November is an odd time of year in Cyprus. If you've come to the island from colder climes then you'll instinctively find yourself reaching for a rain jacket and leg warmers. To the ex-pat cyclist it's time to batten down the hatches - winter is coming. Not so here. Yes, you get cool early mornings and - in the mountains - a noticeable drop in the mercury. Around coast though it can still feel almost summery. And that's what we got in 2017.
The Tour of Limassol is one of those peculiarly Cypriot events. Part charity slog, part sportive, it follows the city's outer limits with the peloton shadowing a pace car (think TdF Tour Director Christian Prudhomme's red Skoda). The logic is simple - it allows everyone to stay together and creates a truly mass participation event. No one is left behind. So as the sun rose over Limassol the Mayor donned an ill-fitting helmet and recycled his annual speech - no doubt cursing the fact this bizarre bunch in lycra had made him rise so early - and off we went.
The ride is part-sportive, part-charity ride organised by 33 bikes (a local bike shop) and for a small event on a small island, the organisation is impressive. As well as support cars, there's an ambulance on hand, motorcycle outrides and even a police escort in places. The outriders do a great job, even if they do view us a little like aliens, shaved legs and all - Cyprus only has a handful of cycling events, so the ToL is as much a social event as it is a sporting one. It's a great opportunity to meet other riders in the flesh rather than watching their exploits on Strava. I’m not sure how many turned up this year, but Strava says there were another 71 riders. Of course that doesn't include those not using Strava, others who bailed early, or riders who were too far ahead or behind to be shown as riding together. If I had to guess, I'd say it was probably around the 150 mark.
There are two conditions: the roads obviously have to be in the district of Limassol, and the feed stations have to reasonably convenient for the organisers. Some of the choices are stellar, some a little perplexing. The first 30km is perfect for warming up, crossing the flatlands north of Akrotiri salt lake and the rolling hills around Episkopi. Then the road turns inland and climbs towards Pachna which is a curious choice. Not that the climb is easy, far from it. The group splintered immediately as riders huffed and puffed their way to the top, but the road is straight, wide, and kinda featureless. It's a curious choice given the myriad of other, more scenic, routes they could have chosen. No matter, we're soon we're at the first feed station in Pachna itself, a mix of expensive carbon and smoky kafenia full of baffled pensioners. From there onwards the roads become twistier, narrower and faster, crisscrossing the Limassol wine region until the next regrouping point in the village of Pera Pedi. By now we've ridden 66 km and climbed 1,500m so any break is welcome.
And then it just turns nasty. The next climb toward Pelendri is a relentless leg-sapping grind, with grades almost permanently over 10%. This is where I usually shut my mouth and stare at my Garmin, or watch the wheel in front slowly and painfully disappear. Even amidst the suffering though, there's the solace of knowing the route’s highlights are still to come. This year a local festival meant the peloton had to skirt Pelendri and take the back roads instead. The surface isn't great but the bends and cool air remind you why we love this sport so much.
From Pelendri we begin heading back towards the coast through Arakapas and Eptagonia. After the climbs comes a blistering descent - a long 12% drop and for the quick ones up to 85kmh. In 2015 we had torrential rain and I remember being terrified - although a little less than the guys on carbon hoops trying desperately to slam on the anchors. Not fun.
The end involves a long stop to regroup. The police want to escort the whole peloton back into town as one unit. Riding back into Limassol is a highlight - pedestrians shout and wave and for a moment I felt quite important, my long, hard effort somehow appreciated. The finish line is where the whole thing started, about six and a half hours earlier.
Will I do it again? Absolutely - for the laughs, the climbs and camaraderie. For the jittery, sleepless night beforehand and the bucketloads of sugary drinks on every stop. And of course for the love of riding. See you next year, ToL.