We’ve been to the Ionian island of Lefkada a few times now – one of my wife’s sisters lives there – and each time we’ve been I’ve looked at the islands mountains with a single-minded thought – they look good for riding up. The island may be a fraction of the size of the UK but its main peaks are as bigger than more or less anything the British Isles can offer. Suffice to say they are impressive, and when you’re standing at sea level, they look a little formidable too. So when my sister-in-law said, oh we’ve got some friends who do bike trips (http://www.getactivelefkas.com), well what’s a man to do but make arrangements for a ride.
My guide for the day was Simon, an ex-skier with a vast local knowledge of the islands roads, trails and anything else which might conceivably pass as rideable goat track. We met in the small coastal resort of Nidri. Out of season and missing the tourists, it seems a sleepy little place, but behind the scenes the locals were gearing up for the first arrivals – (shameless plug for family) my brother-in-law Stelios was hard at working preparing his cruise boat, the MS Christina. We headed north along the coast road, on new Saracen hardtail mountain bikes, our destination the isolated chapel of Profitis Ilias, sitting atop one of the higher peaks, 1000m above sea level. We took a left turn off the main road and then we were climbing. For the rest of the morning.
The roads were quiet and mostly well surfaced. The bikes rode well and felt nimble and light going uphill. We maintained a steady rhythm – apart from my frequent stops to snap pictures and admire the views. Simon, I was finding was not just an excellent guide but a good riding companion too. Thanks to the easy conversation, I soon lost count of the hairpins, although I do remember there were a lot of them and each rewarded with yet another view across the coastal islands to the mainland mountains, disappearing into the haze of a warm Mediterranean spring. The higher we rose the more we could see; small round Madouri; Sparti and Skorpidi; the former Onassis island of Skorpios, now set to become a Russian billionaire’s playground and finally Meganisi, its long thin arm of rock ending in a stubby hand trailing green fingers into the sea.
On the way to Platistoma, we took a short off-road detour though the forests. It made for a nice bit of variety and started to put the bikes through their paces, but the mountain road was a joy to ride. Everywhere was thickly covered in lush vegetation, the roads were lined with yellow flowering broom bushes, and the woods tinted pink by Almond tree blossoms. The verges were speckled with more pink as well as red, yellow and white from a lush variety of wildflowers. With the effort of the climb I was working hard, but every deep breath infused my lungs with a sweet smelling blend of pine, mint and citrus. The scented mountain air was a sustaining elixir that kept my legs pedaling on – who needs gels with that? (OK I may have had one or two).
About a third of the way up we reached Eglouvi. We stopped off in the small village square for a welcome coffee and apple. Simon had mentioned the old men who spend their day’s sitting by the square - he said he usually gets a friendly greeting followed by complete puzzlement, “what are you doing riding up this mountain? You’re crazy!” Perhaps they just don’t understand what they’ve missed, although we did have a prime day for riding. The sun had warmed the mountains to a pleasant temperature, but in high season, when the mercury is passing forty and the pale tarmac and white rocks are making a furnace of the roads, then perhaps they have a point.
We had our drinks. Behind cafe the mountain peak rose some 300m above us. From Egklouvi we gained height rapidly, following a series of hairpin bends. The road briefly leveled off around a high altitude quarry and the forests of the lower slopes had given way to patchy scrub and barren rock. To our right, perched precipitously on the mountainside, was an old radar station and derelict barracks, while ahead the church was clearly visible, topped by a small azure dome.
We turned right off the road on to a rough track for the final 100m ascent, averaging a little under 10%. The track started off OK although it was littered with small rocks loosened by winter freeze thaws and some recent earth tremors. Then gradient ramped steeply up, my legs protested, but not for long – the gradient eased. The church was just visible around the next bend, unlike the loose gravel and rutted mess that the track had become, so the last few metres were a painful shock to the legs. For a moment I thought the mountain’s gradient and gravel would force me to walk, but it hadn’t reckoned with my granny gear. I rode on, to the top.
