Choose gaudily coloured bags stuffed with unnecessary items dangling from weighty racks bolted to your bicycle. Choose visits to museums after leisurely sweat free miles of pedalling through Turner-esque countryside wearing nothing but a straw hat and kaftan.
Choose cheery hat tipping at passers-by and endless conversations concerning your life choice to walk away from it all by diverting the trust fund into “cycling”. Choose beards, round rimmed spectacles, corduroy trousers tucked into woollen socks. Choose Sturmey Archer, Thorn, Dawes, Raleigh, Moulton, Pashley and Pam Ayres. Choose compasses, paper maps and long diatribes at any individual daring to augment their outdoor experience with technology.
Choose steel frames, downtube shifters, toe clips, kickstands, cotter pins and mirrors on the end of handlebars. Choose rain capes that engulf the whole bicycle, a tent capable of hosting a circus, multi-ring stoves, a smug self satisfied grin arising from grinding ones morning coffee beans on a stone. Choose the far corners of commercial campsites, boutique bed and breakfasts or the sofas of internet loners desperate for a kindred sole to share their boring life.
I chose not to choose touring. I chose bike-packing instead.
And let’s be clear bike-packing is not touring. To me it goes a bit further, it’s about maximising the riding experience by deep embedding within the countryside one is riding through. This is achieved via a number of mechanisms; reducing weight via light-weight baggage, choosing routes that avoid the metropolis and most importantly injecting a clear sense of adventure by straying into the unknown wherever possible. It’s the unknown that creates the embedding, forcing the bike-packer to adapt to their surroundings seeking sustenance, rest and shelter on the fly. For me touring is the discipline of mounting a bicycle fully planned and prepared for every eventually, bike-packing is more of a “fuck-it-let’s-see-what-happens” mentality. Which describes just about every other aspect of my life.
November is a critical month for the UK based bike-packer as the weather is invariably shite. Rotations of the feet around bottom brackets are replaced with rotations of the mouse pointer around a web browser as bike-packers country wide traverse the internet in search of opportunities to dry themselves out. November is always my month of aspiration as my fitness begins to bleed and my heart yearns for a few more nights sleeping in a ditch.
November 2016 was no exception and fortunately I tripped over a bike-packing thread entitled “Musings upon a Spanish Coast to Coast”. The title had everything. A warm climate. A decent enough riding distance to drag me from work for a few days. And the word “musings” which definitely betrays a small vein of eccentricity. I opened the thread looking for the potential for some deep embedding as was not disappointed.
Duncan had recently upped sticks and moved to Spain. He’d ridden his bike there a bit but wanted to explore further and had seen potential for a bike-packing route running coast to coast. This route had not been ridden before and looked to travel through countryside generally ignored by the tourist trade. We’d start in the east at Tarragona and ride north west across Spain to finish the route in Bilbao. Should take 7-9 days. Who’d be interested in giving it a go?
Me me me me me me me me, please Sir pick me!!
I replied that “Yes, I’d be coming along”. Booked two flights and promptly forgot about the whole trip until a week before departure. You may tut and stroke your chin at my poor preparation, but remember that this isn’t touring. Duncan had prepared a route. All I needed to do was load it upon my GPS and somehow get my bike and a few sleeping things over to Spain. I didn’t even really know who I’d be riding with. Eight others had put their names down, two of whom I’d briefly ridden with before. This being an internet organised trip meant my only clues concerning their ability were forum names; “In Reverse”, “Rufus748” ‘HUX”, “MbNut”, “Wotsits” and “Pistonbroke”. The clues were there. No women, males probably over 40 and a suspicion that at least one would need help with directions.
I’ll skip the bits about panic packing, kit dithering, long nights in search of Spanish GPS maps and the trauma of pushing a cardboard bike box through Bristol airport during Stag season. I’ll also brush over the fact that I had genuinely not looked at the route at all. I landed in Barcelona knowing that I had to get to a hotel to meet the others and that 9 days later I had a flight to catch from Bilbao. Duncan could have prepared a route on the motorway for all I knew. Oh, and there was another huge omission. I did not speak one single word of Spanish. Nothing at all. I’d vainly tried an hour of tuition from my iPod in-flight but had forgotten everything on landing
I bumped into my first compadre at baggage reclaim where Andy Nordqvist aka “Rufus748” was wrestling his bike out of a box and into some sort of semblance. I made my introductions and carried out a similar procedure. A few phonecalls later and we’d located another Andy, Mike and Hux at the other end of the airport. They were all frantically trying to re-inflate tubeless tyres that had been let down by over zealous baggage handlers with no grasp of basic physics related to atmospheric pressure change. Finally our intrepid quintet set off into the dark in the general direction of the hotel. Along the way one of the Andys gave us a display of bike related acrobatics that any circus would be proud of. Or stacked it after mistiming a bunny hop as we christened it later.
Our hotel was eventually located along with Scott who’d been there for hours wondering what on earth had happened to us. We decamped to the bar and left it after a proper session of carbo loading somewhere close to 1.30am. I still had no real idea what I was doing and fell asleep with some vague notion of having to catch a train the next day.
Tarragona – Garcia
This proved to be correct but I still wasn’t paying proper attention as I can remember riding somewhere, getting on two trains and arriving at Tarragona which was our planned start. So we’ll continue the story from there where we pedalled to a café and met the enigmatic Duncan and his wife Trish along with Jase (Wotsits) who’d been picked up from somewhere else. Duncan immediately gave me misgivings by being seemingly hyper-organised, well turned out and tanned. It looked like he knew what he was doing. Brief introductions were made before Duncan dashed off yet again to retrieve the final member of our merry band. The rest of us decamped to a bar for food and a swift half. An hour or so later we were joined by Nigel (Mbnut) who’d brought with him every conceivable bikepacking accoutrement possible. I’ve never seen so much kit emerge from a bike box and imagined the pilots of his plane wondering where all the fuel had gone on the journey over.
Food, banter, a quick group photo and we were off on our adventure following Duncan through the streets of Tarragonna. “Following” being the operative word as Duncan was not pissing about. Our group strung out a bit for the first few miles as we hugged the shoreline through to Cambrils where we waved a fond farewell to the Spanish coast and headed inland and up a bloody great road climb. On leaving Cambrils we left behind any semblance of traffic and it’s no exaggeration to say that it didn’t return until the last day in Bilbao. The roads were devoid of any form of traffic at all bar us sweaty British cyclists as we toiled up the hill in the midday heat. Duncan told me of recent road races that had used these roads and I could see why as they were perfectly surfaced and scattered with views. I began to chant the lament of the British born cyclist “Why can’t it be like this in Blighty? Why are the roads so bloody shitey?”.
The group came back together at the top of the hill and once more at a café next to the river in Porrera. The locals looked through their wine glasses in amusement at Scott wrestling with a poorly seated tubeless tyre as did we until I helped by joining in with his swearing. In the heat of the Spanish afternoon we continued onwards using a mixture of empty roads and dusty tracks to wind our way onwards through Grattalops and a beautiful valley system leading us up to a climb into el Molar. The bikepacking ethic was a little compromised at this point as Duncan had booked us into a small local restaurant and pre-ordered Paella. Duncan also introduced us to another potential bikepacking crime, shandy. This was apparently a common Spanish refreshment, beer, lemonade and a dash of citrus. I was dubious at first but it proved to be the ideal antidote to a hot sweaty day on the road. We all made short work of several of these until the paella appeared and then disappeared in a matter of seconds. I was in the company of Olympic level eaters and at the end of the table Andy B was already reaching for the menu as was Scott.
