Month: August 2014

Thunderstorms, the Queen and Crocodile Dundee

I watched a thunderstorm being born the other day, as I biked ever-westward along the Katy Trail. It’s an impressive process, as clouds organise themselves into columns before merging and blackening. And eventually dropping vast amounts of water everywhere. In the end, as you might be aware, they look something like this:

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Which is lovely, as long as you assume that your local weather tipster is correct, and that storms always go along the river, and not across it. I met an Irish tourer called Phillip a couple of minutes after taking this picture. Unfortunately, after a couple more minutes chatting (he’s doing a loop around all the 48 US mainland states), it became alarmingly apparent that the storm was not playing by my weatherman’s rules, and was, in fact, about to attack.

The couple of minutes chatting turned into an hour-long incarceration in a very tiny (but dry) post office, which at least gave us plenty of time to discuss frames, disc brakes and spokes, etc, etc. There really is no end to the excitement in touring cyclists’ conversations, and we were both slightly surprised to see that the postmaster hadn’t committed suicide from sheer boredom by the time we left.

I just had time to hoof it to Missouri’s rather beautiful state capital, Jefferson City before dark.

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I finished with Katy yesterday, in the pretty town of Clinton. It was a messy break-up, as I’d not been so lucky with the storms. An absolute monsoon hit at around 1205 (I’m never going to assume that ‘rain in the afternoon’ means about 3 or 4 o’clock again), which converted me into a half-drowned wretch, and the trail surface into sticky gloop which got everywhere.

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On a slightly different note, I’d been waiting for a fortnight to be mistaken for an Australian. This has happened reliably within a couple of days of arrival on every trip to the US. This time, it’s taken four states, but Missouri has enthusiastically taken up the slack with five misidentifications in three days.

I don’t blame the Americans; it took me long enough to be able to tell a US and Canadian accent apart. No, it’s entirely the fault of the Queen and Crocodile Dundee. If you don’t speak like Her Britannic Majesty, you’re assumed to be antipodean. Especially if you can’t quite kick the (entirely English, I’m sure, just stolen by the Australians) habit of calling people ‘mate’. That’s all most people took away from the, erm, classic film series; Aussies call people ‘mate’, not Brits.

Ah, well. No point getting worked up about things you can’t change. Especially things that don’t really matter. A rest day today by the Truman Reservoir, and then on with the show. Kansas is calling; maybe tomorrow if I go long, maybe the next day. It’s back to the flatlands for a while before the Rockies rear up. And the humidity has eased with the rain, so life on the bike and in the tent are a little more pleasant. Long may it stay that way…

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Beat By The Heat; or, Misery in Missouri?

I’m feeling a bit warm.  The hard-pack trail is kicking up dust.  I’ve downed a couple of litres of water, but still feel thirsty.  The sun is scorching my back as I trundle along the old railway path.  I’ve got sweat in my eyes.  It’s well over 80 degrees F.  And it’s eight-thirty in the morning.

I promised I wouldn’t moan about the temperature or the humidity.  But they finally cracked me today.  I guess you can only ignore heat warnings for so long before they catch up with you.  I got ten miles down the road this morning, stopped for breakfast, and to help a lady with a flat tyre, which let the temperature rise some more.  Made it another five miles before I realised that another sweltering day – it was 100F by eleven-thirty – was going to do more harm than good, and bailed out into an air-conditioned motel.  At least I get to recharge my batteries (both literally and metaphorically) and wash my socks (just literally, I think).

I’ve made decent distance in the last few days, despite shade temperatures which have been consistently in the high 90s and low 100s.  I’ve no idea what the temperatures in the sun on the road were.  And I’ve crossed the Mississippi, which puts me at least into the west of the mid-west, if not the West itself.

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From the famous arch in St Louis onwards, the map starts to fill with those place names that are so familiar from old cowboy films and TV; Kansas City, Dodge City, Wichita, etc, etc.  You cross the old Route 66.  The whole place starts to smell a bit more of adventure; Daniel Boone lived around here (as well as almost everywhere else in the US, it seems), and Lewis and Clark set off west from here to explore for a route to the Pacific.

