The summer of 2018 was a real hot one in the Balkan Peninsula, as I was competing in the Transcontinental Race.
After crossing the border with Montenegro, I was hoping to cross Albania, from North to South, in just over a day on the saddle.
It was my first time in Albania.
I’ve lived the cyclist wet dream
Just over the border, it all looked pretty promising. I left behind a fairly hilly terrain. It was evening and I was heading for Shkoder, only a handful of kilometers away.
The road became broader, the tarmac smooth as silk, slightly sloping down, and guess what?
The wind was pushing me from behind!
I was living the cyclist dream and witnessing a beautiful sunset after completing another 230+ kilometers on my way to Meteora (Greece).
After arriving in Shkoder, I immediately looked for a place to sleep and replenish the energy I consumed through the day.
Perks of colonialism
Downtown Shkoder reminded me of an Italian town and all products and brands were very familiar, as if I was spending an evening back home and somewhat back in time, perhaps sometimes in the 90s.
Indeed it was the result of the colonialist practices of the Italian foreign policy, but my political discomfort is for another type of blog.
Thanks to our economic penetration in Albania, I sat in a restaurant and had two large pizzas, a bowl of chips, two large beers and an espresso.
It sounds like an extravagant amount of food (and it is), but after two weeks of cycling and consuming five thousands calories a day, I was not really looking for the gourmet experience. Tired legs require the “carb the fuck up” nutrition strategy.
The morning after my alarm clock went off at 3a.m. as usual, ready for another ultra long day.
I had read somewhere that Albania wasn’t exactly the best place to ride a bike because traffic, bad roads and a large amount of stray dogs are well known issues for transcontinental riders.
I should have understood the day ahead was to be a memorable one as I’d driven straight into a chain blockading a road, in pitch darkness.
I’d slammed the brakes just in time, before taking a dive over the handlebars. Good reflexes at the crack of the dawn! Who the fuck put a chain in the middle of the bloody road?
Once I left Shkoder, I set my heading on Tirana, the capital, and, after I’d cleared the busy city center, my day started to become rather challenging.
Any resemblance to the glorious Italian 90s was suddenly gone.
The road out of town ended with a tunnel, which had a clear NO BIKES sign. I could see the other side, just 100m or so in front of me and so tempting, but sticking to the ethos of the race, I was forced to take a large and steep climb instead, up a very windy mountain road!
A few extra hours of pain and fatigue under the baking sun, but hey, this is what I signed up for.
On the other side a very different Albania was waiting for me: a hellish road with no hard shoulder and trucks passing way closer to me than I would have desired.
The stray dogs were not late to my party, but I’d prepared for them in a large advance.
If you’re attacked by a dog, or a pack of them, you don’t have many options on a bike. You can:
1) Carry some rocks with you and try to scare them off
2) Carry a few sausages and pray that it will work
3) Dismount and put up a fight…mmm not recommended
4) Try to outrun them
If you pick option 4 and you’re going up a climb, I’m sorry for you.
I have to make a confession
Being scared of stray dogs, I’ve made my research beforehand and purchased from Ebay the almighty “Dazer II Ultrasonic Dog Bark Control”.
Yes, one of those little machines that only dogs can hear (can they?) and would have certainly saved my life.
I’ve long doubted this little device and thought I should have done something else with the 68 bucks I’ve invested in it, until I decided to see if it really works.
One day, I will apologise profusely to a colleague of mine, whose dog happened to be having a nap in the office where I was working, but I desperately needed a dog.
I’ve armed the “Dazer” and dazed the poor dog from a few meters away. He jumped as if I had thrown a hand grenade in the room. Bingo!
I felt proud of my purchase and a bit of an asshole at the same time.
In the end, the Dazer worked so well during the race, especially in Albania, that I would happily set up a business and sell them to the riders of the next Transcontinental Race!
Special price, only for you my friend!
The only tricky thing is to find a place on the bike where it can be handled at the first bark to fend off attacks, a bit like a Star Wars lightsaber.
Goodbye Albania, maybe tomorrow.
More than 200km through my day, I was kind of hopeful I would have made it to Greece before nightfall, but I forgot about “that” last killer climb.
Sipping an orange juice in a gas station in Perranjas, I was looking at the other side of the valley, seeing clearly the switchbacks going up the mountain, and a long line of trucks.
I must confess I was tempted to find accommodation in Perrajas but I said to myself: “Come on mate, the more you look at it, the more you’re wasting your time here”.
In the end I went for the hellish option. Climb at twilight, with no hard shoulder and loads of truckies that have rarely seen a bike around.
The final climb of the day took the last energy out of me, I never made it to Greece the same night, bummer, but I was starving and when I reached the top my water bottles were almost empty.
“Bonking” or “hitting the wall” as it is often referred to by cyclist, is a very unpleasant feeling of total starvation, I guess those stray dogs knows well what a good bonk feels alike.
I checked in somewhere near Pogradec, had another extravagant meal and recharged my Dazer for those pesky dogs of Greece.