We left them to it and ventured out into the dark towards a bivy spot that Duncan had previously scouted. Apparently it was just “5 kilometres away”. 10 kilometres of off-road later we popped out into the small village of Garcia and found the potential bivy spot. This was a bar with tables and a covered veranda. It was a warm night so the plan was to hunker down under the shelter with not need to erect tarps or tents. I set up my bivy bag in close proximity of the others and lay within waiting for the sound of zips and rustling to subside. Eventually it did and I prepared myself for sleep but the others beat me to it. I knew this due to the symphony of snoring emitted by the larynxes around me. The volume was somewhere near 11 and it was all out of sync. I was pretty damned tired myself but my brain was having none of it. No way was it going to let me drift into unconsciousness whilst surrounded by this cacophony of somnambulistic mutterings. This seems entirely irrational to me? Surely snoring is a sign that “all is well”, an aural signpost to tell others to get their head down. I wearily dragged my kit to the far end of the veranda and managed an hour’s kip before another sound based intrusion disturbed me. I could hear a loud hissing coming from my left, as if a python was determined to drown out the snorers at the other end. This turned out to be sprinklers watering the grass around us. The hissing was magnified by the sound of the water hitting the tarps of Andy B and Scott. Their second meal and late arrival had led to a rushed erection of bivys without due regard to the hazards that surrounded them. I guess the heroic levels of snoring at the far end of the veranda had put them off.
Garcia – Monroyo
I awoke after a fitful night’s sleep somewhere around 7am. I then ranted at Hux, Mike and Andy N in turn for their snoring. It would later turn out that I’d placed the blame upon the wrong shoulders. Duncan was up, packed and pacing already, itching to get us on the road. A task that would prove to be futile on a daily basis given a group of nine. Eventually we were all herded into Mora d’Ebra for a raid on the local bakery and another lesson in bikepacking , make sure you’re first in the queue. The bakery had 4 jumbo sized chocolate croissants on display. I joined the queue in position 5 and ended up with tuna pasty for breakfast.
I sat back in the relatively warm morning air and breathed in the rhythm of our group. There were 3 clear factions. The “hunters” led by Mike, scouring every corner for a food purchasing opportunity leaving no stone unturned. The “loungers”, an amorphous gathering of men happy to sip coffee and follow the victorious whoops of a hunter’s find. And finally Duncan who just wanted to get on his bike and make progress. I think we spent somewhere close to an hour grabbing a “quick” breakfast before the group eventually reformed into a ragged peloton and wound its way out of town. This was stimulated in the main by Duncan’s promise of bacon sandwiches for lunch which certainly pricked up my ears, only a shark should breakfast on tuna.
Quiet roads led as on to Miravet as we stuck to the right hand side of the river Ebro. The town awakened us with a sharp climb before depositing us upon a rough track skirting the river. More rough uphill took us away from the water and into the wild, I was not detecting any sign of bacon sandwiches as this point. We followed dusty double track through the hills of Terra Alta in excellent weather with nothing but a passing snake for company. Tracks eventually gave way to road which took us into El Pinell de Brai. Duncan flipped to tour guide mode steering us towards the impressive town hall via a route clearly designed to keep the “hunters” away from the shops. A mission which would ultimately have proved futile as everything in Spain appears to only open for a single hour usually designated as “when the proprietor can be arsed”.
A little more road and we arrived at the Via Verde de la Terra Alta, a forty mile stretch of disused railway track that carved its way gently up through the impressive surrounding us. The via came with people, on bikes, something that had been curiously lacking so far. We joined the track and began our journey upwards in the ever increasing heat. The tunnels that punctuated the climb were a welcome relief from the gradient, which, whilst shallow, was tiresomely relentless requiring constant effort upon the pedals. This split the group somewhat, I rode with Duncan who filled me in on the history of the old railway line with very little referral to any bacon sandwiches. I began to have my suspicions? Here we were, riding an abandoned track in the middle of nowhere in the hot sun. Who on earth would operate a cafe in these conditions? Eventually and many miles later my question was answered as the track skirted the small town of Bot. There in a small clearing stood a single railway carriage and an ice cream booth. The owner of the carriage dived out and vigorously shook Duncan by the hand. We were ushered in and ordered cokes to combat the midday heat and shortly afterwards I began to hear the tell tale sizzle of bacon. Within a few minutes the rest of the group had arrived and more bacon sandwiches were ordered. Mike typically had to go one step further with the food and enquired about an egg? It turned out that eggs were available as well and whilst my bacon sandwich arrived first, the pleasure was short lived as I watched yellow yoke drip off the chins of the egg orderers.
Copious amounts of additional coke were requested. These came in bottles and we hunted around for an opener. It seemed to take far too long to find one especially given the fact that all those assembled were seasoned bikepackers. Eventually the lack of coke stress became too much for Jase who decided to open his with his eye. Yes, his eye! I can’t remember if he managed it or not, but it cleared up a lot of questions in my head that I’ve always had about scousers. I hate to think of the other things that get opened with other orifices behind closed doors. Can you imagine the twinkle in his eye when handed a jar and asked “can you open this?” I’m never ever having ketchup from a bottle in Jase’s house.
The three factions were true to form at lunchtime. Duncan was first to leave whilst the hunters investigated the ice cream booth under the scrutiny of the loungers. I went along with him and we continued to climb gradually in the searing heat until the road intervened and we took a left heading towards the promise of a spectacular ride through a gorge. A few miles later we were heading up a rough track in a forest when out of nowhere a feeding station appeared. I was immediately mightily impressed with Duncan’s organisational skills. Not only had he arranged for a railway carriage to serve us bacon sandwiches halfway up a climb, he’d sorted out a water stop for us. He should have kept quiet but informed us that an ultra-running competition was in progress. The organisers chatted to him enthusiastically and willing gave us all water. After 5 minutes or so the first competitor appeared. He looked utterly shagged out and their focus turned to him.
We meandered off further into the woods before heading into our first trip highlight the canyon Estrets d’Arnes. Duncan warned us beforehand that it was quite a technical trail and he was not wrong. The track narrowed to singletrack and the rocks and bushes appeared. I followed Andy B into the ever narrowing gorge daring myself on as he cleared each obstacle in front of me. On occasions the price of failure was high with off camber rocky sections promising a bloody good grazing were the rider to fall. Thankfully we all made it through unscathed and emerged into a beautiful river canyon defined by scrub filled rocky slopes and replete with man-made path to make our progress easier. There were many nods of appreciation for riding through such a place and it had made the railway line slog worth it. The canyon ended with a short steep exit that most of us walked. Hux had different ideas and engaged his 22 sprocket front ring to grind his way up via the pedals.