I rode through St Louis on Sunday.  Partly because there’s minimum traffic then, and partly because I had half an eye on what might or might not kick-off  in Ferguson, which is one of the northern suburbs.  Nothing to worry about for me, as it turns out; as usual with those sort of things, trouble tends to be localised and easily avoided.

I spoke to two cyclists with very different views of the situation.  Unsurprisingly, one was black and from the northern part of town while the other was white and from the (very) wealthy western suburbs.  It’s obviously a very polarising situation, and feels like quite a divided city; from my own view riding through, the obvious wealth differential between their two home areas was stark, and their views on the whole Ferguson crisis were diametrically opposed.  Hope it all settles out, but fear it may take a while…

Now (or at least until my cowardly retreat to the motel) I’m following the Katy Trail up the Missouri River valley.  The Missouri joins the Mississippi at St Louis, and is a fairly impressive river in itself.

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It was up this river that the Lewis and Clark expedition began, so I’m once again following in history’s footsteps.  Though I’m pretty sure they weren’t tempted by bunking off to an air-conditioned box.  Tomorrow, I’ll try to rediscover my backbone and get back out there; on the plus side, there might be a break in the weather in a couple of days.  But I’m not (all that) stupid; weather like this needs to be respected, and the daily mileage may be taking a dip until things cool off.  Assuming they ever do…

Riding America’s National Road

Since leaving Indiana, I have, as predicted, been sweating like a pig. It’s the hottest week of the year here in south Illinois, and the humidity is genuinely disgraceful. I’m not going to harp on about it, I promise. But just so you know, it’s nasty.

I’ve spent two days riding a national landmark as I head towards St Louis (I’ll still be riding it tomorrow as I head towards St Louis – big country, America…).

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Route 40, as it is now, was built to get settlers westwards after the Louisiana purchase. It’s much less famous than Route 66, but it’s fascinating to imagine the convoys of covered wagons and horses heading west along the same route I’m travelling. It was fascinating enough to take my mind off my raging thirst for a few minutes, at least…

The countryside is changing, with less corn and soya (though they are still there), and more woods. And even some small hills – quite exciting after all the flat lands, but a tough ask in the heat. One result is a new contender for nicest camping spot; in the shade, next to a lake with no mossies – spot on.

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The heat’s set to last for at least a few more days, but I am slowly getting used to it. I’ve gained time in the morning, as the clocks are another hour back in Illinois, so I’m trying to make ground early. And then slowing dramatically as the heat takes hold. And I hit the 2000 miles mark on the bike yesterday. Another little milestone ticking by…

There are still a couple of things I don’t quite understand about America (this is a colossal understatement; it’s a few more than a couple of things). The camping in Illinois is half the price of either Ohio or Indiana, which is nice, though the reasons are unclear. And I’m drinking a root beer. Which I don’t understand at all. I’m not sure what it’s made of, or what it’s supposed to taste of. But then, that seems to be the extent of my worries at the moment, so mustn’t grumble 😉

Heat, Humidity and Thunder – Sweating Across Indiana

I felt bad yesterday morning (Tuesday).  I’d had a good night’s sleep and a splendid fry-up to kick the day off, so all should have been well.  At first, I put it down to pushing too hard, or maybe a bug of some sort.  No energy, and feeling dehydrated despite drinking three litres of water before lunch.  I’m a bit slow sometimes, and there was a headwind which I was blaming for all my ills, as usual.

I did get to see a couple of covered bridges in the morning, which was nice.  I’m not sure exactly what the point of a covered bridge is; maybe it’s just so you stay dry in a storm while waiting for the bridge to be washed away.  But they are very much a mid-west institution.  This one was outside Darlington.20140821RTW_2

At lunchtime, I stopped at a petrol station to grab a load of sugary stuff to kick-start myself; I still had a way to go.  Coming out of the shop, it finally hit me.  Like a sauna (or at least the air within a sauna).  The humidity, which the headwind had been masking as I rode, was immense.  I struggled off into the afternoon, passing two helpful signs suggesting it was either 87 or 91F.  I’m not sure what the centigrade equivalent is (and probably don’t want to know), but I do know that’s pretty hot.  This all cheered me up.  After all, I’ve been beating the elements every day (even if they always come back for more).  Something internal would have been much, much worse.

