I planned this marathon for quite some time. Event of this size requires a lot of logistics, vacation time and preparation. I had the idea of riding it since I will travel to see my relatives in Bulgaria anyway. It was extremely important for me to finish a 1200 km brevet in order to sign up for Paris-Brest-Paris with the first wave. Even if I am unable to finish it, I have a second chance in North Carolina in October.
After flying on the second floor of the largest passenger plane- Airbus A380, then short wait for connect flight in Frankfurt, I arrived on Bulgarian soil (Through Romania). It was a long awaited moment to see my father, sister and nephew at the airport. If they only knew how big my bike suitcase is 🙂
The very same night I was in my hometown of Popovo, just two days before the start of the marathon. I immediately assembled the bicycle and my nephew was quite enthusiastic about seeing everything unfold. It turned out that one of the two bolts on the seat post was stuck ( hopefully no incidents during the marathon). Additionally, my father had secured a rental car. It was much needed due to my busy schedule. After short dinner ,I slept and then drove in the morning to Sliven !
I met with Dave Thompson there who was also flying from USA. Shiuchi Tanaka from Japan was another participant who I met with upon arrival. Bulgarian participants appeared while we were enjoying a class of beer by the pool. They were all interested in this special device with syringe attached to the bike of the Japanese rider.
The hose runs to the back of the frame and is full of hot pepper liquid against mean dogs 🙂 Shiuchi actually told me that he had bad memories of dogs four years ago. . . I was not prepared at all, nor was Dave Thompson. He had forgotten his favorite dog whistle! I will rely on stones and my water bottle!
That evening, after some last minute instructions from Lazar ( the organizer ), we received our Jerseys and brevet cards. It was so nice to see Balansky again, who also participated. We also met with Valery Kitanchev as well. Valery , Lazar and Balansky were some of the first Bulgarian randonneurs and we were pedaling long distances together back in 2001 (when I became randonneur at the age of 16). I was deliberately tired during the day , just so I could sleep early and soundly until 4:30 in the morning.
After seven hours of sleep and some final preparations, we were ready for the great adventure.
Day First – Sliven – Varna – Isperih – Popovo: 445 km
The first day was flat and my plan was to gain a lead that could serve me later. I wished every participant a pleasant and unforgettable ride and went forward. At the front of the group was Dimitar Lulov and he expressed desire to work together with me.
At that moment I heard from a rider – “Let’s see how much you can do.” This is great I though . . . I love it when someone doubts me!
Our speed was not quite reasonable for the start of a four day marathon as we were averaging 20 to 25 mph. At least we were helping one another against the wind. To be honest , we were not pacing well and the benefit was very little. Instead of changing every few miles, we were trading pulls every 30 to 45 minutes and we were not even close to each other !
The temperature suddenly rose to over 98 degrees. We decided to stop at a local dairy and eat cold Ayran drink for which I thank Dimitar!
The pavement in this area was actually pretty bad, the road narrow, and descending was dangerous. . . Luckily, it was daytime !
Soon thereafter, we arrived at Dalgopol and “Wonder Rocks”.
The tempo was still faster than I wanted. At the same time, I developed back pain, especially when I breathe. Some stomach problems also occurred. I was not even paying attention to the extreme heat at this time. We had to stop several times and slow down the pace.
Further down, we arrived in Beloslav and waited for the Ferry. There, we met with Shiuchi Tanaka and Plamen Andonov from Varna. We even had time to take pictures and I plugged all electronic devices before arriving on the other side. Rumen turned out to be in front of us since he caught the previous Ferry.
As soon as we arrived on the opposite bank, we were in Varna. Here was the moment when I fell on some railroad tracks. They had cobbles in-between for better traction:) Fortunately, the wounds were minor , the only loss was some knee and elbow skin! At lower pace along the Sea garden, we arrived at the first control – Villa Maria. The food was exceptional and we had plenty to choose from. We were joined by Dave Thompson right before departure. He was pedaling very well so far.
Nedko was there to meet us and to wish us well. Thank you for the support and photos you have taken!
After Varna , we were heading towards Shumen. My aunt used to live here. This town is rich in history and was first mentioned in 1153 by the Arab Traveler Idrisi. Some of the most notable sites are – Madara Rider , Shumen Fortress, Monument to 1300 years of Bulgaria .
