Headng into stage 2 of the Tour of Cyprus. © Hesham Sweed

Heading into stage two of the Tour of Cyprus. © Hesham Sweed

by Christine Vardaros

A few weeks before the start of the Tour of Cyprus, a three-day road stage event, I prayed to the travel gods that my experience would be better than I ever could have imagined in my wildest dreams. And you know what I got?  My wish come true. It was everything a cyclocrosser could want after a long, hard, stressful, cold season! Throughout my two week stay, I racked up not only a gorgeous collection of summer tan lines, but also a colorful array of stories, all while under warm sunny skies – a stark contrast to what I would have gathered if I were still back in snowy Belgium.

At the Paphos airport, I was collected by my friend Vasilis Iakovidis and deposited at the most luxurious hotel imaginable, located in Limassol, aptly named Poseidonia Beach Hotel as it was located right on the sea. And for those who preferred their bodies of water a bit more warm during Cyprus’ “cold” months, the hotel had built a giant swimming pool on the beach that was fully enclosed to give it a warm greenhouse effect. Everything was in place for the perfect post-’cross season bike vacation; I could ride during the day and in the evenings relax by the sauna-pool while watching the waves  roll in and out.  This is exactly what I did for the first few days while I waited for my friend Nancy Farzan (a fellow expat from California living in Belgium) to arrive and for the Tour to start.

For the pre-Tour bike rides, I was joined by Michel Nabti, a native Californian living in Beirut, whom I met at last year’s event.  We get on so well that we basically chatted ourselves to death while racking up the exotic experiences that Cyprus had to offer. Every day I found myself in sensory overload taking in every precious view as we weaved through the hills and tiny towns. My favorite of all was getting to see one of their numerous ornate monasteries from the inside, although we found out later that cycling shorts and helmets were not appropriate attire. But even there, while we may have been inappropriately dressed, we were still greeted with the same courtesy and enthusiasm as we’ve encountered from the many other Cypriots with whom we’ve crossed paths.

During the rides, we always made time for a café stop. At one such place, I was introduced to my new favorite sweet called  Glyka tou Koutaliou (spoon sweets). They are fruit pieces packed with an intense flavor preserved in syrup, often served in a spoon, and are customarily offered to guests as a symbol of hospitality.  It accompanied our Cypriot tea that was made with an assortment of herbs and Cypriot coffee which is basically a Greek frappé made with instant coffee.  Upon the first sip of this unique coffee, I knew we would be inseparable during my stay.

The day before the race I volunteered to help with registration so I could size up the competition and socialize with many friendly pasty-white faces clearly happy to get out of the cold like I was.  Folks arrived from  as far as the U.K., Russia, Germany, Belgium, Romania, Norway, Canada, Bulgaria, Ireland, Australia and The Netherlands.  There were also folks from Lebanon, Malta, Israel, and Greece as well as from the host country of Cyprus.  The one gal who stood out from the rest as the one to beat had that sinewy whippet-like build of a pure climber. I may be more of a flatlander, but I do have the ability to suffer like a true cyclocrosser, I assured myself.

Let the Races Begin!

The Tour of Cyprus is a special one as guys and gals go head-to-head for ultimate glory while they retain bragging rights within their own sex.  Each stage averaged 105-122km (65-76 mi) with 1200-2000m altitude per day, but the riders were only timed for a portion of it in the middle with a real start/finish line of its own. Each timed section ranged from around 35-65km (22-40 mi) per day and usually fell on the heaviest climbing stretch of the stage. In addition to the racer “A” category, there was also a cyclotourist “B” category that covered the same challenging terrain, albeit at a more relaxed pace and no timed section. The tour also doubled as a fundraiser for a couple of organizations including KYKAT, The Tamassos Central Social Solidarity Foundation, which provides social services and aid programs to those in need.

Each day started off with 10-15km (6-9 mi) of a neutral zone where the A and B groups rode together at a very relaxed pace to arrive at the beginning of the timed section relatively intact. During this stretch, my duty as a volunteer was to make sure that no rider fell behind. It proved to be a nice warmup for me as I got some bonus cross-training in. I gave pep talks to riders who were drifting back to encourage them to pedal faster. I also taught some of them how to shift gears, draft off other riders, and how to take turns faster. By the third stage, I swear some of the riders were falling behind just to learn new cycling tricks. And when all else failed, I manually pushed them back up to the group.

