Albania: Adventure in Europe’s Backyard
Cycling is brutal, it always wants a little more than you can give. The joy and fulfilment it gives are only on loan. It asks for them back when you need those things the most.”
By Johnnymingbo - October 29, 2018 - A large, unlit firework appeared with “don’t hold when lit” written clearly along the left hand side of the rocket’s encasing. The man wielding it, Ndreke, our Albanian focal point and owner of the Theti Paradise lodge, immediately strikes you as the kind of guy who, in life as well as in munitions, pays little heed to such precautions.
What happened next could serve as a metaphor for our entire trip – In Albania, the seemingly benign can quickly turn to the shockingly unexpected.
“Happy Birthday Dan!” yells Ndreke, startling us from behind our dinner table on an outside porch facing the mountains. We turn around just as the hand-held firework sends its first volley into the night sky. My immediate thought was “Wow, that’s a pretty serious firework, how cool …”
My next thought was “oh shit” as the final rocket blast found its mark on our dinner table. With ears ringing and with feta cheese cauterized into the cracks of the wooden bench, Ndreke produces an uneasy laugh and tries to convince us that it was all part of the show. On hindsight, perhaps it was.
My buddy Dan wanted to do something exciting for his 30th birthday. Our group of friends all belong to a local amateur road cycling club called the Dandy Narwhals, riding out of Lola Bikes and Coffee in The Hague, the Netherlands. The problem with road bikes is that they require roads – well tarmacked and carefully groomed roads. That can sometimes limit your options.
To expand our range and breakout from our respective loops (to borrow a concept from Westworld) we invested in what are known as cyclo-cross bikes (road bikes with off road tyres) and began training on more inhospitable terrain. When I say that we began training, I really mean that Dan, Slow-Reece, Beard and Headwind [all real names] began training. I had a kid instead and got dirt on my hands only when there was a diaper fail. In a first foray into the new pursuit, the boys set out on a point to point trip through the Atlas Mountains in Morocco in March 2017. That trip, harrowing as it was in terms of distance and elevation gain, was supervised by local guides and a support vehicle. The trip to Albania would be an evolution of sorts. No guides, no support.
When creating your own route through terrain that no one has cycled through before, you had better have your navigation sorted. Slow-Reece, an ironically named cyclist and satellite engineer by training, was our navigator. Slow is not the kind of guy to follow his nose or go on instinct, the man puts his faith in science and technology. As such, Slow was able to construct a route through the remote Albanian Alps using satellite imagery and GPS. Where possible, he cross-checked the planned route with third-party information available on the internet. As it would turn out, much of the route would still be something of a surprise. As with all surprises – some are good, some … less-good.
First Day: 2 September 2017Theth to Lepushe
105 Kilometres, 2900 metres of climbing
Total elapsed time: 9 hours, 10 minutes.
The day before setting out, Ndreke picked us up from the airport in the capital Tirana and drove us the four hours to his mountain lodge in Theth. The last 12 kilometres of the drive involved a descent down a remarkably steep and rutted-out gravel path. Slow-Reece was quick to inform us as we knocked around the car that we’d be tackling the climb first thing in the morning.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried at the start. My physical condition was suspect vis-à-vis my companions and I had only ridden my CX bike twice before the trip (and never with a bag mounted on the saddle). I think the boys were worried about my preparation as well. Going on a cycling trip in worse physical condition than your mates can be as uncomfortable as showing up at a party that no one wants you at. The looks and gestures you receive are unmistakeable – they suggest that if you had any honour, you’d perform the sacred rite of hara-kiri.
Thankfully, it didn’t quite come to that.
The first 12k climb out of Theth averaged roughly 7%. This would normally be a quite challenging climb on tarmac – akin to L’Alp d’Huez. But we were not on tarmac. We were on what can best be described as an unsteady confederation of silt and jagged stones. Some stones were lose, some firmly planted. The only way to be sure was to ride over them.
We broke the ridge and finished the climb together and without incident. The views from the top sent a volt of electricity through us. We are going to do this – and it’s going to be awesome.
Eight hours later I had different ideas.
Following the climb we descended into the valley and stopped in cafes along the way. Incidentally, Albania has an amazing coffee culture. There were places where we were unsure about the quality of the water but were still able to order an espresso macchiato (unreal). After the coffee stop we ventured off road again and learned a quick and valuable lesson – flat roads (where we assumed we would pick up time by moving faster) can be more difficult (and slow) than climbs. What looked on paper to be a smooth gravel approach to the big and final climb of the day, turned out to be the Carrefour de l’Arbe of Albania. After 90 kilometres of abuse, I’d had enough. Unfortunately, there was a 15 kilometre climb between us and the farmhouse in Le Pushe. There was no choice but to move forward.