I waited for Simon and savoured the view. Travelling by car Lefkada feels like a large island, an artefact of its mountainous terrain, but when you’re stood on one of its highest peaks, the island was compresses to a manageable scale. Looking north-east is Lefkas town, further north, across the causeway to the mainland are Prevaza town and airport. Looking south-east is Nidri and the islands, further in the distance, rising above the haze, the mainland’s massive peaks. West, on the other side of the island, the Mediterranean merged into the sky, a toy ferry marked a fuzzy distinction between the two blues. Looking directly down I could see Eglouvi and the road twisting up through the forest. The tip Stavrota, Lefkada’s highest peak, was hidden by low cloud. There was a definite coolness in the air.
Simon came up shortly after and shared out some homemade cake. I had been out pacing him on the climb, but the descent would be a different matter. I’m not a great mountain biker, and I’ve never off-roaded down a real mountain before, but now I was about to follow a confident mountain biker down some frightening trigonometry. So yes, I was a little nervous. As we prepared to go Simon already had look of childish joy in his eyes, just in anticipation. Oh well, time to be boys again… Simon lead and immediately bolted down the church road. I followed, but cautiously – I don’t think I’ve ever been more thankful of disc brakes, a sentiment which would only grow stronger!
Then we were on the road proper, flying down the mountainside, accelerating along the straight sections, then braking hard, in Simon’s case to sweep into the hairpins and in mine to make a tentative sharp turn. Thrilling all the same. Too soon we we’re into Egklouvi, Simon pulled up by a battered old truck (all Greek trucks are battered and old) and with a look of the devil said to follow him. He turned down a crazily paved back alley, lifted out of the saddle then bounced down some steps. Mostly I was just reacting, but I do remember thinking “what the fuck!?”. I followed anyway, just managing to keep a glimpse of his rear wheel as I pursued him through the houses. If James Bond did bicycle chases…
I was enjoying this. The rest of the way we would be sticking mostly off-road, using gravel roads and single track goat paths. The gravel was fun. This time the straights and hairpins meant trying not to be shaken off the bike then sliding on the turn.
We did have a short climb along a tarmac road which was being slowly reclaimed by the mountain’s vegetation. The leaf litter strewn across it testified to the few travelers it must see. At the end of the road there were yet more glorious views across the island to the islands. Admiring the view we could hear the pastoral ringing of goat bells from the valley below.
Back off-road and Simon warned me about a hole dug across the track. You’ll be fine he said, it’s an easy jump. Sure enough a little way down the track the surface broke up into a series of deep ruts. It was tricky, but I got through fine. Simon was way ahead, powering into the hairpins, slipping a foot off the pedals to slide his back wheel round in a spray of stones. I didn’t even try to imitate. And then, oh @#$$$^$$ crap, that’s the hole he meant. I was rapidly approaching a trench across the track, but mercifully it looked worse than it was and I easily jumped it. I just wish I had the skill to finesse the next bend with a skid! Before we went onto the single track Simon checked I knew about the heels down technique – it’s a way to transfer your weight over the back of the bike for greater stability. It wasn’t a term I had come across, but as soon as he explained I realised it was something I had been doing instinctively.
The single track, riding along old goat paths was some of the best on the ride. The tracks were hard and fast, twisting beneath richly scented Olive groves and speeding through vibrantly coloured meadows, lush with wild flowers. Perhaps then it was the disappointment of leaving the groves, knowing the ride was coming to an end, that resulted in a moments inattention on the very last, and easiest of gravel bends. I stumbled my front wheel and slid to the ground. It was a bit embarrassing. I got back on, the ground leveled off and we followed a recently laid rode into town.
The ride was over and I had loved every minute of it. The roads are impossibly quiet and generally well surfaced, but more importantly there are an abundance of stunning climbs and heart thumping descents. I can highly recommend it.
And the ride…http://www.strava.com/activities/128063119