Sunday, June 20, 2004

SVS Day Four (Chetiri) - Home Run - Sliven - Sofia - 276km (171mi)

Rise and Shine from Bistro Omega!
Ah, fresh clothes for a new day. These guys seem to have gotten in later than expected, but they're ready for a just-before-dawn departure after coffee breakfast. We don't get too far before Docho's bike starts giving him problems. I'm not sure what's wrong, but Mr. Balanski is spinning the pedal - I offer all my tools, but none seems to be what he needs - oh, a socket wrench for the recessed bolt on the end of the pedal apparently. We continue, but have to stop again. I offer my bike, as I've already abandoned and I know he'd get a kick out of riding it, but they won't accept. I think they're nervous that something bad might happen to it. Yeah, I'd have a hard time explaining how the rear derailleur is just hanging by a thread or how the hood can jam up the shifter (especially since Docho's never even seen integrated shifters before). If the derailleur came off or the shifter jammed when I wasn't around, they'd get pretty stressed I'm sure. Mitko comes along and takes Docho off for repairs while I catch up to the others.

Relatively flat.
A lot of flat land today. Still spectacular views. There's fast electric trains criss-crossing the Bulgarian countryside at remarkably frequent intervals. It's comforting to know that should the bike totally break down, I could simply hop a train back to Sofia. I think I got a photo of a train shooting across the plains of the Valley of Roses with the foot of the Star Planina mountains behind and a field of sunflowers before. I'm getting hungry - I sure wish I had that Shopska salad with me now!

What's going on here? On of those little sedans is stopped by the side of the road with the trunk open and loud dance music blasting from the stereo - the driver is standing by the trunk smiling and calling out to the people in the field and other passers by. Chavdar stops to fill his water bottle from the spring while the others continue - I pull over too. Chavdar says aside to me, "Don't talk to this guy." Okay, I guess he's trouble? "Later." Chavdar knows I practice my "Dravsti"s and "Dobr Den"s on everybody I can. Later he tells me he suspects the guy maybe one of the "highway robbers" he's always reading about in the paper.

Docho races through the valley to the south of Stara Planina
Today we see lots of motorcycles, the denim or leather jacket with club insignia kind. I was surprised how few motorcycles and motor-scooters I'd scene in Sofia. Paris and Valencia are full of them (great gas mileage) London less so, and Sofia seems to have pretty few. This may be an unusual sight because, as we sat at the Bistro for lunch, everybody seemed to turn their heads and watch when the motorcycles went by. Adrian had given me his cue sheet (to replace the one I dropped in the river yesterday.) Today was simple, almost 300km only a couple of turns at the beginning and end! "Is it this flat the whole way", I asked? No, there's some climbing later.

Smooth Sailing!
Was there ever! We had a lot of flat, but then some real peaks! Some fast downhills allowed us to catch back up to some of the motorbikes. Nearing the top of one that I thought would go on forever the road suddenly turned craggy, then there were three cars parked on the left side - what are these taxis doing parked up here on the top of the mountain? Did somebody break down? A lot of folks gathered around, but the atmosphere seemed sort of festive. I pulled across and behind them to check it out. There was some soft Turkish music playing from a boom box, some strange equipment and a girl stood on the edge of the bridge just on the OUTSIDE of the rail. Bungee jumping! She stood for awhile, I readied my camera, then I heard her speak a soft "Ciao" and step back into the air. I think I got two photos of her on the way down, then she was swing back and forth in a surprisingly long arc below. I think I'd want a longer jump - it seemed to be over pretty quick.

Through town...
Speaking of which...time for a long untethered descent from this mountain! We got separated going up and more separated going down, so I was riding along alone for a long time, but still having a lot of fun. I'd thought we were on some major highway into Sofia, but it got pretty small. The cue sheet had us detour into some very nice town centers. I'd picked up a small box of pretzel sticks along the way and was stuffing my face with them near a town square. I took some photos of the surrounding buildings and eventually some kind of military police officer walked out, unrelated to my activities I think, but as I stood there kind of dumbly staring at him with my sun-burned cheeks stuffed with pretzels he began speaking to me in Bulgarian. I'll never know if he was asking "How may I help you?" or "What do you think you're doing taking pictures of Pirdop?". I simply shrugged and said "Ne Razbiram" and I think he dismissed me as an idiot tourist and went about his business.

