TARNo1 // Day 2

May 16, 2024

Matt Grayson

Devil in the Detail

Words by Ross Brannigan, Race Reporter

The three riders at the head of The Accursed Race have continued to cement their lead as they reach the wild Neretva River and Sutjeska National Park, having ridden almost 650km.

Alexander Kopp (27) remains the race leader, with a gap of around 25km to Adrien Liechti (12). While on the map, Alex looks to be in a commanding position in the Race, the mountains can bite quickly and turn a comfortable lead into a tight scramble for positions.

Josh Ibbett (29) trails Adrien by around 50km, but with the mountains obscuring signal from the riders’ trackers it can be a challenge to see exactly how the Race is taking shape in these remote areas.

Control Car 1 spent the day tracking the front three, eventually finding Josh resupplying in Trebinje, Bosnia & Herzegovina. After a night spent sleeping in the company of bats, Josh remained confident in his race strategy. 

Sam Dugon

“I saw Alex and Adrien disappear on the first climb”, Josh reflected. “And I know Alex is fast on the descents. He’s also riding a full-suspension bike so that is a big advantage. I am just doing my own thing, riding my own race. It is still early days.”

Golden light flooded the Neretva River Valley yesterday evening as the fastest riders made their way beneath a pastel blue sky along the gravel tracks towards Bosnia & Herzegovina’s oldest National Park.

Away from the front three men, one rider who has made huge gains in the last 24 hours is Weronika Szalas (08). After losing her spot as the fastest woman in the Race early yesterday, she quickly reclaimed her position and consolidated it, moving from ninth to fifth overall.

Despite her relative lack of racing experience, the Polish rider is showing just how consistent she can be. Of the top five, she is the one to have had the greatest amount of rest, stopping for around 12 hours to the around seven of the top three. How will that strategy play out for the rest of the Race?

On her way through the field through Bosnia & Herzegovina, she traced her way through the rock hewn tunnels of the Cirò Trail — finding them teeming with bats! Unperturbed, she moved on, and is in hot pursuit of fourth-placed Rory Anderson (23).

Julien Gravaud (40a) and Simon Taulelle (40b) remain the fastest pair in the Race, not far behind Weronika.

More than meets the eye

After leaving the Albanian Alps behind, one might think that the rolling trails and tarmac through Montenegro and Bosnia & Herzegovina could be a welcome break for the intrepid riders. Yet the challenges are far from over.

With resupply options scarce in this section of the Race, I waited for riders close to the Montenegrin border with Bosnia & Herzegovina. The petrol station was a hub of activity, and multiple riders were lured in by the promise of water, sugar and ice-cream.

One such rider was Thomas Quirk (11), who said he remembered how testing the terrain through Montenegro was after racing Trans Balkan.

“It is just up, down, up, down; just little ups and downs forever”, he said. “There was one section of trail that was completely overgrown. There were people riding it, which was bold because it is a good way to lose a rear derailleur.”

Matt Grayson

The terrain here is a fierce karst surface, dry and sharp with stiff climbs and snagging shrubs and bushes clinging to the riders’ kit. 

For some, the machinations of the Accursed Race are already taking their toll. Florian Büchele (25) had a rough night in Podgorica when a street dog tried to invade his sleeping bag. Struggling with the demands of the route, he was teetering on the edge of scratching when I spoke to him at his resupply. 

“I had a crash yesterday and have some bruising on my hip”, he said, showing me a series of scrapes and dirt on his right side. “I have booked a room in Trebinje where I will reconsider whether I continue to race or not. It's really rough and probably one or two sizes bigger than I thought this adventure might be.”

The list of scratches remains short, with just two so far including Mudit Kohli (32), who unfortunately left his travel documents in a hotel and faced an arduous return journey to collect them. 

As the Race goes on and the physical and mental endurance of the riders is tested, the grip of the Accursed Mountains will continue to tighten, meaning their problem-solving will be constantly tested. 

Contested landscapes

As more riders reach the Upper Neretva River Valley and Sutjeska National Park, they will return to the gravel to follow the route through the mountains. On their way, they will pass ancient gravesites, a sign of the long history of transhumance and the integrated relationship humans have had with these landscapes.

For millennia, people have lived and moved through these places, often living symbiotically with their surroundings, herding livestock from upper to lower pastures as the seasons change. 

Sam Dugon

Some of these once faint paths have been almost lost to new bulldozed tracks, offering fresh access and development to take place in these wild lands. The Upper Neretva is a river of outstanding biodiversity and ecological importance in the Dinaric Alps.

Plans are afoot to excavate large portions of the karst landscapes into sites of hydroelectric power. It is a contested issue: campaigners in Bosnia & Herzegovina want to see a protected area created for the whole Upper Neretva River, preventing the creation of three new hydroelectric dams, adding to several more already in the area. Whilst contributing to the energy network, these dams pose a grave threat to the flora and fauna which rely on a free-flowing river to survive.

Yet, beauty abounds in this area, and the riders will no doubt have an opportunity to marvel at this still impressive landscape as their journey inches them further towards Beranë and the first Control Point over halfway into the Race. 

Hot on their heels, rain clouds gather, and thunder booms as their legs spin to the rhythm of the mountainous gradients. The song of the Race is still being written. 

Matt Grayson

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