Cycling out of Zagreb after a full seven days out of the saddle brought about strange feelings of anguish, to replace the underlying feelings of guilt, that accompanied my extended break. Its difficult to fully relax when spending money and not making daily progress toward the next destination.
You replay the decisions in your mind, re-justifying, then picking apart the logical reasoning with which you found peace, until you realise the ultimate unequivocal truth; what’s done is done.
Picking up the River Sava south of Zagreb, relinquishing the task of navigation for almost 15 miles, until I arrived at a bridge-less canal, joining the River Sava across my path. Leaving the Riverside, I picked up the road that tracks the north bank of the Sava, to discover it is a European cycle way, good news indeed.
As the miles rolled on, the internal chatter gradually quietened down to the occasional murmur, as the sights, sounds and smells of the day began to consume me. An active mind can be a fantastic tool, but, left unchecked, it can become a burden to keep focused and content. The elixir that brings silence is focusing on the now.
Dinner was served on a randomly situated picnic bench complete with garden, which sprung up out of the right side verge, to my amazement. These are actually quite common in rural Croatia, however, they normally form part of someone’s front garden. This one clearly belonged to someone, they just didn’t live in front of it. Left as it was found, they’ll never know.
The source of anguish, unsettling an otherwise good first day back on the road, was revealed as soon as it came time to find a place to rest for the night. Silly really, after all this time.
Stopping at a church, whose bells were ringing loudly to signal time was running out, a hopeless exchange of foreign words for each, with the lady inside, brought friendly smiles and chortles, but not a place to sleep.
Darting over a high verge between the road and the Sava, did. The first one litre shower in the moonlight for over a week washed away the anguish, to be replaced with a satisfying glow. It was great to be back on the road.
The days are shortening, sunrise is around 5:30am, sunset is around 8:00pm, usable light is available between 6:00am and 7:30pm, which now encapsulates my daily schedule, if all the hours of light are to be utilised.
Waking at 5:45am, packed and on the road for 7:00am, the mornings have a refreshing chill about them, encouraging a fast, blood warming eight to ten miles before breakfast.
Continuing along the Sava, the villages all have a mixture of old houses made only of wood, new houses of red brick in various stages of completeness, the occasional fully finished new house, and older ‘new houses’, in varying stages of collapse. These make for a very uneven roadside that continually draws the eyes in to investigate, very little of which is fully finished or fully maintained, which leads me to consider how house building is funded in Croatia.
It was another beautiful day, combined with the growing daily mileages, the passing of each offering retrospective affirmation of a decision well made to wait out the rain and recharge. Finding a perfect place to sleep for the night near a charming, little village called Komarnica coincided with another trip landmark – 2000 miles.
Up with the sun, I rejoined the road next to the field of corn on the cobs that I had shared with some field mice, who had found my tent guide straps very tasty! Another minor repair with the Loctite and dental floss, when I carried out the daily ritual of drying the tent of condensation and dew over lunch.
No matter, as I cycled back up to the main road I was overcome by the sensation of unencumbered freedom; free to roam, free to rest – what a privilege, what a pleasure.
Serbia was now in my sights, with a little focus and determination, surely I could breach the border. Zagreb to Serbia in 3 days would put me ahead of schedule for my rendezvous in Istanbul on the 30th September – must be on time for that.
An extra long lunch stop drying and repairing my tent, coupled with some interesting interactions with the locals, who, bemused by my apparent stupidity to camp next to the main road, offered a more suitable place to put my tent. An elderly lady who originated from Bosnia, also came to tell me something significant, in Bosnian, which sadly was lost to my ignorance of her language. I think it was something to do with her two sons, beyond that, I’m really just making it up. The lady did very kindly furnish me with a selection of freshly fallen pears and apples from her garden: how wonderful, fruit is comparatively expensive for me and not often eaten.
I didn’t quite make it to Serbia, but instead ended up spending the night in a hotel, over a petrol station, in Bosnia, work that one out!!
After Zupanja, the road I was following east no longer tracked the motorway, so I picked up a smaller road from Bošnjaci to Spačva, which quickly turned into a very uneven gravel track for 5 miles. With 70 miles already on the clock, following the two previous days averages of 72 miles each, the last thing my ass needed was a freakin’ gravel track!
Thankfully the road to Vrbanja was tarmac. Along the way I decided to find somewhere to shelter for the night, which ended up being cheaper than most of the campsites I had used up to then, and I was out of daylight anyway. Unbelievably, the place I found, with the help of a lovely lady who looked like she could crush walnuts with her bare hands, was full. Only one other place existed and on arrival there was no one around. Now pitch dark, I tried to get the attention of the chap living next door. When I saw his Homer Simpson like profile and a glint of menace in his eye, I reversed out without making contact in fear he may invite me in, then eat me.
