2022 Trans Balkan Race: A Crawl Through the Mountains

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Following her first-place finish in the women’s category at the 2022 Trans Balkan Race, Lael Wilcox put together this reflection that captures some of the beauty she encountered as she pedaled across Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Read it here, paired with a stunning set of photos by Rugile Kaladyte…

Photos by Rugile Kaladyte (@rugilekaladyte)

I haven’t seen water in the past 100 kilometers. No surface water, no spigots, no houses. It’s been a full-day rollercoaster, climbing into the Velebit National Park in Croatia above 1,500 meters with temperatures rising beyond 32°C (90°F). I’m thirsty. Coming over the highpoint, I see a white house with familiar mountain hut markings: maps on signboards and “WC” with an arrow painted on the front. I scan for a spigot or a fountain. I roll my bicycle to the front and a stocky, bald man in a baggy white tanktop appears in the door frame.

Mozda vode?

I hold out my water bottle.

He opens the latch to a square in the ground, revealing a well. The water level is pretty low and there are some bugs on the surface.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

“Vode in the mountains,” he responds. He points back to where I came from and flashes his open hand five times to indicate 15 minutes back.

“I’m going that way,” I point down the road.

He pulls a metal bucket up from the chain out of the well.

He shrugs and points at the water saying, “Okay.”

I fill my bottles.

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

“Beer?”

I laugh and shake my head no.

“Pepsi?”

“Yes, please!”

He goes inside and comes back out with a two-liter bottle of Pepsi and a little plastic cup. He fills it up.

“Thank you!”

He lifts his pointer finger, runs back inside, and comes out with a tiny guitar.

“Music!”

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

While I drink the Pepsi, he starts playing and singing. It’s a short song. I finish and say thank you and get back on my bike.

“Okay!” He smiles and shrugs and I’m back down the road.

The lower I go, the hotter it gets. The track transforms from fast-rolling gravel to rutted, muddy farm doubletrack. There are warning signs with skeletons, indicating landmines. Stay on the road!

2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

I continue past the turn-off to Gospic, the only city in the area. I’m aiming for Checkpoint 1, with the promise of food and a place to sleep. I make it there at 11 p.m., the 12th rider to arrive. There’s a plate of hot pasta waiting for me and bread and cheese and bananas. With no open stores or chance to resupply, I’ve been eating peanuts all day. So good to eat real food!

The race organizer Bea’s mom, dad, and childhood friend are manning the checkpoint.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

After eating, I shower and plug in my electronics. All the beds are taken, so I stretch out on a sofa in the hallway for a three-hour sleep. The couch is pretty short. I pull up a chair for a foot rest. My heart rate is so high that it takes a good half an hour to fall asleep. The rest is still valuable. I meditate and breathe deeply until my mind dims. This is the second night of the Trans Balkan Race.

Above treeline, I’m pedaling the equivalent of a crawl. I’ve been at it for the entire afternoon. The terrain is steep and relentless with large loose rocks and brush. The sky is dark. The views are vast. Two hours before sunset, it couldn’t be prettier.

Cresting the highpoint, I spot a puddle below and try to skid my bike to the other side of the road. I slide out at speed, first feeling the gravel burn across my right knee and shin. I tell myself it just stings. It’ll be okay. I wash it off with a wet wipe before checking out my bike. The right bar-end grip sticks straight up to the sky. Sasy fix. Then, I lift it up to throw a leg over. The handlebars are twisted 45 degrees. Easy to correct. I spin the front wheel. All good. I spin the rear wheel and it sings, sounding like there’s a broken spoke. I check them all. All okay. Must be the derailleur hanger. Bingo. It’s bent straight into the spokes. I wedge my multi-tool into the derailleur bolt with my right hand and try to pull it straight with my left. It works, kind of.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

Back on the bike, I shift into the spokes and have a hell of a time pulling the chain out. My hands are still partially numb from the Arizona Trail ride in April, and it’s hard to get them to work. I tell myself, “I can do this!”