Stage 1

When the whistle blew to start the timed section, I shot out like a bullet. OK, well maybe it was only the first stage that I took off so quickly. My mind was still on cyclocross season, as I immediately gapped the whole field of 112 riders. On the first long climb, the peloton took their revenge and shot me out of the group that included sinewy gal. Shortly after, I was swept up like a piece of frayed lint by a chase group of four Russian guys. In the beginning, holding onto their pace was seriously painful as I hadn’t done anything that intense since ’cross season a month previous. But as the race progressed, I started to find my rhythm.

When we reached the “3km to go” marker before the finish located at the mountain summit, I spotted a group of riders on our heels. The moment I spread the word to my Russian friends, they significantly lifted their game. I thought I’d crack before reaching the finish but somehow I hung on! In the end, I crossed the line in 19th overall out of 112 riders, the second woman.

A couple of minutes later, in the tiny town of Platres, we arrived at the feed zone where we feasted on some Cypriot specialties such as sweet bread rolls that tasted like bread fried in melted sugar. It was so yummy that it brought tears to my eyes. To wash it all down was the free-flowing Arizona Iced Teas and a collection of juices. The feed zone also gave me a chance to congratulate sinewy gal on properly schooling the guys up front. Her flat response of, “I’m not here to race the men,” was a bit abrupt but I did admire her competitive edge. Later I found out that she and her boyfriend, who placed third on the day, had won the Trans-Alps mixed pair competition the year previous so she was here with her eye set on glory and had the legs to back it.

With social time over and bellies stuffed, we all headed off for our cool-down ride consisting of many more kilometers through the hills. Shortly after I rolled out down the mountain, my front wheel began to oscillate so badly it was borderline out of control. Thankfully I was able to pull over safely, but I must admit I was pretty freaked out. It was no flat tire so I assumed it must have been a combination of a slightly loose hub combined with a slight case of the body chills that got my bars going. As I slowly got moving again, still unnerved, a random B-group rider came up from behind and slowed a bit to chat. With a fuzzy mind combined with an inability to let a chat-fest pass me by, I missed one of the clearly marked turns. A Tour organizer found us and instructed us to turn around. The guy I was with, though, assured me he knew the way back to Limassol as he lived there. I figured we’d be fine. Well, it turned out that I was fine, he wasn’t.

In his search for a shortcut, he took us through little towns where the roads got steeper and steeper. Within no time he was off the bike, walking alongside it on those click-clack road cleats while I track-stood alongside him. I would have kindly walked alongside him if cleats weren’t so expensive. After many many minutes of this, we finally reached an intersection – one was a dead end and the other a dirt road. We opted for the dirt road as there wasn’t really a choice. I rode up ahead to see if it led anywhere – and to enjoy a bit of quality off-road time. My guy back at Stevens Bikes had assured me on many occasions that my road bike could handle it, so it was a perfect opportunity to test his words.

After fifteen minutes of checking out every branch of the trail that exposed amazing postcard-worthy views, I came to the conclusion that our only way out was to go back from where we began. After the poor guy crawled his way down, he turned to me and jokingly said, “I owe you many drinks for this.”  My first thought was that I should be buying him drinks as I got to experience the off-road side of Cyprus, which is priceless for a cyclocrosser, but my actual response was, “Okay, sure.”  Who am I to turn down a free drink?

Stage 1 team awards at the Tour of Cyprus © Hesham Sweed

Stage 1 team awards at the Tour of Cyprus (Vardaros is second from left) © Hesham Sweed

Stage 2

A little tired the next morning but motivated to give it another go in the mountains, I showed up at the start line with my big girl pants on. My bike was also ready for battle thanks to the speedy work of the Tour mechanic who tightened my front hub in less than ten seconds. I had heard people refer to him as a miracle worker a few times the day previous and now I knew why.

