A coastal loop of Cyprus - 3 days, 2 nights of pure cycling joy
pics: Simon et al.
“...a couple of cheeky climbs in day three’ was my favourite comment from a friend as we prepared for our 3-day island circumnavigation. If you saw the elevation profile of the whole 620 km ordeal, those two climbs, indeed, looked merely ‘cheeky’, swamped by a long string of flat riding starting in Limassol and looping the whole island.
We’d long talked and prepared for it, but it’s impossible to replicate the sheer duration of the effort. Personally I approached it with a healthy degree of trepidation, similar to how I felt before my first 50km ride and my uni exams. Even so, none of the dozens of checkboxes I ticked off before we departed quite prepared me for the deep, debilitating and haunting fatigue I would feel three days later near the end.
Note: Video contains mildly strong language (just one naughty word) at around 1:53. if you’ve got minors watching, you might want to cover their ears for a second!
If you’ve checked out our site you’ll be familiar with Simon and myself but on this epic trip we had a couple of friends along - quite literally - for the ride. Michalis is a London-based psychiatrist and also an old friend from Greece. He’s strong [certainly stronger than me] mixing it with the Cat A-racers on Zwift, but not an actual racer, nor an ultra-endurance rider. Also with us was Adam, a Californian guy who’s settled in Cyprus with his young family. He’s a mixed-surface aficionado with a relaxed, West Coast take on riding bikes, shunning power meters and data analytics.
So just before dawn on a warm Friday in October we hit the road. The bikes were heavy, loaded up with all we needed for three days and two nights away, together with lights, hydration packs, chargers and batteries for all the gizmos. They felt slow and cumbersome at first, but gradually I couldn't tell the difference. The extra heft was not all bad - having it at just over the bike’s centre of mass meant more weight over the front wheel and better straight line stability. The downside was a small amount of oversteer when cornering , but it wasn’t long before I got used to that too.
We sped through still-dark Limassol, and watched the sun rise as we made our way east. The plan had always been to keep things low intensity, but adrenaline and excitement sporadically got the better of us. After a quick coffee stop close to Zygi, we took the quiet coastal road through Mazotos and Kiti, eventually reaching Larnaca at kilometre 70. We were working well as a group, rotating positions, each of us taking a turn on the front but with our legs still fresh and speeds not that high, there was no pressing need for a disciplined draft train.
Even though this was October, the island was still recovering from a long and brutally scorching summer. In Larnaca we stopped for supplies. The temperature was already approaching 30C and it was fast becoming clear that hydration was going to be a priority. We decided to skip the long stop and press on.
The road eventually drifted away from the coast and turned inland through Xylotymbou and Achna, and into a narrow, UN-controlled corridor between the Republic to our right, and the area controlled by the Turkish Cypriots to our left. This ‘green zone’ is a buffer between the two sides of the island and on this road it’s only as wide as the tarmac itself. This area heavily resembles a war zone; there was a continuous military presence on our left, but hardly any (apart from a few watchtowers here and there) on our right. This is the area of the ‘red villages’ - so-called because of the soil colour - but in general there’s almost no sign of economic activity, and the landscape is barren and empty, almost lunar. Not the place to be if hostilities ever flare up again.
To cross into the North we headed through the British Sovereign Base at Agios Nikolaos to the border checkpoint (also called the ‘black night’ crossing) and that’s where we had to produce our passports. Saying that, I’d swear the officer checking them did no more than pretend to tap on his keyboard.
Immediately after the checkpoint we were in the outskirts of Famagusta (Αμμόχωστος in Greek), just over the internal border, and it was time to fuel up and have some proper rest. The roads were clogged up with buses filled with tourists, pick-up trucks spewing dirty fumes, flashy Mercedes cars and the noise of rattly motorbike exhausts. Here too lots and lots of flags. The symbols of Turkey and the local regime flying from every mast, public building plus many houses too.
We pedalled through the old medieval gate and into the inner old city, with its tavernas, cafes and souvenir shops. The streets were filled with people, but strangely they looked forlorn, not particularly pleased to be there. One taverna owner made a beeline for us and boasted of his cycling prowess claiming he was about to ride 500km in a single day. ‘That’s great mate, but how about some food?’ we asked. It was too early he said. So - to our shame - we did the tourist thing and sat down at the first place we could find, a not-exactly-Michelin-starred eatery that served up the thinnest burger you’ve ever seen. The waitress who delivered this culinary delight claimed she was an aspiring Iranian film director but took every phone photo we requested on the wonk. That’s clearly how they do it in Iran. Anyway, despite the digestive challenges, spirits were high; the Imam’s piercing chanting rang out across the city and the legs were still fresh. On we pressed.
