Daniel Groves

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Eurovelo: Into the Storm

Published: 28 March 2017 · Tags: expedition, bike, eurovelo

Cycling from Bitola, Macedonia to Skopje, Macedonia though the mountains.

This post is part of the nine part series Eurovelo. To see more from this series check the series index.

The longer I was stood there, watching the border guard clicking away on his computer and making phones calls — none of which I understood — the more my nerves increased. There was no reason for my passport to be denied, it had only been issued a couple of months prior.

I waited.

Waiting at border crossing while the guards are clearly checking the validity of your passport leaves you with your mind wondering. What are they checking? Have they found something I don’t know about? What will happen next?

I continued to wait.

The guard finally flicked through the pages of my passport rapidly until he found a blank one, picked up the stamp and slammed it on the page. I breathed a sigh of relief as he handed it back, and I moved over to where Max was emptying his panniers in search of his suncream. After two days riding we were in Macedonia, with only one minor hitch — neither of us had any currency.

 alt: Welcome to Macedonia.
Welcome to Macedonia.

We didn’t have far to go until the nearest town, Bitola. The roads were immaculate leading away from the border crossing; Max getting more than a little over-excited about how they managed the road, and the quality of the tarmac. It slowly transitioned form rural to urban as a railway formed to the right of the road, set back behind a row of buildings; much like Greece many of the buildings were half complete. Some looked like houses and were being used to store hay, while others were being used to store cars, tools, and building materials. A few went as far as having a roof, and even fewer went as far as being complete with doors and windows. As we approached the town the ratio of incomplete to complete leaned further towards the latter and the traffic levels continued to build up.

Eventually we found ourselves in the centre of town using a mixture of my GPS and guesswork for navigation, finding a cash machine so we could get some local currency. Soon we were both holding 3000 Denar each — approximately equivalent to £15.

Throughout the trip we were using Galileo, an offline vector mapping app for iPhone, to find what we needed in cities. At this point we made use of this again to locate the restaurant district, and a place that looked reasonable from the outside that had somewhere we could sit next to the bikes. We were both preparing to pick something completely at random from the menu when the waiter came out, handed us two english menus, and asked what we wanted to drink in perfect english.

Two family-sized pizzas later we were wheeling our bikes back down the bustling pedestrianised zone, looking for a small shop to grab some fruit for the next day. In the process of this was when an older man on a bicycle of his own came over and started asking us what we were doing in Macedonia. We told him about our trip, and he repeatedly told us to be careful, that a lot of people would steal bikes as nice as ours. A little later we made our excuses and left him — we needed to press on as the sun was getting low in the sky — we needed to find somewhere to camp.

 alt: Menus at the resturant in Bitola  alt: Bikes at the resturant in Bitola
 alt: My Salsa leaning up outside the resturant in Bitola
Top Left: Menus at the resturant in Bitola, Macedonia; Top Right: Bikes at the resturant in Bitola, Macedonia; Bottom: My Salsa leaning up outside the resturant in Bitola, Macedonia along the bustling highstreet

We made our way out of town on the main road towards our next goal — Ohrid — for about 5km, before diving off the side of the road behind some bushes in a field. There were a few sheep at the far side, but nothing that would cause us any problems.

 alt: Camping in a random field outside Bitola
Camping in a random field outside Bitola, Macedonia.

We started setting up our tents glad of the well hidden location when Max suddenly announced he could see someone further up the field. We both stopped. We really didn’t want anyone to know we were here, not knowing how the locals might react to two foreigners camping in one of their fields. As we both stayed still I scanned the tree-line further up, also located the shepherd who was looking in our direction. I hoped he wouldn’t spot us, that he would just move on without causing us any trouble. Max really didn’t help the situation on this occasion as he wore his bright-luminous-yellow shirt, hardly a colour to blend in on the edge of a major town. We waited patently as he slowly moved on, showing no sign of having spotted us in the now fading light. A few minutes later the tents were up, and we got a brew on while starting to sort kit back into some form of organisation. We really wanted to be able to be up and out within few minutes in the morning.

We’d spent the most of the morning climbing this road, and we were looking forward to riding the fire roads back down to the valley floor — our small reward for a lot of pain. We were ready to reap the rewards now, as we both rolled up to a road-block, with the worst of the climbing now behind us. The first guard waved us through into the national park, but just as we started rolling a second one stopped us.

