There’s hot. And there’s hilly. And there’s long. The hat trick is too much.
I knew this was going to be gruelling and maybe a little “bit over more than I could chew,” but even with that, I was almost broken. The day started off cloudy, with Deyan showing up at breakfast with some last minute advice, and the woman at the desk typing me a sweet sweet message of good luck on her translation app. She helped me carry my bike out and took a selfie. (And yes, people act like there’s no covid. I can’t explain it either). Her name was maya and she was the first of many lovely humans in my day.
I started off in clouds, grateful for the cooler day, still feeling a bit anxious, mostly about directions. I spent too much time fruitlessly trying to get my hydration pack to work (I must have lost some critical bit washing the hose — happily the problem is with the sucking, not the containing – but it is frustrating, because I drink a lot more when I gave the hose, and I usually keep electrolytes on the bottle on my frame. But I set off jauntily, 2 litres of water tucked away, a small bottle with electrolytes in the pocket of my back pack, a bottle of water on the frame. The gear issues seemed solved.
Until one of my panniers fell off within 2 km of the hotel.
Insert straight line mouth emoji here.
I fixed it, I thought, and found my way out of Pleven, and had a good first 25 km to a small town with a square, along fields of dried out sunflowers, corn, a couple of well-irrigated orchards.
The sun came out as I rode, poking at my comfort. I stopped to pee at the side of the road and emerged with teeny tiny burr stuck to my socks, shoes, shorts.
I picked them off, started really thinking about why I am doing this. That first leg was really riding off the 18 months of lockdown, feeling true awe at these timeless fields, the houses layered over centuries, abandoned communal farms from communist days at the edge of villages, each with its own wild dog, sunflowers. Breathing deeply and feeling my legs on the road, a sweet, responsive bike, gear that was more or less staying put. The essence of having only what I need, no more nor less. Finding myself in that liminal space where I’m just floating, moving, a ball on a map, a human on a road.
I stopped for lunch at a series of caves where paleo humans lived, and history happened, and now bats live. The snack bar with promised water wasn’t open, though people with little tables selling bat tchotchkes were idly sitting under tarp sun-shelters. I thought there would be picnic tables or what not, but there were just interpretive signage (in Bulgarian) and the caves. I ate half my cheese sandwich on a bench at the opening of the cave, my lack of appetite a warning sign. As I left, a young man asked me where I was cycling to. “Varna.” “Are you afraid of cars?” “Just dogs,” I said, woofing for clarity.
Then it got ugly. See this sharp step uphill? That is 450m of ascent over about 3.5 km. That is a like an axe to the head amount of ascent.
I thought I would be able to tool my way up slowly in the smallest gear, like I did on my tiny folding bike on salt Spring last summer, or my hours and hours on the fake mountains in zwift this winter. But I hadn’t reckoned on the heat. By this point the sun had come out, it was at least 33° C, and my world narrowed to a pinpoint of getting from one tiny patch of shade to the next. So I walked the bike paused cooled off rode a little bit paused cooled off walked a bit paused called off rode a bit paused cooled off. Began to seriously doubt my life choices. The world took on that unnerving tilt of overheat, where the sun shakes your centre of gravity like someone carelessly carrying a video camera. My water was dwindling. I swilled the now-tea-warm electrolyte mix and finished the last of the water I’d decanted from my backpack to my bottle at lunchtime.
I reached The little hilltop village, greeted by a taking-itself-too seriously dog hurling itself at a fence and looked for a shop. Nothing. Something that looked like a small hotel with a pool, a patio that said Barbecue! But seemed to be closed.
I carefully opened the tidy gate and wheeled my bike in. A woman around my age who was smoking sitting on the steps next to the door shook her head at me and waved her hand that I should leave. I got out my translation app and asked if I could please have some water it was very hot. She shouted up the driveway for a younger woman to come, but nodded and took my water bottle. The young woman explained yes it was a Hotel, no it was not open, no they did not have Coca-Cola. The other one brought back my water bottle and I wistfully looked at the swimming pool but politely left. The woman came to the gate and closed it behind me smiling at me and saying some thing that seemed to be good wishes.
At this point I knew I had a reasonably good chance at survival for at least another hour given the water top up, but as I left the village, my thighs started to cramp up. I got off my bike, took a maple shot, swilled more electrolytes.
Deyan‘s instructions said that the next 25 km was a long lonely road with no shops. He was correct. He did not mention the baking heat, the hills, and the complete and utter lack of shade. He did not mention it would be a time in my life where I seriously wondered What the hell is actually wrong with me LOL.