And I do. Over the following days, I shift into the spokes another half dozen times. The solution is to not use the easiest gear. It sucks, but at least it works.

Just before dark, I get my headlamp out and velcro it to my helmet.

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

After a series of buggy and steep rollers, I’m on the real descent. I lose 600 meters in six kilometers and see village lights. I’ve spent the afternoon without water and am relieved to see an old man picking up empty bottles of beer in front of his bar. I go inside and he fills me up. I drink a full bottle on the spot and get another refill. I’ve never tasted anything better. He asks a a series of questions that I don’t understand. All I can do is point down the road and I’m back on my bike.

I ride doubletrack along a canal for the next 10 miles and catch another rider near Livno. It’s Markus from Austria on one of the biggest bikes I’ve ever seen.

“How’s it going?!”

“Good.”

We agree that the last stretch was tough. He asks if I passed Nathalie.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

“Yeah.”

He cruises ahead and then I pass him again before town.

Morton is at the paved intersection, poised with his camera.

“Hello, Markus!”

“It’s me, Lael.”

“Oh!”

Markus catches up and stops to talk with Morton. I tell them I’m going to head down the road to look for a campsite.

“Good luck!”

On the steep climb out of town, I forget about my bent derailleur hanger and shift into my spokes again. It’s a real bugger to get that chain out.

“I can do this!”

And I do. I have to be more careful.

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

Up the hill, I find a spot to lay out my bivvy. I lie on the ground and close my eyes, checking to see how buggy it’ll be. I see bugs crawling on the ground, but nothing in the air. It’ll work. I blow up my sleeping pad, plug in my devices, and slide into my sleeping bag. I set my alarm for four hours and start breathing deeply. It’s the third night of the Trans Balkan Race. I don’t even realize I’ve crossed into Bosnia. There weren’t any signs.

Rolling through a village, a woman with a Mary, mother of Jesus T-shirt holds up her hand to stop me in the road. Her face lights up in a warm smile and she starts asking questions. I think she’s asking where I’m going.

“Mostar,” I say, and point up the steep loose hillside ahead.

“Mostar!” She shakes her head adamantly and starts pointing the other way, giving me directions with her hands. I’m going the wrong way.

“Competition,” I try to explain, but it’s not making sense. We both smile and shrug and I keep going.

2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

Bosnian roads are considerably rougher than their Croatian counterparts. It’s relentless and it’s gorgeous. There are more towns with spigots and more public fountains.

I’m aiming for Checkpoint 2, just south of Mostar, and make it there in the dark just after 9 p.m. I’m the eighth rider to arrive. After a few days in the mountains, it’s a shock to ride in traffic. The checkpoint is a refuge. The grill is fired up and two hammocks hang above the patio table.

One of the volunteers, Mihaela Georgieva, found the event on Facebook and rode her bike, “Boomer,” here from Bulgaria. She’ll be back to race next year.

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

I’ve been dreaming about taking a shower all day. Once clean, I eat everything they give me: pasta, rice, Spanish tortillas, sausage, and salad. I plug in my power bank and sprawl into bed for a three-hour sleep.

I’m up just after 1 a.m. to continue on the fourth night of the Trans Balkan Race.

It’s an all-day grind, rolling up and down to Orlovac Pass. I bought three different kinds of savory pastries in Mostar and they all taste terrible to me. It’s hot as hell and hard to eat. Food makes a world of difference for my headspace. When I eat well, I feel like a million bucks. Today is not one of those days. I find a well in a village to dump a bucket of water over my head and fill up my bottles. I start growling out loud because my hands and feet hurt so much.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

Over the top of the pass, I’m lightheaded and giddy and thrilled when I spot a drink stand among a row of houses. A man and a lady are in the field behind and I call out to them to buy some drinks. The woman motions me in to pick out my own from the cooler: two Cokes, two Fantas, and two peach juices. I drink a Fanta, fill a bottle with Coke, and pack the rest away.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

“Rakia?”

