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Stage 5 

Southern Europe Athens to Barcelona

 3766 Kilometres

    16th March to 29th April 2000

According to our DRG (daily route guide) today it is day 92 which is almost exactly 25 % into our Global trek, and having covered 1656 Kms on stage 5 and 9008 Kms since 1st Jan I have come to the conclusion that this trip is not for the feint hearted or wimps. Having said that I have no regrets and will come out of this with such a wide circle of friends and maybe a little wiser and fitter ?

As indicated in my previous report on stage 4 from South Africa, that stage 5 in respect of Mediterranean Europe is the longest stage in Odyssey covering 44 days from Athens to Barcelona.  Just in case any one out there should forget who that Globe Trotting Pensioner was during that period, I thought it best to split that stage into two reports.  

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ATHENS

So herewith my reflections on the 22 day period of  ODYSSEY 2000 (R) FROM ATHENS TO ASSISI  (ITALY) A DISTANCE OF  1887 Kilometres As promised in my last report and in response to a number of email enquiries which I have had since we started. Plus the considerable interest and (some envy) expressed by UK cyclists that I came into contact with prior to the start of Odyssey 2000 (R).  I will at this stage explain a little about the daily life of an Odyssey 2000 cyclist, and what could prompt anyone to give up a year of their life in order to ride a bicycle around the World. 

The average age of the 240 strong party is 49, with the youngest at 19 years of age and the eldest clocking in at 79. The majority live within the USA but there are also contingents from Canada, France, Switzerland, Chile and Sri Lanka with just two from the UK.  Many folk who have not yet reached retiring age will be looking for new jobs when they return to normal life. Some have sold house and car some have just let their house. One couple recently retired, when they informed their family of their plans for the millennium, the response was Oh Mom, why cant you be like other folk and buy a motor home. Then there are two couples who are spending their honeymoon on the trip.

The Seattle based company have been in the bike tour business since the early eighties and have a good reputation among American and UK cyclists. Odyssey 2000 (r) has in fact been 7 years in the planning and the next one is proposed for the year 2003 with possibly a smaller group.

Each rider has a personal locker 17 inches square by 36 inches deep in a specially designed gear truck, this has to accommodate all your luggage and camping gear. In addition there are over a dozen support vehicles, mobile showers, and sag wagons all in radio contact, with a support crew of nearly 30.  These include 3 qualified masseurs and every rider is entitled to one free massage every 3 weeks any further massage in that period has to be paid for. Two vehicles and technical staff are responsible for all service and repairs to the top of the range US Raleigh Touring bike issued to every rider before the start and included in the cost of the tour.  We do have to pay for new tyres and any routine replacements. There are several couples with tandems and they have to make their own provision for the replacement of spares, etc.  

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ODYSSEY GEAR TRUCKS ON THE MOVE

We are camping 40 % of the trip with 2 rest or travel days per week. If the camp site we are using does not have adequate showers then there are mobile showers which can be erected within an hour. Two things which the Tour organiser considers are essential on trip of this nature to any biker are hot showers and 2 good meals a day, which we do get most of the time. There will be around 18 flights between Counties, several ferries, plus a couple of train journeys. Breakfast is available usually from 6.30 to 8am and when you are camping this means getting up around 5.30 am. When we have a long day I am usually on the road 7 for 7.30am We average just under 80 miles per day and at the end of some days when you get to camp have had a shower put your tent up and had supper you are ready for bed. A daily route guide is issued at breakfast every morning and there is always a checkpoint half was through, and at the end of each day to account for every rider. If any rider has mechanical problems is taken ill or is on the road after nightfall, then he or she is picked up by the sag wagon. Temporary staff are taken on as drivers, etc. for each Country we visit this also helps where it is not an English speaking Country.

