TARNo1 // Day 4

May 18, 2024

Matt Grayson

Words by Ross Brannigan, Race Reporter

Red dirt clung to the tyres of Alexander Kopp’s (27) bike as he weaved his way from the town of Krumë to the 1060m-high settlement of Cahan.

Carrying over 1000km of riding in his legs, I could see from a distance his torso bobbing side-to-side against the persistent 8-10% gradients. With the sun beating down, the north Albanian plains stretched out behind him, the horizon lost in a thick haze that had pressed down on the riders all day.

Eventually he passed us as we remained out of sight, winding his way towards Kukës under the watchful gaze of the almost 2000m-high Mali I Pashrikut, its terraces of rock glinting in the sun. The mountain is the site of local legend and pilgrimage, a sign of how integral the landscape of these places has been to people over the ages.

Rolling into Kukës in the dark, the air still humid, Alex resupplied at a local supermarket. He emerged with a full pack on his back and peaches in his hands, while the locals observed the curious sight.

Matt Grayson

Leading with a comfortable gap of nearly four hours to Adrien Liechti (12), Alex appeared relaxed and in good spirits, but confessed it had been a day of “ups and downs”. 

“I cracked on the first climb out of CP1”, he said. “I had a very bad sleep [at the Control Point]; maybe it was having a mattress, or the two bowls of spaghetti I ate before sleeping.

“I had everything [weather-wise] today: I started with zero degrees, wet, cold, and freezing, and on the last climb I completely cooked — over-cooked, maybe.”

While Alex admitted he had moved slower today than he had hoped, he felt his fellow adventurers — Adrien, and Josh Ibbett (29) — may have as well.

Meanwhile, second-placed Adrien remains unaware of his position in the Race, but is becoming increasingly aware of just how demanding the route is on body and mind.

“This is next level racing for me”, he laughed, holding up his hands. “It is really hard. This section [from CP1] is full of rocks and very difficult.” For an extremely accomplished rider and self-supported racer, no stranger to the demands of remote off-road riding, this reflection epitomises the resolve of those riders taking on this grand adventure.

Over the course of the Race, the gap between Adrien and Alex has waxed and waned, and as of this morning appeared to have narrowed after Adrien made rapid progress through the flat tarmac roads of Kosovo. 

Matt Grayson

Trading the jagged tooth-like profile of the mountains for the Kosovan plains, the riders enter a new chapter of the Race. For many, the country is shrouded in the mist of modern history, with its struggle for independent recognition. Incidentally, the town of Kukës welcomed almost 400,000 Kosovo refugees during the war that was waged in the late 1990s. This incredible act of humanity saw the town of just 16,000 inhabitants become the first to be nominated for a Nobel Prize. 

After spending much of the Race in the remote mountains, Kosovo feels like a marked interlude in the story of The Accursed, with towers of concrete and the past and present fog of industry in the air. 

Here and there, flower stands bring a flash of colour to a landscape given over to the grey tones of development.

Later, Adrien made his overnight stop in Kukës, pausing for a total of just three hours, and restarting before dawn broke in north Albania to take on the rough off-road section to Peshkopi and CP2. 

Test of resolve

With many of the riders over or close to the halfway point in the Race, we are beginning to see a true test of their endurance. Weronika Szalas (08) has shown determination and consistency across a truly challenging route.

Yesterday, though, cracks began to emerge. Speaking to the team in Control Car 1, Weronika admitted the Race was beginning to bite, with saddle sores causing her to re-evaluate her race strategy.

After standing in a long pharmacy queue, she told our team the saddle sores were also accompanied by knee pain.

Sam Dugon

“I have never had this pain before, so I am a little bit worried because I have another five months on the road. I don’t want to get injured.”

Weronika has spent months travelling by bike, including exploring the Balkans ahead of the Race. With more touring plans after The Accursed, she seemed uncertain about the road ahead: “If I have to walk, I will walk. I want to get at least to CP1.”

This morning, Weronika lingered a little longer in her bivvy just outside of Berane before continuing on. Despite her inconveniences, she’s still holding fifth place. Will she be able to stick it out all the way back to Shkodër?

Meanwhile, Julien Gravaud (40a) and Simon Taulelle (40b) have passed Weronika and remain the fastest pair in the Race, with a 60km gap to second-placed India Landy (43a) and Ollie Radford (43b). While substantial, the gap has shrunk by around 40km since yesterday and there may be signs the pair are struggling. Opening a gap to the third- and fourth-paced pairs, it appears India and Ollie are rallying as the Race takes them over the mountains of Biogradska Gora.

Lurë beckons

“He who hasn't seen Lurë doesn’t know Albania,” wrote Albanian national poet and hero, Gjergj Fishta. Seen as a jewel in the Albanian landscape, the front riders are making their way through the Lurë-Dejë Mountain National Park. 

Michael Drummond

Boasting 12 lakes and 20 named peaks, Lurë-Dejë is one of the highlights of the route, with an abundance of flora and fauna. Incredible views will be met by equally incredible challenges here, and reaching this remote and wild place will test the lasting strength of our riders. Climbing to almost 1700m, the vast landscapes of northern Albania will unfurl around them, before they drop down to the bustling dust and noise of Peshkopi. 

Gjergj Fishta wrote about this region in his epic poem The Highland Lute (Lahuta e Malcís in Albanian). Over the course of its 17,000 verses, Fishta paints the story of Albania — its struggles and culture — inspired by the songs and stories of its people. 

However, his works were banned in Communist Albania and have only recently returned as a source of national pride.

Awaiting the riders at the end of this awe-inspiring landscape will be a hubbub of civilisation, where they will no doubt look to resupply and refresh before taking on the southern spine of The Accursed Race.

Like Fishta’s epic poem, the riders are writing their own tale of their journey through this magical landscape.

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