It’s 11am on Wednesday 13th June (2016), Stage 11 of this year’s Tour de France. Chris Froome, wearing the race leader’s Yellow Jersey, and challengers to his title are preparing to ride 162km from Carcassonne – Montpellier. Laura and I are ready to set off on our own challenge, to descend 1200m (4000 ft) from Xyloscala at the top of Samaria Gorge, riding around 45 km to sea level at Sougia.
First the logistics. Early morning we took two top-quality ‘Geant’ cycles from ‘Notos’ * on Paleochora’s main street, loaded them on to my car’s cycle-carrier, and together with Due, one of Notos staff, drove 65km to Xyloscala. Just 1.5 hrs later we unloaded the bikes, and then Due drove back, leaving the car for when we returned later by the “Samaria” ferry.
We took photographs against the backdrop of Gingilos and the Linoseli col (see ‘Explore’ – April 2014), adjusted saddles, strapped on helmets, then free-wheeled 2km down to the Omalos plateau. Around 20 sq.km, the plateau has a cool climate with fertile soil which produces cereal crops, potatoes and apples, several trees of which we rode by, sadly not quite ripe.
Sheep are brought up to spend the summer here, often moving even higher to the ‘Madares’ at Katsiveli. We paused by the shallow lake, originally believed to have been far more extensive, and thought to have emptied centuries ago through the Tzani cave, 1 km north of Omalos ‘village’.
A short rise took us to the small church of Ag. Theodorii, the start of the E4 high-level path to Koustoyerako (see “Explore” July 2014), then a long run down to Petra Seli col, and the road junction to Chania. Above us the turbines were turning slowly – at 850m now, and with little wind and cool temperatures, conditions were perfect for cycling.
A sign indicated we had already ridden 12km from Omalos, with a further 29km to Sougia. A further 5km, with Laura well in the lead, brought us to the start of Agia Irini gorge, and a stop for drinks at the Porofarago taverna, where three generations – Maria, her mother, and daughter Maria-Eleni – were full of admiration and most impressed by our exploits.
Another short climb up to Epanochori, then on down through Prines and Tsiskiana to Kambanos, and decision time. There’s a 3km contouring road from here towards Moni, which would save us the long climb to Rodovani. But the prospect of an 11-km all-descent from Rodovani to Sougia was too great, so upwards we pedalled, through Maralia and Agriles to Rodovani, just 3.5 km with a rise of only 100m, but which certainly felt more.
It was worth it, and the next half-hour was sheer exhilaration. Laura flew through Moni at a speed Mark Cavendish would have been proud of, and 5km later we were at sea-level Sougia.
Of several tavernas, “Omicron” is undoubtedly the best, and their “Special Vegetarian Omelettes” were perfect for replenishing lost calories, and our thirst assuaged by fresh orange juice.
That left us with a couple of hours to fill before the ferry, not a problem, swimming and relaxing on sunbeds just metres from the Libyan Sea, then an ice-cream, before riding slowly to the jetty as the “Samaria” approached from Agia Roumeli, and a 45-minute cruise home.
* Cycle hire, at just 10 euros per day, from Notos on Paleochora’s Main Street.
Further details from Olga and Akis at www.notoscar.gr