Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Knight Riders in Kosovo

In northeastern Alabama, north of Muscadine where a quiet country road crosses Highway 78, there was a rundown biker bar by the side of the road. Outside was an old sign that read “Bikers Welcome.” It became something of a running joke between Jason Perez and me, that someday we would walk in, bikes on our shoulders, and order strawberry daiquiris. As an ex-Marine, it wasn’t like Jason was some willowy figure or hadn’t been in rough places. It is reflected the obvious point that there were two irreconcilable biker cultures in the world, and never the twain would meet.

Well, maybe not. Maybe in Kosovo. After all, there I was on one of the main streets of Prishtina,
riding in the dark just behind four Harleys, their riders in black leather jackets that read “Kosova Free Wolves” on the back. Behind me were about 140 cyclists, from young kids to teenage mountain bikers to old men, blowing whistles and yelling like it was a Mardi Gras rave on wheels. The motorcyclists were escorting us on a 10 km circuit through the city, slicing through traffic and blocking off sidestreets, until we ended up at Prishtina’s “bike-friendly café.”

The bike café was new, set in Dragodan just a short walk from our apartment, and had been opened in late July by its owners Vera and Arlind (“Lindi”). Lindi explained he had built most of the interior, from the brickwork to the tables and chairs. Knowing how most construction takes place in Kosovo (Dragodan is full of it), it was easy to believe. No one could buy this sort of look, not here. It was small, was out of the way, but seemed immediately successful with the locals, even those who didn’t care about the bicycling motifs. It also immediately became the jump-off point for all of our local weekend bike rides- 7:45am, just when the bakery delivered the fresh croissants.

But they HAD advertised it as the “bike friendly café.” so here, one August afternoon last year, the other biking culture appeared. I wasn’t on my bicycle that day, had just dropped by, and they are on the narrow street were ten particularly large motorcycles. In there, seated around a table on the deck, were ten particularly large motorcyclists. They fit in- why not? And considering how much beer they were drinking, why would Lindi even suggest their bikes were the wrong ones? Cyclists are horrible for cafes, quaffing a quick coffee and then off on the road, little else. It was funny seeing the motor gang there, but this being Kosovo, it wasn’t enough.

Lindi and Vera didn’t just want a café, they wanted to change Kosovo culture and attitudes toward cycling. While it was great that “real” cyclist came and parked our bikes at the café, we were considered the crazy ones. To counter that, why not be even crazier? So, in cooperation with a group called Critical Mass, they started organizing group bike rides at night, the idea being to get normal people out on normal bikes, and get them in the streets as a sort of cultural protest/demonstration/celebration.

Last fall, once a week for the chilly nights of October, large groups of cyclists went out in the streets. It was nothing more than a 12km loop through the downtown and back, but like with all things in the Balkans, being quiet and polite doesn’t change things.

The traffic is still crazy, we don’t see the motorcycle gangs that often, but the Bike Café is still about the best place in town.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Take the Fondriest, leave the cannoli

The spring classics in Kosovo

Those of us addicted to cycling struggle through cold winter months, seeing every day our bikes sitting forlornly, our Strava accounts reminding us how far we already are behind annual distance goals, and our summer bike clothes not fitting as smoothly as they should.

I was struggling after returning to Kosovo from New Year’s when the air quality grew to become among the worst on the planet, and for much of January and February I was fighting with constant migraine headaches. I’ve discussed my theory that this winter was worse than most because of a new vein of sulphur-rich coal the local utility started burning, but whatever the case, I was slow to start the new season. We did get out in March, intrepid cyclists braving snow and ice in the low mountains east of Pristina, and by the first race of the season, we had an amazing break of warm weather.

The real sign of moving into the season, for me, is getting onto my designated racing bike. Since I was 21 and suffered from a knee injury for pushing too hard, too soon, in the spring season, I’ve had at least two road bikes to swap between. One has always been an aluminum-framed Trek used for winter riding and geared lower (easier on the knees), the other a carbon-framed bike with full-sized cranks and the sort of gears that take a good deal of power to muscle through. Some years I never left the training bike, but those were times when my goals were much more modest. And occasionally I’ll use the Trek when race conditions are particularly rough.

For Mitrovica in March I was (barely) ready for the Fondriest. My Fondriest TF-3 I bought soon after arriving in Kosovo- it was barely used, and while I’m not the sort to spend time drooling over photos of bikes online, when I saw this one all I could think was, “Damn, that’s sexy.” Italian-built and one of the lightest bikes around (a stripped-down weight of only 1.6kg) and ultra-stiff, it’s like owning an Italian sports car... beautiful, fast, but uncomfortable and a maintenance headache. The first race was mostly flat (by Kosovo standards), so Gjengiz insisted that I take the bike with the most power available.

An unusually warm and clear day for March in Kosovo, it was nonetheless balanced with high winds from the west. Our team drove to the center of south Mitrovica, with Migjen, Gjengiz and our new master’s teammate Jimmy. Dorant was not feeling well and was acting as soigneur. Jimmy was new to the team but had been diligently training on Swift in his garage each morning at 5am throughout the winter, and seemed in better shape than most of us. He also had a new bike, a high-end Bianchi from Italy that had taken months to arrive through Kosovar customs. My plan was to let Jimmy escort Migjen, and I would stick with Gjengiz in case the groups were separated. That way Jimmy and I would be domestiques, but the plan quickly fell apart after the race started.
Winter cycling is serious business

Leaving Mitrovica, the pack of 40 racers headed west, and then turned south to climb over Lubavec. Migjen and Jimmy surged ahead with the lead group, and while I was alright on my slightly higher-than-normal gears, Gjengiz (a natural climber) fell off behind quickly. Toward the top of the climb I saw Jimmy stopping just ahead, who had been dropped from Migjen’s group when his chain fell off, and his misaligned front Campi derailleur had just failed again. Without pausing, I yelled at him to look after Gjengiz, and decided to sprint ahead and chase after Migjen’s group.

The course took a steep, winding descent toward Novolan, where a plateau dropped down onto farmland below and the city of Vushtrii. I had a younger rider in front of me that I was slowly reeling in, bunny-hopping over potholes and railroad tracks, and once I passed him I could see Migjen’s group in the distance, just turning into the Vushtrii town center. The race through the town was not controlled, not really, plus as with all spring classics the downtown had ancient cobblestones. We weaved around parked cars, startled pedestrians, my bike jarring the life out of my arms (the Fondriest was not designed for cobbles), and I did not even notice that Jimmy had given up on Gjengiz and was chasing my wheel. The road led out of Vushtrii onto the highway to Pristina, a flat road past commercial landscapes, where police were keeping side traffic from entering the road just ahead of bikes.

