When it was suggested I do a six-day mountain biking trip through Greece, it was because as a sports writer, I was therefore a ‘sporty type’. That’s a common misconception, though – that because you write about sport, you’re probably good at it or at least enjoy participating in it. If you were ever to spend any time in the press box at a major sporting event you would realise the error. The only exercise most sports journalists do is the sprint to the buffet at half-time.
My friends, who were aware of my lack of fitness generally and time on a bike specifically, were less than supportive. As one of them put it: “You know you’ve made it when your face is on the side of a bus, unless you’re a cyclist.”
Arrived into Athens yesterday and was met by James from Bike Greece and a tour guide. We left the hotel today at 9am and returned at 10pm and must have cycled 40km. In the words of Cartman from South Park: Seriously guys, my arse.” Cycled down a dirt track through Allepo Pines to the Cave of Pan, which was apparently used by the Ancient Greeks for orgies in honour of the god Pan. Looked like a hole in the mountain to me, but this was one of those Dr Who-style ‘the journey is more important than the destination’ trips. Then came a 5km uphill cycle. Couldn’t help but recall reading in the programme about an “average 500 metres of climbing and over 1000 metres of decent per day” and thinking “Well, that’s all the climbing out of the way in one afternoon”. Had a break, then cycled round Athens. Since the Olympics, biking has become a great way to the see the tourist attractions, although some of the gloss was taken off the excursion because I couldn’t sit in my seat.
Spent morning looking for a large sponge or copy of the Sunday Times to put down my pants for protection. Settled for padded bike shorts despite the unnerving sensation that it was like wearing an adult nappy. Still, it was a small price to pay for being able to sit down. Cycled to the country estate of the former King Constantine. Constantine fled Greece after the 1967 coup and his palace and grounds were turned into national park. Guard dogs barked behind high wire fences surrounding the palace, tractors rusted in the fields and boats stood unused in sheds as we cycled around the overgrown grounds. Next stop was the 5th century fort of Dhekelia, which sounded fascinating until I saw the size of the hill to climb to get there. I don’t care if Zeus himself was serving Ouzo on arrival, I wasn’t attempting that slope. This was a truly beautiful day and I felt like I’d left a piece of me in Greece – mostly blood and skin actually, after I had a stack coming down a dirt mountain. Jim told us that there’s always one accident on these tours, but he is yet to have a serious one. Anyway, bones heal and chicks dig scars.
A rest day on the island of Evia. All I wanted to do was sit on the beach and rest my legs. Unfortunately, the busload of German tourists had reserved all the sun lounges before we had finished dinner the night before. Having said that, a day surrounded by sagging breasts and dick stickers does not a holiday make. So you know what we did on our day off? WE WENT FOR A RIDE TO A BEACH… AND IT WAS UPHILL ALL THE WAY. The beach at Neboriou Bay was stunning, with crystal-clear water the perfect tonic after a taxing 10km ride followed by lunch at the local taverna of Greek salad, fresh calamari and beer. It’s one thing to sit by the beach on holiday drinking and eating, it’s another thing to feel you’ve earned it. The ride back was much more pleasant – because it was all downhill – and allowed us to appreciate the vistas of the island.
On a normal tour, this day would involve the red group – “average 500 metres of climbing and over 1000 metres of decent per day,” I remind you – cycling from Karistos to the top of Mt Oki. Thankfully, we weren’t a normal group, because this was a trip I wouldn’t want to attempt in a car. James told us that most people complete the journey in three to four hours. The descent takes in the village of Atina for lunch, where the locals think you’re a foreigner if you don’t come from Atina. Again, lunch is normally followed by an another climb of several hours before a descent through the Dimosari gorge. The gorge is a national park and like no other landscape I’d seen in Greece – it was almost like a rainforest. The day ended at the hostel in Kalianou, which doesn’t get many visitors, probably because you have to climb then descend a mountain to get there. Fresh fish for dinner and a beer overlooking the gorge made the day’s work almost forgettable – until I moved my legs.
The day started with the longest hill climb yet and the only thing to do – bar hopping in the support vehicle and being driven up the mountain – was to click the bike into its lowest gear, put your head down and pedal. It was at this moment on the road to Mount Oki that I had my cycling epiphany – cycling isn’t all about going really fast downhill; the true satisfaction comes from extending yourself in the getting up. It may have taken me a good four hours and my legs may have taken days to recover, but it was probably my most satisfying day of riding. I also discovered that when the downhill mountain track is as wide as a car and largely gravel, it’s just as taxing, but in a different way to the uphill climbs.
Half day. Saw some ruins near Marathon and went for one last ride. I’m sitting on the plane back to London, my bum hurts only when I’m sitting on a bike seat and my legs are just a stretch away from cramping. 30-40kms a day cycling seemed a lot for a holiday, but then again, maybe I’m being soft. It’s a hell of a way to see the country, that’s for sure, and a sense of satisfaction is not something I usually associate with a break. If I did it again, I’d definitely pack my own padded shorts. And a sponge.”