The two guards both spoke perfect english, which did at least make communication easy. Max explained our plans and they asked us to turn around and take the longer route along the valley floors. Max started probing them at this point; why couldn’t we go through? What was the risk? Are there bears? It’s not a long way, and we’re confident we can make it. The guard that had stopped us looked uncertain and hesitated briefly before explaining that yes, there are bears, but those weren’t the issue. He pointed at my GPS and asked if it was for navigating? Could I show him our route? I zoomed it out just enough to show the next village and he started to explain that the route we were planning was badly made, that it was just tracks and we wouldn’t be able to go through. Eventually we got out of them that it was a forest fire-road — exactly what we’d been expecting. Max managed to persuade them that we’d be through within a couple of hours, and both being mountain bikers we could make it. They reluctantly let us go, and we made a point of pushing hard until we were out of sight, not giving them the option to stop us again. A few minutes later we were at the top of the climb, ready to turn off down our fire road descent.

 alt: Max climbing a seemingly endless decent in Macedonia.  alt: Max at the enterance of the Pelister National Park in Macedonia.
 alt: Max decending the forest fire-road.
Left: Max climbing a seemingly endless decent in Macedonia; Right: Max at the enterance of the Pelister National Park in Macedonia; Bottom: Max decending the forest fire-road.

We were soon hurtling along to the sound of all our panniers flapping; they really weren’t designed for roads like this. After a while the tree’s that had surrounded us for so long opened up on one side, so we paused to enjoy the view before continuing our bone-shaking descent back to the valley floor. It was here, just as we hit the first tarmac, that the first sign riddled with bullet-holes appeared, setting a theme for much of the remainder of eastern Europe.

 alt: Bullet-riddled sign in remote Macedonia.
Bullet-riddled sign in remote Macedonia.

Unfortunately the tarmac was only brief. Max had spotted the old road running parallel to the newer — larger and busier — road we’d planned to use. We decided to pick this up until the next village and see how things went given it was deserted. After a couple of minutes the remaining tarmac turned to cobbles and we were both struggling to find the balance between enough speed to skip over the bumps and not burning all our energy. We took the first opportunity to join the main road.

It didn’t take long to start climbing. The density of the trees increased, increasing the humidity with it, but only providing shelter to the left carriageway which left us both exposed to the full-power of the sun as well as the increased humidity. The climb was torture, with screaming legs and lungs while feeling like we were boiling-over. When we saw tracks leading off into the trees on the sheltered side of the road we would dive into these and lie in the shade until we both felt our core temperature drop.

 alt: Max riding the cobbled road.
Max riding the cobbled road.

We repeated this exercise for an hour before we topped-out on the hill, and pulled over at the small service station at the top. The place was firmly closed-up, but there were others using the benches outside. We grabbed one ourselves to collapse onto while we recuperated and re-filled our bottles. It was while we did this I noticed the Freeloader iSIS battery Solar Technology International provided us with was running low, so I rigged it up with the Freeloader Supercharger panel to recharge on my rear rack before starting the descent.

Leaning our bikes up outside a café bar we’d found for lunch in the small town of Resen was when I noticed a random cable hanging down the side of my bike. Following it along I quickly realised the solar battery Solar Technology International had provided us with was gone. It was a bummer, but there was no way we were riding back the way we’d come for it, so we pulled a spare out of a bag before we ordered some food and drinks while we looked at our goal for the day: Ohrid. We still had a long way to go at this point, but we were felt we could make it.

 alt: Bikes in Resen.
Bikes in Resen.

We had another mountain range to cross before we’d reach Ohrid, and the climbing would most likely be long and steep. Just as we reached the start of the climbing we pulled over for a quick break. Another tourer came flying down the hill towards us, pulling over by our side. He explained he’d been on the road for three years, and would not be going back to the UK; he intended to travel — by bike — indefinitely.

A short while later we headed on. The climbing — although steep — was much easier than anticipated with the only difficulties being caused by a team resurfacing the road. The hot and wet tar caused our tyres to go sticky and made the remainder of the climb much harder.

The decent wasn’t what either of us expected; we thought it would be short, and run quickly into another ascent. Touring bikes gather momentum fast with any kind of gradient, and mixing this in with perfectly smooth roads meant we weren’t going to be holding anyone up. We were swooping through long sweeping bends, breaking hard into tighter ones and quickly free-wheeling back up to speeds fast enough that neither of us had gears high enough. I was keeping an eye on the GPS the whole time expecting to see our line turn off up some steep climb at any minute as our altitude continually dropped — but it never did. We went through huge rock archways, and small tunnels. Neither of us wanted to stop having spent the majority of the day climbing we were now having far too much fun.

 alt: A brief pause during a 17km descent to Ohrid
A brief pause during a 17km descent to Ohrid, Macedonia.