I could see Migjen’s group about 200 meters ahead of me, but in cycling terms that distance can seem like an ocean. Closing on a pack working together, especially in windy conditions, took every gram of energy I had, and I could only focus on that point, creeping up on them meters by meter, oblivious to the traffic– or that I had a teammate right behind me, who was too tired chasing me to help out until the end. The movie Breaking Away captures that moment better than any other visual I’ve seen.
Photo of Indiana, not Vushtrii

Once we caught them, I rested in the back of the pack for a time, but then took over my role to protect Migjen. The pack had a mix of teams, but it was up to Jimmy and I to protect Migjen until the end, even if that meant helping the other teams in the process. Given strong crosswinds, the best tactic for me was to keep up a fast pace, preventing attacks off the front and wearing out anyone behind as much as possible. We biked most of the way back to Pristina, turned around and then raced back up the highway, back through Vushtrii, toward Mitrovica. Our pack stuck together, I kept in the lead as much as possible, and then at the end did the other thing domestiques sacrifice themselves for– while pacing the group I stopped pedaling, knowing that most of the guys behind would do likewise for a few seconds, giving Migjen the chance to jump ahead in the sprint. Migjen took second in the end, but I had a hard time explaining to others that my time (two seconds behind the leaders) was intentional. I was not a sprinter myself, and in any case was too tired to attack the rest of the peloton. Poor Gjengiz, dropped off the back in high winds on flat roads (his worst conditions) dragged in some time behind us. But overall, it was a good day.
Migjen, me, and Jimmy at the race finish

I then dropped off from cycling and any sense of fitness for weeks, as I headed to Egypt. Almost two weeks of academic conference, Nile River archeological visits and endless food.
When I returned to the bike weeks later, I felt as if I had gained 8 kilos. I forced myself right onto the hard training routes from Pristina- Marec and Kamenice, and yet was hardly up to my previous fitness by the time the Prizren race came around on April 21.

Prizren city center
Like the previous race, April 21 dawned sunnier and warmer than the previous cold, blustery weeks
leading up to it. Four racers, this time with the accomplished runner Albion instead of Jimmy, piled into Rexha’s small car and headed to the city of Prizren. The last race there had been cold and rainy, and my spirits were no better than on that day. I had hardly slept, was feeling groggy, and was imagining getting dropped early on the longish, 110km course. The center square of Prizren is still largely medieval, with a communal fountain, cobbled streets, and a castle overlooking the town. We usually start from Prizren to head into the Sharr Mountains that loom above the city, but this time I was told we would have another largely flat race, and again I had brought the Fondriest. I had hardly touched that bike since Mitrovica, and could only imagine finding out that the route was indeed mountainous, or had a typical hilltop finish. I didn’t even manage to get a coffee before the start.

The peloton headed out to the edge of the city for a neutral start, and the first line of cyclists were lined up for a sprint start. When the whistles blew they didn’t start out too quickly, but the first part of the race was a constant series of surges and attacks off the front. While I ignore most of those and try to keep a constant pace, the attacks that day were quickly wearing, and I told my teammates I couldn’t keep up if the attacks didn’t stop. Still, I carved out time to take a selfie, despite the speed and constant danger of potholes. I found myself trailing a number of times, though at least on the first climbs I managed to stay with my teammates. The route followed much the same route as in October, only turning off to head toward Gjakova before the larger climbs hit. But the Gjakova road had its own series of climbs– the first was not so bad, but on the second I saw the peloton draw away from me ahead, while at the same time I heard Rexha calling from the team car, offering me a bunch of bananas. While I didn’t want them, I understood my role was to stuff them into my jersey and take them up to my teammates. I wasn’t sure I could even do that. I had to slow on the climb to grab the food, and was then caught in a series of cars that were impatiently being kept behind the peloton by police. Finding no room on the right curb and having to slow for traffic, I took to the left lane and just started passing cars as quickly as I could.
Me, Gjengiz and Migjen

I caught the peloton again just as we entered Gjakova, whipping through a roundabout and headed back out on the road toward Prizren again. While we’d had a tailwind on the first part of the race, now we faced a stiff headwind, and the diminished peloton couldn’t decide whose responsibility it would be to take the lead and work into the wind. KC Trepca was doing work unhappily, and I was trying to keep my teammates from going to the front. That would be my job, assuming I had the energy, and when would I start? We’d been told the course was 110km long, but no one knew for certain, and we were only at around 70km. Our pace had dropped from 40kph average to just over 30, and the lack of cooperation meant we kept getting slower. Frustrated, I jumped in front, only to have three cyclists immediately attack, then slow down to 25kph. Then they attacked again, and slowed.
Racing next to Dragan (in black)

I shouldered past them, impatient. Like in the Ferizaj race last year, it was easier in my mind to establish a faster pace into the wind, and keep attacks from surging ahead. I would only do it for a while, I told myself, since we still had some 30km to go, and no one knew the end terrain. After about ten minutes my impatience wore off, and I looked behind to see who would take over for me.

Only Gjengiz was there.

The rest of the peloton was already almost out of sight behind us, and Gjengiz shouted, “We have a good gap!”

Crap. I’d started a breakaway too soon, and without even knowing it. We raced through the village of Pirane, over the Drin River canyon, and I figured, hell, might as well try and see if I can set up Gjengiz for something.

Now, nothing against my teammate, but as I’ve written before, Gjengiz is not meant for flat roads and wind. Even staying on my rear wheel his heart rate was averaging 170, and he could do little to help. Like our training rides into Shkoder in Albania, I had to keep up the pace myself, as long as I could.

We turned a sharp corner, keeping the chase group from seeing us. Later I learned that the peloton wouldn’t chase us. Migjen was the real threat and was still with them, Gjengiz’s breakaways never worked, and that other guy was a crazy old American. While the Serbian rider Dragan tried to rally the group to chase, they argued that there was plenty of time. But time was exactly what I was afraid of.
Breaking away

My legs were burning with averaging 300Watts and 37kph into a stiff wind, over rolling terrain and toward the village of Krajk, where the October race had ended. Yet instead of being directed up the final climb as before, we turned back onto the final October road in reserve direction, back north toward Lukinaj. This was terrifying. Just past Lukinaj was Kushnin, where we both remembered a fast descent– meaning this time it would be a steep climb. “I don’t have the legs for any climbs,” I said as I looked behind me and saw a flash of red. I looked behind again.

“Crap, they’ve caught us.”

The peloton was finally bearing down on us, and I remembered this scene so well from watching professional and Olympic races, the helpless feeling of seeing breakaway leaders like Mara Abbott (2016 Olympics) get swallowed and quickly passed. Gjengiz and I sat up on our bikes and waited for the rush of cyclists around us, when we’d struggle to keep up.

Except it didn’t happen. Dragan pulled up to me, and I joked, “Hey, can’t you give an old man any fun?” but the rest stayed behind. I didn’t know what their thinking was- likely everyone was dreading the Kushnin climb and had expended energy in the chase. They were collectively catching their breath, rather than pressing the advantage.

Meaning I was still in front when I came around a corner and saw the final flags 200 meters in front of me.

Now, I wasn’t being modest when I said I wasn’t a sprinter. I still have some sprint KOMs, but those are from seated sprints, long leads instead of 1000-Watt explosions of power. Yet there I was sprinting, not knowing why I was not being passed. In a bike sprint, the lead person never wins, since the cyclist behind has the advantage of drafting, and can use that extra 30% of energy to sweep around the lead. Professional teams designate sprint lead-outs, whose only job is to help get the real sprinter into position. Someone finally tried passing me at the line, but I took it by a hair. Well, I’m sure I did, though in typically Kosovo fashion, even the finish line wasn’t painted straight. But it didn’t matter- all the elite riders were behind me, and I had just surprised everyone, especially myself.

