What is the Hellenic Mountain Race? In this guide, we talk to organiser Nelson Trees about why he chose Greece as the location for the third of his Mountain Race series, talking through his recommendations for which bike is best and what highlights the riders of this route can expect along the way.
This is followed by an in-depth look at the route segments with profile details.
Tailfin: Can you explain why you chose Greece to be the setting of your new race?
Nelson: There are a number of reasons why I chose Greece as the setting for my third race. I wanted it to be a little more accessible than my other two races in Kyrgyzstan and Morocco: something that was a little more approachable for less experienced riders. At the same time, I still wanted it to share the same characteristics of being challenging, remote and a proper adventure. Northern Greece, although you might not expect it, has all of these qualities. I think riders will be quite surprised by how wild the setting is and how far away from civilization they will end up. Add to this that its beautiful out there, the food is great and the locals warm and welcoming and you have a great location for a race.
Can you briefly explain why you set this new race up?
As I mentioned above, I wanted to create a new event that could be the first step for riders new to unsupported racing. Perhaps they’ve been following my other events but were afraid to take the plunge into a more demanding setting like Morocco or Kyrgyzstan. There will be plenty of challenges in Greece, but it will be more about the riding. There are fewer factors to contend with; it should be more within the comfort zone of many riders, allowing them to focus on the already considerable difficulties associated with covering almost a thousand kilometres and 30,000m of elevation gain in a week…
Is the Hellenic Mountain Race a gravel route or a mountain bike route?
This is always a tricky one, but I think it’s more of a mountain bike route. I don’t actually own a gravel bike, so everything I scout is done on my hardtail, so it is more difficult for me to estimate how it will go on a gravel bike. I think it is a bit less demanding than Morocco or Kyrgyzstan and that you could get round the course quite well on a gravel bike, but it would still likely be better on a hardtail. In these races, the key is comfort; even if you could save a few grams using a gravel bike, you’d still likely be faster on a more comfortable setup with front suspension.
What would be the best bike setup?
I would go with a hardtail with aero bars. There’s a bit of everything in terms of surfaces. You’ll be happy that you brought a suspension fork for the rough stuff and will also enjoy the comfort and efficiency of the aero bars on the tarmac sections. The one thing to keep in mind is that there are basically no flat sections; it’s all up or down, so think carefully about gear ratios. 3000 meters of elevation gain in every hundred kilometres is massive. You’ll need some very low gears to keep the legs turning when you’re tired.
What are some of the highlights of the route?
The start in Meteora will be pretty special, it’s an incredible place, and we’ve been promised a great welcome by the local authorities. The first checkpoint in Papingo and the hike up to Mount Tymfi refuge will likely stay in riders’ memory for a long time. If they brought a mountain bike, the descent will be nice too. I developed a bit of a soft spot for old stone bridges during scouting, so if you enjoy that kind of thing, there are a few nice ones on the route too. Otherwise, the section after checkpoint two in Melissourgi should be pretty memorable; we take you to the kind of high mountains you might not expect in Greece.
The route will likely give riders an unexpected impression of Greece. They will spend most of their time far from the islands and beaches that make this such a popular and renowned holiday destination. They’ll spend their time in the surprisingly wild and remote mountains and forests of the north of the country. The riding is incredible, the people are warm and friendly, and the food is fantastic. Add to that generous portions, and you have the recipe for a great bikepacking adventure. Wildlife may well also be on the menu. During scouting, we saw two bears, some wild boar and several mountain goats. Get ready for a proper adventure!
Any tips for riders?
I think the biggest one is not to underestimate this one. Especially if you’ve done my other races, you may fall into the trap of thinking this will be an easy one. Just a word of warning, there is about the same vertical elevation gain as there is in Silk Road Mountain Race but at half the distance… If you look at the resupply options, you’ll also notice that there are some very long sections with very little resupply. Riders will need to think very carefully about not running out of food en route. Other than that, I’d say don’t miss out on the food. Definitely one of the highlights compared with my two other races. The portions are generous, and the food is hearty, perfect for hungry cyclists.