I continued south-west through a town called Waveland.  Which is so named because the land around it is kinked up into a series of short, sharp rolling hills.  Like waves.  A brilliantly literal name for a place.  I was heading for Rockville, but was disappointed to discover very few rocks.  And very little rock-n-roll.  Obviously doesn’t work everywhere…

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What I did find at Rockville was a colossal thunderstorm, which hit just as I got the tent half-up.  This was bad because all my bags got soaked, but also good, in that the people in the RV next door dragged me in, dried me off and fed me.  While having a long discussion about rugby, which I was not expecting in the US.  Oh, and they somehow reduced my camping fees to zero as well, slightly mysteriously.  I know almost every post is turning into an Oscar acceptance-speech list of thanks, but I can’t let that go without acknowledgement.  Or the free breakfast I got this morning from a bloke in the local diner.  I might have to just put a ‘thanks’ page up.

I checked the weather forecast, and it looks like the whole week ahead is going to remain in the 90s F, with loads of humidity.  There are weather warnings out for heat in the area I’m riding into (around St Louis), and thunderstorms are breaking out pretty regularly, which is a little alarming on the bike.  I turned today into a half-day just in time to get under cover before another couple of inches of rain dropped in.  So more strength-sapping heat, worries about carrying enough water and dodging lightning strikes to come for a while…

But tomorrow looks drier, and I’ll finally be leaving Indiana, and crossing into southern Illinois.  Probably sweating like a pig and moaning endlessly about the heat and humidity, but still making ground.

More soon, I hope.  And I finally updated the Progress map!  Many more exciting red markers to explore; how much more fun can you have?

 

Little Switzerland and Roller-Blading Amish – Indiana Rocks!

Having tanked up on a bucket of coffee at the edge of Ohio, I headed for my first state line. State lines have a sort of mythical status, derived from old films; make it to the state line, and the police can’t catch you. Make it to the state line and everything changes.

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Having seen masses of fields with nothing but soya beans and sweet corn in Ohio, it was a little disappointing that I crossed the line to find, on one side of the road, a field of soya. And on the other side a field of sweet corn. But I pressed on, and things did, indeed, change.

I stopped at a petrol station for a drink. There was a young guy sat outside, who I think was Amish (might have been Mennonite, or something similar – I’m not an expert, and somehow we never got round to it in conversation). Anyway, Phil had a home-made haircut, a clean-shaven face with a beard sprouting enthusiastically from under the jawline, and was dressed in a sober white shirt and sensible black trousers. We had a chat, with him seeming especially interested in ‘campsite hotties’, which I couldn’t really help with much. And then he got up to leave. On his roller-blades.

It may (well) be my ignorance, but I’m not sure that roller-blading is a standard Sunday morning activity in either the Amish or Mennonite traditions. Phil may well be a dangerous radical within his community, so I’ve changed his name to save him potential grief. But he was a sure sign that things were different in Indiana. I was happy.

Another sign was the amount of horse droppings I was having to navigate around on the edge of the road. There were more blacksmiths around than I’d seen for a while too. And the road signs were different.

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I only saw one actual buggy, which I flashed past at a junction. I guess it was pretty quiet because it was Sunday. But I’m definitely not in Ohio any more.

Pressing on to Berne (the clue’s in the name), I was suddenly transported to Switzerland. Chalets popped up by the roadside, and I sat for a while next to Berne’s magnificent Swiss clock tower. Slightly disappointing that it’s not a cuckoo clock tower (at least literally) but still impressive.

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I decided against heading further south to Geneva, as the alps would be in the way, and turned west towards Marion. I got distracted by ice cream (again) at The Point, a nice little restaurant on the highway. Phenomenal strawberry cheesecake ice cream, incidentally. I headed on, looking for a campsite. Four miles further on, a man had parked his car, and was waving what turned out to be free T-shirts at me. This was the owner of The Point, who’d heard I was English from his staff, and chased me up the road to give me free stuff. Amazing.

I mentioned looking for a campsite, and he stood aside, revealing a sign (I should point out that he wasn’t so big as to entirely block the sign, I was just distracted by the T-shirts). 200 yards up the road, Wildwood Outdoor Escape beckoned.