What followed was not pretty. Like other ill-fated marches (see Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, the Cherokee Indians on the “trail of tears”) the outcome was known at the outset. Poor nutritional choices led to an embarrassing drag up the mountain. I emptied myself only to ooze up the climb like a snail. Mercifully, we arrived at the farmhouse within minutes of a massive deluge of rain and lightning. The boys, unimpressed no doubt with my performance, were nonetheless jubilant over the completion of the first day’s challenge. I, on the other hand, was in a dark place. At dinner, I secretly contemplated all the ways I could abort the mission without having to ritualistically fall on my sword.
Second Day: 3 September 2017Lepushe to Valbone
70 Kilometres, 1900 metres of climbing
Total elapsed time: 8 hours, 10 minutes.
What a difference a day makes. I woke up feeling surprisingly fresh and a bit sheepish over my sulking the night before. I was just glad that I didn’t tell anyone what I had actually had been thinking. That would have been worse.
We started day two in cold, driving rain. With much ground to cover and not knowing what to expect in terms of difficulty, we had no choice but to push on. We reached the border crossing with Montenegro within the hour, passing hundreds of Hoxha constructed concrete bunkers along the way. The border crossing was surprisingly uneventful. I’m not sure what we were hoping for – a shakedown, interrogation, worse … the posters on the window told us (in English) that corruption and human trafficking were crimes. No criminals here.
Montenegro was … indistinguishable from Albania (sorry). Apart from the fact that, contrary to my expectation, all of the churches became mosques, the mountain landscapes and people bore no other obvious distinctions. We had a very cheap feed (€3.50 total for 5 guys) and two espresso macchiato each … and were on our way. The climb out of Montenegro and back into Albania was a beautiful one. On dark earth, then grass paths, the trail followed a river for a period and led us up and through a pass that delineated the border.
From the top, knowing we were only a descent away from our lodging in Valbone, we stopped at a café and took in the views. Lesson learned? Take nothing for granted. We would get three flats on the descent and arrive at our lodging just before dark. At least we didn’t have to break out the lights… yet.
Third Day: 4 September 2017Valbone to Drisht
72 Kilometres, 1400 metres of climbing
Total elapsed time: 12 hours, 2 minutes.
Morale was high leaving Valbone. The cool thing about adventure riding is that the instinct that we’ve honed from our road bikes – namely to seize on your opponents (i.e. friends) weakness and grind them into the ground – is suppressed in favour of comradery and common purpose. Like a team time trial, the time only stops when the last man crosses the line.
Our day started with a long descent to Komani Lake from where we would pick up a ferry and relax until we reached the starting point of our day’s ascent. The boat ride was cruisy (and a bit long) and we arrived at our starting point at around 4PM. This was worrying.
Five minutes after disembarking from the boat and we were already hiking up scree with our bikes. Apparently, tech companies use cell phone signals to determine what constitutes “roads” in countries where satellite imagery isn’t that helpful. In the case of Albania, nearly every goat herder we came across was young and carrying a cell phone (ostensibly to Instagram the day’s activities). So for google, a goat path appeared as a veritable thoroughfare. Shit.
We hiked with our bikes to the top of the ridge (one hour lost). From the top we see a wide expanse of nothingness. The option to double-back was discussed. I was in favour, the others wanted to push forward into the unknown. And so we did. Down through a gorge, across a river and back up a steep embankment, we were yet to find anything resembling a rideable path. We marched through a farmer’s field on a sheer cliff-side but there were no farmers in sight. Headwind, perhaps intuiting my failing morale, handed me an illicitly purloined fig. It did the trick.
At the top of the second mountain, at the doorsteps of a lonely cliff-side church, we came across the beginnings of a rocky road that we could ride. Salvation was at hand. It was nearly dark and we were just starting to climb! Before doing so however, we needed to replenish out water supply. We put the water filter that Slow-Reece had been lugging around for days to use with Headwind expertly filling each of our bottles from a stream of water exiting a mini hydro-electric generator.
The remaining climb was done at dusk and we reached the top just as the sun’s last pink and purple flares burned out over the horizon. The descent would have to be done in darkness.
We discussed the possibility of riding at night in advance. We brought headlamps. However, not all headlamps are created equal and those of us with standard lamps might as well have been using matches. We couldn’t see a thing.
My vision is poor at the best of times. At night, I’m certified blind. Beard, sensing that I was struggling at the back, quietly exchanged his 20,000 mega-watt halogen lamp for my pen light and nonchalantly continued on with the descent. I’m not sure I would have made it down without injury had he not done so. Team time trial (TTT) … Team.
We arrived in Drisht well into the evening. Ironically, it was the one place where we thought we would “wing it” and just find accommodation when we got there. It wasn’t looking good. Being a mountain town, people had already gone to bed seemingly hours before. No one was around and all was dark. We stopped a man passing on a scooter and, with hand gestures in lieu of language, communicated that we were tired, hungry and in need of accommodation. As if sent by the Ministry of Tourism as an ambassador for Albanian hospitality and good will, the perfect stranger turned his bike around and led us quietly to the next town where there might actually be a place to stay. On arrival, it took a few restless moments of cajoling a topless man from a third-story window out of bed before we knew we were going to be ok. The hotel owner, now dressed, turned the lights on, cooked us a meal, and showed us to our beds. Storybook ending. We were buzzing.