My issues turned out to be far more serious and I told Dimitar to go on alone because I was slowing him down. I decided to change my tight Jersey to release the pressure and untied the heavy bag I had on my waist. Almost immediately, I felt a little better. I am actually used to riding alone. Now the pressure is less, very important at these long distance events.
At dusk, I was at rest stop near Shumen where the next control was. Instead of the Shell gas station, I stopped at nearby store, bought some juice and went on. It turned out that there was a huge gypsy wedding. There were easily 200 gypsies, singing and dancing on the streets!
While descending , I noticed a couple of cyclists at the Shell gas station and decided to stop after I heard them whistling. They had thought I’d forgotten to stop at the control, but I actually had a receipt and a photo from the store. It was an info control after all. There, the official Sasho and Dimitar Lulov were waiting. Dimitar met some old acquaintance there and were chatting along. I went ahead.
After several short ascents through Belokopitovo, Hitrino and Venetz, I arrived in Isperih around 1:30 in the morning.
Isperih emerges in 1545 at the place of a medieval settlement, with the earliest known traces of human presence in the area dating from the Bronze Age.The Thracian Tomb of Sveshtari, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is located nearby. Another landmark in the area is the 17th-century Bektashi Demir Baba Tekke, uniting Bektashi, Sunni, Christian and Pagan traditions.
We were warmly welcomed by Zoe upon arrival. It turned out we knew each other for maybe 17 years. Sasho was also there. It was the first sleep control, but I planned on skipping it since I wasn’t tired yet. We did not even rode 400 km yet . Luckily, Dave and Shiuchi also appeared and I was able to translate for them before I left! I ate, closed my eyes for 20 minutes and advanced in the direction of my hometown Popovo!
The pavement in the villages around Isperih was not very good for night-time riding. I used my strong 600 lumens headlight and pedaled at a slower speed. It turned out that the drivers in this part of Bulgaria hated to drive on low beams. I had to use long beams as well with hopes that they will also change to low.
Unfortunately, I must have bumped into complete jerk. He decided to drive 2 yards behind me, on blinkers , and did not pass me for about two minutes. I was ready for everything and rode steadily ahead. Luckily, he passed by me and went on his way.
Suddenly, It started to rain. The eyes were closing and I decided to listen to my body. Immediately, I went down in a comfortable ditch for a quarter hour nap. I was approaching Razgrad.
The town was built upon the ruins of the Ancient Roman town of Abritus on the banks of the Beli Lom river. Abritus was built on a Thracian settlement of the 4th-5th century BC with unknown name. Several bronze coins of the Thracian king Seuthes III (330-300 BC) and pottery were found, as well as artifacts from other rulers and a sacrificial altar of Hercules.
The wind increased and it was difficult for me to even keep the bicycle upright. It was blowing with at least 30 mph. . . From here to Popovo I was on familiar roads and arrived safely around 4:30 in the morning.
Day Two: Popovo – Turnovo – Elena – Sliven: 194 km
After quick shower and good dinner, my head hit the pillow and I fell asleep immediately! I woke up after two hours around 7:00 am. I found myself drinking coffee with my sister and then took off at 7:30 am.
The second day began with brutal wind, just like the previous night, but this time even stronger. Besides, the pavement after Popovo was not that great either.
I passed along the Kovachevsko kale – a Roman fortress from IV century.
After short ascent on the main road with serious traffic after Dolna Oryahovitsa, I arrived in Arbanassi. It was our next control where my cousin Peter was awaiting. He lives there and pleasantly surprised me. Together with Sasho they shot few video clips of me.
It was time for a hearty meal – There was climbing ahead after Kamenari, near Sliven and where the next sleep control was located. The waiter was trying to make a step back after every 2 things I ordered, but after few jokes he realized that I would order and eat a lot! Thanks to my cousin for the nice welcoming!
My whole family was scattered around northeastern Bulgaria and was following closely. That encouraged me a lot. After the event, I found out about their daily phone calls with one another to discuss my progress. Thanks to Live Tracker, they could relax and see where I am at any given moment!
After lunch, it was time to push south and back towards Sliven, my next night control!
The following picture is from Veliko Tarnovo – the Capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The town is attracting many tourists with its unique architecture. The old part of the city is situated on the three hills Tsarevets, Trapezitsa, and Sveta Gora
The road to Sliven had few climbs, including Vratnik pass , Elevation 3,084 ft and a length of 14 miles. Previously, I went through Elena, where I stopped to resupply on drinking water. Here, I found another dairy, where I bought the usual 100 grams of cheese and three Ayrans 🙂 There was time for some pictures near the colorful bee hives.
