When we woke on Thursday morning it was raining and there was a strong westerly wind. Apparently, there had been gusts up to 100km per hour overnight and they were still reaching over 40km per hour. After breakfast, we both set our route for La Rochelle into Komoot and headed north, following the voice instructions. La Rochelle was 48 miles away so it would be a short day’s riding, or so we thought.
We had already decided that Eurovelo 1 would add too many miles, meandering as it does around every little nook and cranny of the coast, so we were relying on Komoot’s ‘touring cycling’ route to provide a more direct line of travel. In this instance, it turned out to be a mistake because we were taken onto the main road our of Royan and the traffic was horrendous. Trucks and buses buzzed within a few feet of us every few seconds so we pulled over and decided to plot a longer route to the West to avoid the worst of the traffic. It worked well at first and we found ourselves on quiet roads running through pretty French villages. It was an altogether more interesting experience than endless miles of forest tracks. However, progress was slower than we expected, particularly as we accidentally went off-route a number of times due to confusion with directions. This invariably led to numerous stops and a 10-minute discussion at each about how to get back on track. In the course of the day, these cost us about two hours of lost cycling time. At least the rain had eased during the day. We even had 5 minutes of sunshine.
These delays were nothing compared to those caused by trying to get across the Charente river into Rochefort. The main bridge had the narrowest of lanes painted on it that were possibly cycleways but we couldn’t be sure. Traffic was heavy across the bridge, the Martrou viaduct, which appeared to be about a mile long, and while Andy was happy to give it a try, I was more cautious. The mapping software showed another crossing just a few miles to the East, so we headed in that direction. When we arrived at the right spot at about 3:30pm, it turned out to be a ferry crossing. The next ferry was not due until 6:30pm. On the basis that there was bound to be another bridge somewhere, we cycled East.
At one point, we thought we could see a way across but it was an ancient construction from 1900, Le Pont Transbordeur. The so-called transporter bridge is an engineering monument spanning the Charente and it is supposed to be possible to cross by foot or with a bicycle from April until October but we could not find any kind of entrance to it.
Eventually, we found a small pedestrian bridge and crossed the river but by the time we then cycled back West into Rochefort, we had already covered 50 miles and we were tired, not least because of many frustrating diversions of the day, some of which were caused by contradictions in the instructions that Andy was receiving from his phone with those that I was receiving from mine. We made two decisions. First, we would stay in Rochefort for the night, rather than push on to La Rochelle. Second, one of us would take sole responsibility for navigation each day, the other would choose the hotels.
Andy found a great value hotel in Rochefort, just half a mile from where we were sat at bar doing the research, and we checked in. Dinner in a restaurant in the centre of town was good but unremarkable, and we looked forward to better day’s riding the following day.
We caught the 10am ferry from Arcachon to Bélisaire on Cap du Ferret in pouring rain. The crossing, on a small boat, took about 20 minutes. It continued to rain for the next hour or so and, apart from a nice, new Gortex jacket keeping my top half warm, the rest of me was cold and wet, and wondering how much of this I’d want to tolerate in a day.
These days, my cycling trips are about enjoyment, rather than endurance. If the going gets too horrible, I’m happy to change plans at the drop of a hat. I did this last year when the ‘Beast from the East’ brought snow to parts of Spain (and much of the rest of Europe) in late March. Then, I put the bike in a cardboard box and flew to Tenerife, where it was more like 20C, rather than 2C.
However, by just after midday, the rain eased and we started to dry out a little.
We ploughed on until we noticed a Centre Ville sign to the left of the cycleway. It was a fortuitous diversion because we found a great little restaurant and enjoyed a leisurely lunch.
Looking at our progress, we realised we had a good chance of catching the 7:30pm ferry from Le Verdon-sur-Mer to Royan and kept up a good pace on the cycleways with the odd diversion to smaller roads where we could cycle a little faster. At one point, we were directed onto a single-track concrete path. It had seen better days and slowed us down for a few miles but we were soon picking up the pace again.
At one junction we spotted a couple of other cyclists and ended up following them along a stretch of cycleway. They had panniers on their touring bikes but were keeping up a good speed. As we pulled alongside and started chatting, it turned out that Colin (from Wells) and Neil (from Bristol) had set out from Bilbao and were heading the Cherbourg for a return ferry on Saturday evening. Their goal was to ride 120 miles per day, a very long way when fully loaded for touring! Within a few minutes of meeting them, Neil had a puncture. Andy and I agreed to go on ahead but to call when we arrived at the ferry to let them know the time of the last sailing of the day.
We saw the 6:15pm ferry departing as we pulled into the terminal, which gave 30 minutes for a beer at a bar across the road before boarding the 7:30pm ferry. We’d contacted Colin and Neil to let them know that the 7:30pm sailing would be the last of the day but they arrived in good time, so we went across together on the 20 minute trip and then all checked into a nearby hotel. We didn’t see them again because we were dining separately.