Now some things were starting to look real familiar - had we passed through here on the way out of Sofia three days ago? Next village and there's Mr. Balanski and the boys. "Wazzup!?!" Uh-oh, Chavdar looks pretty upset...they all look pretty grim. What's the matter? Maybe Mr. Balanski had to get scold them over something? Four straight days of riding with very little sleep could get tensions up. I hope I haven't been a bad influence... I tried to figure out what happened, I think two of them may have crashed into each other, though I didn't see any scrapes. After awhile we came to a Bistro where Deniz and Docho took a break while Mr. Balanski and Chavdar pushed on. I hung back for a minute and then caught back up to Mr. Balanski and Chavdar. Chavdar seemed to be feeling a little better. We did some big climbs then Docho and Deniz both came flying by with two big "Wazzup!?!"s! Glad to see their spirits lifted! We finished off the real big climbs and they started pulling ahead of me, but climbing up a smaller hill I could here the "squeak squeak" of another bike gaining on me. I laughed as a boy about 12-years-old pulled up alongside me with fishing pole in his hand! Too funny! "Hey, we catch them okay!" He looked puzzled. I motioned for him to follow me and chased after the guys, but fishing-pole boy turned off.

Okay, now I definitely remember this - this is the small road we made that first right turn on at the start. The one where I thought the hill might be a mountain. I don't even recognize the hill now. By the time I reach the busy intersection to turn left, I'm alone. I make the left, stop once more to get a drink and I'm thinking "Excellent, we'll all be done before it even gets dark," when suddenly, another flat!

Terracotta tiles
Oh boy, I pull the bike up on the side walk. I must be only a mile or two from the finish, but I can't ride on this. I'm tired, I dump out all my tools on the sidewalk and go to work. A commuter train pulls up and suddenly there's a crowd marching down this narrow sidewalk - Yikes, we're not in the U.S. anymore - people here actually walk on the sidewalk! I pull my bike and tools into the grass and continue. A guy in a blue uniform shows up. I can't tell if he's a cop or an off-duty transit guy or what. I'm much too tired and annoyed at the flat tire and setting sun to try to speak Bulgarian now. "Ah English!" he says and then starts telling me about the bike he bought in West Germany and the rides he did up there. This would be great conversation, if the sun were not sinking. He gets excited and slips back into Bulgarian. He's trying to help, but my mood is kind of tense. Be nice Adrian - he's trying to help. We get the tube out, patch it, put it back. He's run off to his apartment and come back with his bike to show me. Hey - a pump! Mine is giving me trouble, can I borrow? Great! The tube's not holding air - the patch I'd put on earlier that day is now leaking. I'm pulling it apart to put in a new tube. He's checking the old one - running back to the apartment to get a bucket of water and talking non-stop, in Bulgarian. Eventually I'm back underway just as darkness is setting in.

The Electric Trains are never far away...
Nice SAG option!
I ride back over to Vassil Levski monument to find a good-sized crowd gathered at the finish waiting for the last cyclist (me). Cameras are flashing as I pass through the victory arch. Lazar presents us with Trophies and there's lots of "Thanks You"s and "Congratulation"s then we head back to the hostel to get cleaned up and out for pizza and Bira!

The brick road near parliament is painted gold, or so I thought, but I'm told that's actually the natural color of the paving the stones in this road. This is great - I've learned a new cycling skill: Four days ago, I was taking the long way around to avoid cobbles - cobbles don't even faze me now!

Water crashing down!

To the valley, and village, below!

...and then I heard a soft "Ciao."

on the pendulum

on the pendulum

Water never rests in Bulgaria

These birch stands were surreal!

These birch stands were surreal!

Lazar diverted us into the village center
to take in the sights!

Lazar diverted us into the village center
to take in the sights!

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