Romanian rail, Serbian sun, Montenegran mountains

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Above:  Sunny shades of Serbia.  Serbia is a big surprise, as we didn’t have any expectations at all.  

Since parting ways with my family, we’ve returned to our bikes in the Ukrainian Karpaty.  We followed the route from Kolochava to Yst Chorna, again.  It is shown as a road on the map, but it is more of a stream for about half of that distance.  We continue along forest tracks and singletrack to Yasinya.  To our south, the road crosses through the town of Rakhiv and into Romania,  Or, we can climb up the Chornahora Massif, possibly ride or walk up to the highest peak in Ukraine– Hoverla– and continue further east to cross into Romania elsewhere.  However, our plans with Przemek are looming, and the weather is constantly cold and rainy, at least about every other day.  It may not be the best time of year to be exploring the Romanian highlands.  Not sure if Saška would like to be cold and wet on her first bike tour.  Not sure if I want to be cold and wet.  Lael certainly doesn’t.  Weather predictions in the Balkans are promising– 30C and sunny everyday.  Przemek and Saška are coming from Slovenia.  He asks, “Can you be in Podgorica on the 5th”?

Sure!

Lael and I hurry to figure out where Podgorica is.  Ah, Montenegro.  Sounds nice.

We ride into Romania at sunset, and seek an inexpensive hotel in the center of town.  The first night in a new country is exciting.  Which currency do they use?  How much will we pay for a beer, and a loaf of bread?  It surely isn’t as cheap as Ukraine, although the facilities are nicer.  Immediately, we notice the roads are much nicer (smoother, but more traffic).  The roads in Ukraine are laughably bad.  Once-paved roads are actually worse than many dirt roads, in this country or elsewhere.  Low-traffic volumes are the reward.

Romania is welcoming.  The language is different, like Italian or French spoken through a 30% filter of Ukrainian, to my ears.  Espresso is omnipresent, and very good.  The Italians have left their mark on this part of Europe.  We will find more of this further south, and west.  Romanians use the Leu as currency.  Slovakia uses the Euro.   Both Czech and Poland have been EU members as long as Slovakia, yet they do not use the Euro.  Turns out, Montenegro uses the Euro as well, and they aren’t even part of the EU yet.  Previously they had used the Deutsche Mark in place of the unstable Serbian Dinar.  Montenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia in 2006.  There is a lot of history to learn for this part of the world.  We habitually load gargantuan Wikipedia articles about each country (Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia), or past country (Yugoslavia), or soon-to-be independent country (Kosovo), and read them offline in the tent.   

Romania

Romania, as seen from across the border in Ukraine. To some, the grass is a little greener over there.

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The next day, we purchase train tickets.  The afternoon allows me to service my bottom bracket, which has begun to creak.  Shimano warns, “Do Not Disassemble”.  I recommend to anyone wishing to prepare their bottom bracket for lots of muck and rain to do this before it makes noise.   Carefully remove the plastic cover, and the rubberized bearing seal.  Flush with lightweight lube, and pack with as much grease as possible.  

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The Shimano crank design is almost free of specialty crank tools.  Unfortunately, the non-drive side utilizes a bearing preload which demands a special star-shaped tool.  In this case, a light tap with a hammer and a Ukrainian coin set the bearing preload just right.

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The Romanian train promises to be comfortable, as the air is cool and the cabin is only at quarter capacity leaving the station.  We’re sad not to spend the time that Romania requires, but this train ride will serve as a small consolation, and a basic reconnaissance mission.  We’ll be back someday, armed with more summer.

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The bikes cost us about $15 each on the train.  There isn’t an official policy or place for the bikes, although the train attendants are very kind and flexible, much unlike the Soviet-era attitudes aboard the Ukrainian railways.  Someone is transporting a large sack of flour on the train.

