Rory & Tom's Motorbike Tours

Rory & Tom's Motorbike Tours -

Albania: SH20 highway

SH20 routeDate: September 2015
Distance: 60km (30km unpaved)
Time taken: 2½ hours

Development warning: there was a lot of construction traffic around, it would seem that SH20 is rapidly becoming a fully paved road.

Albania, previously closed off and still very different to the rest of Europe. It’s one of the poorest countries in Europe, depending on how far east ones definition of Europe extends. Consequently its infrastructure still has a lot to be desired.

This low quality infrastructure includes hundreds of kilometres of unpaved roads. These are sometimes primary routes and often secondary roads. This fact alone should increase the appeal of Albania for the slightly more adventurous biker.
SH20, Albania

One of the more notable unpaved roads is SH20. This is the road that leads from Hani Hotit to one of the border crossings with Montenegro – near Vermosh, Albania and Gusinje, Montenegro, in the inland mountains.

This is a brilliant way to either enter or leave Albania – we took this road out of Albania. We were not asked for our Green Card when we crossed into Montenegro, although we did have one. The border crossing is small, and I am not sure if they have an insurance office for those who require it.

The route is not too busy, with only the occasional 4×4, truck and motorbike seen along the road.

Rory takes on SH20

Rory takes on SH20

To reach Hani Hotit the start of SH20, you have to practically ride up to the border crossing on the road (SH1) to Podgorica, the Montegrin Capital. From Hani Hotit, SH20 is a very good quality new asphalt road for the first 30km. It is even good by western European standards. Progress should be rapid until Tamarë where the tarmac abruptly runs out.

The road becomes a single lane stone track. It is frequently used by cars and trucks, so the stones are compressed on both sides unless the road has recently been regraded. The first 10km from Tamarë and through Selcë is fairly trivial, even for inexperienced off-roaders like ourselves.

Freshly regraded section of road

Freshly regraded section of road

After Selcë, the road takes a turn through the more remote mountains. We were delayed for roughly 30 minutes while a section of the road, a tight corner around a cliff, was regraded in front of us. A digger was pushing rocks off the cliff above, and then coming down to level it off. It was still a tricky ride over the newly laid section.

Around the corner, I took a tumble while taking an uphill hairpin bend. Rushing to come to my assistance, Rory also dropped his bike. No harm done, except for Rory’s bike being unable to start. After a few minutes a couple of bikers from Slovakia show up, and reckon that the bike’s overheated. We wait another 30 minutes in the sunshine and 35° heat, until the bike finally starts.

Rory's bike overheated

Rory’s bike overheated

Proceeding on around another two hairpin bends, I encounter a gravelly incline. In hindsight my confidence had been shaken by the earlier fall and I was going far too slowly to maintain the necessary momentum. The bike slowed to a standstill before the rear started wheel-spinning, applying the front break did nothing, and the bike slide backwards down the slope and into the side of the cliff. The bike fell and I rolled off, free from the machine.

Rory and a truck driver, whose path I was blocking, came to my aid and gave me a push to overcome the loss of traction.

Bike down

Bike down

Confidence restored, I maintained a safer (faster) speed and kept up the momentum, stopping only on smooth-ish level sections to take a drink from the Camelbak.

A worry is that Rory would come off his bike (fairly likely given the conditions), and as I am leading I could carry on for a good distance not knowing of his distress. My mirrors are useless – not only are they a little bent out of position from twice dropping the bike, but there is too much dust being thrown up by my tyres and I am only concentrating on the road ahead of me. I asked Rory to press the push-to-talk button and say a brief acknowledgement over the radio whenever he gets to every easy section.

Rory kept well back due to all the dust that my bike was kicking up. The radio was our only form of contact, as he was usually well out of visual range even if I was to use my mirrors.

Keeping up the speed and momentum, progress is good along the remaining 20km. It’s a very scenic and remote mountainous road. The slightly unbelievable aspect is the number of homes, villages and farms along the road.

Towards the end of SH20, we reach the turning to Vermosh. For a brief two or three kilometres we’re back on tarmac before returning to gravel for about another kilometre, at which point we are at the exit border crossing to leave Albania.

Physical Condition

The bikes are both at the garage being serviced and having new tyres fitted. We left instructions with the garage that they both need to be good for five thousand maintenance free kilometres, on some of the lowest quality roads in Europe west of the Caucasus.

Our own physical state is pretty critical too. Spending several hours per day for two or three weeks sat on the bike on often challenging roads, can be exhausting. Maybe less so for people who already spend a couple of hours everyday on their bike commuting, but I am a mere recreational user these days.

