Thursday, 20 October 2011

So long Summer and thanks for the memories

October 2011 - last of the cycling challenges completed, feet back under the desk, now a chance to reflect… what a year!!!
It all started back on a clear cool late February morning and the first bike challenge of the year. Yes! the outdoor cycling adventure season had started, Spring was in the air and we were taking our first Adventure Cafe clients of 2011 out on a single day 100 mile ride around the Cotswolds… good riddance winter! - life is good!
From that first February event I’ve been fortunate to have been released from my (office) shackles to assist and support on cycling events from the outer reaches of Scotland to the high Cols of the Alps.
After February came a bit of a break for me before I was out again but it was worth the wait. A charity challenge for Nestlé fundraising for Alzheimers Society and Scotland would be by next port of call – Girvan to be precise. Not the prettiest town but we were here for the riding and the stunning Galloway scenery did not disappoint. From here our path was Carlisle, Newcastle, Darlington, York then Halifax before continuing onto London - but I was on this to Halifax. Five days of excellent riding through the Border country and the North of England made all the better by humour only the Scots, Geordies and Yorkshire folk know how to deliver – thankyou.
Soon after, an event that I had my eye on all through the winter as it was the first overseas and The Alps! Beginning in Geneva our destination was the lakeside town, Como, 30 miles north of Milan - 310 miles and 5 monster cols to conquer. The Alps were truly stunning at this time of year (late Spring) and after ascending/descending name places normally allied to the Tour de France – Col de la Colombiere, Col de Aravis, Cormet de Roselend, Col du Petit Saint-Bernard, it was all over too quickly before making passage to Como and return home.
Then came my first appearance on one of our many London To Paris challenges this year. This event cannot not be bigged up enough! Starting from Royal Greenwich Observatory – probably the most iconic start point for any adventure in the world down to the historic Dover port - this event just gets better and better with every mile - riding the coastline from Calais to Abbeville before entering the wheat and sunflower fields of Picardie and before you know it you’re riding along the Seine, around the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees – FANTASTIC! This has to be by far the best event for anyone from the UK considering their first EU cycle tour.

