‘Broken bones, broken bodies, broken bikes!’ ALIX NORMAN is shocked by one Cypriot’s dream to complete the most punishing race on the planet

“I live in fear,” says George Kouzis. It’s an odd admission, especially from a 19-year-old from Lakatamia who exists almost entirely on the knife edge of danger.

But this isn’t a fear of dying or of spiders or any of the other myriad of worries that keep most of us awake at night. Instead, it’s a very real fear of falling into what he calls “the accountant trap – the 9 to 5, grind till you die!

“My generation doesn’t have the luxury of knowing that a good education will secure us a stable job, that we’ll be able to buy a house and raise a family,” he grimaces. “Today’s world is an uncertain place: we grew up with terrorism, with recession, with environmental crisis and haircuts that wiped out savings overnight.

“Life is to be lived,” he adds. “Not suffered. And so no, I don’t put on a suit and go to an office every day just to pay increasing rent. Instead, I put on my helmet and hurtle down hills at 100 kilometres an hour in the hope of one day, doing my country proud at the Olympic Games!”

George is a mountain biker – one of the few world-class athletes in this discipline ever to come out of Cyprus. Humble, courteous, and very determined, he’s been training every day since he was six, and has recently completed his military service in the army’s athlete division.

Since then, he’s eschewed university for “XCO, extreme mountain biking. It’s my passion,” he enthuses. “It’s what gets me up in the morning and keeps me going through the day.”

But in Cyprus, there’s no money in this sport.

“It’s such a shame,” he acknowledges. “Because our island has exactly the terrain and weather that both amateur and professional mountain bikers require. At the moment the elite athletes in Europe go to New Zealand to train each winter. Yet Cyprus offers so much more, and so much closer!”

Still, even for athletes lucky enough to live here, life is tough.

“There’s little funding from the government, from the sporting federations. There are few facilities for bikers, little infrastructure. I make a bit of money from coaching, a bit from my sponsors. It’s enough,” he grins, “to help me get to the occasional competition…”

Over the past few years, George has competed abroad a number of times. He raced in the punishing Cross Country European Youth Championship in Pila Aosta, Italy, in 2018, facing off against 150 other competitors in what he describes as “chaos at high speed: riders running over those who had fallen, tyres bouncing into the undergrowth.”

He competed in the 2021 European Championships in Serbia, learning, he says “an important lesson – never push yourself too hard at the start, or you’ll burn out before the end!”

George Kouzis

And in an international competition in Kos he took first place – “a big win, it felt really good. It confirmed to me that I was doing the right thing, that I could compete on the world stage.”

And next? Well, in June this year, George has determined to compete in the most punishing bike race in the world. It’s called Les Deux Alpes after its location in France. But among mountain bikers, it has another name.

“We call it,” says George, “The Mountain of Hell…”

It’s a competition that will give him exposure to vital sponsorship. And that, one day, might see him able to represent Cyprus in the Olympics – the ultimate dream. It’s a hard route to take. But when your options are limited and funding is nil, this breathtaking, hair-raising plunge, 25-kilometre hellscape may be George’s only chance to garner attention…

“Broken bones, broken bodies, broken bikes – these are par for the course on The Mountain of Hell,” the young man admits. It’s a race that begins on a glacier. Treacherous ice gives way to rock-strewn descents; riders reach up to 120 kilometres per hour on intense downhills, perilous drops, and hairpin turns…”

Of the 700 who begin, few make the finish line. But George remains undeterred. Somehow the thought of sitting in a government office for eight hours a day is much more frightening than plunging at high speed down unforgiving slopes on the razor’s edge of disaster.

In fact, the only other thing that’s worrying him about the race is his responsibility to others: to his sponsors Kona Bikes and his mentor Andreas Kolokotronis who have been instrumental in making George’s journey happen; to the many, many members of the community who have helped; and to those who have recently donated…

“I feel the weight of responsibility to every single person who has contributed to my gofundme page,” George admits. “It costs €6,000 to get me to the race with the equipment I need. That’s not a number I can come up with; not a figure the sporting federations could find in the current economic climate.

“If I ever want a chance to represent Cyprus on the world stage, I have to find that money myself.”

As so often happens on this island, it’s the community that has come together to help George in his time of need. Friends, colleagues, and complete strangers have all donated.

“I can’t explain how good it feels,” George admits. “I have been humbled by the support. After all, I’m not saving the planet or fighting hunger; I’m not rescuing animals or restoring ancient monuments. I’m just a guy who dreams, one day, of biking for Cyprus at the Olympic Games…

“The Mountain of Hell is my chance to do that. It’s a step,” he adds, “into the unknown. There’s nobody to follow here, no Cypriot I can turn to for advice. I have to figure it all out myself.

“I guess,” he concludes with a laugh, “I’d have to do the same thing if I became an accountant. But somehow, The Mountain of Hell seems much less frightening!”Follow George’s journey to The Mountain of Hell on Instagram @kouz1s and the Facebook page ‘George Kouzis’. If you would like to support him, visit gogetfunding.com/mountain-of-hell