Day 13 – Greece and Turkey
Like other towns and villages in Greece, Gazoros was patrolled at night by dogs. During my hour or so of sleep on my bench there I occasionally heard them barking and, occasionally, spotted one walking along the road. I was thankful that, off my bike, either as a pedestrian or a vagrant sleeping on a bench, they had no interest in me.
My short rest had got rid of my immediate doziness and, excited by approaching the latter stages, I was keen to get going. It was about 420km to the finish – likely to be beyond my range for that day (Thursday) – but I didn’t think things through far enough to realise that – I just wanted to press on, go as quickly as I could and get to the finish, that night if possible.
At the start I’d little idea how long it would take me to get to Canekkale but I’d booked two things – a flight for the coming Sunday and a hotel from the Thursday evening. It would not have been a problem to have missed either and re-booking would not have been expensive but having implicitly set the targets, I wanted to hit them by reaching Canekkale that night to claim my hotel.
I got moving before the sun was up. The first challenge was that, being warm from riding, I hadn’t bothered to put on leg warmers before sleeping, which I now regretted as my knees were protesting. Once I started to ride, they eased a bit. But a more general problem I was experiencing was that, by this stage in the ride, it was taking me a long time to warm up after a break that went over about 10 minutes and led my muscles to start to cool down. I was finding it would take a me about an hour to get back to the kind of fluid, comfortable riding that had been no problem before I stopped. On starting I developed a routine which commenced with trying to get my legs moving by pedalling in a high gear at a low cadence, standing up. After several minutes of this, I’d gingerly sit down on the saddle, wriggling around a bit to get comfortable, changing down a couple of gears and raising my cadence to get my legs moving a bit more fluently. Then, gradually over the next hour, I’d raise cadence, increase power and, eventually get back up to a normal cruising speed.
Just before the next village I spotted a figure with a bike at the side of the road and wondered who it might be. I was then greeted and chased a little by that village’s dogs, and rode on, ignoring them, only to hear them get much more excited a couple of minutes later. At that point I hesitated as my planned route towards the next large town, Kavala (which is on the coast) seemed to involve diverting onto a rough track. After a split second’s thought, I rejected it and decided to stick to the road I was on which seemed to be heading in broadly the right direction. The cause of the canine excitement then became apparent as Max caught me, complaining that I had woken the dogs up so that they were ready for him!
We chatted for a while before Max headed off in search of comforts such as breakfast and coffee, while I made do with chewing on another cream-filled croissant, then had a nap in a very comfortable bus shelter as the sun came up on what was to be a very warm day.
During the morning I noticed that the time on my phone was different to that on my Garmin. This puzzled me for a while but I then realised for the first time that Greek time was an hour further ahead and so my phone would have updated after the Macedonian border. Having realised this, I couldn’t quite work out what to do with the information and I found it easier to ignore the phone and its Greek time and stick with a combination of CET, as shown on my Garmin, and the sun, for my own purposes.
Kavala. Photo: http://www.skyscrapercity.com
Kavala turned out to be a quite a big town and very hilly, with narrow streets in a grid pattern which paid little attention to the profile of the hills, leading to some steep gradients once off the main road. My route tried to avoid having to descend all the way to sea level by cutting through some back streets. However, the narrow streets were mostly one way and my routing had got the direction of travel wrong on many of them so, after a few pointless charges up very steep ramps, I gave up and headed back to the coast. ‘Stay on the main road!’ repeated a little voice in my head, not for the first time.
By now it was very warm. On the way out of Kavala, while going quickly downhill on the main road I saw a collection of tents in the baking hot sun beside the road – a refugee camp. This reminded me that there were people facing much more serious and critical challenges than my entirely self-imposed one.
While searching for a picture of the camp, I came across a site with an interview with a refugee, which I found illuminating (and I’d be delighted if you also read it before continuing). The picture is from that site, taken by an unknown refugee.
Kavala refugee camp
A couple of minutes after, my back tyre felt soft so I stopped and discovered a puncture. I had one more tube so changed it by the side of the road, thankfully in some shade. As I was doing so a rider approached: Emily Chappell – who I had not seen since she passed me on the Col de Ceyssat about ten days earlier. I later learned that she had been a good bit ahead of me at the Durmitor control but had chosen a scenic but not very direct route through Alabania and lost time as a result. She kindly asked if I was ok as she passed.
