Athens Divide: A Micro Adventure Race

The Athens Divide is proof that you don’t have to lose a night of sleep to experience the full range of adventure racing. Billed as a “micro adventure,” this point-to-point race hosted by Donhou Bicycles takes riders over Athens’ urban ridgelines where, no matter the bike, everyone’s hiking somewhere. Read on for Tom Donhou’s recap of the first Athens Divide, with photos from Maliakos Nikos.

When you stand up high on one of the summits that surround Athens, the city looks like a huge urban swash pushing up from the Aegean, lapping at the bottom of the mountains. It feels like if you stood there long enough, you’d be able to watch it recede back to the depths. This silvery concrete wash wraps around the mountainous spine whose jagged profile pierces through and upwards from the middle of the city. Known by different names to different folks, some call these urban interrupters the Wolf Mountains, some the Turkish Hills, and others simply Damaria, meaning quarry, as a lot of Athens was built from material removed from this area.

It’s an incredible landscape to have in the middle of a city, with much of it left unmanaged, allowing people to make for it what they will. People have dug trails; old quarry buildings have been reclaimed and used by homeless; people graze their goats there. It’s a little piece of wild right in the center, balancing neglect and beauty, very Greek. Something I couldn’t have imagined in a city before moving to Athens three years ago. It’s up and along this ridge we would be racing, but nobody knew that yet, as the Athens Divide route was a tightly guarded secret. No one would know until they were handed the analog route map and the clock started ticking.

This was the first time such an event had been held in Athens and we didn’t give too much away. Most of those who showed up didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into. Athens Divide is a “micro adventure race,” a rugged but condensed format to make adventure racing accessible to all. The route had everything you would expect from an epic—brutal climbs, fading sunlight, mixed terrain, hike-a-bike, and checkpoints—but compressed into a short afternoon of racing. The only things missing were the expensive flights and transfers, sleepless nights, and needing to find the time to train for months beforehand!

So, as we handed over the route map, we received a lot of bewildered looks and, after a tentative start for many, the racers started to get their head around our idea as they caught their breath after the first brutal climb. This took them to the top of the ridge and what would be the first check point. The views here dwarfed the normal tourist view points; you could look over Lycabettus Hill, across the Acropolis, out to sea and almost catch a glimpse of the Cycladic Islands. All this from the edge of a village within a city, as farm animals wandered around and the whiff of wood smoke perfumed the air.

After the steep concrete and gravel climb to CP1, the fast road descent to CP2 was a welcome breather. This is where racers were tested on their map-reading skills. Those that didn’t pay close attention missed the entrance to CP2, which was tucked away, and some lost a lot of time here. From here on out the race was mostly on gravel and singletrack. The climb to CP3 took riders through what is known as the Meadow of the Gods (sorry, we tried to keep the ancient god references out!), with the long golden late summer grass swaying in the breeze, as riders climbed up the steep chunky gravel, surrounded by the jagged rocks of the old quarry. We had a really diverse mix of riders and bikes; this is where the MTB’s started to gain time back on the gravel machines. Riders on road bikes, at this point, were left to push and carry.

As the racers edged their way towards the finish, Dimitris K was the first rider through in a time of 1hr8min. After mistakenly dropping below the old quarry shelf that the finish line was perched atop, he’d had to make a mad hike-a-bike dash, with bike slung over his shoulder, to scramble up the steep slope and cross the line just 20secs ahead of 2nd place finisher, Chrysostomos!

As riders gathered at the finish, the sun was setting and we got to look out over Athens. The pink sky turned to night and the city lights started to twinkle in the haze of the lingering heat. Local brewery 608 had something cold and bitter for riders at the finish as they came down from the race and exchanged tales of adventure. Brooks England and Albion had supported the event with generous prizes, too.

As we were shaking hands with the fastest racers of the day, someone noticed the flashing of headlamps up above us at CP5. People were still coming in three hours later! It was a perfect end, watching them pick their way down the rocky hike-a-bike and come in to earn themselves the “Spirit of Adventure” award. Other prizes were “Most Dog Shit on Tire” (this was, after all, an urban race), and “Biggest Mechanical But Still Made It Over The Line.” The winner of the latter title came across the finish with his bike over his shoulder and rear wheel in hand. There was also a wheelie competition to decide who would get an excellent Albion goody bag.

There was a serious side to Athens Divide, too. The backdrop to the race was the city, and standing behind that was Parnitha, the tallest mountain of the four that surround Athens. This is an incredible natural habitat to have on the edge of a city that has unfortunately been hit by multiple wildfires over recent years. Athens Divide was also an opportunity for us to raise money to help Save Your Hood and their forest management projects, one of which was the collection of seeds from the mountain, to help replenish the depleted wild-tree nurseries. Once restocked, these trees would be used to help regenerate areas affected by fire and other damaging events.

Gradually, riders flicked their lights on, said their goodbyes and started dropping down off the ridge, making their way home or heading on elsewhere for the evening. Everybody wants to do it again too, so maybe we’ll make this into an annual event. Let’s face it, the forests are going to need as much help as they can get.

Thanks to Kick.Athens, for supplying some excellent cold brew for the starters and 608 Brewing for the beers for the finishers. Albion Cycling, Brooks England and The Thing About Greece for their generous prizes. Thanks to Maliakos Nikos for the photos and of course thanks to everyone that helped make it happen and everyone that came to ride/race and make it something special.