Albania: land of endless hills and unrelenting heat. The barren landscape from the border of Kosovo and the piercing sun swept over us immediately and with a ferocity like we never anticipated. So far, this truly has been the most challenging country I have ever cycled, and the past 2 days have been the most physically demanding ones of my life.
Planning this route out over 8 months ago, I tried my hardest to steer clear of Albania. In truth, I was nervous of the people and did not think it was going to be a very safe place to travel through. It was Suzie who refused to budge and insisted we at least dip into the country for a short time. With great hesitation, I planned for a route across the north of Albania not knowing what the terrain would be like when we got there.
From day 1, Kosovo was set to be the most mountainous and challenging country we would pass through. With 2 large climbs over 1000 meters and one set for 1,500 meters, I figured once we broke through the border of Kosovo it would be relatively easy until our break in Croatia. How wrong I was! Kosovo was really a snap; the long climbs were gorgeous, the people were friendly, and the climate was incredibly forgiving. Thinking the worst was over, we crossed into Albania with high spirits wondering what lay in the road in front of us.
It seemed the minute we crossed the border, the heat set in. As if Kosovo had some sort of solar shield, I was overcome with heat exhaustion after the first 10 kilometers of cycling. That first night was set to be a hot one but thankfully we were taken in by a very generous Albanian family and allowed to sleep in their living room. That is a story all in itself but all I will say for now is that the experience with that family changed my perspective on Albanian people as I no longer feared anything but hospitality from them for the rest of our trip. Their generosity and kindness had me leaving their front porch with a smile on my face and invigorated for the journey ahead.
Day one was the most difficult of all our days in Albania both physically and mentally. In Korea and on past trips cycling, I frequently seek out hills and measure their altitude to see how much I can climb up in one day. After that day in Albania, I stopped caring at all how high the mountains were as it was clear that there were only two peak sizes in this country: the ones that broke you physically, and those that broke you mentally. We only did 50 kilometers that first day but it felt like 200 as we climbed over 3 large hills over the course of the day. Normally, 3 hills would not be so bad; in fact it would make for a pretty darn good day! It’s when you climb up, and up, and up to the top only to look over and see the next hill starts at the bottom of the one you are on that discouragement sets in. And it can set in pretty hard believe me.
I love a good physical challenge as much as my other teammates, but the never-ending hills wore me down during those first 50 kilometers. It just felt as though I was working harder and harder and making no actual progress… a true Sisyphean task. After riding for 7 hours, I passed out as the sun went down hoping the next day may bring forth at least some level ground.
The morning brought forth a re-invigorated team ready to tackle the hills in our path. I think that a good nights rest (and a much needed second dinner the previous night) really toughened us up mentally and prepared us for the hard day ahead. Day 2… we rode our hearts out. We blasted off over the first climb and were finally rewarded with a downhill into a level valley. It wasn’t long until we were off and up another long climb again, but I felt strong and welcomed the fire in my legs as I powered up the incline. It was on this second hill that I saw Skadar (our last city in Albania) was 76 kilometers away. Following the first day of climbs, we decided it would take up to 3 days to reach Skadar. We didn’t think we would have it in us to make it any faster than that with all the mountains in our path. Feeling as good as I did, I yelled out “we can make it there today!” and kept taking on the climb. Ambitious as it was, I thought that making it over 100 kilometers with massive climbs in the way would be an accomplishment for me that I would not soon forget. Off we went.
We made it halfway to Skadar over another long and hot climb and into the city of Puke where we filled up on pizza and coffee and talked about the possibility of powering on for another 60 kilometers. We knew the hills would not end, but thought we could still do it if we kept at it. From Puke, it seemed the worst was over; we went down for a bit and climbed a little, but everything seemed relatively level and we were leaving the kilometers behind us in a hurry. At the top of yet another climb though, we looked across and saw yet another 700 or so meter climb at the base of our downhill. This was where I was most discouraged on day 2; we were so close yet Albania refused to let us push on unchallenged. It had to throw yet another obstacle in our way.
Despite the mental battle I had with myself, the high spirits of the team coupled with Suzie’s strength in climbing the hill alongside Katie inspired me to keep my legs moving as fast as they could. Through the piercing heat of the sun, we rode to the top together and victoriously looked down at Lake Skadar with a sense of accomplishment that cannot be compared.
What is important is that in the end, we all made it to Skadar a whole day ahead of schedule. As a team, we conquered the mountains and heat of Albania with smiles on our faces and the prospect of tons of food in our bellies. I am sure I have taken on bigger challenges in my life in the past, but writing this so soon after arriving in Skadar, I cannot think of any other examples that compare. Albania spat me out stronger both mentally and physically and I truly believe nothing for the rest of our trip will strain me more. In fact… I welcome that prospect.