We had the usual post-race lunch and awards ceremony, rode a short recovery ride the next day (though Gjengiz attacked a new mountain road, and Albion went and ran five miles or something crazy), and now that it's the last week of classes at AUK/RIT I'm swamped with work again. Sunday was a great memory, and shows how unpredictable bike races can be-- I still had an extra banana in my pocket when I finished.

Mitrovica race (Strava)
Prizren race (Strava)

(Last three race photos credit to KC Trepca)

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Prizren through the gravel and mud

Gjengiz threading the road furniture outside of Ballaban, Kosovo
Me: “I should probably take the Trek today.”
Gjengiz: “That's a good idea.”

That short exchange over Viber didn’t bode well. The Trek I was referring to was an aluminum framed 1.2 (upgraded to 105 components), or my “winter training bike.” I wasn’t supposed to be using it in races, and Gjengiz would always be quick to insist that I take one of my lighter carbon framed bikes to a race. But Sunday was bad. I had woken up at 6 AM to see it was pouring rain outside, plus after an incredibly warm autumn, the temperature that Sunday morning had plunged into the single digits Celsius. It was one of those Sunday mornings when the best instinct of a human being is to get back into bed and curl up with the cats and a cup of tea. Voluntarily doing a road race in these conditions, gray skies with high winds and sheets of rain, was really not what I wanted to be doing that day. But this was the last race of the season, and no one wanted to let their teammates down.

Fall was always one of my favorite times for cycling. My first year as a serious cyclist (many years ago), two of my favorite rides were metrics centuries through the autumn leaves in Wisconsin, with crisp blue skies and the shockingly vivid reds of sugar maples. This year in Kosovo was little different, save for the absence of sugar maple trees. I could finally go out biking without fighting against the oppressive heat, I could finally put on multiple layers, including and especially the more expensive and finally tailored Castelli thermal jerseys. The autumn weather for Kosovo was srtangely warm, with not a single evening frost into late October in daytime highs in the low 20s C. Our local cycling group (after much online grumbling) made a slight concession for rides to start at 8:45 AM, but only rarely this fall did we have to worry about rain or wet roads.

Well, until the last race. The race was scheduled to leave out of Prizren, an ancient city of some 85,000 people, located at the base of the Shar Mountains and the entrance to Prevalla canyon. The downtown of the city is one of the few in Kosovo that has preserved some semblance of history, with small-market squares and cobblestoned streets. For cycling, it is typically the starting point for rides up to the Prevalla summit, some 30km and 4000ft (1200m) of climbing away. But there is also a relatively new climb up to Jabllanica and then Dragash, first discovered with Jen in September of 2017, and more recently ridden with Slovenian friends last month. For bike racing, though, we’ve often taken alternative routes, and Sunday was similar in charting a route not into the mountains, but toward Xërxë, Bishtazhin, and Krajk. A relatively short course of 60 km, the profile showed one major climb in the middle (though not even categorized), and a hilltop finish at the end.

Looking down on Prizren from the Jabllanice road
Our small team assembled at Rexha’s shop at 8am in the rain, though it took some cajoling to get our soigneur out of bed. I was surprised to discover that Rexha would not only be accompanying us, but actually racing that day (at 58, that’s impressive). Gjengiz and Dorant were there as well, both overly tall for cramming into the car with four bikes. As usual, we stopped at a diner in the downtown for breakfast, donner sandwiches on offer, which I’ve a hard time stomaching before a race. Then the one-hour drive to Prizren, again through rain. We arrived an hour early, a nice cushion compared to the frantic starts we’ve had at times, except in the cold and rain I didn’t want to stand around outside. I had packed a wide assortment of winter rain gear, and after some gauging finally settled on a long-sleeved Helly Hansen base layer, a summer jersey over that, and then a short-sleeved Gabba jersey with thermal arm warmers and neoprene gloves. I grabbed an espresso from a nearby cafe, but it did little to help, either with warmth or my flgagging energy levels.

Ferat Durguti & Rudina Baku
"Shit, look who's here." 

The person being referred to was Ylber Sefa, an Albanian pro racer and national champion, a name we knew well from seeing him on the top of Strava leaderboards.

"If he's here, why the f*ck are the rest of us racing?"

Both Gjengiz and Dorant separately asked me that, and they had a point. Ylber was a class above the rest of us, quite literally, though doubtless the race organizers were happy to have him there. In his national champ jersey and race number of 1, he was easy to pick out.

But it was another Albanian that caught everyone's attention, a young female named Rudina Baku. To my knowledge, no woman had raced in Kosovo before, though I had joked I wanted my friends Jen and Linell to do so. But here she was, with a U23 race number and about to mix it up with the guys. (Spoiler alert: she beat many of them, including Dorant.)

Gjengiz and me at the start
As usual for Prizren races, we assembled in the small circle where a spring water well was located, and then after various whistle blows and Albanian language warnings about road hazards, we rode in a neutralized pack several miles to the edge of town. I could tell from the beginning that the weather would be a factor, and this was precisely why I had brought the Trek. Not only was it a robust frame (meaning if I crashed, I could worry about myself and not the frame), it had Vittoria pavés, the distinctive green-sidewall tires designed specifically for wet, slick roads. It was a good deal heavier than the Fondriest, but the Italian Fondriest with its super-light frame and hollow bottom bracket, was not at all meant for the rain and dirt. I often joked that even when it looked cloudy out, I had to take apart the crankset and regrease it. (OK, not everyone will get that joke.)

Unlike the Ferizaj race in August, there was no sprinting from the line this time. Everyone kept a fairly easy (if still fast) pace out of the city, surging at times to prevent breakaways, but doubtless I was not the only one to notice that Ylber was hiding in the pack, probably waiting for the first climb to attack. My glasses were plastered with sand and grit and mud from the early minutes, and after a time only my head (which had a Sealskinz waterproof cap) and feet (with bright yellow rain booties) were dry- though those were perhaps the two most important things. 

The first 10km were false flat climbs, after an initial descent through muddy roads and past confused-looking drivers who the police had forced off the road. Rexha had disappeared off the back early on, Dorant was barely hanging on during the surges, and Gjengiz was with me in the middle of the pack. It had stopped raining, but road spray was soaking us all, and my legs were beginning to feel cold- though on my thighs, where the thermal Oomloop shorts were soaked with water, not where my calves were exposed. I was struggling a bit with the sprints, my bike felt sluggish, and I just didn't have much energy that morning. Despite being a short distance, I just wanted to finish the course, and was not looking for glory of any sort. Riding in the rain in Kosovo is treacherous in the best of conditions, as water hides potholes and roads turn to slime, so a significant amount of concentration was spent just avoiding pitfalls and other cyclists.

