Couple Goals: Riding Hellenic
Mountain Race as a pair

Words by Katrien de Smet

As experienced ultra cyclists in their own rights, Manu Cattrysse and Katrien De Smet decided to race as a pair for Hellenic Mountain Race. Katrien tells us about the highs and lows that took them to a top spot on the podium.

Hellenic Mountain Race is the shortest of Nelson Trees's Mountain Races, but also the one with the most elevation gain per 100km. Taking place in the Greek Pindos Mountains, the start line is in Kalambaka, near the magnificent Meteora monasteries and after crossing the remote and vast mountain landscapes of Northern Greece, you'll finish at the coast in Nafpaktos.

The region is, even to the Greek, not very well known. The mountains are unspoiled, the villages small but welcoming, the food is delicious and the people, oh the people, they are the kindest you'll ever meet.

Having followed the first edition last year, we had an idea how though the race was going to be. With 28.000 meters of climbing over 880 kilometers and unpredictable mountain weather, we were prepared for the worst. While Manu was still in recovery mode after knee surgery last year, we decided to take this opportunity to race Hellenic Mountain Race as a pair with the goal to be efficient and to see where that would take us.

After a loop on Meteora's finest single tracks we arrived back in Kalambaka to continue on to the first major climb on the route. We steadily climb up to 1800 meters. Soon the asphalt turns into gravel, that turns into washed out roads. We drag the bikes under and over fallen trees that block the road and we soon find the first hike-a-bike section before we approach a first important resupply point, the town of Metsovo. The climb into the town is super steep, but the promise of food is always a good motivator. We buy supplies for the night at the super market and carry on, despite the rain. On that first evening and night the heavy rain turns the trails into a mud fest. We find ourselves a shelter next to a water fountain and a house with a dog that's been barking on and off through the night. Setting up camp takes much longer than we would have wanted because everything is wet and muddy.

By the time we get up, it stopped raining, but the trail has far from dried out. We reach Kipoi and find the first pair, sitting at a cute B&B, having breakfast. We decide to stop there as well. The lady is kind enough to let us into her spotless house, with beautiful clean carpets. She looked at Manu's muddy shoes and gently asked to take off his shoes but he told her it would be lots worse so he could leave them on . We take a quick breakfast and use the garden hose to wash our bikes. The first 200 kilometers of the race have already worn out our brake pads pretty heavily, making us a little worried if weather would continue like this, we wouldn't make it even with our spare brake pads. The highlight of today is an ancient stone path that leads to the small village of Vitsa. We climb further on tarmac to Vikos Gorge, a deep and narrow canyon where the route leads us to a viewpoint so we get a good look at the canyon. Determined to reach checkpoint one before the end of the day we try to be as efficient as possible.  Before we know it, we are pushing our bikes up to 2150 meters, at sunset, over the highest pass on the course. Although it is a magical moment, this is a tough one and after thinking several times that we have reached the summit, we finally see Dragon Lake. The downhill to Smolikas Refuge is a steep, rocky and fun single track. A warm welcome, hot food and a bed are waiting for us at CP1. 

Day 3 already, and we circle back to Metsovo to stock up on calories. The Greek make extremely good hearty pies, and we take a couple to go before we leave the Pindos mountains and head towards the coast. The climb after Metsovo is hot. As we climb higher, the air gets cooler. We see snow capped mountains in the distance, and again our timing is perfect. We reach the summit as the sun sets. We call home to show our two boys the beauty of this place, and share this special moment, even if it is just a little bit. A fast gravel downhill takes us to the ancient village of Syrrako. The cozy restaurants in this village look very appealing and we would love to spend more time here. But it is a race after all, so we continue further to CP2, Mellisourgiotiko Mountain Refuge. 

