Rendezvous in Thissio Every Friday Night for Group Cycling, Αthens Greece.
BY MARIA KORACHAI
Freeday team is open to all.
It was ten in the evening. Roughly 200 of us had gathered. Another similar-sized group also happened to be cycling in the area.
We accidentally met up at the point where Ethnikis Antistaseos Street flows onto Vouliagmenis Ave and the overall excitement generated an audible buzz. It was a proud moment. Riding bicycles, the members of the two teams, pursuing eco-friendly ways, either as hobbyists or activists, met up by chance, breaking out into a spontaneous expression of joy. Unlike cars, bicycles carry a quality of politeness and do not need to shout, or beep horns, to be heard. Instead, the resulting sound of whistling, laughter and applause made the camaraderie felt between the two sides clear.
This group cycling initiative began as an impromptu social outing one Friday night eight years ago when three or four friends decided to take a bicycle ride together. They met in Thissio, the charming Athenian inner district to the northwest side of the Acropolis, cycled about considerably, and returned to their homes late at night. The following Friday, the same riders returned to the same meeting point, but the group’s size had grown. Eventually, these group cycling experiences, which were later dubbedFreeday, as they were open to all, grew to attract as many as 3,000 riders.
Admittedly, Athens does not possess ideal infrastructure for cycling, while, making things worse, local car drivers are not accustomed to the idea. Amid such unfavorable conditions, the power of plenty is the only solution. The ritual has been maintained over the years. Participants meet up every Friday night in Thissio at 21:30. The course to be taken is not announced but its destination is posted on Facebook the day before, in the form of a puzzle. The mystery is discussed by riders along the way, bets are placed and guesses are made as part of the fun involved.
“The experience serves as a good school for learning how to get around Athens on a bicycle. You are taken into consideration by car drivers when part of a large group. Over the years, of course, progress is being achieved and group rides are nowadays organized virtually on a daily basis by groups and municipalities. It’s also a trend, a solution for tight finances, as well as a form of exercise,” noted Antonis, a regular participant of the Thissio rides every Friday night. “Cyclists and car drivers can co-exist with a bit of overall cooperation, even if cycling lanes are not available in Athens,” he added.
The chats while cycling are typically of light content and, understandably, never personal as a result of the endless flow of co-riders all around. But there is plenty of talk and variety. The group mingles creatively along the way. Participants get to talk to numerous others while being overtaken or overtaking. Mr. Nikitas, who has participated in the Freeday rides over the past five years, is an extremely popular group member. He has attached speakers to his bicycle to further bolster the team’s road presence and also entertain it. Group members get to listen to the sounds of rock, disco, and house. Sing-along attempts are made while the beats motivate the members to pedal harder.
The best moments are when the group turns onto main roads and spreads out, which drives home the fact that there are many of us out there who love cycling, each in his or her own way. Thanassis was the only group member not donning a cycling uniform or tights for our ride. Instead, he was dressed in jeans, moccasins, shirt, and checkered jacket. He rides an elegant, custom-made city bicycle, as he says, equipped with leather bags hanging from the left and right. During the break, he treated us to noodles and vegetables. “Why should people abroad go to work on their bicycles dressed in their office attire while we wear cycling uniforms? It’s called cycle chic,” he commented.
Fascinatingly, every Friday night, Freeday draws together individuals who are engaged in very different lines of work during the day. The ritual has established close friendships. Asked whether he could share any unique stories from the weekly rides, Spiros, one of the group’s most avid members who helps design the routes, responded: “The difficult rides during winter, when it is raining, are unique as Freeday is staged every Friday, regardless of the conditions – except for certain national holidays. We get the biggest turnout at the end of July when we organize the Tour d‘ Athenes, which covers roughly 140 kilometers and lasts all night. But you get to see a magical sunrise at the end of it. The rides to Sounio and Penteli, to its observatory, rank among the most beautiful experiences.” Asked whether the group cycling experience has changed his life, Spiros exclaimed: “It rejuvenated me,” adding that “I also met this guy,” offering a fellow rider to his side an embrace.
INFO: Every Friday, 21.30, Agion Somaton Square, Thissio. An average speed of 11 km/h is maintained to help all group members keep up. Course distances range between 30 and 55 km. Make sure to take with you a bottle of water and sandwich for the break.