Not a photo from the race, but what it felt like- just add potholes and mud
The first climb approached, a short but steep segment, and as expected a sprint began up the slope. I unwisely chose a line along the right side of the road, and was cut off by a rider from Trepca, forcing me to slam on the brakes. By the time I got my momentum going again, I had lost the lead groups. I passed Rudina and a few others I would not see again until after the finish, and took the left hairpin turn up the longer Smaq climb. That climb had been used during the June Children's Ride, but here it was a gradual but seemingly inexorable slog through wet, grey roads- the sort that often looked like they were flat, were it not for the computer showing that the elevation kept rising. I stayed in my big chainring, but found myself alone. The winding roads could not show much of the road ahead, though for a short while I could spot a small knot of riders some 500m in front, followed closely by an ambulance. But as a group, they had the advantage, and I simply could not catch them, instead having to keep anyone from catching me from behind.

The road tipped up to over 15% for a short distance in the village of Gërçinë, and then shot back down like a roller coaster. Even my pavé tires were slipping on the wet sand and grit, though I figured I had more confidence in the corners than most. The descent (not my specialty) was winding and rutted with potholes, and I recall myself thinking, "Well, at least I don't see any bodies on the side of the road." Until I did. 

It was a series of sharp switchbacks, and the first thing I noticed were the blue flashing lights of police cars and ambulances. I could only slow enough to see someone sitting, dazed, on the side of the road, surrounded by police and medics-- as it was not someone from my team, I kept going. It was windy, and with no protection from other riders, I was slowing and becoming discouraged. I did not see another rider until the village of Kushnin, where an Albanian master's rider was stopped looking at his rear derailleur. He (Petrit) would catch me some distance later, and that was motivation enough for me to speed up and keep him in my sights (some 20m behind) right until the end. He later told me that he had crashed and lost contact with his group.

Relieved at the finish
We wound through more villages, bunny-hopping over potholes and speedbumps, the road flatter and with the occasional distance marker painted on the asphalt... "20km....10km...5km." The route Gjengiz had created suggested a longer hilltop climb, but with only a few kilometers to go I was unsure if that would happen, or if the road markers were wrong. Finally, we saw a group of people standing on the road, one race official flanked by a dozen children, all frantically waving for a hairpin corner to the right, and a sharp climb up the last 1200 meters. The finish was nothing special, a cluster of cars, support teams and race officials, who after a few minutes told us to head back down the hill to a restaurant. As is tradition with Kosovo bike races, they served us a meal at the end, this time a large hunk of dryish meat that I couldn't hope to get down, so I picked at the fries and waited to find my team. I had seen Rudina climbing the last hill as I descended, so about five minutes behind me, Dorant and Rexha were somewhere behind her, along with small groups of junior and masters riders.

Rudina & Ylber taking category wins
As expected, Ylber had taken the win quite convincingly, but some of the Albanian masters riders had been extremely strong and finished ahead of me. I had expected to see a group of Macedonian masters I'd raced against two years ago, including Alen Denkovski, but he later said that with the horrible weather they had canceled at the last minute. After the podium medals were handed out, they gave out a few certificates of recognition, including to Rexha (likely as the oldest racer), and I texted to Tracy that there were no 'fastest American' awards that day. Except then someone called my name, and I did receive an award, which the local clubs sometimes do if for no other reason (?) than wanting the sole American racer in the country to write nice things about them.

Racing and cycling (both) in Kosovo are family affairs, much like the rest of Kosovo culture. With that comes the acrimony common to families, the fights and jealousies and putting up with others because (after all) we're family and that's what you do. The flip side is that everyone looks out for others, and the harsh Type-A personalities present in so much racing elsewhere seems to drop off here. People get congratulated just for finishing races, and perhaps for good reason- not only can the courses be treacherous, but there are few other rewards available. To get out of bed on a cold and rainy Sunday, drive across the country to ride in the rain while slipping out on sharp cornered descents, we tend to ride not for ourselves, but for the guy (or gal) next to us. I've experienced the cold shoulders of racers after an event in the US, but here, even if there are sore feelings it's
"Crazy American" award

The fact that it was the last race of the season seemed a bit of a let-down, especially since the weather had finally closed in on an otherwise warm and dry fall. Riding in Kosovo in the off season is not easy- mountain roads don't lend themselves well to road bikes. I put heavy CX tires on the Trek and can still make it perhaps 16km outside of town before the ice closes in. I learned my first year here that trying to pathfind farther than that can end up stranding a person in less than desirable circumstances (I once rode a 95km loop through the mountains in January with a cracked rib- perhaps the dumbest thing I'd ever done on a bike). Uta had charted out a flat road course to Mitrovica and back along back roads that stayed clear all winter, provided one didn't mind returning home covered in mud, and likely I'll be taking that road soon enough. 

We drove back to Prishtina, stopped at one of Kosovo's posh petrol stations for coffee and tea, and once back in the city rode home just as the rain started again. With university classes back in session I have much less time for riding, and my goal of riding 10000km for the year is perhaps slipping out of reach-- but I'll keep trying.
Road furniture on the "prison wall" climb toward Batllava Lake.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Tour de Ferizaj (or: the life of a domestique)

While still recovering from the Tour des Stations two weeks ago, I couldn't shirk my duties as a member of the Team Prishtina cycling team, especially as one of the heads of the Kosovo cycling federation specifically said he wanted to see me in his hometown. It's always been a bit a shock here in Kosovo to be known to everyone, unlike the races in the US and Canada where I would be an anonymous rider lost in the pack. Ferizaj promised to be a flat race, which was highly unusual in a country where races are typically nothing but steep mountain climbs, and in fact most of the riders were nervous at the idea of such a profile.

German & US troops on exercises outside Ferizaj
I still find that to be intensely funny. Three years ago I remember watching the Tour of Rotterdam on TV, and thought it was one of the most boring races I'd ever seen. Tabletop flat, the racers all stuck together past ships and industrial areas, until a sprint at the very end. I've also tended to find the flat stages of the Tour de France fairly boring, save for the more recent years when cobbles were inflicted upon the teams. So this race was interesting in that I was about the only rider with experience riding and racing on a flat course, and to hear others say it was extremely difficult always strikes me as odd.

Racing in Kosovo is a lesson in uncertainty. The races are sponsored by local teams, who have to raise money for the event and can rarely get sponsorship - the races aren't televised (the last one to be so was a race out of Pristina- my first- three years ago), and there are inexplicable mounds of red tape even when a sponsor is available and willing. So often we only hear about a race days in advance, and then only know what city it will be in. Ferizaj gave us a week's notice and some idea of the course profile ("flat") which was an unaccustomed luxury.

Ferizaj is a sleepy city of about 40,000 people, not far south of Pristina and nestled up against the eastern edge of the Sharr Mountains. In many ways Ferizaj is a military town, both the location of Camp Bondsteel and most US forces in the country, as well as the location of the Kosovo Security Forces (KSF) academy. Most people in Pristina probably know the city as a location along the road to Skopje, Macedonia.

Rexha and old-school cycling
The Sunday race schedule is often the same. We all bike downtown to the shop of Rexhep Baliu, coach of the team and an icon of Yugoslav racing in the 1970s. Despite slowing down, Rexha is still a tough bird, and rode with us on the unforgiving Kamenica Loop when I first starting cycling in Kosovo three years ago. As with the race in April, Rexha didn't come with us, leaving support to our team soigneur Kushtrim. A strong sprinter, Kushtrim had given up racing to support the team, and even on training rides took on the role, making sure everyone had food and water. The others racing that way were Dorant, a young and new racer, Gjengis, a climbing specialist, and Migjen, a more all-around racer.

