Note:The Western Tour was an eleven week, 4750 mile Bicycle Tour of the Rocky Mountains and Pacific Coast that Shirley and I did in the summer of 1991. You can see most of the places that are mentioned in this letter by going to Bulgaria Map then zoom or drag.
As I write this, it is Monday morning the 13th of October and I am back in the office after a week off to do what I think of as my Central Rhodope Tour. But, before I talk about the Tour maybe I need to discuss what my mental state was leading up to it’s start.
You know that I bought my bike in April, had it delivered in May, and have been doing some training rides; but nothing that you could describe as hard training. What efforts I made were sustained by a vision that I had of maybe riding from Zlatograd to Kurdjuli, then from Zlatograd to Plovdiv, then maybe around Bulgaria. But, I had a nagging doubt that the body, the bike, or perhaps both of them were not up to a tour. I had a concern that the weather would become to cold for me to get in a week long ride at the beginning of October, I was also doubtful of my ability to carry enough stuff on the bike to do a week. I think I told you that I had bought a bike rack in Sofia on my last trip, but I have no panniers. The rack that I bought is normal in appearance to any other rack but has a spring loaded metal arm that holds the “load” onto the rack (I hope you can picture this). So I carried on a mental debate about taking my larger backpack, wearing it as a backpack on the bike, or going light with a Bulgarian knapsack tucked under the spring loaded rack hold down. The weekend tour that I wrote to you about used this light load approach but I had a full knapsack and was on the road for only two days. What to do? More thinking, more mental debate, more considering, more apprehension. On Friday the 26th of September a young neighbor boy saw me at my normal outdoor breakfast coffee and talked to me for almost 30 minutes about him riding my bike. He had asked me before and I had been putting him off but he was very persistent and I said tomorrow; with the hope that he would let it drop. Alas, he was pounding on my door at 0700 on Saturday morning. I told him “Go away!” – that I was still in bed, still sleeping; and if he was going to ride my bike it was going to be later. He was awaiting me in front of my apartment block when I returned from morning coffee around 0900 and I got the bike for him and said “OK do a 15 minute ride, I want to then ride for an hour or two”. It was almost 45 minutes later that he returned partially riding, partially pushing the bike. He had crashed it and bent the left front brake pad down against the tire and was rubbing both the pad and the tire very badly because he didn’t know how to release the brakes. He points to the problem, I give him hell about his crashing the bike, he walks away; not one word about being sorry, not one word from his parents, nothing about fixing the damage. I took it to a local tire repair shop near my apartment (they had installed my rack for free) and they got the brake readjusted. Then after riding a couple hours on Sunday morning I took it back again for some additional tightening and repositioning of handlebars and left side brake levers. Nothing to be done about the torn left side handlebar covering or the scraped leather on my Brooks saddle or the small ding in the paint on the left side of the new bike rack. Nor was there much that could be done with my worry that I had not found all the damage and something would fall apart during the up coming week Tour. During the week leading up to the planned Tour I start to develop a cold; woke up on Tuesday with a terrible headache because of sinuses, then get the typical scratchy throat. Another worry! I’ll get sicker as the week of the Tour goes on and have to quit or would feel so bad I just couldn’t ride. Then there was the on going concern about what the weather may do – at 1500 on Friday 3 October a heavy cold rain begins to fall. My mental state – depressed!!!!!
The morning of 4 October showed a clear bright sky, I felt no worse than I had the previous day; so is was pack up the knapsack and ride. The knapsack contained: 1 large water bottle 1 pair riding shorts, 1 pair cycling socks, 1 pair boxer shorts and a nylon warm-up suit (for after ride wear), wrist watch, pen, 5 sheets of paper, 3 tourist maps, wallet, Swiss army knife, razor, shaving cream and brush, toothpaste & brush, comb, and 5 one-gallon zip lock bags to store everything in. There was also usually a small bottle of fruit juice and a packet of peanuts or a bread roll in there for a snack break. The interesting thing about this list of “stuff”, plus what I wore every day, is that it was enough for the week. I was also staying at volunteer’s apartments in Haskovo and Plovdiv and hotels every place else so I carried no sleeping bag. My concern was for naught. Of course the great weather that I had during the trip made this light travel approach work; if I had gotten rain I would have had problems continuing in it. But, I had decided that I would wait out bad weather or terminate the trip if necessary. I can’t claim to be much of a self contained tourist after this one trip; but, (we once talked about this) to be un-teathered from the baggage truck is a freedom to be experienced!I had made a hotel reservation for the 4th, my first night on the Tour. I had obtained the telephone number, hotel name, address, written description on how to find it and a map to assist me in finding it from the business volunteer in Kurdjuli. I was fearful that I wouldn’t have a place to stay and did a lot to make sure that everything was arranged. However, I was unable to make the same kind of arrangements for my night in Asenovgrad; in fact I didn’t know where the hotel was but I did know there was one. Guess what! I had a better hotel experience in Asenovgrad that I did in Kurdjuli. As I rode into Asenovgrad I stopped at a restaurant and had lunch and asked about hotels. The waitress told me about one “in the Center” and when asked about others she said “the Hotel Art”. As I proceeded toward the center of town I saw a small sign “Hotel Art” with an arrow and followed it to what looked like a regular residential home. There I made inquiry about a room with it’s own bath and the proprietor (also riding a bike) led me across town to a restaurant /bar/hotel that is in a restored 1850’s era home. What they offered was described as an apartment and consisted of a bathroom, a shower and a huge room with massive king size bed, a sofa, 2 stuffed chairs, coffee table, refrigerator (didn’t work), vanity area, cable TV, potted plants, and the elaborate wooden wardrobes and carved wooden ceiling decorations from the period. I visited one of these homes (now a museum) in Samakov during PST and it was all roped off so you could just stand in the doorway and gape at the wood work; here I was sleeping in the room! So again a worry, a fear, a concern has been overcome – not that I won’t try in the future to identify where there are hotels that I might stay at. But, what I now know is that I have the ability to ask for, find, and negotiate for a room in out of the way towns in Bulgaria.
