|Gjengiz threading the road furniture outside of Ballaban, Kosovo|
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|
|Ferat Durguti & Rudina Baku|
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|
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 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|
|Rudina & Ylber taking category wins|
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 still...family.
|"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.|