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Colossus of Rhodes: Big Ride Rhodes

In-depth
27 Jan 2020
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Away from the sunloungers and nightclubs, the Greek island of Rhodes offers some remarkably testing climbs

Words Trevor Ward Photography Patrik Lundin

We are approaching the most fearsome section of the climb to one of the highest villages on the Greek island of Rhodes: six steep hairpins packed into a corkscrew of tarmac barely a kilometre long. ‘It’s the island’s Alpe d’Huez,’ says my co-rider, Dave Richardson.

The olive groves and soaring cypress trees dotting the roadside lend the scene a benign air. Above them, however, looms the imposing bulk of Ataviros, the highest mountain on the island at 1,200m and a reminder that the services of all available sprockets will soon be required.

There will be no shortage of challenging climbs on today’s ride. We shall also pass sacred monasteries, medieval castles and sites of classical antiquity. It will therefore be something of an anti-climax when we end up in the car park of a modern nightclub on the side of a busy main road. This will be largely down to a misunderstanding with Dave, who used to promote dance DJs in his home town of Glasgow.

‘I used to put them on at the Riverside Club every Saturday night after the ceilidh had finished,’ he says. ‘I had 15 minutes to get rid of the whisky-drinking crowd, set up the equipment and get the club punters in for a night of house, techno and trance. I often got ceilidh fans asking if they could stay for the DJs.’

I presume it was his clubbing background that brought him to Rhodes five years ago, when resorts such as Faliraki were infamous for their rave scenes. But I’m wrong. Dave emerged from the darkness and sticky carpets of his weekly ‘Fusion’ night to embrace cycling as the new rock and roll.

After stints as a croupier and home hi-fi installer, he came out to the island to set up his bike hire business, Get Active Rhodes, and has seen his handful of mountain bikes grow to a fleet of high-quality road machines.

I’m riding one of these now, grateful for its generous 11-34 gearing as we arrive at the first of those six hairpins, which have been taunting us from a distance for what seems like an eternity under the blazing Aegean sun.

Leaving the bustle behind

Today’s ride starts with a ‘transition stage’ of 10km down Rhodes’ eastern coast road that is busy with day-trippers heading for the pretty, whitewashed village of Lindos (which we shall see from a safe distance later).

When we turn right onto a quiet, deserted road to head inland, Dave promises we’ll hardly see any more traffic. The beer-bellied, full English breakfast brigade that Rhodes still attracts to many of its beach resorts rarely venture this far from their sunbeds, he assures me.

It’s easy to see why. We’re at the foot of one of the longest climbs on the island, an 11km haul to the village of Laerma that is punctuated with savage bursts of double-digit gradients. It’s a rude awakener for so early in a ride.

On the plus side, only one other vehicle has passed us by the time we reach Laerma and I’m relishing the long stretch of downhill that now unfurls before us. But Dave goes and spoils it all by saying, ‘When we get to the bottom, the hardest part starts.’

It seems we have another 10km of climbing to do – including those half-dozen hairpins – before arriving at the highest point of today’s route. Dave reckons the inner camber of the steepest hairpin nudges 20% in gradient, so it seems prudent to take the widest route around each corner. Fortunately there is no problem with oncoming traffic as there hasn’t been any since leaving Laerma.

Even in between my desperate gulps for air I am able to appreciate the geometric beauty of this ascent. It may only be a fraction of the length of its more famous Alpine and Pyrenean cousins, but it ticks all the right boxes.

Perfectly engineered curves and road surface? Check. ‘It was laid only five years ago and hardly anyone uses it,’ says Dave. Great views? Check. From the final bend I can see the preceding hairpins stacked beneath me like a pile of doughnuts.

In the distance, the road we have just ridden along fades in the heat haze like a squiggle from a Biro that has run out of ink.

Lack of traffic? Check. And it’s not just motorised traffic. Unlike on other islands such as Mallorca and Tenerife, there are no industrial-scale pelotons of cyclists here. We’ll see only one other rider during the entire day.

There’s one more steep ramp before the gradient slackens and we arrive on a false flat. It’s here we find a wooden shack in a layby with a sign proclaiming ‘Achilles Kiosk’.

It’s not even midday in early September but the temperature is already heading towards 30°C so I’m ready for a cold drink and some shade.

I order a Coke and grab a handful of nuts coated in sesame seeds and honey from a bowl on the counter before Achilles offers us a complimentary Greek coffee.

