The hills started before we left Istanbul. They were steep and dense, without room for switchbacks. The turks build the road as if they aren’t there, and it feels a little bit like when you let your skis run over moguls. Top of every peak, bottom of every valley. But these hills are bigger than moguls, and they hurt your thighs more.
These hills had us out of our seats constantly, pulling up as hard as we could on the handlebars. We put our navels over the hub our front wheels and grunted and tried to pull on our pedals as hard as we pushed and ignore the sting of the sweat in our eyes. 300 feet up, 300 feet down. The day was hot and dry. Progress was painfully slow; the hills were unrelenting. We couldn’t seem to find a stretch of road that existed at less than 10% grade. I spent a decent amount of time sympathizing with Sisyphus.
By the time we were ten kilometers out of Istanbul, I was watching my odometer and counting down the distances to the coast, where I dreamed of a flat road following a beautiful beach. But the hills wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t stop for 8 days, and they would almost triple in size.
To say those first few days were frustrating would be to tell a half truth. We were on a schedule, a tight one, and these hills were not part of the plan. These hills stood between us and Sinop, the setting of the story we were going to cover. We wanted to have enough time to get a story there, than keep cycling to Trabzon, further east, so that we could finish up most of Turkey by the end of June. What a fantasy those mounds shattered! They were agonizing.
Complicating things was equipment that seemed to spontaneously combust. The focus on my wide angle les broke, leaving me without the perfect lens for the terrain. I lost a critical bolt in my rack, and it was tied together with rope- the weight balance on my front wheel was never quite right. The neoprene on my handlebars was ripping, and so I had to tape it up with electrical tape, a slippery plastic that left my hands slipping. Then clip on my shoe snapped out, and I had to bike in running shoes in the very terrain where clips can help you the most. All problems that could have been solved with a half hour trip to sport chalet. There was none in sight, and they amounted to a pretty serious disability when put together.
Then there was the temperature we had to fight through, hovering just below 100. We were chugging the water from cool mountain springs as fast as our body could take it, and it was barely enough. My skin was caked with layers of salt. By day three, I was hating the whole experience. I was stressed, frustrated, impatient, uncomfortable. I certainly was not enjoying the ride.
On day four we properly entered the Pontic Mountains. The Turks changed nothing about how they built roads. Except now it was 1200 feet up, 1200 feet down, and 8 kilometer cycle that left you panting for breath and so tired it was hard get off your bike to rest without falling. A few times I did fall. On the the last hill before we stopped, a monster of length and incline, I lost the ability to grip my bike. I got up over my saddle to power up the a steep section and just fell right off the pedals. It took me a few minutes to get back on, and three tries to actually get the bike rolling again.
I caught up to Chris on the other side of it, and we sat on a curb and looked at each other’s hollowed eyes and burnt skin and the rib cages we could see through the jerseys. We laughed from exhaustion and threw in the towel, splurging on a hotel for the night.
It was a wonderful ten hours of deep and dreamless sleep, and it gave us new confidence as we mounted our bikes. We adjusted our distance targets to just over 70 a day, and the new goal spread a sense of relief through my body. Privately, each of us also decided we were going to stop cursing the hills. We were going to find a way to enjoy this.
I spent the climbs that day thinking of the views that awaited me at the top, the speedy downhill races exulting in the way the wind cooled my body and cleared the sweat from my face. I could enjoy the beauty of the mountains now, their drama, take pleasure in taste testing the water from the deep mountain springs tapped next to the road. I could look over the pale canvas of the horizon, with the blue of the black sea melting into the hazy sky without a line, only a gradient of white mist, and smile. They were the best days of bike touring I have had on this trip.
Once I had the mindset right, nothing could quell my happiness in the simplicity of those days. Not that there weren’t problems. On day five, I crashed my bike hard off the road, vaulting over the handlebars and hitting the top of my head so hard on a dirt bank that I sat in the in the muddy ditch for five minutes listening to the symphony of the birds. I must have hit the right spot, because it really was one of the most beautiful things I have ever heard. My first task on day 6 was to pull a tick off my groin, and I prayed that this one didn’t have Lyme disease, and marveled and just how disgusting my body had become. Later that day, the heat was so bad that it melted fresh tar on the roads, which accumulated on our tires in a half in layer that jammed them under the mudguards. We had to stop every few kilometers to scrape it off.
But there are always problems. That’s why most people take a car. But it was all worth it. Every night, we’d find a campsite more gorgeous than the last and watch the sun come down over the sea behind the boiling pot of pasta. We’d lay down in the long grass and watch the stars come out, so brilliant and clean, and you could see a satellite go over every minute or less. We stopped to enjoy the towns were passing through for lunch, and always took the locals up on their incessant offers of Chai.
Those mountains were a turning point for us; they were the greatest physical challenge we have yet faced. They were a lesson in stoicism and optimism. If nothing else, I know that the fresh challenge brought Chris and I closer on this adventure, and prepared for some of the greater challenges of discomfort that lay ahead.