MARIBOR, 1638km – 3:30Am (race clock 07d // 05H // 30M)
Everywhere is damp as I wheel back out of the yard, puddles in the street evidence of the storm the night before. The air is wonderfully fresh and cool, a near perfect morning for riding. The first dark couple of hours continue to roll up and down – it’s not really visible, but the countryside feels like parkland or nature reserve. Perched atop one of the last steep ramps an impressive stately home looking building is lit up brightly against the deep inky blue of the pre-dawn sky. I stop to take a picture and send it to Yoli with words along the lines that I found her a palace. The run along and then down from that ridge brings with it daylight. My passage startles a pair of small, red, deer who are grazing in a meadow beside the road. They are the first two signs of life I’ve noticed so far today. The next two are also quite memorable.
Petanjci, 1688km – 6:10AM (race clock 07d // 08H // 10M)
I circle back to investigate a small shop which, surprisingly seems open despite the hour. What caught my eye was a couple of guys sat at a table under the covered patio outside. Impressively given its only 6am, it’s not coffee they are drinking but beer. I’m not nearly so bold, and, after a lot of pointing manage to explain to the short, red-faced friendly owner that I’d like some coffee and food. We resort to German (I think!) but I’m so rusty that I only catch part of what I think is her explanation that the rolls she has are not fresh, they’re yesterdays. I tell her that’s fine, which indeed it is. They taste great, and she brings a side plate loaded full of accompaniments – tomatoes, small pickles, thick slices of salami. It’s a delightfully unexpected early food stop. Oh, and yes, the coffee was excellent. My last food stop and contact with Slovenians has been as friendly and helpful as the first, but there is a subtle shift in language and countryside. I’m now in the top northwest corner, and there’s a definite feel of being in that special “border zone” where cultures mingle together. In fact not far away is a tri-border monument, where the edge of Austria also meets Slovenia and Hungary. I was tempted to visit, but my route stays below and to the south of the hills it would have taken me into.
As I ride on, the slight but perceptible changes in character of the villages continue until, suddenly something in my peripheral vision catches my attention. Standing in the middle of a broad field of wheat is a tall, rusting tower. It looks very like an old sentry tower for the border guards, a fact which is confirmed as I scan my surrounds. Just behind me on the road I’ve ridden along is a low concrete block with a sign welcoming drivers to Slovenia. A slight chill runs through me – it’s a beautiful warm day, not a cloud breaks the blue of the sky. But what was moments ago a picturesque industrial relic is now a cold reminder of the political and ideological struggle between the West and the USSR which once would have seen soldiers with guns scanning these same fields. I wouldn’t have been able to simply roll up and ride along this road back then.
Bajánsenye (Hungary), 1730KM – 8:54AM (race clock 07d // 10H // 54M)
The border post itself is an even starker and more obvious reminder. I thread my way between the deserted structures of the border post. It’s impossible not to feel that my passage is being watched – the ghosts of an oppressive, military regime peering out at me through the dark windows of the slowly crumbling buildings. I’d watched videos of a couple of these old border posts into Hungary, but it’s a very different, altogether more sombre experience first-hand. Riding out the other side it’s as if the temperature leaps as the chill leaves my body.
I’m going to risk offending Hungarians at this point in my blog, so I feel I should start out by apologising. The day to come was not an especially positive experience, which is entirely down to my tiredness and altered state of mind at this point in the race and does not in any way reflect an accurate or fair portrayal of the parts I traveled through. My spirits were wearing thin but, worst of all, was the erosion of my expectations. I had plotted a very flat route for this part of the ride and was imagining the prevailing wind would be from the south, speeding my passage. Whether I just got unlucky with the wind, or whether it was a flawed assumption on my part, there was a very definite headwind as I slogged my way between the first few villages. It didn’t slow my progress significantly, but it sapped energy and strength. More significantly, being the opposite of what I was expecting it also slowly crushed my will. Kilometre after kilometre went by, head down, often swearing, fighting the invisible foe as my sense of humour gradually evaporated in the rising heat.
I think, in hindsight, another factor in this day was my lack of research and some crude assumptions I’d made just from names on the map. The first couple of towns I passed through for some reason that I cannot fathom now, I had imagined would be sort of military outposts for the border guards. Perhaps it was the neatly regimented outlines of houses on OSM and Google Maps. Either way, it seemed to be almost completely wrong. Őriszentpéter was a quaint rural village in a forest – locals milling around, a farmers market of some kind signposted at one of the junctions. Only once there did it strike me that the name was actually probably a reference to St Peter. I scrutinized the buildings of the first few towns I passed through, looking for some clue to substantiate my earlier theory, but there were none. Only a couple of squarer buildings could have been imagined as barracks if you screwed your eyes up tight – but in truth, they were probably just barns, warehouses or small factory units. What Hungary did seem to have was impressively appointed bus shelters – properly luxurious Audax Hotels!
The weather, what I found along the road, nothing was what I expected. It was entirely down to my slackness in research, and it made me nervous, and uncomfortable. I felt isolated, under-prepared, and alone.