Andy and I then had the best meal of the trip so far in Le Petite Bouchon, just across the road from the hotel. We then enjoyed a night cap in the bar above the restaurant before heading back to the hotel.
We’d covered around 77 miles and the plan was then for a shorter, 48-mile ride, from Royan to La Rochelle, the following day. But plans don’t always work out…
We washed most of our clothes on Monday evening so Tuesday morning was a slow start while we waited for them to finish drying. We left at about 9:30 and had little trouble finding our way back onto Eurovelo 1. The weather was again warm and sunny.
Just a few miles into the ride we met a British couple. They were cycling south to San Sebastien on heavily-loaded touring bikes and wild camping, hence the large volume of provisions.
Once again we were riding along perfectly smooth, quiet cycleways no sign of traffic, except as we passed through small towns.
It was remarkable how few opportunities for refreshments there were. Some were open in the towns close to the cycleways but many were not. Early May is clearly out-of-season in this part of the world.
This is one significant disadvantage of following Eurovelo 1, the other being boredom – the scenery is great for a while but it’s just mile after mile of pine forest. We did have a bright green gecko cross our paths at one point, but that was the high point of the wildlife experience too.
We started to alternate between the signposted Eurovelo 1 route and using Komoot. One advantage of the Komoot app is that it’s easy to zoom out and look at the map on a smartphone screen, rather than have to squint at it on an impossibly small Garmin screen. Personally, I can see no reason for Garmin to existing now that Komoot is available. Garmin is over-complicated in every way and I’ve developed an aversion to going anywhere near them over the years. When you consider that Komoot gives you global maps too, and all for a £29 on-off lifetime payment, Garmin hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Yes, there is potentially an argument about battery life in smartphones, but I don’t find any problem for most rides and carrying a small back-up battery is not a problem for longer days in the saddle.
Towards the tail end of the ride, we were running parallel to Europe’s largest sand dune. This is what Wikipedia has to say about the Dune du Pilat:
The dune has a volume of about 60,000,000 m³, measuring around 500 m wide from east to west and 2.7 km in length from north to south.Its height is currently 110 meters above sea level.
We saw a few other cyclists and walkers during the day and took the odd detour to look at the sea but for the most part we intent on reaching Arcachon, one possible destination for the evening, and perhaps even crossing over to Bélisair on Cap Ferret by ferry. As it was, when we arrived in Arcachon we were told (incorrectly) that the last ferry had departed for the evening so we walked into the first half-decent hotel we stumbled upon and booked a room for the night. It was a bit above our budget but we were tired and it was the easy option. The adjacent restaurant provided good, fishy sustenance.
We’d covered another 69 miles into the northerly wind but with otherwise good weather.
Despite the best intentions, I rarely get around to blogging in the evenings. After a long days’s ride, all I want is a shower, food, and more food! Hence it’s now Wednesday morning, with two days of riding behind us and this post is about Monday. I’ll try to catch up, and perhaps add more photographs, later.
On Monday morning, we set off from our Hendaye hotel, a modern but unremarkable place, in search of Eurovelo 1 heading North. Accommodation was booked for Monday night in Saint Juien en Born, a little over 70 miles away. As is often the case, it was a little tricky navigating the pretty coastal town but there were plenty of cycleways and we found our way through. We then had quite a long stretch of road with moderately heavy traffic and some significant, if not particularly challenging, hills. Eurovelo 1 keep detouring from the most direct route to take us around every little loop that brought us close to the sea and most of this was on cycles lanes that were completely devoid of other traffic. After a couple of hours, we encountered a small restaurant, over looking the sea, that was just opening up. Six large oysters and a glass of wine for ten Euro was a tempting offer but we had to get some miles under our belts so we pressed on.
It continued to be quite hilly as we passed through Biarritz, which was very smart, apart from the large amount of construction work in progress, then on towards Bayonne. We passed through some industrial areas, but still safely on cycleways most of the time.
About 25 miles into the ride, the terrain became almost entirely flat, and so it was to continue for the rest of the day. It was sunny and the temperature rose to about 18 or 19C, idyllic weather for cycling. The only downside was that we were cycling into a 14mph headwind much of the time, but even that wasn’t particularly challenging.
By early afternoon we were ready to eat but there was no sign of the kind of oyster restaurant that we’d encountered earlier in the day. We decided to keep things simple, buying bread, local paté, ham and olives from a Spar supermarket and devouring these whilst sitting on a bench in the small town we were passing through. I can’t remember its name. However, just as we were leaving the town, we rode alongside a beautiful estuary and sure enough, there was the next oyster restaurant. Oysters and a dry white wine for desert. What could be better!
