Athens to Sparta (The Narwhal 300)

By Joe Bradshaw

Foreword

A sense of belonging – a community – bonds.  Words easily spoken and feelings often taken for granted.  For sure I feel these back home with friends and family.  Moving away from familiar surroundings gave these words new meaning for me as I searched for somewhere to belong in a strange land.  Enter Lola.  Before finding my way into this club I dabbled in a bit of cycling, fit it in here and there.  Two years and many kilometres later (plus one broken bone) I have found a group of friends … a group who love nothing more than to drop the hammer and bury each other on the bike while off the bike have each other’s back.  Adventures start here!!

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Go tell the Spartans, passerby, that here by Spartan Law we [ride]

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The concept had been thrown around for a few years.  Our Proud Hellenic Friend (let’s call him Pos) spoke eloquently of the great riding in Greece in an effort to tempt the group to take on the best of what his country had to offer. 

2019 was to be Greece’s year, the date was locked, the route was set: Athens to Sparta … the Path of the Warrior.  A three man wolf pack set off on a 300km adventure from the Olympic stadium in Athens, crossing Kalamata and the Peloponnese and finally arriving in Sparta where the statue of King Leonidas awaited.

The Group:
Pos: Host and proud Hellenic … hates hills. Loves wine
Mikel: Team Sky (Ineos) sympathiser and Spartan history buff 
Joe: Me, on the left

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First Day:

Athens to Nemea

150 Kilometres, 1700 metres of climbing


With our bellies full with what would become our quintessential cycling fuel, Spanakopita (Spinach Pie), we started our journey out of Athens.  

While we expected many great things from this trip, the Greek traffic, mostly in Athens, gave two of us more than a mild sense of anxiety.  Leaving slightly later in the morning, our host assured us that the city would be quieter.  We clipped in and rolled down into the heart of Athens.  Quiet, it turns out, is a subjective term.  What followed was a two hour roller coaster event that felt like an “Escape from Athens”.  Pos magically turned Pro Bike Messenger before our eyes finding gaps between articulated lorries and casually resting one hand on stopped, and sometimes even moving, cars.
By contrast, Mikel and I white knuckled our bikes through the chaos.  Any sense of confidence was fleeting and well and truly knocked out of me as I watched a motorbike nearly sideswipe Mikel, passing him seemingly out of nowhere at speed with only inches to spare.  Barely a few kilometres down and I was wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into.

Thankfully we soon left the city behind and Greece began to peel back its amazing layers.

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After Athens, the first 100km+ was flat and fast.  Aided by a favourable wind, we quickly approached the city of Corinth and crossed the Corinth Canal (a dark abyss cut directly into the rock).  We thought it a fitting landmark to place a Lola sticker.

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Continuing our journey through the area of Isthmos our gaze was diverted upwards to a rocky protrusion.  The Acropolis of Corinth, a silhouette over 500 meters tall in the middle of the Corinthian plain.  For Mikel (our resident history buff), it was like a moth to a flame.  We turned and made our assault on the steep climb, cursing the added weight of our bike bags.  Reaching the summit of this 500 meter tall rock gave us a Panoramic view of the surroundings. We earned: a view of the sea, hills, olive groves and of course some respectability in the meters climbed column.

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Spoiled for most of the day with tailwind and flats, our approach to Nemea was a slower affair.  We were greeted with long drags and inclines.  As Nemea came into view, the insanely busy city streets of Athens were forgotten and replaced by a beautiful twisting road, shimmering in the evening sun.

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Spartans, Eat Well, for Tonight We Dine in [Nemea] 

After showering away our days exertion, our Airbnb turned into a team hotel together with an in-house chef.  Nikos and his wife (owners) laid out a greek feast and a selection of wines to sample.  Turns out the Greeks in the Kalamata region know a thing or two about wine.  They were quick to tell us that they’ve been making wine for twenty-six … centuries!!  Plate after plate was laid in front of us and quickly polished off.  Spinach pie of course made an appearance together with a new experience, Fava Beans.  Hannibal Lector was on to something here!!!


Second Day:

Nemea to Sparta

161 Kilometres, 1900 metres of climbing


Nikos secured his 5 star rating when he arrived in the morning to cook us breakfast.  Second breakfast really, if we count the spinach pie. 

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The day’s riding started with a treat, 20kms of smooth road descending and tailwind all the way to the city of Argos.  Multiple punctures on Day 1 necessitated a quick stop at the local bike shop to top up on inner tubes, ensuring safe passage to Sparta. Ironically enough with our stocks topped up we would not endure a single puncture for the day.  However, as the day unfolded, punctures would be the least of our concerns!!

