Amiddle-aged friend and I had been secretly planning our bicycle trip along Eastern Europe's Adriatic coast for months. But when we announced the news, the rebukes flew as thick and fast as heavy-duty saucepans hurled forcefully across a kitchen table.
The fiercest hit me like a copper-bottomed stockpot with a full load of stew. "I know why you're doing this," my wife raged. "You just want to escape the children and spend a week drinking beer and ogling women."
"You're only two-thirds right," I protested, hastily. "No woman the length of the Adriatic can compare with your beauty so what could possibly possess me to ogle at weather-beaten Balkan crones?"
And with that expertly delivered piece of silver-tongued flattery, the threat of acute physical injury subsided and my friend, David, and I were as good as in our saddles and on our way for our reckless expedition: a 650km bike ride from the southern tip of Albania to Dubrovnik, in Croatia.
OK, so it didn't happen quite like that. In reality, my wife appeared suspiciously keen for me to leave her in the sunshine of Greece while I pedalled up and down a mountainous coastline with an equally bald and wrinkly fellow veteran hack. But any mid-life crisis adventure requires a measure of boyish mischief and mild female disapproval. So it was that, with a cacophony of imaginary tut-tutting in our ears, we squeezed our bulging frames into tight cycling shorts and headed manfully for the hills of Albania.
Having flown our mountain bikes to the base camp of a holiday home in Corfu, Greece, we mapped out a six-day route that would take us in roughly 100km-a-day hops through Albania and Montenegro to Dubrovnik and then back to Corfu via Bari, in Italy, by ferry.
AS WE HEAD UNCERTAINLY out into the July sunrise, panniers bulging with wholly unnecessary provisions, we know we are not alone. Across Europe, thousands of other middle-aged men are embarking on similar ill-advised enterprises, bloggers and websites reliably inform us.
Two phenomena have made this age-inappropriate behaviour possible: increased leisure time and modern bicycle technology, which means cycling up ludicrously sheer hillsides in Eastern Europe is miles easier than it would have been a generation ago.
Our sleek Cannondale and Trek bikes, in other words, can take us as far and as fast as we like - at least in theory. In practice, they get us as far as halfway up the dreaded Llogara Pass, in southern Albania. It's 10.30am on day two and scorching hot.
"I honestly don't think I can go any further," David wheezes pitifully, as he contemplates the cloud-scattered heights of a mountain road that zig-zags mercilessly from sea level to 1,200 metres in a sadistic ascent that can only be described as 5km of unmitigated torture.
Five years older and a few kilograms lighter than me, David has type two diabetes (the sort induced by a journalistic lifestyle) and is in big trouble. As he sits pale and puffing by the roadside, it is suddenly appallingly obvious to me that he is about to collapse with a heart attack.
I imagine the phone call I'll make to his wife ("His last words? It was hard to make out but I think he said, 'Why didn't I stay in that effing beach bar in Corfu?'"). Our journey seems doomed, with less than 160km cycled and barely a beer guzzled or an ogre ogled.
Miraculously, a glucose drink and a bag of sweets revive David and we cautiously recommence our ascent, taking breaks every half mile or so until we reach the summit and begin an exhilarating 20km descent into the seaside city of Vlora. We are on a roll.
In the two days that follow we discover what should have been a self-evident truth. If you want to enjoy a riotous nightlife, don't cycle for eight hours at a time in blistering heat along wearying, dusty highways where death is never more than a kerb's width away.
We reach our destinations - Durres and then Shkoder - dog tired, sun-scorched and with just enough energy to check into hotels then venture out for cold beers and plates of hideously unhealthy Balkan food, before collapsing into deep slumbers well before midnight.
The rowdiest it gets is in Vlora, where EU-centric delirium erupts as Germany win the football World Cup final while we sit in a street café wolfing down kebabs and tankards of local beer. (Impressively, we will both have managed to put on weight rather than lose it by the end of the trip.)
Next comes the genuine thrill of crossing from Albania into Montenegro along eerily quiet country roads, and the descent onto the gorgeous but horribly congested coast road, where Serbian tour buses brush our handlebars as they hurtle homicidally past.
The once-charming seaside town of Budva is a vast, thumping techno-pop disco at night and our final destination, Dubrovnik, is dazzlingly atmospheric but best visited out of season. We glower at young people and crowds like the tired old curmudgeons we are.
ODDLY, WE NEVER did see the mythical legions of middle-aged cyclists who were supposed to be our fellow travellers. Maybe they were dead in roadside ditches - or more likely propping up seaside bars with their bikes stowed away in air-conditioned taxis, guffawing into their pints as we wobbled past.
The real world was never far away, of course. On our triumphant descent into Dubrovnik I was interrupted by a work call from London that kept me preoccupied for what should have been a lazy gastronomic journey home through Italy, were the meals were unforgettable, nonetheless. Being forever contactable and online had benefits, too. With a laptop in one pannier, we created a Facebook page called Bald Blokes on Bicycles in the Balkans and found our shamelessly embellished daily updates struck a chord with gentlemen of a certain age at home a-bed in England.
They have inspired one hairless former South China Morning Post executive to buy a bike and begin training for this summer, when we plan to avoid heavy traffic and civilisation in general in the mountains of southern Albania. They also elicited wistful responses from a henpecked friend.
"I wish I was bald and on a bike," he wrote, evidently holding his man-hood cheap as we spun colourful tales of fighting off fatigue and men-acing street urchins to find a bar serving cold beer. Later, he posted wistfully: "If I shave my hair off, can I come next year?"
We said yes, of course - but his wife won't let him.
Red Door News Hong Kong