It was then, that knocking on the doors of strangers in these remote parts of Croatia, essentially in no mans land between the borders of Bosnia and Serbia, I considered a bad idea. Drevnoci, the next village along yielded a similar result, however I did establish with a local that Brčko, just over the Bosnian border, would ‘100%’ have a place to stay, and so I went.
The border crossing was exciting, as they always are, but Bosnia, at night, gave an extra dose of adrenalin pumped butterflies! The Bosnian guard tactically withheld my passport while quizzing me, more out of his own interest of my journey than any concerns of National security. He was a nice chap, but it was late and I still needed to find somewhere to stay, so I quizzed him about where I could stay very cheaply, and he directed me towards a petrol station that had a hotel above it. It was cheap at Fifteen Euros, and it showed. In the morning there was no water. No explanation, just no water. I spent the evening eating… 93 miles covered, 53 since lunch without food, had left me ravenous, and the food was very cheap and tasty.
With Bosnian money left over and curious to see a little more of Bosnia, Bijeljina offered a sensible direction to head and cross into Serbia toward Belgrade.
Stopping for lunch, trying to use up the last of the Bosnian money, I sat eating Pizza, something that looked like a sausage roll, but was in fact a rolled Pizza made with a pastry base (ooohhh the calories!) and the biggest chocolate filled bread-y croissant I’ve ever seen. I made friends with the Albanian, Kosovan and Bosnian staff, who wanted to make me coffee and buy me Coke after they found out where I had cycled from. So very kind and friendly, I can’t imagine they made any profit from my visit, but it clearly wasn’t about the money. I left completely stuffed and high from all the sugar and coffee, the perfect preparation for what lay ahead.
Leaving Bijeljina I noticed a sign indicating that Beograd (Belgrade) was 141km away, and a fresh challenge inevitably took hold as I started to do the math, converting the kilometres into miles, roughly 87 miles. I had already covered 26 miles in the morning, which meant a new one day distance record was possible of 113 miles if I could make it to Belgrade.
Well, that was that.
It had been an impressive week of escalating daily mileages, 68, 76, 93 and now a possible 113, I couldn’t stop myself going for it. For much of the way the wind assisted me and somehow the black clouds, heavy with rain, only occasionally leaked a few drops my way. Until about 30 miles from Belgrade, then the heavens caved in releasing a torrent of liquid abuse, lashing down in all directions as the wind asserted its will.
I joined my old friend the River Sava, now much bigger and a healthier blue-y green colour as apposed to the rather manky brown gravy tone witnessed throughout Croatia. It was nice for nostalgia, however it created a perfect channel for the wind which was now blowing straight at me, slowing my progress and chilling my bones.
My hands were numb from the cold and I struggled to change gear. The wind caused the map holder to flap around unless I held it down, restricting my ability to change the position of my hands and redistribute the load throughout the day, resulting in the sensation of pins and needles with every move. My feet were like blocks of ice, my ass was raw from chaffing and every attempt to shift around the pain from the pressure sores brought about sharp shooting pains, followed by the same discomfort I was trying to relieve, but I didn’t care; nothing could stop me now.
On reaching Belgrade the usual kerfuffle took place, trying to navigate without a map desperate to find somewhere cheap to stay, still wearing only a vest and cycling shorts – I did get some strange looks!
The trip computer read 110 miles in 8 hours 49 seconds with an average speed of 13.7mph when I finally found a cheap hotel. In the back of my mind, the thought of a gruelling endurance race called ‘Race Across America’ brought to my attention by my Sales Director, Mr Surtees, festers away, just maybe….?
The process of personal growth is like running the 100 meters hurdles in the dark: you push yourself hard, knowing that to continue to grow, at some point you’ll need to clear a few hurdles. Only by pushing yourself to do things outside of your comfort zone will the invisible hurdles even appear, to place you on your arse. The experience of hitting a hurdle is one of overwhelm, everything, even the trivial, is too much to deal with. Tasks you would normally take in your stride, become troublesome and all you really want to do is hide under a big rock, or otherwise escape.
Overcoming overwhelm is purely a process of awareness. When things get too much, stand back and observe yourself; recognise that everything will be ok, everything is ok.
Just becoming aware that you’ve hit a hurdle is enough to clear it, and automatically your threshold to continue pushing yourself harder, further has been irrevocably moved on, allowing you to grow again.
Any feelings of guilt or uncertainty about my week in Zagreb disappeared as I travelled toward Serbia, becoming aware of my previous state of overwhelm along the way. When I finally reached Belgrade, I was stronger than before.
The rest of Serbia, possibly Romania and certainly Bulgaria and some of Turkey will make the next 550 miles as interesting as ever, but will there be more hurdles to clear? Probably! I hope so….