So for those not too familiar with bike racing, the roles on a team may need some explanation. A soigneur ("swanny") is a French term for "caretaker"- the person who looks after the riders and tries to anticipate needs. Professional teams have dedicated people for this role, and some of the behind-the-scenes videos by teams like Orica give a sense of how it works (in one spring race in Italy, the Orica swannies brewed hot tea in the water bottles instead of water).

Among the cyclists, riding styles are also described by French terms. A grimpeur is a climbing specialist, usually a tall and slightly built cyclist like Gjengis, who is not held down by gravity when on steep climbs. But like other climbers, grimpeurs often have trouble on flat stages where power is more important than weight ratios. In contrast comes a rouleur, who specializes more in flat and windy terrain- and probably describes our friend Simon Bishop.  A puncheur is a rider who does well on hilly terrain with short, sharp climbs, often seen in one-day classics in Europe. This probably describes me best, as I had to ride in this style during my Madison years. That makes me a fish-out-of-water in Kosovo, and an unlikely cyclist for the Tour des Stations, but riders like myself have to expand a bit. On any given race, teams usually give priority to certain riders according to their abilities, and designate certain cyclists as the leaders, or favorites for the race. Those is a supporting roll are known as domestiques.

For Ferizaj, we were a bit confused. Migjen has often been the leader on the road, but having trained little this summer, either he or Gjengis could do well if protected. Regardless, it was my role to act as domestique, or the rider who protects and works for them until just before the end. On the Tour de France, domestiques are sometimes hidden in plain sight on flat roads, where they tire themselves out on the front of the peloton (the large group), or in mountain stages where they help pace the leader until falling behind from exhaustion. In cycling, drafting behind someone else can reduce wind resistance and power output by 30%, which is a huge benefit over long distances. Well, except for the person doing the work in front. This GCN video explains fairly well.

At the start
We drove to Ferizaj in Rexha's ancient Opel Kaddet, a car that could barely make 80kph and where
the speedometer was broken, requiring using Gjengis's Garmin GPS from his bike to indicate speed. The race started from outside the sadly dilapidated Bill Clinton sportshall, with the race numbers being handed out in the nearby gas station cafe (for all its other problems, Kosovo has the world's poshest gas stations). Some thirty of us lined up in the street, and at 10am we were set off.

Normally bike races over long distances start slowly, allowing cyclists to warm up. But this was a sprint from the first whistle, cyclists surging ahead at full speed. That surprised me, because it really wasn't smart. Cyclists tend to stick together in the peloton to save energy, and repeated sprints over the first few miles only tired everyone out, including and especially those starting and following the sprints. They also tend not to work well. Even a small group of cyclists can maintain a fast pace that easily catches ("reels back") anyone sprinting off the front of the group, unless they are exceptionally strong. I've learned from experience in Kosovo to ignore most breakaway attempts. The riders seems to do them in what I risk stereotyping as a Kosovo style of racing-- meaning that as much as I love Kosovo, it is not a country of strategists, instead being populated by people who act on emotion.
Tête de la Course
Bike racing is a strange sport in that it requires strategy, and these strategies don't necessarily make sense to an outsider. Although there are teams, only individuals win in the end, yet finishing first requires cooperating with other teams and other competitors. The racers in Ferizaj kept attacking perhaps out of instinct, perhaps because without mountain climbs it wasn't clear where they should attack, and the pace of the main group kept fluctuating between 30mph back to 18mph (50-30kph). Only 7km from the start I saw Gjengis at the front, and knew he shouldn't be there- out of frustration I took over, and then upped to a constant pace of 27mph (43kph). That kept anyone from trying to sprint off the front, and was also intended to kick stragglers off the back (though I may have accidentally dropped our teammate Dorant). Being on the front at that pace takes a lot of work (technically, around 300 watts), but I stayed there as long as I could before slowing somewhat.

Predictably, as soon as I slowed, the Ferizaj team kept attacking again, with three riders from the Trepca team helping to catch them when they did. This kept repeating itself time and again-- a black jersey or two would sprint from my left, and within a minute or two we would have caught them again. I kept wondering what the strategy was-- the team coach kept yelling from the chase car-- but I couldn't quite figure it out. In one way, though, it did start to have an effect. In riding the Tour des Stations two weeks earlier, my knee pain had forced my legs to find strength to compensate, and in the past weeks I've had soreness in small leg muscles I had never felt before. By mile 30 (50km) of the Freizaj race, my right groin and thigh began hurting again, forcing me to slow.
Ferizaj roads, with Sharr Mountains in the distance
Eventually we were reduced to a group of 8- three riders from Trepca, the three of us from Prishtina, an acerbic Serbian cyclist, and for a time one other. We had seen two riders from Ferizaj attack and get ahead of us, and then at one point they disappeared. It was never clear what happened to them- Gjengis's guess was they went off course- but for a time I thought we were chasing two riders, and thus competing for third place. As a chase group it was important that we worked together, but Kosovo riders get very little experience riding in group or especially pace lines. It was a mess. The Serb kept yelling in a mix of English, Albanian and Serbian, "It's a pace line! We take turns! How f*cking difficult is that to understand?!" I realized that all the evening group rides in the US and Canada are important training, the sort that gets lost in small, mountainous countries.

Gjengis, Migjen & I
As with all Kosovo races, the road is not really controlled. Police stand at intersections to prevent cross traffic, when possible, but on the road itself the story is a bit more complicated. The lead riders get a police escort, and once there was a breakaway we had a referee's car ahead of us. When going through towns, the car would lay on its horn desperately, forcing other cars off the road in time for us to sweep behind. On the main roads, the police would drive in the left-hand lane, forcing cars off the road in a form of chicken. And most of the roads on this race were quite busy-- in the mountains roads can have sparse traffic, but the flat valley between Ferizaj and Pristina contains two-lane highways, another reason cyclists rarely practice on them. Some people would cheer us on as we raced past, but as I've mentioned before, mostly children. Kids in Kosovo are the biggest cycling fans.

With ten miles to go, my right leg went from painful to restrictive. I simply couldn't maintain the same pace, and signaled for Migjen and Gjengis to finish without me. This is also typical for a domestique to drop off near the end, and as one Trepca rider tried to break away, his two teammates dropped back and stayed with me. The front never got that far away, though- by the end they were perhaps only 400 meters ahead on the road, where in the final sprint Migjen took 2nd place and Gjengis 3rd.
Gjengis receiving his certificate- no podium girls in Kosovo
Each race ends with a formal lunch, and awards are given as certificates, even to the police and paramedics. Kosovo cycling is divided into age groups: Cadet for 15-16 years old, Junior for 17-18, U23 for 19-23, Elite for 24-40, and Masters for old guys like me. I sometimes receive an award for participating, and we joke that it's either for my age (I'm usually the only master's rider), or the fact that I'm the American. It is a bit strange that everyone I race against is 15-30 years younger than me. I thought of the line from Martin Sheen's character in Apocalypse Now, "Airborne?  He was thirty-eight years old.  Why the f*ck would he do that? . . .The next youngest guy in his class was half his age. They must've thought he was some far-out man humping it over the course. I did it when I was nineteen, it damn near wasted me." Funny thing about cycling, though, is that endurance and pain management come with age. If it hadn't been for the muscle pull, I wasn't tired at all by the end. It was gratifying to get thanks for the officials and coaches, who said I was a "train" and never even looked tired. Of course, everyone knows who I am, and likely thinks I'm a bit crazy.
Gjengis (right) and me on a spring training ride
Personally, I had needed to push myself. The Tour in Switzerland wasn't only an accomplishment, it completely threw off my body chemistry, and the satisfied fatigue of a hard bike ride was gone for me-- the bar had been placed too high. I've been frustrated these past two weeks that cycling did nothing for me. The hills seemed too small, the effort too little, and I could rarely push harder on climbs because the muscle soreness still hadn't gone away. So for me, a flat race was perfect. I felt comfortable, could help my teammates, and felt a bit better by the time was returned to Pristina.