There is a wide range in the riding ability of the 240 strong party with a large number of experienced and strong riders who were well prepared for the 12 months ahead. Some have found it more than they had expected resulting in days off the bike. In the first 3 months there have been 6 serious accidents resulting in hospital treatment and possible repatriation home. The one rider who is in fact the youngest at 19 years of age and appears to be on the brink of a promising racing career, watch for the name of True (Trueheart) Brown. I understand that True gave up an invitation to spend the summer at the USA Olympic Training village in order to cycle the World with Odyssey 2000 (R). True will often arrive at camp before the gear trucks and on one day in South Africa I happened to be at camp when True arrived looking very fresh after a hilly ride of 177 Kms at an average speed of 35 Km per hour. Anyone who would like more information and has access to the internet can check out the following website www.odyssey2000.com

In response to those who may possibly be interested in any future Odyssey, details have now been published of the next Odyssey in 2003 and every 2 years after.  Much experience was gained and lessons learnt from the first Odyssey and future participants will have the following improvements to choose from.

The event will be split into 12 separate stages covering periods from 3 weeks to 12 months, this will benefit folk who do not have the time or resources to be away for 12 months. The numbers will in future be limited to 125 at any one time with the daily mileage reduced from 79 miles to 61. The average number of nights where beds will be provided will increase to 50 %  

So back to stage 5 which started with our flight from Cape Town to Athens this was scheduled for 10pm on 16th March and our instructions were to arrive at the airport by 5 pm for loading of the bikes and baggage. What had not been confirmed was the fact that we were to fly with the same plane (a Boeing 747 ) and flight crew who took us from Argentina to South Africa 5 weeks before This was indeed good news to all the Odyssey party who were personally welcomed on.  board by the Captain and owner Prince Ahmed?  We eventually took off just after midnight with supper being served an hour later to a rather tired bunch of bikers. The flight was as scheduled almost exactly 10 hours touching down at Athens around 10.30am on 17th March.

Another unforeseen problem awaited us as we collected our luggage and bikes at Athens Airport. It appeared that the Odyssey Gear Trucks (which contain our luggage lockers) which had been shipped from Mexico back in Jan could not for some reason be released by the Greek customs and excise.  This resulted in the hiring at short notice of local trucks to transfer all the luggage to our hotel. This meant another delay as no one could leave the airport until all the luggage had been accounted for and transferred to our hotel. The 17th of March the day of our arrival was down on the Itinerary as a rest day (much needed after a night flight). In the end and after a 15 Km ride from the Airport we checked in at the Astir Palace Hotel between 5 and 6 pm.

Approx. 12 hours later breakfast was being served to 240 rather tired bikers who were about to commence day 78, a mere 144 kms ride out of Athens and along the coast to New Epidavros.  Our DRG (daily route guide) for that day ran to 3 pages with 1 1/2 being devoted to our passage through and out of Athens. Anyone who has cycled in Athens will know that 7 to 9 am is a busy time on the streets, plus the fact that Greek drivers in general and in particular those in Athens appear to use to maximum effect the car accelerator and the horn.  

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ATHENS - DAY 78

There was also noticeable drop in temperature between Cape Town and Athens which meant digging out the leg and arm warmers and having rain gear to hand. It was after 11 am that we stopped for coffee and pastries feeling just a little fragile having exited Athens in one piece and glad to be in the Country.

Our route for the rest of the day included a few climbs along the coast where the scenery was improving with every kilometre. It also took us over the famous Corinth Canal via a narrow wooden bridge, which was very wet and slippery in spite of the fact that it was a warm sunny day. Further investigation confirmed why it was wet, in order to allow shipping to pass through, the bridge was lowered to the bed of the canal. As we crossed the bridge (in single file and on foot) I heard an American accent behind me declare: You know construction of this canal was started by the Romans yes came a response (IN AN ENGLISH ACCENT) and it was finished by Wimpey Ltd.

The first overnight campsite at New Epidavros was right on the coast, and as camping in Southern Europe is not yet under way this site was opened up for our party. day 2 took us to Tyrosapounakaaiika (Tiros Arcadia) a pleasant route with olive and orange trees in abundance. The route today also took us through the town of Nafplio the first Capital of Greece.

