km so far. Unlike the UK, decent petrol stations are only slowly catching on so you stop where you can.
It’s been a long mileage day, with plenty more to go until another £10 room – if I’d know it would have been that cheap I’d have not bothered with a bivy! But I have it and, if worst comes to worst…
No pictures today, haven’t had time and it’s been fairly flat and uninspiring. The plains are a bit like Norfolk writ large, along with accompanying headwind.
It’s currently 32 degrees, and only just starting to cool down. Getting nutrition and fluids has been a challenge. Lots of Fanta and random drinks full of sugar.
The loneliness is starting to bite now the tail of the race is thinning – Serbia not being in the EU means rationing internet or finding free Wi-Fi (at risk of being political, this is our future as a ‘third country’ when travelling around the EU, and it’s not great). Although my other half is only a whatsapp away, I’ve only had a couple of short conversations with other racers passing by and I’m starting to randomly start blubbing at nothing and everything. The soviet attitude to customer service is starting to grate as well.
They also like their folding cash. Although they have got Tesla on a note, it doesn’t help with me fumbling under the increasingly annoyed gaze of the cashier.
As the CAD invariably says, more to follow if they let me check in late…
MTF: 270km and the oddest hotel room ever. And then I look at what the race leader (cap 66, Fiona, sponsored by Boeing, probably) is putting away and I feel just a wee bit inadequate 😂
So, day 4. Another day missing the mileage target after the parcours saw us route up 30k of gravel climbing. Not the good gravel, either.
Beautiful and remote as the chap who was dancing on his pedals as he sailed passed me pointed out, and if I could have caught up with him they’d have never found the body.
Also nowhere to get any sort of provisions, not even my morning coffee – the whole day was fuelled by a ham sandwich and a croissant.
And the CP closed at 9am, so I’m out of the GC but can still post a finish. 5 days to get to CP3, and as the roads are now considerably improved, something that may be do-able.
Have got another room and intend to start pushing the miles with an early start tomorrow. I have no idea how the leaders do it.
So day two saw me on the remains of the CP1 parcour with possibly the longest climb I have ever done, finishing off with being nearly blown off the top next to the peace memorial.
Massively underestimated the time it would take, so pushed on towards Sofia with yet another endless grind of a climb. At 2230 I called it a night and bivid in a rest area which had both benches and water.
3am alarm, on the road by 0345. Good time until a thunderstorm and associated dynamo gremlins, but now about 40km from Sofia where I will be stocking up on innertubes and, more importantly, finding maccie d.
Didn’t make the border for CP2, got a room
So thanks to a mountain and temperatures of 32 degrees, I’m not quite where I’d like to be at this point. But I’m ahead of the Brompton and I keep leapfrogging the same faces.
Can’t stomach food, but I’ve avoided the worst of the heat exhaustion and should be on course for CP1, possibly even before midnight, once I’ve had a rest