A few miles on and we could hear the sound of music. Ahead of us was the town of Arnes and it was clearly the ultra-run finishing line. Our shagged out running friend was spotted again and we hoped his journey was nearly over. We still had 30 more miles to go. More road and tracks and afternoon heat and the group arrived in Beceite-Beseit. Spain was beginning to take its toll, a number of the group were not coping well in the heat and others were clearly in need of more food. We found a bar in town centre and various meals were ordered. I detected some tension, understandable in a group that had contained many strangers, different motivations and capabilities. We appeared to be encountering day 3 blues a day early but food and drink is always the answer. Forty five minutes, many cokes, a few ice creams, some potatas bravas and a cortado later all was well. The group headed out of town and climbed up to the lake Embalse de Pena which proved welcome respite with the flat track that skirted it and the trees offering some shelter from the day’s relentless sun.
I rode and chatted with Andy N for a while who regaled me with stories of his recent retirement, excellent pension and his regular “what leisure activity should I carry out today” quandary. I said “excellent” at all the right places whilst frantically willing his drive-chain to explode and give the lazy bastard something to do. Fortunately the next set of road climbs did that for me. Daylight was starting to wave us all goodbye and the tracks had morphed to road that goes up. The final climb before dinner was a stinker, long and unrelenting on a featureless road. It was dark as I crested it and rode into the village of Monroyo alone. Monroyo flicked the v’s further by presenting me with an even steeper climb to the town centre where I came across a single open bar. This was our final feeding station. We crammed ourselves into it and crammed the contents of its menu into us. Beers wiped out the memory of the nasty climb to the town and one of them appeared to wipe out Scott who fell asleep at the table.
The previous night’s double dinner shenanigans proved contagious. All riders bar myself and Duncan decided that they would have it all again. The two of us bade farewells and slunk off in the dark to a bivy spot he’d previously scouted. This was a grassy hilltop depression a few miles up the road and the two of us made camp next to each other. Ten minutes later I was awoken by a rampaging bison furiously having sex with an unwilling moose that had contracted laryngitis. Or so I initially thought until I realised that it was Duncan. The mystery snorer had been outed. The nasal volume control was turned to “max” so I had no choice but to drag my bivy bag to the other side of the glade. Snorers 2 Dave 0.
Monroyo – Uttrillas
The previous day’s riding had not been easy by any stretch of the imagination. We’d covered over 70 miles and climbed more than 8000 feet high with all of our kit. And it had been hot. Duncan had warned us that today was worse, somewhere during the day we would reach the highest point of the ride and there was going to be a lot of climbing to get there. Packing our kit in the mist we were aware of the challenge ahead and so thoughts turned to breakfast. Duncan, Scott and I left camp first to scout out the nearest town “only 5 kilometres away”. Ten miles later we were at Aguaviva having ridden excellent forest tracks and encountered our first river crossing. Duncan distracted us by pretending to fix a broken spoke whilst Scott and I went in search of feeding. A circuit of the town came up empty and I began to worry that we were in trouble given this was Sunday and the Spanish were not keen to open any kind of shop during daylight. We pedalled a bit further out of town admiring the shuttered windows and “cerrado” signs until Duncan’s excellent Spanish saved the day. He directed us into a nondescript bar that was apparently going to serve breakfast. The owner’s eyes lit up when three of us walked in on a deserted Sunday morning and subsequently became saucers as the other six turned up. Breakfast was omelette in a baguette with coffee, not what I was craving but sustenance all the same. Every available power socket was commandeered for GPS charging and we bantered away our breakfasts as the sun gradually notched itself up a few degrees higher.
Duncan lead the charge from the bar into the hills. A series of winding road climbs devoid of traffic that pulled us through farmland. Again, cars were absent as were most of my clothes by the top. We were aiming for the reservoir Embalse de Santolea and arrived there in the midday heat. Waiting at the dam we counted the stragglers in but after several recounts and a check of available fingers we could only get to seven. Where were Nigel and Scott? It was at this point that we found a slight flaw in our general organisation. We hadn’t shared phone numbers. The number I had for Scott was ringing out to an empty room in Shropshire and even if we’d had one for Nigel it would have been so deeply buried in his kit that he’d not hear it ring.
We waited and waited and waited a bit more. After that we waited and finally in a fit of frustration did a tiny bit more waiting. During the waiting we exchanged phone numbers to relieve the tedium. Finally and with great relief for all of us they came tootling up the hill to the dam. Being last to leave the bar they’d got a bit carried away and headed out of town downhill. Enjoying the descent they took it all the way to the bottom before a glance of the GPS said “wrong way”. We pretended to laugh whilst making wanker signs at them behind their backs before remounting bikes.
Our day continued with us traversing the thin roads that teased us high above the blue waters of the reservoir before cruelly robbing our height and bringing us back down to water’s edge. A right turn saw us climb into a valley and swap road for track. The valley tightened and tightened until I could see no feasible way out apart from a horrendously steep sheep track basking in the sun. But the valley was in on the joke with a tiny passage at the end taking us into the next valley system. This was fantastic riding, very isolated and wild ,only the heat detracting from the experience. Salvation was at hand in the hamlet of Las Cuevas de Canart where Mike’s keen nose tracked down an open shop and we were able to buy a few supplies to consume in the beautiful town square. Tinned fish appeared to be the order of the day the smell was terrible especially when mixed with that of nine unwashed males three days distant from a shower.
Leaving town the road went up for a long way onto a windswept plain which continued to climb gradually whilst offering no shelter from the wind. I rode with Hux , he’s bigger than me. I spent these miles frantically thinking of excuses to hide behind him but coming up blank. We stopped at a road junction and awaited the others. Hux motivated by companionship, me by wanting more people to hide behind. Then the route shoved us into the Maestrazgo mountains and things got interesting. We climbed steeply up tracks and then dared each other to hoon down them. We skirted up and over and round and down a variety of landscapes as the route wiggled its way along. It was properly hot now and this was proving to be the hardest section of riding to date.
At one point we regrouped at a water filled trough which I fully expected Mike to get in as he likes a bath. Then the final climb of the day (we were told) to the high point at a col. A long track through woods that climbed unrelentingly and a missed turning taken by me added a few extra hundred feet onto my tally. The col was reached and at just under 5000 feet we’d attained the high point of the tour. A track to the right descended steeply through the trees and into the valley below. Tired and fully laden the sensible thing would have been to take it easy thus keeping everyone intact for the 6 days still remaining. But we’re males and so we headed off down the track at the speed of light. Mike shot past me elbows out and at one point I spied Andy B riding in excess of 30mph no-handed-filming from his phone. My rigid forks pummelled my puny upper frame and told me in no uncertain terms to slow down. I told them to fuck off and get on with it, which is what they did.
Regrouping at the foot of the descent revealed that our casualty count was sadly in the red. Jase had misread a corner and gracefully flown from his stead onto the land below. His eye sockets of steel had let him down and so it was down to his right elbow to cushion the impact. Which it did most effectively but managed to leave half of itself upon the floor. He looked a bit of a mess and I felt a trip to a medic was needed. Jase is made of sterner stuff, he dressed the wound with electrical tape and told us all to “calm down”. Which we did as we pootled on to Palomar de Arroyos where Mike led a sit down protest demanding some drink. But the whole town was shut so we continued on to Escucha which was also shut. The petrol station outside of Escucha was open but wouldn’t serve us as they “were shut”. Finally we found a café serving ice cream, coke and tortilla that wasn’t shut. The threat of execution from Mike disappeared and we recovered a little prior to the final push to a campsite at Utrillas.