After lunch, we soon headed into the pine forests of Les Landes. The cycle paths were mostly the width of a car lane, perfectly smooth and many of them straight for miles on end. Although we were close to the sea, we saw little of it. Trees hid the beaches from the cycleways. There were only a few other cyclists and walkers around because the holiday season had not started. There were numerous lizards dashing across our paths throughout the day, but we managed to avoid them.
At around half past six in the evening, we arrived at our destination for the day. A house in the middle of a forest camp site, where our host, Maylis, greeted us warmly and told us where we could find the local supermarket.
After a brief shopping trip, Andy cooked up steak with endive salad and we collapsed into our beds to recover from the day’s efforts.
We’d covered 83 miles and climbed 3,600 feet, which was somewhat more than we were expecting when we set off in the morning.
I’ve been keen to visit the Landes region of South West France for several years and when I discovered Eurovelo 1, a cycling route that stretches from Portugal to Norway, in part running north-south along the French Atlantic coast, it seemed a good way to explore the region, at least in part. Eurovelo 1 offers the attraction of long stretches of traffic-free cycleways and where it does venture onto roads, these are usually quiet ones. This would make for a relaxing tour with all the usual attractions of cycling in France, good food and wine at the top of the list.
My old friend Andy and I have done a few cycling trips together, including my local Wiltshire Cycleway and the vintage bike ride, Eroica Britannia. We were both able to grab a couple of weeks’ holiday at the beginning of May to tackle the French section of Eurovelo 1. It runs from Hendaye in the South West corner of the country to Roscoff in the North West.
A plan formed to take a ferry from Portsmouth to Santander in northern Spain, then travel to Irun near the French border before hopping across to Hendaye and cycling to Roscoff. I did look at cycling into France from Santander but most of the stuff I read suggested either a lot of climbing, a lot of traffic, or a lot of both. Taking the train looked long-winded but there is a bus, which takes about 3.5 hours and departs from a point less than 1km from the ferry terminal. The bus was easy to book online and I was even able to reserve two of the four dedicated bicycle spaces on the vehicle, online. The bus goes to Irun, from where it’s just a few km to Hendaye.
After checking out the Brittany Ferries schedules, it was clear the St. Malo to Portsmouth would be the more convenient route by which to return. The ferries from Roscoff sail to Plymouth, rather than Portsmouth, and if we decided to cycle home on the final day, it would represent a considerably greater challenge than doing so from Portsmouth.
Days one to three – South Wraxall to Portsmouth, the ferry and the bus
We’d agreed that if the weather was reasonable, we’d cycle to Portsmouth on Friday, May 3rd. If it was lousy, we’d take the train. Apart from being a little chilly at the outset, and with the promise of some light rain from mid–afternoon, the weather was fine so we set off around 8:30am and decided to follow the Wiltshire Cycleway to Salisbury. The last time I rode to Portsmouth, it was 84 miles to the ferry terminal and our hotel was near there, so that’s the distance we expected to cover, with a short break in Salisbury for coffee or lunch.
About ten miles before we reached Salisbury, another cyclist joined us. He introduced himself as Paul and he’d taken the train from Bristol to Warminster before setting out for Portsmouth on his single speed, steel bike. Paul was visiting his father in Portsmouth before travelling on to the Isle of Wight to take part in a 100km ride around the island on 5th May. We were glad of his company, not least because we were unsure of our route from Salisbury to Portsmouth and he knew a couple of options. In the end, we used a combination of his knowledge and some directions from the excellent Komoot app to weave our way through Eastleigh and the outskirts of Southampton to arrive at our destination, the Village Hotel, in Portsmouth. Paul peeled off to his destination just a couple of miles before we reached ours.
As we approached the hotel, we had cycled 98 miles. Andy had never ridden 100 miles in a day so we just had to tack on a couple so that he could achieve that milestone. It is a landmark thing to do when you’re a keen cyclist. We rolled into the hotel car park with 100.2 miles on the clock. Food, drink and relaxation preceded a sound night’s sleep.
Not all ferries are created equal
Neither Andy or I have used ferries for several years and I should have done my homework more thoroughly when booking the Brittany ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Santander. I was imaging a mini cruise with a cinema on board, a smart restaurant and live music in the bar for the Saturday night. It’s a 36–hour crossing and that was my recollection of a previous trip. However, I should have noticed that the ferry company now has two classes of journey – Economie and Cruise. Our booking for the outbound crossing was the former. As one fellow passenger put it, ‘it’s for the truck drivers’. Despite that, we had a comfortable cabin, there was a half–decent, self–service restaurant and there was a bar, albeit without entertainment, except sport showing on the TV. With no usable internet connection (despite the promise of free WiFi on our tickets) there was little to do except read, watch the news (most other TV programmes were in French), or just relax. As Andy put it, “I haven’t slept so much during the day since I was a teenager!’