Körmend, 1760KM – 10:52AM (race clock 07d // 12H // 52M)
I knew the route would swing away from North and head more Easterly at the town of Körmend, hopefully bringing a bit of a relief from the wind. The trouble was that what should have been a short stretch into the town involved a 6Km detour to actually get there. Hungary has a network of single digit main roads on which cycling, pedestrians, and horse carts are banned. This was my first encounter with the 3-segment circular signs which marked such stretches. I had at least learnt about these, and carefully routed around them, but it’s only a small consolation when your legal route involves hours of extra hot and windy riding. Eventually, after twisting through a rural village and country lanes, I ended up on the outskirts of Körmend (back on the same main road I’d detoured away from). At least not far up ahead I came across a garage to take a break from the sun and stoke up on supplies. Before crossing over though, I couldn’t resist photographing the cycle path which lay ahead. Someone must have posted a picture of this on the TCR page, because I instantly recognised the comical roller coaster.
Hungary had some of the longest town names I have ever seen, and the language was completely lost on me but, luckily, my smattering of German seemed enough to get by. Certainly when paying for the enormous pile (sandwiches, coke, milk shakes, ice creams, water, and probably coffee) it was enough to understand the Euro exchange rate applied, and how much local change I’d get back. In theory, I’d only be in the country a day, so it wasn’t really worth getting out much local cash. I sagged into the chairs outside, and chatted with Yoli in between scoffing the table full of food and drink. I was feeling very fatigued and, with my feet up on another of the plastic chairs, it was hard to motivate myself to head out into the heat and the wind again.
Reluctantly, I forced myself away from the comforts and began the hot slog along the main road into town (choosing to ride with the trucks and cars rather than the bizarre cycle path). Before long I was winding myself through the back streets and under the railway to take the next detour around the upcoming illegal stretch of route ‘8’. This was a much more circuitous route, creating a huge loop north and then eastwards instead the near straight line of the main road. At least the rural lanes had decent surfaces on them for the most part. There were very few cars too, although a couple passed uncomfortably close at high speed. The toughest part though was the scenery. It wasn’t dull, or unattractive, in fact the mixture of woodlands and fields on any normal day would probably have seemed quite pretty. But it was very samey – each new stretch of road was almost indistinguishable from the last, except for occasional junctions and railway crossings. It was hard to stay focused and stop the mind from wandering. The incessant heat, and constant battle into the wind triggered an unwanted train of thoughts. Why on earth was I doing this? What if I just stopped, would it matter, would anyone care? Surely this weather was enough reason to abandon, no one would think less of me? The dialogue just kept circling around in my head, hour after hour – it was wearing. I tried to find things in the landscape on to distract me – farm buildings, tractors, anything. Eventually, the frequent, strange silver globes on tall poles came to my rescue, and I started to contemplate whether they were water towers, or some old Soviet monitoring stations for tracking people. That last thought may have been closer to an episode of The Prisoner than real life, but it did the trick – finally I managed to banish the negative voices.
I re-joined a major road again at the next bicycle-legal section just outside of Meggyeskovácsi. By this stage I’d started photographing town signs with impressively long names – although few could match Nemesrempehollós which I’d passed earlier on my route. My water bottles were near empty, and I was severely in need of a few moments off the bike.
Ikervár, 1814KM – 2:35PM (race clock 07d // 16H // 35M)
The town of Ikervár may have fallen short in the town-name Olympics, but it did offer an open bar with items essential to my revival – beer, lemonade, ice cream, and shade. Whilst there, a properly attired and obviously quite serious cyclist rode in, enjoyed a drink with friends, and rode out without so much as a nod in my direction. I’m not sure he was being intentionally unfriendly, probably just cautious of striking up any kind of dialogue with someone who was clearly in the last stages of their journey to becoming a full-blown tramp. I would have headed out fairly soon from this stop except (and this is by no means an exaggerated excuse) for the motor cycle club which rode through. I have no idea how many hundreds of bikes there were, but it took a full half hour for them all to pass by. Every kind of bike roared slowly through – from 50cc scooters, to Harleys, choppers, Gold Wings, and race tuned sports bikes. A lot of loud engine revving and occasional wheel smoking accompanied the procession, and cheers and clapping from other customers seated at the bar. Oddly, it’s the second such enormous weekend convoy I’ve seen – we encountered one on a club ride near Stellenbosch earlier in the year.
I saw the bikers again a short way down the road as I passed through Sarvar. They were pulled over at various places through the town which, I guess, was the end point of their rally. Having only just stopped myself I decided to ride through rather than pull into one of the open cafes to get some proper, substantial food. Even as I did so, it occurred to me this might be a mistake. I was heading back into rural areas, on a Saturday afternoon, but at least one of the towns would have somewhere open for food, surely? Hour upon hour and town after town I rode through clinging on to that hope before finally admitting I’d messed up. Every town seemed to have the same type of Co-Op shop, but they were all closed. They also seemed to have bars, occasionally something that looked like a bakery, a town hall type of building, and all of them now also looked closed. I did find one place open for a drink at least, but I didn’t spot anywhere I recognised as obviously open and serving food. I got by on a bag of nuts, and the last of my 7Days, but steadily began craving a proper meal.