Duncan had booked the site previously and organised with the owner the delivery of an evening meal. We followed the road to within a few miles of the camp and headed off onto tracks that Duncan had plotted as a “shortcut”. Therein lay much sketchiness, a series of deep stream crossings designed to test the weary man in need of his bed. A few sections of stick laden woods itching to jam wheels and rip rear mechs. And a final steep rutted climb to a site that showed no sign of life and even little evidence of an impending dinner.
We sat at trestle tables silently planning Duncan’s demise when the owner arrived and pulled the miracle of the trip. From the back of his car emerged a crate laden with beer. Not just beer but really really cold beer. We fell on the stuff. Jase was so desperate to down one he used a bottle opener instead of his eye. I’ll never taste a better one in my life. Then out came the food. Tons and tons of the stuff. All sorts of animals, chipped potatoes, red cabbage and bread. Exactly what you want at the end of a long day’s climbing and crashing. Everyone celebrated this feast in their own different way. Andy B dressed up in his best figure hugging baselayer and modelled for us all. The tight clothing held no secrets and we complimented his masculine form through the medium of retch. Andy N decided to shave but changed his mind in the shower and slashed his face to pieces with a razor. He managed to take half his lip off and remove a section of chin. Jase joined in by continuing to bleed in sympathy. Our host must have wondered what on earth was going on? But we didn’t care our simple needs had been met and we set about bagsying our bivys for the night.
I hunkered down in a toilet block with Mike. The snorers set up upon a sheltered veranda and Hux disappeared off into the wild. I was asleep in minutes and awake 2 hours later to have my nightly “old man” piss. Mike was nowhere to be seen. It turns out that I too had joined the snorers club for an evening with the toilet walls echoing my grunts.
Uttrillas – Molina de Aragon
The next day we were on the road shortly after 8am and stopped in Martin del Rio for breakfast in a small bar. Yet again I was presented with a baguette with an omelette in it. My own fault for a total lack of Spanish but these things were playing havoc with the digestive system. On the upside the hunters had found a small bakery that sold me a bag of weird sweet pasties for next to nothing. These were an amazing find and I’d have eaten them all there and then if I wasn’t so full of egg. We left town heading upwards which didn’t seem to please Andy N too much. He had a little touch of “the arse” with the route this morning and having scanned Google maps had spotted a more direct route. Somewhere along the N-211 Andy announced that he was taking the road and would see us in Caminreal. A decision he would live to regret.
The rest of us split into small factions and followed minor roads into the hills. Soon I began to realise that Andy had made a huge mistake. The landscape of Calamocha unfolded into a vast expansive plain reminiscent of northern American vistas. Farmer’s tracks guided us through this wondrous place with blue skies above completing the picture. It all made me feel so small a kind of riding experience that it is hard to find in the densely packed countryside of the UK. Hux and I speculated that this is what it must feel like every day on the Tour Divide. Our tracks were following the Camino del Cid, a route of pilgrimage that travelling from Castilla to Burgos recalling the history of a famous Spaniard El Cid Campeador. The route is derived from the poem of El Cid which describes the adventures of this fellow across Spain.
De los sos oios tan fuertemientre llorando,
Tornava la cabeça e estavalos catando;
Vio puertas abiertas e uços sin cañados…
The poem of El Dave was going something along the lines of the following at this point:-
I bloody love this bit of riding,
It’s also pretty flat,
I wonder how Andy is doing,
The silly bloody …
It took a while to cross this huge valley system but it was not riding to be rushed. Each turn delivered a new aspect that need to be slowly soaked in and visually digested. It was a real shame to leave it but lunch was calling and we regrouped at a bar in Barrachina where I am pretty sure I was forced to eat yet another baguette with an omelette in it. This was washed down with plenty of shandy and entertainment was provided by Andy B poking away at Jase’s wounds which were not looking too clever at all.
Barrachina to Caminreal was a little less landscapey and a little more headwindy. We stopped for a group moan at a set of farm buildings but hurried on after Jase took a dump behind a wall. Andy N was picked up at Caminreal in no better mood than previous as the road route had been hillier than ours and less sheltered. We consoled him by laughing..
Many more miles of Camino El Cid were covered on double track across mildly interesting scenery. A short section of downhill singletrack provided an interlude as did a village water stop with an overflow pool full of carp. By the time we arrived at Molina de Aragon everyone was hungry and it was starting to get late. A small supermarket presented itself and I was in first emerging with a few soft drinks an orange and some mundane breakfast items. Every subsequent bikepacker came out with something better than me. Cherries, milkshake, beer, massive apples, weird biscuits and yoghurts that I had missed. Too proud to go back and restock I congratulated each on their choices whilst trying to pretend that I was happy with mine. Tea had better be good.
In fact tea was had in a bar after a lengthy nine man debate as to which hostelry we should frequent. I think it was chips with something, I can’t properly remember. The landlord told Duncan of a campsite along our route so a motion was passed to stop there for the night and undertake some ablutions. The campsite was located at the top of a long gorge which made for a promising scenic start the next day. On arrival we noted that the lack of lights, chained gate and eerie silence probably meant it was shut. Mike, Hux and Andy B decided to camp in the woods next to it. Daylight was fast retreating.
Duncan had hopes of a refuge further down the road and so the rest of us followed him into the dark. It made for an epic night ride as we slid down into the gorge lit by our bike lights and a full moon overhead. Scott’s head torch picked out a large shape on the right hand side in the trees. A wild boar! Bats flew above us and I giggled at the back enjoying every second of the descent. Several miles later the gorge walls widened away and gave way to woodland. Duncan gave out a triumphant cry as the refuge was sighted. A derelict building on two floors with a staircase that would cause British Health and Safety to go nuclear. The downstairs room was not habitable with traces of human shite on the floor. Upstairs seemed OK but Duncan was laying out his bed and I was not going to be bitten twice. Scott and I crossed the road to a picnic area and set up our camp in the dark. I lay in my bivy and began the slow drift into sleep until a grunt awakened me. Then a snort, more grunts and a lot of bush rustling. Wild boar again. It took ages to get to sleep clutching my mini-pump for protection.
Molina de Aragon – Berlanga de Duero
I awoke early relieved to have survived the night and carried out a quick check to ensure that my vicinity was wild boar free. Glancing back at the refuge I noted that Duncan was up and in his kit ready to go. There was no sign of Andy or Jase. So I packed my kit up quickly and rode back up the gorge to see how the others had fared. This gave me a wonderful sense of contrast having descended it in the day. The early morning mist and sun made for a properly heart warming ascent. A euphoria quickly dashed by an encounter with Andy B in his night attire. The woods campers appeared to be in good spirits. Mike and Hux rode back down with me to the refuge where we discovered that the others had “fucked off”. So we followed the GPS line along woodland tracks that climbed steadily out of the gorge into a neighbouring hill system.
