I opened my eyes. Outside the tent, beyond the olive rows, the sun was rising. I was making a habit of finding these orchard fields. Secluded and sheltered. I’d crossed the hills out of Thessaloniki but was way beyond reaching my couch surfing home, which had been two hundred and twenty kilometres from the city. I’d only covered forty of those. There was almost certainly no way of reaching the town of Xanthi, where Evi, the student host, was living. Either way, this would be a long day and the first day of the Greece I had always imagined it to be; when the sun finally broke the clouds, it was deep and orange and bright and the world was filled with colour. Yellow hills, with green shrubland. Olive fields deep and dark and fruitful. Rocky roadways and dusty tracks leading off from the highway and into the mountainsides. The air cleared and, though cold, was bright and hazy. It was as if I was just a step away from Winter. It had come but, like trying to outrun a raincloud, if I just kept moving east it couldn’t quite grab me.
The day had it’s problems. The stupid bolt, basically destroyed by the Albanian, who I now firmly resented, was rattling about all over the place again and the rack was wobbling and sliding from side to side. I had no spare parts for this and it proved difficult to find shops that sold the right nuts and bolts at the specific moment you needed them, my moment being as I travelled through a hill road, passing only small farming villages. Eventually I did find a shop, but I had to get my hands dirty trying out a few different pieces. As soon as I get to Istanbul, I thought, I’m checking into a proper bike shop! A screw near the spoke was also bending loose and my saddle was wearing down on one side and not the other. It was pretty obvious now that I knew nothing about bikes. i could fix all this, but I had no idea why it was happening.
But these things made the day interesting, a near-perfect day full of lots of mini-memories; the fire I managed to light out of some wood scraps with a match, to warm up some tuna, beneath the statue of greek god or the empty beach I found full of strange trees and a chance to wade into the ice cold sea, amongst other things.
In one day I passed through lakelands, olive plains, ancient mediterranean harbour towns and long, abandoned cliff-born highways. Fields, seas and mountains. It was beautiful and the day, with all its sun and winter warmth and colour ended in Kavala. My day didn’t end here, but the sun set beyond the sea as I cycled into coastal cliffs. The view from the ascent was breathtaking and I’d wished I’d been able to spend more time in that town.
Here we go Again
It was seven in the evening. I had cycled beyond a hundred and twenty kilometers already. I was tired and hungry and the night was growing cold. I made a call to Evi in Xanthi and explained the situation, that I’d try for her place. She asked how far away I was. I said I wasn’t sure, knowing full well that it was sixty kilometres! I put the phone of the petrol station office down, looked at the time and the map. Why did this always seem to happen to me?
Other cyclists, like those I’d met in Dubrovnik, seemed to be cycling slowly, calmly, knowing where they would end each night. One day I would cycle forty kilometres after a morning spent in a hostel, before throwing my body into shock the next and compensating the distance with insanely over ambitious rides.
For any of those other cyclists, this would be a moment where they might say ‘I’m done, I’m camping. It’s impossible.’ For me, these were, and still are, the moments where I am able to remind myself what I am capable of. Why I had wanted to do the whole world and not part of it. Why I had been able to begin in the first place. I wanted to be in Xanthi. I wanted to be sixty kilometers from here and I wanted to be there within the next hour or two! The old highway was my route. Barely lit. Isolated, now used as a backroad. It was time to see what I really could do.
The nights cycle through Croatia had been nothing compared to this. I had no lights. They had died. I had no energy after climbing a few minor mountains to reach Kavala. My hosts were out there, waiting. Somehow forty kilometres disappeared within an hour and then I hit the wall. One minute I’d been riding strong, my legs pumping like pistons, unnaturally, illogically strong. The next I hung drooped over the saddle, eyes rolling, swaying across the road, slower than I could have walked. At a petrol station I bought all the chocolate I could and stuffed into my mouth in one go, washing it down with bottles of sugary sodas. I sat down and waited until the first twangs of sugar twitched in the muscles of my arms and legs and then got on the bike.
I went crazy. I cycled. Fast. Disturbingly fast. Whether it was phycological or physical, whether it was the idea of energy or the actual sugar within me, I have never cycled like it in my life before. I was pumping at such an unnatural rate. My legs, now, had become like lead, my chest was heaving, yet the bike felt weightless. It was money well spent and never have I cared so little about diabetes or tooth decay. I was flying down the old highway and then, out of nowhere, dogs!
A group of them, shifting through bins by the roadside, turned their heads, squinted their eyes and leapt into a sprint behind me. I can outrun these I thought, there were only four or five of them. But more came, bigger and faster and hound-like. From the bushes, from the alleyways. Where were they all coming from? Barking erupted through out the highway townships. There must have been two dozen of them. Most dropped away but, as I looked to my right, I saw one, thin and lean and muscular, moving powerfully alongside the bike. It jaw tight, its teeth chopping back and forth. I knew this type. It was crazed. Rabid. My pedometer was clocking forty kilometres an hour and still the thing was catching up with the back wheel. Oh god, I thought for the first time, I’m not going to outrun this! With that realization came thoughts of being bitten. The weight returned to the bike, my legs suddenly felt sluggish again and, genuinely, I was riding out of fear. The road dipped and descended a little and I was able to ride free of the beast and catch my breath. I’d been a screaming madman, cycling down the highway for two minutes, churning out expletives as I’d gone. It was like no one lived in Greece once the sun set, the land taken over by wild dogs.
By the time I made it Xanthi, through the town and out to the student dorms in the eastern suburbs, I was a wreck. ‘Come in, sit down, have a drink’, the lovely Evi had said. She was beautiful, I’d thought. Her boyfriend waved at me from the corner of the room! ‘I’m sorry I’m late.’ ‘No it’s alright, we’re going out, but not until at least midnight!’ I laughed. It had been a new record, the longest ride yet. 185km, over mountains, round coastal cliffs, chased through the freezing night by a pack of wild dogs and now followed by drinks till three in the morning!