Serendipity is not to be denied. I’d done a hundred km, so decided to call it a day. I came in, paid for my spot, and had a chat with the owners about the ride. And a few minutes later they came to my site and gave me my money back (and a little extra) to ‘help me on the road’. Astonishing.

It’s fair to say that was quite a day. I’ve been a little bit blown away by Indiana so far, and have to offer my heartfelt thanks to all those who made my first day here so memorable.

Maybe there is something in the old state line myths after all…

It’s the little things…

Well, nearly across Ohio now; having a rest day today (Saturday) at Van Wert, with the usual non-rest activities – washing clothes, shopping etc.

Ohio’s been… Pleasant, I suppose. The riding is easy (temperatures in the 70s F / low 20s C, and there are plenty of towns to slake my thirst and indulge what is fast becoming a serious ice-cream habit). And I’ve been lucky with the wind, which is pretty light.

This is farming country, so the scenery has its limits in terms of stunningness. And when the highest things in the state seem to be farm silos, you’re never going to get the big vistas that you find in the mountains (or anywhere with any hills). I came through a town called Ottoville yesterday, where the school football team (or maybe baseball – what do I know?) is called the ‘Big Green’. An entirely appropriate description of the whole section of Ohio that I’ve seen.

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So if the scenery is nice but not inspiring, you have to look to the smaller things. I had a great breakfast yesterday just outside Findlay. On my way in, I encountered four, erm, comfortably-upholstered gentlemen with a combined age of around a quarter of a millenium. We chatted about my ride, and whether I was doing it for charity. One of them claimed that the four of them were fighting anorexia. I had to admit that it was a battle they seemed to be winning. They laughed, thankfully.

And then I got to my campsite last night, and was given a 50% discount because I was by myself. Nice. There were kids riding bikes with cards stuck in the spokes to simulate engine noises. So I got a few minutes of nostalgia – used to do the very same thing a hundred years ago when I was a kid.

And then a beautiful finish to the day. Just as it was getting dark, the area around the tent lit up with a load of fireflies of some sort shaking their little electric booties. To round off a day with something you’ve never seen before is a proper pleasure.

Anyway, enough of Ohio; tomorrow I just need to get about ten miles down the road before I’m in Indiana. Maybe the ‘Bigger Green’ for all I know, but I’ll keep an eye on the small picture as well as the big scenery from now on…

Apols for no pics, by the way. The Big M’s free wifi here is diabolical. Consider yourselves lucky the text is there…

UPDATE – campsite wifi much better than the burger stuff; big green picture should now be visible (and representative, if not inspiring)…

A Month In, and Country Number 6

Well, this is a surprise.  I thought this would be a little retrospective glance at the trip so far (yesterday was the one-calendar month mark since my departure from Greenwich), written from another location somewhere in Southern Ontario.  Instead, I arrived in the seething metropolis of Sandusky, Ohio.  Country number six already, and this one will last for a little while.

I’d intended to head for the big border crossing at Windsor in Ontario, which drops you into Detroit.  I’d built up an impressive collection of shocked facial expressions from the various Canadians regarding this plan.  Responses ranged from “turn left and ride like [insert four-letter-word here]” to “you’re going to ride through Detroit on surface streets?  That’s suicide.”

Now, there may be an element of exaggeration to these reactions.  All the people in Southern Ontario live in a delightful, semi-rural or rural environment with (as far as I could see) very little in the way of crime etc, and no big cities.  So maybe they were overstating things.  I have a standard response to this sort of thing, which is to research.  And a good job too; turns out that the Windsor-Detroit border is very difficult to get a bike through.  The whole place is set up for trucks and cars, and I’d need to bag the bike, put it on a bus, and so on and so on.  Looked like a nightmare.  And the alternative border crossing at Sarnia would take me a few days out of my way to the north.

One final act of Canadian goodwill was to come; a tip-off about the small ferries which run out of Kingsville (the most southerly town in Canada) to Pelee island (the most southerly island in Canada), past Point Pelee (the most southerly point in mainland Canada).  Lots of ‘southerlys’ there, then…  It should then be possible to get another ferry to the US from Pelee Island.  And it worked beautifully; I’m in the USA a few days earlier than expected, having had a nice boat ride, and a very friendly, quick and non-problematic entry to America.  A good route for any bikers heading this way.

