Upside Down - Two countries One Story
Apr 21 2020
Ready… Steady… GO!
Start of the tour in Serbia took place in a small city of Valjevo (110km from Belgrade) at 9AM. Most of the crew needed to wake up at around 6AM, which means that this very first day full of uncertainty and excitement started very early.
Some 1200km far away, German part of the squad hopped on a train in Stuttgart for a 1 hour ride to the city called Heilbronn, where they started the tour after grabbing some pastries from a local bakery and sipping a cappuccino to go.
In the background of this dramatic start, dramatic just for the reason that nobody knew what to expect and how things will run, there was a filming crew on both sides. Filming crew ensured that those precious moments of sweat, tears, joy, storms, mechanicals, crashes and who knows what were captured.
Disclaimer: They also came handy for many repairs that took place such as when plugging the whole in a tubeless tire or changing the brake pads was needed. Other times they were simply there for the atmosphere and to resupply with water, freshly expired bars and some nasty tutti frutti gels. So in fact, they were acting like the proper race support vehicle, except that this was not a race. In any case, terrain sometimes got really gnarly (our Dacia Duster SUV even got stuck) and the weather was changing from July’s burning noon sun and 35’C to heavy rains.
In Serbia, just 5km after the start, Igor (guitarist) punctured his first tire. In the days to come, this will become his routine, some may think a special kind of joy in that whole pain. Tire that he rode was Continental Cyclocross Speed 700×35, so quite a decent tire. Perhaps some tiny thorn hid itself so well and decided to show its face only occasionally, roughly two times a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. Otherwise, nobody could really say why it occurred so often.
The Fat Hill
In the meantime, the German squad covered some decent distance on paved roads that were spreading through small cities and villages along Kocher river. Some 35km in and it was hard to resist stopping by this small charming bakery for a sip of squeezed orange juice that was heating up in the trunk of the support car and a croissant.
For the Serbian squad, this was the first time that they were riding altogether. Therefore, everybody needed some time to align about the pace and get used to a riding formation. On this section, the terrain often changed from old but smooth asphalt to asphalt with dozens of potholes all the way to gravel. Profile and elevation changed significantly too. The first mountain and the lowest out of all mountains (highest peak 1,094m) on the tour was ahead. It started on the 11th kilometer and with its ±7% average, tortured the crew until the 35th km. Its name is Debelo Brdo and can literally be translated to “fat hill”.
Beauty of conquering the hills and mountains is that after the ascent comes to the descent. But way before that relieving descent, at the bottom of the mountain, was the lake called Rovni and the unnatural concrete wonder built on it – Rovni dam that is 75 meters high and 450 meters long.
On those countless uphill curves, everyone was fighting their own fight. Knees started to crack, calves to burn and quadriceps… well, nobody felt them anymore. Frankly speaking, climbing was terrific, but sceneries were not comparable to ones that are yet to come.
Descending started. Now you could hear Igor’s (guitarist) bloody Hayes CX mechanical disk brakes on his steel Brother Kepler miles away. Despite the large bullet point in the packing checklist that states “SPARE BRAKE PADS”, he did not bring the spare ones. Where do you get goddamn Hayes CX brakes pads in Western Serbia? Let the local eBay like cycling marketplace searching games begin! Luckily, they managed to arrange a local Uber like service to pick up the spare brake pads in Belgrade and deliver them on the same day, 170km later. When this guy from the local cycling marketplace heard our story, he gave us the brake pads for free. Limitless karma points for that guy.
A bit less elevation and much less struggle, the German team paced on the smooth tarmac through a myriad of beautiful wheat fields. All riders are very fit and already have a distance of a few thousand kilometers on their Strava profiles.
The best thing about these kinds of trips is that everybody becomes like one, we are in this shit together. Also people who did not each so well became very close friends on the tour. Cycling connects people, being in nature connects people, Upside Down connects people, cultures and these two countries.
The route continued to follow river Jagst with small villages and their charming bridges popping up every few kilometers.
It was 1PM. This can mean only one thing after three hours of cycling – it’s lunch time. Everybody was down for a supermarket as it allows you the biggest of possibilities. On such longer distance cycling tours, staying in a que to pay and observing what other riders are getting is always hilarious. Strawberries, non-alcoholic beer, tomato sauce, hummus, couscous salad and an ice cream, all at once!
Launch time was over and now the route decided to deviate from smooth tarmac and finally diverge into some gravel.
First gravel segments took first victims and Team Germany scored the first flat tire. The current score is 1:1, but that is about to change soon.
