Rhodes Presents a Haven for All Levels of Cyclists
Passenger locator forms. Proof of double-vaccination. Masks. This is the very new reality of air travel that revealed itself on my first trip outside of the UK since the pandemic struck almost two years ago. And while these checks felt painstaking at times, all my worries immediately melted away as a plume of warm evening air welcomed me upon my arrival.
Rhodes, the largest of the Greek Dodecanese islands, has long been synonymous with tourists thanks in no small part to its 137 miles of pristine coastline, its unique and often complicated history, but most importantly, its typically inviting hospitality that the Greeks are so famous for. Life just seems to move a little slower.
Primarily, this trip was undertaken to report on the first ever International Rhodes Cycling Festival, which looks set to have a very positive future. What quickly became clear, however, was just how utterly complete the island is as a cycling destination. With the organiser, Zois Drivas of local cycling company Rodos Cycling eager to put Rhodes on the map for both professionals and cycling tourists, there was a seemingly large consensus amongst the local journalists and cycling clubs that the government simply does not do enough for sports tourism, leaving it up to local companies to try and attract people from elsewhere in Greece and beyond.
And so, in the company of special guest and one of the greatest classical riders of all time, Sean Kelly, I was treated to an unforgettable, authentically Greek week-long experience full of warm sun and breath-taking cycling spots.
After arriving late in the evening, nothing could prepare me for the morning view as I pulled open the curtains of my hotel room. A great expanse of aquamarine lay before me, with the hilly south coast of Turkey poking out from the horizon.
Although riding was unfortunately not possible for me during my time in Rhodes due to a hip injury, I was thankfully driven around the island for the first few days by Zois’ friend Lambros. He insisted on taking two layers (it was 25 degrees Celsius) with him before we drove around the perimeter of the northern part of the island. I then insisted that anything above 15 degrees was considered summer in England, to which he chuckled and shrugged his shoulders in disbelief.
After escaping the hustle and bustle of Rhodes City, I was truly taken back at not just the condition of the roads, but also the weight of traffic. As we continued further into the centre of the island, it became apparent just why Rhodes is a cyclist’s haven. Venturing through the lush vegetation and forest-laden mountain sides of Profitis Ilais and Mount Attavyros was particularly revealing; my only wish for the whole trip was to have a dash-cam fitted for this excursion, just to prove to people that we only passed two cars in an hour and a half, an almost impossible feat back here in the UK. It is also worth mentioning that throughout my first day and the rest of the week, I counted just the one pothole.
Amongst the meandering hillsides is where I got my first taste of Rhodes’ rich historical tapestry, namely a heavy Italian influence from their occupancy during the early 1900’s, with alpine-like retreats and hamlets reminiscent of the Italian countryside.
As a side note, I also have to mention the incredibly charming town of Lindos; sheltered beaches, a buzzing town and crystalline blue waters all sit in the shadow of a towering acropolis perched upon a hillside with influences dating back to 300 BC.
The second day was a chance to explore the city of Rhodes in more depth. Over the course of its unique history, the island has been altered by the ancient Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, The Order of the Knights of St. John, the Ottomans, and the Italians – and as you can imagine, this culminates in a melting pot of traditions, customs, and architecture; this is most evident in the capital.
The Knights in particular left imposing evidence of their presence in Rhodes, and gave the city its character it retains to this day, with its impregnable walls, gates, churches and palaces. Most impressive are the fortifications built in the early 1300s, nearly all of which is still visible and exists as the largest medieval town in Europe. Built around a crescent, inside lies an incredible labyrinth of tavernas, eateries and fine jewellery shops, as well as the Palace of the Grand Master Knights of Rhodes.
Elsewhere, I stumbled upon the classical Italian colonial architecture of the Palazzo del Governo, the Acropolis of Rhodes dating back to the 5th-3rd century BC, as well as the Mosque of Suleiman the Magnificent from the Ottoman occupation. These all make for a wonderful day’s cycling, and while there is so much to see, it can certainly be ticked off the bucket list in one two-wheeled excursion round the city.