Another great EU cycle tour beginning from London is the London To Brussels and I was lucky to support this event this year and discover another great city on-route – Bruges. Also known as the 3 Cities Ride it’s fairly easy riding over the northern reaches of Belgium and the Flanders region but none-the-less spectacular in it’s own right. Bruges has to be right up there as one of the coolest cities in Europe with a an old town that’s not too big and full of life. Entering Brussels was an unexpected adventure in itself by discovering the route took us through the Moroccan quarter of the city and witnessing a little crazyness more familiar to a street scene in Marakesh.
Finally, by a course of serendipitous events I found myself on the hugely anticipated cycle event of the year of 2011 – The Dubrovnik To Thessaloniki (Bike East) Challenge. Departing from where we left off 12 months earlier in Dubrovnik our challenge was to navigate a path out of Croatia through Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia to our final destination in Greece. The weather was perfect, the scenery stunning and for a while the roads were smooth and fast. Day 1 saw us leaving Croatia before swinging inland and circumnavigating the stunning inshore waters of Montenegro’s indented coastline. After a brief ice-cream stop at the ancient walled city of Kotor we move on and arrive back at the Med for a night over in the coast town of Budva complete with jet-set Marina and walled old town – stunning. Moving on from Budva around the Azure coast, day 2, we catch a glimpse of the Queen of Montenegro Hotel immortalized by 007’s Casino Royale before moving towards the border and the much anticipated 2 days riding through Albania, but first one last dip in the sea at Bar before waving goodbye to the Mediterranean until we re-join at Thessaloniki. 20 miles onward and border control, you could sense the anticipation in the air… nobody was sure quite what to expect from this mysterious country tucked away and often forgotten about, and now we were here! A few miles in and everything seems fairly normal, infact we’re greeted with inquisitive smiles and waving hands – I guess it’s not everyday a group of strange looking MAMIL’s come to town. Our first night in Albania was at the town of Shkoder 10 miles across the border and had very much the feel of an untamed frontier town – a bit shabby, a bit wild and a little sense of chaos in the air… Mos Eisley eat your heart out. That night the braver members of our group seeking a night out were disappointed only to find the bar of a 5 star hotel the only discernible watering hole within safe walking distance from our hotel… no Mos Eisley Cantina and the Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes to be found here sadly. Our destination for day 3 was the Capital of Albania, Tirana, and the relative flatlands to the capital offering high speed riding. Well, nearly, all was good for the first 30 miles before we come to our first complication – a motorway. Indeed, closer inspection of the map did show the road becoming major but according to the locals (and the boy on the bicycle in front of us who rode onward) it was quite normal to ride your bike down the motorway – even our Croation guide, Zeljko, suggested we were better off staying on the motorway than riding other roads!? We peeled off the motorway and I soon began to understand the advice being given to us - donkeys, stray dogs, sheep on the road but worst was the manholes with no covers – all this combined with the constant threat of a moments random driving by local road users (which covered a wide range of jalopy’s) – things were becoming interesting. We were now forced to use minor back roads for the next 30 miles… luckily we already had lunch stowed on board the support van. Just to spice things up, the (only) road we had available to us was undergoing major resurfacing works, which left us in places with no option than to walk stretches of asphalt free road – I mean crushed boulders in places - even the MTB guys had to get off at one point! The funniest thing is though the locals were still driving along like there was nothing wrong and that actually we were just being a bit precious.
It was a bit random to say the least with no sign of any workmen or traffic control – how long could this go on for? 16 miles later we made it back to our old friend asphalt and huge sighs of relief and after counting our spokes we set off for the last leg to Tirana city and our accommodation, the Prince Hotel, lets hope it lives up to it’s stately name. Phew, The Prince Hotel was perfect and after a hearty meal and a good nights sleep, day 4 saw us set off for the high country and the first day of hill riding – big hill riding. First there was the small task of navigating Tirana city centre – our hotel was on the exact opposite side to our road out – everybody made it safely. It was clear Albania is undergoing some form of redevelopment and an effort is being made to encourage more visitors & investment from abroad, however, it’s still a little bit crazy and there is a little part of me that kind of enjoyed the edgy excitement while being there and I hope that actually it stays that way. 10 miles out of Tirana we meet the first of the days 2 climbs. 5 miles and nearly 700m of climbing later we’re rewarded with fantastic views looking down on either side of the ridge to the valley floors on either side of us- awesome! Feeling a little cooler up here and distinctly greener the scenery is spectacular. As we progress it’s not long before we are presented with one of the more unexpected scenes of the tour… from high on the hill we are able to look down on to our path and before us the industrial scene of gigantic steel works, Kombinati Metalurgjik, appearing to be mostly deserted and resembling a scene of some post-apocalyptic event this was a blot on the landscape of gargantuan magnitude. Fortunately our road avoids getting too close the works before entering the industrial town of Elbasan. One imagines in it’s hey-day, the town of Elbasan once serviced the mighty steel works and that this was a town thriving on hard cash earned by hard men. We pass through Elbasan quietly and continue on the road for the border and Macedonia. Before crossing into Macedonia we pass through one last Mos Eisley-esque town, Përrenjas and just as we arrived, we are given a similar send-off of waves and smiles and it was goodbye Albania.
We cross the border at close to 1000m above sea level before swooping down to our overnight town, Struga (690m asl), on the north shores of the huge Ohrid lake. Another excellent night at a fine hotel in Struga and we’re feeling good for the ride to Greece but first the small matter of a 600m climb to the towns of Resen, Capari then Bitola. For approximately 30 miles we’re riding at an average altitude of 1000m and up here the scenery is distinctly greener – a refreshing change from the ubiquitous Mediterranean scrub. From Bitola we begin our gradual descent to the coast but not before crossing the border into Greece and stopping at our overnight stay in the town of Amyntaio. Another great hotel and restaurant ensures we are nicely set up for the final days riding to our final destination, Thessaloniki. The roads are longer and straighter and after a mornings ride we’ve made good progress and we’re at the historic town of Edessa. Perched dramatically on the edge of the high ground we find ourselves plunging dramatically down to 100m above sea level and then it’s a race across the fertile plains apparent in this corner of Greece through the arable farmland and cotton fields before finally reaching Greece’s northern most metropolis, Thessaloniki and a welcome return to the Mediterranean. After photographs at the White Tower right on the sea front, the last remains of the old city fortifications, we head for our final resting place and a well earnt night out. Take a look at a few photographs of the challenge at our Adventure Café Facebook Group now for some great images of this amazing event.
Roll on 2012 and stage six of the Bike East Adventure – Thessaloniki To Istanbul. You can join us on this exciting journey by calling 01460 249191 or email … see you there!Adventure Cafe

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