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Jewel of the Med: Rhodes Big Ride

In-depth
15 Jul 2021
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Looking for a late-summer escape? Where better than a Greek island with no traffic, tough climbs and views of the Med?

Words: Trevor Ward Photography: Patrik Lundin

The shadows are lengthening as we approach the cream-coloured concrete struts of an arched bridge across a dried-up riverbed.

Despite being in the middle of nowhere and carrying nothing more significant than a farm track, the bridge is a local landmark, its distinctive geometric design dating back to the 1930s when the island of Rhodes was part of Italy’s colonial empire.

A moped is buzzing towards us from the opposite side of the bridge. As we get closer, it stops and the rider flags us down. He and his female pillion passenger are, appropriately, Italian tourists. In faltering English he points to his map and asks if they are on the right road for the Gadoura Dam.

My co-rider and island resident, Dave Richardson, shakes his head. Despite the promising trajectory of that dotted line on their map they need to turn around and rejoin the main road. With a cheery ‘Ciao!’ they disappear in a cloud of dust.

When they sit down for dinner later and review their day, they’ll probably remember the two charming cyclists they met on that beautiful bridge at dusk and wish that they too had hired a pair of road bikes and had a proper adventure under their own steam.

‘It looked like great fun,’ they’ll agree, ‘even if one of them did look as though he’d been dragged backwards through an olive grove by a herd of goats and then beaten up by the shepherd.’

That would have been me. Today has not been the easiest of rides. It hasn’t just been the distance, nearly 140km, nor the climbs – few of the 2,000 metres we’ve ascended have been at a gradient of less than 10%.

Nor has it been the heat, which has nudged 30°C for most of the day, but rather my unease today is down to a severe flare-up of ‘hot foot’, a kind of cyclists’ gout but without the port and cigars, which has made pedalling feel like stamping on razor blades.

Now, as the setting sun turns the arid landscape a fiery amber, there are just a few kilometres to the end of the ride. It can’t come soon enough.

Rewind to this morning and no sooner have we turned right out of our holiday home in the village of Masari on the island’s east coast than we’re forced out of the saddle.

As the buildings disappear behind us, the road keeps rising without respite for the next 9km at a gradient that rarely dips below double figures. It is as sudden and brutal a start to the day as being kicked out of bed by a buffalo.

On the plus side, the road is wide and empty the whole way up and its surface consistently as smooth as glass.

‘It was just a dirt track until they tarmacked it 10 years ago,’ says Dave. On the debit side, all the views are behind us and the temperature at nine o’clock in the morning is already in the mid-20s.

Signs of life

I’m torn between attempting to leave my mark on the Strava leaderboard and spinning up conservatively, knowing there is a long day ahead.

In the end, it’s the mountain that decides for me, pummelling me into submission with a succession of bright red ‘10%’ warning signs that barely hint at the true savagery of the gradient.

‘No matter how steep the climbs are, the signs always say 10%,’ says Dave, doing nothing to rescue me from my personal hell. ‘We think the island bought a job lot of them. Whenever you see one, you can safely assume the gradient is much worse.’

I would give my left leg for just a few inches of false flat right now, but around every bend I’m confronted by the sight of the road snaking ever higher. By the time we finally reach the top I’m sick to death of this stretch of tarmac.

Even looking back down to the coast and seeing the height we’ve gained doesn’t dim the pain. It has been an hour since I finished my Coco Pops and we’ve travelled less than 10km. I already feel broken.

We’re now on a plateau in the middle of the island and have 8km to recuperate before the village of Eleousa. Here, the central square with its towering fir trees is surrounded by ghostly ruins.

On one side is a fading pink and cream façade of arches and wrought-iron balconies that once housed a marketplace. Diagonally opposite are the remains of a sanatorium once used to quarantine patients suffering from tuberculosis.

Both buildings date back to the 1930s when the village was home to Italian forestry workers sent to cultivate this distant outpost of Mussolini’s empire. (You wouldn’t need to quarantine anyone nowadays, right?)

The sense of history is shattered by the arrival of a hire car laden with tourists. It’s the first traffic we’ve seen since leaving Masari and a reminder that beyond the peace and tranquillity of these wooded mountain slopes is a world of beach resorts and package holiday tourists.

We leave the village and gradually begin descending towards the west coast of the island, which, Dave assures me, is the less populated side.

Dave has lived on Rhodes since moving from his hometown of Glasgow six years ago to set up his bike hire business, Get Active Rhodes. As we approach the junction with the coast road, he gives me a salutary tale about the behaviour of the island’s drivers, particularly in relation to roundabouts.

‘I was once sitting outside the bar in my village where there’s a small roundabout, and a truck with a donkey in the back came through,’ he says. ‘He took the roundabout too fast and the donkey came flying out the back without the driver realising.

‘A few minutes later the truck came back and the driver asked us if anyone had seen his donkey. We pointed him to some bushes. The donkey had tried to make a run for it but was absolutely fine.’