The itinerary on day 80 took us inland and towards the mountains, which were not looking very inviting with low cloud level and snow in the distance. At 23 kms we began a climb which continued for the next 29 kms This 1200 metre climb was interrupted by a visit to the Elonis Monastery  built at a very high point on the cliff face. It was then a question of putting on warm clothing for the long descent to our overnight stop at Sparta.

Day 81 started with another long climb of 1370 meters into the mountains and down to Gialova, which took us back to the coast. However the weather was not in our favour today as within 15kms we were climbing into rain which turned to snow as we got higher. We arrived at the summit feeling very wet and cold to a very welcome respite at a Restaurant with a roaring log fire. In spite of the warm up and food we were now facing a long and fast descent with many sharp 180 degree curves. At the end of the day there were 3 reported accidents with riders coming to grief on the descent.

The last of our 6 days in Greece took us to Olympia, where the Olympics began. Olympia with a population of less than 1000 is a popular tourist area with plenty of places to eat and explore. Whilst we made time for the consumption of food there was no time left for exploring as our last day in Greece required an early start. So on day 83 with a temp of 2 degrees centigrade we were on the road at 7 am for the 135 kms ride to the port of Patra.  

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TEMPLE OF ATHENA PRONAEA- GREECE

We had to arrive at Patra before 4 pm in order to catch our first cruise ferry to Italy. This was an overnight crossing so bunks, supper, and breakfast were all provided in reasonable comfort before our docking at Bari on the South East coast of Italy around 8am on day 84.

We had a comparatively short ride of 67kms to Alberobello on our first day in Italy. However Bari is a fairly large and busy Port so the sudden appearance of 240 odd cyclists on to the streets at 8.30 am did cause some confusion to an already busy thoroughfare. We had gone no more than 1km from the Harbour when the column of Odyssey riders suddenly came to a halt. Several minutes passed before word came back along the line that the reason for our delay was that the local Carabiniere were awaiting instructions from higher Authority as to what they should do about (or with) this invasion of bikers who were adding to the morning rush hour confusion. There was a jovial comment passed back along the line that we could all finish up in jail (at least a room and hot shower for the night)? We eventually started to move with the approval and direct support of the motorcycle traffic police who escorted the column of bikers safely out of town.

Day 2 in Italy took us to Lido di Metaponto at the very southerly tip of Italy before our trek north and up the west coast. The first welcome rest day since leaving Cape Town was at Scalea on day 86 a coastal resort with an old Town which we were able to explore.

The itinerary now followed the west coast north through the historic town of Paestum which has the archaeological site of a Greek city (pre Roman Empire). This was followed by one of the most spectacular coastal rides which one could wish for on a cycle. I refer to the Amalfi Coast which wound its way around bay after bay with long steady climbs followed by equally long descents.  

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AMALFI COAST ITALY

Some light relief came towards the end of a very good ride on day 90 to Pomei when we had to negotiate the afternoon rush hour of Naples. A small Pekinese dog was spotted crossing the busy road with a pair of ladies underwear in its mouth. There were several offers from gallant (male) members in the party who wanted to set up a search party to find the owner. Not quite sure if it was the owner of the dog or the underwear they wanted to assist.

An overnight stop at Pompeii where our camp site was just across the road made it possible to visit the historic archaeological remains of this famous city. It was on 24th August 79 AD that the coastal city of Pompeii with a population of 8 to 10,000 was obliterated from the sun with the black river of ash which came from the summit of  Mount Vesuvius. It takes a good 3 hours to wander through the remains of the City where a guide is an advantage. It appeared that the population at the time of the eruption consisted of 60% free men and the remaining 40% were slaves.  

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POMPEII IN 

THE MILLENNIUM

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Another amusing incident which arose during our tour of Pompeii (and recorded on film).   was one male member of the Odyssey party who was seen coming out of a brothel with a smile on his face. Unfortunately for him the premises had been closed down nearly 2000 years before from the anger of Mount Vesuvius.