So too, it turns out, were our bellies.
Fourth/Final Day: 5 September 2017
Drisht to Theth
67 Kilometres, 2200 metres of climbing
Total elapsed time: 11 Hours
Despite being exhausted from the previous day’s efforts, I couldn’t sleep at all. When day broke, I saw that Slow-Reece was in even worse condition than I was. He was throwing up before even consulting with his breakfast. It was going to be a long day.
Sensing that we were close to accomplishing our task, we decided to push on and try and will our way to Theth. If it took all day, so be it. TTT.
Twenty minutes into the ride and we had already turned around. Slow was in the eye of his gastro-intestinal storm and needed some time to recuperate. We stopped at a last chance saloon (before entering 60 kilometres of isolation) and enjoyed a loaf of white bread and the now familiar espresso macchiato.
By mid-day, Slow-Reece was feeling well enough to continue and we commenced our assault on the gorge. What we encountered, from the outset, is hard for me to properly describe. It may be the worst road in the entire world. Nothing I’ve ever seen compares. The road’s reputation even intimidated our logistics man Ndreke – and that guy has two brown bears as pets. Every metre would have to be fought for. Every inclination to stop and give in, denied.
As we snaked our way up the gorge and began to gain altitude the rain began to fall. First a trickle, then a torrent. End of Days rain. Thunder, lightening, and hail. The temperature dropped. And the fun stopped.
The rain was the last straw. I’d been quietly battling my own intestinal demons but the rain and cold laid waste to my efforts at resistance. Vomit first, then … well, other things. We took shelter in an abandoned house with a cracked roof. It was damp and filled with goat shit. I was not in good shape – physically exhausted and mentally wasted. With 35 kilometres still to go, it was imperative that we push on if we were going to make it. The collective enthusiasm of the team gave inspiration for a last ditch effort to press on. Supported as I was, it soon became obvious that I simply didn’t have the strength to go on. To make the guys, who were also suffering their own private battles, wait for me under those conditions would have been irresponsible. I had to do the honourable thing – I hara-kiried my ride and called Ndreke. After a unsolicited rant about how stupid we were for trying to ride through the gorge on bikes, Ndreke sent his brother in a 4X4 to come and get me. It would take him 3 hours to go 35 kilometres – sit tight!
After taking note of the precise location of my newest goat hovel, and just as a new storm broke over our heads, the boys begrudgingly headed off to finish what we had started. I, in turn, waited behind for the cavalry.
Two and a half hours later Ndreke’s brother appears. I’m near delusional and greet him as the French greeted allied soldiers on the Champs-Élysées. He looks battered, and I begin to wonder if I’m really out of the woods yet. Keys in the ignition, Ndreke’s brother (let’s call him Dothraki) cracks a second beer and tosses the last out the window. We were off.
It would be two hours before we caught sight of the boys. It remains one of the most harrowing car rides of my life. On numerous occasions I imagined how the Dothraki would react to my spewing and shitting all over his 4X4. I managed to hold it all in, barely. We listened to Albanian hip-hop at ear splitting decibels for nearly the entire ride. Spotting the boys was a blessing, it was an opportunity to slow down and take stock.
The finish was dramatic. Listing to what sounded like Sufi music playing from Dothraki’s radio, I watch as these depleted bodies stripped themselves of all remaining energy in order to keep their furnaces of their internal boiler rooms lit. Their faces were sullen, their movements unsure, their determination – evident. As is often the case with adventures such as these – the ending tends to be anti-climactic. Other than the satisfaction we experienced from Ndreke’s words of awe and amazement, the feeling after having reached the gates of Thethi Paradise, at least for me, was more of relief.
Though the sickness robbed me of the final kilometres, the satisfaction of having been a part of this project and the prospect of applying this experience to future adventures was richly rewarding. For the others, rather than glory, what awaited the heroes of Theth was exhaustion and the stomach illness that had felled Slow-Reece and I a day earlier. No one was sparred. To see hard men like Headwind and Beard laid up from the experience showed me that everyone was truly at their limit. Weirdly, knowing that they had given it everything added to the feeling of comradery and common purpose for me. Cycling is weird like that. As I was departing from Tirana airport and checking back in with the wider world on my iPhone, I came across a quote from Lachlan Morton, blogging after stage 18 of La Vuelta, which struck me. He wrote:
“Cycling is brutal, it always wants a little more than you can give. The joy and fulfilment it gives are only on loan. It asks for them back when you need those things the most.”
I think Lachlan is right. Cycling can be an incredibly selfish pursuit. Like a drug, the satisfaction is ephemeral and recidivism is a high probability. On occasion however, cycling can leave you with something more indelible. In the case of our trip to Albania, rather than memories of staring at my stem or KOMs on insignificant segments, I was left with the stirring sensation that real adventure is still possible and that it can be pursued on two wheels.