We arrived in Santander on time, although it took about 30 minutes to disembark. We then had a short ride to the central bus station where we caught the bus to Irun, near the French border. We had to simply remove the front wheels of the bikes to fit them into the storage bay on the bus. The bus was air conditioned, had USB sockets to keep phones charged and WiFi connection. Some of the coastal and mountain scenery was spectacular. We checked into our Hendaye hotel around 8pm then walked into town to find somewhere to eat. At one point it seemed that everywhere was closed but we finally located a small restaurant run by a Belgian couple and had a simple meal washed down with a bottle of Rioja to end the day.
Thirty four years ago, I had just started my first marketing agency and within a few weeks I had a call from one Paddy O’Farrell. Paddy was running sales and marketing for a small division of Ericsson at the time and was looking for marketing help. I remember the phone call because I was in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, Paddy was in Coventry. He asked me how long it took to drive between the two places. I told him and he said, “I’ll see you in an hour and a half then.” No ifs, no buts. We then worked together for six years before he left Ericsson and life took him in a completely different direction. We had become good friends during that time but, as so often happens in the craziness of everyday life, we lost touch. I think we last met at his house in 1990 and for the last 13 years he has lived with his wife, Fay, in Malaga.
The point of this narrative is that Paddy and I connected on Facebook a while back and when he read that I was planning a cycling trip to Spain he asked if I would be anywhere near Malaga. I wasn’t going to be and in any case Paddy was holidaying in Tenerife during my trip. When I decided to come to Tenerife, I got in touch and we agreed to meet for lunch yesterday (Monday), together with Fay, their son Antony and Antony’s partner, Lisa. Hence my assault on El Teide would wait until Monday.
Before lunch, I took a short ride the check out the bike, after taking it out of the box and putting various bits back together because it had been partly dismantled. Traffic was busy and on far too many occasions drivers were either inconsiderate or downright dangerous. I really can’t recommend Tenerife as a place for cyclists, despite the climate. My experience of France, mainland Spain and even the UK has been infinitely better. Nevertheless, I managed a loop of twenty-odd miles without serious injury and felt that this was enough to put me in good shape for the next day’s challenge.
Lunch in the little port of Los Abrigos was delightful with great food, great conversation and modest consumption of wine. I had wanted to tell Paddy that Ericsson remained a client for 33 years, until the end of 2017, at which time the division in question was sold to another global company called Flex. Despite that, Flex immediately hired our agency to continue the work. Paddy’s phone call to me in 1984 had initiated a business relationship that has lasted 34 years and picking up the bill for lunch was the very least I could do to thank him.
I set off to climb El Teide at 7:20 this morning, while it was nice and cool. After ploughing through Monday morning traffic near the coast, I went through several small towns and, because I took the most direct route offered by Google Maps, ended up on one stretch of road that was so steep I could not turn the pedals and had to push the bike for about 500 metres. I thought to myself that if the whole route was going to be like this, I’d never make it. My fears were unfounded though and I soon began to settle into the climb, reaching an approximate mid-way point of Vilaflor at about 10:30. I refuelled there with a sandwich, apple tart and water, rested for about 20 minutes and then set out to do the last and most testing 25km of the climb along TF-21. I saw a few other cyclists, mostly brief glimpses of their backs, and pushed on slowly through the pine forest. It was reminiscent of Mont Ventoux. Of course, it was tough going but no more so than I had expected. The scenery was breathtaking, as was the oxygen-depleted air. There was absolutely no risk of rain because the clouds were below me. I don’t know of any recorded incidence of clouds raining in an upwards direction, but I’m sure someone can enlighten me!
The peak of the climb arrived suddenly and earlier than expected. I passed a sign for “El Teida” but it’s a national park, not a precise point on the map. In retrospect, I think I could have turned around and gone home at that point, my goal achieved but I kept going and there was a long descent into a kind of valley followed by a climb up to the park’s visitor centre.
I chatted with a couple of cyclists from the north east of England. They thought that we had topped-out by this point so I turned around and headed back the way I had come, including climbing back up the long descent I’d enjoyed less than an hour earlier.
I strayed from my intended route on the way back down and added a few kilometres to the ride but with my target achieved, it just didn’t matter. I arrived back at my accommodation at 16:20 having covered a total distance of 64.1 miles and climbed 10,598 feet, most of it in half that mileage, of course. My average speed was a miserly 8.9mph but I was pleased with that under the circumstances.
Dinner tonight is at Chez Paddy, with Anthony doing the cooking. I’m sure it’ll be the perfect end to this trip.
