by Donald Hess
Last night we looked ahead at the route we had planned to ride today and became very discouraged. Our destination was Tirana, the capital city, but we could not find a good route that didn't include this 2600ft climb at the end of the day.
The four of us have Garmin GPS devices for our bikes. We typically create routes with the iPhone app, Garmin Connect, and we know that there is a setting where one can choose between minimizing distance or minimizing ascent. After yesterday we wanted to minimize ascent at all costs. Not having luck on our own with the app, we enlisted the help of our friend, Steve Cardillo, with whom Justin and I frequently ride and with whom the four of us did the NYC triathlon last year. We gave him parameters which included recalculating our route by changing any of our stopping points over the next few days. Tricking the app by dividing the route in half, he was able to keep our route fairly flat.
It would be long with the 2 segments adding up to 130 miles, but doable as the climbs were minor. I then contacted command central (my three sisters and my mother), who have been finding us places to sleep. After searching for a while, the message arrived that there was nothing in Milot. Because 130 sounded long, we encouraged them to look any distance south on the route. They found us a place about 20 miles shy, in Rinas, called Vila Aeroport, named for its proximity to the airport. Perfect. Our stopping point would be Rinas.
We woke up at 5:30 am, ate the plums, bars, and cookies that we had bought the night before and were downstairs just before 6:30 am, when Claudio opened the cafe. After three iced cappuccinos and an iced coffee, we were off with our new route.
There was a nice climb out of Vlorë, with a comfortable but warm temperature and nice morning sun.
The road was quiet and rural when out of nowhere a dog started chasing us. Justin was first, and the dog chose him, snarling, barking with his teeth bared. We all armed ourselves with water bottles, but he gave up and let the other three pass. We pulled over about a mile later for a quick stop as Justin was still shaking and Dave needed to adjust his bike.
Although Patrick's post said otherwise, Albanian roads are not excellent. In fact, we had a lot of trouble with the roads today. Here's Patrick on what is considered a main road.
As we entered Fier, we ran into a lot of construction, worsening roads and became a little discouraged. We stopped for breakfast at a place that heavily advertised Coca-Cola.
We had been joking that Coke should be a sponsor of this trip as we have been drinking it a few times a day. It's almost the perfect sports drink as it has caffeine, water, and sugar. Flat Coke was even an option at all the water stops in the Ironman I did.
While eating breakfast, Dave started looking at alternatives. Although not recommended for cyclists by Garmin Connect, there was a road, SH4, which was completely flat and took us directly to Durres, where we could turn right to where we would be spending the night. We all agreed and left breakfast with a newly recalculated route.
After a few twists and turns leaving the city, we were deposited on the side of SH4, which appeared to be a highway. Uncertain about whether we should attempt riding on this road, we began to debate it.
"There's no shoulder."
"It will save us 30 miles."
"The cars are moving fast and the speed limit is 90k."
"It looks safe."
"It's completely flat."
It was divided, 2 pro, 2 con, when Bardyl Fezgo arrived.
He passed us in his car, backed up, gesturing to see if we needed help. Patrick began talking to him through Google Translate, where we learned he was a cyclist also. He assured us that he cycled on this road, that it was safe, and he then listed the cities in the order that we would pass through before Durres. It was decided, SH4. As we headed out, he preceded us as if an escort, then made room for us to pass by and filmed us on his iPhone. He later sent Patrick a bunch of videos including this one taken of us from his car. I like the music he was listening to.
The road was great - safe, fast, and flat. Just in started pulling, and Dave trailed, making sure we stayed in a tight pack to be easily passed. Dave also kept a close eye on the road behind us too.
Eventually, the highway had a service road, which continued all the way to Durres. We stopped for lunch in the town of Kavajë, where we found a beautifully air-conditioned restaurant surrounded by flowers.
The staff was very friendly and instructed us to put our bikes in an area where they could watch them on surveillance cameras. We ordered what is now becoming our to-to food in Albania, a country with seemingly strong Italian influences: pasta Bolognese. We feel we need protein calories at every meal, and, of course, the carbohydrates are an easy fuel. We even ordered dessert, which was a type of Albanian ice cream.
The cost of food in Albania has us shocked. Lunch, which also included 8 bottled waters and a Greek salad to share, was $24 for all of us.
With our new route, we only had 30 miles to go. It was hot outside again, so we planned a water stop halfway in Durres, where we also restocked sunscreen and toothpaste. There was a little confusion finding the next road out of Durres, SH2, which appeared to officially be a highway with cars racing and now absolutely no should as the road was elevated a fair distance out of town. There was another option, but this road started 25 yards away across the train tracks. After carrying our bikes, we were back on course.
We were making great time when Patrick had a flat. We all remarked that we were surprised it hadn't happened sooner on a day like today when we were either on a highway shoulder or side roads with potholes that could almost fit a bicycle.
After a quick repair, we were anxious to get to our hotel, which was 1.5km off the main road. As we made the turn, we kept our eyes open for Vila Aeroport as we did not want to miss it, but had no trouble as this is what we saw.
As you can imagine the rooms in a hotel that looks like an airplane are unusually shaped but this place was beyond comfortable. We took showers then headed to the pool where we had a few beers and enjoyed the water.
We ate at the hotel in a lovely outdoor setting as the temperature finally began to drop a little. We ordered an antipasto plate, a Greek salad, three pasta dishes, the mixed meat plate, and an Albanian casserole along with 4 more beers and a bottle of water - all for €41!
They even brought us this beautiful fruit salad on the house.
Over dinner we planned the next few days. We decided on a longer day tomorrow (117 miles with 8300 feet of elevation gain) to get to Kotor, Montenegro, where we will have an official rest day. It's only 9:30 pm and I'm almost in bed with the plans for an early start tomorrow.
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ABOUT DONALD HESS
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