Shortly after the village of Byala was the second climb before Sliven. I stopped several times to eat cherries with hopes that this will prevent any developing cramps 🙂 The most important thing was that they were delicious and grow wild around in abundance.
The goal of arriving in Sliven before dusk was completed and I was there around 8:15 pm. I saw neither the controller, nor any of the participants. The owner of the complex validated the control card and placed a stamp on it as arranged with the organizer.
Immediately afterwards, I went to the showers after ordering a meal. During the dinner, Rumen and Dimitar appeared and I was briefed that many participants had already given up. Soon afterwards, I was in horizontal position, telling the controller Sasho that I would sleep for 2 hours and continue 🙂 I was in bed around 9:30 pm.
Day three: Sliven – Kazanlak – Kalofer
– Plovdiv – Peshtera – Batak – Dospad – Trigrad – 324 km
Unfortunately , I woke up around 3:00 am and felt disoriented. It turned out that I had fallen asleep for over 5 hours. At 3:30 am, I took off in the direction of Kazanlak. The town is the center of rose oil extraction in Bulgaria. Oil-producing in Kazanlak is one of the most widely recognizable national symbols.
Upon leaving, I noticed that some of the bikes I saw were missing, and figured that I was behind. There was no time to worry and I just went ahead. Since I slept for too long, I now had the opportunity to ride for a looong time with short breaks and hopefully to make up some lost time. The next stage proved to be the most difficult one. Some of the big mountain passes awaited here – the climbs to Goliam Beglik ( elevation 5014 ft) and Trigrad Gorge (Elevation 3938 ft ).
Shortly after Gavrilovo, in the direction of Kazanlak, the sun was rising behind the peak of Triglav near Nikolaevo.
It was fairly flat and no wind or traffic that early in the morning. This was ideal opportunity to catch up.
Shortly after Vetren I found more regular cherries and my favorite sour cherries ( dark color on the picture below)
The day was filled with historic battle towns and villages linked to our Freedom Fighters. They gave me quite the powers I needed at this moment. Shortly after I passed through Kazanlak, I found myself in the emblematic Kalofer.
The modern settlement of Kalofer emerges in the 16th century, managing to preserve its Bulgarian character in the Ottoman Empire and to develop as a centre of craftsmanship. The Kalofer monastery has been in operation since 1640.. During the Bulgarian National Revival the town becames a centre of revolutionary activity, being the birthplace of figures such as Hristo Botev (picture below), Exarch Joseph, Dimitar Panichkov, Nikola Ivanov.
After a little more than 100 km for the day, I arrived at the Panorama Restaurant. It had great views over the city.
After eating for about 30 minutes, I pushed south towards Plovdiv.There is evidence of habitation in Plovdiv dating back to the 6th millennium BCE, when the first Neolithic settlements were established; it is said to be one of the oldest cities in Europe.
The pavement was still good and fairly flat. Meanwhile, traffic increased a lot and there were plenty of idiot drivers around. They passed dangerously close to me.
Soon thereafter, I arrived at the Lokomotiv tennis courts. This was also my next control town. The restaurant there did not look good to me, just like the little ones in the marketplace across the tennis courts. I decided to continue on.
As soon as I took a picture of the Rowing Canal, I left the city and stopped in the first village to re-organize myslef.
Luckily, I found another water spring near the first village after town. It was sadly spray painted by local soccer fans. Time to remove some layers due to the heat and eat a little.
Shortly afterwards, I found myself in the beautiful Novo Selo, famous with the Thracian necropolis. I met the first serious cyclists here after about 850 km 🙂 This was a small group of 5 racers who went up the first hill and returned.
Another monument remembering those who died for our freedom!
The long 36 mile climb to Golyam Beglik pass started here !
The starting point of the climb was Batak, towards Goliam Beglik peak -elevation 5014 feet. About Batak:
April Uprising and Ottoman war-crimes
The population of Batak took part in the April Uprising of 1876. The people of Batak rebelled on 22 April under the leadership of voivoda Petar Goranov. On 30 April the village was surrounded by Ottoman irregulars called bashi-bozouk, pomaks from the surrounding villages. The battles were carried on for five days. The last stronghold of the rebels was the St. Nedelya Church.