Things took a downward trend after the break. Up to that point the wind was hardly noticeable but in the early afternoon it picked up speed and was soon pointing squarely against us. We also had to ride on the (very narrow) shoulder of a dual carriageway, with trucks speeding a few centimetres from our handlebars, churning up dust, while ominous clouds were closing in up ahead. The first cracks in our chain gang also started to appear….
Michalis took a long pull on the front, but used to the pace of a cycling club run in London he simply pulled too hard, and put the rest of us in trouble - especially Adam. He and I were now getting detached from the front duo and getting back on was costing us too much energy. In these conditions it was proving nigh on impossible to keep our cohesion.
We regrouped in Bogaz, and again further up at a local supermarket near Leonarisso. These last 80km or so were the least remarkable of our whole trip, but they were a proper examination of character and motivation. By this point we were already pretty spent, having covered 162 km since morning, most of them into a soul-sapping headwind. A raft of bananas and sugary drinks urged us forward as we turned off the main highway and into a smaller, less well maintained road that ran along the south side of the Karpas panhandle. Only 51km and about 400m of elevation gain remaining, what could go wrong?
Into the unknown
The first 15 km were actually rather pleasant. Fuelled by that carb injection we weaved through the rural farm roads, waving at children and dodging potholes. And then the road surface changed.
Calling that road tarmac is an overstatement, but it can’t be classified as gravel either. I’m sure it was a lovely ribbon of asphalt once upon a time, but this must have been a long time ago. I’m also sure it has never been maintained. It looked like someone had tossed down some stones and glued them together. In some places they had come loose leaving large exposed gaps down to the tar and soil below. On this stuff our speeds dropped, while the vibrations rattled my fillings and shook every bone in my body. Plus it was now getting dark. We’d have to ride on this thing using lights.
To add insult to injury, just before we reached dipkarpaz village (ριζοκάρπασο) we had two15% ramps to get over. Whatever energy I had, I left it on those inclines. We pressed on to avoid the darkness and dodge the angry storm we could see in the distance lighting up the sky with flashes of lighting. By now Adam was bonking hard, while Simon and Michalis pressed ahead - all I could see was their back lights, and after a while nothing at all.
Another increasing concern was saddle sores, because nine hours in the saddle isn’t something we generally do. My left arm was also semi-paralysed because of the nerve compression under my palm (called the ulnar nerve). The front duo teamed up with us stragglers a little later as Michalis was nauseous from all the bars and gels he’d consumed, and with lightning erupting all around us we finally limped to the front door of our motel (the Sea Bird) at around 19:00, a full 13 hours after we’d set off from Limassol. We had covered 218 km and climbed 1,400m mostly in a headwind, and we were absolutely knackered.
Adam was now a real worry. Apart from being tired, he was also unable to eat, probably due to exhaustion. The rest of us had a quick dinner and a couple of sombre beers, while the storm outside finally delivered on its threats and started lashing the restaurant windows. We quickly retreated and I fell into a slumber while the rain outside battered the tin roof of my bungalow.
The alarm went off in what felt like the middle of the night. If we were going to make the scheduled route without riding well into the night again, we had to depart as early as possible. Decisions also loomed: how would we feel? How’s Adam? Will it rain again?
I made my way to the meeting point walking the damp soil, and there he was, energised and rested, ready to go again. After what must rank as probably the most tasteless and bland halloumi and cucumber sandwich ever created, we mounted up and rode back down to the bumpy track we’d arrived on the night before. Between us and the next hotel a mere 240km and 2,500m of elevation.
And what a difference a night makes. The violent rain had washed away all the dust in the air; in its place a cool tailwind that pushed us gently along the coast. We could also now see the landscape, which was obscured the night before: The magnificent golden beach and the Apostolos Andreas monastery, the small restaurants by the sea, farmers, bushes and donkeys. Once we’d despatched the rattly bit we rode up through the sleepy village to the north side of the panhandle and started covering ground quickly, aided by fresh legs and that tailwind.