I’m wary, as my previous experiences of coffee this far east of Hull have often resembled drinking treacle, but Achilles assures us it will be ‘the best’, holding up the small gas stove he uses to brew it – ‘You have to heat it slowly, and only on a small fire like this’ – and promising he won’t put much sugar in it. He’s as good as his word and my cuppa hits the spot.

Achilles, who it transpires is a 71-year-old retired bus driver, would be an asset to any hipster cycling cafe back in the UK, although I suspect he prefers his life harvesting olives and selling the oil to the occasional passing motorist high on a hill on an island in the middle of the Aegean Sea.

We bid him farewell and continue our climb to the village of Agios Isidoros.

Thanks a bunch

On the way, we pass a pick-up truck parked on the edge of a vineyard. The driver is in the back and offers us a bunch of grapes with a cheery ‘Yassou!’. They are sweet and refreshing, a succulent advert for Rhodes’ wines, which, we will discover during the course of tonight’s dinner, are extremely palatable.

Agios Isidoros is a colourful jumble of churches, tavernas, houses and narrow streets, all of which appear completely deserted, a scene totally at odds with the island’s coastal resorts that are rammed with sunseekers from May to October.

The road now starts gradually descending. We are on the southern flanks of Ataviros and have sweeping views to the west, where clouds are starting to bubble up over Rhodes’ second-highest peak, Akramitis. We join the road that runs the length of the island’s sparsely populated west coast and continue descending to the village of Monolithos.

We should veer left, but Dave suggests we continue straight on for a kilometre so he can show us what the village is famous for. The road takes us down one side of a narrow promontory giving extensive views of a turquoise sea and, perched on a fat pillar of rock sprouting from dense forest, the remains of Monolithos Castle.

Dave says that if we follow the road all the way down, we’ll arrive at the foot of a set of steps leading up to the castle, which was built by the Crusader Knights of St John in the 15th century.

‘But we’d have to come back the same way and it’s pretty steep,’ he says. So, after taking some photographs from our current viewpoint, we agree it’s time for lunch.

We arrive ravenous in the crossroads village of Apolakkia. As I take a slug from my water bottle in the village square, I see a woman waving at me. I assume she has mistaken me for someone else so turn away.

There she is again! OK, it’s not the same woman, but a living facsimile – elderly, smiling, drowning in petticoats and waving a restaurant menu, beckoning me with a downward swooping motion of her free hand.

Feeling slightly awkward, I turn my gaze in a third direction. Sure enough, there’s another old woman, her face a pile of wrinkles and teeth, trying to lure me in.

In Greek mythology, sirens were creatures who used music and singing to lure sailors to inevitable shipwreck on rocky shores. These modern-day temptresses are trying to distract a pair of cyclists from their journey with glossy photos of chicken souvlaki and chips.

Dave and I have a big decision to make. If we walk over to one to check out the menu, it would be a commitment that would be very hard to backtrack from. If we don’t like what we see, we risk humiliating the menu-bearer by walking over to one of her rivals.

In the end, we opt for the only restaurant advertising ‘Free Wi-Fi’. The moussaka is fine, the beer cold and I’m able to post photos of the restaurant’s clowder of cats on Instagram.

The rest of the descent down to the coast is depressing. The road surface is perfectly smooth, traffic is light and the views to the glittering sea and pink-tinged cliffs are wonderful.

No, it’s the wasteful shedding of every metre of altitude that’s making me miserable because Dave has warned that we have another long and steep climb coming up any minute now.

The turn off is signposted for the Skiadi Monastery, 4km uphill, but we’ll be climbing an extra 5km beyond that, from sea level to an altitude of almost 400m.

The first test is a tightly coiled hairpin. By the time we’ve wrestled our bikes around it, we’ve ascended above the treeline and have extensive views back down to the coast.

Then the road snakes its way upwards through the wild vegetation, including several trees that have been bent almost horizontal by the strong winds that regularly buffet this remote region of the island.

Today, the wind is in our favour, providing some consolation as we repeatedly heave ourselves out of the saddle to deal with yet another sudden lurch in gradient. The final and steepest bend delivers us into the car park of the monastery.

Cleats defeated

I unceremoniously dump my bike against a wall and head for a bench currently occupied by a preening black and white cat. It looks on with disdain as I collapse beside it.

