TARNo1 // Day 1

May 15, 2024

Michael Drummond

Disrupted Isolation

Words by Ross Brannigan, Race Reporter

The first full morning of The Accursed Race has dawned, dew clinging to the thick vegetation which clad the dramatic hillsides of north Albania. As the riders in the mid-pack descend the snaking Hotit Pass, spray cartwheels from their tyres after a night that saw many catch some early sleep to avoid the rain.

It was a dramatic first day of racing, as the riders left the sanctuary of Shkodër to face their first mountain test of the Race. Despite the steady climb to their first pass at 1200m, jarring bedrock saw many questioning their setups. Ronnie Roelandt (34) confessed he had “made a terrible mistake” in exchanging his front suspension for a rigid fork. “If the rest of the route is like this, I am not sure how many of us will make it to the end”, he said, swigging down a Coca-Cola at the first resupply point in Theth.

While riders encountered the first real tests of their preparation, the dynamics at the front of the Race were already taking shape. After covering around 70km in just three hours of racing, the front three riders – Alex Kopp (27), Adrien Liechti (12) and Josh Ibbett (29) – had broken clear of the main bunch, dropping into the Theth Valley to trade bedrock for tarmac.

Matt Grayson

It was here the first big move of the day took place, as Alex Kopp moved ahead of Adrien Liechti to lead the Race. Alex gradually solidified his lead throughout the day, the gap extending to 25km at times to his nearest rival, with a further 20km back to Josh. Overnight, the trio took their first rests, with Josh pausing for nearly four hours while the other two opted for a shorter break of around three hours. 

Speaking at the start line, Josh made it clear he would not sacrifice sleep for potential short-term gains: “There are a lot of unknowns in this Race, so riding conservatively is more sensible. I certainly won’t be sleeping two hours a night for the first three days; I think I will just get into my routine and see how it plays out.”

With the front of the pack on their way to the Cirò Trail — a disused Austro-Hungarian railway line — the majority of the mid-pack stopped to rest in Podgorica. After a day of three soaring climbs in the remote Accursed Mountains, arriving in the Montenegrin capital will feel like entering another world, with bright lights, fast-food restaurants and hotels, a shift from towering forests to a concrete jungle.

Inroads to the wilderness 

Acclaimed 19th- and 20th-century travel writer Edith Durham once wrote of the Theth Valley: “I think no place where human beings live has given me such an impression of majestic isolation from all the world.”

Stepping out of the Race vehicle where the gravel meets the tarmac, I could see what so impressed Edith. All around, jagged Dolomitic peaks struck out above the rainforest-like canopy, the light rain causing mist to swirl about their upper slopes and concealing unending summits. 

Jays, thrushes and finches chorused from the thick forest, adding to the song played by the rushing Lumi i Thethit. We took cover amongst the undergrowth, Control Car photographer Matt Grayson aimed his long telephoto lens through the bushes awaiting the arrival of the leading woman in the race, Weronika Szalas (08). 

Matt Grayson

Every shift in position caused the heady scent of fresh thyme to emanate from our feet, the sun beginning to burn off the morning’s rain to create a heavy mix of scents. 

Once every now and again, a 4x4 or pick-up truck would barrel past on the gravel road, heading who-knows-where up the valley towards the innermost sanctuary of the mountains. As we crouched, Race Coordinator Hannah Larbalestier, Matt and I received sidelong looks from passing hikers, some stopping at the new cafe-restaurant to drink coffee and marvel at their surroundings.

Anywhere else in the world, this scene would be the height of normality — but this is new here. Signs of development are everywhere, even down to the tarmac road we had driven to access this remote corner of the mountains.

Outside the bar, gravel is piled at the side of the road to make way for new parking, and a freshly-painted sign indicates ‘Camping’. 

It is a sign of the fresh wave of tourism and attention Albania is getting. Theth, in the days of Edith Durham, would have been considered remote and inaccessible. Today, it feels like a burgeoning tourist destination, with even a zip-line available on the climb out the valley. 

Weronika rode by, passing an old stone hut which was being consumed by foliage. She looks serene, and moving well. Throughout the day, she continued this pace, chipping steadily away at the course to finish her day in Podgorica, temporarily surrendering her spot as fastest woman to Bernarda Juric (28). 

Not far behind her, the leading pair — Julien Gravaud (40a) and Simon Taulelle (40b) — were riding well yesterday. When I spoke to them on the climb out of Theth, they were donning warm clothing for the cold descent, dew clinging to Julien’s beard. 

“It’s just incredible”, said Julien of the landscapes surrounding us. “It’s like the Lord of the Rings!” As the pair rode into Theth, however, they encountered fresh signs of  new developments underway in this valley. Huge trucks and diggers were leveling the bedrock and dropping fresh gravel on the road. It is difficult to think this is simply for tourism. Elsewhere in Albania, the same thing is happening, with fresh roads connecting once isolated areas. 

Matt Grayson

As humans slowly create fresh inroads into this wilderness, what does the future hold for a valley like Theth? Locals have told us of the increased investment in the country. After years of depopulation, people are returning to these areas, bringing with them families and business. 

This tension between cherishing what remains and advancing towards the future will play out throughout the Race. 

Today, the riders will continue to flow through Montenegro to Bosnia & Herzegovina, where they will ride the Cirò Trail and onwards to the Neretva Valley and the Sutjeska National Park.

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