A hot ride across northern Greece
The next few hours involved riding along a fairly flat dual carriageway – not very interesting cycling but pretty quick and with frequent shops and cafes. I made a couple of stops for water, drinking lots and also finding that, by the time I would get to my second bottle, it had warmed up so much as to be quite unpleasant to drink. I also grabbed an ice cream at each water stop for additional cooling and calories.
At this point I was particularly cursing my helmet, which I was wearing to comply with the rules of the event. In Northern Europe it hadn’t been much of an inconvenience – it was not heavy or uncomfortable so I could often forgot that I was wearing it – but in the Greek afternoon heat with temperatures in the high 30s, a block of polystyrene insulating material was not something I would normally choose to strap to my head.
Around the middle of the day, I left the dual carriageway, first for a smaller road, then for lanes. At one point, I was on a local road which ran beside the main motorway. Turning a corner, I was surprised to see a ford ahead of me. It looked ok, not too deep or too stony, so I rode through it. The far bank was quite steep and, changing down clumsily, I unshipped my chain, as a minibus followed me through the ford. I wheeled to the side of the road and bent down to put my chain back on and, as I did so, I felt some water splash over my head. Given the heat, this wasn’t the worst thing but it was a bit of a surprise! I looked back and stared at the driver of the minibus, but he was oblivious and drove off. Then I spotted a sprinkler in the adjacent field which had made the bit of road I was standing on wet, and all became clear.
The lanes which followed ran more or less parallel to the motorway towards Alexandroupoli. They rolled up and down gentle hills and snaked through some very quiet villages. Mostly they were deserted but I found a café in one for cold water and ice cream. The lanes were a pleasant change after the dual carriageway section but my speed suffered from the change in terrain.
As I neared Alexandroupoli, the hot afternoon became a warm evening. The road began to climb. It was a bigger hill than I was expecting and had a long false flat top, continuing to ascend for a couple of kilometres after I thought I’d reached the top. I felt this was unfair and cried out in despair: ‘how much higher?’ Some local cyclists, coming out from Alexandroupoli for evening rides, waved as they passed and I hoped they hadn’t heard.
With the heat, it had been a hard day and, for a second, the thought of resting in Alexandroupoli to allow me to finish the ride fresh in the morning passed through my head. However, I immediately realised that this was likely to mean another day of riding in heat, so dismissed the idea and, doing some quick sums, reckoned I would get to Canekkale by 7am if I rode through. I put in a call to the hotel to let them know I would be late.
Alexandroupoli to the Turkish border
Entering the city, I spotted a supermarket and dived in to stock up with food for the night. When I came out, with many cream-filled croissants and a few other delicacies, I was surprised how quickly the daylight had faded. As I was packing up to leave, Emily arrived, having clearly taken a slower route than me since passing me just after Kavala.
Alexandroupli was much bigger and busier than I had expected, with large streets, lots of dressed-up locals, cruising cars and loud music. By the time I left the other side, it was properly dark and, looking across the marshy bay to my right I thought I could see the lights of Turkey.
I was riding slowly, still not quite warmed up and also feeling tired. I considered resting in a bus shelter at the side of the road but, on stopping, found it full of mosquitos from the marshes. So I pressed on and, instead, made a couple of phone calls to help me stay awake. While I was chatting to my sister, Max passed me, followed a few minutes later by Emily.
At this point, the road was flat and straight so that, even when they were a couple of kilometres ahead, I could still see their back lights in the distance. Finishing my call, I was feeling stronger and dropped onto my aerobars to push my speed up. I noticed that I was catching Emily. A sign said something like 6km to the Turkish border. That gave me a target – to see if I could reach her before the border. I did, quite comfortably, as it turned out. As I slipped past, I saw that she was sitting very upright, being one of the few riders not to use aerobars. Passing Emily was more significant than it might have been as it was the first time since the neutralised laps around Geraardsbergen that I had overtaken another rider who was not stationary.
The border was quite an involved affair with three or four sets of people interested in my passport who were spread out over a kilometre or two. One soldier wanted a chat and was interested in what I was doing. A border policeman in his kiosk knew all about the race and said ‘you must be with Max’ who he must have spoken to a few minutes earlier.
I’d last been to Turkey in 1986, backpacking around central and eastern Anatolia. Subconsciously I was expecting a similar world to that which I remembered from 30 years ago but was surprised to see a smooth, wide road with lots of cars, indistinguishable from elsewhere in Europe.
