Helen Moat is more than 90% through her epic cycle ride from the UK to Istanbul. So why does the end still seem so far away?
The light is beautiful, defused with the moisture from last night’s storm. We criss-cross bridges over Yaz Tzonevo, the reservoir just beyond Dalgopol. The water is glass reflecting the green hills and limestone buffs of the Balkans. There’s not much traffic on the roads yet – it’s early morning, just after sunrise. We left Asparuhovo shortly after 6am to avoid the heat of the day. It’s becoming increasingly oppressive as we cycle deeper into Bulgaria.
Last night, we’d found a cheap hotel by the water’s edge, a little oasis in this rural part of Bulgaria. The owner had sent us off with an armful of fruit from the garden: plums, peaches and pears. She’d taken our photograph as we left and wished us luck.
We will need it – yesterday, another spoke broke on Jamie’s bike. Same old, same old. And now I’ve discovered my brake is rubbing against my front wheel. I sigh and unclip the front brake: I’ll get by on the back brake. My lowest gear is still not working, but I can always walk up the steepest hills. It’s Jamie’s spoke that is our worry. If another one breaks, we’re in trouble. There are no bike shops until we get to the other side of the mountains – perhaps. There’s nothing online.
Ahead is the pass that will take us through the Balkans. We’d studied the maps long and hard, and this route seemed to be the easiest way through the hills. And so it is. The little road twists and turns with the River Luda Kamchia, shaded by trees. The air is deliciously cool. We find a fountain and fill up our bottles with icy-cold water from the mountains.
We make it through the villages of Dobromir and Bilka and the second spoke goes. Jamie rides on. Just outside Daskotna, the third spoke breaks. It’s no good, we can’t continue like this. We walk up the hill to the village. In the little magazin, I order coffees and describe our problem to the owner. He doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Bulgarian – but I’m becoming rather good at sign-and-sound language.
I sign pedalling, point to a metal strand on a display rack, and show three fingers while saying, ‘ping, ping, ping’ then drawing the round shape of a wheel in thin air. The owner gets it. He too, has an idea for getting round our communication problems – he phones his nephew who speaks English.
“You can get the bus at 12.30. There’s a bike shop in Aytos.”
He phones back.
“Micro-bus is too small for bicycles. My uncle has found someone to take you to Aytos – if you can pay 30 lev.”
“Okay,” I say, suspecting I’m paying over the odds – but I have little choice.
A smart transit van arrives. Our lift? Apparently not. Then a man arrives with an estate car with a ladder on top. He bundles the bikes into the boot along with our luggage, ties the door down with some wire and indicates I should squeeze into the tiny gap to one side of the bikes and luggage. I’m not a contortionist and refuse, climbing into the front with Jamie.
At the top of the rise, there’s a police check-point.
“Problem,” says our taxi driver, and does a sharp U-turn into the garage on the other side of the road. I have no choice now but to squeeze into the boot with our bikes.
We clear the police without a hitch – despite the fact that our driver isn’t wearing a seat belt, his car is a rust-bucket and the exhaust is belting out fumes that would fail any emissions test in Western Europe.
The car rolls down the long hill into Aytos and skids to a halt outside the bike shop. The couple who own the small bike shop seize our bikes and start to work straight away.
Two hours later, the bikes are fixed: lowest gear is in working order again; brake no longer rubbing – and Jamie’s bike has a new tyre and six new spokes.
The owner shows us the old tyre: “Made in India. No good. Dangerous.”
“Ah,” I say. “We bought it in Romania."
“Romanian bike shops no good.”
It’s too difficult to explain it was a small village – and that there was only one tyre that fitted Jamie’s wheel.
“Spokes no good too,” he adds, referring to our previous replacements. “Romanian bike shop?”
Even more difficult to explain that someone had used the spokes from an old bike wheel he’d found in an even smaller village to help us out. I smile and nod.
“Good luck,” the owners say, shaking our hands as we leave. “Strong spokes now, but panniers too heavy.”
I nod again, just hoping we can make the last 400 kilometres to Istanbul. After all, we have done more than 4,000.