Posted by: Mark Wollemann: On the move | August 26, 2012

The looooooonnnnngggg and winding road

The views after a long and arduous climb are always spectacular.

There are times when I think my pal Bill Clark doesn’t like me much at all. Like yesterday. We were heading out on what we thought would be a three-hour ride. We got a little later start than we’d normally like on a hot day, about 10 a.m., but how bad could it be? I took along two water bottles and a little bag of “sports beans,” those electrolyte- and carb-loaded little candies that are supposed to provide a quick boost when your energy is running low. I figured I’d be fine.

We started, as we always have to, by climbing up and out of Blagoevgrad. On this day, we’d head to Barakovo (you can follow that path here). From there to Stob and from Stob to Smochevo (lots of climbing here). From Smochevo, we rolled through a town that could easily serve as a setting for some kind of a historic movie; lots of old buildings, small gardens next to homes, grape vines and tomatoes aplenty. This is where we left the paved road and started a journey that would take us 6.5 hours to complete and would cover 70 kilometers or so. (You can kind of see the essence of the beginning of this route here.)

We went from Smochevo off-road to Badino. We saw some beautiful sights, navigated some treacherous downhills and tried to escape swarms of little black flies that attacked when we tried to walk our bikes through the most dangerous and washed out downhill passages. Those nasty little buggers forced us to jump back on the bikes and risk hurtling over a cliff to escape them.

We descended from Badino to Usoyka, a 21-kilometer car trip from Blagoevgrad. But our odd journey took us about 37 kilometers to complete. By then I had exhausted my water bottles, my magic “sports beans” and I was sore and tired from the pounding in the hills. And we still had to get back to Blagoevgrad!! We stopped off at a little roadside tavern for some water, some iced tea — and for me, a little kebapche and bread. I was HUNGRY. (Well, I’m always hungry.)

Bulgarian sausage — big energy boost during a bike ride. I promise!

We refilled our water bottles, checked in with our spouses to let them know we were, um, running a little late. By that time, we had been gone more than three hours, I think, and we still had to find our way back. I mean, the direct route would have been the highway, but there is no safe way to use roads from there, so we were back on the bikes … and navigating trails (and a few roadways) along the Struma River.

We skittered across the busy highway in Usoyka. We used the crosswalk, but there was no way anyone was slowing down, much less stopping, for pedestrians. Especially guys with bikes and bike helmets. It was then that Bill told me about a recent run-in he had in town, where he was almost wiped out by a car who took no note of his “right of way” or the fact that Bill had a green light. After some angry words between Bill and the local, a police officer intervened and informed Bill that “This isn’t like England.” Indeed.

Anyway, we lucked onto a nice off-road path just out of Usoyka and had a really pleasant ride until I realized I had lost a cell phone out of a poorly designed bike shorts pocket — and Bill’s “Metro” card, which he was loaning to me. While I walked the path backward, trying to retrace our route and looking into the brush for this stuff, Bill — strong rider that he is — rolled past and headed back from whence we came. About 10 minutes later, he rolled back — adding about 3 kilometers to his trip; 1.5 there and 1.5 back — with my phone AND his “Metro” card. (Aside: Metro is a store that is sort of like a Sam’s Club; you have to belong to get in. And it’s not the easiest thing for Americans to navigate, we’re told, so Bill was letting me borrow his for a day so we could get some stuff for our new apartment. Long story, never mind.)

Anyway, we continued on, sweating, getting pummeled by rocky trails, wishing that Bulgaria would figure out bike paths so that you could ride from Sofia all the way to Greece along the river. It’d be a beautiful ride and a tourist draw. We have worked out the details, Bill and I. All we need is some 10 million euros or so in seed money to get this thing off the ground. Who’s with us?

It was uneventful riding all the way back home. We traversed a few breaks in the trail, we had to carry our bikes along an active train trestle, listening carefully for any oncoming locomotive. I whimpered and whined a little. But finally, after 70 kilometers (that felt every bit as taxing — and maybe moreso — than the 110 mile I did in Iowa this summer), we glided into Blagoevgrad, safe and sound.

I made my way back to the apartment, exhausted, hot, dirty and hungry at about 4:30. After a small bite to eat (always hungry, remember this!) and a shower, I collapsed for an hour-long nap after which we headed out to one of our favorite restaurants — Casa Adria — for dinner and, well, to be honest, many beers.

Today, I’m rehydrated, well-rested and eager to get back on the bike. But first, school. I’ve got to finish up prepping for classes, which begin tomorrow. I can’t believe how much different it feels here in Year 2. More on that later.



  1. Wow! Sounds like an epic ride — but glad it had a happy ending. Happy back-to-school day tomorrow. Can’t wait to follow your adventures in Year 2!

  2. Whew. Where does such persistence come from! Good ancestors, indeed, and thanks for the trip with you. You made ME hungry too. Am awaiting next installment, minus flies. Ava Da

  3. Great story Mark, I have had many of those type of bike rides also. Godspeed

  4. man i bet that beer tasted great. glad you’re back telling stories!

  5. Good thing I was sitting while reading this–I’m exhausted with all the biking!

  6. Thanks for the bike ride! I’m exhausted just watching the video.
    Stay safe, your father worries. mom

  7. You, my friend, are my new role model — now that my old role models are, well, old. Enjoyed your suffering. And the smiles. Keep it upright. PK

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