I hope that bike racing grows in Kosovo. It's tough, what with few bikes and no spare parts, and little money to support teams. But the riders are enthusiastic, and the terrain is really perfect for cycling, even in such a small country. I keep hoping that all the kids we see on the side of the road, the ones waving and cheering us on, will think bikes are worth trying.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Hell was on Saturday, but took place in heaven

Valais, Switzerland, recon of the road to Chamoson
When I first started cycling as a teenager, I remember seeing the iconic 1977 documentary Sunday in Hell, exploring the mud-cobbles-blood of the infamous Paris-Roubaix race. That storied race, over cobbled roads in the north of France and Belgium, has always been hypnotic for its savagery, violence, and the lingering question, “Why do people do this?”

For Erich, my best friend and cycling partner, there were events that transcended even the crazy goal
Erich & I in Dillon, Colorado, summer 1987
we’d set for ourselves in the summer of 1987, of riding an English century. A full century, 100 miles or 160km, is the cycling equivalent of a marathon, and that first year we finished the Wolf River Century in Wisconsin through thunderstorms and constant headwinds. I was 14 at the time, really too young for an endurance event, let alone on a hefty steel 10-speed, and I could barely think of anything tougher on a bike. But they existed. There were metric doubles (200km, or 125 miles), the first of which I attempted in ‘88 and only failed because of a broken collar bone. And then there were double centuries, 200 miles or 320km, organized by small bands of endurance cyclists in the French/Italian Audax tradition, which was the cycling culture Erich’s dad had inculcated into us. I rejected the USCF road racing tradition, the idea of cycling tight circles in a pack around an industrial park– for us, the honor was in testing limits. The idea of a double was mythical, the cyclists who completed them unknown heroes, and we joked about riding one together one day.

After Erich died in 1989, he never left my thoughts when I was cycling. I lacked any real partner or cycling goals for years after his death, but his memory inspired me to ride a real double, my only worry being that there was nothing AFTER that short of Race Across America (RAAM)– and due to a traumatic brain injury from a bike crash when I was 19, I could not risk any ride that involved severe sleep deprivation. But I eventually found real cycling partners in Jason Perez and Jennifer Whytock, met ultraendurance riders like Betty Jean Jordan and Julie Gazmarian, have a new cycling family in Kosovo, and found new one-day distance limits on the Dublin 420K two years ago. Where does one go from there?

To Switzerland, apparently. After my injuries and illnesses in June, I wanted to force myself to train hard for an event that would test my limits, force me to try a different form of ultraendurance ride. I’d seen descriptions of the Look-Marmotte gran fondo series in Europe, and was enchanted by the idea of riding more in the Alps, especially since it was a short flight from Kosovo. I had done two short rides out of Geneva last October during a business trip, and it was a shame not to try for more. I chose the inaugural Tour des Stations in Switzerland, which boasted an ultra course of 220km and 7400 meters of climbing, almost the height of Mt Everest from sea level. The distance was no problem, but the total elevation was crazy- more than twice what tough races like the Cheaha Ultra, Colorado Triple Bypass, or 6 Gap Century had, or twice my most climbing recorded in one day in the Balkans. Before leaving Kosovo I rode a 204km route that had 3000m of climbing, and even that was an effort.

Tour des Stations elevation profile- 10 cols, not for the faint of heart

Switzerland, like the rest of Europe, had been in the grips of an incredible heatwave this summer, and I was lucky it broke the day I landed in Geneva, with rainy and cool skies. Instead of the 34C days they had been experiencing for months, August 11 was forecast for 28C and no rain. I took the train to the starting town of Martigny, arriving two days early. Martigny was only 40km down the road from Montreaux, a place I'd known well enough for my time spent at the Caux Palace discussing environmental security, and on the train I could see the palace high on a hill above the lake. Martigny itself lay in the next valley, a long, gently rising flat with mountains towering above on either side, and ultimately ending after 140km at Furka Pass.

I put the bike back together in the hotel room, and realized to my horror that my GPS computer was
gone. I had mislaid it before, as in April I'd forgotten it before the Athens 320K, but in that case I was with a group and my Trek5200 I keep in the US has a backup Cateye slim computer. The Scott bike I was using had nothing else, and I dreaded the idea of trying to complete an endurance ride without knowing distance. Most likely my Wahoo GPS had been stolen from my luggage in Pristina, where in trying not to forget to pack it, had not been careful to bury it deep in my bag. On Friday morning I ran to the Bike 'N Joy bikeshop in Martigny, where I bought a simple electronic computer, programming it in metric for once (not my usual style) to match the race distance markers. And while the race organizers had provided a top-tube cheat sheet listing all the aid stops along the way, it was printed in a small font that was difficult to read and had no climb profile information, so I created a somewhat cruder version of my own.

The start was at 6:30am from the edge of Martigny. I had scouted the first 20km on my bike the day before, which were fast, flat roads to the start of the first climb in Chamoson. The start was only one kilometer from my hotel, and the roads still dark and cold at 6am as I left. I admit I was apprehensive at the start, and sat inside the cafe watching other cyclists arrive. Almost all the ultra riders I could see were Swiss or French (from their race numbers), everyone had high-end bikes but of a classical type, with no disc brakes or fancy GPS computers with colored screens (either of which would just be extra weight).
15 minutes before the start- I rarely look this jittery before a ride (Sportograph photo)
At 6:15 I took a place comfortably three-quarters back in the field, and watched with some amusement as a photo drone was attacked by a murmuration of starlings.

