In the latest instalment of our series of touring stories, friend of Temple and Cycle the City founder Holly takes us on a hilly ride through Georgia.
As the season of tours with Cycle the City was stopping for winter, and before my new cycle business Ride Out Ride On picked up a pace, it seemed a perfect time for a busman’s holiday. I’d used Temple bikes many times before to explore Bristol, but this time the Temple team was kind enough to let me put the Adventure Tour through its paces on an unusual adventure.
Georgia is an offbeat, but increasingly well-loved destination for cycle tourists. It’s a place that straddles the Asia-Europe divide, famed for its people’s unwavering hospitality, delicious food, plentiful wine and stunning scenery - a solid choice for a two and a half week tour.
As is the case with previous cycle tours, we knew where we would start and finish, but everything else was an exciting unknown. Bikes packed in boxes, we flew from London to Kutaisi (in the west of the country) and would return from Tbilisi (in the east) in 16 days’ time.
Arriving at midnight, mid-storm, we reassembled our bikes under the curious yet benign gaze of the local taxi operators. With morning, we were on our way. Georgian roads are often two lanes wide and with little traffic.The road also has a hard shoulder, which separates you from the traffic by about 3ft. Fifteen minutes into the journey from Kutaisi airport towards the centre, I look up to see a car coming straight at me. It’s overtaking a van, which in turn is overtaking a line of lorries. All of this takes place on a blind corner. It soon becomes clear that the ‘double overtake’ is quite a common driving technique. Georgian lesson no.1: ‘If a car is hurtling directly towards you, on your side of the road, you will not (necessarily) collide’. The near misses and beeps of passing cars became a reassuring backdrop to the trip.
For the first night, we’d arrange to stay in a guest house, and arriving cold and wet, we were greeted by our host Medea. She ushered us into matching pairs of white towelling slippers and sat straight down for a ‘typical’ lunch of Georgian bread, Georgian sauces, Georgian sausage, Georgian soviet cakes, Georgian tea, Georgian wine, Georgian polyphonic singing and a vodka shot with the Georgian father. Here we learnt a number of things; there are two ways to make wine, the Georgian way and the European way; rugby is their national sport and that Medea’s father plays football with Katie Melua’s uncle.
Well rested, well fed and with a handful of Georgian phrases we were on our merry way. The rain had not yet let up and we were heading for the hills. The road was gravelly and often punctuated by potholes. As cold started to creep in we discovered the single most delicious and calorific cycle tour lunch, sweet chai and ‘Khachapuri Adjaruli’; the saltiest, doughiest, cheesiest, butteriest option on anyone’s menu.
The following few days and nights were spent following the Mtkvari river and through the country’s heartland, passing by Khashuri, Gori (birthplace of Stalin) and Mtskheta. We were planning on camping every night in our trusty Terra Nova, but as was the case in a small town of Kvemo Khvedureti, and as became an enjoyably common occurrence, we were stopped before hunkering down into the tent and shepherded into a local family home for the night. Georgian hospitality is shorthand for boozy conviviality, interminable toasts, clinking glasses, and, if lucky, drinking wine from a ram’s horn (every family makes and keeps an astonishing quantity of their own wine). Though the Georgians pride themselves on their religious multiculturalism, the ones we met were Christian Orthodox, and, happily, considered guests to be gifts from God. Arriving on heavily-laden bikes in tiny towns, speaking a foreign tongue we, were more than willing to live up to hospitality that that association came with.
To celebrate our arrival, ‘supras’, banquet style feasts, were held in our name. Plates of khinkali (Georgian dumplings), phkali (walnut, spinach pastes), khachapuri (a Georgian staple of cheese bread) and more were brought out, and if the plate ever neared being finished, were instantly replenished by the womenfolk of the house. The elderly toast-master, ‘the tamada’, sat at the head of the table closest to the home-made wine, refilling glasses and leading the charge. We were assured that was a very particular order in which the toasts happen - to health, to loved ones, to family members - but they became suspiciously convoluted as the wine’s effects took hold: ‘here’s to foreigners’, ‘here’s to people who welcome foreigners into their homes’, ‘here’s to those who welcome foreigners into their home and give them home-made wine and khachapuri..’
Excepting for the first few days of torrential rain, Georgia in October offered next to perfect cycling conditions- bright and crisp mornings, warming over the day and cold clear nights up in the mountains. The landscape, similarly, was flawless. The Caucasus mountains, which act as natural land border with its neighbouring Russia, were arresting and provided a stunning backdrop for most of the country-spanning ride. The latter part of the ride was spent in the east of the country, towards Azerbaijani border, where the land was low-slung between two mountain ranges where it was warm and luscious. Under the wheel, the terrain varied from beautifully smooth tarmacked routes, to seemingly impassable single track paths.
Having planned to spend the last cycling stint in the eastern lowlands, we were tasked with the route’s most taxing day in the saddle, passing over the mountains directly to the north of Tbilisi, the country’s capital. We’d spent the previous night in the care of the kind-hearted, silver haired Giorgi (an unsurprisingly common name in Georgia) who had welcomed in to his house, having found us stumbling around looking for a spot to lay the tent for a night. In the morning, he set us off with the only sort of nutrition the cycle tourist wants - pasta and wine - ready for what would turn out to be one of the most rewarding and challenging day’s riding of my life. We spent the morning topping out a 1,500m pass and its chilly, life-affirming 10k descent; and the afternoon tackling the 1620m chaser in the form of the Gombori pass - nothing that the Temple couldn’t withstand. Exhausted, and well into dusk, we were the right side of mountains, and were ready for the easy riding and low mileage days we were to spend in the glorious vineyards of Georgia’s most well-known wine producing region - the Kakheti valley.
The following few, picturesque days were spent slurring through the hillside villages and wine producing estates of the area. From there, after riding east to the capital, we spent a handful of nights off the saddle, enjoying the city life of Tbilisi (which, we were assured, was the new Berlin…), the highlight of which was most certainly the pilling, lather and massage at one of the sulphur baths. A welcome relief for any cycle tourist.
Georgia is without a doubt one of the best countries to travel by bike - a pure (mountainous) unadulterated pleasure that should be consumed at a cyclist’s pace. These ‘supras’ aren’t destination stops, they’re chance encounters that happen when you’re swooped up by open- armed locals and surrogate Georgian Grandads.