A few more miles of this delivered a short descent to a set of buildings and a clear running river. I observed Mike reaching for his bib short straps and instantly knew that male nudity as shortly to follow. I left him and Hux to their dip “au natural” and continued along the trail on my own. The morning’s riding was mostly wide track winding through undulating valley systems. At some point I caught up with Andy N and attempted to impress him by riding the wrong way up a steep climb for over half a kilometre. We negotiated a series of small canyons together before a hoofing great climb to get back onto the road. It was also getting hot again. Sanctuary was had at Ciruelos del Pinar another Spanish village seemingly devoid of any life whatsoever. However, it did have a bar and the owner’s eyes lit up as a few of us entered enquiring about “lunch. His eyes became saucers as the full compliment of nine individuals slowly took over the place and confirmed that they’d all like pasta. His wife sneaked off to the find more food as we enjoyed the shade and admired the fading pictures upon the wall.
As was becoming the norm, Duncan and myself slipped off first into the afternoon heat. The group had profoundly split into smaller factions and the two of us were nearer the impatient end. The other seven were spread across a mixture of food gatherers, photo takers and the occasional smattering of sore arse malingerers. But it didn’t seem to be causing any issues as we would stretch and regroup throughout the day like a kind of bikepacking slinky. My incentive for sticking with Duncan was the fact that he spoke the language and I was keen to take any opportunity to avoid an omelette in baguette wherever possible.
Clouds were a welcome afternoon companion as our route shot seriously up towards the hilltop settlement of Medinaceli, complete with an impressive arch constructed by the Romans and a not so impressive coffee shop. Smatterings of rain convinced us not to linger and we left town upon undulating roads with a tailwind ever increasing in strength. I’m still not sure what I think of the miles that followed? The road would not stop going up and down seemingly promising a zenith but refusing to deliver it. My lower gearing caused Duncan to shoot by on each descent and then fall behind on the climbs. We were yo-yoing in every sense and the rain kept threatening to spoil the day. Suffice to say we did not hang around and covered some 25 miles at a fairly rapid pace. There were few opportunities to stop and I sensed Duncan was keen to get to our final destination. Gaining a large plateau helped with the ride as the undulations ceased until we stopped and stared into the profoundly “V” shaped valley containing Bordecorex.
Duncan headed off down a steep track but I stood transfixed by what lay before me. The steep valley sides cradled a lush green landscape spattered with trees and cultivated fields. These human delineations offered fantastic contrast with the steep scrub laden valley sides dragging the eyes to the horizon and back. Blue skies and puffy clouds rose above this scene. It was sheer cycling temptation, I’d have ridden down into it even if our route had gone the other way. Eventually I did and the two of us enjoyed further tailwinds that propelled us along dusty tracks to the town of Berlangade de Duero our destination for the day. Duncan had high hopes for a campsite on the edge of town but true to Spanish form it was devoid of any life. However, the gates were open and it possessed a veranda. The lack of a curator was no deterrent to tired bikepackers.
The two of us left a bit of gear and rode into town in search of sustenance. As we did a weird thing happened, the wind changed and to began to rain. Hard. A forlorn mess of bikepackers dripped into town and found us at the restaurant. They’d not had the tailwinds that we’d enjoyed and many were soaked to the skin. We purchased “moan deflectors” from the bar and set about demolishing yet another menu.
Later that evening I optimistically set up my bivy under the veranda and within 10 feet of the snorers. I lasted 15 minutes before spending the night under a tree 100 metres away. Stupidly I’d missed out on two teepees that others had found in another corner. “More haste, less speed” was my next campsite resolution.
Berlanga de Duero to Salas de los Infantes
Unless you are in the army, a gathering of nine men at breakfast is never going to be regimented. Some will want to sit and contemplate their coffee, others will demand a pile of something very high and edible and there will always be a member of the “just one last visit to the loo” contingent. The morning in Berlangade de Duero had all of this and more punctuated by Nigel insisting on asking each one of us “What are we doing then?”. Breakfasts were ordered in a cafe and eaten by the wrong person, multiple coffees didn’t seem to make it to multiple owners and there was a queue (and distinct smell) outside of the toilet. Therefore, it was no surprise at all to me that Duncan made a dash for it. One minute he was relaying another confused order to the restaurant owner. The next he was gone.
Duncan’s departure filled my mind with the horror of another omelette filled baguette. As soon as I clocked he wasn’t there I resolved to catch him. A can of Vimto from a small shop delivered just about enough sugar to spring my morning legs into action. The chase was on. A track out of town led to small roads followed by a turnoff heading towards a huge mound with a castle perched on top. I could see Duncan attacking some steep singletrack and then he got off. My lunch was saved and I put in a decent effort to catch him. This climbed steeply to the road leading into Gormaz castle and we were both soon off and pushing (Hux later rode the entire thing on his magic 22 tooth front ring). The road climb was a diversion off route but the effort was worth it due to the aspect of this ancient ruin. It’s aspect held a commanding high view over a river plain formed by two diverting water courses. The high cloud allowed us a decent view and we contemplated its perfect positioning defended by these two rivers and difficult to attack due to the hugely steep approach. Descending we passed Mike and Hux on their way up. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mike that there wasn’t a cafe at the top.
We left the castle and continued on roads aware of a huge commotion up front. Vultures, loads of them fighting each other for a morsel of some carrion lying in a ditch. These things were huge and so I let Duncan half wheel me for a while. The riding became a little tedious. Empty roads with not a lot to look at and no more vultures to keep us on our toes. However, this was Duncan’s route lulling me into a false sense of mundanity. After an extended climb we began to drop into more dramatic scenery. We paused at a bar to attempt to fix Duncan’s GPS which was now refusing to charge. I impressed myself with my cocktail stick carvery as I managed a temporary bodge to improve the USB contacts, but this didn’t impress Duncan as it failed to work at all. I now took on the role of primary navigator as we headed into the gorge Cañon del Rio Lobo on an ever narrowing road.
As the road crossed the river we left it joining singletrack that hugged the valley side and beckoned us away from the road and into the wilder side of the gorge. This became more and more sublime as we rode down through trees following the running water. I was concentrating on Duncan’s back wheel when a profound rocky buttress emerged from the trees and dragged my eyes upwards. This buttress framed an ancient monastery and came complete with a large cave that begged the viewer to shout “HEllooooooooo” into its depths. Being a skinny lad I’ve always enjoyed caving and the temptation to explore deeper was huge but Duncan was keen to continue and so we hammered further into the gorge on dry trails savouring another trip highlight. The gorge widened and spat us out onto a gravelly river crossing where we bade it “farewell”. Duncan and I continued to follow the Camino El Cid alone bar the odd pilgrim clutching a tell-tale staff and beard. If ever Gandalf wanted to go into hiding he’d do well walking this trail.
The trail lifted us over forested hills and dropped us into shallow valleys. Riding felt effortless and enjoyable on these wide tracks and we quickly ate up the miles to Salas de los Infantes. On arriving at the town Duncan shot down a small track to a derelict train station. I was initially confused as the GPS trace pointed elsewhere and disused train stations don’t really have much use to those travelling across Spain. It all became clear when Duncan informed me that we’d be sleeping here that evening. The station platform canopy providing shelter.
