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Cyclist Big Rides: Europe

Crete : Big Ride

James Spender
11 May 2015

With guaranteed sun, winding hairpin roads and just the local goats for company, Crete is a cycling destination worthy of Zeus himself.

As my father was fond of telling me, ‘The world doesn’t owe you a living,’ which I always took to mean, ‘Good things don’t come easy.’ His sagely wisdom is proving to be right once again. It’s nearly 3am and I’m standing in my dimly lit room at the Almyrida Resort hotel, torque wrench in one hand and the recently detached seatpost of Chris Boardman’s very own bicycle in the other. I’m not sure whether to blame the tool or sleep deprivation, but all I know is that the ultralight seat collar that once held the seatpost in place is now a useless lump of shattered carbon.

As I look at the carnage I’ve just wrought while trying to set up the borrowed Boardman SLS, I wonder what it is I’ve done to bring such bad luck upon myself, and how I’m supposed to complete the impending 125km ride around the south-west of Crete without a saddle.

Island in the sun

Despite being high up the list for British holidaymakers seeking cheap food, baking sun and glassy waters, Crete barely registers as a destination for road cyclists. Which is odd, because it really does have all the ingredients, so long as you pick the right time of year. In midsummer, temperatures soar well into the flip-flop-melting forties, with barely enough rain to sustain a cactus. But visit in the low season – spring or autumn – and conditions are nigh-on perfect. There are very few tourists and they mainly keep themselves and their hire cars to the northern coasts, leaving the interior of the largest of the Greek islands and its relatively undeveloped southern side almost deserted. With this in mind, I’ve made the journey in mid-September, and my hosts, local cycle-tour operators Linda and Thanassis Ambrose-Mischopoulou, have promised me ‘wild landscapes and winding roads’. I’m also being joined by local pro Stavros Papadimitrakis, who will put me through my paces on the ride. (Try saying those names after a couple of shots of raki.)

It all sounds perfect, but standing on the hotel balcony, with views to the beach and the Cretan Sea close enough to throw a plate at, I’m feeling decidedly nervous. After my late-night debacle with the torque wrench, Thanassis has promised to bring along a spare bike and as many different sizes of seat collars as he can muster. That is, one size.

Crete Boardman SLS

In most instances I’m not too fussy about what I ride – so long as the gears shift and the frame colour matches my helmet – but on this occasion I’m particularly keen to use the bike I’ve brought with me. Before leaving Britain, I put in a request to Boardman Bikes to test an SLS 9.8, but there wasn’t one available in my size, so they ended up sending me Chris’s own bike – the very one he rode during all those pre-stage TV pieces to camera at the 2014 Tour de France.

I make it down to the hotel lobby in time to see Thanassis and Stavros swing their dusty minibus into the car park with a squeal of brakes. They leap from the vehicle and greet me with big smiles, crushing handshakes and hearty back-slaps, and then Thanassis rummages in his pocket and produces a small round object. It’s a new seat collar. Thankfully it fits the Boardman. We’re on our way.

Whacky races

Our hotel is located in the bay just around the corner from Chania in the north-west of the island, Crete’s second largest city that stood as the capital for 73 years until the title moved east to Heraklion in 1971. However, our ride is due to start further south, where the road from Roustika forks right towards Velonado, which gives us a good hour in the minibus to chat, view the terrain and enjoy the subtleties of Cretan motoring etiquette.

Driving cross-country isn’t so bad; the roads have an empty, almost abandoned feel. However, the main coastal road that takes us into the countryside is a bit more of an ordeal. Single carriageways make passing slow farm vehicles tricky, but it seems that foot-to-the-floor is the only kind of driving technique practised in Crete, and I’m visibly recoiling in the back seat as Thanassis whips past the outside of lorries around blind bends. ‘This is the way Cretans drive,’ Thanassis says over his shoulder. ‘It might seem chaotic but it is organised. Really! The only accidents are when the tourists don’t get it!’

We finally reach our start destination as the morning haze breaks to reveal a beautiful but sparse landscape. On the whole Crete is hilly but not especially mountainous, yet Thanassis explains that in the spring this region is blessed with a vibrant carpet of wild flowers and orange blossoms set – rather surprisingly given the already hot temperature of the day – against snow-capped peaks. ‘It has the feel of an alpine retreat, only warmer,’ he says proudly, ‘and the smells of the orange blossoms and herbs? Wow! They are better than the aromatherapy in a spa!’

It’s a pretty picture he paints, and one that’s already got me thinking about making this same trip early next year, but for someone used to grey skies, green fields and the odd London bus, today’s early autumnal views across the valley are more than enough. The rusty browns of turning ferns are interspersed with yellowy-russet rocks and the washed-out purples of lavender. It’s truly stunning.

Stavros and I throw our legs over our bikes and spin a low gear as the minibus disappears into the distance. On the way here, Stavros explained that he’d just come back from the Greek national track championships in Athens where he competed in the 1km time-trial and scratch races, placing 18th and 9th respectively. I tell him I think that’s pretty impressive, but Stavros doesn’t seem so pleased.

Crete climbing

‘I’m not at my best. I was time-trial champion a few years ago, so… But anyway, today I am straight off the boat!’ he says smiling as he skims easily along in a kit so garish only a pro could wear it and still look good. ‘Thanassis picked me up from the ferry at eight thirty this morning, and I have not really slept. So today we go easy I think.’ I wonder aloud what his idea of ‘easy’ involves. ‘Well you know, easy, like not too hard. For fun!’ he replies. But before the first climb opens up properly and I can find out just what ‘fun’ means for a national champion, a motorbike policeman comes into view and signals for us to stop.