For this trip, I planned to stay in reasonably large towns, wherever possible. When I rode to Barcelona from home last year, in the great company of my friend Richard Stanton, we nearly found ourselves without a roof over our heads at night on more than one occassion. I didn’t want a repeat of that situation while on my own in the sierras of Spain. In larger towns or cities, there’s usually somewhere to stay. The next two big places north of Cáceres are Plasencia, about 50 miles away, and Salamanca, another 80 miles further north. With a great day’s riding behind me, I thought that Plasencia would be a good place to stay yesterday evening (Friday), and I would then continue to Salamanca for Saturday. Then I looked up the weather forecasts. Friday was getting cooler and showers were promised again. No problem. But the forecast for Salamanca on Saturday was grim. It would be below freezing the morning only rising to a balmy 6 degrees C at mid afternoon. Worse still, both rain and snow were predicted. Now, I’m usually up for a biking challenge but this had the potential to become both a miserable and potentially dangerous ride. I was supposed to be here to enjoy myself and even at home I draw the line at riding in snow. It was time for a rethink. I considered cutting the trip short but after a chat with my wife Sally, back in the freezing UK, decided to explore other options.
The bicycle was caused by a volcanco. (I know that’s a dramatic change of subject but bear with me, your honour, it is relevant to the case.) Two hundred and three years ago next month, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded in the biggest eruption ever recorded. It diminished in height by nearly 5,000 feet while projecting 24 cubic miles of ash and rock skywards. Krakatoa was a minor “pop” in comparison. The result was a dramatic fall in temperatures around the world, crop failures, and disease and death on a massive scale. One year later, in 1816, Baron von Drais, a forestry manager in Baden, Germany, figured out that you could balance on a log with one wheel at the front and one at the back, steering with the one at the front. Nobody knows quite why he did it but it was probably related to the shortage of horses, most of which had been eaten in response to the drought and subsequent food shortages caused by Tambora’s eruption. Maybe he wanted a new way to move logs, maybe he wanted something to ride and couldn’t find a horse in one piece. Regardless, he had invented the “Draisine” or “Hobby Horse”, the forerunner of all modern bicycles. Even if you have no interest in bicycles at all, I recommend the book “Re:Cyclists – 200 Years on Two Wheels”, a brilliant, fact-filled book by Michael Hutchinson that describes the numerous social revolutions, including women’s emancipation, that were directly influenced, if not driven by the development of the bicycle.
So, back to Cáceres. I did a bit more weather research, both for Spain and the south of France, thinking that I might find a way to get to somewhere more hospitable. Everywhere looked a bit cool and unreliable due to cold weather heading in from the east. Then I remembered another volcano, Teide. This is the dormant one that dominates the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, Tenerife, off the west coast of Africa. It’s a Mecca for cyclists, amateur and professional alike, and the climb up Teide is one of the classics, right up there with Alpe d’Huez and the formidable Mont Ventoux, both of which I had gasped up a couple of years earlier with my good friend Byron Wheeler and his then seventeen-year-old son. I holidayed in Tenerife with my family about three years ago and since then had it in the back of my mind to tackle Teide one day. After checking out the weather for the next few days, which was going to be aroud 19 or 20 degrees C and mostly sunny, this suddenly seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. The new goal of the trip was not the north coast of Spain but the highest point of the road on Monte Teide, Tenerife.
I switched my Easyjet flight from Bilbao to Bristol to one from Tenerife to Bristol next Tuesday evening, booked a cheap flight (113 Euros) with Iberia from Madrid to Tenerife and set about figuring out how to get to Madrid with the bike. By the way, Iberia does its best but is not exactly bike friendly. You pay for your flight before they confirm that they can take the bike. Then they check – I don’t know with whom – and send a second confirmation an hour later to confirm that the bike can travel with you. You can’t pay the 45 Euros for the bike over the phone or online. You need to make a separate trip the “customer service” desk at the airport to hand over payment. It seems to me that most companies with “customer service” departments fail to deliver what customers need, but that may be an age-related perception.
I loaded up my bike at the hotel in Cáceres on Friday morning, asked Google Maps to direct me to the nearest bike shop and half an hour later arrived at “La Bicicleta”. I needed something to put the bike in so that I could either take it by train to Madrid or into a rental car and then onto a plane. I was greeted by a young and enthusiastic mechanic by the name of Jesus.
Jesus didn’t speak much English but explained that his colleague, a German guy called Raphael did, and that Raphael would arrive soon. A few minutes later Raphael arrived, declared that because I was British we must be enemies (what a memory), and told me that he didn’t have bike bags in stock but that he could partly dismantle my bike and put it into a cardboard box for one million Euros. Twenty seconds later we had renegotiated that down to a mutually acceptable 20 Euros. Rafael then told me that Europcar, a few hundred metres away, was the best place for car rental and that if I mentioned his name I would get a discount. He was right and Juan at Europcar, himself a keen cyclist, could not have been more helpful. He offered a choice of cars at a lower rate than I could find online then drove me back to La Bicicleta to make sure the bike box would fit into the car. Jesus helped me bundle it in and I set off for the 300km journey to Madrid.
