Dodging potholes in Bulgaria
The greatest thing of the Randonneuring world is that it is really worldwide. Brevets everywhere, and new 1200km brevets are constantly arising. So for this year I chose Sofia-Varna-Sofia as season's goal. After some checking of prices and schedules, I flew in via Varna using a German charter flight filled with sun-seekers. At the airport I was picked up by Zdravko, a young Bulgarian randonneur. He assisted me going to the bus station, from where I took the bus to Sofia. In Sofia I stayed at the apartment of a friend, while most other foreign riders were staying in a hotel near the start.
On Wednesday evening the start was scheduled at the usual time of 22 hours. When I arrived at the start for the bike check up at 19h, the start facilities were still under construction. But no problems with that, plenty of time to look for a restaurant. By 21.30 the place started to fill up and riders appeared from everywhere. A few minutes after 22h we were sent off, escorted by a police car.
There were 21 riders starting, 11 foreigners and 10 Bulgarians. One rider didn't start, Karl Hrouda. The first kilometers were at the usual brisk pace. No red lights to wait for, and a good bunch. A while outside of Sofia crosswinds emerged. I was at the back of the pack at that moment, and could see the break coming. So I decided to move forward to be ahead of it. And indeed, soon afterwards the group split up. With about a dozen riders we continued on at a fast pace, pointing out the usual potholes. The first pass (800m) was taken with most of the group intact, the few people dropped off managed to get back in the descent. Shortly before the 70 km mark I punctured in a pothole. Simon told me that they would wait at the all night cafe indicated on the routesheet, just 2-3 km away. When I passed that place after mending the puncture, I could see that it was not really 24 hour. So on I went. After I while I met up with Daniel Fisher, and we continued on. On top of the first pass a car was waiting with refreshments. A few solo riders were passing here. During the descent I sensed quite a wobble in the back wheel, so at the first convenient place I retrued my wheel. On the road again I kept on pushing to regain time. During such brevets I have to earn a comfortable time cushion during the first day, during the later days I'm mostly plodding along. After about 150 km I spotted some riders, and with some hard riding managed to catch up. It was a small group with Adrian from Bulgaria, Simon Kolka, Chris White and Dany Fisher.
Together we continued on to the Kazanlak control. At the entrance of town there was a police car waiting for us, and pointing us in the right direction. The control was in a bike shop, which was very convenient to get the wheel professionally retrued.
There was quite a good atmosphere in the Kazanlak control. The mechanic had lot's to do because of the many potholes. Jan Christiansen announced that he would do no further night riding on this brevet, just too many holes in the road.
I lounged quite long, in fact too long before setting out again. On the road I met up with Dany again. There was a severe headwind slowing us down. About halfway a roadside shaslik stand was a welcome stop. With not much problems we arrived at the control just outside of Sliven. Here we could just greet a few departing riders. And the first DNF came in. Colin's bike was strapped to a car. He had hid a big pothole and severely buckled his wheel. Bad news also for Mike who lost lot's of time assisting Colin. In the center of Sliven was another stop, to meet some local journalists. I decided to play the journalist and headed for the internet center to write a first impression.
That might have been bad planning since the stretch from Sliven to the next control proved to be very difficult. The climb out of Sliven lasted somewhere around 2 hours for me, despite encouragements from some local riders riding with us. Jordan, one of the Sliven club members participating in the brevet was riding shortly after me. On the top of the pass was a secret control, which was very welcome. The descent was one of the few roads on the entire stretch with good asfalt, so I could really let it go. Jordan was nowhere to be seen afterwards. The road continued along lot's of tiny villagers. The locals were herding in their cows, goats and sheep for the night. Lot's of traffic, but hardly anything mechanised. Horses and donkeys are the main mode of transport here.
Shortly before the Veliko Tarnovo control it got dark. Some difficult navigation followed, including a detour of 5k in the outskirts of Veliko Tarnovo. When I got back to the center, I flagged down a police car, which showed me the way to the control.
In the control I could see many bikes, but no riders. Most riders were sleeping here. I had decided to push on, I'm too slow to sleep much. While leaving the Veliko Tarnovo control I spotted an open supermarket, so I could stock up for the night. The only thing missing now was a dinner. Since the first part of the route was going over the main road to Romania, I was sure to find something. And indeed, a restaurant was still open just after Veliko Tarnovo. While in the restaurant I some of the Bulgarian riders passed. The food didn't go down that easily though. Some 2 km after the restaurant I had to stop to rearrange the contents of my stomach.
