So the charity bike ride is complete and after five days off the bike I am sat here in Athens. Yesterday I left the city, got 15km, and had to return for my helmet. Stop laughing. Fate or forgetfulness had clearly intervened so I stayed for one final evening.
Next up is an Athens-Athens loop before temporarily flying home and then coming back to cycle onwards to Turkey. So it is the first time I am not making progress on a roughly drawn line from A to B. No two ways about it, it’s a holiday. With my new found freedom I decided to sit around rather than set off through smog filled streets to the Pelopennese. The wrong choice, no doubt, but it resulted in this blog post.
Holiday anecdotes aside, leaving the cause I have been cycling for behind is a complete wrench. Yesterday morning I left my hostel and immediately found myself in a huge queue for a food bank for refugees. A young girl of about 15 or 16 was being violently and repeatedly sick just next to the hostel entrance. She declined some water I had just bought from the shop, and I walked off in my squeaky lycra. Pathetic. Just seeing the very surface of what people are going through makes you question your behaviour and values. And then you meet people who have given up jobs and savings and personal lives to help out, and hear their stories, which absolutely beggar belief.
It helps put a little bike ride in perspective. So on to that, for now, and who knows what next.
The charity challenge. 1150km along and about 15000m up in 10 days. How to put this. The worst I experienced was thinking to myself that I could be catching up on Game of Thrones when I needed to climb a small mountain in rural Greece at 7pm as the sun went down. What I did is not overly hard. It was actually really great. I just felt really lazy quite a lot.
I slept, ate and drank well. I met wonderful people and saw wonderful scenery. I cycled alot but not more than eight hours per day. Sometimes it rained. My feet got wet about three times, which caused mild discomfort.
With training much, much more than what I did is perfectly possible, and having been on the road for three months I had plenty of training. I met a 65 year old guy who ran 160km with 10000m elevation gain in one go with 45 minutes of sleep. That is a challenge…!
So with that off my chest, some highlights from a breathtaking trip…
Day one took me from Dubrovnik to Utjeha in Montenegro in 175km. It was mostly hilly coastal road in the heat. The bay of Kotor took me on a huge inland loop, before I zoomed past multiple welcoming beaches in Budva and Bar to end up in an empty hotel high up on a hill making pasta and pesto on the balcony.
My Russian hosts did not speak a word of English and I don’t speak a word of Russian. But we got on great nonetheless and the next morning, in a good mood, I decided to take a shortcut over a pass through Pecurice. After the initial disbelief that cycling up a hill was so hard, I eventually saw the misty mountains in Albania in front of me. Entry into Albania marked a change in the environment. Much more obvious poverty, horses and carts, the sound of the call to prayer, and crowds of kids chasing me down to say hello in all of the towns and villages I went through. Heading inland after the long coastal road of the previous day, I set off on the long, straight, dusty dual carriage way from Schkoder to Tirana.
Day three went wrong quite quickly. From Tirana I went to Elbasan in the rain and multiple punctures later admitted defeat in pitch black countryside near Peqin. This was about the most friendly place I have ever been though and I was taken in by a wonderful family for free. An 11pm dinner of whole roast chicken with freshly cut chips and salad later I am forever in their debt. I even managed to maintain a three hour conversation with my point it picture book – thank you Keiko, Elliott, and Kezia!
I said my farewells about 12 noon after a 10k trip with Klodian Tata to Lushnje. With good vibes I made it 150km to Gjirokastra in a hurry. A late departure from the stunning hill town the next day took me to the Greece border and on eerily abandoned roads to Ioannina.
Day six marked the start of the bigger mountains, going up to 1700m, and my aim was to get up and over in a day. That didn’t go very well. Constant wind and rain, and multiple dog skirmishes, slowed me down and after around 70k of slow climbing I stopped off in Metsovo at about 1400m. I pulled my still soaked cycling gear back on to do 120km up to the peak and down to Karditsa the next day.
Day 8, 9 and 10 were characterised by me moaning about smaller hills as I saw the end drawing near, and a wonderful sojourn in the mountain town of Modi overlooking the great peak of Parnassus. The worst of the mountains were over and 300km in three days was all that was left. I cycled from Karditsa to a camping spot near Mendenitsa on day 8, on to Thiva via three hours of eating and drinking in Modi on day 9, and then in to Athens on day 10. Finished! And very happy to be joined by my brother Matt and friend Tristan for a few days holiday after.
It was an amazing experience. I still just about remember the feeling that absolutely anything is possible, blurred by the haze of struggling to leave Athens for three days.
More widely, though, on arriving in Athens it is humbling to see so many volunteers devoting their daily lives to help with the refugee crisis. And horrifying to see the daily reality of so many people that are stuck here. Reminder that this little charitable endeavour was a tiny drop in a vast ocean…