The 14 hour train costs about $15 per seat, plus the bikes.  Not a bad way to get across the country.  All is well until a woman enters our cabin of eight seats.  Each cabin is only ticketed for a maximum of about four passengers, as the train is quite empty.  She argues that I am in her seat.  I show her our tickets, the attendant ensures that yes, I am in her seat, although he has moved us to this cabin to be near our bikes.  She’s not happy, and the remaining twelve hours are miserable.  I’ll almost never say it, but is was really uncomfortable.  First, she closes the only window and the door to the cabin.  Then, she eats some fragrant fried food.  Finally she inspects us uncomfortably for a while, trying to figure out who or what we were.  She argues with her husband.  Lastly, she lays down across three seats, stomach hanging out of her shirt, shoes off, looking at us.  Eventually, she is asleep and snoring.  At intervals, she stretches and rolls over and puts her feet up on the window.  There are some cookies, and more fried foods.  Then, two older Romanian men enter the cabin past midnight to claim their seats.  Now, there are six of us.  Five of us sit upright; she still claims three seats.  She snaps at the two men, who maintain conversational tone in the dark.  Their voices are calm, yet earnest, and it doesn’t bother me.  Incidentally, about an hour later, she begins texting on her cell phone.  The phone is set to full volume, beeping with each key stroke.  That bothers me.  Lael holds back a laugh.  Then I laugh, and she laughs, and the woman looks at us, realizing her mistake.  She lays down again, and falls asleep.

Eventually, the two men deboard the train in the early morning.  Lael stretches out on the remaining seats.  I find an empty cabin at about 4AM, and catch a few hours of sleep.  We arrive in Timisoara at 7AM, greasy and tired.  I glare one last time at the fried food text-messaging bossy lady, and take my things.  Lael suggests we could take another train further south.  I suggest we ride.    

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We exit the train station in Timisoara as all the businesses open for the day, and rain begins to fall.  This is a flat, fertile corner of Romania.  We’ll be in Serbia by the end of the day.

I’d never have chosen to visit this part of the country but we make a great day or it.  We stop in a small store at lunch, to take cover from the rain.  We order two beers and sit on the ground.  The patrons are half Roma gypsies, and half Romanian, split between two tables.  Everyone, at different intervals ask us questions in Romanian, French, German, and some Russian.  The one guy that claims to speak English is wasted, and really doesn’t speak English.  Still, he buys each of us a beer.  This is a poor town stuck near the border.  For a moment, I like being here.

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In fact, this border crossing is listed on the map and on my GPS, but is currently inactive.  We arrive at the abandoned post and ride into Serbia, looking for anyone who can officiate our crossing.  There is no one.  We return to Romania, to find an official border crossing.  We’d hate to be clocking time in the EU when we have in fact left the EU and are in Serbia.  Further, we’d hate to spend time talking to the police later on.

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Serbia

We arrive in Serbia at sunset (a pattern, it seems), and spot a small mound of mountains.  

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Vrŝac, at sunset.

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This is one of Serbia’s premier wine growing regions.  Serbia uses the Dinar as currency, which is valued at about 90 Dinar to the Dollar. 

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Vrŝac is a fantastic city.  

Lael and I have been carrying some things we’d like to send home.  I wander into the post office, which is very busy.  Instead, I leave some layers and a camera in the park.  

Sadly, the lens is scratched and the camera body has a mind of its own when the atmosphere claims more than 90% humidity.  Hopefully, someone in Serbia will appreciate it.  I can’t justify sending it home to gather dust, nor do I want to take pictures marred by a scratched lens.  After a year and over a thousand dollars of experimentation, I’m using the same camera and lens as last year.  It is simple, small, and inexpensive.

In the past year, the screen on my lightly used Olympus E-M5 died within a week, and I lost the external hardware to the EVF on a ride.  I scratched the lens of the Panasonic 12-35mm lens, probably beyond repair.  I broke the threaded plastic filter attachment in the same bike crash that killed my last E-P3 body.  The Olympus E-PM1 body which I left in the park has been a solid performer since I purchased it as my first camera just over two years ago.  This year, I’m planning to keep it simple and cheap.

