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Cycling Heaven in Crete's quiet mountains

Let’s start at the end shall we?

As we were leaving Crete the X-ray machine operator looked puzzled as she accepted Scott’s bike box and was genuinely surprised when her screen revealed the disassembled bike inside. ‘’Never seen one of these before’ she told us.

Definitely not something you’d hear from baggage handlers on Majorca, but Crete is an altogether different proposition at the moment for cyclists - and unless you like the camaraderie of other cyclists all the differences are positive in Crete’s favour. In fact, for most of our cycling time in the mountains we felt like the only people out and about let alone the only cyclists but across 5 days of stunning cycling we never saw another roadie.

In Summary (still doing this whole backwards thing) our top 10 things to love about Crete are:

1) Quiet Roads. Not just quiet, but really, really, really quiet. On a 12km climb on day 4 we had only 3 cars pass us, on our last day crossing the mountain plateau we only saw 1 car in nearly 20km of serene cycling.

2) Stunning scenery and testing terrain. Legend has it that Greek gods were born on Crete and that it was their playground. We can only surmise therefore that they were rambunctious toddlers as the island has been battered and twisted by some serious forces that have given rise to soaring peaks and plunging, twisting valleys and gorges. It’s not flat!!

3) Great road surfaces. Without wishing to give euro sceptics any ammunition the EU has been generous to Crete. Moan all you want, but if your viewpoint is ‘that’s our money’ then best you get out there and enjoy it.

4) Courteous drivers. Where possible we avoid main roads but sometimes you need to throw a stretch or two into a route. The ‘main roads’ in Crete are only that because they join up bigger towns and are a bit wider. Whilst you’ll encounter more traffic they are still pleasurable to ride on and the drivers give you loads of room – in most cases swinging to the other side of the road to give you as much space as possible. Additionally, should you have a major mechanical there’ll be a pick up along sooner or later that’ll respond to a raised thumb and smile. Even for men in Lycra!!

5) Sun. April temperatures were about 20-22C and we needed the factor 30. You’ll get a bit more wind in April and early May but a bit of headwind is great for early season strengthening right? Deep rims might test you on downhills though!! Generally speaking April, May, June, September and October are great for cycling.

6) Great food especially fresh fish. From the simple tavernas up in the mountains to the harbour restaurants in Makri Gialos serving fish just off the family boat we never had a bad meal. The owners are genuinely happy to advise and show off their fresh produce before you buy.

7) Friendly people. Some things you just can’t fake.

8) Greek coffee in tiny mountain hamlets. How can a small cup of gritty brown stuff taste so wrong but so right? Personally I think it’s a miracle and a wonder and I wouldn’t touch one over here, but with a bit of ache in the legs and the sun overhead they are just what you need.

9) Cheese Pies. Cheese bloody Pies. As a man who rates Pork Pie and Mushy Pies in his all time top 5 meals I may be an easy target but there’s a small Taverna in Zakros that does wondrous things with fluffy pastry, soft cheese and a bit of Fennel. Even better, when the lack of any common language means we sign that we want two and get 5. Each! For about a quid!!

10) Snakes. Or to be truthful Scott’s reaction to seeing snakes. Now bear in mind that the ones on Crete are non-venomous, pretty small and usually only seen as roadkill but on our first evening’s ride we did come across a live one. Working pretty hard on a 10% slope Scott suddenly exclaimed ‘Shit, that’s a snake’. Now, picture Contador’s acceleration during the Chaingate incident. Good dig that from Bertie but I reckon Scott would have outstripped his effort by a wide margin.  Meanwhile I nearly fell off from laughing so much.

So, if you can't be arsed reading about cycling I've done you a favour and you can finish now. If you do however want to hear about some of the best cycling ever then read on Mcduff....

Our base in the south east of the Island, Makri Gialos, is a steady 2 hour drive from Heraklion airport although we added another 20 minutes on as we had a short (2 mile) detour to pick up a hire bike from Martinbike (see footnote). This is a hassle free transfer and serves to whet the appetite as you catch countless glimpses of winding mountain roads on one side and the shimmering turquoise blue of the Med to the other.

With wives testing the pool it didn't take us long to set up the bikes and negotiate with them time for a quick ride to check all nuts and bolts were tightened correctly. We turned left out of the villa and warmed up for all of 50 metres before turning uphill. Thirty seven minutes later we’ve climbed 700 metres, one of us had S**t himself and the other one had broken a rib from laughing so much (see snakegate above) and we’d run out of upward road. Gazing back down the route to the sea below we began to suspect we may be in for some brilliant cycling.

