TARNo1 // Pre-Race Journal

May 10, 2024

Words by Ross Brannigan, Race Reporter

Welcome to The Accursed

In just a few days’ time, 42 riders will start the inaugural Accursed Race - Lost Dot’s first no-fly, off-road, fixed route race. Taking place in the Balkans, riders will have to be self-sufficient as they take on the remote wilderness that makes this region so captivating. As they make their way through Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Kosovo, they will contend with challenges of the mind, body, and bike to make their way around the route and return the Albanian cycling capital of Shkodër.

From the team that brought you the Transcontinental Race (TCR) and Trans Pyrenees Race (TPR), it is almost time to take a journey through Europe’s last great wilderness. 

Sam Dugon

A continued legacy

Riders, volunteers and dot-watchers of past Transcontinental Races will be familiar with the Race’s history in the Balkans. They are the final frontier, the mountainous edge of Western Europe where many will encounter new languages, currencies, cultures and challenges.

“The Balkans has become a real heartland of TCR”, says Andrew Phillips, Race Director of The Accursed Race (TAR). “It is the end of Western Europe. Whilst TCR often passes through these countries, it’s hard for it to fully explore them. To do that, you have to leave the tarmac behind and really get into the wilderness. The Accursed does that.”

Andrew, Hannah, and David on reccy last year - Sam Dugon

The Accursed is unique in Lost Dot’s line-up of races, which includes TCR (this year celebrating its tenth edition) and TPR. The Accursed is the first off-road event for Lost Dot, as well as the only one to be completely fixed route; riders must follow the line meticulously traced through these countries, exploring some of the most pristine and wild landscapes Europe has to offer. 

“The Balkan countries are amazing; there are crystal-clear rivers, largely unspoiled ecosystems, thick forests and deep gorges.”, Andrew says, who has raced in and explored the region for many years. “On the race, the landscape will change so fast: you go from tarmac to bedrock, mountains to rivers. Just when you think you have the measure of it, it changes again. You could ride this route in circles for the rest of your life and never get bored.”

Commencing on the shores of Lake Skadar, the riders will explore at least a dozen protected areas, each one distinct, featuring everything from tarmac roads to single track and historic drovers’ roads. 

The Accursed is also the first Lost Dot race not envisioned by the late Mike Hall. But whilst TAR is unique in many ways from its sister races, it remains true to Mike’s legacy and vision of self-supported racing. Just as with TCR and TPR, the Spirit of the Race is integral to The Accursed. As the riders cover the 1600km and over 36,000m elevation gain, they will be expected to be entirely self-sufficient, solving problems themselves; riding the highs and lows alone. 

Adventures into the unknown

One rider preparing to take on this grand adventure is none other than former TCR winner Josh Ibbett (cap 29). As someone who has raced across the world and been incredibly successful in his career, I wanted to know what was bringing Josh to TARNo1 and whether what he looks for in a race today has changed over the years.

“I think the motivation is still the same, namely going on an epic adventure. We will be crossing several borders, and it’s amazing what a kilometre on the bike can do to change the landscape and the people.

“The ultra-distance cycling scene has changed and become a lot slicker; back when I did TCR, we didn’t know what we were doing, but it is always about the big, epic journey.”

With wins at GBDURO and Italy Divide, plus top 10 finishes at Highland Trail 550, the Atlas and Silk Road mountain races, Josh is no stranger to the rough stuff and very likely to be close to the front at TARNo1. 

“I have passed through the Balkans a few times on TCR, but always on the road. It is such a beautiful and different place, so I am looking forward to going off-road this time.”

Alongside Josh, other men to look out for in the solo race are Alex Kopp (27) and Adrien Liechti (12), both with exceptional palmares in off-road events. Riders can also choose to race in pairs, with four pairs at this year’s race, including TPR veteran Julien Gravaud (40a) and his riding partner Simon Taulelle (40b).

Someone who knows well the adventures of off-road events is Lissa Breugelmans (02). She is one of four women racing in the solo class, alongside Weronika Szalas (08), Taniya Denisenko (15) and Bernarda Juric (28). Last year she raced the Hellenic Mountain Race in often horrendous conditions, battling with mental and mechanical problems to reach the finish.