I enjoy using the Olympus E-P3 body (newer one, as the last one broke), and the photographs from the Panasonic 20mm f1.7 lens are to my liking.  And when it rains or I want to put the camera away, it fits almost anywhere on the bike.  

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Serbia is full of sun, for us.

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We intersect the EuroVelo6 Route along the Danube River.  This route connects the Atlantic with the Black Sea.

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For about 30 miles, we ride hard packed dirt and gravel along the banks of the river.

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This French cyclist has ridden all the way from Dijon on the EuroVelo6.  He’ll finish through Bulgaria and Romania in the next few weeks.

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Serbia is another place we’d love to come back to visit.  Fruit grows everywhere, the people are friendly, and there are mountains in large doses to the south.  So many people speak English here.  They speak naturally, and transition quickly from Serbian.  I’m not sure how to explain the phenomena.  They also play a lot of basketball. 

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Everyone in this region is familiar with conflict.  Kosovo and Monenegro only recently declared independence from Serbia.  Albania has only been quiet for a short time, and bunker tourism is part of every visit to Albania, I hear.  Each of these countries was part of a failing Yugoslavia just 25 years ago.  A lot has changed in the Balkans.  A few countries are still not yet part of the EU.  

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Entering the mountains is refreshing.  For the most part, we chase paved miles en route to Podgorica.

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Each town posts recent death notices in public places, usually taped around a pole or a tree.

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Yugoslav-era apartment building are everywhere.  As long as you don’t find them ugly, they are fascinating.

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Mining and other industries appear to be healthy across Serbia.  This is a lot different than Ukraine, where almost every old industrial building is vacant and vandalized.

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We first encounter walking trails in Serbia along this dirt road climb.

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Further, we find signage for the walking routes and a biking route.  I do not yet have any insight into these routes, but they do exist.  While many small roads in the mountains are paved, many others are not. There are also thousands of miles of farm roads.  We only find basic road maps in our few days in Serbia.  Also, the Openmtbmap.org file that I was using on the GPS contains less detail than in other nearby countries.  In general, these maps are highly recommended as at least some map detail is available for almost every country.  A small donation to the project allows unlimited downloads.  I have downloaded the maps for Slovakia, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Greece. 

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Fruit is everywhere, especially blackberries and raspberries.  And as everywhere else in Eastern Europe, plums are in abundance.

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Potatoes.

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Cabbage.  Serbian fields are productive, another change from subsistence farming in Ukraine.

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Roadside springs are abundant on mountain roads.

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In the city, we find this awesome traffic model, scaled down for children on bicycles, rollerblades, and on foot.  This is a good use of schoolyard space.  

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Hot weather and cold water is how I hope to spend my summers.  It feels like we’re getting close, finally.

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We find camp for the night in a cemetery, for the first time, actually.

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The next morning, we pass through Guča, home to the world famous Guča Trumpet Festival.  This festival celebrates the style of Serbian trumpet found in regional brass bands.  I’ve seen one such band escorting a wedding party; the music is riotous.

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The written Serbian language is a mix of Cyrillic and Latin characters.  My Ukrainian is more valuable here than in Romania, where our French-English-Ukrainian was more confusing than anything.  In many of these countries, people try to speak to us in German.  Younger people more often defer to English.

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The mountains!  With each pass, we climb higher and higher.  We climb to 2500ft.  Then 3000, 3500, 4000, and then over 4000ft.

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And at last, over 4000ft, we reach the border with Montenegro, or Crna Gora in Latinized Montenegran and Serbian.

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As we get close, the rain returns.  When the weather is good, I ignore the forecast.  I look for the first time in a week.  The computer calls for rain as far as we can see, in every direction of space and time.  Rain for weeks all up and down the Balkans.  At least it will be warm, as long as we are not chasing dirt roads up to 6000ft.