IMG_0209The Pelee area of Ontario is quite interesting, by the way, and not just in its role as an important stop for migrating birds, of which I’m sure you’re all aware.  Remember Terry from Brantford?  He’d told me about Point Pelee when we were discussing places to camp, and said that it was so far south that it was level with Northern California.  This seemed extremely unlikely to me, so I checked up.  And it’s actually true; there are tiny bits of Ontario which are to the south of the California / Oregon border.  Who knew?

In any case, I’m getting set for the first day’s ride in the USA; basically I’ll be heading roughly west-south-west for a couple of months.  The plains, the Rockies, the desert and the landmarks of the West (Monument Valley, the Grand Canyon etc) hopefully lie ahead.  Plenty more from the US to come, I’m sure…

Southern Ontario: Easy Riding (mainly)

So, the flight was caught, and I was on my way to North America. Leaving Lisbon an hour late, and with the bike entrusted to the tender mercies of airport baggage handlers, I was really looking forward to being deadline-free in Canada. I was imagining gentle rides around the edge of the sun-kissed Great Lakes, rolling farmland and meeting some friendly Canadians. And I got all of these (lucky boy!) until this afternoon, when the sky decided to drop two-plus inches of rain on my head (and everywhere else).

It didn’t begin that well. I arrived pretty much on time (good), to discover the bike box in the state below (bad). After a bit of frantic checking, it looked like the box had taken all the beating, and the bike was intact – result!

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After a day’s jet-lag recovery, reassuring the bike that nothing so traumatic will ever happen to it again (a bit of a fib, if I’m honest), and some map checking / semi-planning, it was back on the road. A gentle run along the shore of Lake Ontario to Hamilton in the morning, and then the old railway line (now a nicely-surfaced bike path) towards Brantford. I met Terry, who was out on a long ride with some friends. Terry was built like a rugby hooker because that’s exactly what he used to be. And once he heard roughly where I was heading, he invited me back to his place to stay the night, where I was treated to bed and breakfast and many cups of tea by him and his wife Barb. A first taste of the generosity which has characterised all the Canadians I’ve met so far. Even the drivers give you half the road when overtaking – compare and contrast with my comments on Portugal…

Anyway, after breakfast in Brantford, Terry rode out with me to the start of another ex-railway line path which took me all the way to Port Dover on Lake Erie. And I’ve been within a mile or so of the lake ever since. It’s a really big lake.

The next night’s camp was a double-whammy; Long Point provincial park is now both best camping location and most expensive campsite of the trip so far. If Ontario could sort the pricing out, it would be properly brilliant. I ran into a nice family who lent me a hammer (an inexplicable omission from my kit), and then insisted on filling me with (very delicious) chicken wings. I think I might have repaid them by setting their son on the path to bike-touring lunacy, but them’s the breaks…

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And it was all sunshine and easy riding from then on; I’ve met a couple of guys from Chicago who are ‘circumventing’ the lake in a clockwise direction, and a Chilean who’s most of the way across Canada from Vancouver to St John’s (that’s an impressively long jog, by the way). And not a single bear to worry about to date.

Today started much the same. I stopped at the tiny town of Palmyra for some coffee and muffins (very good and cycling-friendly place – a little cafe and shop called the Crazy 8 Barn, who gave me a really good map as well as a bit of a caffeine and sugar rush). As I was leaving, there was a little comment about hoping I’d beat the rain. I’d not seen the forecast, as I was pretty convinced the sun would last forever. Uh-oh.

Made it to Blenheim dry, but with black clouds building. Finished lunch to discover rain bouncing enthusiastically off the pavement and the poor bike. A couple of (Harley-type) bikers showed me the weather forecast, as they finished zipping themselves into their rain gear and chuckling about how wet I was going to get. Not good at all.

I had another cup of coffee. I waited. The rain stopped, but the road was still soaking. Decision time. Go on, or give up for the day and find somewhere for the night. I thought about it. I dithered. I procrastinated (one of my more obvious character flaws). I was brave (read ‘stupid’). I went. I got very, very wet indeed all afternoon. Doh!

Still, all in all, it’s been great here in Southern Ontario so far. Fantastic cycling country, and top people. Hopefully, I can dodge the showers tomorrow, and then it should clear up as I approach the US.