Day 2

A half day ride starts on the ‘flat’ coastal road towards Ierpetra that had enough short climbs to get us nicely warmed up. The road passed several holiday villages and decent hotels that suggested there were some nice beaches hiding away below us although we only saw the breakers when the road snaked up, down and around rocky bays. These inclines and the steady headwind were enough to keep us honest and working at a nice pace so we soon got to the first climb of the day. Taking a right at Koutsaranis the previous nights first impressions were quicly being reinforced – good road surface, little or no traffic of any description and a gem of a climb that wriggles it’s uneven way up the valley side. Our guess is that road engineers here were not concerned with giving users an even gradient to tackle – you get whatever the landscape throws at you and in the same way that the farmers and olive growers cultivate wherever they can, the road builders just went with the flow. Little dips will be followed by a sharp 20% kicker, with some gentle 6% to follow. In short, you’ll rarely get a consistent rhythm going but you won’t care. If you like up, you’ll love Cretan roads.

From 2km out we could see our first target of Agios Ionnas and would nearly have cycled straight through had we not been cheerily greeted by 2 locals outside a small taverna. Having worked up a sweat and thirst we took that as our cue for a coffee stop and were presently contemplating the valley below from a small terrace. Eventually dragging ourselves from this quiet seat we turned east and traversed the mountainside, generally losing more height than we gained before once again turning our noses upwards as we headed to Oreino. According to our map research this was a village at a dead end but upon arriving we were pleasantly surprised to note a selection of further roads to explore – one would have carried on at roughly this height heading eastwards towards the slopes above out base, whilst the other intriguingly seemed to exploit a gorge in the mountains and stretched deeper inland towards Thripti. Great – more roads to explore on our next trip!!

This time though we retraced our route back down the wooded valley, often hearing the tinkle of goat bells to either side and spotting the occasional goatherd tending his charges and probably wondering who these two lunatics charging up and down his mountain were. We made a note to return and introduce ourselves next time as we couldn’t stop now with the promise of lunch back in Makri Gialos spurring us on.

Day 3

Mountain time trial day – or how to get lost, snap a spoke and descend on the front brake alone.

We’d a plan for a big day out and set off on the main road North towards Sitia. Again, ignore the ‘main’ bit of that statement as this just meant a billiard table smooth 12km climb that started from the end of the village. The varying rock types, deep cut valleys and varied microclimates give the early bit of this climb a slightly different feel to that experienced on the first couple of days but the sublime riding remains a constant. There’s a few km of gently dipping stuff before a sharp hairpin and plenty of Armco signal a big kick upwards and this long initial drag is indicative of much of this climb – long straights, minimal bends and for once a fairly constant gradient that let us get into a steady tempo.  Steady enough to spot a Hoopoe and Peregrine Falcon anyway and also to speculate that this is the sort of climb you’d love to have on your doorstep to keep testing yourself on.

With 6km done there’s a brief respite at the town of Lithinai as the road drops down briefly before once again settling into a steady, upwards climb affording spectacular views to the Church of the Prophet Helias perched on a manicured mountain top. This stays in view for much of the remaining kilometres until at  the summit of this main climb we took a wrong turn (pretty hard to do when we’re supposed to be staying on the main road) and climbed further to a small village, before doing a U-Turn and retracing our steps.

The harbour at Sitia sparkled far below us but was often lost to view as the road swoops in long lazy curves down the gentle slopes but unfortunately we didn’t get to appreciate this for long before I pinged a spoke. My buckle slowly worsened as we climbed back up so necessitated loosening my rear brake fully. I silently gave thanks then that the route back home had minimal need for heavy braking and proved to be a brilliant descent. So much so that at the bottom I insisted we make plans to do it again once I’d got my wheel sorted.

Day 4

Piskokeflo Loop. I’d got my wish and yesterday’s descent was back into the route but first we had to test ourselves on the climb to Skordilo, made doubly difficult given the 20mph headwind that was set to test us. And duly did.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record this is another belter of a climb. Then again, broken records can be annoying and so that’s a crap analogy. Initially the route heads due north for several clicks before coming up against a huge east-west ridgeline that has you wondering where the hell the road goes. Mercifully the answer is East, and our route climbs more steeply, but at least not vertically, up past some quartz whitened cliff faces. There are a couple of mini summits that give false hope that the climb is done but also some temporary respite. Working hard with the wind and inclines we at least had the knowledge that the air we were gulping was of the pristine mountain variety, infused with the scent of pines, heathers and wild flowers that add splashes of colour at every turn. Indeed, the only slight taint in the atmosphere (until Scott sees snake #2) is from the occasional fire as workers trim and burn off last years growth from the Olive groves.