I knew that I wouldn’t have the energy for sight-seeing so I booked into a Marriott airport hotel, and had a great dinner in the restaurant, followed by early night. This morning it was 4C and raining heavily in Madrid. After a huge detour to fill up the rental car with fuel, I managed to find Europcar rental returns at terminal 1, although I was looking for the same at terminal 4, dragged bike and luggage onto the transfer bus and checked in at the aiport. Then, for the first time in my life, I went through both security and passport control twice. I don’t know how that happened but I eventually ended up at the right gate and had an unevenfull flight to Tenerife North Airport and a smooth pre-booked transfer to my accommodation on the south coast.
My plan is to ride up Teide on Monday as the final leg of this trip. It should be interesting. After Ventoux and Alpe d´Huez I said I’d never do really big climbs again – they’re just too demanding. Alpe d’Huez rises through twenty-one numbered switchbacks to 1,860 metres above sea level; Mont Ventoux becomes a virtual moonscape, peaking at 1,912 metres. The road to Teide reaches 2,190 metres, by far the highest I will ever have climbed. In fact the top of the volcano is at 3,781 metres, but only accessible by cable car. Here’s a nice description of one of several routes to the top.
I may not have reached the original destination of this trip but Teide is a bucket-list climb that I hope to check off the list on Monday.
Of course, I could ride up the volcano on Sunday (today, by the time I finish this post and you read it), but there’s a reason that goes back 34 years why I won’t be doing that. I’ll explain tomorrow.
I’m in a hotel on at Madrid airport. Those of you who know Spain will realise that Madrid is a long way east of my intended route. This is what’s happened since yesterday morning.
I left the Hotel Leo in Monesterio at just gone eight o’clock after a breakfast of toast, jam and coffee. The weather forecast was for showers so it was no surprise that a heavy downpour started about 15 minutes after I set out. I donned the waterproofs and carried on pedalling to the sound of skylarks, which were to be seen in the fields either side of me. The sky looked totally black and I thought I was in for hours of getting drenched again but things brightened up after 20 minutes and there were occasional glimpses of sun. The road was a little busier than yesterday but not unduly so. There were none of the huge climbs of the day before, just a gently undulating terrain which masked what was in fact a gradual descent of nearly 2000 feet over the first 60 miles of the day’s riding.
I was a little concerned about the strengthening sun so stopped to buy sun cream and a coffe in a pretty town called Villafranca de los Barros. It was full of smart little shops for tourists and was immaculately clean, unlike many of the smaller, more industrial places I had passed along the way. Preparing to leave the town, I applied plenty of sun protection then took off my waterproofs and stashed them neatly on top of my rear bag. The heavens opened five minutes later and I scrambled to put everything back on before I got wet on the inside. Once again, there appeared to be no likely end to the rain but 20 minutes later it was gone and the day became brighter once more.
The road from Villafranca de los Barros to Mérida was busy traffic was still not problematic, with the possible exception of the odd truck getting a bit close. The wind seemed to be coming from a more westerly direction and it was testing at times when the road veered towards the west, or when I was in the middle of a squall, two more of which were still to come.
I stopped just south of Mérida for a light lunch and a beer at a roadside bar. I had already covered 60 miles, more than my total for the day before, and I began to wonder if I might make it to the next significant city, Cáceres, over 40 miles further north. Looking at my map – the printed one – I could see lots of green areas ahead, which I took to be hills, although there were no contours to give me a clear indication of the steepness or otherwise of the route. However, at no point did the road seem to be meandering in those tight little squiggles that suggest a straight line was not an option for its builder due to the steep nature of the terrain.
Mérida has some fine Roman architecture in the old part of the city and I was tempted to book in somewhere and take a look around. In the end, I decided to try to add some extra miles while the weather was being relatively kind. I pressed on and started climbing steadily. The traffic disappeared almost totally. I once again saw a stork nest on a pylon (just the one this time) and my path was frequently crossed but the pilgrims’ walking route, the Camino De Santiago. You can cycle along this too but much of it would demand a mountain bike, which mine isn’t.
When you ride long distances, tiredness isn’t a linear thing. You don’t just get more and more tired, it comes on in waves, and some of the dips make you wonder if you can even turn the pedals just one more time. As I reached the 83-mile mark, one of these deep dips hit me. I’ll pulled over to a garage and, in the absence of sandwiches, bought and ate a full packet of chocolate doughnut shaped things, all 496 kcals of them. They were rather disgusting but did the job. I topped up with water and got back on the bike. Cáceres was the goal but I didn’t yet have the confidence to book into the really nice-looking hotel I had seen on booking.com because I didn’t know if the weather or hills would yet get the better of me.