It’s difficult to describe just how magnificent those first 50 kms of main road were. Out of tourism season it’s empty, bar a few buses here and there, while the Pentadaktylos mountain range made its first appearance on our left. There was no need to push hard. I cowered behind my riding mates’ wheels, while offering my share of pulls at the front as we effortlessly sped along at 30 kph thanks in part to the wind. All in life was well again.
There were the odd hippie caravans by the beach waving at us, seagulls gliding above, the sound of our tyres on the smooth tarmac, and the mountain casting its long shadow on the road ahead. This was no longer a game of survival, as it was just the night before. It was pure cycling bliss.
Eventually the temperature went into the 30s again, and we had to stop for refuelling and rehydration. We’d covered about 100km without too much fuss, and we were squarely on schedule to arrive at our final destination at a reasonable time. Just 40km to go to Kyrenia, our planned stop for lunch.
Traffic started becoming denser, and the space we enjoyed on the road was now restricted. Debris and roadside rubbish started making their appearance again, until we ended up weaving around cars, taxis and trucks. In the manic town centre we got separated and temporarily lost in the narrow streets that resemble an open-air bazaar, till we settled at the little harbour for fish and recollection.
Two hours later we were riding up and down the rugged coast west of the main road towards the village of Livera. The clouds swirling up above all afternoon had earlier dumped some water on the Agia Irene protected area roads making them a little sketchy, but we still managed to dodge the weather. Turning back inland we started to climb, waving at children roaming freely, while the majestic Morphou bay extended down below.
We stopped at the only open coffee shop at Kormakitis, a large village with a catholic church dominating the central plaza. To my surprise, all the - elderly - punters were speaking Greek, while one table spoke a language that sounded Arabic, but I wasn't sure. Kormakitis, it turned out, is one of the four remaining Maronite villages in Cyprus, a cultural heritage the locals are going to great lengths to preserve. Most were born there, and decided to return after being displaced during the 1974 war. Now they’re supported financially by the Republic and the UN, and they seem to be in good accord with the Turkish Cypriots too. And that language? It was Cypriot Maronite Arabic, even though the Maronites also try to preserve the own version of Aramaic.
It was time to move on. We mounted the bikes and made our way quickly to Morphou, speeding up and down the magnificent road leading into the town from the north. The chain gang was in full flow, and we gobbled up the kilometres in no time, leaning into the bends and tucking low out of the wind. The town itself was a quick affair - we didn't even stop, the sun was low and we still had quite some distance to cover.
By the time we got to Karavostasi, a coastal touristy town, it was properly dark. All that remained was to get over two ‘blips’ on the map, a couple of identical hills climbing to about 200m each. My legs weren’t happy. The climbs were hard but incredibly atmospheric because it was so dark and quiet, and as soon I got dropped by the group and lost sight of their tail lights, all that was visible was the few metres of road in front. All I could hear was my steady breathing, the sound of the tyres on the road and the cicadas rubbing their bellies. It was magic.
Descending in these conditions was sketchy, but after regrouping at the top we came down together crossing back over to the Republic. Kato Pyrgos, our stop for the night was just down the road from there. 244 km for the day, we were in no mood to start looking for a decent place to eat. The nearest eaterie was a dodgy-looking kebab place that doubled as a kafeneio [a traditional village meeting spot] in the morning. The menu wasn’t exactly huge - just three choices: Red mullet, pork steak and french fries. We took the lot and it was probably one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever eaten.
After raiding the breakfast buffet we left our small, functional hotel (Tylos Beach) and set off on what would be the shortest day of the trip. Of course159 km isn’t short, and there was the small matter of two pretty serious climbs ahead.
The first of these goes over the Kokkina enclave, a small fishing village that now also home to a Turkish military base. This area’s under the control of the regime in Northern Cyprus, but since it is not physically connected to the North Greek Cypriots have built a road around it rising to 550m and then down back to the coast. All the local population have been moved to other areas, so the spectacular mountainside is now dotted with Greek and Turkish military outposts separated by a small UN unit. It is a remote, and eerily empty place. This also has to be one of the most scenic climbs in the whole of Cyprus, starting from the windswept coast it rises up through a pine forest, the few false flats and descents no compensation for the brutal 12% ramps.
