A Slight Change of Plan

1st SEPTEMBER 2018

Breakfast at the Open Doors B&B involves helping myself to a large continental spread of cereal, bread, cheeses, juice and tea. There’s also a friendly old lady rushing between kitchen and dining area who’s cooking hot food to order. I opt for fried egg and a freshly made pancake that’s so huge it covers my entire plate. It looks a bit lonely on its own, so I drown it with lashings of sticky honey.

Before leaving I inspect my distorted back wheel, which is in a worse condition than I first thought. As well as being warped, one of my spokes has managed to rupture the wheel rim and force its way through. Fortunately my wheels are double-rimmed or the spoke would have pushed straight through, puncturing the tyre and causing all sorts of mayhem. I’m convinced this is another repercussion of me crunching over that pothole while speeding downhill to Sarajevo. The fact that this incident happened a full week ago suggests two things – Firstly, the wheel damage may be manageable as I’ve already cycled 300km since then. Secondly, I really should be checking my bike more thoroughly.

All this back wheel drama gets me thinking about the best way to approach the next few days. I’ve only got 350km left to cycle in just under two weeks, which means I could probably nurse the bike along slowly and still make the distance. However, there’s also a chance that my rear wheel will buckle completely before I reach my target of Sarandë. If that happens then the trip ends wherever I stop.

The solution arrives when I think back to my original goal of wanting to cycle from the Arctic to the Mediterranean. In my mind, I always thought that reaching the sea and ending the trip would be synchronised. I’d even chosen my route to purposefully avoid the coast until my final destination at Sarandë. I imagined that getting to the Mediterranean and relaxing for a few days would be my reward for finishing the trip. Now though, my circumstances have changed somewhat. With the threat of my back wheel collapsing, I decide I’m just going to head for the sea as soon as I can. To achieve that, I have to keep going for another 100km and this will see me reaching the coast at the port city of Durrës. And if I do make it to the Mediterranean, I’ll have completed what I set out to do. After that, I really don’t care if my wheel falls off and disintegrates into a thousand pieces.

With all this sorted in my head I leave Shkodër, taking the main road south out of town. This street is absolute chaos, with cars triple parked, cyclists on the wrong side of the road and a cacophony of car horns as a soundtrack. On the outskirts of town the road arcs round a tall, rocky outcrop that has the imposing ruins of Rozafa Castle standing upon it. The castle is named after a woman who was used as a human sacrifice and walled into the castle foundations to appease the Gods. It was believed that this sacrifice would keep the castle walls standing and bring good fortune. Not very lucky for the unfortunate Rozafa, but the castle walls are still upright over two thousand years later.

I only cycle a short 40km today, trundling along gently and nursing my back wheel until I’m just past the town of Lezhe. My accommodation for tonight is a sort of petrol station / motel hybrid, which seems to be quite the thing in Albania. It’s a decent enough place to be fair, but there’s something strange happening with the rooms. Every single power point will only accept plugs that have plastic-like flexible prongs. Try as I might, I cannot force my fixed-prong plug into any of the sockets. I’m not sure if this is a deliberate ploy by the motel, or that I’m just being dumb. Either way, I’m not able to recharge anything electrical.

Breakfast the following morning is taken in the petrol station’s cafe, so I lower my expectations accordingly. Lucky that I do really, as it’s bang average. My food consists of an omelette accompanied by half a dozen slices of tomato and cucumber. For afters I try not to injure my mouth on bread rolls that have clearly just escaped a microwave, meaning they are rock hard on the outside and volcano hot in the middle. I am given a side dish of pickle though, which does make the rolls taste marginally better.

When I leave Lezhe I discover that Sunday must be wedding day in Albania. A convoy of cars passes me with a guy poking out the sunroof in the lead car. He’s standing up and facing backwards while filming the whole procession. This camera car acts like the traffic police, stopping every other vehicle on the road just so they can get some pre-wedding footage. I also find that nothing makes the whole parade happier than sounding their car horns continuously.

Despite my rear wheel worries, I’m flying along this morning and eat up the first 20km in no time. Then my road widens to dual carriageway and soon expands to become a motorway. Bollocks. This means I’ll have to find an alternative route as I’m not allowed on the motorway as a cyclist. I have to move 5km further inland, where a smaller road runs along the foot of a hill and parallel to the motorway. It’s a bumpy ride though, and slows me right down. At one point I reach a bridge that is under repair, with two rough looking blokes directing traffic around it. The diversion is a temporary track beside the bridge, all gravel, mud and rock, which does nothing for my wheel and spokes.

After the town of Thumanë, the road becomes a bit odd. Some sections have been resurfaced with beautifully smooth new tarmac, while others are simply dirt track. I’m caught up by two old Swiss guys who are also avoiding the motorway while heading for the capital, Tirana. One of them cycled this same stretch of road in reverse last year and tells me that the full length was dirt and gravel back then. I’ve almost reached the town of Fushë-Krujë, when the road becomes nothing more than a collection of compacted rocks. I’m now cycling at a snail’s pace on the stony base layer of a road that’s yet to be constructed. If I could have chosen any conditions to avoid today, then this would have been high on my list.

I get over the rocks unscathed, then join a dual carriageway that will take me all the way to Durrës and the coast. Tbis road is downhill for the most part, and with traffic speeding past, it subconsciously makes me quicken my pace too. The riding is easy now, and the closer I get to Durrës, the less I think about my back wheel.

I reach the city by mid afternoon and find that my accommodation is situated on a stupidly steep hill near the coast. I begin slogging up the bumpy narrow street, but I’m putting in so much effort that I’m practically bouncing the bike uphill. This is silly. What’s the point of putting all this strain on my rear wheel when I’m so close to finishing ? I get off and push for the final fifty metres.

I’m checked in to the family run Hotel Gega by a man in his fifties, who uses his English-speaking son as translator between us. I’m sweating like a pig in a sauna after that crazy hill, and must look absolutely knackered. The owner sees this and sits me down in the bar area, giving me a glass of chilled water and a strong coffee to help me recover. I sit there talking to the owners and just chill for a while. There are a couple of tall apartment-type buildings in front of the hotel, but in between them I can see some tantalising glimpses of blue that mean I have reached the Mediterranean Sea.

In the evening I walk down the opposite side of the steep hill and towards the sea. I get there just before sunset and people-watch while the big yellow orb dips below the horizon. The atmosphere is so laid back and relaxed, with people sitting outside restaurants and families taking an evening stroll along the beachfront. I’m not really sure what I expected from Albania, but this is lovely.

I go for a pizza and beer and sit there quietly munching, while I reflect on everything that has happened in the last three months. Bloody Hell ! I’ve just cycled all the way from the Arctic to the Mediterranean !

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