Lissa undertook a bikepacking trip through the Balkans last year. For her, The Accursed is an opportunity to delve deeper into this region which has captured her imagination.

“Living in the Netherlands - a country where nature is extremely fragmented - I see first-hand how biodiversity declines in places where human pressure is more intense. In the Balkans, you still get to see vast, untouched areas with high biodiversity because of lower population pressure and a highly varied geography. It truly was - and is - a privilege to ride in these areas.”

Growing ecological pressure

As a Biodiversity Data Scientist, Lissa is well-placed to speak about the wonders of the Balkans, which are home to species like the Balkan Lynx, European Brown Bears, and Balkan Chamois. 

“The landscapes are just beautiful”, Lissa adds. “It is great that races like this highlight that, but these landscapes are under growing pressure and we have to make every effort to conserve them.”

The Balkans is at a turning-point. For the countries of Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Montenegro, economic advancement is often taking precedent over ecological protection. Aside from rich biodiversity, the Balkans have some of the few remaining untouched river basins in Europe, including Albania’s 270km-long Vjosa, said to be Europe’s last wild river. However, more and more of these river systems are being dammed for hydroelectric power, which decimates ecosystems and further industrialises the landscapes. 

the construction of the Ulog dam, threatening the free-flowing state of the Upper Neretva  © Vladimir Tadić

One group working to protect these precious habitats is EuroNatur, an organisation which works across Europe. They collaborate with national organisations to protect and enhance ecosystems at a local level. I spoke to Annette Spangenberg, Head of Conservation at EuroNatur, who says the state of nature in the Balkans should set a precedent for the rest of Europe.

“These places are incredibly valuable for their ecology and their role in climate protection. Additionally, they can be a unique selling point for sustainable tourism. It might not be fast cash, but in the long run it is more sustainable.”

Of course, there is a fine balance between the need to create green energy and protecting ecosystems. Annette is clear that, while EuroNatur and their local partners are keen to avoid damming of rivers, they are fully supportive of sustainable development.

“These countries have a right to develop, but these rivers are completely unique in Europe in this concentration. We are also seeing the deforestation and extraction of minerals from their mountainsides. These countries lack an energy strategy, and often the energy produced is exported to other countries. Local people are not benefitting from the destruction of their landscapes.”

Annette fears for these wild areas, and hopes the riders of TAR will have time to “experience this very special landscape and understand this is something incredibly wonderful - wild nature at its purest.”

Reducing our impact - deepening the journey

It is for these reasons and more The Accursed Race is a no-fly race. All riders must make their way to and from the event without taking to the skies. 

“Our community is incredibly progressive and aware of environmental issues, but air travel is often a blindspot”, says Andrew Phillips. “We assessed our carbon footprint a few years ago and found around 70% of our emissions were from rider travel, mainly by air.

“What we want to do is remind everyone you can still go and race in the best places in the world without flying. In fact, you can have a lot more fun doing it. The adventure starts as soon as you leave your front door.”

Lost Dot has long known it has a duty to the places it visits, and so reducing our impact on the environment comes hand-in-hand with protecting the places we love to explore. Not only will the  riders be travelling overland; so will the race and media teams.

Reflecting on this, Andrew adds: “I want people leave The Accursed knowing it is possible to race in amazing places and not need to fly. These areas are so special I’m almost loath to give away the secrets of the area, but it’s a real privilege to share it, and I hope they will go away understanding just what makes them so special.”

While riders will no doubt leave The Accursed having learnt more about themselves, I also hope they leave having expanded their knowledge and understanding of this less-explored region. We cannot care about that which we have never experienced. 

As with the previous two editions of the Transcontinental Race and TPRNo2, I will be there to document these riders’ journeys, both of themselves and these wild places. It is sure to be an incredible and unique adventure for us all.

You can follow along with The Accursed Race through our daily Race Journals, Podcast, and on Instagram.

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