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Mountain Biking in Kefalonia.

I’d watched ‘Captain Correlli’s Mandolin’ for the 3rd time overawed by the timeless beauty of Kefalonia. So many of the rocky crags and dust tracks seemed ‘do–able’ as us Mountain Bikers tend to say (my admiration for beautiful places is somewhat influenced by their ’Mountain Bikeability’ I must confess). Anyway, I’ve bought the Captain Correlli video now. Nicholas Cage struggling to sound vaguely like an Italian creates a minor distraction, but nothing I’m not prepared to tolerate for a couple of hours of what is otherwise a splendid film. I respect the guy as an actor and love his other work, but I kept getting little subconscious glimpses of ‘American action hero Cage’ – totally inappropriate. Still, better than that American bloke in ‘Oceans Eleven’ trying to sound like a cockney…

We digress. So the scene was set. I had to go, so off the Hart family bundled to Kefalonia with bike in box. We were totally overloaded though and got stung for £125 in excess baggage, which was a bit of a shock, but hey - I had my bike with me and I would’ve paid almost anything for that. If you decide to go, you can be a whole lot more organised than we were and book your trusty stead onto the plane in advance at very little cost. Don’t just turn up with it, they’ll get ya and it will ruin the start of your holiday. I met one chap out there who brought his own bike and it cost him nowt.

For those that have never heard of it, Kefalonia is one of the many Greek islands, a stone’s throw from Zakinthos and a short ferry trip from Corfu. The highest mountain peak in Kefalonia is 1628 meters, which is some 250 meters higher than Ben Nevis. What’s significant though is that you can ride from sea level in Skala to the summit almost entirely off road and I managed it without dabbing a foot. Actually, I did stop to take some photos and look at the map, but I was never forced to dab if you know what I mean. I guess you’ll need a modicum of fitness and mental staying power though. There was one 10-minute section where I had to granny ring it, but the rest was in the middle ring.

I did fail to conquer this beast on my first attempt however. I set off at about 6pm to escape the heat of the July sun and climbed for 2 hours (about 1000 meters), but had to turn back due to the prospect of fading light. A few days later I set off at 4:30pm and god was it hot? I hugged the side of the trail, trying to grab every spot of shade I could. The higher I climbed and longer I rode, the cooler it got, but I’d drunk 2 of my 3 litres of fluid in the first hour and a half. Amusingly, when I passed a local goat herder at about 1200m (the only human being I passed during my entire ride), he stopped dead in his tracks, watched me trundle past and then shouted “lupo”, which I assume meant “mad” in Greek. He might have been calling me a “twat”, but I was too knackered to give a s*!t…

It took 3¼ hours to get to the top, which I calculated would give me 15 minutes of calm reflection before I had to rocket back down again, descending like a daylight chasing phycho monster (opposite of a vampire I guess). What would the shepherd say? During these moments of reflection I perched myself on a rocky ledge and looked out across the sea to Zakynthos. I was so high up that the sea was only distinguishable by colour. A heat haze disguised any real detail. It was cool up there too, almost cold, but still probably about 20 degrees.

Ha haaaaa, now to the decent. I hardly had to turn the pedals for an hour and a quarter. It was really loose dry and dusty and I had skinny semi slick tires, which spoilt my fun a bit. I usually ride with soft 2.1’s, so this was unusual for me. Still, I still went pretty ‘rapid’ in a straight line and got into a satisfactory flow after a while. Pinch punctured 5 minutes from the top though!

What’s great about riding in Kefalonia is that every single road that isn’t red on the map is unmade. Many are suitable for 4 X 4 jeeps only and you’re advised not to take a standard car on them, but they’re perfect for a Mountain Bike. There’s basically a whole mapped network of off-roading, which makes navigation simple. I guess there are a number of unmapped tracks, but I never had a reason to hunt for any.

I strongly suggest not going to Kefalonia to ride at the peak of the season if you want to ride lots, because it’s just too hot. I also recommend taking some of your own carbs out with you, because you’ll be hard pushed to find decent energy-giving food while you’re out there. All the restaurant food is drenched in olive oil, even the rice, so you’re probably best going for healthy Greek salads, lean kebabs and topping your energy stores up with carbo drink and fruit juices. What the hell though, if you’re going on holiday, eat what you like, it’s just that some attention to your diet while you’re out there will make the whole riding experience that much better. I would never have been able to do the volume of riding without the carbs

Ooohh, writing this article has just brought back a rush of memories. I think I’d better get the holiday brochures out…