Bikepacking the Balkans: Skopje to Dubrovnik on Two Wheels
This article was first published in the May, 2018 issue of Outdoor magazine, PDF
Shaun Busuttil puts his pushie and calf muscles to the test in a call for adventure to cross the steep mountain terrain and rugged, coastal shorelines of the Balkans
I’m in a world of pain and I don’t think I can continue. This climb from Gostivar to Mavrovo Lake in western Macedonia is an absolute calf-burner: 727 metres of climbing in under 20 kilometres. But I’m determined to surmount the monstrous pass, flaunting lengthy seven per cent gradient sections, without getting off the saddle or evaporating into the thin mountain air. With each painstaking turn of the pedals, I remind myself it’s just one more day of steep ascents until I descend to the flat plains – and respite – of central Albania.
It’s early August and the second day of a 716-kilometre unsupported bikepacking trip from Skopje, Macedonia to Dubrovnik, Croatia through Albania and Montenegro, and today’s stage is undoubtedly the hardest section of the 15-day ride. It’s also the most challenging experience I’ve ever had on two wheels. I knew this was going to be hard, and that’s precisely why I chose to do it.
BIRTH BY FIRE
This is my first bikepacking trip. I’d cycled 540 kilometres from Paris to Freiburg over five days with a group and a support van a month earlier, but I was keen to up the ante and challenge myself by riding solo and carrying all my own gear (roughly 12kg) through the Balkans. I’m riding a Giant Defy 5 bike fitted with Continental Gatorskin tyres that I’ve rented from a bloke named Ned up in Zagreb, who shipped it to me along with a pair of Ortlieb panniers and a handlebar bag to Skopje bus station a few days prior.
I’d set off from the Macedonian capital for Mavrovo Lake in the pre-dawn glow yesterday to avoid as much of the forecasted 39-degree heat as possible and rode 75 kilometres via Tetovo before wild camping in the secluded corner of a roadside farm. I loaded my bike and left at a similar time today along potholed roads to ensure I’d be able to reach my camping spot on the shores of the lake by 11 am. It was an ambitious goal, but ultimately an exercise in wishful thinking. Three hours overdue, I roll down the main road into Mavrovo Lake, fatigued and nearly deflated but ultimately ecstatic for getting myself over the first major obstacle of the trip.
Early morning birdsong filters through the polyester of my tent camped along the grassy banks of the lake under a Macedonian pine tree. My alarm is telling me to get up, but my body is demanding a renegotiation of terms after yesterday’s epic efforts. I give in and spend a couple of rest days swimming in the translucent water and replenishing my depleted protein reserves with the lake’s famous trout over bottles of Skopsko, the local beer.
ANOTHER TOUGH DAY
It’s day five and time to cycle 100 kilometres down to Lake Ohrid through Mavrovo National Park – home to hundreds of animal species, including brown bears, golden eagles and the endangered European lynx. The air is damp and cold as I cycle downhill for 20 kilometres under a thick canopy of pine, oak and poplar. I stop to chuck on a couple of extra layers while filling my water bottles at roadside spring fountains; the water is freezing cold and slightly sweet. The R1202 I’m cycling down runs alongside the green Radika River, which gets its colour from the water’s high calcium carbonate content.
Before reaching Debar city at the top of a steep, traffic-laden road and riding out of town along a bridge that looks out across to Albania – its mountainside smoking with isolated fires – I visit Saint Jovan Bigorski Monastery just as a church service is wrapping up. Although 65 per cent of Macedonians identify as Eastern Orthodox, 33 percent subscribe to Islam, and the country is home to the fifth highest number of Muslims in Europe – a fact evident in the stately mosques nestled throughout the small villages and towns I pass on the way to Lake Ohrid.
I’m battling a fierce headwind today, and the heatwave passing through land-locked Macedonia is seriously impeding my progress. There are no shoulders on any of these roads, forcing me to laser-focus my bike as close as possible to the edge of the road as traffic zooms beside me. This undulating section of the route is mostly exposed to the sun too, necessitating frequent stops to rehydrate. The remaining 60 kilometres to my campsite at Struga on the northern shore of Lake Ohrid – one of Europe’s oldest and deepest lakes and a UNESCO World Heritage Site jointly shared by Macedonia and Albania – takes me up and over a melange of category four climbs not as spaced out as I would’ve liked.
I spend the next two days cycling around Lake Ohrid at a leisurely pace and camping on its shores – a suitable reward for the 240 kilometres already in the bag. I treat myself to a night at a hostel in Ohrid, ambling around the ancient, church-laden city during the day and relishing the comfort of a proper bed in the evening.
In a stark – and welcomed – contrast to the last eight days riding through Macedonia, my route through Albania to Durrës on the Adriatic Sea and up to Shkoder near the border with Montenegro is taking me through a relatively flat section, known as the Land of Eagles — rare in a country almost completely dominated by mountains and high terrain.