“I’m so loopy, if I drink that, I’ll probably ride off the side of the road.”

“Beer?”

Can’t do it.

I pay for the drinks. They give me change in Bosnian coins. I leave them behind and say goodbye.

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

Over another climb and almost to Popov Most, I set up camp on the fifth night of the Trans Balkan Race on the doorstep of a vacant house. There’s even a water spigot. It’s my best sleep yet.

I see a bear on the road at the base of the climb before the unofficial Montenegro border crossing.

Down the other side, it’s a paved road through rock tunnels along the water to the official crossing. I eat my last handful of emergency peanuts and stop at the roadside cafe, my first chance to buy food in the 30 hours since Checkpoint 2. I get two cheese omelets, two orders of savory pancakes, and two orders of sweet pancakes. I drink a coffee and eat an ice cream while waiting for the food.

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

They ask several times if I really mean two orders, and once it’s ready, I have three huge plates of food.

I point at the plates and pack one hand over the other and point to my bike. “To go?”

“Ah!”

The server brings out styrofoam boxes. That won’t work. I pull a couple of bags out and point at them.

“Ah!”

He comes back with tinfoil and bags. My man!

I pay up and roll 100 feet down the road to wait in line behind the cars for the border crossing. They let me through with no fuss.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

I’m in Montenegro! It’s beautiful!

The riding is steeper, but the roads are smoother.

The sky gets dark. It starts to rain followed by thunder, lightning, and hail. I see a rainbow over Durmitor National Park.

I stop at a road stand for Turkish coffee and Coke.

A father and son are manning the hut. The dad offers me a cigarette. I just laugh.

I’m at the top of the pass at sunset. Rays of light illuminate horses. The world is a good place.

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

It’s a rough dirt descent and then back into the trees. I try to ignore the mosquitoes while putting on my headlamp. They’re vicious.

I hit pavement and a real town with a real supermarket. It’s open!

I buy enough food to get me through the rest of the race: candy bars, dried fruit, gummies, and crackers. I drink kefir and eat a banana and consider going to the hotel for a couple of hours of sleep and to charge my electronics. Ultimately, trying to communicate seems like it might waste too much time and I push on. I’ll have a roadside sleep and then finish this thing.

2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

Pushing my bike up a loose steep slope, I’m giddy with laughter. I’m so tired that everything is funny. I’m having a ball, but I know I’m not making great progress. I stop to sleep. I blow up my sleeping pad and set my alarm for two hours. My power bank is dead. My phone is low on battery. Everything is spent.

I wake up before my alarm because I really have to pee. I drink a Red Bull and pack up in the dark. I ride toward wind turbines with flashing red lights. They squeak like birds.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

After sunrise, I see a loaded bike on a second-story porch. When I pass by, a rider pops straight up in his sleeping bag. It’s Paolo. I wave and keep cruising.

I can taste the finish, but it’s not easy getting there. I hammer the pedals. The storm comes back. The roads are flooding. The route takes an old abandoned road, complete with bushes and trees growing in the middle.

Three more climbs.

Two more climbs.

This is awesome!

  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race
  • 2022 Trans Balkan Race

I’m over the top. I see the water. I stop to put on everything I brought. My waterproof mittens are clipped together and I can’t get them apart. I just wear one. I’m wet and cold and I start singing to keep my mind engaged. Any song I know the words to.

It’s all switchbacks to the harbor, and then it’s over.

2022 Trans Balkan Race

I screech to a halt past Rue and Bea and Luca, the race organizers. Hugs all around. The biggest for Rue.

Four countries, 1,340 kilometers, 27,000 meters of climbing. Heatwaves and thunderstorms.

Finishing time: 6 days, 4 hours, 22 minutes. First woman and sixth place overall. Paolo finishes eight minutes later.

A true adventure on the bike.

Come tour the route or sign up for the race next year. I couldn’t recommend it more. This is my first bikepacking race on a route designed by a woman, and it’s one of the best I’ve ever ridden.

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