Alexandropolis, Greece: On the first morning of the first day of my cross-country American ride I randomly asked a cluster of fellow cyclists, “Are we there yet?” Thus began a ritual which I repeated many times as we migrated across America. Typically someone would answer, “almost there.”
This morning, as I climbed a minor mountain in a strong headwind, I spotted the first road sign with an arrow pointing to Turkey. That’s when it hit me: I am almost there. The Turkish border is just 25 kilometers away from this port on the Aegean Sea. Constantinople, Istanbul’s name in the middle ages which many Greeks still prefer to use, is just 315 kilometers away. I will be there on Tuesday. In keeping with my “Go Greek” philosophy, I have planned a comfortable, unhurried pace for the finale. After all, last impressions are lasting impressions, and I want positive memories for this adventure which has consumed six months of my life.
Navigating Istanbul promises to be one of the trickiest parts of this prolonged journey. To help me I have sought some guidance. John, an American living in Istanbul and a friend of a friend, has very generously assisted me in planning my Turkish leg. He has reached out to the cycling community in Istanbul for advice and to round-up a guide or two to lead me into Europe’s largest city. I have heard from other cyclists that getting through Istanbul can be a near-death experience on certain roads. I’m hoping to avoid those roads. Here’s a link to a Facebook invitation that was circulated earlier this week asking for guide volunteers: The Turkish invitation
Europe vs America
I do not want to get my front wheel too far ahead of my rear because I appreciate that almost there is not quite there. But with just four days left of this epic ride, my thoughts have shifted to reflective mode. In two years I have cycled across two continents and the experiences could not be more different. The only thing in common between the two transcontinental rides is the use of two wheels; even the bicycle types are different. But both have been defining and deeply rewarding experiences.
I crossed the United States during the summer of 2010 in an organized, fully supported ride with nearly 50 other cyclists. All the logistics were taken care, but we had just 50 days to get from coast to coast. It was very much a physical challenge to keep pace with that ambitious schedule. I rode a carbon fiber bike and my luggage was transported by truck. My job was to pedal and steer and follow cue sheet directions. It was an intense group experience as well. We were in our own little world, a “bubble,” crossing the United States. Enduring friendships were formed and there were many tears at the end. When I reached the Atlantic I did not want to stop cycling. I had an intense yearning to keep going, which led to this journey across Europe.
This European ride is the opposite experience. I slowed down (81 days in Europe vs. 50 days in the US over similar distances) so it’s been less of a physical challenge. There have been physically hard parts for sure, but I consider this European ride mostly a mental challenge. I am totally self-reliant and self-contained, and there are a thousand possible ways I could have cycled from Portugal to Turkey. On a daily basis I had to figure out the way. For every hour of cycling I spend an equivalent amount of time planning. Going solo has also been much harder than I anticipated. I am bored with myself already. I expect tears at the end, but for a very different reason: relief that I don’t have to get back into the saddle any time soon. I yearn for my normal Hong Kong life. I want to go home.
My Big Fat Greek Octopus
The past two days of pedaling through Greece have been wonderful. The scenery’s beautiful and I rarely complain about riding near the sea. Two small towns especially stand out: the fishing community of Porto Lagos, where fishermen were bringing in fresh catches of octopus and squid, and the friendly farming community of Aratos, where I tried to communicate with many of the locals who speak only Greek. Aratos, like most of the towns I have ridden through in the past two days, has both a mosque and an Orthodox church. Cotton is the major crop in this region, and residual white balls can be found all along the road.
But I still ride in trepidation of another canine chase. Every bark I hear, every stray dog I see, every open gate, every junk yard I pass (there are many), and every structure with a guard dog causes my hair to stand up straight and my defences go on high alert. I don’t know which dog is friend and which is foe so I have this reaction all too frequently. I throttle up and speed along. Yesterday I saw a pack of five dogs in a field, heading toward the road. I pedaled like there is no tomorrow, speeding up to nearly 40 km/hour. The dogs were not even interested in me, and I laughed after passing the danger zone.
Tomorrow I enter Turkey. I pray the dogs are friendlier there.
Days 76 – 77: Kavala — Komotini — Alexandroupolis, Greece
Distance: 117.38 kilometers (Day 76) and 65.82 kilometers (Day 77)
Ascent: 282 meters (Day 76) and 483 meters (Day 77)
Countdown to Istanbul:
Remaining Days: 4
Remaining Distance: ~ 315 kilometers
TransEuropa 2011 Trip Summary:
Distance: 5,524.12 kilometers
Ascent: 38,856 meters
Countries: 15: Portugal, Spain, France, Switzerland, Austria, Liechtenstein, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia, Greece
Incidents: 6: flat tires on Days 45, 53 and 56; police reprimand on Day 2; two terrorizing right-on-my-heels dog chases on Day 71