After conquering Rhodes’ mini-version of Alpe d’Huez earlier, I now feel as though I’m on its Ventoux – and I’m not even halfway up it yet.

Eventually I haul myself up and click-clack into the monastery, a beautiful, pastel-coloured courtyard containing a small chapel where the floor – a roughly hewn mosaic of pebbles resembling a one-star secteur from Paris-Roubaix – finally defeats my cleats and I have no excuse not to clip back into my pedals and get the final part of the climb over with.

Most visitors turn around and head back down the way they came, as the car park appears to be a dead end. But Dave leads me to the far end, where an unpaved section of road exits the car park, eventually turns to tarmac and, after a brief descent, resumes its cruel upward trajectory. ‘There’s a 20% section near the top,’ he says. ‘It only lasts for about 100m, and once over that we’ve cracked it.’

The thought of this impending obstacle weighs heavily on me, so I distract myself with the spectacular views out to sea and by trying to avoid plunging over the sheer drop to my right.

The final ramp is indeed a brute, but the descent all the way down to the opposite side of the island is ample recompense. Apart from a short but inevitably steep ramp to the village of Lachania, it’s 15km of unbridled joy along a succession of ridges and rugged plateaus. The occasional slap from side-winds and the sudden appearances of goats from out of the undergrowth are reminders to stay focussed, however. 

Hang the DJ

The crosswinds remain with us all the way up the coast until we turn off to skirt the famous village of Lindos, a labyrinth of narrow, traffic-free alleys and whitewashed buildings, most of which have been turned into shops, bars or rooftop restaurants. We only discover this when we return here for dinner later, as the narrow, cobbled, tourist-filled streets make cycling impossible.

‘We’ll get great views from the Amphitheatre,’ says Dave as we follow the road around the headland. Alas, what I’m expecting to be a site of historic and archaeological significance turns out to be a modern white building with a poster of DJ John Digweed on its wall.

‘Sorry, I should have said, the Amphitheatre is a nightclub,’ apologises Dave, betraying his past promoting DJs to the ghostly denizens of Glasgow’s clubbing scene.

The views from the car park, however, are impressive. As well as Lindos and its harbour where several millionaires’ superyachts are moored – ‘Amazon boss Jeff Bezos was here last month on a yacht with two helipads,’ says Dave – we get a great view of the imposing hilltop Acropolis that is only accessible on foot or by donkey (there’s a ‘Donkey Station’ in the village).

The final 10km along the same stretch of bustling coastal road where we started the day are like a gradual immersion back into the 21st century, with streams of taxis, mopeds, hire cars and tourist buses overtaking us.

The mountains, monasteries, castles and cats of Rhodes’ rugged interior seem a million miles and hundreds of years removed. It’s pleasantly reassuring to know that, in fact, they are just a bike ride away.

The roads of Rhodes

Follow Cyclist’s route to the heart of the island

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/94rhodes. From Masari join the main coast road to Lindos. Bear right to Lardos, then Laerma. Head to Agios Isidoros, then on towards Sianna and Monolithos.

Bear left to Apolakkia along the coast road until a turn-off on your left signposted for the Skiadi Monastery. Here, the road continues on the other side of the car park to the summit. Bear left towards Mesanagros and descend via Lachania on to the coast road. Turn left for Rodos, then right for Lindos. Go up and around a headland before rejoining the main road back to Masari.

How we did it

Travel

Rhodes is a popular package tour destination so there is no shortage of direct flights from the UK, although usually only between April and October. A taxi from the airport to Masari or Haraki will cost €50-60.

Accommodation

Our stay in the quiet village of Masari was arranged through Dave Richardson at Get Active Rhodes. From next year (2020), he will offer a choice of villas for six to 12 people near the pretty village of Lindos on our route. See getactiverhodes.com for details.

Bikes

Get Active Rhodes offers a range of road bikes for hire. A carbon Genesis Zero – the bike we rode – costs from €35 per day (or cheaper for longer rentals), including delivery to and pick-up from your hotel.

Dave will set up the bike for you and can offer a choice of gearing options. For an extra charge Dave will provide a Garmin preloaded with routes from your hotel (including our Big Ride if you wish). 

Thanks

Dave Richardson at Get Active Rhodes was a knowledgeable, patient and generous guide. He also came to my rescue by loaning me a pair of cycling shoes. Thanks also to Jane Martin for driving our photographer and keeping us topped up with drinks, and to Jet2.com for helping rearrange our flights at short notice.

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