27 November – 10 December 2016
This section covers 1,100k from Istanbul through northern Greece to Lefkada, an island in the Ionian Sea. It was already very cold when I left Istanbul, so I skipped what could have been a few interesting detours and rode straight to Lefkada.
Staying in Istanbul and doing a return trip to Denmark getting new equipment, I had been off the bike for over 5 weeks. It was a nice physical break gaining 10kg, though as always it meant a tough beginning being out of shape. It was also a nice mental break, but it was too short and busy to make a real difference. I was very happy about my new rear wheel, allowing me to focus on enjoying the ride instead of endless challenges. However, with the guy in the Istanbul bike shop messing up my gears, I kept the old wheel on the first day to prevent repetition of the “Singapore-event”, where an overshooting chain broke 7-8 spokes in my new wheel entailing endless bike problems all the way to Istanbul. The weather forecast looked less promising – a few days after leaving, I would encounter 2 days of heavy rain followed by 2 days of hard frost. I could avoid it by procrastinating my departure 6 days, but I preferred a layover in the tent over more time in Istanbul, so I headed out.
From Istanbul, it was 250k to the Greek border. A fairly boring ride, the first half through endless suburbs and the other through open countryside – all the way in cold, overcast weather riding into a strong headwind. Either I was in rare bad shape, or I pushed harder than usual in the combination of rolling hills/strong headwind, because already at noon on day two, I got pain in my right knee. It probably came from compensating for my bad left knee and although I pushed less, my left knee began to hurt a few hours later. The weather forecast was spot on, so day 3-6 I had to layover because of rain and hard frost down to -10C. My sleeping bag takes -9C, and with the strong wind it was stretched to the limit. Wearing several layers of clothes in the sleeping bag helped me keep warm though I struggled with my feet getting very cold every time I went outside 15-30 minutes for eating - my sneakers are really not made for this kind of weather. I tried to leave the third day, but my gear cables were frozen from the rain turning into snow and frost, so I ended up staying two more days. Maybe for the best, as the strong headwind would have made it freezing cold. Nothing is so bad that it isn't good for something. The small forest I camped in turned out to be a very peaceful place where the only sounds were the distant road, a tractor passing by on the dirt road and a few dogs barking. The 4 days provided an opportunity to sleep, relax, read and reflect upon life. I realised how much I’d missed peace and quietness in 2016 - always biking on and sleeping just next to noisy roads and when taking breaks being in busy hostels...
Crossing into Greece, the first 500k to Veria were easy riding being mostly flattish with only a few big hills. Most of the way I rode secondary roads, but a few shorter stretches I had to ride the highway, and a couple of times I did it to make progress. Once the police past in the other direction using the siren at me, so I pushed hard for 3k to reach the exit before they could turn around and catch me. The road offered lovely diverse nature – through open countryside, over hills and past wetlands, lakes and rivers as well as along the sea. The weather improved somewhat – half the days were still cold and overcast but other days were sunny, increasing the temperature and providing great views especially riding the coast.
I was happy having had some easy days to get in shape, because the 350k from Veria to Lefkada were very hilly having to cross several mountain ranges; the highest point around 1,600m elevation. Hard work but beautiful riding at this time of year, being so desolate except for a few locals in the villages. I was lucky with mostly sunny days increasing the otherwise low temperature and greatly improving the views. The downside to the clear skies was bitterly cold nights – every morning waking up to a frozen tent and bike. In the desert, it was always about finding a tree/bush to protect the tent from the morning sun, but now it was about finding a camp spot offering morning sun to defrost my stuff (an myself).
Despite the cold weather, I really enjoyed the ride. Most importantly, the new rear wheel meant a lelaxing ride with no problems except one flat tire. The only equipment problem was my phone - the screen constantly froze so I had to restart it and on the last day the charger in the phone broke (once again) so I finally took the consequence and bought a new phone when I got to Lefkada. Except for a few short stretches, the roads were good and more often with a shoulder and I only had one flat tire (and not because of the broken wheel). Riding in mostly desolate areas, I didn’t meet many locals and the few I did meet, looked at me like I was an alien. They don’t bike much in Greece and certainly not long-distance on a big bike in the middle of the winter. Just before Lefkada, the road split and I unsuccessfully tried to stop 20 cars to ask for directions – everybody went way around, so I was happy not needing help for a big problem.
My initial idea had been to stay fairly short time in Greece before continuing to southern Italy, but the cold biking and camping made me change my mind and procrastinate departure until spring.