The two of us then rode into town and another supermarket raid commenced. We sat outside unwrapping and consuming various things when two of the freshest looking cycle tourists ever created turned up. Neither of them looked over the age of 15 and both had bikes laden with enough luggage to cause an airport baggage handler lunchbreak. We got chatting as it turned out they were from New Zealand and …… UN Ambassadors for something or other? They were on a mission to ride across Europe and tell everyone about something that I’ve forgotten. In hindsight, and based upon a sample size of one, their mission was not very successful. Regardless we enjoyed chatting to them and it seemed mutual as they followed us to a bar where we imbibed beer and awaited the rest of our crew.
Duncan tracked down a restaurant willing to feed 9 smelly and 2 fresh faced cyclists. A few more beers later and we were all sat around a banqueting table enjoying a meal and waving bottles of wine at each other. The alcohol took its toll in a number of ways. Firstly our generosity scale went nuclear and we paid for the meals of our guests. And then some camping lethargy set in as a few in the group realised that this was a hotel. Four stealth room bookings were made and the splitters waved us off into the twilight with skies threatening rain.
It would be disingenuous of me to name the splitters and I won’t. Dave, Duncan, Mike, Hux, Scott and the UN ambassadors rode off to the station and began to set up camp. The majority chose to bivy under the platform canopy. Scott and I put up shelters on a grassy area beside. Mine was up first and soon bore the hammering of heavy Spanish rain. I heard antipodean swearing coming from Scott’s direction as he fought to maintain his own erection. Soon I was bedded and asleep. I find the rain strangely comforting, especially when mixed with a bottle of red wine.
Salas de los Infantes to Vivar del Cid
My dormancy ended and I arose to the sound of birds and the quiet void left by Scott’s swearing. Emerging from my shelter reminded my bowels that a heavy evening of drinking and eating had been had and they probably needed to empty themselves. Scouting the area for a bush proved fruitless and the grassy aspect where we were camped was a little too open for my liking. It appeared to back onto a residential garden so I’d need to find a better place for my stealth squatting. The situation become more and more pressing as every location checked had a potential viewing issue and movement became more difficult as my legs began to cross. In a moment of urgency I spied an old signal box and on entry found that it had a basement. Downstairs was perfect for a surreptitious poo but it would be well out of order to leave it there. I searched desperately for some inspiration before espying a set of flower pots. Why they were down here? I had no clue, but who cares. In seconds I’d unfurled a brown Mr Whippy into a pot and minutes later buried it in a hole dug behind a tree. I’m not sure if this fully adheres to the bikepacking code, I buried it quite deep, but hope that in centuries to come an archaeologist will dig up my find, preferably live on Time Team 2317. The future Tony Robinson will then stare admiringly at the ancient pot and postulate that Spanish ice cream has moved on significantly in the past 300 years.
The morning revealed that Scott and I had made the right decision to avoid the canopy which had leaked profoundly. Hux and Mike were attempting to dry out gear soaked in the night whilst Duncan emerged smugly from a door we’d thought to be locked. The UN ambassadors had erected a massive tent and possibly slept on king-size beds within given the luggage they were carrying. We made our way back to town and were reunited with four more individuals even more smug than Duncan after the night’s rain. Today’s breakfast scored an 11 on the faff scale and seemed to cross multiple cafes across town. Our destination for the day was Burgos, a large town, and true to form Duncan and I were off first in the murkiness of a morning following rain.
The early miles were fine, continuing to follow Camino El Cid across a mixture of empty roads and easily bike navigable tracks. At one point we rode to the right of an impressive rocky escarpment that deserved attention in a rolling arable landscape that was devoid of much interest. After a few hours the weather was definitely attempting to turn for the worse so we sought our first café stop. This was at the village of Revilla del Campo which on first sight appeared to be completely shut. Duncan made enquires and we were subsequently directed to a door behind which there purported to be a bar.
We entered and it was empty. Or so we thought. Closer inspection revealed a scalp and set of eyes at bar level, these belonged to the aging proprietor who must have been in her eighties. She welcomed us with open arms (well I think she did the bar was in the way) and made me one of the worst coffees I’ve ever managed to drink. She was then insistent that we eat, placing a dried up sausage and some stale bread upon the bar. It was hard to refuse as was the insistence that we sign the logbook for those walking the Camino del Cid. We ate as much as we could out of politeness and a will to avoid the drizzle that had begun outside. The bill was paid and she waved us goodbye (well I think she did the bar was in the way).
The trail suddenly got quite high quickly to lift us up onto a vast plain. Industrial vehicles had been up here and churned it to pieces the fact that it was constructed of clay made matters much worse. The rain began to hammer down and the wind picked up stoking our misery further as we thrutched along the trail attempting to make progress. One particularly violent flurry saw us hiding under trees and then my drivetrain decided to go into a massive strop. A horrible noise that had “STOP” written all over it came from my back wheel. This told me in no uncertain terms to get off before all sorts of moving things began to perish. Some random fiddling made it stop for a few miles but then it returned. I stood and did the head scratching thing knowing full well that Duncan had worked as a bike mechanic in a previous life. Eventually he got the hint and within minutes had found and fixed the problem. A jammed cassette and slightly worn chain. Duncan cleaned everything in a puddle whilst I pretended to look confused. I’d learnt this trick in road club many years previously by pretending to botch punctures so the club captain would step in and show me how.
Our bikes took an utter pasting over these miles. Gathering clay, grass and all sorts of other crap from the semi-liquid trails we were trying to traverse. It seemed an age until we crested a hill and saw the welcome return of tarmac signalling that Burgos was not far. An even more welcome hose at a building site saw off the clay and detritus from our bikes.
Burgos is a large town strewn with history and intrinsically linked to the legend of El Cid. Tourists travel here from all over the world to visit monuments, shrines and an impressive cathedral at the centre of town. Duncan and I made a bee line for the warmest looking restaurant instead. In our defence, it was in the lee of the cathedral. The full 3 course lunch menu was ordered and texts sent to the others letting them know where we are.
By return we were told of their various perils. Riders grovelling in bushes away from the rain, riders who’d baled to the road after one too many miles of clay and Mike who was hungry. Oh, how we laughed as we sat in the smugness of our cosy eating establishment fully sated by a decently large meal. And then I noticed 4 missed calls from Andy N and a series of texts with the last one asking me to get him a f*king taxi. One call later and his predicament became clear. His rear tyre had failed disastrously destroying the bead in the process. Three tubes leant by Andy B had also failed and stuffing the tyre with grass had not fixed it either. They were 20 kilometres from town and needed a taxi or some form of rescue. What a brilliant cure for our smugness. A rescue plan was hatched.
The taxi option was out of the window due to a lack of taxis in site of our location married with the fact that it was pissing it down and a taxi driver would likely say “no”. Instead we’d find a bike shop and source a new tyre. Then we’d ride out to the Andys and replace that which had been destroyed. A second call was made and we confirmed that they’d take the road option to get to town giving us an idea of where they were. The tyre was reasonably easy to locate and buy and we were soon on our way out of town for a rendezvous.