About 8 km out of Veliko Tarnovo there was a side road no to be missed. So I took my time for it. The first side road which matched the description I took. A km further on there was a cafe where I could ask for directions. And indeed I was on the wrong way. But this did cost me only 2 km, in stead of the 50 km some people reported.
The rest of the night ride was very lonely. I didn't see a single rider. The road was slowly going uphill, but not steadily. And on the top there was no clear plateau. Near the top was a mineral water fountain, a good refreshment. Also some benches there, but due to the wild animal warning, I decided against sleeping there.
By daybreak I reached a main road again. Slowly living objects were visible. After a while I could see a cyclists a while behind me. I sat up to let him catch up. It proved to be Dimitar Balanski, the Bulgarian ACP correspondent. We rode together for a while until I spotted Daniel sleeping by the side of the road. I turned around to take a picture, and he woke up. In the distance some other riders were visible. We all banded together and checked the routesheet. A restaurant was mentioned near Popovo, and all of us felt for a breakfast. When we slowed down we spotted the jury car, and some secret controllers.
At the secret control soup was a hot item. Everybody was eating it. Some riders took a short kip afterwards, and the controllers were busy giving a rider a massage. From Popovo we cycled towards Razgrad. Nothing really changed this day. The roads were still very potholed, it was hot and the road was going uphill, and yes, the scenery was beautiful as ever. Near Razgrad I was running out of water. I had expected the route to lead through the town, but we took the ring road far around it. So it lasted a while until I managed to restock on water. Luckily I found the side road to Isperih (in the middle of a steep downhill). From there on I had 30 km to go, and time was ticking away. Control closed at 12.15 (15 kph limit), and it was already past 10. So I really started cranking it. Instead of the expected downhill, the road was undulating. That was an unwelcome experience.
Towards Isperih some faster groups came up from behind, mostly consisting of people whose bikes I had seen in Veliko Tarnovo. I tried to keep up with them for a while, and I rolled into the control together with the Danish group, with only 30 minutes to spare. That tells a lot, more than half of the riders were within one hour of the time limit 574 km into the ride. There was sleeping possibility here, so I opted to sleep half an hour, the first sleep in 65 hours. When I came down everybody was gone. The controllers were waiting for the last two riders, Mike and Jordan. They would be very relaxed on the time limit, after all the RM time limit of 13.3 kph was not yet passed. Just when I was about to leave the Varna controllers phoned in. No rider had yet been varna (14h).
I left Isperih in the heat. That was very unwelcome for me. I'm hardly capable of riding in temperatures above 35C. So I took it slowly although I didn't have the time for that. In regular intervals I stopped in the shade and tried to get hold of ice-cream or cold drinks. Luckily my stomach kept on functioning, it didn't shut off this time. But still I was very worried. I felt a heatstroke coming, the headache was already there, and my temperature was rising. Above that, my hands were severely bruised by the constant potholes. Some of them were big enough to destroy a wheel. I pictured my bike standing in some rifts, without anything supporting the bike, the rifts were that deep and small. Still I managed to reach Novi Pasar by the start of the evening. I should have been in Varna allready to keep up with the schedule a bit, but the situation was simply too difficult.
In Novi Pasar I tried to eat. I bought some ice cream and crisps. If that would go down well, I would continue, otherwise I would shortcut to the Madara control and have a good sleep there. When I was about to restart the sag car passed. They were assisting Mike and Jordan, the last riders on the course. The sag-crew Kazimir and Alexander asked us if we would like to continue together, then they could go to Madara to sleep. I expected us to arrive in Varna just before midnight, they would inform the Varna controllers about that.
So from Novi Pasar we set out together. Out and back to Varna would be 120km. The first kilometers went without much problems. We took our regular breaks. 35 km before Varna there was an all-night gas station, so we only had to stock up for 70 km of riding from thereon. Just after the gas station we were scheduled to go left. Jordan was leading. He simply followed the signs for Varna and dashed straight on, into the descent. It lasted a while until I caught up with him. I told him that the route sheet told us to go left, but he told me that the right way was straight on. Since he is local I believed him and we carried on. While nearing Varna we remarked that we were totally off course. Jordan asked around and finally found a road back to the original course. This detour did cost us nearly two hours, time which we didn't have in our hands.