Shortly after the border, the road started to climb and someone passed me. I was expecting it to be Emily, but it was Max, who had stopped for water at a hotel. We rode side-by-side up the climb, both attacking it and eager to finish. He revealed that he had a flight the next morning so had particular need to hurry so he pressed on ahead. I continued to attach the climbs, now feeling really strong and fresh. By this stage, I latched on to the idea that, if I did so, then I might be able to finish by 3am.
I reached Kesan where I took the final right turn for Canekkale. This stretch of road was even better – new, smooth black dual carriageway. It was probably the best stretch of road of the entire ride, exactly where I was not expecting to find it. I celebrated by riding as fast as I could, aiming for 3am.
A difficult and confusing night
After a couple of hours of this, inevitably, I started to tire. I knew there was one significant climb on the route and, as it approached, I started to fade, and wanted to stop to rest. But having expected country lanes through villages, I was now finding the wide dual carriageway disorienting. I walked some bits of the climb, not because it was steep, but to keep me awake. I wanted to get away from the road to be able to sleep in peace, but there was only what looked like dark forest at the side, which I didn’t want to head into in the middle of the night.
After a while I saw a building that I hoped might be a service station but, as I approached, it looked more like a military base with a helicopter parked outside I wasn’t fussy, so I went through the open gate, heading for a bench by a building. But a large, fierce looking dog told me in no uncertain terms to go away, so I retreated to the road, tail between my legs.
Shortly afterwards, I was at the top of the hill and started to descend. Normally this would be a good thing, but I knew I was too tired to be doing this. I remember two things: the red reflector markers by the side of the road were much larger than they should have been, and there were a series of ghostly figures walking along the road, with their backs turned, directly in front of me. I knew the ghosts were ghosts, and rode towards them, knowing they would disappear as I approached. But I was still seeing ghosts, which was not ideal.
Towards the bottom of the descent there was a service station set back from the road. I shot in, found a bench, lay down and fell asleep. I didn’t know at the time, but I’d done 330km for the day.
I woke maybe an hour or an hour and a half later. It was still dark. The first thing I noticed was that, as the previous night, being warm from riding, I hadn’t bothered to put on leg warmers before sleeping, which I now regretted as my knees were protesting.
I started riding, slowly, at a low cadence, trying to get my legs and my body warmed up, going at a fraction of the fluency, and speed, that I’d had before my rest.
A bigger problem was that my brain had also not properly got going and I was still operating partially in a dream. I debated with myself whether I had editorial control over what happened next and, specifically, whether it was necessary to ride the 80-or so km to the finish, or if I could just decide, as in a dream, to make that bit be over more quickly. At first I was very much of the latter view. I recall spending quite a bit of time walking, not because of hills but because there was little point riding if the end could be just round the corner. But, to my surprise, Canekkale, did not suddenly arrive and, slowly over the next couple of hours, it became more and more clear that I had no editorial control over the main geographical facts of my story but would have to ride my bike to where Canekkale was.
As I came to terms with this, I also realised that finishing at 3am was now out of the question so, listening to a wise voice in my head saying ‘set achievable goals’ I did some quick sums and revised my target back to 7am. I never quite clarified whether that meant 7am GMT, CET or local time, but that was not so important.
A wonderful morning
I plodded along for some time, but as the sun got up, I started to feel a bit better and the situation became a bit clearer. Then, I spotted sign for Gelibolu (Gallipoli), the departure point for the first of the three ferries. At the same time, Max came flying past me at high speed, shouting ‘You’re nearly there!’ I tried to follow Max, but by the time I was up to speed, he was two hills ahead and was soon out of sight.
I thought he might head for Gelibolu and debated if I should do the same. I had timetables for all the ferries in my bag but the effort of hunting them out and looking at them and working out which would be the best was too much, so I decided to just stick to my plan which was to go to the main ferry at Eceabat and take it.
I hadn’t realised how far it was from Gelibolu to Eceabat. Seeing a sign post which said it was 50km, I was rather dismayed as I’d fancied it should be a bit shorter. But, having been thoroughly woken up by the combination of Max and the sunrise, I was now riding well. And I acquired a new riding companion to keep me company – my shadow on the grass verge to my right. This was actually a great help. He was riding smoothly, at a very similar pace to me, sometimes darting ahead when the road turned to the right and falling back when it turned left, but always fairly close by. I admired his position on the aerobars. At one point I sat up and admit that I looked across to check that he did the same. Although always wishing it to finish, I enjoyed this final section – although there was still time to flirt with disaster just 10km before the end as I fell asleep momentarily while on my aerobars.
