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With towering mountains, smooth roads, and spectacular coastal trails for biking and hiking – not to mention year-round sunshine – Sean McFarlane finds the island of Cyprus an ideal winter getaway for a long weekend of fun in the sun

smooth tarmac and stunning views in cyprus

Looking out from the summit of Mount Olympus, the view is every bit as legendary as its iconic name would suggest. At 1950 metres and having climbed over 2600 metres to get here, I should feel I’ve worked hard to earn the view. But actually the biking has been as fantastic as the view at the end of it. Empty roads with perfectly smooth tarmac and endless views of this sun-bronzed island have pushed us and our bikes up here far quicker than anticipated.

In one layer and short sleeves throughout, we find it hard to believe we’re in Europe in winter. But we are, and Cyprus has shown us there’s so much more to this island than sunbathing and halloumi, or for that matter just road biking.

We’ve come here for a 72-hour long weekend and are firmly focused on doing just a bit more outdoor exercise than your regular visitor to Cyprus. Well, actually quite a bit more. We did our research and the deciding factor was the weather. We looked at Southern Spain and the Canaries carefully, but Cyprus in November won. The four-day forecast we saw at Edinburgh airport, with clear blue skies and day time temperatures in the low to mid-20s, confirming that we’d made the right choice.

Our group of four arrives at the Almyra hotel on Thursday evening. It’s in the harbour area of Paphos and is the perfect base. The hotel has recently been promoting triathlon type activities and manager Ashley Goddard very much practises what he preaches.

Almost every morning he starts his day off with a kilometre swim in the crystal clear waters in front of the hotel. When we arrive he quickly invites us to join him. All too aware of our plans for the following day, we politely decline his offer. Not perhaps the typical conversation you’d expect to have with a manager of a 5 star hotel, but we tuck into our dinner that evening with a warm feeling that we’ve come to the right place.

 

Day 1: Bikes to begin

We’ve opted to come here with cyclo-cross bikes – for the uninitiated this means essentially drop handle bar ‘racer’ type bikes with knobbly tyres. Very versatile, somewhat adventurous, and we hope the perfect choice for our plans.

Friday morning dawns.  This is going to be a big day and it’s been the main topic of conversation during every Sunday ride of ours for the past six months. We’ve each agreed to do as much of this ride as we feel we can, with suitable bailout points along the way clearly identified. As always however with a bunch of male mates, testosterone ensures we’re all determined to do the whole thing. Such foolish stubbornness will need to be carefully managed.

It’s a pretty simple route – from ocean to Olympus and back – but the stats are alarming; 110 kilometres isn’t in itself a huge concern but the almost 3500 metres of vertical gain is. Of course that’s also the key attraction. We identified two main issues in our planning – daylight, or rather the lack of it, and temperature. We didn’t want to be doing any of this in the dark and were very mindful of the cooling effect of both altitude and prolonged descending. So we agreed to start at first light. We would also carry plenty of lightweight but effective clothing such as buffs, gloves and wind-proof jackets, as well as arm and leg warmers.  

We start our ride along the quiet coastal road from the hotel and head east. After 20 kilometres we turn inland. After 39 kilometres we’re still only at 260 metres above sea level but with the view ahead now wall-to-wall mountains, we know we are about to climb. The gears change, the wind drops, the pace slows and our group fragments. But the surfaces are a joy. We gain height quickly and with relative ease. After over 2 hours and having passed through the charming and sleepy (a familiar combination all along our route) village of Agios Nicolas, we’re in the delightful town of Plano Platres. It lies at 1200 metres and reminds us all of an alpine resort. With its Scots pine trees and vivid autumnal colours it has a very different feel to Paphos. We stop here for the compulsory halloumi in pita sandwich, in the full knowledge that we now have a solid and unrelenting 13 kilometre climb up a further 700 metres to the summit of Olympus.

Stevie has to be almost dragged from the restaurant but none of us would miss this final ascent for anything. Over an hour of solid climbing later each at our own pace we arrive in Troodos square and see the 3k to Olympus sign. The gradient lessens slightly, we regroup and all try to push the pace for the final surge. I’m not sure why but we just do. And then we’re there. Paphos looks strangely close, and it is, but the mountainous terrain now between it and us shows the true and epic nature of our journey.

It’s cold though (just 5 degrees) and we’re keen not to hang around too long. With extra kit now on, we descend, first going north-westwards through Prodromos and then contouring around the south side of the mountain, to Plano Platres. From here we retrace our steps to Paphos, following seemingly endless, fast, flowing and perfect tarmac. We’re all too mindful that even the descent involves over 1000 metres of ascent but the intermittent climbs serve only to give us a welcome chance to sit up, look up and take in the sensational views.