It was a good thing that my bike and I were in sync since the pace was ferocious from the very start. I suppose they took my lead from the day previous, I jokingly told myself as I held onto the single file line. This time around I stayed with the front group that included the climber gal for a bit longer until I eventually broke. It was painful to get passed by guys every time the road got steep where it required raw power to get up. Meanwhile up at the front of the race, sinewy gal eventually led her boyfriend out for the win. By the end, I had slipped from 12th place to 19th again, but thankful to again finish as the second place woman.

The timed section dumped us at the feed zone located in the cobblestoned center square of Omodos, a town known for their wine production as well as their yearly wine festival. There they aptly served my favorite Cypriot sweets called soutzoukos made of grape sugar shaped into a roll with almonds down the middle. I shoved a million pieces into my mouth and washed it down with my new best friend, the Cypriot coffee. Riding those last 60km (37 mi) back to the hotel sped by thanks to the nice coffee buzz.

Vardaros with her Russian chase group. © Hesham Sweed

Vardaros with her Russian chase group. © Hesham Sweed

Stage 3

Going into the third and final stage, I had high hopes for the win as I heard it was a relatively flat stage. Boy, was I wrong. It could have helped to take a glance at the stage details, I thought in hindsight. Early into the timed section, Michel rode up alongside me to say I needed to get to the top of the next climb with the group, because it was rolling from there. Well, I made it to the top with the lead group only to realize there was climb after climb awaiting us. On the longest one of the day, I finally lost contact with the fast guys. A few minutes later, climber gal passed me. I jumped on her wheel and we glided by rider after rider. I suffered so much just to hold onto her wheel  that all my senses were shut off, leaving only a steady static noise in my head. I basically turned myself inside out but I did it.

Unfortunately, I followed this effort up with a tactical error that cost me the win. I allowed her to be ahead of me going into a long technical descent that shattered our group. She inadvertently gapped us from the leaders, leaving us stranded on our own until a group of guys swung by to collect us. Once our group was steadily moving along, I happened to ride alongside sinewy gal for a moment. That was all it took for her to turn to me and firmly order, “Do not ride alongside me.” I must admit that this woman’s stinging attitude was welcome, as it helped to toughen me up for when I have to get back into the Belgian road racing scene next month. Straight through to the end, she repeatedly tried to make sure I didn’t have the chance to ride alongside her again by pushing the pace on all the climbs. I may have lost to her crossing the finish line, but at least this time it was in a sprint.

Overall, I was 20th, finishing 21st in the general classification and second woman. Nancy also had a solid performance finishing 62ndoverall, and sixth woman. In addition, I competed in an open teams division where our Stevens-Focus team consisting of myself, Gil Kivetz and Itay Lifshitz of Israel, and Marie Claire Aquilina of Malta  placed second overall. Considering ours was the only mixed-sex one, we were quite pleased with ourselves.

Half-dead at the finish, I immediately headed over to the Arizona Iced Tea setup and drank four bottles. I topped it off with four cups of Cypriot rose water pudding made of water, corn starch, sugar and rose water.   Riding back to the hotel from there was one big happy sugar rush blur strong enough to last the 55km back to the hotel.

Trophies ready for last awards ceremony. © Hesham Sweed

Trophies ready for last awards ceremony. © Hesham Sweed

Once showered and dressed, Nancy and I were back out the door for the closing ceremony held in the Cultural Centre of Yermasoyia Municipality where we were given a warm speech from Mayor Andreas Gavrielides followed by more Cyprus delicacies. Usually our evening meeting and awards ceremony was held in the host hotel conference room so it was lots of fun to have it outside while sitting on stone-carved bleachers, reminding us once again that we were indeed in Cyprus.

If I were to name the one aspect of this trip that I will never forget, I would easily say it was the friendships made and conversations had. The layout of the tour is in such a way to encourage interaction as well as a special sort of camaraderie amongst the riders.  To meet so many people from countries I have never visited was rather special for me. The cycling terrain and the Tour organization, though, came in a close second.  And of course it is always nice to come home with a rockin’ tan, a suitcase filled with trophies and ribbons, and hard training in the legs to perfectly kick off my “offseason” training.

Vardaros's Stevens bike at Agios Georgios Emnen

Vardaros’s Stevens bike at Agios Georgios Emnen