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climbing the don quixote

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Riding the Don Quixote, a Cat 1 climb in the rugged Pitsilia region


Words: Nestor

Film and pics: Simon

Not sure what’s got into me lately - but I keep planning rides that kick off with a stinging climb in the very first kilometre. An old riding buddy of mine always got it right - he’d arrive at our various rendezvous points half an hour early and pedal around in circles to get the blood flowing. I should have taken a leaf out of his book on this one...

As we readied ourselves and our bikes in the village of Arakapas we could already see what lay ahead. Above us - looming large - the mountains we were about to climb.

The village lies in the Pitsilia region at an elevation of around 350 metres. This area takes its name from the Greek word ‘Απιστιλία’, which loosely translates as the ‘region of the infidels’. Back in around 350 AD, lots of believers in the ancient pantheon of Greek gods refused to be converted to Christianity, which was then strongly suggested to all subjects of the Roman empire. Many refused, and took refuge in this rugged, inhospitable part of the island to avoid persecution. They became known to fellow Cypriots as άπιστοι or ‘apisti’ (non-believers) and this region as ‘apistilia’. Over time the word was altered and morphed into simply ‘Pitsilia’.

Ironically, this area is also home to numerous churches and chapels (which were obviously built much later), and to this day they still have festivals and customs here that date back to Byzantine times.

The climb

Thankfully the ‘Don Quixote’ serves up shallow gradients for the first couple of kms (and even a short downhill section) before firmly pointing skywards. There is very little castilian about these roads but the person who christened it, must have had some mad fools on slow transport meandering through the mountains in mind when they came up with the name for this segment.

The geology here is a little different to the Troodos massif to the west. The shallow topsoil means vegetation is sparse, generating a raw and rugged landscape of bare rock. And that’s precisely the feel of the climb too - the road is often pretty rutted, and it’s not uncommon to find yourself on 15% ramps followed by milder sections surrounded by jagged rock edges and occasional loose debris.

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The first village we came across - Sykopetra - is perched on a rock face and has an air of cruel, abandoned beauty. Up to this point the climb is hard, but not insurmountable. The sections that follow serve up a lot more suffering. It seemed that whatever gearing we had at our disposal ( both of us run 11-30t on the back) it would never be enough to avoid the grind.

However, alongside the pain, the Don Quixote also serves up some majestic views across the valleys and ridges below, particularly at this time of year when the seasons are changing and the mountains offer a perfect cycling temperature - one that’s not yet evident on the scorching coast.

And it’s not just us that loves The Don...

This relentless ramp - together with its eastern twin, the Odou - is used as a training ground by the Russian pro Ilnur Zakarin. The Team Katusha rider lives and trains in Limassol, riding these ascents in preparation for his Grand Tours, eschewing the slopes of Monaco, Nice or Andorra where many of the other European pros live.

For Zakarin it makes sense. There is a very large and organised Russian-speaking minority in Cyprus, as well as excellent air connections to both his homeland and race destinations worldwide. That, and the bonus of 320 days-a-year of sunshine.

Riding through orchards at the top of the Don Quixote climb

Riding through orchards at the top of the Don Quixote climb

The top of the climb finds us swamped by apple and cherry trees, orchards and vineyards. You’ll also see very little traffic. The main transportation routes have sucked all the mountain traffic away from these back roads so you only have to contend with the occasional farmer’s pickup or curious tourist.

Whether you love or hate climbing, riding these roads once the gradients turn negative is the stuff of dreams: sweeping bends, pristine tarmac and short, sprint-friendly straights, while taking in lungfuls of aromatic air from the vineyards and orchards that line the roadside.

riding here is the stuff of dreams: sweeping bends, pristine tarmac and short, sprint-friendly straights

After zooming through Palaichori, one of the many beautiful villages you find in this area, we took the back roads up towards Polystypos, the cima coppi of the ride at a little over 1,300m. Don’t expect mountain resorts and abandoned hotels here. These villages are where many city dwellers come to trace their roots during the holiday season, boosting the tiny population which these days is mainly elderly residents.  This is a truly beautiful part of the island. The majestic tree at the mouth of Alona, the meandering, twisty ribbons of tarmac, the punishing gradients on the countless switchbacks - motorists just can’t connect to the road in the same way a bike can.

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The ‘general store’

The madcap descent through Agros took us to the μπακάλικο του Χαψή (bakaliko tou Hapsi, the ‘general store of Hapsis’) for the obligatory coffee stop. This cool mountain cafe is always busy and offers a stylish stop for locals and travellers alike. Our advice - try the lavish breakfast, a wooden platter full of Cypriot delicacies all sourced locally.

Finishing it off

Having run out of climbs, we headed back down towards Zoopigi, closing the loop of the ride. Descending on these roads isn't quite the high-speed Alpine stuff you see on the Tour - for starters the roads are often punctuated by short climbs, and you won't find more than 100m of straight road anywhere, there’s always a bend or switchback coming up. After flying down the mountain and through the village we faced the final drop towards the start.

Now this part of the route is a different story. It’s one of a handful of mountain segments on the island where you can tuck low and really let rip. So, as the gradient fell to -12% I moved to the drops, flattened my back, squinted my eyes and let gravity propel me to 80 km/h, back to the starting point.

There’s no such thing as ‘real’ Cyprus - it’s all real - from the coastal tourist traps to the wine villages and magnificent mountains. But if you do want a glimpse of a bygone era then Pitsilia, with its rugged terrain and red-roofed villages offers just that - plus some incredibly hard but ultimately brilliant road riding.