Friday, May 11, 2012

A Week of Wicked Riding in Greece

I arrived in Athens quite early on Wednesday. The bike tour wasn't starting until the following day, so I nearly had a full day at my disposal to check out Athens. I negotiated my way out of the airport, onto a train and into central Athens, very grateful that most signs around the place are in Greek AND English, the Greek script being rather difficult to read and all. I had brushed up on a couple of Greek phrases... The usual "hello, goodbye, thank you, is it ok if I speak English" sort of thing and people seemed to appreciate it. When I got off the crowded train in the city, I was swamped by people at the station rushing off to their next appointment before being left standing on the platform by myself wondering where the elevator was for me and my bike box. As if he read my mind, an older gentleman came up to me and directed me to the elevator, then came along to help me, then walked me out of the station and pointed me in the direction of where I was staying... "Great", I thought, "another porter who wants an exorbitant tip"... But he wasn't. He was just a lovely guy helping out a stranger in a strange city. It was a really inviting welcome to Athens, and in general I have found the locals to be such pleasant people. What wasn't inviting was dragging my bike box two blocks along a footpath that was barely a foot wide. I wrestled with it the whole way to the hostel. The city was a bit of a surprise after getting out of the modern train station. Athens was an old city with rubbish in the streets and my initial impression was that it was actually a bit dank. As the day wore on through my travels, my mind changed on the matter... Athens has it's own, aging beauty.

In the interests of trying to save a bit of money, I had checked into a hostel in a 4 bed dorm. When I arrived, my two "roomies" were there in the room and after some pleasantries, and seeing as we were all travelling alone, we set off in search of some lunch together. After finding our way to one of the local districts for lunch, Kiko and I parted ways with Sonia for the day and headed up to the Acropolis. It was a hot afternoon and after making our way past numerous buskers and street stalls, we paid our 12 euro entry fee and headed up the mountain to check out the ruins. The Acropolis still has a great deal of restorative work being undertaken and there was a lot of scaffolding in front of the Parthenon. For those of you who don't know, I have Greek heritage in me. My father's parents were from Greece. Not long before my overseas trip, a photo surfaced of my Grandmother (Yia Yia), her two brothers and my great Grandmother in front of the Parthenon in the 1960s. I recognised the spot immediately as I approached the Parthenon (albeit a little more scaffolding than in the 1960s) and Kiko's patience meant I was able to get a photo taken in the same spot as my Grandma all those years ago without a bunch of tourists in the background.

The site was spectacular, and the views over Athens were stunning, too. I liked hanging out with Kiko for the day. It was nice to have some company and she was a really cruisy gal. She really liked her photography so we were never rushed to go anywhere and she didn't mind helping out with my requests for stupid looking poses in photos (it was nice to not have to set up the tripod and self timer!).

After a stroll around the local Flea Market (aka back alleys), it was nap time then dinner time. It was my first meal here in Greece and it made me feel a bit nostalgic... The chicken soup, moussaka and baklava reminded me of the feasts Yia Yia used to cook us when we visited as kids. I actually found I felt more familiar with the food and the customs and the people in Greece than I had expected... I suppose that comes from growing up with half of my family Greek. I felt really connected to everything, which has been really nice, but a little sad at the same time.

We had been told the rooftop bar at the hostel had spectacular night time views of the Acropolis and so headed up to the rooftop after dinner. I wasn't sure what to expect but was so stoked when I walked out into an intimate little balcony with a bar, some mood lighting and the Acropolis lit up right in front of us... What a cool place to chill for the evening! I also met another couple of Aussies, including two that were sharing the same mountain biking trip as me! We all made noise and spied on the naked neighbours through their windows until midnight then hit the hay.

The following day we were being transferred to our base for the mountain bike tour at 2pm so I had the morning to check out Ancient Agora and the museum with Kiko and Christina (another traveller we met the evening before), which was really interesting. It amazes me how well-preserved a lot of the artifacts are, especially some of the smaller stonework pieces with intricate carving on them. It was a good way to spend my last morning in Athens.

