TARNo1 // Registration Day

May 14, 2024

Words by Ross Brannigan, Race Reporter

The flag has dropped on the inaugural edition of The Accursed Race as around 40 riders wheeled their bikes through the bustling streets of Shkodër at 09:00 CEST today. Weaving their way around brightly coloured stalls and halted traffic, the riders made the first pedal strokes of this unparalleled adventure.

Local sportsman Ifran Domnori — clad in traditional black and gold Shkodër regalia - sent them on their journey towards the mountains, waving the scarlet and black flag of his country to mark the start of the Race. 

Sam Dugon

Waking up, I looked out the window of Traveler Hostel to see a steel grey sky hung low over the city and a chill in the air as the stallholders laid out their produce. By the time riders lined up to start the Race, the streets were slick with rain as locals cycled by in ponchos, or carrying umbrellas over their heads.

Are the Accursed Mountains sending a warning of things to come to our daring explorers? What other challenges lie in store for them? The only certainty: those stories will be written in every kilometre ridden and every metre climbed. 

Turning their backs on the hubbub of Albania’s cycling capital, the riders turned their handlebars to the mysterious mountains and the adventures that await.

Colour and sound

Yesterday, the sun beat down on registration at the Traveler Hostel. Set back from the buzzing Shkodër streets, it acts as an oasis of relative calm, where riders can prepare their bikes and fuel up for the journey ahead.

Nearby, locals bustle back and forth clutching fresh fruit and vegetables from the grocery stall, picking up a bicycle and teetering their way home with bags hanging off handlebars into the throng of people and sound beyond. 

Next door, rusting bike wheels and sagging tyres are piled up against one another under a flaking sign which reads ‘Biciklist’. It is the epitome of cosmopolitan Shkodër, which we've dubbed ‘The Amsterdam of the Balkans’.

Sam Dugon

Race Director Andrew Phillips and I stood in the shade of a large umbrella, the air thick with the scent of fresh fish and a tinge of tobacco. He told me how excited he was to have all the riders together for the first edition of the Race and to see them begin their exploration of the Albanian Alps and beyond.

He said, “The Race is all about the contrast between man and nature; between development and wilderness. Starting in the middle of Shkodër, a fast developing city, the riders will soon be thrown into the wilderness just 30km away. That dichotomy is palpable and will feature throughout the Race, so this is an apt place to send riders on that journey.”

Riders ebbed and flowed through the hostel, collecting their caps and trackers and having their bikes checked by the volunteers.

One rider collecting his brevet card was Adrien Liechti (12), who is tipped to do well in this race. Sporting a curled moustache, and dark eyes, the Swiss rider is incredibly experienced in off-road events, winning Hellenic Mountain Race and taking third at Tour Divide and Silk Road Mountain Race.

The 39-year-old has lived on his bike for the last two years, seeking freedom and adventure. However, he said this is the first time he has visited the Balkans: “I have been wanting to ride in these mountains for a long time and to meet the people. After the Race, I plan to stay and explore the place. The goal at this Race is to finish and finish healthy. I want to race and be fast, but always the journey is most important.”

Marin de Saint-Exupéry and Adrien Liechti (12) - Matt Grayson

Journeys to the Balkans

As well as the journeys during and after the Race, all riders, volunteers and members of the Race team travelled overland as part of Lost Dot’s commitment to no-fly. One of those volunteers is three-time Transcontinental Race (TCR) finisher Marin de Saint-Exupéry. Marin is on a year-long no-fly journey, taking on three races and cycling between each of them.

He volunteered at The Accursed Race registration, checking riders’ bikes before they take on the demands of the mountains. The Frenchman has long been a proponent of no-fly, and he sees the bike as more than just an outlet for sport, but a tool for exploration.

“The bike is a tool for a more sustainable approach to racing,” he said. “Avoiding flying to races changes our perception of racing and what we can dream of. It creates new boundaries of travelling and enriches the experience”

Other riders have arrived early in the Balkans to explore them more fully. Weronika Szalas (08) is one such rider who has been riding through the region for the last two weeks, exploring the landscapes and cultures that riders will meet along the route. When we spoke to her, she was standing beside her drop-bar adventure bike, one of just a handful amongst an array of mountain bikes.

Asked about her hopes for the Race, she said, “I have only done three races before, and never this long or this much off-road, so that will be a big challenge, but I am looking forward to it.”

Weronika Szalas (08) - Sam Dugon

Rich history 

The Accursed Express - a bus arranged by Lost Dot to transport riders from Zagreb to Shkodër - arrived in the city late in the night, depositing riders into the quiet streets outside the Traveler Hostel. 

The atmosphere on the Express was buzzing, with riders finally having the opportunity to meet their fellow adventurers and swap stories ahead of the Race. One rider aboard the Express was Bernarda Juric (28). Bernarda lives in Slovenia, and remembers the days of the former Yugoslavia, the country which spanned the Balkan states of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia until 1992. 

As riders journey through these landscapes, they will find remnants of this era of the region’s history. Abandoned military posts are now being reclaimed by nature, but these struggles remain in recent memory.

Bernarda Juric (28) - Sam Dugon

“I have explored the Balkans a lot”, said Bernarda. “I cycled through Sutjeska National Park [which The Accursed Race will visit] and I remembered its name from history and the Battle of Sutjeska. These places we know from school history.”

Though not part of former Yugoslavia, Albania and Shkodër are also rich in history. As I explored the streets, it was easy to imagine the same bustling market corners playing host to generations of customers buying food and clothing down the years. 

Today, areas are being given over to modern cafes, bars and restaurants as a new wave of tourism injects fresh investment into this fast-developing country. 

This dichotomy between old and new, development and nature, history and modernity will play out throughout the Race, as well as the intersection of each.

Now, it’s time to leave the flat shores of Lake Shkodra behind and ride into the mountains. 

The adventure has begun…

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