After the X-Alps my thirst for flying hadn’t been fulfilled, I doubt it ever will. So I enrolled in a smaller hike’n’fly race in Sopot, Bulgaria, organised by the awesome team of Skynomad.
Local knowledge is always key in those competitions of course, so I got there a couple of weeks earlier to get to know the area and also just to enjoy this great flying spot. The area is made for hike and fly or vol-biv. A treeless ridge that runs nearly unbroken for 200 kilometers, with grassy tops where you can topland basically everywhere. Anyway, tons of adventures to be had for the people that seek it. Also, if you’re on a budget, Bulgaria is a paradise.
There is a very interesting micro weather systems that set up sometimes in Sopot. Often there is a north component pressing over the large ridge with a completely different, mostly colder airmass. More than once, I found myself battling my wing in a massive convergence while looking down at the clouds on the other side. Sometimes the north breaks through and forms a fallwind, like a mini-föhn. If you’re quick enough you can escape this phenomena by flying south and fly the flatlands of the large valley. But it is not very obvious and takes a couple of times to get used to.
Also the convergence can get very strong at times, in one case I had a 8 m/s updraught on my 30 second average. Quite the ride… The turbulence exceeds your average comfort level by a margin and lets you swear at your buckling wing sometimes. Or often. In my case. I got a temper.
The forecast for the Transbalkan was terrible. After months of brilliant weather it looked like the wet would finally arrive in 2015. The competitors sat together and discussed the route. We all agreed on a little shorter task than usual, but also with some cruxes strewn in. It was a hike’n’fly competition after all.
We drove to the start of the race in the Skynomads bus on the morning of the race. It was raining. A lot. Cats and dogs. Ugly. No one was incredibly motivated to do this thing. But the mood was actually great, in these moments you build up some kind of funky fatalism and everyone was in the same boat.
But the gods of sh*t weather had a present for us. As soon as we got out of the vehicle to gather on the start line, the rain had stopped. The mood lifted significantly. When the clock turned 11, we started walking together in a moderate pace. At first no one seemed to push it that much. We didn’t know what the weather still had in store, but it seemed that there could be some flying eventually in the near future.
One kid though, as eager as a beaver, started to run ahead. My pride just wouldn’t want to let that one go and I started to sit on his tail, just to annoy him a little. I knew he was a good pilot too, so at least I wanted to keep up with him on the ground.
It was a couple of kilometers to the first turnpoint. It wasn’t really uphill, so the running wasn’t that exhausting. The terrain on the left, the windward side, was a gentle slope, grassy with no trees. It would have been perfect to ridge soar with a little more wind or at least some thermals. But we were still above cloudbase at this point and the sun hadn’t showed up yet. It was clear that it was extremely unstable and any energy on the ground would immediately transfer into updraughts. So we had to keep a watchful eye on the clouds and the sun.
Me and eager beaver, named Juraj from Slovakia, reached the first turnpoint before the others together and had just started walking back when Skynomads boss Niko appeared from around the corner flying under his Sigma. Dangit. I guess it was time to get into the air. I did see a couple of other competitors flying towards the turnpoint and return while I got into my gear.
At first it was just some enhanced ridgelift. Nothing much to work with. I watched Stan Radzikowski, a x-pyr veteran, down in a really tight and shitty spot with basically no landing option, circling in zeroes. I did not want to be in his shoes. After a couple of minutes the wind decreased, my guess is that the thermals started to work properly and shade off the wind. The position where I was depended on ridgelift, so within seconds I got dumped on the ground, while the guys out front in the risky section got lucky. But I knew I had only to walk maybe a hundred meters or so to be in a good position for takeoff. And when russian athlete Maxim would take several circles in front of me I didn’t wait any longer.
It took me maybe a minute to reach cloudbase… which wasn’t particularly hard, as cloudbase was a little more than hundred meters above my takeoff. But conditions were so unstable that you didn’t had to look far for thermals anyway. In these conditions you stumble across an updraught every couple of meters.
Most of the fellow competitor were circling right above where we had started the race, trying to get altitude to hop over a large gap to get to a big ridge in the east. I could see that only Stan had so far been successful with the transition. All the others were either on the ground or getting there. Only eager Juraj was nowhere to be seen. I figured he was already way ahead, out of reach. After trying to do the same as the others for a couple of minutes, I got sick of this game and did the transition anyway even though I was low and landing options were questionable. But the trigger I went for was just too obvious and I reached cloudbase again quickly. I had thought that Stan was also already way ahead but it seemed he hadn’t really been able to connect with something further on and was getting lower and lower into the valley.
Now appeared Juraj on my left as well! He must have landed and walked for a while. We teamed up now, but I could tell he wanted to get away from me as fast as possible. Even though we were right on the ridge, it now became a proper pulley to pulley race.