One thing I found highly amusing at Ancient Agora were the many people employed to watch over the ruins and make sure noone damaged them. The moment someone went to touch, stand on, or lean against a part of the ruins, these guys would blow their whistle and point at these tourists posing for photos and tell them not to touch... Like naughty school children in the playground. Hilarious... Anyway, one of these "whistleblowers" took a liking to us (as three young foreign females) and pulled a few olive tree branches off for us to stick on our heads and pose for a photo. He also picked us each a flower... Best we don't touch the ancient rocks, but go ahead and destroy the trees! We all found it a little bit ironic.

The afternoon saw Noel, Jess and myself loaded onto a train to Kifisi, where we met our Bike Greece mountain bike guide, James Brown (yes, this is actually his name, and maybe part of the reason I booked the tour!). James loaded us into his land rover and we headed back to Villa Patricia, where we would base ourselves for most of the week we were riding in Greece. James is an Brit who has lived in Greece for the last 17 years (or something close to... He has lived here for a long time, anyway). He knew a lot about Greek history and politics, which made for some interesting conversation. We were also to learn in the following week that James was a bit of loose unit... A hilariously funny dude who had the skill of "making it up as we go" down to a fine art (very important to be able to think on your feet when you are guiding a bunch of smart-arse Aussies, Brits and Americans around) and was more than happy to put up with my crap... Excellent! We arrived at Villa Patricia (named after James' mother) and settled in after the grand tour. The place was amazing. In a lovely serene spot, with a pool surrounded in marble tiles and a bar. It was a pretty cool place to spend a week chilling and riding.

We were introduced to our other guide, Steve, our lovely cook/hostess and general caterer for the week, Ismini, and one of our other companions on the trip, Dina, who is an American living in Germany. Dina was also my room mate for the trip, and, as we would discover over the coming days, the pesron I would end up spending the most time riding with. After some bike construction, Dina, Noel, Jess and I headed off on a little exploratory mission on the bikes, only to find ourselves a little bit geographically misplaced. Dina and I were a bit faster than the other two, so we continued on our way to look for a cafe, and in the process, found ourselves even more lost, quite conveniently in a forest with trails, where we became more voluntarily lost before continuing on our mission for coffee and hot chocolate. The trails through the forest were just a taste of what was to come over the next week. Loose, rocky and shaley... Very similar to Garda, but the rocks were a lot sharper. We also came across our first tortoise, which was pretty novel at the time. Finally, a couple of hours later, we found a cafe in a small town centre and spent an hour or so chilling and chatting over a warm beverage before heading back to the Villa.

Back at the Villa, I hit the pool for a bit of a skinny dip (hey, I was in Greece!) then we were fed a hearty BBQ meal with delicious salads topped off with Halva (a type of Greek sesame cake)... We definately wouldn't go hungry this week... Ismini was an amazing cook! The rest of our group arrived late that evening and were all Brits. Dave and Sue were doing the trip on their way to their Summer job as kayak tour guides and Phil was a physicist with a delightful dry wit. I must admit that after speaking to everyone in the group, I was a little concerned that I may find myself a little bored with the pace of the group if we were riding together. Dina, who was also a pretty competent rider, echoed my thoughts. I suppose it was more a matter of how James would manage the differences in skill levels.

It was lovely to wake up in the morning to a huge breakfast spread... Cereals, fruit, Greek yoghurt, and something I would grow to love over the week, Greek Mountain Tea (yum!). I was relieved to hear James say that we would be splitting into two groups to cater for the differences in abilities, and I must say that for the most part, he managed the differences in pace really well, sending us fast bunnies ahead to the next junction while we waited for the more casual riders to catch up. It actually worked pretty well as a bit of an interval workout... I could smash my way up a climb and then wait for everyone to catch up, then continue on again. Our group consisted of Dina, Noel and I and we headed straight out from the Villa with James onto the nearby mountain in search of singletrack. As we headed down the first piece of singletrack, I sat behind James for a bit until he stopped to wait for the crew and said to me "you go ahead and meet us at the next junction"... I was like a dog let off it's leash at the park and I needed no further encouragement. I blasted off down the trail and arrived at the end in time to whip out my camera to get photos of the others... From this point on, I became designated trip photographer, and I kinda liked it. It was nice to have riders to take photos of on trails as opposed to having to set up the tripod, or take a photo of just a trail.

