Barbara and Martin Gernet turned their hobby into a career and also fulfilled their dream of emigrating. They set up “Martinbike” more than twenty years ago and have been offering Crete cycling holidays ever since. The Gernets enjoy life on the island, but also like to return to their home country Switzerland from time to time.
Cycling and Crete go together like gyros and tzatziki. “The season is long and the island large enough for more than one day of exploring. It is home to beautiful valleys and mountain ranges with summits that rise to an altitude of 2500 metres,” Martin Gernet from Lucerne explains. Martin and his wife, Barbara, started their company “Martinbike” over twenty years ago. Besides mountain bike and road bike holidays, they offer an oasis for a relaxing break in their Hotel Sunlight (situated at Mirabello Bay between Agios Nikolaos and Elounda) – or a combination of both.
From an idea to a respected family business
Martin used to work as an advertising manager for a large Swiss publishing house, and Barbara was employed in the sports retail business. They enjoyed cycling in their free time and spent their holidays in Greece. At some point, the idea to combine the two was born. “Back then, a friend who had settled in Crete as a surfing instructor felt our idea could work on the island,” Martin Gernet explains. No sooner said than done! The couple packed up, left Switzerland and took the plunge into a new life in Greece.
“We started out very modestly, offering cycling and hiking for anyone and everyone,” says Barbara Gernet. But they faced challenges nonetheless: “In those days, there was no Google, e-mail or similar to resort to. We had to take the traditional route, meaning distributing flyers and collaborating with other businesses in the field as well as with cycling magazines.” Gradually, “Martinbike” evolved into a relatively large provider of cycling holidays. But it has always been a family business. During the season, an eleven-strong staff works in the company’s bike station and hotel, which the Gernets have leased. Martin is primarily responsible for the bike business, the trails and for planning the tours, whereas Barbara manages the hotel, the tavern and the staff. The chef de cuisine is, of course, from Crete, and the menu consists exclusively of authentic Greek food.
Ancient Roman roads as a highlight for cyclists
Cycling tours are available for all levels of difficulty, ranging from beginners to biathlon pros who train regularly on the island. Beginners can enjoy easy tours on prepared roads. The “green level” is for hobby cyclists with a sound cycling technique. The “blue level” is aimed at good cyclists who train regularly. And the “black level” requires a high skill level and physical fitness. Barbara Gernet‘s favourite route is the mega trail, which is the longest tour on offer and encompasses 900 vertical metres. Martin and Barbara’s brother, Stefan, devised the tour themselves. “But you have to be a very good cyclist, as it is extremely demanding and includes narrow turns.”
Barbara and Martin also enjoy the easier routes that include cycling past rivers, canyons, rocks, pine forests, hamlets and beautiful bays. Lunch breaks are enjoyed in charming taverns, and a dip in the sea at one of Crete’s beautiful beaches is the perfect way to end any tour. All of the cycling trails were created by Martin and his employees. And –with the support of the state and municipalities– they also unearthed some Roman roads. “These roads were long forgotten. We rediscovered and dug out many of them. Most of them lead to secluded mountain villages. The cyclists thoroughly enjoy these adventures trails,” Martin Gernet adds.
Commuting between two worlds
These days, the Gernets commute between Crete and Switzerland. They own a travel agency in Engelberg, in the canton of Obwalden, and have a flat there. “When our son was born, we wanted him to be familiar with the Swiss mentality as well – and not just by way of occasional visits.” So Nico literally grew up in two worlds: he went to school in Crete in spring and autumn, and in Engelberg in winter. As a result, he is at home in both cultures and speaks both languages fluently. Nico is currently doing an apprenticeship in Switzerland.
Even if the Gernets feel closer to the Swiss than the Greek mentality, Crete is home for them too. “The people are very warm and hospitable,” Barbara says. “Family is what matters most, and strong ties are important. Greek families meet every weekend to celebrate and eat. And to dance.” Barbara laughs and proceeds to add: “The Greeks are always ready to dance – but they would never ever go anywhere on foot or by bike.”
“We have never regretted our decision”
When the Gernets arrived in Crete with their bicycles, they were met with rather condescending smiles. Martin explains: “The idea that anyone would choose to spend their holiday cycling on the island was inconceivable for the locals. But since we were no competition to anyone, no one put obstacles in our way, which was a definite advantage.”
Whether their son Nico will take over “Martinbike” one day remains to be seen. “The prerequisites are good,” his mother says. “Nico is a good cyclist and knows the island and the trails like the back of his hand. He is also familiar with running a hotel and a bike station. In addition, he speaks fluent Greek and German. However, for now, he should focus on finishing his apprenticeship in Switzerland. Then we shall see. But the decision is entirely his.” It would be a shame of course if, one day, the Gernets were faced with selling twenty years of their life’s work. “We have never regretted our decision to come to Crete to pursue our dreams here,” Martin Gernet says. His son should have no regrets either – regardless of what he ultimately decides to do.
Mountain bike and road bike holidays on the island of Crete: Barbara and Martin Gernet manage all the details, including transport from Heraklion International Airport and organising the cycling tours. The bike station and Hotel Sunlight are open from late March until early November.
Martinbike/Sunlight Hotel, Agia Galini 74056, Greece