The journey up to Control Point 3 in Poland then back down south to Bosnia for Control Point 4 caused the string of riders to stretch out like no other section of this year’s race. After the challenge of the CP4 parcours, riders have been singing the praises of the calm roads and gentle descents on their routes through Montenegro.
For most, that tranquility ended when they reached Albania and they were met with rough roads and traffic-clogged streets in the capital city of Tirana. However, they focused on the fact that when they reached the Greek border at Bilisht all that was left was a 170 km stretch to Meteora.
Jonathan Rankin, 253b, said: “I saw Josh Cunningham at the Greek border and I asked if he was going to ride all the way on to Meteora. He said he was. I knew I would need a rest before I got there and that was the difference between him coming in sixth early in the morning and me arriving later that afternoon a few places behind. It’s not just how kilometres you are ahead but how much recovery you’ve had on the way to that position.”
Jonathan chose to rest and so we welcomed in Martin Temmen, 143, in seventh place at 09:10. In eighth place Mohamed El Alami, cap 214, arrived at 11:32, then Thomas Dupin, cap 157, was ninth at 15:42.
Thomas Dupin said the climb on the final parcours in the midday sun was tough. “The gradient was around 10 per cent for a long time and I would have preferred to do it at another time of day but the long descent meant I could discover Meteora’s sights. I had no idea it was so big. I thought it was a few stones but this is spectacular.”
Jonathan Rankin was the tenth rider to arrive at 16:44 local time but is out of general classification after his pair split. He and James Craven were unusual in being so close to the front before James picked up a chest infection and had to wait behind.
Asked how he found competing with a co-rider he said: “I was turning it over in my head. I think at the start if you make up enough ground while everything is good then you could do really well. You start to become two ones when your bum gets sore and you’re not able to sit 10 inches apart from each other’s wheel.”
“Our only real expectation had been to ride for a certain number of hours every day and it just happened to be that by riding that number of hours we covered enough distance to do reasonably well. But we had good days and bad days and some I could go further and others I felt like I’d been riding all day and we were nowhere near our mileage.
“The morning we split we were both feeling really good so there was no excuse but to go hard. My inexperience showed through a few times though. Coming through Hungary I had to stand up for almost 300km while the road was bouncing around beneath me and I exacerbated all my problems. My achilles started to hurt. I was aching.”
Asked if he knew how the other half of his pair was getting on since he returned to the road, he said: “I was coming through Bosnia and it was really hard work and my Mum and Dad text me and said James started in 86th place today and now he’s in 52nd place. I was working so hard at that I had to send a message saying ‘I’m having to concentrate so much on my own ride now that I can’t concentrate on how James is doing right now. I’ll find out at the end’.”
The next rider due in was Christoph Fuhrbach, cap 146. Shortly before his arrival we heard some unlikely dotwatchers had arrived to cheer for him at the finish. When we got to the finish we found Pub 38 had been taken over by a convent of German nuns working as Catholic missionaries in Albania. Christoph was a supporter of their charity and the sisters had caught the dotwatching bug and decided to pile in their minibus and drive two hours to meet Christoph for the first time.
Behind Christoph, there was a battle brewing for places 12 to 15 with four riders, Paul Ferguson, cap 212, Ben Davies, cap 195, Stephane Ouaja in cap 12, and Alexandre Bourgeonnier, cap 148 all within 8km of each other as they came through the border into Greece at Bilisht.
They were neck and neck on similar routes until the village of Katafygio, which lies at an altitude of 620 metres on the eastern foothills of Makryoro Mountain. Paul Ferguson appeared to take a route to the west of the main 15 road and when he rejoined in he had edged a good distance from the others and held his lead on the final climb and rolled into Meteora and into the arms of his partner. He let a roar and said: “I’m a ball of emotional juices.”
We congratulated him on beating the others to the finish and landing 11th place. He said: “Really? I’ve been chasing them in my head. I got dropped earlier by a few guys and something took over and I put my whole body into it. Coming down that hill I was screaming at the top of my voice and scaring campers.”
Stephane Ouaja arrived next. His past few days had been hellish. He got a puncture on the gravel and had fixed it seven times but it was still going flat. Eventually he managed to buy a huge pack of car puncture repair patches and used almost all of those. He said he must have used 30-40 inner tube patches in the last two days of his ride because the patches just wouldn’t stick. He then took his bike to two bike shops and the second one finally got him back on the road. For him to roll into Meteora in 12th place took real courage and strength.
Next in was Alexandre Bourgeonnier. He had been further out in front but for the second time in the race had been hampered by the rough stuff. It was the last thing he needed after battling through the R440 road that caused Björn to lose so much time when he was in pursuit of James Hayden.
The R440 club, as it’s now known has 10 members: Cap 148 Alexandre Bourgeonnier, cap 20 Sam Thomas, cap 130 Lorenzo Gamberini, cap 95 Emiliano Baravalle, cap 179 Ede Harrison, cap 30 Daniel Nash, cap 4 Mikko Mäkipää and cap 132 James Jinks.
Ben Davies, cap 195, didn’t take the R440 but had endured his fair share of routing problems during the race and it was evident that he was frustrated he didn’t place higher as a result. But it was an impressive ride from Ben to come in in 14th place and we’ll be keeping an eye on him in the future.
John Sherlock, cap 216, and Thomas Egger, cap 68, are the latest to arrive in 15th and 16th place respectively. John probably taking the prize for the grubbiest man through the gate so far.
Elsewhere in the race, lead pair Charles Christiansen, 256a, and Nico Deportago-Cabrera, 256b, are at the border about to enter Montenegro 450km away from the finish. Ede Harrison, cap 179, still leads among the women despite her routing problem on the R440 and is 410km away as she makes her way through Montenegro.