Bicycle tours have always been good for my mental state; that’s why I keep doing them! But, the telling and the doing are two different things. The fellow tourist will read through the description and be carried back in reverie of their previous rides rather than concentrating on the description. The non-cyclist will read it and not “get it” or dwell on thoughts such as “Why didn’t he just rent a car?” So be it; this was the Tour.
When I left Zlatograd on Saturday morning it was still cold enough that I could see my breath and the fog was laying in the narrow valleys. By the time I reached Radar Hill it had warmed up and was very pleasant. The ride that first day was the same route that I wrote about when describing my weekend tour. Zlatograd to the Kurdjuli hotel was 77 Km and 912 Meters (the registered climbs being within 16 Meters of those previously recorded gives me some faith in my computers Altimeter function). After a Bulgarian breakfast, double expresso and a banitsa, I left Kurdjuli via a secondary road to the east of the heavily traveled main road. My previous experience with this route being only some map study. It didn’t appear to be to very difficult; however, the contour lines on the tourist maps that I’m using are at 100 Meter intervals and you can do a lot of undisclosed climbing. As it turned out I rode the shortest day [not correct] of the Tour into Haskovo; doing only 53 Km and the climbs totaled 576 Meters. The day was again cold when I left but warmed up on the first climb of some 200 meters. I had white and pinkish sandstone cliffs to my left during this early part of the ride and some fall colors could be seen. A second climb took me north to a summit overlooking the plains where Haskovo is situated. At this summit, near a village called Most, there was a Sunday market gathered in a meadow. It appears that farmers from the region congregate here to trade their crops, donkeys, mules, freshly slaughtered or live sheep, or buy trade goods from Haskovo or Kurdjuli. The third days ride from Haskovo to Plovdiv was a long and flat 86 Km and 340 Meters. I intended on leaving Haskovo via a secondary road to the west of the main street that travels north to join the “Interstate” that I would ride to Plovdiv. As it turned out, I did finally find the road I wanted but had ridden about half the distance to the Plovdiv Highway among ugly apartment blocks rather than along a colorful park. After turning west toward Plovdiv it was 76 Km of almost dead flat riding on a road that carries cross country traffic from Istanbul to Sofia and beyond. It is like riding the Interstate in the U.S. but without the wide shoulders; it is two lanes with fast cars, big trucks, tractors, mule drawn wagons, pedestrians, and bicyclist all sharing the road. As I write this I realize that it sounds quit dangerous, but I felt comfortable on the road during the ride (maybe the Western Tour was good training). After resting for a day in Plovdiv I left in late morning so as to arrive in Perushtitsa around noon to meet a fellow volunteer for coffee. This ride was somewhat the reverse of Haskovo – Plovdiv; from the plains to the Rhodpe foothills rather than riding out of the foothills. The scenery during both days rides was farm crops along the road, scattered trees, small streams, the Balkan Mountains to the north across the plain, and passing through a small village about every 10 – 15 Km. At times I would be riding along vineyards, or corn fields (now being hand picked and shucked, with the stalks being cut by sickle), or peanut fields (also being harvested and hand picked off the plants). Near Perushtitsa there were also apple and plum orchards and I was occasionally passed by a tractor pulling a trailer full of grapes or apples. The days ride into Asenovgrad was 38 Km and matched exactly the 340 Meters of climbing into Plovdiv. The ride from Asenovgrad to Kurdjuli was the most spectacular of them all as the 80 Km and 1,072 meters might suggest. The first 30 Km were along the foothills to the east and very similar to the previous day from Perushtitsa. But, then the climbing began up into the mountains proper and up into the fall colors of oak, beech, birch all contrasted by the green conifers. I rode through this scenery for about 20 Km before dropping down toward Kurdjuli which offered great scenic vistas of mountain range upon range in the distance. As the distance and climbing indicate it was a tough ride but there was one marvelous finishing touch to it all. That was a 6 Km downhill into Kurdjuli that I did in excess of the posted speed limit (50 Km/Hr), passing a State bus that had previously honked at me on a climb, and following a van full of Bulgarian workers that were waving encouragement for more speed. The final day of the Tour retraced my return route from the weekend ride previously described; that is through Gebel and back into Zlatograd. Totals for the 8 days (7 days of riding) were 420 Km and 4,088 meters of altitude gain. Perhaps half of what we did during some weeks of the Western Tour but enough for me at this point. I had a good time at it has shown me that my vision of doing a “Touring Around Bulgaria (TAB)” next spring is a possibility – and planning has begun. Mundane stuff next month, life is more exciting on a bicycle.