“Double espresso, please.”
It’s 06:50, and I’m sitting on a stool along the ‘street to the beach’ in Naxos, Greece. My family and I took the ferry to Naxos from the island of Mykonos yesterday; we’d flown there from Venice a few days prior. After lots of research, Danielle, my wife and our trip’s designer, had pinpointed Naxos as the best island to spend a week or so. Upon stepping off the ferry, we knew she’d picked well. Naxos felt like the binary opposite of Mykonos: relaxed, proud, and safe.
It only took a day or two to establish my routine in Naxos: I get up each morning at 06:15, get dressed, pull my bottles from the freezer and head out the door. Before 07:00 I’m around the corner, sipping a double espresso that cost me 1.60 EU.
I figured out back in Nice that I feel better on the bike when I have a coffee before riding. At home in Ottawa I only drink decaf. After a pattern of caffeine abuse through university and beyond, I cut the chord years ago. Caf tends to be reserved for drives at night when I struggle to focus.
But it’s different in the locales we inhabit during our trip. Decaf isn’t terribly common, and coffee is generally done very well. I.e., you can get a pretty good coffee at a gas station. The coffee culture is different; most readers will know this. A ‘coffee’ in France and Greece is typically an espresso, not a drip/filter coffee. Instead of slamming a venti and all the caffeine it contains – the norm at home – I’ve been happily rolling with espressos, and my body has re-calibrated.
In Nice I’d roll from our place fasted (= not having eaten since the previous night) and ride two or three hours before stopping for breakfast and a coffee from a village bakery. The problem was, I found myself feeling less than enthused about what I was doing on a few occasions before my first stop. It didn’t take long to realize I was losing my way. I was riding on spectacular roads, not enjoying myself. I was doing it wrong.
I won’t get into the whole fasted riding thing in depth here, but will likely cover that experience in another post. Suffice it to say that I’ve done 5+ hour rides fully fasted, augmented by coffee; with caffeine. And I felt good.
Because caffeine is a drug. It’s a powerful drug I feel a clear need to respect.
In Naxos, I adapt my approach. Once I switch to a double before rolling out of town, my body falls into a rhythm that works. When I stop perhaps 2.5 hours later for breakfast, I either have another coffee or don’t; whatever feels right. As I ride in the morning light I’m content.
Looking back, I realize I didn’t get into a coffee groove while in the Pyrennes; it took time to develop. I enjoyed a beautiful double espresso atop the Tourmalet on my first ascent of the trip, and was sad to narrowly miss acquiring another as I arrived just after closing the day I rode perhaps one of the biggest rides of my life. Upon arriving back to our bed and breakfast, Les Dix Arches, I was all about getting a good coffee in town. But it wasn’t part of a routine, I didn’t really have one.
Jumping ahead to Athens, I was in the full swing of my coffee routine, nipping over to a bakery across the street from the OG Olympic Stadium at the outset of each ride. I’d down a double after doing my best not to slip and fall on their granite patio floor (they are all about slippery pavings in Athens….), then head out for four hours on the bike, returning at the end for a massive chocolate-chip bagelesque delight and another coffee. Maybe a piece of chocolate cake too. Have I mentioned I am coocoo for cocoa? I sampled so many chocolate pastries during the trip alongside coffee….it was an adventure.
The simplicity and scale of the coffee experience in Europe starkly contrasts that of North America. Here, we’ve lost the plot entirely. Coffee has become a beast, a drug consumed in massive quantities (have you seen the buckets people drink from?) with no effort spared to make the product taste as un-coffee-like as possible to ensure the greatest caffeine ingestion with the least ‘unpleasant’ coffee flavour. Meanwhile, in Europe coffee remains something that is generally carefully prepared (I saw many scales used), out of respect for the quality of the result. It’s a ‘small thing’ that receives a lot of care, and with that, delivers a great deal of value. When out on the roads, looking forward to a coffee and some food, I was always confident what I’d be served would be pretty darned good. And it was.
Coffee became part of a ritual in Naxos, an island that bears little resemblance to home, where I couldn’t read signs and didn’t know the name of the street we were staying on. In this context, the ritual was familiar, comforting, and ultimately, better than back home. I took that ritual with me to Athens, and it grounded my time there.
The repetition of my coffee ritual was analog, not digital; vinyl not CD. No two plays of a record are identical, we never have the same experience as we listen. But, as with coffee and each ritual we live, there is always an anticipation, a positive tension, that our experience will be great. That greatness, however, is often realized through difference / différance, subtle variations on ‘the same.’
Coffee: a simple, beautiful pleasure, bound up with the hope of repetition, and the realization of differentiation.
Home again and back to the usual rhythms of summer, I’ve experimented with replicating my European coffee experience. I’ve asked myself: what sort of coffee experience is worth replicating because I love it and derive value from it, versus repetition via mindless, unintentional habit? Do I even really enjoy a big decaf?
Honestly, no. Most of the time I barely register my big coffee’s flavour.
So yes, a double espresso is more expensive than a big brewed coffee; but it’s worth it. It’s worth taking the time to sip and enjoy, mindfully. It’s worth getting a decaf double later in the day with colleagues if the opportunity arises. It’s worth shifting my evaluation of ‘value’ from quantity to quality.
Suffice it to say that whenever I have opportunity to replicate the rhythm and ritual of my Naxos and Athens rides, which began and often ended with delicious doubles, I will. And I very much look forward to my next visit to Europe, and settling back into that ‘daily grind.’ However, I do have to wonder: will the Torino-Nice Rally I’m targeting for the next trip be so coffee-friendly? Time will tell!
My Rides from Nice
- Nice North – Madone (down) – Menton
- Nice – Col de Braus – Col de Turini
- Nice – Villefranche-sur-mer – Col de la Madone
- Up and down the Var River with Alex
- Nice – Revel de l’Alberta – Col de Braus – Col de Turini
My Rides on Naxos
- Naxos: An Introduction by Bike
- Naxos North Coast Loop
- Naxos Central Looping
- Filoti for Breakfast
- Climbing Loop with Pavlos
- Coffee with Pavlos
My Rides from Athens
Cafe du Cycliste – fantastic storefront, merchandise, and riding resources
- Rhythm: Reverberations and Ruminations from Nice
- Oval Revolution: 1000km on Absolute Black’s Oval Chainrings
- Down South: Old Dogs, New Tricks.
- Gearing Up/Down for Vermont Overland
- Talking Gravel with Velo de Route