Friday, 29 June 2012

Indestructible Cycling Celebrities

As I was on my way out of Greece, Sean Conway was cycling in from Turkey. We met not far from Asprovalta. Sean was one of nine cyclists who set off from London on 18th February to race 18,000 miles around the world and attempt to claim the record for the fastest time. Before the race, the record stood at an amazing 106 days. It once took me that long to cycle from Preston to Burnley. (There was a lot of traffic.)

Unfortunately, Sean's attempt was scuppered when he was hit at 55 miles an hour by a truck in America. It just ploughed into the back of him. He spent a couple of weeks in hospital and then another week being kindly looked after at the home of one of the hospital's medical staff. With such a delay, as well as continuing back problems, the record was out of reach but he decided to finish his trip.

Sean and his, erm, heavily laden bike

I noticed that he wore a helmet. Because I don't, and because my mum always tells me off for not wearing one, I asked him if it had helped during the accident. "Without the helmet, I would have been dead," he replied. Hmm, that really wasn't the answer I was looking for. The extremely dense, centimetre-thick foam at the back of the helmet was crushed to a couple of millimetres, and the top of the helmet itself had been cracked in two. I hope my mum doesn't read this one.

The existing world record had been completed as a supported tour, in other words with a lot of help from a team and a car to carry the cyclist's gear and keep him refuelled. Like everyone else who set off in Februrary, Sean's attempt was self-supported, which made it even more challenging. I couldn't believe how little he was carrying. I've carried more than that on a ride to the pub. Compared to his, my bike looked like something with advanced elephantiasis. From this handlebars, his sleeping bag hung like a tea bag. "Smallest sleeping bag in the world!" he said. "And the smallest ground mat." What, that bag included a ground mat as well? He was wild-camping most nights, setting up a sheet from the top of his bike wherever he happened to be at darkness and sleeping beneath it. God help him if he ever passes through Blackburn come sundown.

Although I massively admire Sean's athleticism and sporting ability, it's not the way I'd like to see the world. He was cycling from before dawn till after dusk. Now that the competition is over he can slow down a little but he's still pushing it. Even since the accident, he hadn't done a day of fewer than one hundred miles, whereas I hadn't done a day over one hundred (well, maybe one, but with a non-functioning cycle computer it's hard to tell). But with such a punishing schedule there's no time to see the sights, to rest for a snooze on a pretty hillside or to chat to the people you cycle past. I'm pretty sure that our conversation would have been a lot shorter had the record still been within reach. And I couldn't have blamed him. Paula Radcliffe doesn't stop for a natter during a marathon, does she? I suppose we're different animals. He's a top sportsman and I'm a lazy sod.

Mike Hall, one of the guys who set off with him, won the race and the record, slashing the time to just 91 days. That's an average of nearly two hundred miles per day, which is simply mental! Sean still hankers for a record of his own. He's thinking of trying to beat the current fastest north-to-south-Africa time. I hope he manages it. He's a fine bloke and he deserves a record of some sort. Although if he can't manage a record using his bike, as his photo shows, he may be in with a chance of World's Most Ridiculous Beard. And bear in mind, this is coming from someone's whose own stupid beard killed a woman in Bratislava last year.

I said goodbye to Sean and continued towards my home for the evening. I knew that it wasn't far but I passed right through the town where I thought it was. I asked an old fella if the campsite was nearby. He pointed up the road and said in heavily accented English, "Fifty kilometres!" No, surely not. I'd already done a hundred kilometres today. For Sean, an extra fifty would have been trivial, but not for me. I was ready, nah, desperate for a cold beer. Then the old fella showed me his forefinger and, with his other hand, slide a finger halfway down it. Ah, not fifty kilometres, but half a kilometre away. That's better. Even me and my stupid, fat bike could manage that.

Monday, 18 June 2012

The World's Worst Philosophy Tour

I first went to Athens in 1997. Acropolis aside, it was hard to like the place. It's certainly no Rome or Prague. But since then, having studied philosophy, I thought that perhaps I'd see a different side of Athens, the Athens of old, the Athens that gave us some of the superheroes of thought. So, for UniCycle50's Athenian adventure, I put together a philosophy tour. In my tour group, apart from me - the guide - was The Lovely Nina and absolutely no one else. Which, as it turned out, was just as well.