After crossing into Albania at the southern end of Lake Ohrid and incurring my first flat tyre, I cycle roughly 100 kilometres to Elbasan. I spend the night there and jump back on the saddle before dawn riding along rough and uneven roads out of Albania’s third largest city onto the SH7 and SH4 to Durrës via Rrogozhinë. I’ll need to cycle 85 kilometres today. But riding along these major highways through the central plains is a daunting task when you’re forced to share the road with cars and trucks doing at least 90 clicks, not to mention looking out for broken glass on the dusty bitumen threatening another flat tyre.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom. In between busy sections of highway I get to ride past scattered farms and through friendly small villages where smiling children rush to the road and high-five me as I cycle past. In one village, I cycle past an Albanian wedding procession. Occasionally I share the road with donkey carts, and at one point I spot another cyclist on the opposite side of the road – he never notices me.
By the time I pull into Durrës, it’s already past 1 pm and the sun is brutal. I spend the remainder of the day resting and reloading my supplies. At my hostel I meet John, a cyclist from the UK, who’d just wrapped up an epic 1,200-kilometres ride here from Bologna – the long way around, considering a mere 72 kilometres separates Italy from Albania across the Strait of Otranto. The next day I take a bus to Tirana and spend the afternoon walking around the colourful capita, hunting down a bike shop to replace the tube I punctured entering Albania.
LEAVING THE COAST
I pedal out of salty-aired Durrës just before sunrise and begin cycling the flat 106 kilometres to Shkoder near the Albanian and Montenegro border. But I’m having bike issues: my chain has fallen off four times in the last hour, slowing me down just as the temperature ratchets up into the high-20s. I don’t have the tools to adjust the derailleurs myself so I need to seek out someone who does. Crossing my fingers the chain doesn’t fall off again, I ride 5km to the town of Fushë-Krujë and ask around for help. Immediately I’m escorted to a bike garage just off the main drag and given an espresso while waiting for the mechanic to fix my bike.
Bike loaded and lunch digesting in my belly, it’s time to press on. Roughly halfway I take a break from the exposed riding and 35-degree heat and pull into a shady embankment on the side of the Mat River. After a much-needed power nap, I continue along the SH1, pulling into my campsite in Shkoder a little after 5 pm. It isn’t hard to convince myself that I deserve the next day off.
It’s dark and chilly and I can hear thunder in the distance. At 4 am it’s time to pack up and hit the road if I want to reach Budva on the Montenegrin coast before the 40-degree weather dries me like a prune. It will be an 85 kilometres day today, involving one international border crossing and constant undulations. I enter Montenegro just as the sun creeps up behind craggy mountains and throws a dawn glow across the dramatic landscape, revealing small hamlets and orchids woven into verdant farmland.
The route to Budvar splinters off the main E851 onto quiet, potholed country backroads. I tackle a ten km climb starting at Krute which takes me a little over 35 minutes to clear; at the top I’m rewarded with commanding views over the seaside town of Bar. Back on the main coastal road the traffic is incessant and a little alarming, sometimes coming within a foot of me. But the drivers are patient and respectful of my space. I pull into Budvar just after midday and spend the night in a charming hostel inside the city’s defensive stone walls.
I wake up, load my bike and emerge from the labyrinthine Old Town back onto the main coastal road to Kotor just after sunrise. It can get dangerously busy along this 25-kilometre section of the coast – especially during summer – so I’m relieved when my GPS directs me off the main highway onto an alternative route.
However, that relief is short-lived. I’m brought to the bottom of a demanding eight per cent gradient climb just five minutes after leaving my hostel. I’m cursing under my breath within ten seconds and sweating in under a minute, and the two-kilometre steep ascent wakes me up like a punch in the face. The elevated road twists and turns along quiet bitumen until it descends once more to the busy main coastal road. Occasionally I need to cycle through vast tunnels – dark and scary encounters absorbing you into a dark void where passing cars sound like Boeing 777s.
I roll into Kotor just after 9 am. After breakfast and a quick look around I jump back on the saddle and cycle 45 kilometres along the Bay of Kotor to Herceg Novi just before the Croatian border. It’s mostly flat and exceptionally easy on the eye, but the presence of cars and occasional close shaves are distracting. I sit out the hottest hours of the day swimming and eating at a roadside restaurant, getting back on the bike after 4 pm and pulling into Herceg Novi an hour later.
THE HOME STRETCH
I’d originally planned on spending the night in Herceg Novi, but feeling strong I decide to carry on, curious to see how much further I can push my limits. At the first whiff of the Croatian border I dig deep into my reserves, powered by adrenaline at the prospect of cycling all the way to Dubrovnik – now just 40km away – one day earlier than scheduled. I walk my bike through passport control and enter Croatia determined to reach the finish line by nightfall. I ride the last 30 minutes to Dubrovnik in inky darkness. Encroaching headlights from behind light most of the way along the winding coastal road – a godsend, as my headlamp can barely light two feet beyond my front tyre. Two weeks, three border crossings and one flat tyre later I’m pulling into my campsite in Mlini, just outside Dubrovnik proper.
It’s bittersweet riding the last ten kilometres to the Dubrovnik bus station the next day to ship my bike and gear back to Ned in Zagreb. There’s no crowd waiting for me and no one knows what I’ve just accomplished. But then you don’t do these things for the attention. You do them to answer the ever-present call of adventure. And now it’s time to hang up the phone – at least for now.