It’s time for you to meet our rider, Jost. He is a proper self-supported ultra-distance kind of a guy, knows all 2000’s lyrics by heart and is for some reason passionate about construction machines.
In Serbia, boys started to descend until they reached a gorgeous viewpoint called Kapija Podrinja. Besides offering a monumental view, that was also the sign that is no more climbing, at least not for another 5 hours.
Rolling downhill continues and the crew decided to leave the main road and hit a narrow paved road that stretches next to the main one, revealing incredible landscapes and viewpoints that remind of Switzerland. All that massive nature and intensity of green color everywhere you look make this descend very memorable.
And the team Serbia scores the third puncture.
Another thing that made it memorable was Nemanja’s crash after he has decided to go faster than he can handle. Or put differently, he forgot that there is a support vehicle in front of them which did not intend to drive 60kmh through the cornes.
When I realized it is inevitable that I will fall, I decided to fall in a ditch.
Finally, he landed straight into a ditch on a side of the road. As a result, there was a broken helmet, a cut in a tire, a punctured tube, a wheel that is not straight anymore and a swollen knee. Luckily we can clearly see that phenomenal scene in the film. That crash was sort of a lesson for everybody right at the beginning that this is some serious shit and not a regular sunday ride. Afterwards, a pretty decent gravel road with some larger stones here and there, was taking the team to the next sight – a small house in the middle of river Drina called “kućica na drini”.
The story of this tiny house that was built on a rock goes all the way to 1968. A group of small boys from the nearby city Bajina Bašta decided to build a shelter on that rock in order to hide from the sun, using pieces of wood from a local shack that was demolished. A year later, and the first version of this tiny house was built with material transported using kayaks and boats.
Due to a varying water level and power of the Drina river, tiny house got flooded and destroyed six times in its history until two robust concrete pillars were added to reinforce the foundation.
Few shots and a group photo later, guys were now heading to our friend’s Vlada holiday house at the river coast. Luckily, Vlada worked hard to prepare a traditional Serbian feast – lamb and potato placed in a large pot made of mud, that has been cooking for three hours in a traditional stone oven using only woods.
Loads of fat and protein adding up to those burned carbs incentivized the crew to go for a swim in super fresh and fast Drina river. Igor used this opportunity to align and tighten his Heyes disc brake pads as much as possible, Nemanja found a two sizes larger MTB helmet, while others took a power nap after a cold sweaty pint of beer or coke.
After making such a two hour break and making bellies irrationally full, only cyclists know how difficult it is to stand up and continue further. Particularly if there is an entire mountain ascent ahead of you. Guys continued to ride along Drina river for the next 30km, passing through Bajina Bašta city and reaching the bottom of glorious Tara mountain and a national park.
At this point there was only 15km left to their accommodation on the mountain, from which 12km was a climb with gradients ranging between 6% and 18%. The good thing about continuous climbing is that your body gets used to it, and then it becomes the new normal. One thing for sure, who makes it through the first day, will make it through the remaining ones as well. This is tough. Few days ago you were sitting on a sofa and watching bikepacking videos on YouTube, and now you are working your ass off on climbs without an end.
Somewhere the middle of that 12km ascent was a well with the purest ice-cold water running directly from the heart of the mountain. That refreshment was kind of an award and a signal to the team to keep up the good work.
However, the remainder of that climb took some “victims” and Pavle could not make it further. Igor jumped ahead of the group and continued in his own fast tempo holding for the drops like Marco Pantani in his best days, god bless the pirate. It was getting dark and the temperature was dropping significantly every 15minutes. Everybody got reminded that waking up at 6AM in Belgrade and ending up on 1080 meters above the sea level 220km (half by car) later is not for the weak. Lastly, the crew reached the mountain village called Mitrovac na Tari in the evening hours.
Compared to Serbia, the climate in Germany is milder in peak summer months. On the first day, the temperature was around cosy 26’C. Nevertheless, first things first: you need to hydrate before you feel thirsty and never skip the leg day. Luckily, many German villages in this area have public fountains with drinkable water.
Tens of kilometers later and the crew officially crossed the state of Baden Württemberg to enter the state of Bavaria. Germany consists of sixteen partly sovereign states commonly known as Bundesland.
On the 120th kilometer, they reached a municipality called Wagenheim and started a climb into the Steigerwald Nature Park. Parts of Steigerwald park are under UNESCO’s protection because of diverse forest species. In our case, the team got super excited to hit some trails and cyclocross-like courses.
And 155 kilometers and 2350 calories later, the first day was officially in the books. As soon as we arrived in the guesthouse of a tiny Bavarian city called Scheinfeld where we are staying for the night, there was a round of beer to celebrate the day.