In the village of Suvorovo we rejoined the course. There were still some bars open here around midnight, so we could stock up. Uphill it went to wards the control, which was not in Varna itself, but on a hill just before the town. The restaurant there was still closed, but the controllers were sitting in front of it in their car. They provided us with water and food, and we headed back in the direction of Sofia. Nearly 700 km done, and dodging the time limit. In the descent I hit a pothole and punctured again. And yes, again I had to retrue my wheel. The man at the gas station was quite surprised when we returned halfway the night. But his services were very welcome, and we made full use of them. The remaining ride to Novi Pasar was quite uneventful, apart from a few sleep attacks. But from Novi Pasar to Madara was quite difficult. The control was located on top of a steep hill. We managed to inch our way up it, and finally arrived at 7h.00, just the time of the RM time limit. All the others were gone already, the controllers were sound asleep. I fell asleep without looking for a bed. After an hour I woke up and was shown a bed.
When I woke up at 9 Kazimir and Alexander were also awake. I discussed the matters with them. My hands were aching, a hot day was expected, and we were nearly out of time. Still they motivated us to carry on. We had breakfast together in an adjectant restaurant and pushed on. Towards Targovishte it was a good road. Still we took a break or two to get water, food, and apply bum-cream.I had calculated that we should be in Omurtag at 1600 hours maximum, otherwise there would be no chance at all to be in Sliven on time. In Targovishte we stocked up again. I went to get some extra medical kit, some soft patches to put on my hands and pain killers. I arranged everything on my hands in a small restaurant, and set out again. Kazimir and Alexander would stay there for a while watching the world cup match, and then would wait for us in Omurtag.
But I was not going to reach Omurtag. Shortly after Targovishte I felt that my hands were not getting anything better. I still couldn't hold on the handle bars for more than 10 km. And on top of that, it was getting scorching hot again. No way to reach Omurtag by 16h in this way, no way to be in time in the Sliven control. So I turned around and headed back to Targovishte. There I found Kazimir & Alexander. I proposed that I'd take the bus to Sliven, but they offered to take me there by car. So I put my bike on the rack and we went on.We met Mike just before Omurtag. He made it just before 16h, but was completely devastated. He reckoned that if he had to do a 360k ride in this shape, he would not even start it. So also he went into the car.
From the car it was clear once again that it was a good decision to stop. A while after Omurtag we met Jordan again. He had allready been carrying on while we were shopping in Targovishte. He looked really bad, but still wanted to continue. We headed on and stopped after a while for dinner. After an hour or so Kazimir headed back to look for Jordan. He didn't have to look back for long, Jordan was approaching. But also he decided to quit. Now it was the problem of squeezing 3 bikes and 5 people in a Fiat Tipo. But we managed, although it was a tight fit.
In Sliven we dropped of Jordan at his house. Then Kazimir passed by his house. At the control in the Mineral baths of Sliven everybody was gone. We proceeded on to the next control, a village house in Manolovo. There was a lot to do here. Lot's of riders were still around, eating, and drinking wine and beer. Only two riders had left the control, Haratayam from Stara Zagora and Chris White. All the rest was either sleeping or eating. Colin was also there. We were the last to head for the beds.
In the morning all of us took it easy. The riders had gone already. It lasted some riding before we saw the first rider on the road. He lost a few spokes in his back wheel. I took the rear wheel out of my bike and got him going again. Mike was a bit surprised that an 8-speed Campa wheel would fit on a 5-speed chain, but it did.
Further on we met several groups of riders, and a few solo riders. Most of them ditched some superfluous luggage in the car. They were mostly still feeling good enough to be sure of a finish. We rode on to the finish, while the car with Kazimir, Alexander, Colin and Mike stayed behind some of the slower riders. At the finish a few dozen people were waiting. We didn't have to wait long before the first groups appeared. They were all looking quite fresh. The guy with my wheel overtook some of the riders before him and finished well in time. There was lot's of discussion about the toughness of thus ride, but everybody agreed that it's harder as LEL, PBP and BMB. Riders remained unsure whether SVS is harder as the Crackpot or not.
One rider came in just 6 minutes before the cut-of. He was completely exhausted. He directly crashed out. Some of the helpers and the doctor rushed towards him, but he was alright. Finally we all got our cups, and most riders withdrew to a pub for the world cup final.