Conditions were gentle though, not turbulent. So flying fast wasn’t an issue here. He won this little battle, I give him that. When we approached the next crux, a big bend in the valley, I had didn’t had the necessary altitude to stay on the main ridge where Juraj was able to boat along. I on the hand got lower and lower and thermals started tethering out as well. I landed and ran a couple of hundred meters with my wing bundled up to a good take off, so I could glide into the main valley.
Now I faced another issue. My glide took me exactly to the only place where we shouldn’t land under absolutely no circumstances. A gipsy township with extremely bad reputation. Usually paraglider pilots get mugged immediately upon landing there and probably put in a cooking pot by dark people with sharpened teeth. Or that’s what the Bulgarian tried to make me believe over and over. It’s a sad fact and I hate generalising above everything. But the fact that people got mugged right where I planned to put my glider down kind of put me off. I turned around to look for a different landing option. Suddenly Stan appeared next to me! He had managed to get a low safe out of the valley. Well done! He went for the gypsy village and I landed in a very tiny clear patch in the forest, away from eyes.
As soon as I got into the village I started running. As long as they didn’t had time to form a little mob you were usually ok. And apart from a little verbal abuse and some hostile stares I was fine.
Now I was running in the middle of the valley. I knew Stan was only just before me on the ground and I wanted to get him.
After an hour or so I did and we started walking together. When the clock turned eight, we were just before Sopot.
So the next day it was quite obvious which takeoff we would use. Of course the main launch in Sopot, which we knew perfectly. Juraj had slept in Sopot itself and waited on launch for the thermals to pick up when we arrived. So in the end we were all at the same spot again.
And since Juraj was so pushy he of course took off first and was our personal wind dummy. Perfect, the thermals were already working even though it was very early. Unusually early for Sopot. So me and Stan launched as well and were at 2400 meters within minutes.
Juraj was already ahead, but from now on I knew the flying and the secrets quite well due to my last couple of weeks flying here. The next turnpoint was approximately 65 kilometers to the east and the forecast was suggesting some disturbance from the north. While trying to catch up with Juraj I could tell that the north was already pushing in over the mountain passes to the east. Two transitions into the flight cloudbase was already dropping by 500 meters down to 1900. Quite low to fly in these parts. Lower than I’ve ever been here. But again, like the last day it was really unstable. And me and Stan were basically flying together the whole day, which was really awesome. We were on par with pimping each other most of the day. Sometimes he was out front, sometimes me.
Juraj had decided to push like a maniac, but he lacked local beta. So even he had a headstart of two transitions, we caught up with him within a couple kilometers and surpassed him soon after.
It was still early, before noon. But it was already shading out, massive overdevelopment reaching into the flats too. I realised quickly that we couldn’t really stay on the ridge at this point as the north wind was spilling over the ridge and killing thermal production on the south facing walls. I signalled Stan to escape into the flats at a very crucial point. Juraj coming in later, trying to do his own thing, bombed out right there and lost his connection for pole position.
Now it got difficult and slow. Me and Stan had a couple of heroic low safes in succession and after some time we reached the monastery that was the turnpoint and turned back towards Sopot, the goal.
By this time the overdevelopment had gotten a hold of the area and there was absolutely no sun left, only some decaying clouds. And it didn’t look like there was a change coming soon. Now things got really slow. We tried to safe ourselves by getting some heat residue from the largest town in the area to wait until conditions would improve. We found a very weak but large thermal, in which we stayed for nearly 45 minutes.
I heard from Juraj later that at this point he was walking right below us, staring towards
the sky with an envious glare.
Finally the clouds parted a tiny bit and some sunlight warmed up a patch of maybe two kilometers in diameter. Thats what we went for immediately and sure enough it provided a steady 3 m/s climb.
That was it though, we were shaded out again. At this point we both got a little tired of this game and tried to make some distance since goal would come closer and closer. In the end we were both struggling for bits and pieces of lift just two hundred meters above ground, getting pushed by the wind towards Sopot. I had an advantage of maybe a hundred meters of height over Stan, so at this point I started pimping him, I have to admit. It wasn’t a lot, but at this stage of the race even a few meters could make the difference. He landed and so did I, but about 1.5 k’s closer to goal.
I knew I had it. Stan is not a runner and I am to a certain point. I had landed 24 kilometers away from the cylinder and we had three hours left. I had to do 8 km/h on the ground steady to reach goal in time, with a 17 kg on the back. I felt bad leaving Stan behind after flying together the whole day, but it was a comp after all (or as Stan puts it: ‘you mean you rode my lines and didn’t take lead.. and then when it came to friendship, that was the first thing out the door as you started to run away’). Also I had a realistic chance of complete the race in two days.
I didn’t. Four kilometers before goal my legs and ankles gave up and I just could not run anymore. The clock turned eight o’clock just about one kilometer before the edge of the cylinder.
So I got up on the third day at six o’clock and won the Trans Balkan twenty past six. Stan came in two hours later and Juraj flew into goal in the afternoon to get third position.