Race start and sunrise over the Valais canton.
We started off at 6:35 to the sound of an air horn and roar of escort motorcycles. The pack of some 200 riders flew down the first road at 40+kph, into a sunrise over the Valais valley. I really did not know what to expect, seeing and hearing everything in French and surrounded by a bunch of extremely fit people- most of whom knew the roads better than I did. The ride into the sunrise was exquisite, doubtless the most beautiful race start I’d ever seen, even more than the Door County Century in 1994. The valley was flooded with light as we started the climb to Ovronnaz, which I knew from the race profile was the steepest climb of the day. Averaging 11-12%, the climb was relentless for over 2800ft (850m) vertically, and many of the riders were spending much time out of the saddle. It wasn't a difficult climb by itself- I had done similar gradients and elevation in Albania in preparation for the ride, but I knew many more were coming.
First climb to Ovronnaz, steepest of the day
I put my vest back on for the descent, a fairly quick one back into Chamoson. Like the other descents
of the day I was taking it more slowly than the others, and I envied their confidence in flying around corners, sure in the knowledge that the roads would be banked properly, with no potholes, gravel, or Albanian drivers passing into the inside lane while going around a tractor trapped behind a herd of cows. But then the more I thought of it, mountain descents in Switzerland and France must get boring after a while without the Albanian/Slavic drama and wildlife.
Climbing to Ovronazz
The field was thinning out as we raced to the second climb up to Anzére. The first part of the climb snaked up through vineyards in a switchback pattern, and I could see cyclists already cresting those first roads as I approached -and even as I reached the top, could see cyclists behind us just starting the climb. The climb to Anzére came as a series, still winding through farms and terraced vineyards, with nothing too steep. Locals cheered us on as they did all day, from the side of the road or from their cars, shouting, “Bravo, allez, allez!” The locals’ support was heartening, especially later in the day. Families of riders would also be there in support, and one in particular later in the day didn't hesitate to offer me water, or their daughter to share her Haribo. The race organization was impressive, with each intersection controlled by volunteers or what looked like young Swiss army reservists, and the entire canton seemed to be supportive of us.
Starting the second climb, through the vineyards to Anzere (Sportograph photo)
The village of Anzére had a water station, then a short, sharp descent for the climb up to Crans-Montana, a larger resort town where the GranFondo (with most of the day’s riders) started their 130km course a few hours after us. The climb to Montana was shorter than the last two, and the aid station was stocked with Enervit gels and other foods, which I grabbed, sensing the hard part was yet to come. Crans-Montana was at 86km along the route, with a long descent back to the valley floor, and I thought of the town as the halfway point in the day. I was feeling good, but was aware that my left leg was twinging, a warning sign of possible muscle cramps if I pushed too hard on the pedals. The road after Montana had a climb out before the descent, and as I worried about cramping, my bike (Tracy’s bike, really) did the oddest thing.

I’d had trouble with the gear cassette on the Scott, and swapped in an 11-32 9-speed cassette I’d bought in Ukraine for Tracy. A 32 gear is quite low, especially for a bike with a compact crankset, meaning that the lowest gear ratio could be 34-32. But I didn’t think it would work because of the derailleur length, and testing the day before had confirmed that, leaving 28 as my lowest gear (normal for me). But leaving Crans-Montana, the gear kept jumping out of 28, and in frustration I downshifted hard, planning to shift back up quickly to clear the gears. Except then it stayed comfortably in the lower 32 gear, a soft mechanical purr the only indication that it was pushing against the jockey wheel. OK, if that’s too technical for you, think of it this way. The bike, sensing I was possibly in trouble, somehow adjusted and gave me a much easier (if slower) way to get up the steep hills, like a loyal horse knowing its rider was in pain. That would become important very soon.
Descending from Crans-Montana (Sportograph photo)
We descended back to the valley floor, the last time we would do that, crossing to the other side of the valley and pasing through Chippis and Chalais to the start of the Vercorin climb. The second half of the day, with the Vercorin climb starting at 110km (70 miles), contained many more climbs than the first half, and some of them remained a mystery to me, Strava not helping much to decipher how long and how steep all of them were. Vercorin I knew would be tough, over 6 miles (10km) at 10%, with frequent steeper sections as the road cut into the cliffside. The real worry was maintaining energy.

For those not familiar with ultra-endurance events, I should briefly explain a thing or two about energy. Despite popular myth, it's not enough to eat a large plate of spaghetti the night before and be set for the day. Carbs can be stored in the body as glycogen, both in skeletal muscles and the liver, but even endurance athletes can't store much more than 2000 calories that way. On a day when I would burn through 9-10,000 calories over 240km, that only lasts about two hours. The body can metabolize food at the rate of only 300 calories per hour, sometimes even less as distance wears on and heat increases, and the body can't spare enough blood for digestion. Do the math, and that leaves a huge deficit. Ultraendurance athletes therefore also rely on fat stores-- 1 kilogram of fat can store some 10,000 calories, but the body can only convert that into energy slowly. So in events where too much energy is burned early, one can "bonk" or "hit the wall," where there simply isn't enough energy left to keep a 200 watt power output -which requires about 1000 calories per hour.
The climbs get harder (Sportograph photo)
That's what happened to me in the Vercorin climb. Ok at first, partway up the climb I hit a wall, my energy levels falling to almost nothing. I downshifted to the 32 gear (note: I had never done that before on any road bike) and started feeling demoralized as everyone passed me on the climb. All I could do was push down on each pedal stroke, hoping that at the next aid station I could recover my energy somewhat and press on. It was difficult, and I kept thinking how easy it would be to turn around, descend to the valley floor, and coast along the flat roads back to the hotel in Martigny. Had I not told everyone about this ride, I could have done that, still had a respectable distance and enormous amount of climbing (by the top of Vercorin, I had climbed almost 13,000ft or 4000m), but I sincerely wanted to finish. I would have to slow down considerably, relying on fat reserves, the meager 300 calories/hour from gels, and then hope that the body wouldn't react too badly once it started eating away at muscle tissue for energy (note: this is not as bad as it sounds, as long as it's not done frequently- the body's enzymes are "smart" at going after broken proteins and damaged muscle tissue first).
Looking down into the valley
The aid station as Vercorin had more gels and electrolyte drinks, and I stood there as another rider did abandon, turning in his number to the ride officials. I pulled out my phone and checked the ride profile (note: there is an Android app called GPX viewer that works well in offline mode, showing a route and the elevation profile in detail). From Vercorin there were six more climbs, four more if I was being optimistic. The next one I figured I could handle, the third one looked no worse than a typical Kosovo climb, but the second... the climb to Thyon would be tough. I told myself that if I could make Thyon I could finish, because I could handle the third climb to Nendaz and then all that would remain would be the final climb to the Col de la Croix-de-Coeur (which itself was a massive climb, but later, later...). I was over an hour ahead of the time cutoff for that station, so I could afford to pace myself a bit. I just needed to recover.

After Vercorin was a climb to Nax, and a shorter one to St. Martin, all labeled on my top-tube cheat sheet. The field kept thinning out, but I could still see riders ahead of me, which meant I did not have to worry about getting off course. The ride organizers were well prepared, posting people at all intersections, making sure that hard left turns into an uphill weren’t missed or slowed down by cross traffic. I knew I had slowed down considerably, and I had retreated into myself, not paying attention to the scenery, not trying to pace other cyclists, just focused on the pedal cadence and all the new pains that were emerging. My energy levels stabilized a bit, but my right knee began hurting, an old injury that suggested energy wasn’t the only thing I had to worry about. Each pedal stroke felt slower, more painful, and I had over 100,000 to make that day. I wasn't feeling faint, not like when I got back into serious road cycling, and I remember feeling like I would pass out while climbing Mt Champlain during the Grand Prix Cycliste Gatineau in 2013. This was the body simply saying it couldn't run at more than 60%. On flat roads that would have been fine, but wasn't enough for steep mountain climbs to maintain pace. I simply put my head down and concentrated on reaching the next checkpoint.