Our first destination was the garden of Epicurus. Despite giving his name to an adjective that suggests excess and gorging - two swans and a koala bear for breakfast, that type of thing - his own diet couldn't have been more different. He shut himself away in his Athenian garden with his friends, wrote more books than Barbara Cartland and ate little other than bread and cheese. But this simple life made him happy. Chasing wealth is for fools.

Chasing Epicurus's garden is also for fools. The first reason we didn't find it is because it doesn't exist, not any more. But I knew that. The internet gives clues as to its possible former location, possibly in the grounds of St George's church. As a memento of our inaugural tour we found the church and I took a snap. Tour item one completed! It was only about an hour later, when I checked the map properly, that it wasn't even the right bloody church. The St George's I snapped wasn't the one in the scruffy bit of park with a woman taking a piss around the back. No, it was the nicer one we passed later that I didn't photograph.

Not the former garden of Epicurus

Anyway, no one really knows where his garden was and so I suppose it could have been near the crappy little church I photographed. In my head, anyway. But it was this sort of half-arsed planning that was to plague the rest of my first ever guided tour.

Next up was Plato's Academy. Unlike Epicurus's garden, this still actually exists although Athens seems strangely reluctant to tell anyone where it is. As a result of this, after trudging out through a delapidated industrial estate and walking for what seemed like hours in the midday heat - mainly because it was hours - we didn't find it. A quick Google once we got back to the apartment told us we'd walked right past it, and then a few kilometres further. Signposts are for the weak, not the Greek, obviously.

Stop number three on our tour was more successful. Possibly. This was a visit to Aristotle's Lyceum, a metro ride across town from the school of Plato, Aristotle's former teacher. We found a site that had some ruins in the spot where the internet said the Lyceum was, and that would have to do. There were no signs or labels, just a big metal fence behind which was - perhaps - the site of some interesting philosophical, and even more misguided scientific, teaching. But at least we saw something.

Aristotle's Lyceum...maybe

The next day - yes, softies, this is a multi-day tour! - was Socrates Day. The plan was to find the Ancient Agora in which the pug-faced thinker used to annoy people and then find the prison in which he was forced to drink hemlock as punishment for annoying those same people. Both of these locations are below the Acropolis, an area rich in sites and poor in signage. To be honest, we had more chance of finding Socrates than his prison and that option was quickly put aside. That was OK. We had a higher goal. The Ancient Agora! It's famous. It's massive. It's incredibly well-preserved. It'''s shut. What? Why? Because today, this Sunday, the 17th of June 2012, is the Greek election. It isn't usually shut on Sundays. Just this Sunday. This one Sunday, just this one Sunday, in probably four or five years of Sundays.

The Ancient Agora, Socrates' former stomping ground, closed

And with that, my philosophy tour finally ended. So The Lovely Nina and I retired to a taverna for a huge kebab and enough beers to ensure that we talked bollocks, albeit philosophically.

If you and your friends would like to participate in any future philosophical excursions that I might run, please contact me. All trips will include a pre-tour lecture in how to handle disappointment stoically.

Oh, and perhaps our timing to visit the Parthenon wasn't the best either.


Sunday, 3 June 2012

To Malta - Cops and Tramps and Horrible Camps

Malta is not what I was expecting. I thought it would be another half-English, half-local, worst-of-both-worlds craphole like Gibraltar. Maybe it is in some places but not in Valletta. Valletta is fairly magnificent.

Getting here, though, was a pain. Let's forget that I had to cycle right down the leg of Italy. I mean, that bit was lovely.

Lovely, lovely Italy

And then I got to Sicily and, on Thursday, arrived at the ferry port of Catania, the harbour from which the Malta ferry leaves. Except that it doesn't, because you have to get on a bus - something the Virtu Ferries website was strangely silent about - and it drives south for an hour and a half to the real port of Pozzallo. Except that it doesn't, because there's no room on the bus for your bicycle. Strangely, though, there was enough room for the four, boxed up, metre and a half wide, flatscreen tellys loaded by a friend of the driver. Oh well. So at 7 o'clock in the evening, suddenly realising that I wasn't going to Malta and that I needed somewhere to stay in Catania, I legged it out of town to the only place my map showed a camping symbol. What the symbol didn't show was that Campeggio Europeo was The Worst Campsite In The Whole World.