17 kilometres after we’d started to descend we had to stop to give our arms a rest. A few kilometres later we were in the heart of Ohrid, surrounded by people trying to sell us cheap accommodation, all of which we denied having a campsite in mind. We got off our bikes and wheeled them into town searching for some dinner and WiFi to catch-up with family and friends.

A short ride out of Ohrid was the campsite. We arrived as the sun was setting, filling the sky with colour. I was excited to check in so I could run down to the lake to photograph the sunset, but unfortunately this opportunity never arrived. We rode onto the site looking for the reception area, but quickly noticed how overgrown it was. As we approached the building on the site we observed that no-one had any lights on, and decided we weren’t going to stay. We might have been able to get away with camping in the overgrown campsite, but some places just don’t feel welcoming at all, and this was one of them. We turned around to leave as some dogs came running out from further up the road, barking as they came. We didn’t hang around to find out if they were friendly — they didn’t look it — so we both aimed for the exit, while the dogs continued to chase us. As soon as we passed through they turned around and wondered off, clearly protecting their territory. Now we had a problem with no fallback plan.

I stood outside an old Motel with the bikes, while Max was trying to slip through a wedding reception to reach the reception desk where, thankfully, they did have space. We were trying to avoid paying for too many hotels, but really didn’t have any choice this time. It was too built up by the side of the road here to hide, and we had a lake on one side and mountains rising steeply on the other, which had us boxed in. The hotel manager helped us take our bikes down into the basement storage area, where we locked them to a railing, and hauled our bags to the room upstairs. After a few nights camping in high heat and humidity we could at least take the opportunity to wash our clothes.

Over the next day we progressed towards Skopje on easy going roads. We were moving parallel to a new motorway network that was being built higher up the hillside; but the road was big enough to safely accommodate us and the construction vehicles. We spent the day on this road until mid-afternoon when we were both running low on water as we approached our turn-off into the hills, and so we paused to refill our bottle from the river with my water filter.

 alt: Bikes alongside Lake Ohrid.
 alt: Seeking out temporary relief from the sun during the heat of the day.  alt: Decending a hill somewhere in Macedonia.
 alt: My Salsa lent up on out bus-stop shelter during a lunch break.
 alt: Pumping water from a river with an MSR Miniworks to create safe drinking water.  alt: Pumping water from a river with an MSR Miniworks to create safe drinking water.
Top: Bikes alongside Lake Ohrid; Left: Seeking out temporary relief from the sun during the heat of the day; Right: Decending a hill somewhere in Macedonia; Middle: My Salsa lent up on out bus-stop shelter during a lunch break; Bottom Pair:: Pumping water from a river with an MSR Miniworks to create safe drinking water.

With a full load of water again we were heading for the smaller roads in the mountains; the road quality quickly deteriorated as we headed towards a depot for the building works. The constant lorry traffic meant the roads were filthy and rutted, but we pushed through and found the road to improve again as we came out the other side of the depot. The road was empty now as we headed down a narrow glacial valley with a wide river at the bottom and near-vertical sides.

 alt: Heading towards the mountain pass we would later retreat from.
Heading towards the mountain pass we would later retreat from.

The rain stepped up it’s calibre again; it had slowly been soaking through our waterproofs, finding it’s way through every crack and crevasse for the last hour while we slowly worked our way up a steep — loose — mountain pass. We hadn’t been expecting this, our research had shown a gravel forest fire road, yet here we were — covered in mud and soaking wet — trying to decide if we should continue or back down and retreat to the valley floor. The weather made the decision for us as the sky flashed all around us, followed by a long and low rumble. We knew we’d be pushing our luck to continue, the thunder and lightening would only add to the risk.

Riding a loaded touring bike downhill and off-road is a whole different ball game to our normal mountain bikes. The skinny tyres provide little grip, particularly in this loose and heavily rutted ground which was constantly moving below our tyres. The weight creates a constant fight for grip, and the size of the load stops you from being able to move the bike around below your body. All of this makes descending in near dark and heavy rain an arduous task. Still, after twenty minutes we were back at the bottom of an ascent that had taken us a little over ninety minutes to climb. Almost on-cue the rain eased off and the sky brightened providing us with conditions that may have given us the confidence to continue on our assault on the mountain-pass. Whatever the case, backing down was the right decision, a remote mountain pass in rural Macedonia — thousands of miles from home — is hardly the place to injure yourself.

 alt: Decending the mountain pass in Macedonia.  alt: Max — soaking wet — rolling aong the road at the bottom of the pass.
 alt: Bike maintenance over breakfast and coffee in the morning.
Left: Decending the mountain pass in Macedonia; Right: Max — soaking wet — rolling aong the road at the bottom of the pass; Bottom: Bike maintenance over breakfast and coffee in the morning.