Blowing in the wind

We turn onto the coast road and into a fierce headwind. There are a few more cars on this stretch of tarmac than we’ve been used to up in the mountains but, apart from the occasional beach bar and semi-naked figure stretched out on a sun lounger, the level of tourism in these parts appears a million miles away from the high-rise resorts further north.

To our right the turquoise of the Aegean Sea shimmers seductively. The temptation of stopping for a cooling dip during a ride always brings out mixed feelings in me, and not just because of the potentially painful consequences of getting saltwater in my bibshorts.

I recall the fate of French rider Adolphe Héliere who, on a rest day in Nice during the 1910 Tour, was stung by a jellyfish while swimming in the Mediterranean and secured his place in history as the Tour de France’s first ever fatality.

So I ignore the beach bars with such irresistible names as ‘Sunset Beach’ and ‘Romantic Moments’ and concentrate on the task in hand, which will shortly mean tackling what Dave tells me is one of the longest climbs on the island.

At the foot of the climb to Kritinia Castle we stop to refill our water bottles at a cafe. Sitting outside is a couple who appear to have dressed themselves in a room without mirrors. I correctly surmise they must be British tourists.

‘Are you heading up there?’ asks the man suspiciously. ‘Do you know how long it is? I don’t think you’ll make it.’

Later, when he and his wife are reviewing their day over the all-you-can-eat buffet at their hotel, they’ll probably say, ‘The castle was nice, wasn’t it? But what about those two idiots on bikes? In this heat? I bet they never made it up there. Especially that one who looked as though he’d fallen down a mountain and landed in a thorn bush.’

Spurred on by their words of encouragement, we clip in and click down through our gears. One consequence of the road tilting upwards is that the headwind seems to lessen. Swings and roundabouts.

It’s another attritional ascent, the kind where even the views of distant islands floating in an azure haze or a 500-year-old castle peeking above a canopy of trees can’t extinguish that inner, existential torment that makes every kilometre feel as though it’s taking an hour to complete.

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Reaching the village of Kritinia and the dirt track that leads to its eponymous castle feels like a triumph of sorts, even though we are only halfway up the 10km climb. We pull into a layby and I slump over the bars, barely able to pull a water bottle out of its cage to my parched lips.

There’s a brief stretch of flat before the road starts rising again, the gradient never dipping below 6% until we finally reach the top. It’s at this point – almost exactly halfway through the ride – that the sole of my right foot starts to hurt.

As fellow martyrs to ‘hot foot’ – or metatarsalgia to give it its medical name – will know, when I say ‘starts to hurt’ I mean ‘becomes engulfed by the flames of Hell’.

Call of the Classics

Dave assures me that the hardest climbs of the day are behind us and that after lunch it will be mostly downhill. He doesn’t, however, specify how long it will be until lunch. I decide it’s best not to ask. Instead I grit my teeth and clip back in.

The answer to the unasked question turns out to be 25km of rugged, undulating plateau. It’s like the parcours of a sun-drenched spring Classic, and it’s no surprise to learn that hardman Fabian Cancellera forged his reputation on this very terrain when he won back-to-back editions of the Tour of Rhodes at the start of his professional career in 2001 and 2002.

By now we have left the coast and headwind behind us and are traversing the flanks of the island’s highest mountain, the 1,200m Ataviros. We turn right before the village of Agios Isidoros and swoop down a serpentine stretch of flawless asphalt that writhes and pitches benignly between hillsides and thickets of olive trees.

Some of the trees have been bent almost double by the wind that blows in off the Aegean. Two solid white lines running down the centre of the road imply that this is a vital traffic artery, yet we won’t see another vehicle for several hours.

We’re almost at the lunch stop when Dave goes and spoils it all by saying, ‘There’s a 100m section of road with a gradient of 20% coming up.’

A tell-tale ‘10%’ warning sign confirms his grim prognosis. Those 100 metres feel like 100 years as I wrestle my bike up them trying to pedal with just one foot.

When we finally reach the restaurant in the village of Profilia, I have to slump against a wall before I can begin disentangling myself from my bike. Then I want to collapse and burst into tears as I see the steep stairway that leads up to the restaurant terrace.

Instead, I pull off my shoes before tiptoeing gingerly to our table. I can almost hear the whispers of the other diners: ‘Wow, they’ve come here by bike! I’d like to say it looks like fun, but that man crawling on his bloody stumps looks in urgent need of medical attention.’

I eke out every second I’m sat in the shade, making my beer, Greek salad, calamari and pitta bread last as long as possible to give the soles of my poor, persecuted feet a chance to recover.

We’ve been riding for nearly five hours and I feel I could happily sit here and continue drinking beer for another five.

Homeward bound

The final downhill stretch to the coast is on fast, empty roads. The only hazards are sidewind gusts and goats suddenly appearing from the undergrowth. We turn onto the coast road with a cross/tailwind that offers intermittent assistance.

