The steep gravel harpins of Bosnia’s Bjelašnica mountain parcours are a fearsome sight for riders reaching Control Point 4. At the peak a derelict Soviet ski lift overlooks the city of Sarajevo. It was built for the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics when Bjelašnica was the jewel in the Games’ crown. Standing 2067 metres at its highest point, this stunning setting for the men’s skiing events was beamed around the world yet, less than 10 years later, the slopes had closed down. When the Bosnian War began in 1992, Bjelasnica became a strategically important site and a communications tower was built at the summit. Now, 25 years on from the end of the conflict, the mountain’s sporting heritage is being revived by mountain bikers and paragliders.
Bjelašnica is a powerful setting that promises to be a decisive parcours in this year’s race. Yesterday, Bjorn Lenhard’s fortitude was pushed to the limit when the road he’d chosen deteriorated to an ‘impassible’ gravel and mud track, and he felt compelled to take a 140 km diversion. Bjorn’s race has been dogged with bad luck and his disappointment was desperate.
However, when he arrived at CP4 there was a hug to greet him from cap 12, Stephane Ouaja and the friends chatted, consoled and seemed oblivious to the sun rapidly sinking over the rocky parcours. Stephane ate, Bjorn changed his brake pads, there was chatter and laughter. A sense of urgency was reignited though when cap 157, Thomas Dupin rolled in eager to head straight up the parcours.
All three set off about the same time, Bjorn and Stephane riding near each other to begin with until Bjorn pulled ahead. The grind was drudgery and painted in the frustration on their faces. Just a third of the way up both men were walking.
Bjorn was furious and German curses rained down through the rapidly cooling air. By the time both riders had hiked to the summit it was pitch black and stars were strewn above them, hanging in a cloudless, cold sky. Bjorn had returned to his usual charming demeanour but Stephane was muttering in misery as he picked a path back down through the rocks.
Thomas Dupin, not far behind cap 2 and 12, was so worried about his cleats that he decided to take off his shoes and attempted to tackle the hike in his socks. However, he lost confidence in the dark with the alarming sounds of a helicopter circling above them in the sky and decided to retreat back down without completing the parcours. He returned to Sarajevo to search out a bike shop, we are as yet unclear if he will return to finish the parcours or continue on, the gravel section left unfinished.
Alexandre Bourgeonnier, cap 149, took the same dreadful road that forced Bjorn to turn around earlier in the race. Alexandre stopped battling along the path at around 21:30 last night but didn’t turn back, he posted a video of the route explaining his rational and continued as best he could, his skinny road tires collecting clods of Bosnian mud as he rolled slowly along.
While Bjorn, Stephane and Thomas were suffering at the mercy of the gravel James Hayden, who had punctured on the previous day on the parcours, discovered it had also shredded the sidewall of his tyre. The tube was poking through precariously but James must have cobbled together a fix that kept him on the road to Tirana, Albania. He’s pedalling on a hope and a prayer that it’ll see him to the finish.
Despite bellowing his own vocabulary of curses down the mountain at the time, he praised its inclusion: “This is what @transconrace is about, pushing beyond sense and boundaries, forcing people to confront and conquer their worst selves. Hopefully leaving stronger and brighter. Thanks for including it.”
Looking ahead to his last stretch today, he posted on Twitter: “Few hours sleep in hotel then crack on. No rush, just going to enjoy it. Unless shit hits the fan in the final 350km! #anythingcanhappen”
All being well, he’s expected to cross the finish line in first place later today in just over nine days.
In the battle for second and third, Bjorn is 30 km ahead of Stephane and Rene Bonn, cap 158, who are riding close together. However, there is uncertainty that Rene Bonn has correctly completed the parcours. All potential route and rule infringements are logged and assessed by the race organisers post race.
At Control Point 4 at time of writing, Matthew Falconer in cap 5, Mohammed El Alami in 214 and Thomas Dupin, 157, are all at gathered at the bottom as Martin Temmen, cap 143, and Alexandre Le Roux, 186, are roughing it on the rubble.
Jonathan Rankin, cap 253b, struggled to believe the pile of grit at the entrance to the CP4 parcours really was the start of the climb. He said he’s been struggling mentally after splitting with partner James Craven, 253a, but is determined to finish top ten if he can. Riding out of GC, due to his having started in a pair this will take nothing away from his achievement. This has been a difficult race for the pair but their spirit has been an inspiration to many of their fellow racers and dot watchers.
This section of the race is testing our riders and we are anticipating a high number of scratches or failures to complete the parcours at CP4. The technical riding, the gradient and exposure will punish every rider who’s brave or foolhardy enough to attempt it. The struggle is real, the rewards are proportionate to the effort.
“Nothing worth doing is ever easy” Mike Hall.