The Hellenic Mountain Race route
Total Distance: 939 kilometres
Total Elevation: 29,000 metres
The town of Meteora, famous for its iconic monasteries clinging to impossibly steep rocky outcrops, is the starting location for the 2023 edition. From here, riders will travel to Nafpaktos, on the southern Greek coastline. The set route from Meteora to Nafpaktos covers 939 kilometres, following a mix of unpaved roads, tarmac, stone pathways and singletrack. The route is 53% off-road and pushes through some of the most remote mountainous regions of Greece. As a special bonus, riders can expect some hike-a-bike sections to take them to a few particularly special places.
The route will feature three checkpoints that riders are required to visit and validate their progress through the course. These checkpoints are fully staffed and will be located at Papingo, Melissourgi, and Karpenissi.
Section 1: Start (Meteora) to Metsovo
Distance: 96km | Elevation: 3094m
Description (from the organiser Nelson):
“The Hellenic Mountain Race will begin with a neutralised start through the centre of Kalambaka, at the foot of Meteora. It will then follow a singletrack loop to the west of the Monasteries before finally leaving the area and heading into the Pindus Mountains.
Riders will then head up to Metsovo, the first major town on the race route. They will quickly leave civilisation behind and get a taste of what is to come.”
Section 2: Metsovo to Papingo (Checkpoint 1)
Distance: 130km | Elevation: 3437m
“Riders will then make their way along the shores of Aoou reservoir before crossing several beautiful old stone bridges on their way to Vikos Gorge. There will be some stone pathways in this section of the race that will require some walking…
Riders will need to complete a short out and back to the main Vikos Gorge viewpoint before following a non-existent (but rideable!) track through some meadows down to the main road.
They’ll soon be on their way to Papingo, the first checkpoint of the race. A stunning little village with picturesque stone buildings. They’ll get a stamp at one of the local businesses before heading out for one of the bigger challenges of the race: the hike up to Mount Tymfi Refuge. It’ll be a nice ride down for those who elected to bring a mountain bike…”
Section 3: Papingo to Metsovo
Distance: 199.56km | Elevation: 5745m
“This section of the race route starts with a long descent from Mount Tymfi refuge. Gravel bike riders, beware: this will not be your favourite section. Hopefully, the view at the top will still make the effort worth it. Riders will then cross another beautiful old stone bridge before riding through Konitsa on their way to a big loop around Smolika mountain and eventually back to Metsovo. This section is sparsely populated, and resupply will be more difficult to find.”
Section 4: Metsovo to Melissourgi (Checkpoint 2)
Distance: 78.21km | Elevation: 2720m
“This section of the race route will take riders high into the Pindus range, leaving the forests behind for a while for more high-altitude, barren mountains open to the elements. There are some spectacular mountain roads on the way. They will finally reach the location of our second checkpoint: Melissourgi, at a refuge that is a wonderful retreat from the modern world, with a laid-back and welcoming atmosphere. Riders will be able to rest up before tackling the next remote section of the route.”
Section 5: Melissourgi to Karpenissi (Checkpoint 3)
Distance: 243km | Elevation: 7955m
“This section of the race route features remote mountain ranges and wide-open vistas. Immediately after leaving Checkpoint 2, riders will head up to one of the highest points in the race, with landscapes you would not expect in Greece. It looks a lot like Kyrgyzstan at times.
There won’t be much in the way of civilisation or resupply until Karpenissi. The route into this ski resort town loops around the back of the mountain and up and over. It’s likely the most difficult way to reach the town but also the most spectacular. The Checkpoint itself will be at the rather grand Hotel & Spa Montana that overlooks the town.”
Section 6: Karpenissi to Finish (Nafpaktos)
Distance: 193.12 | Elevation: 6195m
After Karpenissi, riders are on the home stretch down to Nafpaktos. They still have a number of big obstacles in the way, though. The first of these is the climb up and over Diaselo Kaliakoudas pass. It’s an improbable road that goes over rather than around the mountain.
What comes next is a section of gravel and tarmac in steep gorges that almost loops back on itself, where there will be views of the Monastery of Panagia Prousos.
The final challenge before a well-deserved arrival at the finish line will be to climb to the top of the mountain that dominates Nafpaktos. They’ll then have one final downhill past the castle and into the town itself.
The exact location of the Hellenic Mountain Race finish line still needs to be confirmed, but we hope to take riders right into the picturesque old port. There are plenty of amenities in town to relax and get some rest after the race.
The inaugural 2023 edition will take place between the 13th – 20th of May. for more information and to register your interest, head to the Hellenic Mountain Race website.
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