And a warm welcome from the back of a 2005 Ford Transit called Beryl, doing 110kph into the Aosta Valley, an hour shy of Chamonix and our beds for the night (👋RK🙏).
I left home on 10 July, eleven weeks ago, to ride Thighs of Steel 2023.
This was the sixth time we’ve cycled to Athens and the second year we got there all the way from Glasgow.
It’s a bloody long trip: in fact, I’m pretty sure that it’s Europe’s longest fundraising bike ride.
It took our freewheeling community of 101 cyclists eight weeks of hard sweat to ride the full distance.
I was there at the beginning, rolling down from Glasgow Youth Hostel under drizzle skies, and I was there at the end in Athens, calves burning, asphalt melting, song shouting, up Mount Lycabettus, the steepest of all finish lines.
It feels mad weird to be unravelling our tyre tracks in only six days of diesel-powered vanlife.
Our community (including a fair few of you👋) has now raised over £90,000 for grassroots solidarity projects that support people on the move.
Sorry Not Sorry
I can’t promise that I won’t shut up about this fundraising for a few weeks because it’s important to me to ensure this ride makes the biggest possible contribution to the grassroots solidarity movement.
It takes about eight months of hard work to prepare and launch Thighs of Steel. It’s another three months of work to, not only cycle across the continent, but facilitate the experience and ensure a safe environment for more than 100 participants.
We don’t do all that just for the jollies.
We do it to support grassroots solidarity initiatives, starved of cash in a hostile environment for people on the move.
Since 2016, Thighs of Steel cyclists have raised about £740,000 for projects like the Khora Collective’s social kitchen, Hakoura Organic cooperative farm and the Chamomile housing project for displaced people with mental health challenges.
If you believe in free movement, or even free-er movement for people having a rough time, you can share and donate here.🙏
The final week of the ride brought together sixteen mostly-strangers to cycle 600km down the east coast of Greece from Thessaloniki to Athens.
That was the plan, anyway.
This was a week with some breathtaking highs — sunsets over Mount Olympus, sea swims and watermelons every day, hot springs and mineral mud baths, beach camps, olive groves and a spooky abandoned hotel resort frequented at all hours by teenage canoodlers.
But our little bike ride was, of course, dominated by the devastating floods left after Storm Daniel passed through central Greece.
Barely a week before we cycled through, the region was hit by more than a year’s worth of rainfall in just 24 hours.
At least 17 dead. Homes, farms and villages wrecked over an area of 730 square km.
It will take five years for the bread basket of Greece to recover its soil fertility. Assuming no further catastrophe.
And that’s a big assumption.
Finding A Way
We reached the floodlands on Day 3 of the ride. After an open discussion, one group of cyclists formed an advance party to find out whether our planned route was even remotely feasible.
From our beach camp, we climbed 20km up and over a mountain to gather more information (and a bag of frozen spinach) from the nearest town, Kalamaki.
The local supermarket owner encouraged us to try the old road that ran alongside the reservoir that had once drained the fertile plain. The reservoir had burst its banks and now the water stretched beyond the horizon.
At the end of the road, we found only a police blockade and had no choice but to cycle straight back over the same hill in the heat of the day with flies swarming our faces.
It wasn’t the most fun I’ve ever had on a bicycle, but finding perspective was easy. A fly swarm sandwich is no hardship at all compared to the massive rescue and cleanup operation happening in the fields and villages below.
While we climbed back over the mountain, the rest of the cyclists pioneered a rocky off road route along a ribbon of coastline, which blessedly and eventually joined asphalt roads that, we were told, would circumnavigate the floodwaters.
Thank you to the people of Kamari for welcoming us in that night and letting us camp on their beautiful beach, now littered with storm debris, flotsam and jetsam swept down from the hills.
Almost cut off from the rest of the country, supplies of fresh food were at a premium in the coastal settlements. The crates stacked up on the back of a single pickup truck was all they’d seen for several days.
We were lucky. Our resourceful cyclists rustled up a dal dinner from the dry stores we’d brought with us from Glasgow — plus that long-defrosted bag of spinach.
Here & Now
Gazing out over the inland sea was a sobering reminder that climate disasters — massive and accelerating drivers of displacement — are here and now.
Globally, more than 20 million people are forced to flee their homes every year due to climate catastrophes.
Here and now.
Here and now, the kindness shown to us by the people of Thessaly was humbling. Their lands and in many cases their homes and livelihoods were underwater, yet everyone we met was open and supportive.
People helped us navigate off-road between devastated vineyards and orchards, find safe places to camp at night, and opened their shops, bakeries and cafes to we travellers.
These acts of generosity made a huge difference to us and helped us complete our quest.
The devastation we witnessed made each of us feel powerless in the face of inexorable nature.
The support we received from the local people made us feel strongly that anyone, any one of us, still has the power to make a difference.
We can still ride. We can still fundraise.
We can still tell the story of solidarity with people whose lives have been turned upside down by increasingly frequent disasters like the recent cyclone that struck Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey and Libya.
Even when we’re up against unstoppable forces, we are not powerless. Small acts of solidarity are signficant.
So Thank You
Thank you to all the cyclists who made this final week, with all its highs and hardships, a supportive and joyful space.
Thank you to all our hosts and the dozens or hundreds of humans who supported us along the way, from the octogenarian neighbourhood watch in Thessaloniki who helped us lift a car out of the way so we could get out of our parking space, to the team at Vicious Cycles Athens who once again welcomed us with cold drinks and spray bike tattoos.
We’ve now raised over £90,000 for grassroots refugee solidarity projects through our charity partner, MASS Action.
2,908 people have already donated to the main page, anything from £5 and up. A fiver might not seem like much, but it could be a hot meal with friends for someone who might not have much of either during a difficult time in a hostile environment.
Thank YOU for all your donations and your sharing of our stories. This kind of fundraising, so important for organisations working on the ground, only works because of our shared networks.
Thank you for caring. Thank you to every person reading this.
We reserve our deepest gratitude for the people leading the real work, putting in a shift at projects that open up dignified and sustainable spaces for migrants and asylum seekers.
100 percent of your donation (more if you Gift Aid) will be redistributed by MASS Action to grassroots solidarity projects across the UK and Europe.
Every pound you donate makes the world a richer place. 🙏This is happening, right now. Bring your friends.