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Montenegro

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We continue our ride, intersecting lonely paved and dirt roads, and by chance, the largest canyon in Europe.  The Tara River Canyon claims to be up to 4300ft deep in places.  It makes for a spectacular descent from the rim.  A quiet paved road continues upstream in the canyon for about 20 miles.

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Where did that summer weather go?  Lael is still wearing her number from the Fireweed 400.

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We prepare a bounty for Przemek’s arrival.  We will meet him and Saška at the train station in a few days.  Local wormwood liquor is a good start.

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A local sign near the Biogradska Gora National Park indicates a 300km cycling route, for mountain bikes!  The route is signed, mapped, and English-language brochures are offered online.  A website dedicated to the “Top Biking Trail 3-Eastern Enchantment” provides all the information.  Maximum elevation is over 6000ft, maximum grade is 35%; mostly, I think it follows rideable dirt roads.  If the rain holds, we’ll include some of this into our route with Przemek and Saška.

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We descend from the mountain valleys at 3000ft, down towards Podgorica.  At 280ft elevation, the weather is much warmer and the skies are clearer.  If necessary, we’ll plan a route nearer to the coast to avoid the orographic effect of the mountains.  The tallest mountains in Montenegro and Albania are over 8000ft and 9000ft, respectively.  So close to the Adriatic and Ionian Seas (and the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Black Seas), they create their own weather.  

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Just 8 miles out of Podgorica, we find a secret riverside campsite.  The water is cold and clear, and finally, it isn’t raining.  It has been a wet ride since crossing from Serbia.

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We awake to some sun and blue skies, tentative as they may be.

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Plums replaced by figs, we’re close to the sea.  We are, effectively, in the Mediterranean.

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Saška and Przemek arrive tomorrow, for two weeks of adventure.  We don’t have a plan or an end destination.  Surely, we’re all looking for good riding, great camping, and if possible, some sun.  Lael, as a recovering Alaskan, is always looking for sun.

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Anyone live in Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, or Greece?  We may be in the area over the next month.

Above the Black Sea, Krym, Ukraine

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Attention Denver, tonight only (10/9)!  Yes, we have been in Denver for several days now, repairing bikes and electronics, preparing for another few months of riding in the SW before the end of the season.  The Surly Owner’s Society and friends (SOS+) is meeting tonight at the Denver Beer Co. on Platte St at 7:30PM.  I know for certain than Andy, aka Big Dummy Daddy, will be there, as well as a few other friends from past trips through the area.  Come join us.  Ride a bike.  Don’t worry if it isn’t a Surly.   

Edit: Thanks to everyone who showed up to talk last night, and thanks to Andy and Tracy for organizing the group.

Plans are made to meet Vital for a few days of riding.  Vital lives in Krym, studied in Poland, and somehow made Przemek’s acquaintance via Polish bike forums.  We look forward to joining him atop one of the tallest peaks in Krym, above 1500m.  Leaving Bakchiseray, we shoot towards the coast to camp atop a tall ridge.  We have GPS coordinates for reference, and find a camp site accordingly.  The plan is to meet in the morning to begin riding.  The whole process seems covert, although we’re really just planning to ride bikes for a few days.

After a quick twenty miles on pavement, we break for a meal before tackling the paved climb.  We encounter unique tastes at a Tartar restaurant, including lamb, spices, and flatbreads.  We take six flatbreads to go.

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Climbing, we each take advantage of cool, clean water to bathe ourselves before another few days of riding and sweating inside rain jackets.  None of us (except me!) were excited to jump into cold water, but the reward of being clean is always worth it.

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We misjudge the climb, and are caught in the dark for the final 1000ft to the top.  Little traffic makes for a nice ride, although thick fog is unsettling.  As the air cools, we agree that it would be best to find camp before it rains, if it rains, or when it rains.

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We make it to the top, and push up a grassy hill in the dark, guided by headlights.  Behind some small trees, we find shelter from the cold, damp wind.  Tents and bags prepared, we prepare a meal of recently purchased frozen varenyky, fresh vegetables, and sweets.  A small bottle of Russian vodka pairs well with these flavors, especially with the bold taste of garlic and onion.

