Nearly there! Will Lee make it to the finish line? If you want to relive the whole adventure, you can read from the start here.
This gravel climb had been preying on me for a while. It had caused carnage for the front group of racers (of which I was gaining places everyday). Punctures, falls and destroyed cleats were all the tales I’d heard from the mountain.
I started the climb before sunrise and picked my way up the challenging gravel track. I trusted my wheelset and tyre choice. They hadn’t failed me yet. The track opened up out the trees just as the sun started to break and I was spoilt by the views. When the terrain got even more tough, I opted for walking. I didn’t want to risk falling for the sake of a few minutes saved. I reached the top relieved that this obstacle hadn’t defeated me. I knew the next phase of the race was going to be the home straight and I really started to believe that I could beat this race. I was the first one up there that morning so I took a minute to take it all in before throwing myself back down the mountain… literally. I had an off coming down, luckily nothing more than a few bumps and scrapes. The bags stayed on despite being ragged through some gravel. The Fixie straps that come with the bags had been a godsend. Useful for strapping things firmly but giving easy adjustment as opposed to cable ties.
After demolishing a breakfast with some other riders back at CP4, I started what I considered to be the final leg of the journey. I was on a high and nothing was stopping me. Once again, my legs roared to life and the miles just disappeared beneath me. Now most riders were using the same roads as we all had little choice. It gave me great satisfaction flying by them especially if they were on super light bikes or with barely any kit. I was soon in Montenegro and that’s when I found the best road I’ve ever ridden. This beautiful gorge only spurred me to ride further and faster, I’d now started rationing my water so I could reduce my stops and ate nuts from my frame bag to keep the calories going in. It rained briefly but a quick stop at some mechanics meant my chain was cleaned in no time. The dry ceramic lube really doesn’t like the wet as I’d learnt in the Czech Republic.
I’d managed to catch Yoann again at the Albanian border. We were both riding at a similar pace and in the same direction. We opted to ride close to each other so were more visible on the road in the night. It was reassuring having him around and we soon became very good friends.
Our night ended when our routes came to a bridge that hadn’t been built yet. We jumped into an abandoned house and once again kept someone awake with my snoring. 240 miles done and my legs felt great.
Once again, I rode with Yoann. We kept far enough apart so not to help each other with slip-streaming and made sure we supported ourselves. But it was great to have someone to laugh and joke with when we stopped. We passed through Tirane and stopped for breakfast. Patisseries and kebab… not your usual morning feast.
We spent the entire day battling the lumpy south of Albania. It was extremely hot and resources were scarce so you had to fill up where ever possible. The quiet roads in some areas were bliss though, the locals waved and said hello and the drivers gave you space… something that was now a luxury. The reflective tape on the bags did offer some security when the sun started to set though.
Crossing over into Greece felt like a finish line in itself. It was late but a group of us had all decided to ride as far as we could through the night. There was little water on offer so I made sure I topped up when I could. The group started to split as the night drew on. Greece was full of climbs, very punchy like back home. Around 50 miles from the finish line I decided to call it a night. I set up my bivvy and closed my eyes for one last time. I wanted to see Meteora in the sunrise…
The Last Day
I woke up and checked the tracker. I could see someone was approaching my position fast and I didn’t want to give up any positions now. I forced my kit into my trusty bags and spotted the rider flying past me on the road. I hurried to pack away the last bits of stuff and get dressed. My kit was soaked as the condensation had gotten to it. That first hour riding in the dark, chasing the rider down with freezing descents was horrific. I was shivering violently praying for the valleys to warm up.
I caught the rider and we laughed it off. He knew I was chasing and had been going for it despite snapping his frame a few days earlier. With 30 miles to go I realised I’d need to eat if I was going to finish strong. He pulled out a sandwich and carried on. I was forced to stop, shovel some food down my face from the only open café. The chase was back on all over again.
I caught him at the base of the last climb. Thank f**k! We said our goodbyes and I tackled the last climb. It was steep and the sun was now heating up the roads. I knew the rider I had passed was still behind me so found the energy to keep turning the pedals. The emotion of the finish was upon me. I knew my wife was waiting at the finish line and the scale of the challenge I had completed was flooding over me. Cresting the final climb is a moment I’ll never forget, a tidal wave of relief, fatigue and euphoria rushing over me. The descent was time to reflect on the past two weeks and also the future. Where would I go from here? The bike by now was just part of me, I didn’t need to think and we both just floated down the mountain towards the finish line.
The TCR will try you and break you. You’ve just got to roll with it.