At the end five thousand people were killed and the village was burned down to ashes. News of the atrocities spread around the world, aided in large part by Januarius MacGahan‘s writing for the London Daily News. The public outcry created favorable conditions for Russia to declare war on Turkey. On 20 January 1878 the people of Batak who had survived the uprising enthusiastically met the advancing Russian army.
The big climb actually started around Novo Selo – kilometer 835, and it would last until kilometer 883.
Knowing that I have serious climb coming, I decided to stop and eat a lot in Batak. At the same time, it was time to wear my wool clothes, turn the headlight and tail light on.
The more I climbed, the more the temperature dropped, the air was thinner, and the weather changed. Just before I reached the peak, it began to rain. Fortunately, on the other side was dry during the descent.
There were border patrol guards here who likely watched after the wall of the dam. . .
The weather was clear and the view of Golyam Beglik reservoir was irresistibly beautiful. The only people around were a couple of fishermen.
Even though we were in the heat of the summer, the border guards were wearing jackets. The temperature was no more than 55 degrees.
Thankfully, I managed to get down to Dospat reservoir just before sunset and took few pictures. The view was unique and breathtaking!
In fact, as I transferred the bike over the guardrail for a photo, I realized that my front hub skewer was loose. Luckily, I discovered this before the steep downhill.
I was hungry ,but my options were not abundant. The village of Borino was ahead and a good place to eat but it turned out to be late and most of the restaurants were closed. I stopped at the only roadside shop that was still open, bought some cheese, ayran, nuts, and went on.
This area was dark and deserted. There was also plenty of descending to be done. The issue was that it was dark and I had to be constantly on the brakes. I reached the lowest part near the village of Gyovren .
There was another 6 miles of serious climbing before the next night control in Trigrad. Before going up, near border crossing, I decided to stop on a bench so my wrists could rest a bit . They were so beaten from braking at night that I was barely moving without pain. At that moment I was overtaken by Dimitar and Rumen. They asked me if I was good and I told them to go ahead after explaining my situation!
The climb was serious but short. There was a full moon but the Trigrad Gorge did not allow it to shine on the road ahead of me. I was just sorry to not see it during the day and take some photos. Not long after, I was at the next control – the Bear Museum – Trigrad.
I was greeted at the entrance, and later it turned out that the complex was owned by distant relatives from Popovo. Everyone was frozen and seated around the fireplace. Dimitar, Rumen and Sasho were there already. After brief conversation, Shiuchi and Dave appeared just in time to help them with translation before bed time. The food was great and the company even better. As soon as I finished with dineer, I decided to nap for 45 min and continue forward.
All locals bthought I was crazy to go so early. It was cold and directly towards Pamporovo where the most serious ascent was awaiting. My idea was to nap for 45 minutes but in about 30 minutes I woke up because of some noise and decided to leave. After short breakfast and some coffee I pushed ahead. Thanks to everyone here for the support and hospitality !
Day Fourth – Trigrad – Shiroka Laka, Pamporovo – Chepelare – Bachkovo – Asenovgrad – Chirpan – Nova Zagora – Sliven – 238 km
The day began with a short descent into the Trigrad Gorge. Here, I met the organizer Lazar, who was climbing towards the control.
Shortly thereafter and around Grohotno ,I ran into few Shepherd Dogs. They appeared from the darkness and attempted to attack. Luckily, I got away with no issues, splashed them with some water, screamed, sprinted and tried to dazzle them with my headlights . . .
After the vilalge of Nastan I began the 18 mile long ascent to Pamporovo.
First, I passed through Shiroka Laka where the Rhodope song was born and developed. Many of the most famous singers and bagpipers from the Rhodope region are from here. Here is also the house of Captain Petko voivoda and his post-Liberation headquarters. Exarch Stefan’s house is also here.
The village was pretty calm early in the morning. It was cold as well,I took some photos in a hurry and went on.
After about 14 steep miles , I arrived in Pamporovo around 7:45 am. My hopes of seeing a lot of wild animals did not materialize but maybe that was a good thing 🙂 It turned out that the energy bars I bought were super hard, tasteless and with huge amount of carbohydrates. That’s why I threw them aside to feed the bears instead of upsetting my stomach and moved forward.