A few kilometres further on, standing in the sunshine, I took the plunge, booking a room in the four-star Gran Hotel Don Manuel for a mere 75 Euros. I was confident of getting there. Within five minutes the sky went completely black and I found myself riding into a massive headwind and near-horizontal rain. This was the third “shower” of the day and I told myself if it didn’t stop soon I’d be checking into the first available shelter! Shortly after, the weather cleared again, I couldn’t see any mountains ahead and I ploughed on. With nearly 100 miles under my belt I was feeling good to the point of standing on the pedals on some of the climbs and pushing ahead enthusiastically. The final shower came just as I entered the outskirts of Cáceres, too late to cause any concern. I checked into the hotel, which was as good as it looked in the photographs, my only complaint being that the heated towel rail didn’t work, so I couldn’t dry my wet clothes. Apparently that was the case throughout the hotel, which seemed odd. A maid appeared promptly, took the wet stuff away and brought it back dry and neatly folded about an hour later. There was no charge.
I had covered 107.5 miles and was ready for dinner. I wandered into a nearby classical town square and had the set meal at a local restaurant after waiting 40 minutes for it to open at 8:30pm. Even that’s early for some restaurants in Spain. It rained again, so much so that I moved from under a leaking umbrella to a nice, dry inside table.
Back at the hotel, I started researching the next couple of days’ travel. The result of that research brought me Madrid today. More about that in tomorrow’s post.
Two things I forget to mention yesterday: storks nesting on top of high voltage pylons and bull fighting. The former were frequently visible on the road from Huelva to Seville. How enterprising of the storks to adapt these man-made monstrosities for their own use. And speaking of monstrosities, there’s the bull fighting. It was on the television in the bar where I stopped for tapa and a glass of vino tinto yesterday evening. I´m amazed and disappointed that Spanish society hasn’t seen fit to totally ban the barbaric practice of taunting and maiming dumb animals in the name of ‘sport’.
Onto today. The forecast was for rain and this time it was unequivocally accurate. I set off in the rain from the rather splendid Vincci La Rabida Hotel in the middle of Seville, using Google Maps to navigate my way to the N630, or Ruta de la Plata. As I mentioned yesterday, the N630 will take me all the way to the north coast of Spain and it announced the fact by stating on a signpost at the outskirts of Seville that I had just 804km to go. Road signs every kilometre count down the distance.
For a few miles it was quite flat. The wind was coming from a WSW direction. When you’re cycling long distances, wind direction is surprisingly important. Even a 4mph headwind can make progress noticeably more demanding, whereas a 4mph tailwind can make life a breeze, if you´ll excuse the pun. According to the forecast, today’s wind speed would involve gusts of up to 45km per hour. Combine that with persistent rain from mid-morning, my overweight luggage and the undulating landscape of the sierras of south-east Spain (I´ll need to look up the name for the particular range of hills I traversed) and you have the perfect recipe for a reasonably challenging day´s slog on a bike.
As I mentioned, wind direction is incredibly important to cyclists. Edward Enfield, father of comedian Harry Enfield, has written several books about cycling round Europe, some of which I’ve read. What he said about headwinds struck a particular chord with me. This is the sentiment, although it may not be what he wrote word-for-word: “You can conquer a hill but a headwind grinds you down and eats into your soul.” And it’s true. The WSW wind today helped me more that it hindered but when the road veered north-west the crosswind was testing. When I rounded bends to the right and was travelling north-east, I didn’t even need to pedal. In the sunshine, this would have been a completely different ride.
The N630 is the Marie Celeste of major roads: it’s almost eerie in its emptiness. The parallel free motorway takes most of the traffic. On some stretches I would only see a car every 30 minutes or so. It was safe cycling. Even those drivers that did overtake me gave a me huge amount of space and were amazingly considerate. Contrast that with the UK where the microJoule of energy needed to turn a car steering wheel an inch to the right to give a cyclist a little more space when overtaking seems to be beyond the effort that many motorists are prepared to exert. For the record, the Highway Code states that cars should allow a gap of 1.5 metres when overtaking, not 1.5 feet.
I had made a reservation at the Hotel Leo in Monesterio, some 60 miles north of Seville, but was quite prepared to carry on to Zafra, a further 30 miles north, if I felt up to the task. However, by the time I got to Monesterio I was tired and soaking wet, my best “waterproofs” having been overcome by the repeated deluges driven into every tiny gap by the wind. I parked the bike in the basement and headed up to my room. To my delight, there was a heated towel rail in the bathroom, which meant that I could dry today´s attire and wash some more clothes too, knowing they would be dry before morning. The alternative solution, drying clothes with a hair dryer is a long winded process!
This is Ibérico ham country and there´s a museum dedicated to it in Monesterio, about a mile back on the other side of town. I had not intention of venturing out again in the rain so decided to skip the experience this time around. The bar-restaurant of the hotel offered a phenomenal selection of ham dishes, so I had the lamb. Very nice it was too.
Washed down with a glass of red wine and a café con leche, lunch was followed by a rare afternoon nap. I can’t remember the last time I had one of those but I think I could get used to it.