Eceabat finally arrived. I cut through the town, heading for the harbour. It was about 10 past seven, although in which time zone, I didn’t care enough to find out. I thought the ferry might leave at quarter past and made some attempts to get onto it. But people signalled to wait, so I found a bench in the sun and sat down, overjoyed that I’d finished. Alas, no-one was selling beer, but I found a cash machine and a man selling some kind of savoury bread rolls – so bought a couple and sat on my bench for 20 minutes or so as things gradually got busier.
Waiting for the ferry
Then the ferry arrived, I got on, parked my bike on the car deck and went upstairs to enjoy the views of the Dardenelles, and the warm breeze.
I’d thought the race was over once I’d reached the ferry terminal but I’d failed to read the small print! When the ferry docked, I looked down and saw that Emily, having caught the same ferry, was on the car deck, by the exit, ready to be amongst the first off. If I’d managed to get off the ferry at the same time as her, I’d have been placed in front. But as I was stuck upstairs behind a queue of people it took me several minutes to get down the narrow stairs then navigate through impatient cars to retrieve my bike before travelling the last couple of hundred yards to the clock tower, where the race officially finished, my advantage in getting to the ferry terminal first did not count.
However, Emily is a far stronger rider than me, and would have finished perhaps a day sooner if she had followed a better route, so I can’t complain. Too much!
At the line, Stuart handed me a most welcome beer. His ever-present support crew, Mal and Scherrit were also there having made a surprise visit to see him in so I chatted to them for a while. I got my card stamped with my finishing time, and then felt very sleepy. The hotel was 20 paces away and I slept in reception while they got my room ready before sleeping again for most of the day, extremely happy to have reached my destination.
Of the others I’d met on the ride, I learned that Max had made his ferry and had already left for his flight when I finished. Most impressively, Urs had managed to finish the previous night, as he – and I – had both been aiming to when we were back in Montenegro. Karl ended up finishing later, having gone for a strategic move in the mountains near Alexandroupoli and, instead of a short-cut, had found rough tracks that broke his wheel. And I met Jack the following day at the sauna (along with his father, a round-the-world-cyclist who came over for the finish), who revealed he’d had a rough time in Croatia but recovered to finish a few hours before me.
The final day had been the most difficult. Others I spoke to after the ride said the same thing, including Emily, who mentioned similar states of confusion and even Kristoff Allagaert, the race winner. Why was it so hard? Mainly tiredness: the desire to complete led to me missing out on sleep. And the heat in Greece had also been a factor.
When the ride was fresh in my mind, I wrote down the following thoughts which are probably the best summary.
- The phrase that came into my head to describe this was ‘ the adventure of a lifetime’. That’s my best five-word summary
- The last bit was the hardest, the 190km from Alexandroupoli. Did it through night. Started off slowly, then thought I’ll blast it, and did for a while but got sleepy. Slept a bit, woke up and couldn’t quite accept the situation. Thought I was in a dream and had editorial control over what happened. Gradually realised I wasn’t and the only way out was to ride further, not to just wake up. So blasted the last 60km, in the morning sunshine, helped by great company from my shadow, who emerged when the sun got up (ok, you look like you have a great position on that bike but where were you all night when I really needed you for company?)
- Turkish road infrastructure has come on a but since I I last here in 1989 (best roads of of whole ride were in Turkey). And t country is obviously more prosperous than in those days. Need to think if there are any post-EU lessons from Turkey for the UK.
- Next hardest was the Croatian coast with hurricane-force cross winds. Got blown off twice, walked some bits, couldn’t walk at times and was very scary trying to handle bike on busy road.
- The big Alpine passes were ok. Mostly I fitted them in at night so didn’t see much, but just spun up them with very low gears (one lie in there – I ground up them slowly with very low gears!)
- Main lessons I learned were about how little you need – it was less than I thought. Things like needing to clean your teeth, change your shorts or eat at regular times get stripped away to reveal a more simple purpose. It feels empowering.
- Dogs. Essentially there are packs of strays. If one wants to bite you he will – you have no control. You can’t outride them. Generally they don’t so best just to ignore them.
- I never want to see another cream-filled croissant again. Ever.