While there was nothing planned until the evening, I got to discover some of the more quaint local villages in the morning. As a tourist, I am always on the lookout for the hidden gems, where long-standing tradition has yet to be tarnished by external forces. This was certainly the case in the small village of Maritsa, where we stopped for a late morning coffee.
The loquacity (albeit in Greek) and generosity of the sun dried, leather-faced gentlemen ushering me into their tavernas transported me back to a time gone by, before QR codes and mobile phones. There was a stark innocence about this place, and although I was clearly an outsider, it was by far the most relaxing stop on the trip.
After a reposeful day, I attended a press conference along with local and national journalists, local cycling club representatives, as well as special guest Sean Kelly. The four-time green jersey winner, who was invited to represent the festival and Rhodes as a cycling destination, was of firm belief that the island does indeed possess the necessary characteristics.
Having spent some 30 years visiting Mallorca every year, Kelly agreed that Rhodes has all the challenging climbs, smooth flats, pristine asphalt and temperate off-season that the Spanish island is famously renowned for by cycling pros. He also went on to say that Mallorca has indeed become busier with both non-cycling and cycling tourists, often making it difficult to escape the crowds for a peaceful ride. Enter Rhodes, where the cycling season is longer, the roads are quieter, and the climbs represent a challenge for any level of cyclist.
In preparation for the main race, the festival moved to the southern part of the island on day four. Although blighted by sporadic rain and heavy clouds, the weather made for an atmospheric journey through the largely rural part of the island.
Climbing high into the jagged, unyielding mountains revealed a viewpoint from which the surrounding islands of Saria, Tilos and Crete could be seen, before the clouds engulfed us as we reached our lunch spot in the mountain village of Monolithos. If you are indeed planning to visit Rhodes, it is a right of passage to visit ‘The Old Monolithos Taverna’. Run solely by an elderly couple, the menu is comprised of sumptuous local delicacies, and the view from the patio is truly something to behold.
Seeing both the more populous northern side of the island, before moving to the south reveals two incomparable faces to Rhodes. While Rhodes city and Lindos provide the historical landmarks, a wide array of eateries and the cultural centres of the island, the southern part feels almost isolated. Not that this is a bad thing, in fact, it was refreshing to be amongst idiosyncratic villages where the day-to-day customs feel very different to the larger towns that are now brimming with all-inclusive hotels. As well as this, festival organiser Zois’ idea of moving the main cycling event to the southern part of the island not only allowed us to see the monumental offerings of Rhodes’ natural beauty, but also some of the most wondrous stretches of roads you are likely to find in Europe.
Race day began on the southeast coast at the race hotel, Mitsis Rodos, where the senior and junior members of local cycling clubs Elaphos, Diagoras and Rodillios lined up alongside Sean Kelly to tackle the 80km circuit.
Alongside my good friend and national reporter Pantelis, we followed the peloton on their travels, starting on the smooth flats alongside the lapping waves rolling in from the Mediterranean. In what seemed like smooth sailing quickly became a real challenge as the pack moved further into the countryside. The highest elevation gain reached 300m, providing a stern test, even for former Vuelta a España champion Sean Kelly. These roads around the southern side of the island would certainly be more than suitable for enthusiasts or professionals looking to train during the off-season, where the climate remains warm in comparison to the majority of Europe and roads are nearly completely empty.
Passing through the small towns Apolakkia and Kattavia the route revealed lush citrus and olive groves, family-run tavernas and quieter leafy mountain villages, intersected by smooth dipping roads and vast conifer forests that are perfect for hiking and biking.
With an average of 300 sun-drenched days a year, this is just one of the plethora of reasons to make Rhodes your next cycling destination.
Not only does it offer relics of four millennia of ancient culture, 42 beaches and exquisite food, but I bore witness to a cyclists’ playground. With plans for another similar event in mid 2022 and a rollover of this event again later in the year in October, I simply cannot recommend the island enough – and this goes for those looking for leisure, as well as those who are in search of a true physical challenge. Zois, who operates local cycling tours with Rodos Cycling, is a cycling fanatic and a true Rhodes local. His careful guidance throughout the week made it an experience to cherish and if you are at all swayed by this article, your best course of action is to take advantage of his expertise.