The flight with two shrink wrapped bicycles is meanwhile routine for me. Since we started in Split two years ago to pack the bikes this way, we had no longer problems checking in at the airport.
Unfortunately, this packing solution is still not perfect. The bikes are being treated like regular luggage without any special attention to avoid damages. I reached Tirana on Friday night with two bicycles not in a good shape. Sven was supposed to arrive the next day around 1 pm, our plan was to ride together from the airport to the city, where my family (Petra, Nicola and Fabian) was already waiting to spend the weekend with us. In the morning I assembled the bikes, I managed to repair almost all damaged parts, except of the bent part, which connects the pinion with the back wheel. At the third attempt I did it, the part broke off.
Experts call this part a derailleur hanger which is designed to break in order to protect the circuit from damage. Unfortunately, I did not have a spare rear derailleur with me (I had never heard of it before)! Would we have to cancel our tour this year because of this missing spare part?
The staff of the hotel where I stayed was very accommodating and sent their driver to assist me, he brought me along together with Sven’s bike to Tirana. However, we had only very little hope to get the necessary “derailleur” on a Saturday afternoon. The street we stopped turned out to be an Eldorado for cyclists: within 300 feet, there were 10 little bike shops to the left and the right of the road. Actually, the owner of the third store rummaged the right derailleur hanger up from a big box and repaired Sven’s bike in a few minutes! Our hero!
By the way: On the flight back home, the derailleur hanger of my Bergamont bike broke. In the Bergamont flagship store in Hamburg, the derailleur hanger was not on stock: it would take 5 days for delivery and the first possible appointment for the installation was only 4 weeks later. Hurray on the Albanian bicycle dealers !!!
Therefore, Sven and I had a relaxed ride to Tirana at noon. We stopped to say hello to our hero, checked out downtown Tirana and had a fantastic dinner together with my family.
We were convinced that we had already solved our biggest problem. In the best mood we started next morning to the south. We had already left, when the hotel manager told my family, that the route we chose was not accessible by bike. While planning the route my focus was to a find a moderate slope and I didn’t check the road surface. When the asphalt ended, we were still not worried. As we were greeted by donkey carts however, we started to get a tiny idea of what was ahead of us: 7 miles gravel road which brought us two flat tires and several falls, fortunately without serious injuries, just some scratches. We had to push our bicycles uphill several kilometers. Even Sven’s unbreakable optimisms seamed to fade away.
Fortunately, the second half of the day continued with a ride on a nicely paved road and we arrived at our hotel in time. It turned out to be a well-known stop on the road from Albania to Macedonia: 24 hours open restaurant and probably the only public restroom within miles, just underneath our hotel room.
The next day’s stage brought us uphill to Lake Ohrid, 2,000 feet above sea level. Still exhausted from the first day and because of a thunderstorm coming up from the south, we decided to take the shorter, northern bypass of the lake. When we reached the border to Macedonia, the rain started. To wait was no option, so we put on our rain gear and luckily, we had the rain front fairly soon behind us.
In Ohrid a young cyclist approached us, he was eager to sell us the best hotel rooms for little money. In fact, this became the cheapest overnight stay of our entire tour. It took us a while until we found out however, that there were no bed sheets or towels in the apartment. Who cares! Ohrid is a tourist town with the best access to the lake and with tons of nice restaurants and hotels. Most of the tourists are from Macedonia, Albania, Kosovo and Greece.
The third day brought us again almost 3,000 feet of altitude and with almost 3,500 feet altitude the highest point of this year’s leg. It started immediately with a long climb, but with some breaks it was easy to handle. Halfway I made another attempt to choose a side road, but we turned around after a few feet on gravel. As the main street was not as busy as we thought and most of the drivers honored the speed limit of 70 km / h, we felt rather safe and enjoyed riding on the paved underground. Our stage ended in Bitola, the third largest city in Macedonia with 70,000 residents. The town has a wide pedestrian zone through the center of the city. Here we found a nice restaurant: The food was excellent, and the waiter did a great job to explain the best local dishes and drinks to us.
The fourth day’s stage of the day started relaxed with pleasant temperatures and without headwinds. We soon reached the border to Greece. This is the 15th country we got to on our x-Europe tour: we cycled through Scotland, England, France, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and now Greece. Since we had just mastered 3 rather stressful days, we decided to change our route a bit. 7 miles more saved us 1,200 feet in altitude. A big thanks to Google Maps! Also, the route change brought us an almost untraveled road along a beautiful lake. The final 10 miles went only downhill! We arrived in a good mood in Edessa and found immediately a small, very nice hotel. At the outskirts to the east, the terrain drops 600 feet directly, so that the small rivers through Edessa flow in quaint waterfall cascades towards the valley.
After the short 600 feet downhill ride, the last stage towards Thessaloniki didn’t present any special highlights. We hardly had an opportunity to avoid the traffic of the main road, instead we share it with a lot of trucks. The only exception was a 7-miles-long well-developed road, with almost no traffic. We could ride relaxed next to each other. Big signs explained that this road was built with EU funds. However, as it is 1.5 miles longer than the old road nobody uses it.
In Thessaloniki we enjoyed a huge cup of ice-cream in one of the pedestrian zones with the view on the ocean before we took a sunbath in the afternoon on the lawn around the old lighthouse (White Tower) overlooking the promenade and the harbor. As dark clouds came up, we rushed to our hotel, close to the airport and prepared the bicycles for the flight.
Sven and I could not agree on whether to end our x-Europe-Tour in Istanbul as originally planned, or to go to Athens instead because of the political situation in Turkey. We decided on a double finish. On 05/11/2019 we will celebrate the first end of the tour in Athens, I will be responsible for the arrangements and in 2020 we will celebrate our finish in Istanbul, which will be planned by Sven. So, if you are up for it, please join our small party in Athens on May 11th, 2019!