After 10 kilometres we came to a large bus shelter and realised there was potential for them to have taken one of two routes. We decided that Duncan would wait here and I’d carry on to meet them. Predictably taking the wrong one of the two routes up and over a couple of massive hills. After 15 kilometres I realised what had happened and called Andy N. A frantic exchange established that we’d passed each other on parallel roads and so I forlornly turned tail and rode up another massive hill to find the Andys pushing at the top. We enjoyed some merry banter punctuated by me shouting “fucking hell” a lot. But finally the tyre was fixed. I called Duncan and suggested that he make his way back to town and find accommodation.
We were all a bit fragged and it seemed right (for those of us who had not split last night) to spend a night in the warmth and relative luxury of a building. Duncan complied, myself and the Andys trogged back into town and we all regrouped at the cathedral. Duncan had found a place in the town of Vivar Del Cid, 10 kilometres away and on our planned route. Perfect. But not for Mike who was insistent he and Hux wanted to sleep in a hedge. I’m not convinced Hux was, but anyway they toddled on and left us waiting for Jase who’d gone shopping. Ten minutes later we were still waiting for Jase, after fifteen I had a contract out on him as I stood shivering under the cathedral. A minute later he turned up holding a plastic bag. I opened my mouth to hand him the mother of all berations but was silenced by doughnuts. He’d bought us all doughnuts. How can you kill a man who’d just handed you a doughnut? If I was in charge I’d make them a standard part of military operations to be used when all negotiations have broken down.
Seven of us wearily wound our way out of town and onto Vivar Del Cid. Where the day moved from taxing to surreal. We were having some trouble finding the destination hostelry and pulled up at a bar which was shut. As we studied our GPS maps a small and incredibly mad Spanish man emerged and regaled us in welcoming tones. We regaled him back not understanding a word he was saying until Duncan intervened. Memory fails me as to the significance of the spot but I do remember that he proclaimed we were required to fight with swords, something to do with El Cid. He dashed off and emerged with two massive proper swords and gestured at us to get the cameras out. We were not allowed to leave until the entire group had been photographed in turn attacking another member with a sword. This gave him immeasurable pleasure for some reason. The bicycle born gladiators brightening up an otherwise dull and rainy day. We showed him our pictures as required evidence to extract ourselves from the situation and demanded directions to our hotel in return.
Finally the day was done and a few hot showers later we were ordering the entire menu (twice) from a local restaurant. I sensed tomorrow was going to have a late start and after the trials of today resolved to have a little “me” time. This was going to be our last big day of riding and I hit the pillows deciding to make a break for it solo. I discussed this plan with Duncan who gave me some sage advice. “When you get to a large waterfall think about making a bivy as the approach to Bilbao offers little opportunity afterwards”. His plan was to stop at a campsite before that point, but I fancied a longer day in the saddle.
Vivar Del Cid to Arene
Breakfast was the best of the trip. Not a single baguette or omelette in sight, lots of cereal, coffee, fruit and home-made bread instead. I shoved it down quickly left my cash for the room and was on the bike pronto. Ahead of me was a 30 mile traffic free greenway following an old railway line all the way to Ona. Finding the track I was pleased to become the owner of a tailwind, and even more pleased to find out that the track trended downhill for most of its length. The miles whooshed past as I followed the lines made by Hux and Mike in front of me who’d spent the night in an abandoned castle. After a while they disappeared and I knew that Mike would be sat in front of a pile of food somewhere off route. This line was closed in 1984, it used to link Santander to the Mediterranean. I was the only rider on it for miles and it gave me 1 ½ hours of pure pleasure before Ona intervened and broke my rapture.
I left the track and climbed into town to buy some supplies. A lot of pointing in a bar gained me a weird quiche that tasted sublime. More pointing got me two more bits of it. I sat outside with my bike in the deteriorating weather and waited for the others. Forty five minutes and no sign of them strengthened my resolve to piss off on my own. Which I did.
Ona was left on a rocky track through a tunnel and then a massive climb through a forest on a thin road. It was properly pissing it down by now and the climb refused to stop gaining nearly 1000 feet before plunging down through a valley carved out by the Ria Oca river. The rain cleared and I started to dry out in the occasional blast of sunshine. Thin roads and fast tracks transported my quickly through the Parque Natural Montes Obarenes San Zadornil leading me on to a rendezvous with the Rio Ebro river. Most excellent riding which got even better as the river entered a large gorge and the roadside above me steepened. I couldn’t believe how well my first day solo in Spain was going, until just after La Presa when it all went horribly wrong.
Duncan had chosen to take the route back off road and up into the hills of the Parque Natural. A well intentioned move but one that he had not recce’d. The first obstacle presented itself as an electric fence which I had to crawl under and gingerly drag my bike after me. Then the subsequent track became horribly steep, just on the edge of rideability. I was soon at heart rate max but grimly determined not to get off as I gurned my way ever higher. A badly made gate got me off the bike and into a desperate wrestling match with it to get through. Then another one did the same a few hundred metres further on. Finally, the superglue clay of yesterday made an appearance and my bike jammed itself to a standstill.
I threw it to the ground. Picked up a stick, scribed “Shite trail” in the mud as a warning to others and dragged the bike onwards hoping for a decent downhill. It never came, the shitest trail of the tour simply wound round the hill and became a road. Why the hell hadn’t it done that at the bottom?
I sent Duncan a petulant text moaning about it and carried on towards Espejo. Little did I know that Mike would ride this track twice later that day. He left his phone behind at a cafe stop and only realised at the top of the track. Returning to the cafe he discovered that they’d guessed he was on his way to the campsite at Espejo and sent it onwards by car. Mike forlornly swore his way up the track again unaware that Duncan and Andy N had sneakily taken a road alternative.
The weather was kind to me on the way to Espejo which I was glad of during a long descent through a field system made of some weird clay. Others that followed would not be so lucky when heavy rain turned this into a mountain bike hating soup. At Espejo I found a cafe and then realised I was without Duncan and his translation skills. I sat in the sun and dejectedly ate my final “baguette with omelette in it” of the trip. A passing old man gesticulated at my bike and went off on a long monologue. I nodded and said “si” during pauses which hopefully worked. Maybe he was telling me to steer clear of the omelette baguette as it makes you egg bound?
A few more miles of road got me to Bachiabo and another long climb cheered on by a van load of telecoms workers. At the top I hit the trails again and things went off the scale brilliant. Duncan’s route dived into the Monte Santiago nature park and immediately became fantastic singletrack. This wound its way down through forest and dared the bikepacker (me) to go faster and faster every foot. I had to check myself on several occasions knowing full well that I was alone and help could be hours away. I forgave Duncan for the electric fence climb of hell and enjoyed every single second of these tracks. Too soon the rapture ended and I emerged onto a profound plateau and an absolutely massive drop. I stood on a viewing platform in awe of these epic surroundings. Huge valley walls that dropped for hundreds of feet and framed scree littered slopes seemingly miles away. Little did I know that this was the Salto del Nervion. The largest water drop on the Iberian peninsular at 222 metres in height. The reason I didn’t know was that usually water goes down a waterfall hence giving it its name. Nothing was happening today, it had dried up and I couldn’t read the tourist information panel as it was in Spanish. So I enjoyed a few reflective minutes looking into the void and scanned ahead of me for the likely location of a waterfall.
