Month: July 2014

Highs and Lows in Spain

There’s no point blaming the sun and the wind; they just do what they’ve always done. They really don’t aim to make life a misery. But sometimes, it really feels like the elements are out to get you.

In reality, I’ve made good ground since my last post. I’m in Madrid, where I’ve successfully linked up with my Mum, who’s here on her first solo holiday since Dad died. This is all good. From a cycling point of view, on the other hand, Spain is hard, Spain is windy, Spain is hot and Spain is very, very lumpy.

From Pamplona, I struck south-west toward Madrid, hitting the shoe-making hotspot (really) of Arnedo, and getting a bit of Russian practice in with a fellow called ‘Alfredo’ from Armenia before climbing my first 1000m-plus pass en route to Soria. Literally the high point of my travels in Europe (at least until the return journey).

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So, all good so far. Then I made the terrible mistake of taking some well-meant route advice from a fellow cyclist. Or I made the terrible mistake of asking the wrong question to a fellow cyclist (it’s not impossible that me telling him I was heading for a plane in Portugal may have influenced things).

Whichever of those actually happened, and I’m still not sure, the result was the same. Cutting a long story short, I ended up on a 100km detour, with two days of 35+ degrees centigrade heat and constant headwinds. Two days of grinding endlessly up hills before being pushed backwards by the wind on the downhills. Two days of sweating and sunburn and diesel fumes. Yuck.

There’s no point in blaming the sun and the wind. But I still do…

There were a few bright spots.

The old man who completely ignored the fact that I spoke no Spanish (this seems to happen all the time), and dragged me off to look at some giant fish in the river. I think he wanted me to try and tickle the trout with him, but I didn’t really have time. And then he (I think) gave me a quick run-down on all the local Roman ruins.

The toothless Spanish farmhand in his dying little van who tried really hard to give me and the bike a lift to avoid the midday sun. And then drove off, cackling and whirling an index finger around his temple (no idea what he meant), in a cloud of black diesel fumes.

And, of course, the warm glow you get when you discover that someone else has paid for two nights in a hotel in central Madrid for you. Thanks, Mum!

The delights of sub-dial-up internet speeds mean that photos are few and far between again. I’m sorry. I’ll do better, I promise.

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Milestones

I’ve hit a few milestones over the last few days, which make progress seem a little more real than just a continuous stream of ’95km, 350 metres of climbing’.  Some of these were intentional, some not, but as I roast in the midday sun in Pamplona, they do give me a little confidence that this trip might be doable.

Let’s see…  I’ve hit country number three (including the UK), entering Spain yesterday.  I’ve hit the 1000km mark in terms of distance, and I’ve endured my first day with over 2000 vertical metres of climbing (crossing the Pyrenees).  And, entirely accidentally, my first 100 mile day.  Not too bad, then.

On the other hand, there are a few issues.  An annoying rattle on the bike (or in the bags) which I can’t trace, problems with routinely getting enough water (saved by roadside springs yesterday), and a nagging feeling that I’m spending too much money.  Still, must be all sortable, I guess.

I flew through the rest of France due to an improbable tailwind and some magnificent cycleways (and, let’s face it, it was flat).  An example of a magnificent cycleway can be seen below.  Something the UK and Spain could both learn from, I feel.  The UK seems to be under the impression that a decent cycleway consists of some paint on the road, while the Spanish don’t really seem to have any (though, to be fair, I’ve only seen a few km of Spain)…

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Though I kind of knew the Pyrenees were going to be a big test, I was able to forget about them for a few days, and put in an accidental 100 mile day while outstandingly failing to find a campsite.  I’ve no intention that 100 mile days become the norm, but it’s nice to know you can if you want to.

After eight days in France, I was feeling confident that my French had improved sufficiently to pass for a local.  An illusion shattered as I rolled into Bayonne.  I stopped in the town centre to check my map, and was immediately interrupted by an Australian voice asking if I needed any help. In English, naturally.   I looked up to see a tandem, with a fairly typical Aussie bloke (tats, shades, three-quarter-length shorts, goatee) on the front.  And an oriental (maybe Chinese?)  lady in a floral summer dress and floppy straw hat on the back.  After establishing that I was heading south, I then got verbal directions for the next 30 miles.  In 30 seconds.  None of which I managed to memorise.  Oh, well…  I have no idea whether these two just hang around the town centre waiting for cyclists to arrive, or what, but it was a nice (if slightly bizarre) welcome to a lovely looking town.  But I couldn’t dally; the mountains awaited.

Yesterday was the day.  I’d pre-planned roughly where to cross the Pyrenees, spotting a nice low(ish) pass at 600-and-odd metres.  My valiant (smashed but pluckily soldiering on) iPhone guided me there, and I ticked off my first ‘mountain’ pass!  Pamplona was only another 60km or so.  It was all too, erm, Pyreneeasy.  Sorry.

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Unfortunately, relying entirely on the phone meant that I missed the fact that my intended road into Pamplona became a semi-motorway from which bikes were outlawed.  Never mind, I’d take the old road; must run pretty parallel…  Some hours later, trekking up a second, 700m-plus hill, I was not a happy bunny.  Over 2000 metres climb in a day is for the racing snakes of the Tour de France, with their lightweight carbon-fibre bikes and back-up cars.  Not really for an elderly gent lugging 40kg of bike and bags.  Let’s just say it was a long, long day.

Still, I made it to Pamplona.  It’s a lovely town, and Spain seems to be half the price of France.  And I tumbled into a lovely quiet hostel for another rest day.  More clothes washed, but I don’t think you need the pictures this time.  And for the record, the red underpants in the last post were nothing to do with me…

So, nothing to worry about between here and Madrid except the heat (30c by eleven in the morning today), and finding my way over or around another set of mountains.  Bigger than the Pyrenees. Much bigger.   Ouch…

By the way, I’ve finally added a map and some stats (everyone loves stats!) to the Progress page, for your delectation and delight.

