TARNo1 // Day 6

May 20, 2024

Matt Grayson

Words by Ross Brannigan, Race Reporter

The winner of the inaugural  Accursed Race has been crowned. After a nail-biting final 24-hours, Alexander Kopp (27) reached the end of his adventure through the Balkan wilderness. Leading for much of the Race, the German took his first ultra-distance victory in just six days, one hour, and 45 minutes.

Matt Grayson

After scaling 37,000m of gruelling terrain over the 1600km-long course, Alex lifted a hand to wave at the finish line team, becoming a worthy first winner of this grand adventure. 

His face broke into a relieved smile, with salt stains creating a web of white patterns across his purple jersey. Yesterday, Alex and his nearest rival, Adrien Liechti (12), played cat-and-mouse through the mountains and valleys that shape the latter part of the course, before Alex finally broke clear over Qafshtama.

Speaking under the bright morning sun in Shkodër — local people carrying brightly coloured bags of fruit and vegetables around the finish — he reflected on a thrilling final day of racing.

“I had a very great day yesterday. I had so much power and pushed from CP2 until the last climb. It was a good feeling to have the best day on the sixth day.”

Asked what had made the difference, Alex said his previous nights’ stay in a hotel, allowing him around four hours sleep, had played a significant part in overtaking his rival. Adrien, by contrast, had a broken couple of hours of sleep after a thunderstorm broke over Peshkopi, opting for a petrol station and road-side bivouac.

Matt Grayson

“[Chasing Adrien] was a really exciting part of the Race”, Alex said. “He was my carrot. I like to play Pac-man; I like to eat everyone from behind.”

Andrew Phillips, Race Director of The Accursed Race, described Alex as a more than worthy winner of the first edition of the Race:

“It was a brilliant performance from Alex. He paced his race really well the whole way around. He was obviously well-prepared and didn't let anything panic him.”

Cat and mouse

In amongst the action yesterday, the team of Control Car 2 and I awaited the lead riders’ arrival in Bastar Murriz. The pair had traversed the Mali me Gropa-Mizë-Martanesh Nature Park and the stunning Shengjerjj balcony road, a glorious piece of doubletrack over the mountains with views of unfurling peaks and out to the the Albanian coast.

Adrien was the first to arrive, bursting from the trees and dropping onto his aero bars. We followed him downhill towards a cafe, where he pulled in and disappeared into a throng of weekend visitors enjoying the Sunday sunshine. I dashed out the car, only to find his discarded bike lying abandoned on the gravel. I did not need to wait long for him to reappear with a bag of crisps, already half-eaten, in his hand. After appearing calm and focused on his own race since day one, it was clear a shift had occurred. After his swift departure from CP2 the day before, I now asked him what had changed:

“I want to finish. We are super close, I think. It's a race! It's a race.”

Matt Grayson

When Alex arrived 25 minutes later, his demeanour was much more relaxed. He weaved his way downhill, eschewing a cafe stop to continue onto the gravel towards the Qafshtama climb.

The fickle nature of the mountains forced us to take the long drive around while they made the 20km ride over the 1100m pass. Taking cover in some bushes above the road, we looked across a series of huge rusting gas storage tanks, one of which had collapsed and lay buckled at a 45-degree angle. This remnant of industry was slowly being ground down by the elements, and all would crumble to the earth in time.

Matt Grayson

Eventually, a dot appeared — it was Alex. He passed below us through the ferns and trees, the mist low on the hills and the air close. It was another 30 minutes later before Adrien appeared. The chase had reversed, and Alex was on the charge to his ultimate win. 

Today, we expect to welcome Adrien Liechti and Josh Ibbett (29) at the finish in Shkodër, before a long wait back to Rory Anderson (23), who has enjoyed an incredibly consistent ride until this point.

Michael Drummond

The peak of perseverance

Back in Peshkopi, Weronika Szalas (08) has reached CP2 after what were the most testing days in her Accursed Race. Battling knee pain and saddle-sores, Weronika was on the edge of scratching over the last 24 hours. However, she embodied the strength and resilience that epitomises a rider of The Accursed Race, to overcome these challenges to reach the second Control Point.

Sam Dugon

Admitting yesterday had been a tearful day, she confessed the promise of sitting down and enjoying a beer was a motivation to reach the finish in Shkodër.

“I felt like scratching, and then I thought, ‘OK, I am going to crawl to CP2 and see’. I didn’t know what was coming, but I had enough food to walk all the way here, but it became rideable again. It was good. I feel like I want to keep going. Hopefully nothing breaks!”

Despite her challenges and slipping back a handful of places, Weronika has reclaimed her fifth-place position, followed closely by David Sanchez (19).

Stories to unfold

With the tale of The Accursed Race now culminating before us, we watch as the next riders approach the Finish in Shkodër. The Pairs race is still in full swing, and we await the first woman in the Race to finish. Some of the most thrilling racing still to come is at the tail-end. Last night, Damian van Loon (25) was the last rider to reach the first Control Point, four minutes within the time cut of 23.59 CEST. Behind him though, Thomas Chateau (22) and Lissa Breugelmans (02) remain in the Race but are no longer in the General Classification. Lissa is now set to be our Lanterne Rouge — our last rider on the trails. For riders like Damian van Loon, the next goal is to reach CP2 in Peshkopi before 23.59 CEST on 22 May.

We may have our winner, but there are stories still to play out on the Balkan trails. Will Julien Gravaud (40a) and Simon Taulelle (40b) maintain their lead over India Landy (43a) and Ollie Radford (43b)? Can fastest woman Weronika continue to hold a top five place?

All will be revealed…

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