It turns out the policeman is merely holding back the traffic to protect a procession of elderly churchgoers on a mini pilgrimage up the hill, rosaries and prints of religious icons in hand. Stavros explains that today is the celebration of the birth of the Virgin Mary, and it’s also a day celebrating anyone in Greece who has the name Maria. ‘But only the ones who are married or still virgins may enter the church,’ he says smiling wryly. ‘Are you married?’ I answer no, which to my consternation is greeted with a big laugh. Apparently in Crete if you’re an unmarried adult accidents will continue to befall you until you tie the knot. This could explain my misfortune with the seat collar.

Onwards, upwards, downwards

The climb towards the village of Kallikratis is a gentle 5% lasting around 9km. At this stage in the day it’s a relatively laid-back, almost tranquil affair. The tarmac is crisp, and there’s no traffic to speak of. The gentle rumple of our drivetrains is only occasionally interrupted by the scuffle of falling rocks as a mountain goat leaps up the stony cliffs. Out towards the horizon a few birds of prey hang in the thermals above the valley floor, and as we crest the top a perfect set of tight, newly-cut hairpins shimmers into view, cascading down the other side of the climb towards the Libyan Sea. I can’t believe cyclists aren’t coming here in their droves.

Despite the parched landscape and Thanassis’s claim that it has rained here only once since July, a short but heavy shower suddenly sweeps over our heads. Luckily it’s swift to leave, but the hairpins – only moments ago so perfect – now twinkle menacingly in the sun. Stavros turns to give a quick reminder to me about taking it slow, so I nod appreciatively before following him gingerly down the hillside. But it seems I’m not ginger enough.

Crete crash

On one corner, despite my tentative pace, my front wheel slides out from beneath me on the greasy surface and I find myself sliding five metres down the road on my backside. Like any diligent cyclist, the first thing I do is check the Boardman. Thankfully it seems unscathed. I then check myself over and there’s no major damage – just a bit of road rash – and Stavros points out that the slippiness of the surface that brought me down also served to help me slide as opposed to stop dead in a more damaging heap. I can’t help thinking there’s more to this curse of the unmarried man than I might previously have suspected.

I try to put such thoughts out of my mind as we head for what Thanassis has assured me is the jewel in this part of the island’s crown: a 14km stretch of road that snakes from the town of Hora Sfakion up to the Aradaina Bridge, a landmark in these parts as both a feat of engineering that spans the island’s deepest gorge and as the platform for Europe’s second highest bungee jump. Luckily for us the summer jumping season is over (it runs from June to August) so we are assured a spectacular car-free ascent to the top.

Rising from close to sea level to over 600m it’s an aggressive beast and within minutes I’m grinding up an 8% incline with tumbling cliffs to my left and great charcoal-grey swathes of road rearing up to my right. For a while I find respite in the slowly shrinking towns and glittering sea below, but trying to keep pace with a worryingly nonchalant Stavros is beginning to take its toll. By the time I’m half way, he’s an ant on the horizon, and by the time I arrive panting and sweating profusely at the bridge, he’s lounging on a wall eating grapes like a fluorescent Caesar. ‘Hey hey! You’ve made it; it’s nice, no? Now shall we race across the bridge?’

Meat and Crete

Crete corner

Descending back to Hora Sfakion is a joy of the kind that only comes from riding bicycles at speed. With Stavros picking the racing lines, and an almost total overview of the road below, I can throw myself into the descent. This one stretch has everything a cyclist could wish for. It’s long, steep, wide, with great views and wholly unbothered by traffic – a genuine playground.

Back down at sea level the wind is now against us, so we use this as an excuse to stop for lunch. And quite a lunch it turns out to be. In a whitewashed roadside restaurant, just a couple of plastic tables away from being someone’s house, we order up a plethora of meats, salads and artery clogging pastries. It’s just the kind of feed I’ve been looking forward to, made all the more enjoyable by the proprietor, a double-denimed, Kevin Keegan-permed Cretan who’d look more at home in the Greek music charts than as a gregarious restaurateur. To complete the magic, it turns out everything has been made by his wizened old mother in a kitchen that would barely serve as a galley on a small boat. We feast on the food, and the meal is rounded off with a bottle of homemade honeyed raki. Not quite the perfect diet for cyclists, but when in Crete…

Unsurprisingly the road for home now seems twice as long and twice as slow. I can’t decide if the food stop was the right choice, but I don’t have long to ponder because there is one more little surprise in store – a sharply rising climb that wends through the base of Kotsifou Gorge and back to the island’s interior, and our finish.

Crete chapel

It’s as stunning as anything I’ve seen all day – a thin slit in the mountainside caused by millennia of gushing water, the road elevated slightly above the waterline with a chapel carved into the foot of the gorge’s towering entrance. From the outside it’s a rustic yet ornate affair, quarried from the ruddy red and yellow local stone, with its main vestibule etched deep into the rock. Inside the scent of incense mingles with damp smelling air, wafting around the paintings of saints and other relics that adorn the walls. There’s an air of history and secrecy to the chapel, along with its rudimentary charm and indisputable beauty. In fact, the more I look at it, the more I can’t help thinking just how well this ancient place sums up the island it’s on: a picturesque if obvious façade from without; a trove of unseen riches from within. Crete has an abundance of hidden treasures and all you have to do to discover them is bring your bike. And possibly a spare seat collar.