Along most of my path through Serbia, I’ve been travelling between the major towns: Subotica – Novi Sad – Belgrade – Nis. That means that, while there’s been a lovely motorway the whole way, I’ve been stuck on the now neglected old road. I didn’t intend to change that. But my navigation skills are sometimes lacking.
It was a real struggle getting up this morning. Despite having only covered about 115 miles in the previous two days, I was shattered. Following my alarm going off at six o’clock, I pressed snooze. And again. And again. And again… I got up at 8.15!
The first couple of hours were painfully slow, partly down to the never-ending climb and partly due to the ever-present (but seemingly reduced) headwind. My average speed for the first hour was less than 6mph. But I only had 40 miles to Nis, where there was an option to stop for the night, so I wasn’t overly concerned.
After about 20 miles (and several hours), I found myself face to face with a toll-booth. I stopped and had a look for a while, and couldn’t quite work out whether it was taking me onto the motorway or not. It didn’t look like it, and I hadn’t seen any signs suggesting that it would, but I couldn’t think of any other reason for there being a barrier there. After a couple of minutes of thinking over my options, the man in the booth came out and beckoned me over to the side.
“Nis?”, he asked. I nodded. He beckoned me through the gap in the barrier and directed me along the road. Well, if the man says so, who am I to disagree? And there I was, cycling onto the motorway.
And it was brilliant!
It could have been partially down to the adrenaline of doing something that I clearly knew was illegal and, arguably, slightly foolish, but my speed immediately increased from under 10mph to a fairly respectable 13mph. That may not seem like a lot, but it felt like it. It turned out to be an absolute pleasure riding along the motorway, as the road surface was great, it cut through the hills rather than going up and down them, and I had a whole lane (the hard shoulder) to myself. Why hadn’t I done this sooner?
Before I knew it, I had covered the remaining 20 miles to Nis and arrived at the next toll. This time, a man came out immediately and pointed over to the far side. I wasn’t quite sure what he was expecting me to do, but nevertheless I cycled over there and looked for a way to continue my journey. Then, a whistle; the police!
I was politely informed that what I was doing was illegal, and that I could face a €3,000 fine. In response, I did my best impression of a poor innocent fool (something that comes naturally) and apologised profusely. When I asked which way to go from here, he rolled his eyes and pointed back to the motorway, allowing me to continue my journey into Nis! One of the things the policeman claimed during our conversation was that riding on the motorway was very dangerous. Had he ever tried riding on the other roads?!
On your typical Serbian road, you have to weave in and out of the potholes along a road that’s barely wide enough for a car and a lorry. When you have two lorries passing each other at the same time as overtaking you, evasive action is required. The rest of the time, you merely have to cope with the turbulence as trucks thunder by at 60mph, doing everything you can to avoid either being blown off the road or sucked into the traffic.
However, on the motorway, the roads are smooth, the traffic is no heavier than elsewhere, it’s all going one way and, thanks to the hard shoulder, you have a good 12-feet between yourself and everyone else. It’s by far the safest place to ride!
Entering Nis, I was welcomed by Gile, who had emailed me a few days before. He took me on a little sightseeing tour, visiting the very small concentration camp and travelling around the fortress (which every Serbian city appears to have). By the time we’d reached the centre, it was about three o’clock and I had a decision to make. Stay in Nis, or get a bit closer to the Bulgarian border?
Having lost my momentum in the very interesting concentration camp, I decided that it was time to stop for the day, thereby giving my body and, more importantly, my mind a bit of a break. Tomorrow, I have another decision to make. Apparently, the road out of Nis towards Sofia is very dangerous. No longer will I have the safety of a motorway to protect me. It is a simple Serbian road, winding over hills and through tunnels, carrying with it all the traffic that wants to head east towards Bulgaria and beyond. And there’s a lot of it.
Cycling along the motorway was the best decision I’ve made so far. Cycling out of Nis could be turn out to be the last one I make. There’s always a bloody decision to make!