Tortoises became a part of everyday life on the trail for us, as did me whipping ahead and hanging around the corner ready to take a photo of anyone who dared round the corner next after me. James had us attach a sprig of thyme to our bikes and told us it would bring us good luck if it lasted to the end of the trip... Noel lost his within the next hour... The trails were great fun, and I was really enjoying the climbing, as well. The loose, sharp rocks were what I was used to riding in Garda for the last couple of weeks, so I was pretty happy to just let loose down it. I had a couple of close calls on some loose corners, which made for even more fun, and, as has been a pretty general theme on this trip of mine, the views were great, too.

Now, you'll remember me saying before that James was a bit of a loose unit, and I loved it. He was taking us off on all these bush-bashing, random trails.. He obviously knew his way around pretty well! The thing I liked about the Bike Greece tour when I booked it (apart from the fact that the price was pretty good, and that the guide's name was James Brown) was that they base their tours around a "lesser known Greece" and our first stop that morning was in a small town where we sat in a cafe with a bunch of local Greek men, conversing very passionately amongst themselves. It reminded me of Christmas lunch at my grandparents house as a kid!

Our trail shredding continued into the early afternoon and all was going well until Noel emerged from the bushes after riding one of our less-maintained trails with a snapped derallier hanger. No spares with us, we made our way up to the lunch spot at walking pace whilst it began raining, all the while cursing Noel for losing his sprig of thyme!!!

Lunch was a gourmet affair. Ismini and Steve met up with us armed with a huge feast and an assortment of spare hangers and we sheltered from the rain under a tree on a picnic rug eating mini cheese pies and Greek salad and drinking beer and wine. Whilst Steve mended the broken hanger on Noel's bike, the sun reappeared and the afternoon was looking up for some more amazing riding, which Steve joined us for, after dismounting his bike very ungracefully at the bottom of the water fountain. James was set on convincing us that the water we took from said fountain apparently had special qualities and kept referring to it as the "fountain of youth".

We set off up a monster climb after lunch, towards a 1000m peak from which we could see all of Athens and it's surrounds. Steve and I made the summit first, followed by the rest of the crew, and after a short history lesson, we blasted back down the way we came up, spitting loose rocks behind us in our wake, checking out the stunning views and frothing at the mouth whenever we saw bits of trail off to the side of the main track.

A quick visit to the Kings Land and then some more singletrack and we arrived back at the villa for a dip in the pool and another amazing meal (albeit rather late!). I also took great amusement from James' attempt to chlorinate the pool after we were done. Instead of tipping in the right amount of chlorine, he forgot to take it out of the sealed plastic bag and accidentally dumped the entire bag, sealed, in the deep end of the pool! It was quite a sight watching him chase it around the bottom of the pool with the end of the skimmer...

The following morning, we made our way nice and early to the ferry, bikes aboard the Bike Greece trailer, to make our way over to Evia, one of the Greek Islands. As we drove along, James explained to us (there is always something to be learnt from James) the meaning of the Greeks' use of hazard lights on a vehicle... "Oh, that just means that anything might happen"... We would find out over the week just how incredibly accurate this explanation was. We sat aboard the ferry watching islands appear out of the haze on the horizon until Evia was right in front of us. The water was a stunning blue colour and clear enough to see to the bottom of the ocean. I had the feeling I was going to enjoy a few days of riding here. Evia doesn't see a lot of tourism, so it was nice to, once again, be taking the road less travelled. After checking into our rather modest hotel, I was crammed into the back of the land rover with the rest of the group to fight with my own personal demons at the fact we were about to be "transferred" to the top of the 1400m peak instead of riding up it (yes, that's right, a shuttle). I had to settle for the fact that my rather vocal protest to this absurd behaviour at least meant I had tried to make it known that I disagreed with this sort of carry-on. The other problem with being "transferred" (sorry, I just can't bring myself to admit I took a shuttle) is that you are driving past all this fantastic scenery that would have been much better enjoyed on a bicycle.

So we arrived at the top of this mountain right next to a chestnut forest. It was an unusually green sight on a landscape that was otherwise scorched from the sun's heat. We split into our groups again and James took Dina and I up into the chestnut forest to look for a rather vague trail that he knew of (I think by this point, Noel had decided that Dina and I were a bit nuts and decided to stick with the other group for the day). After waiting a while for James to search and rediscover this track, we set out to descend towards the horizon on this lovely trail which consisted of loose shale and a limestone base. The rock was sharp and there were some really fun lines to rip up. By the end of the day, my tyres had certainly seen better days, and the deep cuts around the sidewalls had me grateful that I was currently running a UST specific tyre with thicker sidewalls.