Meetings on the Road

Rest day today; relaxing in Royan, on the Atlantic Coast. I’m a bit more than halfway down France, and it’s pretty flat from here (I think). Problems revolve around heat and headwinds in this part of the world – it’s been close to 40 degrees at times.

Everything I read before setting off suggested I’d be meeting other cyclists all the time. By Thursday afternoon, flogging against the wind through the marshes to the north of La Rochelle, I was pretty sure this was nonsense. I sat by the side of the road, wondering how long I would have to wait before I saw another tourer. Fifteen minutes later, I came out of a pharmacy with a bottle of sun cream just in time to see three shoot past. There’s some old saying about buses, which obviously applies to cyclists too…

I caught up, to discover that all three were Brits; two 18-year old lads from Scotland heading for the Côte d’Azur, and a dreadlocked guy called Darryl, who was powered entirely by hemp protein (or something similar) and heading for a festival in Portugal. I was really happy to be running into other bikers, and we made quick ground, sharing slipstreams to a campsite near La Rochelle.

And then we were six. Two more bikers (and two more Brits) had just set up in the same campsite. Just three hours after wondering when I’d see anyone, I’m sat around sharing tips and routes and plans with a whole bunch of others.

On Friday we went our different ways; the Scottish lads headed off with a tight schedule and a master plan (we passed them a little later with their nth puncture of the trip), Darryl remained recharging in his hammock, and I headed south for Royan with a doctor called George.

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It was really easy riding in company; chatting and swearing at French drivers really makes the time fly. We covered 90km (including a top-notch transporter bridge near Rochefort – hopefully pictured) before pulling up in Royan for a rest day, which has included the constructive (washing clothes) and the slightly less so (multiple beers while gibbering endlessly about life, the universe and everything).

Tomorrow, George is swerving east, en route for Italy, while I’ll be back on my own and ploughing south towards Spain. We saw two German tourers this morning who are heading my way; the way things seem to work out on the road, I may well see them again.

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Hopefully above (still don’t trust the software) is a little corner of England in Royan.

568km / 355 miles so far, by the way. A bientôt, all.

First Three Days – London to Portsmouth and through Brittany

This is a slightly experimental first post from phone app. Hope it all works…

Well, off to a decent start; 309km or 193miles in three days, and out of the UK and into France. Slept on the ferry, in a wood, and now in a campsite. No discernible differences other than the herd of deer stripping bark from the trees all night. Not on the ferry, obviously.

Nearly starved when France closed down entirely yesterday (Bastille Day), but that’s as close to disaster as I’ve yet come. Met lots of friendly French people, some of whom were strangely concerned with my mental state.

And enjoyed beautiful Brittany; now aiming to cross the Loire tomorrow.

Please accept apols for the blog, btw. Think you can only follow if you’re on a computer at the minute… Will have to wait for a rest day to try and sort it. There were going to be some pics, but taking forever to upload; will put some up when I’ve a better connection.

Thanks, all, for the nice comments here and on Facebook. Will hopefully add a proper update soon.

UPDATE – looks like one of the pics made it after all. This is my nephew Tom making sure I left from Greenwich on Sunday.

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On The Starting Line

Almost exactly 20 years ago, I rolled off on a shiny new mountain bike from my home near Bristol with a small daysack on my back. I was heading north – up most of the length of England to the Lake District, then across to the east and my Grandad’s place in the North Yorkshire Moors. It was a long way; four days up the country, a bit of mountain biking in the Lakes, and then another three days across the hills in the North. My first staging post was a friend of mine in Worcester, about 60 miles up the road.

A Long Time Ago etc etc

A Long Time Ago etc etc

Last Tuesday there was a whiff of deja-vu in the air (not especially pleasant up close). I was heading north again. I was rolling up to Worcester again to stay with the same friend for the first night again. But there were differences. Subtle differences, to be sure, but definitely differences. I was 20 years older. My ageing knees and ankles were protesting again after being dragged screaming out of semi-retirement a few weeks previously. I had significantly less hair on my head, and slightly more bulk around my middle. I was carrying 25 kilos of bags, making every incline feel like a brick wall. And I was heading to Yorkshire to watch the Tour de France. Which was brilliant, by the way.

But probably the biggest difference was that the 200-mile, three-day ride north with all those bags, and the punishing ride which followed last Friday along the hard part of Stage 2 of Le Tour were just a warm-up. This Sunday (appropriately enough, the 13th) I’m starting off to ride around the world.

Gulp.

Quite big, the world, isn’t it? And I wasn’t even (that) drunk when I decided to do it.

Everything I Own!

Everything I Own!

So here I am. A couple of days before lift-off on the trip of a lifetime. Hopefully. My entire cycle-touring experience (apart from a return trip to London a month ago) fits neatly into two paragraphs above. But it’s just a gentle 80ish miles from Greenwich to Portsmouth for the ferry to France. Can’t be that hard; I’ve got all day, I’ve had a rest, and there are no huge hills involved. And then it’s properly on. France, Spain, Portugal, Canada, USA, Mexico, etc, etc.

Maybe 30 to 40,000 miles. Maybe two years, maybe three-plus. Bit vague on that sort of thing.

Home sold, car sold. Furniture, electricals and books given away. Pretty much everything I own fits on a bicycle. That’s an interesting place to be.

Excited. Nervous. Stressed. Not even close to packed.

Sure it’ll all be fine. Won’t it?

Erm… Gulp, again. Here we go…