The next morning, we were aiming for a quick start. Efficiency has not been our greatest asset so far, and with the first pair not too far ahead, we wanted to try and close the gap. There was only one problem: Manu could not find his shoes. After an hour of searching, we found an identical pair of shoes under a bed, in a room we did not sleep in. Another rider took Manu's shoes without noticing, which left Manu with someone else's shoes. But the next pass was waiting for us, and after plenty of faffing we finally took off. We are slowly starting to feel the lack of sleep, and we have to stop for 5-minute naps every now and then. Resupply is getting scarcer and we might reach Raptopoulo too late to stock up on food so we decide to stop at a little tavern with a crazy but friendly lady. She is cooking us all things fried and prepares a couple of big sandwiches for us. When we arrive at Raptopoulo around midnight we find a shop that's still open. And our luck does not seem to stop. Right after leaving the town, we find a dry and warm hay barn to sleep in. 

The climbs are shorter this morning and passes are less high. The long asphalt stretch is a welcome change from the rugged terrain we had been riding yesterday. We even managed to get a double espresso at a closed tavern while passing through one of the small villages. The last 45 kilometers before reaching checkpoint 3 still contain 2350 meters of climbing. Dark clouds approach, and the thunderstorms the weather forecast predicted finally arrive. Rain is pouring down and thunder and lightning are right above our heads while we slowly climb to 1850 meters. With the knowledge that there is a tunnel at the top of the pass to find shelter in, we decide to continue. We safely reach the tunnel. It seems like we enter a different world at the other side. We are above the clouds and the sun is shining, the view is spectacular. A super fast descent brings us to CP3 in the ski town of Karpenisi. We try to dry our clothes a little bit, eat some gyros and buy a huge amount of food at the supermarket that should get us through the last 190 kilometers of the race. And off we go, up some ridiculously steep village climbs.

We spend the night at a perfect bivy spot in one of the many small religious buildings you can find in the mountains. In the morning, I decide to leave a minute before Manu, it will be a long day, and there's no time to lose, he will catch up soon anyway. Unfortunately, I took a wrong turn and without noticing my Garmin calculated a reroute. What follows is a fun 15-minute descent before I notice that something is wrong. I zoom out and see that I am completely off route. Nothing to do but cycle back up the mountain. In the meantime, Manu was looking for me as well, and after an hour we find each other again. Not a great start of our day. But nothing a beautiful sunrise can't fix. After a very rough climb and descent, we find out that the first pair has mechanical issues and they are unfortunately scratching from the race which leaves us in first position. The next climb is paved and very hot. At the top we find some unexpected trail magic in the small town of Kastanias. A tavern, nobody knew off, offering tasty potato salad, fresh cake and ice-cold home-made lemonade. This should get us through the last 100 kilometers. 

While we are riding through a stunning valley another thunderstorm approaches. Soaking wet, we start the descent into a completely different landscape. We are reaching the coast line, and the lush, green forests make place for a Mediterranean landscape. A fast-rolling section though farming lands takes us to the final monster climb that is between us and the finish line: 1200 meters of climbing in 16 kilometers. The going is slow, and sometimes we push our bikes. The last descent must be beautiful. Even though it is dark, we imagine riding to the sea. The last kilometers are very fast, but in true Nelson style, the route follows a last loop through the center of Nafpaktos before bringing us to the finish line as the first pair in 5 days and 15 hours.

Sharing such an intense race with someone else is truly unique. You get to share the highs and there's actually someone answering when you can't help but shout how beautiful it is. You can sing together, nap together, complain about the climbing or just quietly ride next to each other. There are definitely a lot less lows, and if there are any, you can overcome them a lot more easily. The downside is that being efficient is much more difficult as a pair. It makes racing feel more like a holiday. This results in longer breaks, sit-down meals, less efficient resupply at supermarkets and in general, just lots of faffing. But each race you learn, and we know that there is a lot of room for improvement. So, who knows, we might make this an annual couple goal. 

For you and your riding partner

Sold out

Sold out

Sold out
June 24, 2024 — Jacob Rubio