I arrived at the site to be greeted by the surly, middle-aged owner who openly mocked by admittedly sad attempts at Italian. That's OK, I thought as I smiled at him. He's obese. He'll be dead soon. Passive aggression at its finest. I pitched my tent and then set out to find the site's bar or restaurant or minimarket for which there were numerous signs. The directions led me all around the campsite in a big circle until I ended up back at my tent. Mmm, so no bar or restaurant or minimarket, and I was miles from any shop. Oddly for a site lacking any entertainment at all it was full of 18 year olds. I'd find out why shortly. Luckily, there were some holiday homes next door and an amiable but deaf old bloke with admirable capitalist spirit had set up a table and a fridge selling crisps and beer and other essentials. I happily bought some of each. It's a pity he hadn't bothered to plug in the fridge. Back to the site and a visit to the lav, I found shite and what looked like vomit all over the floor. Lovely. You really should go there.

Campeggio Europeo notice - I couldn't agree more

I had a long way to go tomorrow - 140 kilometres - and so I planned to be gone by six thirty. I had my warm beer and crisps and settled down for an early night. At ten o'clock the music started. Now, I can't blame the site for this, but I'd managed to pitch my tent in the ideal spot to attend the Rizla Original Cucaracha beach party, attended by world famous DJs like, er, Monika Kruse. No, me neither.

On the other side of the slender fence behind my tent was the dirt track to get cars in and out of the event, but at least they drowned out the music. Sleep was difficult. Then, at three in the morning, the fireworks started.  At four o'clock, as some people started to leave, the car alarms kicked in. I think I managed to grab an hour around five-ish.

During the night I'd warmed myself with the happy thought of a noisy early morning department as revenge on the bleary-eyed youngsters but obviously the buggers were still partying when I woke up. I cycled off, half-comatose, to the sound of cool and funky teenagers jigging to Imagination and naff '70s disco. I think Monika Kruse is probably available for weddings and 18ths.

I cycled and I cycled. Approaching Syracuse, I was taken unawares when my nice, normal A-road suddenly and without warning turned into a motorway. This has happened before in Italy. Illegally, I keep going determined to escape at the first exit that took me somewhere useful. But then, around the next corner, in the hard shoulder sat a police car. Someone was being done for speeding. The first police bloke saw me and pretended to be angry for a bit. Seriously, how distraught could he have been? He fights the Mafia, for Christ's sake. Compared to organised crime, what's a tit on a pushbike? Faced with an apology and a smile they decided not to fine me and in the end gave me a police escort off the motorway. I wonder if the other drivers thought I was royalty.

Finally I made it to Pozzallo. I had a few hours to wait for the ferry and so I settled down for a nap on a wall inside the port, resting my head on my rucksack. "You are not allowed to stay here!" Eh? Some citrus-arsed port official had obviously mistaken me for a tramp getting my head down for the night. The way I looked, I couldn't blame him really. I had a shave once I arrived in Malta.

The super-modern ferry departed from Sicily at half nine in the evening. It had a big screen in the lounge that showed you the view from the front of the ship. Given that it was dark, the contrast was turned right up so that anything could be seen at all, making a single harbour light blaze like a sun. As we approached, Valletta was in the middle of a fireworks display, presumably to celebrate the Queen's 60th year of living on the dole. Watching the blasts and explosions on the high contrast TV screen made it look like we were arriving in Fallujah.

Turning up on a bike in a strange and pitch black port at 11pm isn't the best idea ever and luckily I'd booked the reasonably priced Castille Hotel and memorized the Google map to get there in the shortest time. What Google Maps didn't tell me was that the route I'd chosen was predominantly steep steps, which are even more unpleasant on a heavily panniered bike. By the time I arrived in reception, I was sweating more heavily than I was after I'd cycled the 140 kilometres in the mid-afternoon heat. I looked a mess. The friendly bloke on reception waived all need to check-in properly - that could wait until tomorrow - and I removed my sweat and stench from his nostrils - possibly the real reason for the hasty entry procedure - and soothed them all away in a long, hot bath.

But I was here in Malta, the second most southerly country on my trip (after Cyprus in July). And it's a great, little place. Although thinking about it, I have found one thing that is the worst of local/worst of British: Their homemade lager is a pissy 4.2% brew, similar to the stuff you get in a lot of British pubs. Last year at this time I was drinking some of the finest beers in Europe, in the Czech Republic. But it doesn't really matter. Beggars, and tramps, can't be choosers.