I was buzzing once we exited the trail. We then had an undulating gravel road to smash out to catch the other group for lunch in Antia. Even though it was a road, there were some interesting lines you could pick off, and Dina and I had a blast popping jumps off water bars and rocks in the middle of the road. I was also feeling particularly strong on the small, pinchy climbs. It didn't take us long to catch the other group before we were descending the switchback road that lead into Antia for our lunch break.

Antia is a very small village, known for it's rapidly fading whistling language. There are only three or four "whistlers" left before the language is extinct, and they all live in Antia. We were treated to a traditional lunch by the locals of chips and egg (delicious, but hard to climb on a stomach full of it!) and then were lucky enough to have the opportunity to visit one of the last remaining whistlers in the village.

It was amazing listening to her communicate by whistling. Other whistlers in the village could hear her and would respond, and they had a conversation in whistle language. She would interpret what she had whistled into Greek for James to interpret into English for us. It was bizarre to think that we would potentially be some of the last people from outside this village to ever hear this beautiful language. It was very humbling. For some reason, I also found it strangely emotional. Sitting around on the balcony of her house with her laughing and talking reminded me of my Yia Yia, and when I went to thank her, she held my hands. Her hands were soft and warm like I remember Yia Yia's hands were and admittedly, it brought some tears to my eyes. It was strange because it has been so many years since Grandma passed away and it seemed like a random moment for me to remember her, but it was nice. It was nice to be reminded of her and to remember her.

We left the whistling village and climbed up towards Evia's wind farms (not unlike Palmy's, but with an ocean view backdrop!) before descending towards the coast. I haven't seen a lot of wildlife here in Europe so far, but I was really taken by how cool the mountain goats were here, and was lucky to snap a herd of them chilling on some rocks.

We split into groups again for an on-road or off-road option (of course, I took the off-road option) and we descended like maniacs down towards the beach, then up over another climb, then down towards the next beach, all the way along the coast... There were what seemed like hundreds of beaches sprawled along the coast, and we climbed and descended into each one. It was actually a pretty long ride. I think we tired James out! Plus he was keen to get back to watch the football, so after briefly stopping at a beach, we kept moving at a pretty good pace so he could get back in time! I quite enjoyed the ride, and the views were amazing, but it wasn't everyone's cup of tea. I suppose the thing with being part of a group is that there will be parts of the trip that some people really like and others don't like, and vice versa. I was pretty happy as long as I was on two wheels!

Once we got back on sealed road on the home stretch, we backed off the pace a bit and I chilled out riding along and having a bit of a chat. The company was really nice and it was such a stunning day to be out on the bike. After a shower and a nap, we were off to dinner (where there was a TV on the wall for James to watch the soccer!) The restaurant we went to had some lovely traditional cuisine and was located down a cosy alleyway in Karistof, the town we were staying in. I enjoyed the goat and home made pasta and then ventured out for a night time stroll along the local wharf with Dina for some creative night photography. It was nearly a full moon and such a spectacular night! I could get used to this!!

Our second day on Evia involved a shuttle start again, although I didn't feel so bad when the shuttle dropped us off at the bottom of a 650m climb on the other side of the island (which I enjoyed very much!). James assured us the climb would take about "45 minutes for the fast ones, an hour for the slow ones". When it took me 47 minutes to reach the top, I knew it wasn't going to take the others an hour (Greek time usually involves doubling the original estimated time or distance). I waited nearly an hour at the top for the rest of the group before James sent Dina, Dave and I on our way down the other side, past an old church, and down to another remote beach situated one beach over from the stunning Agios Demetrios beach. It was amazing how stunningly green this side of the island was in stark contrast to the barrenness on side we had come from. Apparently the island gets a great deal more rain on the west as opposed to the east.