Rough stony tracks took me through the remainder of the park and then I hit a steep road going downhill. The route was devoid of waterfalls for may miles and undulated furiously for a while through forest tracks. I should have twigged much earlier that I’d missed my bivy cue but I faithfully plodded on in. After a while the large town of Amurrio came into view and as the route skirted it up a valley side. The game was up. I realised that I was beginning my descent into Bilbao. Duncan had told me how the city was squeezed up a valley for 25 miles by the harsh geography. Amurrio indicated that civilisation was well on its way to greet me.
Resigned to my fate I decided to seek out some food and then press on for a bivy whenever opportunity could present. A bar waved at me from the roadside and I waved back skidding to a halt and dragging myself and bike into the courtyard. Then I realised that it was Friday night. The place was packed with pissed Spaniards, every single one of them smoking and shouting loudly at the person sat next to them. Kids and dogs ran wild and I don’t think I’ll ever see so many empty glasses per surface area again. I parked my bike against a table with a sleeping drunk man on the other side and walked to the bar with trepidation.
“Una coca cola per vavori”
And thus my reservoir of Spanish was empty. I then did something that I will forever be ashamed of. A ridiculous mime of a ravenous man eating an omelette in a baguette and then rubbing his tummy.
“Do you want something to eat?” the barman queried in passable English. I resisted the urge to kiss him full on the lips and replied “Yes, anything”. He offered something that I did not understand which I gratefully accepted and paid for. This caught the attention of a man at the other end of the bar who paid a passing resemblance to Lemmy from Motorhead and also seemed to be on a par with him drinking-wise. He winked at me in a strange way and then said something to the barman. Here I was deep in Basque country on a Friday night alone with a pissed Spanish Lemmy twice my size looking at me suggestively. I was torn between whatever was coming for dinner and flight. Lemmy addressed me directly in a long slow slurred speech augmented by a waving glass of spirits. I tried “si” but the speech happened again with gesticulations at the barman.
“He wants to buy you a drink”. Oh thank fuck for that. I could exhale and politely thanked him and ordered another coke. The barman shot me a warning look, “No a DRINK”. Lemmy backed this up in English.
“I go London, I go London and I go beer and I go whiskey and I go YEEAAAAAAAH. You go whiskey with me”. Fucks sake I had miles more to do and Lemmy wanted a drinking partner. We settled on a beer and with it arrived my dinner. A MASSIVE baguette with an omlette in it..but also some bacon and cheese and tomatoes and all sorts of other stuff. Meanwhile Lemmy was dragged away by an equally pissed female leaving me to attempt an assault upon the baguette. I managed a third before wrapping it away for later. I gave the barman 10 euros to buy Lemmy and his lady a drink then snuck off into the evening in search of the day’s final resting place.
As Bilbau came closer and closer my surroundings became more and more urban. Duncan was right about the valley and at Arene it became clear that the only option for a kip was to head up into some forest and take whatever I could find. The rain had returned at this point and it was properly dark. I found a track heading upwards but with 99 miles in the legs I cursed the gradient as it became ever steeper. A farm dog barked at me so I pushed deeper into the woods to gain solitude. Then another dog barked then another. It took a further mile of climbing to escape their notice at which point the forest had become more dense and there was little opportunity for a bivy. A track to the left showed promise, more barking, abandon and carry on up. After a further mile’s riding I spotted a tenuous campsite perched on small ridge with just about enough room for the shelter and my bike. It’d have to do and so I unpacked and flailed a vague resemblance of a bivy into place. One hundred miles ridden ushered me to sleep using the remainder of my massive dinner as a pillow.
Arene to Bilbao
I make a lot of mistakes whilst bikepacking but the most consistent is that of setting up a bivy on a slope. I awoke a contorted crumpled mess at the bottom of my shelter and it took a while to reorientate myself and simply emerge from the tent. My forest camp spot was enshrined in mist as a result of the previous night’s rain and everything was wet as a result. I took a few feeble chews of the squashed dinner remains before packing and heading back down to the road. My final linguistic embarrassment occurred at the bottom of the track when I greeted a newspaper carrying Spaniard with “Ole” instead of “Hola”. He looked frantically left and right for the bullfight, I made a hasty exit.
The road ride into Bilbao was a little stressful with high volumes of traffic. I was relieved to gain a network of cycles tracks that dodged through the outlying residential area. The sun was shining on my final day so I treated myself to a ridiculously expensive coffee and pastry just outside the impressive Guggenheim museum. My smelly, scruffy, dishevelled form providing excellent contrast to the well-groomed tourists who shared the plaza with me.
A few more miles through the city centre gained the sea front. My Spanish coast to coast was complete with over 600 miles on the clock. Strangely, as I always do, I found the end anticlimactic. I always enjoy the journey so much that the end of it signals regret when the job is done. It means the onset of logistics to return to real-life with the only benefit that the process of planning another trip may begin. I also regretted finishing the trip alone as I’d ridden most of it with Duncan and it seemed fitting to congratulate and thank him for such a fantastic route (with a few minor exceptions). Instead I found a hotel and then a bar to sit and wait for the rest of the group.
Time for reflection.
Duncan had concocted us a fine adventure through lesser travelled regions of Spain with each day offering contrast and a reason to push on to the next. The riding had been occasionally taxing but in the main perfect for one carrying their own luggage upon a mountain bike. We’d ridden into Tolkeinesque gorges, beside picturesque rivers, over humongous great hills, through long dank tunnels, between sleepy Catalonian villages, down screamingly fast descents, up deserted road climbs and under electric fences. The route was well punctuated by supplies and devoid of the premiums usually associated with tourist traps. It had everything and I was and am incredibly grateful to Duncan for its conception and construction. I know that I will return one day to ride it again and suspect others in the group will as well.
As for our group, it had worked well in the main. Any gathering of nine men will consist of a varied set of motivations, likes and dislikes. We’d arrived at a recognition of these quickly and it hadn’t taken long to adapt to their rhythms. Of course, there’d been the occasional moan, flounce and moments of tetchiness but none of these had lasted long or had any kind of impact. Apart from Jase’s septic elbow which we’d all taken pains to avoid as it dripped bits of scouse along the trail.
Logistics had worked as well but we’d have struggled without the help of Trish who ferried our “going home” gear to the end of the ride. Without her we’d have been a lot less fresh at the airport the next day and those with bike boxes would have had to risk the polythene bag method that I’d implemented for the way home.
In all this is a perfect bikepacking trail that deserves many future repeats. May is probably the idea time of year and I’d conjecture that our mix of weather was perfect. Just enough sun and heat to make it feel like a holiday with enough rain and wind to ensure that the traveling Brit doesn’t get homesick.
We regrouped in the evening for an end-of-tour meal, apart from Mike and Hux who’d headed round the coast for a final wild bivy. Duncan and Trish were thanked and toasted and then Andy B led the majority of the party astray into the bars and backstreets of Bilbao. Best to leave their antics off the record but it’s worth mentioning that Andy N should probably have been carrying his GPS and probably marked the location of his hostel upon it before heading out.
A fine trip and one that Duncan now plans to repeat annually. I’ll definitely be going back again and if you’re interested watch this space for further details.