The Elevation Challenge- | From Somewhere in the Serbian Mountains, We’re Halfway!
The Elevation Challenge. From the lowest to the highest point in Europe, fully under human power
Elbrus, Elevation Challenge, Big Change, Ben Treasure, Erin Duffy
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04 Aug From Somewhere in the Serbian Mountains, We’re Halfway!

We’ve just arrived in Sofia, and that means we’re halfway.

Stunning scenery, 600m high mountain passes, and Serbian bee pursuits, the journey from Belgrade has been the best part of the trip so far, but also the most challenging.

Day One: Belgrade to Jagodina 

We left Belgrade in good spirits. Well rested, and having explored much of the Serbian capital, we stocked up on Burek (home-made pastry) and made our way out of the city. Always one of the hardest navigational challenges, we found our way out of the centre. With google maps in one hand and bike in the other, avoiding the trams, cars and people takes full concentration and a double espresso.

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In the morning we cycle up and out of Belgrade. Literally. Saying goodbye to the Danube for the last time, we started to climb. The hills marked the beginning of the second half of our journey, and at the top of one of the particularly severe ones, we stopped for a quick bite of Burek.  We were starting to feel like the first half of the trip might have been the warm up. A lady came over and gave us peaches. We must have looked a bit of a state to provoke such an act of random kindness.

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After the quick refuel we carried on, and Erin insisted that we take route 158, as it is her favourite number.  Sure enough, the 158 turned out to be our favourite type of road: flat straight and away from all the traffic!! We even had a chance to check out the local Serbian night  life- Club Nox.  

By late afternoon however, we had left the towns behind and were surrounded by Serbian countryside. In the daylight the scenery was pretty, but as it begins to get dark, it becomes stunning: mysterious, rugged and untouched, and all coming to life just as the day begins to end. As darkness descended on our 136km day, we stumbled into Jagodina. After asking some locals for advice we bedded down for the night in a cosy homestay. 

Day Two: Jagodina to Sokobanja 

At Jagodina we set out slightly later than usual. Whilst Ben worked hard to sort some pressing logistical issues,  Erin was recruiting a new member of the elevation challenge team: 

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About two kilometres in, the road was starting to look more and more like a dirt track. A farmer on a bike waved his hands, gesticulating that we should turn round. Another local, in a car this time, stopped to give us the same advice. He looked at the route on our Garmin and shook his head,  before sketching us a rough map with town to town directions.

We decided to take their advice.

Unfortunately, we realised that we now had to cross a high mountain pass. The road started taking us through tunnels as the temperature began to heat up into the high 30s and before long  we were climbing up and up and up.

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Mountain climbing is hard on a road bike. Mountain climbing is painful on a 30kg touring bike. Pedalling and pedalling, we dragged ourselves up the never ending hair pin bends. It’s a constant mental battle to keep going, but at the top it’s a huge achievement (a 600m climb!) and a sense of accomplishment. Whilst cycling in the mountain paths is hard, the view from the top of the mountain-pyramid was definitely worth it…  

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Unfortunately, the descent down was not as easy as we hoped.  There was an impossible headwind and by this point we were out of water and starving. We stumbled into the next town but there was no place to eat. We stocked up on water, had a bounce ball and then cycled another 10km to a hotel restaurant were we saw off a huge bowl of pasta.

By this point it was pretty late on. Not having learnt from our previous decision to accept the local advice, we took more local advice to go over another mountain pass. The hill was not as steep as the first, but by this point we had little energy in our legs and our motivation was low….

Enter the Serbian bees. 

They first became noticeable as they flew past in formation at close range. Like Maverick buzzing the tower, they passed at speed before breaking away. Except we were the tower, and it was they that were buzzing.

They then began to fly across our path, before slowing getting closer to us, before beginning to fly into our front panniers, bikes, arms and helmets, trying to get us to leave their territory. Whilst it wouldn’t be the end of the world if one of us got stung once or even a few times, the number of bees was high enough that we were a bit worried.

We don’t mind admitting that we a bit scared, and we massively increased the pace to try and get out of their zone. The only problem was, we were on a 3-4 km 500m climb after already cycling all day so there wasn’t huge amount of emergency energy left. But with the adrenaline kicking in we smashed it as hard as we could all the way. After some time the number of the things following us began to decrease. At the top of the hill we both stopped. There was no sense of achievement this time, just a desire to get out of the area.

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The daylight was starting to dage, so we lit up the bikes and descended into Soko banja, a Serbian tourist town. Just before we headed it in we got a spectacular view of the blue moon rising behind us in the distance!

Day Three: Soko Banja to Pirot

Leaving Soko Banja, we continued on the rolling hills of Serbia. The first 45km took us to Knazjevac

We met an American couple who had just cycled through Romania. They were doing a much more sensible 50km a day.  Whenever we tell everyone how far we are going and were we are heading, we realise how much of a challenge we have taken on. Thankfully the last 30km into Pirot were downhill and we glided into our resting place for the evening.

Day Four: Pirot to Sofia 

Although this was only an 80km day, for some reason it was by far the hardest day of cycling we had done yet. After an early start, we headed out onto the major highway which is the only way to cross the border into Bulgaria. Before then we had avoided main roads due to our dislike of lorries, but to begin with this one didn’t seem too bad. It was 30km to the border, a 400m ascent and a strong headwind that killed you slowly. Still we made it to the border in one piece, and we always get excited about crossing into 8th country of the trip!

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Our first mistake was made just after we crossed over, we thought we would crack on and only stopped for a snack. Back on the road and our energy levels fell significantly. The effect of 2500km + on the bike and the last few days on the mountains were beginning to hit hard as we both felt pretty drained.

But it got worse. We had heard rumours that drivers in Bulgaria were less cautious around cyclists.  And they quick appeared to be true. Although on the same highway that had took us from Pirot to the border, the lorries were driving closer and closer and we started to feel more and more in danger. After a three lorries passed us at speed very close, the sheer force of the wind nearly knocked us off our bike. By this point Erin’s nerve had gone, emotionally drained, she didn’t want to stay on the road with the constant fear of lorries hurling past us.

We abandoned the highway for an under construction road that was running parallel. We weaved in and out of builders and diggers, but felt a lot safer than on the highway. The paved road was great, until it turned into cobbled stones. Cobble stones + hills = disaster for cyclist. Our reserve  energy levels were being called on as we were still 30km from the city and determined to make it there in good time.

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So we took the decision to head back on the highway, thankfully it had widened to two lanes with a hard shoulder. Whilst the lorries were still going as fast, they had a little more room to avoid us. A Bulgarian taxi driver had also pulled us over en route and handed us two high vis jackets, by this point we were very happy to be looking like Bulgarian Builders..  After a quick pit stop to refill water, we pulled on our reserves and continued into the city. In a slight daze we moved through the cars of the inner city and raced through the capital, eager to find our hotel.

A rest day was completely needed…

The Adventure continues..next stop Istanbul!!

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