With the sun beginning to set, we check our watches and agree we’re okay for time, just. Eventually back on the coastal road we somehow pick up the pace, fuelled by a combination of halloumi and huge satisfaction. It’s a powerful and effective blend and we arrive back at Almyra with half an hour’s light to spare.

It has been every bit as epic a ride as we’d hoped for. Once off the coastal road, we’ve hardly seen a car. Everyone is hungry for more, and the evening’s talk quickly turns to tomorrow’s ride. We all noticed the endless off-road tracks in every direction as we climbed to Olympus and we can’t wait for a ride on the wild side. We turn in tired, satisfied and chomping at the bit to get out tomorrow and get riding again.

 

Day 2: Rough stuff riding

We’re all up for another crack of dawn breakfast on Saturday – it’s funny, but we’re never this keen to jump out of bed at home! Everyone’s tired from the previous day’s efforts but enthusiasm levels are still high. Today’s route starts with the same road out of Paphos eastwards but this time we take the first major but still virtually empty road into the mountains. More steady climbing follows on the now customary perfect surfaces to the village of Pentalia.
And then the off-road fun begins. We descend on a loose surface road and it’s perfect for the cyclo-cross bikes we’re riding.  There’s dust everywhere, and I’m keen to lead. Eventually at the bottom with arms and hands nicely aching we see the road back up the other side of the valley. The surface improves, then round a corner we’re back on a jet black tarmac race track.

We’ve no idea why it’s here but nobody complains. Climbing up to Salamiou we stop for coffee and cake. A quick check of the map and then we’re off again, descending once more. The tarmac suddenly stops but that’s what we want. Cyprus is undoubtedly being discovered by road bikers but I’m confident none has done this type of riding and we can’t contain our smugness. As yesterday, we reach Agios Nicolas, but this time we’ve taken a very different route to get here.

It’s been a great ride but I’m particularly aware that our collective enthusiasm for more is in danger of overtaking our fitness levels. Reluctantly I manage to get all of us to agree to a return from here by tarmac road, but not before we all agree to go via the gloriously named Arsos just because we can. It also turns out to have a perfect food stop. With a quick refuel we’re off again.

Once back at the coast we can’t resist having a go on the coastal path from Aphrodite’s Rock. It’s the perfect swooping off-road trail with a surprising amount of single track. It’s also tiring, and we realise the light is fading – it seems to get dark here quicker than home. So we agree on a final concerted push for the last 10k on the road, reaching the Almyra with street lights just turning on. Perfect timing.

Ashley spots us as we come through reception, and we share our day’s adventures with him. He’s fascinated by the cyclo-cross aspect to our ride. After a good deal of tyre squeezing and bike lifting, he takes us into his office to search the net for prices. His office is cramped, and the odours from our eight hours in the Cyprus sun and mountains quickly make their presence felt. We agree to reconvene for a pre-dinner pint for further discussion.

In a welcome change to normal pub etiquette, we scrutinise the maps before ordering our favoured and well-earned tipple. It’s difficult to get any general agreement on our route as all of us are so keen to discuss more tracks.

Over dinner, we realise we’ve spent little time in and around the hotel and Paphos itself. The easy way to resolve this is to take up Ashley’s invite to swim. The 7 am meet time is questioned but when we all realise we’re fading anyway, and it’s only 9.30 pm, we agree.

 

Day 3: Swim, sun, run…

On our final morning we meet Ashley in the hotel foyer. He leads us out onto the promenade where a variety of happy voices and accents can already be heard. Placing our sandals alongside a heap of others, we climb down the short steps and into the warm sea.

Ashley’s clearly the strongest swimmer and straight away sets off for the furthest buoy. We follow at our own pace and leisurely do the kilometre circuit. We’re in no rush to get out and we all join in on the ‘lying on back paddle’ that others seem to all be adopting. “Breakfast time!” shouts Ashley and that’s the red rag we need. Five minutes later we’re sitting outside at the Almyra with our buffet breakfast. What a way to start a day.

Telling ourselves that recovery is as important as exercise, we decide to sample the hotel’s spa after breakfast, lying in the sun with satisfied grins like a group of victorious boxers fresh from a bout.

After lunch I moot the idea of a run, as Ashley has shown us some great routes from the hotel along the coast in both directions. Simon and Stevie respond in unison – “no chance” and head back to the spa. Gavin’s keen though so we take a leisurely jog along the promenade northwards on the mosaic path past perfect bay after perfect bay. After 20 minutes we turn back, then spend the rest of the day soaking up the winter sun at the hotel before checking out and making the 15-minute journey back to the airport.

We had high hopes for Cyprus, and they’ve all been surpassed. With so much more to explore and do, we’re planning our next visit before we’ve even left….