To escape a noticeably busier flow of traffic we divert onto a minor road that threads past the various low-rise villas and beach resorts that punctuate this side of the island. After six hours and 100km of gloriously empty landscape, it seems strange to be riding along a bustling seafront with its shop window clutter of surfboards, inflatables, towels and swimsuits.

This continues until we run out of beach and have to rejoin the main road for the final obstacle of the day, a stiff 3km climb that delivers us to a busy highway linking the popular tourist village of Lindos with the island’s capital, Rhodes Town.

We are on this for just a few kilometres before turning onto the home straight, a little-used gravel track that services an olive grove.

This not only avoids 15km of heavy traffic but also takes us over the beautiful Italian bridge just as the sun is sinking behind the mountains we have spent the day negotiating. On the other side of the island they’ll be serving cocktails on ‘Sunset Beach’ right about now.

Back in Masari, we order some beers at our local taverna and raise our glasses to what has been a long and challenging day. But anyone passing would think, ‘Wow, those two look like they’ve had a great day, especially that one smiling as if he’s just won the lottery.’

Colossus of roads

Follow our route to the island’s unexplored heart

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/104rhodes. From Masari on the east coast follow the mountain road towards Platania and then Eleousa. Turn left at the village square to Soroni, then left to Kalavarda. Once there, turn right and when you reach the coast road, turn left. After about 20km the road starts climbing towards Kritinia.

At the top, follow the signs for Agios Isidoros and turn left at a junction that is not signposted. Just before the village turn right to Profilia and continue down to Vati and Gennadi, where you turn left onto the coast road. About 3km before Kiotari, turn right onto a minor coastal road and follow this until it rejoins the main road.

Bear left at the big roundabout (direction Rhodes Town) and after 3km look out for a minor turning down a farm track on your left. Follow this over the Italian arch bridge and back to Masari.

Food and drink

A culinary odyssey by the sea

Greece really is the word when it comes to food. Rhodes has plenty of fresh fish, so look out for chtapodokeftedes, like meatballs made from octopus, and psaria marinata, any fresh fish marinated in wild rosemary then fried.

Then like lots of Greek islands, Rhodes also does a fine line in meatier things, from lakani, which is goat or veal cooked in a clay pot, to karavoloi giachnist, something the French would have you call escargot.

For the truly authentic Rhodes afternoon, set yourself in the shade of a taverna’s awning, order a crisp Magnus Magister beer (which is brewed here on Rhodes) and tuck into a basket of pitaroudia, the ubiquitous chickpea fritters served with onion and tomato relish.

If you have one too many you’re never far from a cheeky gyros, effectively a kebab only healthier, and if it’s a Wednesday or a Saturday and you fancy something sweet, take a stroll to the Agios Dimitios market and seek out fanouropita cake, a traditional sweet dedicated to Saint Fanourios, which it’s said will help you find whatever is lost, even your cycling dignity.

The rider’s ride

Genesis Zero Team 2015, £2,300 (2020 price), genesisbikes.co.uk

Here’s a bike to bring a lump to your throat. This Genesis Zero Team harks back to the days when the manufacturer had its own pro team, the British Continental squad Madison-Genesis, and it proudly displays the team colours on the frame.

Sadly the team is no more, having folded at the end of the 2019 season, but the Zero continues to offer a pretty decent carbon race bike at a very reasonable price.

I hired this bike from my hosts at Get Active Rhodes, and I was immediately reminded what a solid performer it is. The Zero was launched in 2014 specifically to meet the demands of a pro team that needed a lightweight racer, having been racing on the brand’s steel Volare bikes up to that point. Oddly, when you consider its original purpose, its outstanding feature is how comfortable it is – far from the ultra-stiff race machine you would expect.

For me, that was perfect. It coped admirably with the terrain around Rhodes, all while being remarkably forgiving over a long day in the saddle. I have zero complaints.

Shop Genesis' whole bike range now on Freewheel

How we did it

Travel

Check with fco.gov.uk for latest official travel advice. With Rhodes a popular package tour destination there is usually no shortage of direct flights from a range of UK airports. The island is expected to extend this year’s season until at least the end of October. A taxi from Rhodes airport to Masari will cost €50-60.

Check flights to Rhodes now on Skyscanner

Accommodation

Our stay in the quiet inland village of Masari was arranged through Dave Richardson at Get Active Rhodes, which organises cycling holidays and bike hire. In October and November of this year and April/May of 2021, Dave is offering the option of villa accommodation near the pretty seaside village of Lindos (close to our Big Ride route) and guided rides. See getactiverhodes.com for details.

Check for places to stay in Masari now on Booking.com

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 (cheaper for longer rentals), including delivery to and collection from your hotel.

Dave will set up the bike for you and can offer a choice of gearing options and female-specific saddles. For an extra charge he 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 and patient guide, especially when I was in the murky depths of my ‘hot foot’ suffering. Thanks also to Jane Martin, who drove our photographer and kept us topped up with cold drinks.