Lorries roar past, dogs bark, mosquitoes buzz around my ears. I open my eyes, it’s still dark, even with the faint orange glow of a streetlight. My arms are aching from holding them on my body, as I lay on the narrow bench of a bus stop for a quick sleep. Not a good choice of location. I want to go back to sleep but it’s cold now, I have to get moving.
I pick myself up and look at the time on my Garmin – it’s 0230hrs and I’ve slept for a fitful 30 minutes, which makes a total of 90 minutes sleep in 900km. I’m somewhere before Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, and still have another 500km to ride, through the second control point in the beautifully fertile Medjimurje, with its short, sharp, very steep hills, before 300km of hot, flat roads into Slavonia, to the finish in Ilok, the easternmost point of Croatia. I haven’t seen my wife and daughters for a week, since I flew from the UK, and am desperate to see my girls, waiting for me at the finish, so I get myself up, get back on the bike and start moving, also remembering my pledge to complete the race in under 60 hours.
My bike has been flawless in all its constituent components, other than a slipping chain. The Velocite Syn frameset and Venn Rev 35 TCD wheels are fast, strong and aerodynamic, the Panaracer Race A EVO3 tubeless tyres grippy and unpunctured, the Tripeak ceramic bearings smooth, the Magicshine lights bright and efficient. No problems this year with failed lights, broken spokes, or duff batteries.
As I approach Zagreb, I see bright flashes of light to my left, beautiful white in the black night. I wonder if they are fireworks, but realise it’s lightning and hours later, after dawn has broken, it’s not so beautiful as first it drizzles, then it rains torrentially, turning roads into rivers. There’s no time to stop and take shelter, I must press on, even though I worry about puncturing from debris washed from the sides of the roads and my slipping gears, cresting the last big climb of Kuzminec and descending towards the flatter roads of Varaždin. 400km to go.
Dotwatchers and the race’s media crew greet me on and around the bridge, as I leave Varaždin. I’ve seen a few dotwatchers on the road, from Delnice, and I’ll see more in Medjimurje and Slavonia, a few more of whom will ride with me a short distance. These are some of the highlights of the race, as the road for the unsupported ultracyclist can get very lonely, especially in the long, dark nights. I’m especially motivated by seeing dotwatchers from last year, such as Dubravko Bituh, the roadside cheerings and by cyclists (Tomislav, Bruno, Vladan) making the effort to meet me, thoroughly enjoying chatting to them and getting to know them a little, as I cross their entire country. One lady even offers me bread and water, as I race through the northernmost part of Croatia. I’m touched by all these gestures.
I stop at the second control point, and drink as much juice as I can. I’ve met many of the people staffing the control point before and they’re surprised that I won’t stop to sleep, but they look after me well for the brief 15 minutes that I stay there, including fetching me ice-cold strawberry juice! I know I’ll need as much fluid as I can carry for the last push, that temperatures will soar over 40 degrees celsius. 300km to go.
Indeed, it hits a high of 45 degrees. The land is so flat, with barely any shelter from trees, the wind is so light, and the sun so strong that I have to stop every couple of hours to refill my now hot water bottles. I seek out ice cream and ice lollies, as well as packs of frozen peas, which I stuff under my clothes on my back. The air conditioning in the shops are such a relief and it would be easy to stay for longer, but the heat will not abate and the clock will not stop. Push on, push on.
Streams of lorries roar past on the straight, scorching roads of Slavonia, belching hot air. I warily listen and look out for them as I dodge cracks and holes in the road. In this heat, everything has swollen: feet and backside especially. Swarms of tiny flies smash into me, forcing me to zip-up my clothes. Some fly directly into my open mouth, hitting my tonsils and making me gag and retch.
As I pass through small villages I stare at the bright blue water hydrants. They, taps, and hosepipes in people’s gardens, tease me, and I fantasise about lying on the ground, drenching myself in cold water. No public fountains exist in Slavonia, so I scan for a tap outside of a garden. After many hours, I spot a tap on the side of a garage, but the desire to finish keeps me pushing on. I will only dry-up and heat-up in a question of minutes, anyway. Push on.
I pass through the city of Osijek, with its plethora of frustrating red lights, no possibility of bypassing it as a motorway has been built on its ringroad. 70km to go.
In Vukovar, with its iconic water tower – this year I see it in daylight and, as I recognise various places, I remember hallucinations in the night of last year’s race, almost like ghosts. Fitting for a city which was flattened in the war 25 years ago. 50km to go.
Leaving Vukovar, I start thinking that I can see Rich Griffiths, a talented photographer who joined the race’s media crew, hiding in bushes by the side of road but, as I get closer, I realise that “he” is a small guide post. A few minutes later, I think I see a photographer hiding in another bush. Dismissing it from my mind as a hallucination, I ride on but, as I pass, the photographer reveals herself! A lady in a yellow dress, no less, who leaps into a car with Zagreb plates (“ZG”), which then zooms down the road, she leaps out again, rushes into a position and starts snapping again. I’m utterly filthy, not having brushed my teeth or showered for days, with almost 1,400km worth of dirt, dust, sweat, grit, juice, ice cream and dead flies covering my exposed skin, but I’m almost there. Push on.
I ride down and up through the small villages which line the Danube, on the approach to Ilok: Sotin; Opatovac; Šarengrad; with interminable long stretches after each village. Finally I’m in Ilok and it’s almost dark. I stop to hastily put my reflective night gear and lights on, then ride in a circle around the castle, knowing that people are dotwatching me. A tribute to last year’s dotwatchers, who watched me make the same circle three times, when my ‘phone, my lights, and my Garmin were all dead. I wonder if the race organisation will send people to get me if I make the circle another couple of times! Time to go, down we go to the finishing line on the long straight road to the Hotel Dunav, on the banks of the Danube.
People cheer, cameras flash and friendly faces beam at me in the night as I cross the finishing line, my second win, in two editions of Hard Cro. There are my girls, waiting for me, filthy me, and I kiss them. 1,400 kilometres and 14,000 height metres are done in 59 hours 50 minutes.
Take my bike, give me food, a shower, and show me to my bed… until next time.