A User’s Guide to Cycling in Athens

Here I present to you a user’s guide to cycling (with a bicycle) in Athens, Greece. The guide is presented in no particular order and intends to offer bicyclopaedic information on Athenian attitudes, traffic, roads and even the mythical cycle lane(s).

Last update: July 2018.

Local attitude to cycling

As in most countries, most Athenians will consider you crazy for cycling in their city. As in most countries, they’re correct. So don’t let that stop you.

Cycling in cities has never been pleasant. Even the ‘greenest’ towns still have hundredweight hulks of metal hurtling around the streets, the slightest touch from which could kill you instantly. So enjoy Athens and think about it this way: every moment you spend cycling here is a moment you won’t be killed on the streets of some less exotic habitation.

Once they’ve recovered from their shock, Athenians will implore you all the same to be careful. Seems like good advice to me.

Traffic lights

Largely obeyed. Locals will insist the rules are that red lights mean stop to all but the first two cars, and amber means to speed up. Green means go in all languages.

You’ll often see flashing amber arrows: these mean that you will be running over a green pedestrian crossing. Do so at a speed that means hospital rather than the mortuary.

Road condition

Poor. Potholes are the norm, more like fissures in the undulating asphalt. A smooth stretch of road comes as a welcome surprise, but you should never have less than half an eye on the road ahead.

Which side of the road?

In general, keep right. However, this is quite often a moot point as it seems 90% of the roads are one-way and the other 10% are split by a central reservation. So keep right as much as you can while avoiding the worst of the potholes (see above).

Other road users

Generally accommodating. Generally competent. Given the density of central Athens, car drivers are accustomed to squeezing through tight spaces – and that includes between you and double parked cars.

Road speeds vary, but the frequency of intersections on the grid system, usually marked by the generally obeyed traffic signals (see above) or the more or less complied with STOP signs, mean that speeds on most roads are kept in check.

The larger carriageways benefit from more regular surfaces, as well as commensurate top speeds. They also tend to slice through the hills.

It’s a toss up, therefore, for the cyclist, between stop-start safety and the dangers of getting-there-quickly.

Cars are present in high densities, mopeds and motorcycles are present in very high densities, usually with multiple occupants. Yellow taxis are common. Buses and trams trawl the main streets, but not in the numbers you might expect. They are slow, ponderous and fairly unpopular.

All vehicles have a propensity for pulling over with little warning to park, in any available space, which includes the lane you’re cycling in.

Talking of which, the lane system is flexible, and overtaking manoeuvres will often be performed without margin for error.

Use of the horn

It is considered polite to give a warning toot to anything barring a vehicle’s passage through the streets. This will transform into an irritated blare if evasive action isn’t considered prompt.

Topography

Athens claims to be built on seven hills. This is a gross underestimate and, should you venture off the main roads, your cycle route will encompass at least two of them.

You can’t avoid them, and they aren’t gentle. They rise vertiginously from under your tyres, before somehow reneging on the promise of a swift descent thanks to assiduous potholing and a strangely gloss finish to the paving stones that makes braking a gamble.

Other cyclists

Exist. But are probably numbered in the tens, rather than the hundreds. Pausing at the lights will be cause for a companionable remark.

Pedestrians

Are liable to emerge from any direction, at any speed, without warning. A stern look should be sufficient to ward them off.

Cycle lanes

Hypothetical. Local cyclists vehemently insist that cycle lanes exist. One even called up a satellite image of his city and traced the narrow serpentine scar of wine-dark asphalt that scores through the suburbs from Athens centre to Piraeus.

Personally, I am yet to witness a bone-fide cycle path. But I have tasted the famous manitaropita, which so many of my Athenian friends say you simply can’t find these days. So you win some, you lose some.

UPDATE: THEY EXIST. Or I should say, IT EXISTS. From the vicinity of Thessio metro station nearly all the way to the sea. The cycle lane is superbly surfaced, without potholes, and avoids almost all traffic interference. It is a beauty.

Almost incredibly, this Google Map claims to identify all the cycle lanes in Greece.

Weather and Environmental Conditions

Unbearable. Thanks to its hills, Athens delights in a geothermal inversion, creating something like oven conditions that trap both heat and pollution.

The density of habitation in central Athens, combined with the dearth of open spaces means that exhaust fumes are hard to escape – unless you can climb those hills.

Rain, although rare, doesn’t improve the matter so much as you’d expect. There is little in the way of street drainage, so the roads become channels for the flowing water, making riding slippery to say the least. Sunglasses are essential in daytime.

Navigation

Easy – if you can get the hang of the ubiquitous and inconvenient one-way system. Athens is built on a grid, filleted with a handful of multi-lane carriageways. Unless your destination is on one of the city axes, expect your journey to be punctuated with plenty of right-angle turns.

Bike shops

Exist. Luckily, I didn’t need one. More research required.

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