Our journey continued towards Astros and the surrounding scenery was breathtaking.  We were greeted with kilometer after kilometer of beautiful tarmac, snaking along the coast.  Blue waters on our left, lush green mountains on our right.  Why Greece and cycling is not more often spoken in the same sentence is a mystery to me. This is what we came for!! 

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After a quick stop in Astros for some baklava, orange pie and coffee (that was all that was on offer) we ventured on to the foot of the climb.  After Astros the road goes up for close to 40km before eventually descending into Sparta.  We settled into the saddle, clicked up the gears and pushed on.  On a climb, your heart rate increases and everything else decreases – including the conversation.  Laboured breathing, punctuated at times by a few admiring comments about the landscape with concurring grunts as response.  A serious as we take our riding, what was nice about this trip is that we always made time for a quick photo to capture the moment.

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After close to two hours, the first part of the ascent levelled off and we entered a wide plain in the surrounding hills.  It was in this plateau where things started to take a turn.  Our trusty GPS devices served us well to this point but a right turn into a dirt road had us wondering:  “is this really the most popular on strava”?  A rapidly flowing river gushing straight through the route quickly answered that question.

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While backtracking toward the main road, the skies began to darken. We saw that rain was inevitable and began to search for shelter before the heavens opened.  We sought refuge in a grotto on the roadside waiting for the rain to pass.  With 60k of mostly climbing left of our journey, we nevertheless had the feeling that our goal of Sparta was nearly achieved.  Our spirits were not dampened (yet!!) by the rain, we joked that it would stop any minute. We continued on as the rain persisted and the first cracks of thunder were heard around the mountain.  Things were getting interesting.

“Then we shall [ride] in the shade”

After a certain point rain stops bothering you … around about the time that cold joins the party.  This was a problem.  Seven degrees and rain was not in the plan.  Fortune favours the prepared.  Our clothing choices were anything but.  Our view of the world became skewed, climbs were welcomed as they provided us an opportunity to warm our bodies.  Descents no longer our friend, magnified the cold as we were lashed by the elements.

The elements began to wear on us as splits appeared on the climbs. With varying climbing paces, ettiequte dictated that we would need to stop briefly to regroup at each mountain pass.  We repeated this merry dance until a longer descent split us permanently.  Two of us arrived at a cross roads, with Sparta signposted a mere 10 kilometres beyond.  The misery we had endured was nearly over and we stopped to enjoy a final snelle jelle in the rain while we waited for our comrade to join us.

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Unbeknownst to us, a few kilometres back, our comrade had thrown in the towel, deciding that the combination of thunder storms, torrential rain, cold  and climbing was too much to countenance. Being a native of the country helped as he managed to convince a passerby to call in reinforcements to bring him to Sparta on four wheels instead of two.

We fixed our gaze to the road behind, but our friend was not to be seen.  These are the moments that you read about in the travelogues of yore. We wondered aloud “was it a puncture?” “Is he all right?” “should we go back?”  Our hearts spoke softly to wait, but our shivering bodies screamed to keep moving lest we succumb to the cold as-well.  We pushed forward hoping that he indeed had abandoned and would be driving forward to greet us as we entered Sparta. The gods weren’t through with us yet.
History tells us that in its prime Sparta had no city walls, choosing instead to bravely defend the city with manliness not mortar.  As we descended towards the city, there indeed was no defensive perimeter, rather a dense wall of fog that engulfed us.  Freezing cold and descending on a narrow winding road, our visibility was reduced to mere meters.  I tried in vain to follow Mikel’s line as he came in and out of sight.  I prayed no car would come from behind.

We eventually dropped under the fog line and Sparta herself was in plain sight as the kilometers ticked down.  We rolled into the city with an elation and sense of achievement that we had not anticipated.  Our original plan was to finish this journey at the foot of the Statue of King Leonidas.  We had neither the will nor the inclination to search for this landmark (by “we” I mean “me”).  Leonidas was going nowhere and his legend could not compete with the warmth of a hot shower.

As we searched for our accommodation, police lights flashed behind us. We were being pulled over by Spartan police! “Do you know a Mr [Pos]?” asked the officer in American accented English. “Oh god, is he okay?”  we asked rather frantically. “He’ll be okay, we found him suffering from near hypothermia and brought him to your apartment”. They seemed unimpressed with our decision to ride through the mountain storm and were on the verge of telling us so before we quickly said our goodbyes and made our way to the apartment.  Opening the door of our accommodation was a sight for sore eyes.  Our hellenic friend greeted us in true greek style with a kiss and an embrace.  We exchanged stories about our entrance into Sparta over beers and thanked the gods for a safe conclusion to our little adventure. 

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The trip conjured up some great moments. A bit of adversity, it turns out, adds a degree of satisfaction.  We were promised amazing cycling and Greece you sure delivered.  One for the memory bank – thank you boys!

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