Saturday, November 6, 2010

Climb every mountain: an amateur’s guide to hills

From Mountains of Cyprus

Cyprus is what you make of it. Or so the sanguine Latvian waitress in Nicosia told us of her 6 year stay. Not planning to be there for such an extensive residency, we decided to make it short, sweet and steep. Our route away from the fleshpots and gambling dens of the coast and capital would lead us to the central mountains of Troodos and the Pafos forest, where conifers carpet the slopes and mouflon (a wild species of sheep) scatter rocks into your path as they scurry away. Despite the general feeling in Nicosia that we would need a rental car, as the roads were too narrow, steep and dangerous, we felt we were up to the challenge.

Having left behind our camp amongst the almond groves, we continued wending our way upwards, as terraced farmland gave way to forests. Though incredibly tempted by the prospect of an official bike path (Cyprus is very accommodating to the cycle tourist, particularly on mountain bikes), we chose to take the major road that led to the ‘town’ of Troodos and the highest peak, Mt Olympus. After a gentle climb to 1950m, we found the peak cloud-covered and a far cry from the steamy temperatures of sea-level. From here, we descended and followed roads to Stavros tis Psokas and the monastery at Kykkos that wound along the edge of steep hillsides at an approximately continuous altitude. After the steep ups and downs of Turkey I could only intone mentally: Oh, road builders of Cyprus, I salute thee.
An official campsite at Stavros yielded flat grounds, facilities and an abundance of chestnuts that fell around us throughout the night. Observing the many locals and park rangers who were encouraging these fruits from the elderly trees, we gathered our own while we could and continued on our sweet descent to the western coastline. At this time of year there were very few cars on the road, wonderful views with autumnal foliage and sweeping curves that gave us the impression that we had reached a cycle-tourist’s playground in the off-season and they had opened it especially for us.

Almost as soon as we had reached the coast, however, we found that the Greeks had been just as effective in encouraging the business of the British expat as the Turkish Cypriots. We longed for the glorious hills again and turned back at Pamos to find another route inland. Just 5km along and we were back in almost deserted farmland looking for a patch of dirt in which to camp. Back where we belong. We also discovered here that choice of road could make a significant difference to your hill-climbing experience. The E-road we had descended on was many magnitudes of road quality greater than the F-road we attempted to ascend on. Dirt and gravel reduced me to pushing the bike, as my tired legs did not have the reserve to compensate for the sudden changes of direction enforced by larger rocks.
Our choice of route was mildly limited by the necessity of reaching an official border crossing, Astromerites being the only available point west of Nicosia. Deciding we weren’t going to gamble on reaching yet another dirt road at lower altitude, we changed tack and followed an asphalt road to ascend back towards Stavros to repeat the lovely section between it and Kykkos.

To give an impression of our Cypriot undulations, here is an image from the incredibly useful website Map My Ride (though it does underestimate the altitude by about 600m):
Having started our entire journey complaining about hill-climbing in Korea, I was surprised how much I eagerly anticipated the hill-climbs here. And it got me reflecting, as seems common towards the end of journeys, about my own adventure with hills.

I am not a born climber. I have never trained, or been instructed by anyone, in the art of bikes, gearing or even a structured approach to individual exertions as part of sporting pursuits. To contemplate this journey, particularly with 50kg bikes, 5 or even 2 years ago would have seemed ludicrous to me. Before our first trip to a mountainous country (we seem to make a habit of this), I would fling myself at inclines with gusto, hoping to make it at least some distance up the slope and then falling back on what little reserve I had for the remainder. This, I learnt quickly, was not a strategy for long term success.
So, for those people who have asked us about whether we needed to train for this journey, and how on earth we make it up those hills, I offer a few uneducated thoughts about the approach I have developed along the way.

Hill-climbing is as much if not more mental than physical, so I will list tips in two categories.

  • Although it helps to be moderately fit before departure, with persistence you will get fit along the way.
  • Get to know your gears well, and use the full range up to the highest (to remember: the one that makes it easy to go high!).
  • Try to keep your legs moving at about the same pace (roughly 1.5-2 revolutions per second) as you change gears, remembering to change down for descents so you don’t spin too fast and exhaust your legs.
  • Go as slow as you need to, and pace yourself.
  • You can rest you legs a little by changing the muscles you use. Imagine a string attached to your quads picking them up as you ride along. A little extra oomph can also be gained by bracing your arms a little with a forward grasp and activating your core muscles.
  • As you approach an ascent from a downhill run, learn to time your change up the gears so that you are not left spinning uselessly or stuck on too large a chain ring (the big cogs at the front).
  • Day 3 of hill-climbing feels much better than the previous 2 days.

  • You can.
  • Go as slow as you need to, not as fast as the person in front. You will both get there in the end.
  • You can always walk the bike. This is acceptable. But not until you have used your highest gear.
  • You only have to ride the section just in front of you, not the whole mountain. Don’t aim for the summit but pick a point a few metres in front of you, ride for that and then pick another one and reward yourself each time you reach a marker.
  • The summit you can see may not be the top of the mountain.
  • Music with a ‘f***-you attitude’ helps enormously.
  • Enjoy descents – you earned them.

Cycling Summary: 375km
Nicosia to stealth camp out from Agia Georgios 47km
Stealth camp to Stealth camp amongst almond trees 21km
Almond trees to Pedoulas (via Mt Troodos summit) 35km
Pedoulas to Stavros campsite 47km
Stavros campsite to Pafos forest stealth camp (via Chrysochou Bay) 60km
Pafos forest camp to stealth camp past Oikos (via Stavros and Kykkos again) 77km
Stealth camp to Lapithos (via Astromeritis border crossing) 71km
Lapithos to Girne harbor 17km

Mountains of Cyprus


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