It’s 8pm and we’re in Athens. Not Georgia. I’m dizzy with fatigue, and I’m hungry for a meal I can’t place. It’s probably breakfast. When in doubt, eat breakfast. Our bags are somewhere that isn’t Athens, and the very helpful lady at the desk is telling us that we should now leave. Leaving an airport without your bags is one of the hardest things to do as a bike racer. Any protestations of “but my bike?!” are met with more friendly smiles and distinctly Mediterranean shrugs that suggest our efforts will be wasted.
Salamina. A little island only a short ferry’s hop from Greece’s capital Athens. It’s not at the top of the list when people choose Greek Islands for their holidays, but it was our destination for the sole reason of Mountain Biking. The Hellas Salamina spring series provide an early opportunity for racers to hone their fitness in the lead up to the Rio Olympic games. I did not travel with the hope of going to the Olympics, but simply to gain some more UCI racing experience, and hopefully top up my pile of points to help me out later in the year. The Olympics is a big deal, though, and it really boosted the field that had also travelled to Greece.
The journey wasn’t as smooth as I was hoping it would be. As a transatlantic transplant, I’m pretty used to the long distance travel. It fazes me very little. So I wasn’t worried about the travel to Greece. Still firmly in Europe, the original schedule had us to Athens in 15 hours with stops in Philadelphia and London. Easy. I’d even factored in enough time to eat a Full English at 6am in Heathrow before taking off again. But that wasn’t how it played out.
De-icing is the bane of any traveller. We got stuck in Philly for a mere 30 minutes, and the butterfly effect went into full force. 30 minutes late in Philly was merely 30 minutes late to London. But at Heathrow that means your landing window has gone. So we circled for 30 minutes. And that meant our gate was gone. So we sat on the tarmac. Itchingly close to the plane that was now boarding to take us to Athens. We ran in vain through the airport, to be told that we’d missed the plane. Bummer. We had even more time for the Full English.
With the option of waiting 12 hours for the next flight to Athens, or taking a detour to Rome, we did the latter. Two hours later we were airborne and going to Italy. We didn’t know at that point that our bikes had failed to change their itinerary so easily. They stayed in London. We landed in Rome to find the airport being rebuilt. We walked for what seemed like miles to the next terminal to get to our plane for Athens, relieved to finally be going to Greece. We got to the gate, prepared to board, only for the gate agent to tell us that we weren’t booked on the flight. The computer said no. What? Frantic Italian things then happened for a little bit. We stood meekly by the gate as other people got their flashy little green light telling them they could fly to Greece. We stood there some more. The gate agent did more Italian things. She occasionally paid us furtive glances. Eventually she asked for our passports, and we were granted clemency from our anguish. We found our way to the bus that then took us to the plane on the tarmac, and boarded the plane. Christa’s seat was taken by a friendly Asian man whose boarding pass had the same seat number as Christa’s. Wow. The plane filled to almost capacity, but luckily for us there was a spare seat, and just before take off Christa got to sit down, too. Phew. Athens bound. Except for my bag. That decided to stay in Rome for a bit longer.
We landed in Athens with the inkling that our bags hadn’t made the plane-hopping connections, so after a short wait at the baggage carousel, we made our way to the claims desk. Disconcertingly, the woman had no idea where my bag was, but reassured us the bikes were on their way from London and would greet us in the morning. Next stop: rental car. We got the keys quickly, but soon realised our assigned car wouldn’t fit the bikes in it, so we traded it out for a slightly smaller but much better proportioned Citroen C4. I paid extra for in-car Wi-Fi, which had seemed like an extravagance, but it proved to be a lifesaver. The Pocket Internet, as we came to call it, guided us out of the airport and onto the highway, where we found a line of tractors blocking the roads. The farmers were striking. Without Internet, I’m not sure what we would have done here, but we were guided seamlessly on some small dirt roads, past farms and houses, and eventually towards Athens and the coast.
Driving in Greece is not like driving in England. Or the US. Or even Italy for that matter. Speed limits are roundly ignored, lane changes happen spontaneously, and cars stopped in the middle of the road are totally common. I couldn’t figure out any pattern to the traffic chaos, but with Christa flinging directions at me, we found our way to the ferry port. After the preceding chaos, I think both of us were expecting to find a rowing boat and a hand drawn treasure map. What we actually found was a modern car ferry that cost 7 euros and took 15 minutes. Finally we could relax a little. I was already letting the stress of the travel get to me, but luckily Christa could see the bigger picture and did a great job of calming me down.
The 15-minute drive from the ferry port to the town of Sélinia was painless, and our host Antony at the Airbnb house greeted us as soon as we pulled up. Antony then took us out for an introductory round of Souvlaki (grilled pork) before we headed back and went to bed.
Our bikes, as scheduled, showed up the next morning. This made me relax hugely. Rather than deliver them to our door, though, the courier simply dragged our bike bags onto the ferry and left them there, telling us which boat to greet at the other end to pick them up. A little scary to see $15,000 of bikes sitting unaccompanied on the ferry, but we had them in our hands and they arrived unscathed.