What followed was deeply deeply unpleasant. I can grit my way through most things but not through heat stroke. I did some riding I did some pushing the bike I did a lot of stopping in the shade and swilling more water. I checked my phone to see exactly how far this next village was. I despaired. I muttered. I thought about the last legs of marathons. I thought how nice it was in marathons and the triaventure when people look after you and give you Gatorade and potato chips and a good stern talking to when you have gotten in over your head.
In as much as I could be philosophical while believing I was going to literally just have to lie down by the side of the road at some point, I was thinking about the purpose of pushing this hard. There is something fundamental when you measure out your effort kilometre by kilometer, 200 m x 200 m, continually having to assess what is actually true in your body, what is possible. The time of Covid has muffled that awareness for me. Working this hard, surrounded by decades centuries of history piled on top of this land, this heat both summer and a symptom of a world that is boiling, I am in myself, in my body, in a kind of truth.
Physical effort this hard makes me think In a really focussed way about distinguishing discomfort from harm. I’ve written about this many times – – that I really do believe that tapping into “grit” in relatively safe spaces like chosen bike rides, does help me, help everyone, if you choose it, to really engage with what it means to be uncomfortable. I know that my comfort with the uncomfortable makes me a good coach. It makes me a good consultant. It has made me a good auntie to the Niki kids. It certainly makes my relationships better. But it always feels that way after, not during. Today was a level of discomfort that nudged up against harm, that poked beyond strengthening to something on the edge of my limits.
I kept myself focussed on Deyan’s promise that kayinko village would have shops and cold drinks. 18 km away, then 16, then 12, then 6. Rotate, stop and drink and cool.
And then i just knew. I knew I couldn’t make it the 6km left. It was time to ask for help. I typed something into my translation app and flagged down a man and woman in a kind of station wagon. My app asked me if he could drive me to someplace where I could get a taxi. As he puzzled over my question, the woman nodded at me to notice a truck barrelling towards us about to hit where I’d left my bike in the road. I skipped quickly to the side of the road, put the bike safely and went back to the car. The man got out, wearing coveralls, looking concerned. He used hand gestures to say he couldn’t fit the bike in the car but in 1 km there was a place I could have a drink.
I Trusted him because I had to. I thanked him with exaggerated bowing gestures and kept riding. Getting back on that bike took grit I didn’t know I had. There was a town, an empty square, a tiny little space with a sign. As I stopped to look around, a woman pulled up in her car, smiled at me and opened the door to the shop. I Slumped my backpack to the ground, put the bike against a pole and went in. I armed myself with potato chips, a Coca-Cola, a huge bottle of water, and what I hoped was a fruit ice (it wasn’t). I gathered my arms full, thanked her, she offered me the toilet and I declined, so much sweating, and then she got in her car and drove away.
Clearly the man in the coveralls and the station wagon had called her to open the shop just for me. I almost cried. I sat on her shaded patio, drink my Coke, eat the potato chips, replenished my salt, and contemplated my choices. After half an hour I realized I could ride some more. I had 23 km left.
I made a bargain with myself that I could stop in the other town for another Coke. Of course, nothing was open in that town. Just a man taking some photos of some kind of historical Museum of that region. That town, like all of them, was baking and empty.
I rode on, the last 12 kilometres mercifully mostly downhill, somewhat shaded. I felt human, less like a egg on a pan, thigh cramps returning periodically, bitey flies circling me every time I stopped.
More gps shenanigans, another community pool I couldn’t stop for, a plaintive “I’m lost” in English. An old man asked “hotel?” and pointed me in the right direction. Finally, at the end of a road made of sharp rocks, the guesthouse. No sign, no greeting, a staff person in a green jersey dress confused by my presence but reassured by the name “deyan.” She had a little notebook that served as her booking sheet, but I wasn’t in it.
Finally, a room. One flat pillow, only half the bed made up with a sheet — why Would one soggy cyclist need more than one twin bed? A shower, more water, some crackers, general resumption of humanity.
I persuaded the woman in the guesthouse to make me dinner. After a lot of shouting into a translation app we agreed I would have a shopska salad, french fries and pork. As I waited i took a bottle of water and weird strawberry juice out of the fridge and wolfed them down. I asked for a gin and tonic, Settling in to watch an early season friends episode dubbed in Bulgarian, while I waited for my food.
The woman brought me a large dollop of gin with a lemon slice and a bug in it. I pointed out the bug and she fished it out with her long red fingernail and said “protein”. She sat down at “her” table and smoked gloomily. Inside the house. Inside the restaurant. Just smoking away. And the man who had been hosing things down outside came in and also started smoking. I took my salad outside with my protein-free gin and tonic and sat among a crowd of flies and looked at the fields, thinking how beautiful and absurd and fragile the world is. And how kind human beings can be.