The climbs in Bulgaria turned out to be long but not as steep and brutal as the ones I’m used to. For comparison, usually, the slope was 6% to 10%, and some segments ranging from 12% to 18%. In the Appalachians, we are accustomed to slopes of 18% to 22% which are not long but come one after another and break you down slowly . . .
Pamporovo is “nicely” built and unfortunately no places to eat were open yet. The locals guided me to the only open store. Here, contrary to my impression, they told me how many wild animals were out there and to be careful. The temperature was around 39 degrees and I asked the shopkeeper to let me eat my food inside and warm up. I quickly got ready to go down into the valley.
The descent was from Pamporovo to Popovitsa after Asenovgrad, about 55 miles long ! ! ! After my longest climb to Goliam Beglik, it was time for my longest downhill. I cant catch a break today 🙂
This is actually my first descent where I had to stop two times to eat and rest up. I found pretty good place to eat where I was able to charge all electronics and have a decent breakfast.
My only goal at the moment was to descent safely to Asenovgrad. To accomplish this, I had to put my reflective vest and turn all the lights on. Some idiot drivers were present once again. They obviously did not care about human life and tried to overtake into the turns without any visibility.
Luckily, the temperature increased and so did the oxygen level! It turned out that we just missed the snow (two days after the marathon ended was snowing in the village of Stoikite ! ! ! ).
The temperature continue to rise and I arrived in Asenovgrad. Traffic across the city was terrible and I decided to go ahead without stopping.
On my way out of town, I stopped in the village of Popovitsa to get rid of my woolen clothes. At that moment, everything was happening on autopilot, every part of the body ached and I was so ready to finish!
The village of Popovitsa is one of our oldest settlements before the fall of Bulgaria under Ottoman rule.
Not long after, I found myself in Chirpan, the last control before the finish. They told me the soup would get ready the fastest. I ate a very salty soup, drank a beer, then continued to Nova Zagora under the bright rays of the sun.
It was flat again but very serious wind came out!
After Stara and Nova Zagora, I was approaching Sliven. Unfortunately, I missed the last roadside water fountain. I didn’t want to stop since my goal was to finish in under 85 hours. There were some ripe plums on the road and they saved me.
After Nova Zagora, Todor Kirchev appeared from nowhere (we rode together in France back in 2015). It turned out he was going to visit a friend and decided to say hello after noticing that my Live Tracker was approaching Sliven. We stopped for water at a gas station, chatted for a bit and I went on. Its not like I could even talk much after my neck had given up, my wrists were hurting and my throat was dry like the desert ! Thanks for the support Todor.
After another bit of struggle with the wind ,I reached the final control in Sliven. Unofficial finish time – 84 hours and 13 minutes.
Immediately, I ordered food, showered and rested. I then headed for the restaurant where the other participants had begun to arrive.
We already had a reason to open the champagne, laugh and talk about our experiences before we are all asleep 🙂
Lazar announced the finishers and handed out these beautiful plaques. He actually told us that it was the toughest SVS 1200 km that he has done, and he has finished 15 of all 17 editions.
I should thank everyone for the support and for being part of this unforgettable experience.
My current state
Right now, I’m almost recovered. The most serious problem being swollen legs, neck muscles, palms and right shoulder. Damaged nerve on my toe which has greatly improved and now I can feel everything.
The right shoulder still hurts almost 2 weeks after the event. My right palm is still going numb as well. This makes me believe that I have another damaged nerve.
Full set of Pictures – Click Here !
Great story! Nice the way you worked the local history into the story. Doesn’t sound like much fun though. Traffic, dogs, cold, and nerve damage. Glad you survived mostly okay!
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Yes. And you are correct about everything you mentioned ! It was tough , but beautiful. Would definitely repeat ! I was not expecting it to be easy 🙂
wonderful writeup Georgi. Loved how you filled in the story with the pictures you already posted on FB. i can image how wonderful it was to ride in your home country with family and friends nearby.
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It sure was. Thanks for reading Mike. It was long awaited and everything I imagined. It was also a great way to showcase my country. What a beatiful scenery that I haven’t seen in 12 years. Well , most of it. Plus , the rich history that most don’t know about . It’s a shame …
Thanks, Georgi. I especially enjoyed the history lessons!
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Thanks for reading. The English version was a great opportunity to shed some light on the rich History that my country has !
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