The views from here down to the sea below are simply breathtaking; once we reached the top, the fast and manic descent on the other side turbocharged us, and we raced through the flat, beautiful coastal road between Pachyammos and Polis, but it was pretty evident by now that all this riding was taking its toll. Michalis had developed a terrible saddle sore and had to stand a lot to try and ease the pain. My body wasn’t responding to these hard efforts anymore and I had to keep an eye on the power meter readings to gauge how deep I was going. On the other side we skipped Polis and went straight to the next climb, a beast of an ascent up towards Droushia and Kathikas.
In a very hot, dark hole
Riding from the northwest of the island to the southwest doesn’t involve a huge distance. What’s challenging are the hills that stand in between, unless one takes the coastal way which goes through the Akamas protected area, which is all gravel. Not an option on the bikes we were on. The other two routes involved creating a rolling road with gravel sections and a lot of climbing, and one with a single big, nasty climb to negotiate.
As soon as we hit the first slopes, I knew there was trouble ahead. This was my second time on these roads and I don’t recall enjoying it the first time - it hovers at around 8% most of the time on a wide, dusty, bumpy and featureless road without bends or vegetation, and with white limestone rocks reflecting all the midday heat back to us. The sun was blaring up above, the temperature rose, and my strength disappeared, little by little. Michalis’ phone played Mykonos by the Fleet Foxes, and all I could manage was to keep up with the rest up to the halfway point; under the shade of a solitary fig tree, I contemplated if I should go on.
I didn’t quite see the point in remounting the bike. I was battered by fatigue, dehydrated and numb, and we’d already done most of the riding we set out to do. The roads up ahead were also familiar, so the jolt of adventure just wasn't there anymore.
But then I looked at the other three. They didn't look in great shape either, but I don't think quitting had crossed their minds. Adam went through hell and came back at the end of day 1, and here he was, tired but determined to close the loop. Simon - what a machine, thinking ahead about filming, pictures, gizmos, battery chargers, you name it; all this on top of a heavy steel Kinesis, riding on 35c tyres. Michalis - wide eyed by the new adventure, sitting at the edge of his seat because of the sore, trying to spur me forward. No, I couldn't give up.
I remounted and started to pedal slowly. Keeping up, cadence, power - none of these mattered. I just had to get over the next pedal stroke, and then the next, and so on until this torture was over, until there was some flat road, until I could finally coast a little.
And so it happened. The relentless grades gradually gave way to more mellow ones, and we regrouped on top of the climb, exhausted, but knowing well that the hardest was over. No matter how far, we’d all make it back now.
Simon got carried away on a descent from his enthusiasm and the tonnes of stuff he was hauling around and missed a turn, but we soon regrouped and pedalled to Paphos, where families awaited for a long, lavish lunch by the sea. We certainly overdid it with food, because we managed to leave Paphos just shy of 17:00. We had a couple of hours of daylight ahead, 70km and 800m of climbing till Limassol. Small fry.
The wind that has blown all across the northern plains in day 2 has now turned, and was doing the same trick on our way back to our base. Some strange town planning decisions outside Paphos have led to the construction of a string of roundabouts dotting a straight, wide road, which was negotiated fairly quickly. We then went on the old Paphos-Limassol road that looks flat on a map, but it's not quite.
Every time a bump on the road appeared I was slowing down to a crawl. The same must have been happening to the others, but they weren't so slow, so in my eyes they were Chris Froome and Peter Sagan combined, while I was a broken, old man.
This pattern did not change for the next two and a half hours. What did change was the light available, and the temperature. Again, we were riding up and down the majestic Episkopi and happy valley using our lights, with the sound of tyres and chains, and the light slowly fading over the Mediterranean to our right, riding through the now cool, crisp air.
When we finally reached the salt lake flats at the west of Limassol, no one spoke. We knew we were close, that we’d been all around the island, and all that was left was to pedal steadily into the city and have a few celebratory drinks. The last few km were dispatched with aplomb, we zoomed through the Sunday evening streets back to the old harbour, and finally stopped the bikes at 19:45, 11 hours after we’d departed that morning, and three days and two nights after we’d set off in that dark, quiet Friday morning from almost that very spot. We were exhausted and we were elated.
The Circuit was complete.