The track hardened, and then all at once I was riding on tight, newly laid tarmac across the valley, breathing a sigh of relief that I hadn’t been put off by the initial roughness of the track. The road descended gradually as I neared the edge of the valley, towards a small cluster of red-roofed houses, tucked in at the base of the hills. And then the tarmac ran out, and my heart sank again as I bumped along a dusty track, the stones sliding and rattling under my wheels. I toyed once again with the decision to turn back, but I was even further along now, and still moving forward.
I decided to keep going. There would only be about 10km of gravel, probably leading up to the pass Neil had crossed, and then down into Montenegro, and I knew I’d spend the extra hours on tarmac wishing I had had the courage to endure it, rather than slowing my progress still further. It was interesting, I noted, as I stood on the pedals to navigate the bike round a steep bend, that in contrast with my constant and often irresistible urge to stop riding, turning back still felt like a taboo I couldn’t break.
Somehow, I had managed to plait the necessity of forward motion so tightly into my will that to transgress it felt like sacrilege. The road, with its loose, dusty stones and steep, winding climbs, was a difficult one, and it took all of my strength and focus to ride it. But I spent that afternoon in the same trance I’ve entered in other remote parts of the world.
The brief panic that I was losing time, that I was making a terrible mistake and everyone must be watching my dot get steadily more and more lost, that I might even fail to make it through to Montenegro, and end up retracing these kilometres and losing even more time, all wilted away in the face of the rushing, roaring glow of excitement that flared up to replace it.
The road pulled me off into the hills, higher and higher, further and further away from the busy traffic of Bosnia and Croatia, past small hamlets, where occasionally a lone person or dog would watch my progress, themselves as motionless as the landscape, up into the trees, and up again out of the trees, on and on into a wilderness whose end I couldn’t foresee and whose length I wasn’t sure if I had it in me (or my food pouches and water bottles) to traverse.
Something about this road inflamed me, igniting reserves of energy I thought I must long ago have plundered. For hours and hours I forgot about tiredness, and all of the itches and aches that had been plaguing me. I even forgot about the race, my mind instead filled with the resounding chord of fear and excitement I’ve felt on previous journeys, in Qinghai, in Iceland, in Alaska, when I pressed on into heat or cold or wildness that my deepest instincts feared might kill me, even though reason insisted that it wouldn’t, that this was after all a road, and that it would lead somewhere, eventually, and that if I could just keep going, I’d reach safety.
At the top of the pass, just as my phone pinged to let me know I was crossing a border, I found a small graveyard, filled with headstones of polished marble that seemed out of place among the unkempt trees and shrubs. I wondered who was buried here, on a remote international border, suspected it might have something to do with the Balkan War, and concluded reluctantly that I didn’t have time to find out.
It was not then downhill all the way into Montenegro. The road rose and fell repeatedly, leading me further and further into the hills, and I battled on, with a creeping background fear that, even if this road did connect to the highway I wanted to be on, there was a chance the border area might be patrolled, that I wasn’t supposed to be here, and would be turned back and sent on a lengthy detour to an official crossing.
Here and there I’d discover a strip of concrete spread across the gravel, usually close to some homestead or hamlet, and on one heady occasion I found myself back on tarmac, on a narrow lane winding upwards through a tunnel of deciduous trees, reminding me so closely of Mid Wales that for a few seconds I forgot where I was. But the gravel resumed, and I left that mysterious strip of tarmac behind and continued down into a long valley, lined with soft grass and tiny Alpine flowers.
As I thundered round a hairpin, my front tyre deflated with a sudden loud hiss, and I stopped in dismay to find an inch-long slash in the rubber, the white sealant leaking out like spilt milk. I took the wheel off and got out my spare inner tube, anxiety humming at the back of my head that both my water and my energy were going to run out eventually, and that I still had no idea when this road would lead me back to civilisation.
The inner tube was too small – a skinny remnant from my courier days – and no matter how much I pumped, I couldn’t get it to fill my 28mm tyre. I saw that this could be the end of everything. My options were few, and none of them easy. I could walk, for as long as it took to reach a bike shop in this under-populated country. That might well be several days, although there was a chance a kind local might offer me a lift.
I’d passed no vehicles, but I’d seen jeeps and ancient cars parked outside houses. Finishing – let alone winning – the race was probably now beyond my reach: there was a rule that, if you had to accept a lift in an emergency, you were obliged to return to the point where you’d stopped riding, and continue from there. The practicalities of this, as I sat stranded in this valley, not knowing when I’d next encounter a human being, or how many hundreds of miles it might be to wherever I could acquire a new tyre, were too daunting to contemplate.
Well, you have to sort this out somehow, said a small voice in my head. And there’s no point in panicking – that’ll just waste energy, and you’ll end up exactly where you started. So what’ll make a difference? Food? Water? Sleep? Have something to eat.
I unzipped my frame pack, and pulled out the malt loaf I had been hoarding as an emergency food stash. Sitting on the grassy bank that overlooked the blond gravel and my injured bike, I devoured it in just a few minutes, remembering the malt loaf I’d eaten at the summit of Ventoux the previous year, listening to the wind roaring around Marion and Kevin’s camper van.
And then I looked into my frame pack again, wondering if by some implausible stroke of luck I had happened to bring another inner tube – and there, tucked in behind where the malt loaf had sat, was a brand-new 28mm tube, rolled up and fastened with an elastic band, reassuringly plump. I remembered, faintly, throwing an extra tube – the thin one – into my seat pack as I fretted away the last hour before catching the train to Dover, thinking that, as I had space, I might as well fill it. I had had what I needed all along.
And now it was with calm contentment that I unfurled my Leatherman to cut a strip from a bag of Lidl cashew nuts, carefully positioned it between tyre and tube, and reached for my pump. I’d been carrying this pump for four years, ever since a friend sent it out to Japan to replace one I’d worn out on my long ride across Asia. Steff had died shortly afterwards, passing away in his London flat as I battled through a storm in Akita, and every time I used this pump I thought of him, grateful that his generosity had got me out of yet another tight spot.
Tyre reinflated, I carried on along the gravel, now attentive to its sharper flints, and aware that only one of my bottles had anything left in it. At the top of each hill I stopped for a sip, and when I occasionally saw a house in the distance, usually at the end of another imposing gravel track, I debated whether to go and ask for water.
For now, shyness won out, though I knew this would change as my desperation mounted. When I eventually came to what passed for a village – a handful of buildings clustered quietly together on an open plateau – I spied a police jeep parked outside the first house, and feared that this might be the moment I was apprehended, turned back or at the very least held up by a lengthy monolingual interrogation about passports and papers.
Through the open door, as I approached, I could see a pair of uniformed legs, and I knew that my fate would depend on whether their owner was asleep, looking in the opposite direction or busy with something on his desk.
Pedalling lightly to hide the sound of my freewheel, and carefully choosing the smoothest part of the road to avoid disturbing the stones, I stole past the building, and looked in to see a tired, dark-haired man sitting on a plastic garden chair and holding an ancient firearm. His eyes met mine with no expression whatsoever, and his head turned to follow my progress as I rode past.