For this reason I consider health and fitness to be an important part of preparation. Without either of these, you might as well just sit on a beach for your holiday.

The usual regime is a 5km run three times a week, and a 1km swim twice a week (when other things don’t get in the way of the schedule, that is).

I would also like to do some weights to build up the upper body, but that would have far too great a risk of aggravating old injuries.

The Results

I have been keeping to this exercise plan for almost 18 months. I have also completely removed caffeine from my diet.

The result is a 20% drop in my resting heart rate (monitored by a Basis band) and much improved sleep. Combined with my acquired ability to easily run 5km in under 25 minutes, this represents a significant improvement.

Like many people, I spend my working life sat at a desk. You cannot simply go from idle to intensive riding without either preparing yourself or suffering the consequences.

Summer Holiday 2015

Itinerary: Ride to Italy, take boat to Greece then ride back to South Germany via Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.
When: September 2015

We’re doing another Balkan trip. This time we’re doing a different route and visiting a few new countries.

Using our experience from previous trips, we’re making a few changes to our planning.


From our experience, September appears to be one of the best times to undertake a big tour. The weather is still good, if anything it has cooled down from being extremely hot (that can be quite a problem under the biking gear, especially when riding in unfamiliar cities).

Also everywhere is quieter in September. The kids from all over Europe are back at school and their parents back home at work. This means that there is less traffic on the roads and accommodation is easier to find when you turn up in a town or city wanting somewhere to stay that night.

Technical Equipment

Before every big trip we’re always looking at how we can improve our equipment. I have upgraded my SatNav from a TomTom Navigator to a Garmin Zumo 390. The TomTom mount had been vandalised in Dublin and I was not very happy with the device, so I’m trying out the Garmin now.

I have been researching better bike-to-bike intercom systems. The goal is to have a completely wireless solution. Currently we have a two cables coming out of the radio; one goes to a push-to-talk button in the handlebar, the other cable splits in two as a microphone and speaker.

So far everything I have seen on the market uses Bluetooth for all the coms, including the bike-to-bike communication. The reviews have mainly focused on devices capability of streaming music – maybe these are Americans riding hundreds of kilometres on straight roads but I don’t want music when I’m riding, especially when doing a mountain pass.

One or two other words kept coming up in the reviews for all modern bike-to-bike intercom reviews, one in particular was “frustrating”. When it’s over 35°C and you’re stood out in the sun wearing your full gear and helmet, and the Bluetooth is not paired and will not pair (because that will happen), it might be a little frustrating.

For this reason we plan to carry on using our PMR446 push-to-talk (PTT) radios. It’s a simple solution and that’s why I like it – there is less to go wrong. Set the channel, push the button and talk. I am an engineer and believe that the best solution is usually the simpliest solution that achieves the goal.

Clothing and Hydration

I now have a helmet with a sun visor – I thought it was worth an upgrade for that feature. It’s easy to flip up or down while riding.

We both have upgraded our boots. They’re slighly more ruggedised and hopefully a bit more suitable for use on Albanian dirt roads.

I have also put together a hydration system, using a small rucksack and a 2 litre camelback bladder. I used a small rucksack as the products by companies like CamelBak are designed to carry more than just the bladder, whereas I don’t need that but instead require a bag that is a small and light as possible. Riding the bike for several hours per day, I want as little as possible on my back.

Rory doesn’t like the idea of drinking from a tube. He will have to go thirsty on the road.

Where to stay

Previous planning was to read the travel guides and highlight interesting towns and cities on the map. By mid-afternoon we would have a good idea where would be best to head.

We will still do this but I want to take it one step further and find one or two good hotels or hostels in each highlighted city before we leave. These would be our preference for accommodation in each city and we could possibly phone ahead.

At the end of a day spent on the road, it would be quite nice just to be able to ride straight up to the hotel where we’re staying.

However I would not want to be booking anywhere more than 1 day ahead. This would restrict our plans and lock us into a tight schedule. I like being as flexible as possible with our itinerary.


The last time we visited the Balkans back in 2012, lunch was a big problem. In practically every country in the region, it’s very hard to find lunch on the road. This will be an even greater problem now since I have given up caffeine, and can no longer postpone my hunger.

Our plan is to go shopping for a basic lunch first thing every morning. This will most likely be bread rolls and cheese. Maybe some fruit for Rory. Enough to keep us going until dinner.

Warm-up trip

This coming weekend we have a short trip planned, down to South Schwarzwald (Black Forest) here in Germany. We will test out the new gear and see how our new plans work out.