At 158km was the village of Hermence, another aid station and transponder check, and the start of the 10km climb up to Thyon. The first section of that climb was crazy, like Guri i Kuq crazy steep, and even in low gear my knees were both screaming in pain. It’s hard to describe what it’s like, even shorter sections of 4 miles (6km) can take 45 minutes to climb at a high gradient and slow pace, and there is nothing to do, nothing to focus on, other than the pain and the kilometers ticking away on the computer. Yet oddly, as often as I worried about having to abandon, of not making it to the end before the time cutoff, it wasn’t until after Thyon that I wondered, “Why am I doing this?” Most times it’s not really a question, the answer comes in a Sir Edmund Hillary-style “because it’s there” and because I can. So I thought more of Erich at that time, that I would finish for him, that this ride was EPIC and I may not have chances again to try for this level of craziness.

The climbs begin to feel lonelier (Sportograph photo)
So I pushed on, up the second to last climb to Nendaz, which was tougher than it had looked back in Vercorin (it’s just easier in comparison to Thyon and la Croix-de-Couer), and by this aid station there were perhaps eight of us in sight of one another. I took what food I could (by this time, any energy had to come from liquids or gels), took the last of my pain medication, lactate pills and chamoix cream, was startled a bit by an ambulance leaving the station with sirens wailing-- I had not seen anyone in distress, or perhaps we all looked that way-- and climbed up a small section to the final descent. This descent was hardly relaxing, a very narrow and rutted road that wound through hillside villages. Perhaps in another setting it would look idyllic, but I was acutely aware that time was running out, and I needed to finish the race not long after 7:30. My Kosovo training prepared me for such roads, but I greatly feared a tire puncture, not having the time or energy to change a tube. I made it to the last aid station at La Tzoumaz, which I knew was 9 kilometers from the final summit. I was shocked to find that it was 6:45pm and the time cutoff in Tzoumaz was 7, so grabbed some water and made my way up the final climb.
During the final push to the final summit (Sportograph photo)
The organizers had described the final road to the Col de la Croix-de-Couer as unpaved, though perhaps that was just by Swiss standards. The road surface did change, but to something that was highly familiar to me, like Alabama chip-rock surface that I had ridden on tough centuries like Cheaha and Tour de Blue. It did require more effort to pedal, but one or two other cyclists were in sight and I just kept grinding at the pedals, counting off each kilometer to the top. There was a photographer sitting in the grass some distance from the summit, and I wondered how my face was set at that moment. See the photo above. I heard him saying, "...à seulement quatre kilomètres du col, bravo!" Both my knees were full of molten lead, I was at the end of my second wind as far as energy was concerned, and I just needed to reach the summit. From there, I knew there was a 5km descent into the village of Verbier and the finish line. The winds grew ever colder toward the peak at 2200m (7200ft), and my Castelli climber’s jersey did nothing to keep me warm, but until the top I had no energy to take out my vest, hardly could drink, I just kept fixated on the road 10 feet in front of me, until finally there was a golden light spilling out from the crest of the hill. A final road marker indicated the peak at 1km (shorter than I had estimated!), and I knew I had done it.
Crossing the finish line in Verbier, but still 30km to go (Sportograph photo)
The view from the peak was amazing, looking down into the ski village of Verbier (we had just climbed the entire mountain, around the ski lifts), with the sun setting over the mountains to the west. I put my vest back on for the cold descent, slowing at times like the Clingman’s Dome descent to stay warm, and winding through the town to the direction of police, until finally I rounded a corner and THERE was the final chute and finish line. I staggered across, accepted my medal, but then... well, I wasn’t done yet. I had planned to bike the 30km from Verbier back down to Martigny, and as it was closing in on 8pm I need to move right away. The road from Verbier to Martigny was almost all a fast downhill, and for the first switchbacks I was COLD. Having no warmth left after the final climb I bit hard into my lower lip to keep my teeth from chattering, and pedaled as fast as I could to get down to lower elevation and warmer air. Part of me worried that Swiss police would complain I didn’t have any lights with me (I didn’t want to carry them all day), though my vest was almost dangerously reflective. Yet it was the most relaxing part of the day. I had finished the climbs, and this road was both smooth and dropped precipitously from 7200ft down to 1000, an almost two thousand meter drop- like going from the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado to Denver, but in a third of the distance.
Starting the final descent to Verbier and then Martigny-- none of it looked real (Sportograph photo)
I made it to Martigny and finally breathed a sigh of relief. I was done. It was over. I had ridden 150 miles (240km) over almost 7400m (24,000ft) of climbing, a feat that kept me staring at the GPS data, not believing it had been possible or that it had been me doing it. It was warm in Martigny, with people sitting outside in cafes, and I rolled through the last few kilometers almost effortlessly. It was a strange way to end such a ride, though perhaps more in keeping with Audax rides than big events, standing outside the hotel, no shoes on, pressing stop on my phone app. All I wanted at that moment was a hot shower and the chocolate milk in my room fridge, as even food would be hard to get down for another day or so.

On Sunday I managed a short recovery ride over the flat roads nearby, and then created a ride video to track my movements from the day before. I stared at it in disbelief-- it just kept going and going.

I had been smart enough to book my hotel in Martigny for two nights after the ride, not forcing myself to take the train back to Geneva until Monday. So early Monday morning I got in one last bike ride before breakfast, into another sunrise. For those not familiar with long-distance cycling, the recovery rides are deadly important, as they help to flush toxins out of the legs after a hard effort. It's just too bad the Martigny Hotel du Poste didn't have a masseuse.
Sunrise over Valais
Again, the organization of the ride was remarkably good, especially for a first time event. The length and complexity of the course required over 400 medics, motorcyclists/marshals, volunteers, traffic controllers, police, etc. There was only once when the course was confusing (about 2km before Hermence, when there was a sign for a climb toward Thyon), but otherwise we didn't have to worry about navigation all day. I was also impressed at how the organizers had arranged for our race numbers to be used on regional transport (bus, train, cable-car), so in case of a medical or mechanical abandonment, one could at least get back to the hotel. For the ultra riders it was especially easy-- too easy-- to quit. All we had to do was turn right onto a road descending to the valley floor, then follow the flat roads back to Martigny. And I know riders who did just that. Out of those who started the Ultra route, only half finished.
A thanks to the support crews, police, medics, everyone.

It's been a few days now since the ride, and I am back in Kosovo. I admitted to Tracy that the ride was so epic, so relentlessly difficult, that I would be hard-pressed ever to repeat it. But perhaps that was the point. It may cause a bit of wistfulness, it may make other climbs and rides seem small in comparison, but it's not something really anyone can top. Having done it, even slowly the second half, was enough. Perhaps next year I'll look for another Look-Marmotte gran fondo to ride, but at a normal distance and a region in France I don't know yet.

Chapeau to the race organizers, volunteers, and other riders who survived. I'll not forget this one. Erich would be proud.

Final Strava record

(note: the RidewithGPS app I was using for tracking recorded 7400m of climbing, matching the race profile-- Strava changed it when I uploaded the GPX file, and 8000 sounds like a round number...if I had to suffer through a stolen GPS computer, I'll take the exaggeration.)