Rábahíd, 1867KM – 6:17PM (race clock 07d // 20H // 17M)
The countryside being flat, there was a lot of water – rivers, streams, various irrigation channels etc. Just beyond the village of Várkesző, crossing the river Raba I spotted a large number of people picnicking, swimming, and enjoying the afternoon. I stopped at a food van and got very close to savouring a burger – except my card didn’t work in his machine, and he had no change for the very large Euro notes which was the only cash I had left. It was another avoidable mistake on my part – not having enough local currency. I should have just given him the note, and taken change in as many snacks and bottles of drink as I could eat and carry. But I didn’t, my brain was properly fried now by the afternoon heat and I just wasn’t thinking clearly or making good decisions. Fortunately, I was only about 35km away from Győr at this point and both the wind and heat were dying down as the afternoon faded into evening. My supply of snacks had just about carried me over the last stretch to the outskirts of the city. I began dreaming of a comfortable hotel and room service. It had been a long, tough day but I’d made fabulous progress despite the conditions – I was looking forward to my reward.
Győr (suburbs), 1903KM – 8:19PM (race clock 07d // 22H // 19M)
It was a reward that did not come easy. I meandered through back streets aiming at the nearest hotel, but they were full. They did direct me towards a 24hour Tesco and a McDonalds – so at least I knew food was at hand of some form. I decided to try and firm up some accommodation first though on Booking.com. An ideal looking place in the city center seemed to have space so I booked, and started to head in their direction. I should add that I’d ignored a sort of Auto-Motel which had been suggested (and I’d seen) – you paid by card at something like a Car Park machine, which gave you a card and you went to your room. I’ve wondered ever since if this would have worked and saved me the time I now wasted. Standing on a cycle path beside a busy highway, I was literally opposite a McDonalds and nearly able to taste a Big Mac. But for some reason I decided to call the hotel. The receptionist told me to hurry, she was closing soon. Reluctantly I let another food opportunity slip through my grasp. The cycle path into the center nearly rattled all my teeth loose, and I’m amazed none of my rims buckled under the onslaught of potholes (thanks William for the properly built wheels). Eventually, I found the hotel – only to be told I couldn’t leave early in the morning, and there was nowhere inside to park my bike. As I trudged back out into the bustling city streets I was gutted – no room, and no food. Everywhere around me were locals at restaurants enjoying food but, stupidly, I became transfixed on finding a room and wandered around aimlessly trying all the hotels I could find. None had space.
Győr (CENTRE), 1916KM – 9:47PM (race clock 07d // 23H // 47M)
Eventually, I realised my error, what I actually needed was food. After that, my brain would calm down and I could solve the problem of where to sleep. As if by magic, the moment that thought struck me everything started to fall into place. A table opened up at the very English sounding John Bull Pub right in front of me as a couple got up to leave. In minutes I had pasta and drinks ordered and on the way. I was just about to call home to celebrate this progress with Yoli, when a ridiculous idea occurred to me. Maybe AirBnB had somewhere nearby. It was the maddest of thoughts – at 10pm, the chances of somewhere having space or even checking their messages was infinitesimally small. Except, incredibly, they did. Just around the corner was an ideal sounding place, the owner or manager of which responded before I’d even taken my first mouthful of the enormous pile of steaming pasta that sat in front of me. As I wolfed down the food, I chatted with Yoli. She joked that I could have stayed with friend and fellow racer Shu Pilinger. It would have been against race rules of course, but apparently her dot had stopped for the night within meters of where mine was now showing. Yoli also mentioned how surprised she was at the distance I’d charged across Hungary, and that it had jumped me 22 places up the race roster. I pretended not to listen or care (it’s also a bit dubious for someone to pass on race positions) but it did brighten my evening a bit. It may have been a brutally tough day, but the distance of 280km was my most successful day’s riding since the opening days of the race. It was also, I began to realise, the beginning of the end for me. I was now severely behind the clock, but beyond that I knew deep down that I didn’t have many more days like this inside of me. Sat there, in the stunningly beautiful city of Győr, a good meal inside of me, and a bed waiting around the corner, I was surprised at how little this thought troubled me. Whether, and how much further I could continue, didn’t really seem to matter – the adventure I’d been looking for had been all around me for days now, and it was impossible not to feel satisfied to have already got this far. But I wasn’t done yet, sleep would fire up the legs again and tomorrow I’d be able to ride on at least a bit further.
After several laps around the same block, a nearby bar owner literally led me to the AirBnB location I was failing to find. Apparently, he knew the owner and could see I was lost. Downstairs was a small restaurant, hence the rapid response, with a handful of smart and perfectly appointed small rooms above. The staff were wonderful – they helped me stow the bike in a store room, and made plans for a porter to open up and provide me with a packed breakfast in the morning. My slog across rural Hungary had been rewarded at last – Győr, and it’s inhabitants, had swept away the pain. I was asleep in moments.