We waited on the beach quite some time before the whole group was there, after which we were told that we would transfer to the top of the next hill again as it was getting quite late. Originally, the tour would have stayed at this beach and made a full day of the climb up and over back into Karistos, but since new tax laws came into effect in Greece, a lot of the smaller hostels can no longer afford to remain open, which left James with no accommodation option for groups. As we drove along the west coast of the island, past Agios Demetrios and up the gorge, I was yearning to be on my bike. The views were amazing along the coast... Rugged cliffsides with stunning greenery plunged into the turquoise blue ocean, and then as we turned inland, the amazing greenery surrounded the rough, gravelly, technical climb up the 4WD track to our final drop point. Apparently this road is sometimes impassable to vehicles, and whilst today wasn't one of those days, the land rover still had some hard work to do in 4WD mode to get there. I must admit that I was pretty annoyed at having sat on the beach for so long and then having to get in a car and miss out on such a spectacular ride and the opportunity to take photos of such a magical coast line. It was the only day of the trip that I felt James really should have had a second guide with him and didn't, or in the least, could have sent a couple of us on our way up the gorge ahead of the group that hadn't arrived yet. I was disappointed to miss out on that ride when I easily could have made the it to the top before the rest of the group transferred up there in the vehicle, had I been sent on my way as soon as we made it to the beach... But, it just didn't work out that way, and once again, was one of those things I didn't like on that particular day. There were probably other members of the group who were happy to be shuttled up that road (in fact, probably everyone but me)!

For the descent back into Karistos, we separated into two groups again, Roger following the other group down the road in the car, and James taking Dina and I down some more technically challenging trails down the side of the mountain. I reckon this descent was some of the best riding of the trip. It was rough and fast if you picked your lines well, but could be brutal if you picked the wrong line. The whole way, we overlooked the town of Karistos, the old castle, a shimmering blue ocean and a blue sky.

As we picked our way down the mountain at speeds probably a little too quick for the trails we were riding, we would pull up rather suddenly for landslides, or trails that had been rutted out by deluges of rain. One landslide had completely collapsed the track we were riding along, leaving a gaping void in the middle of the trail. We negotiated our way across the landslide, edging our way over the precarious cliffside carrying our bikes until we arrived at the trail on the other side... This was real adventure biking, and I was loving it!

Apart from one huge water rut that appeared to have no ridable line through it, the rest of them had tricky little lines that would drop you into the rut up to your shoulders, then pop you back up out of the rut onto the trail again. It was great fun working all the lines through each obstacle, and I was rather stoked when we came across our second landslide and I managed to nail the sketchy line across it (with one small toe dab), through a chunky rock garden created by the fall. I couldn't wipe the grin off my face, and the bike was lapping up the terrain!

After another short history lesson on the ancient columns that are mysteriously stuck up the hillside above where we rode, we dropped back in to Karistos, overtaking and avoiding cars and scooters as we went. We arrived back at the hotel just in time to catch the other group and I spoke very excitedly about our ride for the day (I am unsure if anyone else quite shared the same enthusiasm for the wickedly daring terrain I was describing to them). We then headed out for dinner at the same restaurant as the evening before and publicly berated James for showing up with his top on inside out and back to front (how does that happen???). The Greek elections had taken place that day and were (still are) of monumental importance for the people of Greece in their current economic and political state. I found the whole thing really interesting and it was great to have James there to explain the bits and pieces about the election and the Greek politics, too.

The next day was a "free day" for us and we had the option of either staying on the island until the end of the day or catching the early ferry back with James and spending the day in Athens. I had originally planned to spend the day riding other tracks on the island, but decided to use it as an actual rest day, taking into consideration my race in just under two weeks. So instead, I decided to stay on at the island and head out on a gentle kayak with Sue and Dave. When we arrived at the kayaks, it appeared they weren't open, but after using my best Greek, we found a lovely gentleman who not only spoke English, but was the owner of the kayak company (bonus)! We came back an hour later to find three freshly cleaned kayaks awaiting our return and off we went.

The tables were turned a little now. Sue and Dave paddled off looking like they were having a leisurely time of it whilst I paddled my little heart out to keep up. They pointed out a beach that was a speck on the other side of the bay to head towards. I remember thinking "Shit, really? That looks like a long way away". Regardless, I shut my mouth and sucked it up and eventually, we arrived at the beach (apparently about 5km away) for a dip in the Mediterranean and to hang out on the beach before heading back.

