The Five Factors

I know many of you are not that interested in bicycle touring, but it really is a great way to see places. Everything is so intimate. You get to visit all the in-between places that tourists don’t usually see. You get to interact with locals in an entirely atypical way. It’s fun and interesting.

You also get to know the roads intimately. Choosing routes is difficult, as there are always five factors to consider for a good ride, and some are unknowable beforehand.

The five factors:

1. The condition of the road surface and the shoulder. Is the road paved? Unpaved? Potholed? Bumpy? Is there loose rock? Are there falling rocks? Is there a shoulder? Is there a precipitous drop? Is there a guardrail or wall to trap you?

2. Traffic. Heavy? Courteous? Full of trucks and buses? Full of aggressive assholes? (Yes, to the last question. Always. I never hate people as much as when they’re behind the wheel of a large vehicle and I’m on my bike.)

3. The grade. Super steep (up or down, in my opinion) is always uncomfortable.

4. Weather. A lovely road can be miserable in a strong headwind or with heavy rain. Some might say heat is a factor, too, but since I bike in Phoenix in the summer… 

5. Scenery. Pretty or bizarre things to look at make any ride go better.
Mike says that you always need at least 3 out of 5 factors scoring well to enjoy yourself. I agree. Luckily, we mostly had good rides in Macedonia.

Macedonia first greeted us with a downhill ride to Tetovo. With super short notice, Kelly, a Peace Corps volunteer, agreed to host us there. 

We met her at the American Corner Tetovo. I’d never heard of American Corner before, but apparently they’re all over the world. They are places for Americans and locals to come together. They have libraries, language classes, and many fun activities. Kelly is working with a few other teachers and several students to stage a production of Pippi Longstocking, and while they held play practice, we explored the city.

Tetovo’s most famous destination is the painted mosque. It really is a beautiful building, inside and out. After visiting this landmark, we walked around a bit more, saw a bizarre art gallery in a former bath house, and sat in a park (where a bird crapped on Mike).

After Kelly’s play practice and our mini excursion, we went to dinner and had traditional Macedonian food. We were joined by another Peace Corps volunteer, Stacie, and her host sister, Claire (who is graduating middle school and is adorably curious). We had a tomato cucumber salad with super salty cheese and then a main dish of lots of meats. We also had lovely conversation and learned a lot about Macedonia.

Claire is Muslim and ethnically Albanian. She’s in the minority in Macedonia, but in the northwest region by Tetovo, they’re the majority. The ethnically Macedonian majority is Orthodox Christian. As you might imagine, there are tensions related to culture, religion, and language. The brand of Islam practiced in this region is far less strict than in many parts of the world though (few hijabs, some alcohol consumption, semi-serious observance of Ramadan, etc.).

One of the reasons I enjoyed the dinner so much, I think, is because we were interacting with three intelligent women, one from Macedonia. We’ve noticed a trend of disappearing women in the last several countries. The streets are full of men and boys, but the female population is mostly hidden away. It’s not that they’re not allowed out, because we do see them occasionally, it’s just that they don’t have as strong a presence in public. I don’t think I’ve seen a single female in the dozens of cafés lining the streets. Old men sit in the park and play dominos, middle aged men sit in cafés, young men ride scooters or drive nice cars, and boys swarm around us asking questions wherever we stop. Mike has started counting female drivers since they’re so rare. I get a lot of stares on my bicycle, that’s for sure.

Anyway, in the morning we took off to explore FYROM (Former Yugoslavic Republic of Macedonia, which, by the way, is ridiculous. Can you imagine if the US was called the Former American Colony of Great Britain?). After some debate regarding our direction, we detoured into the mountains to explore Mavrovo National Park. The park encompasses a lake and some mountainous terrain. The ride up was arduous, but the ride down was lovely. 

Some signs in the park pointed out a campground ahead, so we biked toward that. Unfortunately, signs lie, and there was no campground. With the road weaving through a canyon with steep walls, we didn’t have many bandit camping options. Eventually we settled on a pretty conspicuous spot next to some abandoned buildings just because it was flat, and it was almost dark out. 

The view at our campsite in National Park Mavrovo

Of course, as soon as we decided on it, some park rangers showed up to hang out. First they went and threw their trash in the river, and then they sat on a bench and started to smoke. We figured if they could just toss their trash in the river, they probably wouldn’t care if we camped there. They spoke no English, but we eventually got their permission. We’re pretty sure they mimed us getting eaten by bears, though.

Ironic sign, given rangers’ behavior

That night turned into a nightmare pretty quickly. No, not bears or wolves or hippogriffs. Unfortunately, I became quite ill. Getting sick while tent camping with no facilities is no fun. It was a long night.

In the morning I was still sick and pretty weak, so it was quite lucky that most of our biking was downhill through a gorgeous national park. The last 5km uphill in the heat took way longer than it should have and totally wrecked me, but we ended up finding a nice-ish hotel for the night so I could recover.

Road condition–bumpy but paved, Traffic–moderate and assholey, Grade–too steep but only for a bit, Weather–pretty nice , Scenery–stellar. Chance of vomitting–high.

Come to think of it, we may need to add a sixth factor: the rider’s health.

2 Responses to “The Five Factors”
  1. Rob B. says:

    I was going to say 7th. But that actually isn’t part of the route planning so much as the tour planning.
    As I experienced heading to tombstone. Having a heavy bike, and heavy gear, makes for more of a workout than an enjoyable ride.

    • Gear is important, for sure. We always pack too heavy. Our bodies adjust to the load after a bit, but I’m sure if I could learn to take less stuff everything would be more enjoyable. That factor doesn’t change day to day, though, so you’re right — it’s more of a factor in initial planning.

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