We decided we’d camp in the valley for the night. We didn’t want waste time trying to hide near the main road — especially with the building traffic — but we’d only seen a single vehicle — a YuGo 4x4 on the first corner of the mountain pass — since entering the valley. We were confident we wouldn’t be found.

 alt: Tents in the glacial valley at the bottom of the mountain pass
Tents in the glacial valley at the bottom of the mountain pass, Macedonia.

That evening we had to make a decision: we could try again for the mountain pass, or we could go around — which meant taking a train as the only road turned into a motorway. The lack of food we had remaining made the decision for us as we couldn’t be sure when we’d next find food. We decided to play it safe, and head to Kichevo where there was a train station.

I was waiting with the bike, leaning on a fence outside the station, while Max had gone to investigate buying tickets for the trains. He came back empty handed, saying he could’t find where to get tickets from, nor could he see any timetables. We were both puzzled by this as the station was clearly busy.

A man came over and introduced himself, and asked if he could help us. He explained he liked to travel, and that he had some english, and then that there were no trains; the rail network was in place, but had been abandoned. There were, however, busses. He helped us buy a ticket for ourselves, and he explained that we’d have to pay the bus driver €5 directly to take the bikes. We loaded the bikes into the luggage space (quite a challenge, it turns out) while people filed onto the bus. We climbed on ourselves and sat down to enjoy the break.

 alt: Skopje Bizzare.  alt: Flags
 alt: Statue in Macedonia.
 alt: Statues of the famous in Skopje  alt: Statues dwarfing multi-story hotels in Skopje
 alt: Protest paint on government buildings  alt: Backstreets in Skopje
 alt: Looking over Skopje
 alt: Backstreets in Skopje  alt: Macedonia flag flying high in Skopje.
Row One Left: Skopje Bizzare; Row Two Right: Flags, bridges and statues in Macedonia; Row Two: Statue in Macedonia; Row Three Left: Statues of the famous in Skopje, Macedonia; Row Three Right: Statues dwarfing multi-story hotels in Skopje, Macedonia; Row Four Left: Protest paint on government buildings, Macedonia; Row Four Right: Backstreets in Skopje, Macedonia; Row Five: Looking over Skopje, Macedonia at sunset; Row Six Left: Backstreets in Skopje, Macedonia; Row Six Right: Macedonia flag flying high in Skopje.

We pulled into a bus station somewhere outside of Skopje. We weren’t in the city, we both new that, and the driver approached and said to wait 15-minutes. We stayed where we were, and 15-minutes later he approached and asked for the €5 for each bike. He then pointed to the coach next to us, telling us that we need to be on that one. We got off and scrambled to move the bikes and all of our panniers as the other coach was getting ready to leave, before we jumped on.

An hour later the bus pulled out of a grid-locked main road into a bus station in the heart of Skopje. Skopje was the first real city we’d been in since leaving Thessaloniki, and the first time we’d arrived somewhere early enough to enjoy our surrounding properly. We started with a long lunch while we both caught up with friends and family — taking advantage of the tourist-hotspot WiFi — and booking a hotel for the night. We checked in as quickly as possible after lunch so we could loose the burden of hauling large bikes we couldn’t let out of our site, and walk freely around the city for the evening.

The following morning we would be heading for the border with Kosovo, a few kilometres north — the only section of the trip that gave me any cause for concern.

More from the Eurovelo series

This post is part of the nine part series Eurovelo. This series is not yet complete; the published parts are:

  1. Eurovelo: A charity cycle expedition across Europe.
  2. Eurovelo: Arriving in Thessaloniki: The start of the adventure as we arrive in Thessaloniki, Greece and build the bikes before getting underway
  3. Eurovelo: Diesel and Dust: From the dust and fumes of Thessaloniki to the remote plains of northern Greece.
  4. Eurovelo: Into the Storm: Cycling from Bitola, Macedonia to Skopje, Macedonia though the mountains.
  5. Eurovelo: Kosovo: Cycling through Kosovo
  6. Eurovelo: Bad Roads and Big Diversions: Resuming the story of Eurovelo after crossing the border from Kosovo into Albania.
  7. Eurovelo: Montenegro: The story of a brief traverse across Montenegro from Albania to Croatia.
  8. Eurovelo: Croatia and Bosnia: Cycling the length of Croatia as part of a 4000km expedition.
  9. Eurovelo: Italy: A brief glimpse into the Italian countryside and culture.