On day 93 we arrived for 2 days in the Worlds greatest Eternal City I refer to Rome which could be described as an open air museum. The guide books tell you that they have been building roads in and around Rome for nearly 2,500 years and personally I think it is about time they stopped. Any tourist arriving in Rome for the first time usually gets lost in the maze of one way streets . So it was lucky that our campsite was 10 kms from the City centre from which we had a good public transport system.  I have to admit that I found walking around this beautiful City to be more tiring than a 150 km cycle ride. From the Coliseum, to the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona, and finally the Vatican City. We really could only scratch the surface in the day and a half at our disposal.  

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The Coliseum 

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Vatican City- St Peter's Cathedral

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From Rome our itinerary took us (160 kms) to another rest day at Assisi, here we were housed at a very comfortable Hotel managed and run by Franciscan Monks. Assisi I found to be a fascinating town with a tremendous history, but very much quieter than Rome

  Well after a rest day in Assisi we have just 6 days left in Italy, which will take us to Urbino (birthplace of Raphael), Florence, Pisa and Genoa before heading into the South of France en-route to Barcelona. All of which I think must come with my next report which will cover the remainder of stage 5 from  Assisi to Barcelona

ASSISI TO BARCELONA (Continued)

We departed from Assisi on day 98 for the 108 Km ride to Urbino (birthplace of Raphael). This was a punishing day with two mountain climbs equal to an elevation of 9,000 Ft. The effort was rewarded with some magnificent views.

Days 99 to 102 took us to Caprese Michelangelo,  Florence, and Pisa. The terrain was now not so hilly. The ride from Florence to Pisa will be remembered by yours truly for the continuous rain for most of the day and a blow out in my rear tyre just 8 Kms from town.
The route from Pisa took to the hills again with a vengeance stopping at Levanto a cool historic town on the coast, and Genoa. The climbing was rewarded again by some superb coastal scenery.

Day 105 saw the end of our ride through Italy and into the South of France. Following 2 rest days in Nice we headed west through St Tropez and along the Med Coast passing the homes of the rich and famous. It was lucky for us that the tourist season was not in full swing.

Day 114 saw the start of the Pyrenees from Carcassone to Ax Les Thermes (110 Kms). This will be one of those days which will not be forgotten in a hurry.

Not so much for the climbs spread over 90 Kms to the summit at 1431 metres (4579 Ft ), or the spectacular views en-route which were some consolation.

It was the atrocious weather for which day 114 will be remembered. In normal weather conditions we would have taken the climb in our stride, but once again it was not normal weather. It was after all the end of April, but very wet, cold, and windy, right from the start of day 114. This gradually turned to snow and blizzard conditions.

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SPRING TIME

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IN THE PYRENEES

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Following a hard days climbing, the steep and curvy descent into the Mountain Resort of Ax Les Thermes lasted for only 10.5 Kms. We were due to camp that night, a prospect I did not relish, fortunately one of my companions who had arrived ahead of me had booked a room at one of the towns Hotels all of which were in great demand that night.

Day 115 was our last day in France and the Pyrenees, on paper it was down as an 82 Km ride. Closer examination of our route sheet for the day indicated that the first 36 Kms we would be climbing (again) to the crest of the Pyrenees at 2407 metres (7702 ft).
Fortunately the weather was much improved on the previous day which enabled us to appreciate the climb (covered by the 98 Tour de France) and subsequent views from the snow capped summit.
Here we took a breather and some refreshment before starting a descent which lasted for almost 46 Kms taking us through Andorra and to our first camp site in Spain at La Seu d'urgell.

Day 116 included a climb to the famous Spanish mountain crags of Monistrol de Montserrat to an elevation of 690 metres (2300 Ft  Day 117 to Barcelona covered a distance of 97 Kms and was the end of stage 5 from Athens a distance of 3787 Kms.
-------------------------------------------------------------- Following a 2 day layover in the beautiful City of Barcelona, the entire 240 riders and staff of Odyssey 2000 were transported by coach for the 14 hour (overnight) journey to Gibraltar for the start of stage 6 to Lisbon.

We arrived at Gibraltar at around 10 am on Day 120 feeling rather tired and jaded after our night journey from Barcelona. There was one rest day in Gibraltar before the start of stage 6 which would end in Lisbon on May 11th.