As the gradient eases towards a pass at the top so the wind picks up meaning the last 800 metres are a real heads down, thigh ripping battle that has us fighting to be at the back. Breaking through to the valley beyond our reward can be seen plunging for miles below us.

Pictures taken I next see Scott about 25 minutes later in Piskokefelo where he promptly asserts with glee that this was in his top 3 descents of all time and wants to go back up. Prying my fingers off the brake hoods I reflect more soberly on what was indeed a descent of some speed and technical challenges. I can smell more burning at this point.

The northern coastline is within touching distance but we want hills not beaches so turn South and head uphill. Easier gradients and a cracking tailwind push us upwards at a great pace deluding us into thinking some of the cycling God’s magic has rubbed off on us but a hairpin back into the wind near the summit reminds us otherwise.

The descent, fully supported by two working brakes and true wheels is everything I anticipated. Can I do it again please. And again, and again…….

Day 5.

The day the pleasure outweighs the pain even when the scales are showing big numbers.

We use the first climb of Day 3, take a right at the ‘summit’ and strangely find ourselves climbing again. Past the small villages of Etia and Chandras our route nudges slowly upwards, wending its way across a fertile mountain plateau. This is 20km of sublime riding with only 1 car for company on the whole route that leads Scott to ponder out loud if this is indeed ‘our own, specially created, cycling playground’.  

Gently ticking still further upwards past isolated shrines and chapels a narrowing small valley suddenly opens out onto another bowl like area. In the shadow of the depressions furthest edge nestles the hamlet of Sitanos, its rural idyll sitting incongruously with the solar farm and radar dishes above. Our guess though is that Sitanos benefits from renting it’s land as the tavern we happen across is large, well appointed, spotless and knows how to rustle up the usual gritty greek coffee.

Passing the radars and crossing a small summit the road suddenly drops and twists away below us in an altogether different landacape, more rocky and incised than what’s gone before. Detail is however blurred as we swoop down wide, smooth roads at a pace that soon leads to another short uphill, a pass, and then another plunging descent down several hairpins to the town of Zakros. Breathless form the buzz of a technical descent and not climbing for once we have a date with cheese pies mentioned above.

Bellys full we crack on and with the road trending downwards the pace remains high as we power up and over the few rises, eventually cresting one last ridge that overlooks the beach at Xerokampos.Despite it being the site of an ancient Hellenic settlement and stunning beach we don’t stop as we're eager to get to the days highlight. With more hairpins in its 700 metres of ascent than Alpe d’Huez the climb out of Xerokampos is yet another treat on this island that keeps on giving. The open hillside allows for great views of the receding coastline and serves as a distraction to the growing lactic acid in the legs but progress is swift and after 45 minutes the climb is done.

With all the major climbs done there still seems to be an awful lot of uphill to tackle in the last section as we drop to the sea again at Goudaras before the last 15km along the coast road back to base. I give thoughts to becoming a monk at a large monastery we spot as Scott has decided to completely empty the tank and has gone into TT mode for this last 10 miles. I hang on for grim death but decline to contest the final sprint, preferring to get my breath back ahead of a well earned cold beer.

With this chilled prize in hand we reflect on an epic day. Statisically it doesn’t seem like an epic – only 100km and 2000 metres of climbing but it’s a tough enough route to let you know you’ve had a test and set in such stunning country that you feel blessed to have been here.

I for one am already looking forward to a return trip.

Footnotes

Martinbike - Based at Agios Nikolias, Martinbike renew their fleet of Scott bikes every year so in April your likely to be riding somethng either brand new or completely overhauled. I opted for the entry level, 105 specced Scott to check out the lower end and got a brilliant bike with no faults. Admittedly I did snap a spoke, and as all the local bike shops had gone for a siesta I opted to drive the hour to Martinbike for repairs. This was done whilst we waited by the pool with a beer. Oh the hardships we face....

Martinbike are even more focussed on MTB riders and if you fancy a good day out with uplift you'll have plenty of company judging by the 20 or so guests we saw being returned whilst our wheel was fixed.

Note on repairs/spares - there's a small bike shop 2 miles from the villa and a larger one in Ierpetra 20 minues away. One of the other villa owners put us in touch with the place in Ierpetra but the mechanic was off until the next morning forcing our hand to go back to Martinbike. They did sound very friendly though and if we'd been more patient I'd have been more than happy to take that option.