It was really nice being out on the water with Sue and Dave. I hadn't seen much of them out and about during the day on our rides and it was great to get to know them a bit better and hang out with them. They are on their way to Mylos after this bike trip to run kayak expeditions all Summer, so the mountain biking was a small side trip for them before heading off to "work". As we made our way back, we stuck close to the shoreline. The water was so clear we could see the bottom of the ocean ten metres below us, and schools of small fish swimming about. It was a very relaxing way to spend our free day, although my poor application on suncream meant I got burnt, which I was pretty annoyed with. What a stupid thing to do to risk sun stroke the week before a race!

The trip home to Villa Patricia was a long one. Because we had decided to stay on the island for the day, we didn't have James with us, so the plan was to catch a bus to the ferry, ferry to the port, bus to the metro, change metro half way through and then ride it to Kifisi, where James would pick us up... That took us three and a half hours! The most bizarre part of the trip back would have to have been when we arrived back at the mainland on the ferry. The scenes of chaos as people ran from the ferry and cars came streaming off the ferry in this mad flurry of activity were almost comical. The drama at the "orange bus" we had to catch to the metro were even more bizarre. People were fighting their way onto the bus, yelling at each other, throwing luggage on the bus, then taking it off when it didn't look like they would get a seat, then throwing it on again... We decided it was in the best interests of our safety to wait for the next bus and just stood back and watched. The icing on the cake was when the bus doors closed and it was about to pull away and these two kids came running up to the door screaming "mama! mama!"... Their mother had somehow gotten on the bus and left them off in all the kufuffle... Crazy! We arrived back at the Villa very late in the evening and collapsed into bed exhausted.

Our final day of riding saw us split into two groups again. James promised us some amazing singletrack today, and didn't disappoint. Once again, we "transferred" to the top (shudder), but we still got a couple of decent climbs in for the day. The ongoing saga of James' misbehaving crank, which had been falling off at random points along the way for the last four days, finally came to a head and left James off the bike and on foot for the day. He would send us down a section of trail, then scoot down the road to meet us at the trail head before sending us on another piece of trail. The waiting was a little bit frustrating, and it was confusing not having someone to follow so we could be sure we were going the right way, but I suppose it is part of the adventure to have mechanical mishaps! I wonder if he still had his sprig of thyme from the first day?!

The trails we rode that last day really tested me. I found myself picking my way through testing pieces of trail rather than bombing down with reckless abandon. It made me pay attention, which I liked. I enjoy riding down singletrack that scares the crap out of me. My caution was also my undoing on a couple of occasions on that day... Sometimes you just go too slow, and I am all too familiar with the irony of crashing because you are being careful. Recklessness seems to pay off more often than not on a bike! My worn out rear tyre didn't help the situation, either. After playing the part of front tyre for the Cape Epic, then being rotated out to the rear for the month after, there was little chance of this sorry-looking tread hooking up on anything, let alone the pea gravel and dusty rocks we were descending. It was a fun day out, and trophies were won (the best one down the side of my right leg).

We polished the day off with a ride on the Olympic mountain bike track from the recent Athens Olympics, which was a bit of a treat before riding back to the Villa for dinner, massage and some amazing halva that Ismini had made especially for me for our last night.

My week riding in Greece was a week I will never forget. I met some great people, carved up some wicked trails and had the opportunity to immerse myself in a culture from which I am really not all that far removed. I got the impression when James dropped me off at the train station Wednesday morning that he had really enjoyed guiding our group, regardless of how much crap we had given him (or maybe it was because of that!). It's awesome how such a diverse group of people with such a diverse level of skill can spend a week riding together and still have a blast, and I think that, whilst there were moments where we appeared to just be flying by the seat of our pants (and let's face it, that's what travelling is all about), it's probably a lot to do with how the guide manages that group and their skill levels, too. Isn't it funny that it seems to come back to my "collective strengths and weaknesses" theory from the Cape Epic... Managing the strengths and weaknesses in the team to ensure a great time is had by all. Now it's off to Finale Ligure... 24 Hour Solo World Champs is not even a fortnight away now... I am very thankful that I have had something to keep my mind otherwise occupied... Now it is time to start focusing and letting the nerves kick in and do their work!


  1. wow! i didn't realize we did so much. i really enjoyed having a riding buddy for the week. sorry i slowed you down ;) even though i was there, it was still wonderful to read your recollection of events. great pictures too! good luck at Finale and let me know which trails to ride. i'll be there soon.

    1. Thanks Dina! Glad you enjoyed it! Was cool hanging out! :)