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In the morning, we are joined by Sasha and Vital, on their immaculately prepared bikepacking machines, complete with locally made framebags.  The roadside at the pass is crowded with vehicles.  Dozens of people are quietly walking through the forests gathering mushrooms.  Back at the road, friends are charged with preparing shashlik over the grill, while playing music from the back of the car– Russian tailgate culture.

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From 1200m, we begin the undulating ridgetop climb on dirt towards 1500m.  A small cut in Vital’s tubeless tire is easily repaired with some extra sealant, which I have been carrying since the Czech Republic.

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Vital jokes, as is printed on the sign, that this is “Russian Google maps”.

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Continuing along the ridge, we travel east.

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To discover that we are high above the Black Sea, nearly 4000ft above Yalta.

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We find a windbreak to enjoy some lunch.

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Amongst other things, this jar of nuts and honey will help us up the final climbs.

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Storms darken ahead of us, although the sun enters from behind.  After a rainy night, the afternoon has promise.

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Looking at Kemal-Egerek, the third tallest peak in the Crimean Mountains at 1529m.  We follow the ridge to the top, then down the backside.

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The final push.

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Above the trees, exposed to the wind.

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Aside from the heights reached in the Karpaty, this is the highest we have been all summer.  None of it is as high as the Rockies, not even as high as the city of Denver, but none of it has been easy.  Daily climbs up steep grades have made us stronger than ever.

Familiarity with a bicycle is important when climbing and descending, and when riding all day.  The result is a kinship that cannot be matched with a shiny new machine.  Although we’re always dreaming of better bikes for ourselves, sometimes the bike you are riding is really best.  If I was to do it again, I might take the exact same bike.  However, bigger tire clearances are always welcome.

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Bikepacking is gaining popularity all over the globe.  Among us, there are seven Maxxis tires and three Schwalbes.  Cheap, creative solutions rule the day– ultralight need not be ultra expensive or complicated.

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This is as far as we are allowed to ride towards the east, due to the Crimean Game Preserve, which is closed to all visitors.  We choose a line along a ridge, downhill back towards Bakchiseray.

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Down, down, down– one of the best descents of the whole summer.  The descent is steep and crumbly, but with a highly rideable nature.  Times like these I am grateful for big rubber.

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DIY camera system, using an old credit card.  This is a much better use of plastic, than buying more stuff online.

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Looking back on the descent.

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And looking towards more storms, coming to close the afternoon.

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Unfortunately, Vital found his wheel deep in a rut, unable to free himself from the narrow dirt corridor.  The result: a tumble into the grass and a severely deformed wheel.  How will we ride home on this?  Lael gets into her sleeping bag as we deliberate.

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After unsuccessfully trying to bend the wheel back into shape by hand, including the full body weight of two men, I insist that I have a better solution.  I locate the greatest deformity.  Without asking for permission, I lift the wheel over my head, landing it on the ground with force.  Four mouths stand facing me, gaping.  I smile, and show them that the wheel is now less severely deformed.  I take another swing, from high over my head.  After a few more, and some snickering, I slide the wheel into the fork and spin it.  Now, we can ride home.  I credit Chris Wineck with the repair.  Chris has been a mechanic at The Bicycle Shop in Anchorage since 1978, when he was 14 years old.  The man knows how to tame a broken bicycle, and he is not afraid to use a hammer.

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This will get us home, if only by a narrow margin.

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Down the mountain and into the trees, we shoot for a flat spot to camp for the night.

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Two Tarptent Double Rainbow shelters and one Big Agnes Seedhouse SL2 tent populate the forest for the evening.  We dine together in fading light and tuck ourselves in, looking forward to the remaining descent in the morning.

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In the morning, we pack up and descend gullied dirt roads without traffic.  Anywhere, forest service roads make some of the best riding.

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Back to civilization, we say our goodbyes and part ways.

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Thanks again to Vital for guiding the way.

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