I’ve been researching the route profile for tomorrow but can’t find it yet. The weather forecast is for showers, rather then persistent rain, and it will be a little cooler, around 14C. The town of Merida is about 60 miles away, so that’s a potential destination if the riding is hard again but I’ll try to put in a few more miles if I’m still feeling on form by the time I get there.
Despite missing my family back home, which I do a lot, I love my cycling and the phenomenal sense of freedom it engenders. Hard days like today can test that love but I know that tomorrow morning I’ll be as eager as ever to get back into the saddle and full of optimism and excitement about the day ahead. Onwards and upwards, but not too much of the latter, I hope. Time for dinner.
It’s Tuesday evening and I’m sitting in my hotel room in Seville, having wandered around the city looking for a small Bluetooth keyboard for my iPad. The original decided to die sometime between the last time I used it – some months ago – and when I arrived into Faro, hence the lack of blog post for two days.
My first major concern for this trip was how to get the bike over safely. I do have a nice, sturdy bike box for airline travel. I didn’t have anywhere to put it if I’d brought it to Faro. I decided to resort to putting the bike into a big plastic bag so that baggage handlers could see what it was. Online opinions about the wisdom of such packaging vary from “it’s always worked for me” to “you have to be out of your tiny mind!”. The latter was from an ex-airline pilot, so he should know. Anyway, the upside of the plastic bag transport system is that you don’t have to disassemble the bike very much, so it doesn’t take long to put it back together. The task is made even easier at Faro airport because the baggage reclaim area has bike reassembly stations – two in the case of the one I flew into. These each consist of a bicycle stand, pump and pedal spanner. I had padded the bike with foam sheets and pipe lagging, held together with reusable cable ties (they them, they’re really good), and it arrived totally unscathed from the journey. I put all the packaging in the bin at the airport and now just have to figure out what to put the bike in to take it home when the time comes.
After getting everything loaded up – and I really can’t understand how the bags came to be so heavy – I rode the short distance to the 3K Hotel on the aiport, grabbed something for dinner at the adjacent supermarket (the hotel restaurant was closed) and had an early night.
I set out off at seven-thirty, rode through Faro and tried to locate a coastal cycleway that’s rumoured to run to the Spanish border. Along the 50 miles or so to said border, I encounted the route a few times but kept ending up back on the N125, the signposts for the cyleway being less than adquate. The landscape was mostly flat, I had a tailwind to push me along and for the most part, the cycling was reasonably easy. There were flamingos in the coastal lagoons, guard dogs barking from behind mesh fences at many of the more rural properties, orange groves a-plenty, and graffiti in even greater abundance. I spotted the ultimate confusing sign while searching for the ferry in Vila Real de Santo António to take me across to Spain.
After a short and uneventful crossing, I carried on heading east, deciding to go north around the industrial city of Huelva to avoid the worst of the traffic and main roads.
I arrived at my small hotel in San Juan del Puerto (a town that has little to commend it) around five-thirty in the afternoon, having covered about 95 miles, the last fifteen of which were becoming hard work, not least because I thought the journey was only going to be 80 miles but there was a miscalculation somewhere. The Hostal Toscana was clean, the welcome warm, the restaurant non-existent. I found a bar close by and finished off the day with chicken and chips and a couple of glasses of fine Rioja.
Today, knowing that I only had 50 miles or so to cover, I luxuriated in a late breakfast at a cafe across the road from my hotel. I then took the A472 to Sanlúcar la Mayor, about 20 miles west of Seville. The A472 was a delight. It’s a quiet road because it runs parallel with a motorway, so there’s little heavy traffic. There was a wide shoulder to ride on for most of the way and it was free of the gravel, broken glass and road-kill that so often blights these lanes on British roads. The long ascent up to Sanlúcar la Mayor gave me a taste of what’s to come as I head north tomorrow. With a heavily laden bike, I was into my lowest gear and wishing I had a few more that were lower still. I know that there will be many similar climbs in the coming days.
Both yesterday and today, rain was forecast but didn’t materialise. Yesterday was quite cool, I guess around 14C, but today reached 20C and the sun even came out for a while as I approached Seville. I took a stroll around for a couple of hours and finally managed to find a replacement keyboard for the iPad. That’s what I’m typing on now. However, it’s a Spanish one with several of the keys in different places from those on a British keyboard. Add auto-correct to that and I’m almost certainly writing more rubbish than usual!
Seville is beautiful and a few iPhone photographs can’t do it justice, but here they are anyway.
Two days, 153 miles, and no rain. I’ve only had to swear at cars twice. And I’ve not yet had to resort to universal digital signage. Tomorrow I turn north to find the Ruta de la Plata, or Silver Route. The ancient pilgrimage and commercial path runs parallel to the N630, which will take me all 807km to my destination of Gijón on the north coast. My best guess is that I’ll arrive a week from today, but who knows what’s in store along the way?