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Incidentally, the observant among you may have noticed that I’m heading in entirely the opposite direction from that stipulated in the so-called plan which I started with. After the rush through Europe, I reckon it’s time to slow down a little and meander a bit more. This way gives me a bit more time in Canada, and a shorter (in miles) stretch across the US; the theory is that there will be more people to meet and places to see, and I don’t want to miss them in a blur as I whiz past. So the plan’s in the bin already. I think that’s the way it should be.

The End Of Europe; Now For The New World

I shot across Portugal.  Partly because it is quite a thin country.  Partly because the bit that I chose was pretty flat.  But mainly because I had a plane to catch, and planes don’t wait.  Two days across a whole country; impressive and wrong at the same time.  Deadlines will do that to you; I’ve moaned about them before…

I nearly fell in love with the place on day one.  Not at first sight, as the hills were evil (but mercifully short) on the Spanish border.  But the beautiful town of Portalegre, followed by many, many miles of brand new, almost empty highway (and a tailwind!!) almost got me.  Not to mention that my rewarding half-litre of beer at the end was only €1.60.  That’s roughly a quarter of London prices – I’ve been drinking in the wrong place for too long.

IMG_0190Thankfully, it was only nearly.  Yesterday would have been a bitter disappointment otherwise, as the traffic, heat and (self-inflicted) 130km to Lisbon nearly did for me.  There’s nothing like a constant stream of trucks passing within inches of your elbow for hours on end to keep the adrenaline pumping.  Especially when most Portuguese drivers don’t quite seemed to have worked out that just because you (the driver) are past whatever you’re overtaking, it doesn’t mean that the rest of your enormous truck / bus / BMW is past too.  Braking to avoid side-swipes became commonplace, and I quickly learned to check my shoulder whenever I saw something coming towards me, as anything behind will always choose to hit the cyclist rather than the oncoming traffic.  What they won’t do is slow down and wait.  Ever.  Grr…

So, to beautiful Lisbon.  I wanted to get here yesterday, to give me a day to play with, as I’d not managed to secure a box for the bike – the airline I’m using insist on them, and I’d been hoping a local bike shop would be able to help.  With no offers by this morning, I was anticipating a long day flogging around town looking for cardboard; a fun way to spend any time off the bike.  Instead, I was sorted out by half-past ten (courtesy of the lovely people in Decathlon opposite the campsite), and the bike is now packed away, awaiting only an oversized taxi to get it to the airport in the morning.  All appears well.

And that’s the end of Europe for a while.  My flight to Canada awaits tomorrow, and then it’s the New World all the way for a while.  A long while.  Many countries, many hills, and many bears.  And pumas and rabid raccoons and things.  The end of an era, and it’s only been just over three weeks.  The longest three weeks I’ve had for a while, and home seems a million miles away.  It seems to have taken forever, but really, it’s only just begun, hasn’t it?

I will update the map etc at some point, by the way.  Part laziness, part odd internet gremlins 😉

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Farewell Spain…

I’m about 5km from the Portuguese border this morning (closer in a straight line, but road builders rarely seem to use them). Another grey morning, which should mean easier cycling; we’ll see, as that nasty sun is bound to chase away the clouds. And there are a few hills about.

This is where I stayed last night. Best campsite setting by miles so far.

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The bendy roads mean I’ve already done almost the mileage I expected to reach Lisbon, meaning the schedule is really tight again. I really need to get across Portugal in two days, so that I have a day in Lisbon to get the bike packed up for the flight to Toronto on Wednesday. This is going to hurt…

Deadlines are a proper bugbear when you’re cycle touring, making you stress and maybe push too hard. I’ll be very glad to gain a bit of flexibility in North America. You may well see plans shift a little to reduce the relentlessness a touch. A grim sense of satisfaction from having finished another hard day is all very well, but this is supposed to be fun, too.

But first, there’s Portugal. Just a few miles up the road. Country number four, and one that I really liked the couple of times I’ve been (albeit only to Lisbon, with its faded grandeur and fantastic pavements).

So farewell to Spain, the beautiful but hard, and hóla to Portugal, with more unknowns around the corner…

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