Domloup to Saint-Malo, the final ride in France

We were awake early with bright sunshine streaming through the window. Breakfast was booked for 8:30am and we decided to finish the journey to Saint-Malo, even though it was two days until we were due to catch the ferry. According to the weather forecast, there would be an easterly wind, a crosswind for our direction of travel. However, reaching Saint-Malo today would give us a day free to explore the city on Tuesday, before our 8pm crossing back to the UK.

Andy with our host, Alain, as we were about to leave our Domloup gite

After a stop at the pharmacy to collect ibuprofen for my improving knee, and sun cream, we left Domloup at 10am. We decided to visit Auberge la Tourelle in Sens-de-Bretagne for sentimental reasons. I´d received such great hospitality when I arrived there cold, wet and exhausted on April 7, 2012, after covering over 200km on my vintage Thanet bike. We arrived at 12:15pm and enjoyed a great three-course lunch, including wine and coffee, for 14 Euro each. We had a chat with the owner about my previous visit. I´m not sure she remembered it but she did a good job of pretending to! I can´t recommend the auberge too highly, it´s what dining in France is all about and it doesn´t cost the earth either.

Auberge la Tourelle – highly recommended!

As we left the restaurant with about 40 miles to go to Saint-Malo, Andy noticed that he had a puncture in his back tyre. We fixed it on the steps of the town hall and were on our way again about 20 minutes later.

The route to Saint-Malo was lovely. It was sunny, about 18C, and with a cool breeze from the East. Ideal conditions for cycling. We were in rolling countryside so there were a few hills to climb but nothing of any consequence. We had a small beer about eight miles out from our destination then we dodged the rush-hour traffic as we entered the city.

We arrived into Saint-Malo about an hour earlier than we had indicated to our host so we sent him a text and had a celebratory Ricard at a bar just inside the ramparts while we waited for a reply.

Andy with windburned cheeks and a small Ricard as a reward for cycling the length of France

Our apartment for the night was one room with a mezzanine floor for the beds – you could kneel beside the beds but not stand up and the steps leading up the mezzanine would be unlikely to pass any UK health and safety regulations. However, the building was clearly hundreds of years old. It was called ‘Le 1684’ and had great charm and character.

Ancenis to Domloup, Brittany

When I woke this morning, the first thing I noticed was the pain in my left knee. A good night’s sleep had done nothing to ease it. However, as I moved around the apartment, I though it possible that if we took things easy, we should still be able to cover the required 40 miles of riding to keep us on schedule. We agreed to split it into four ten-mile sections and to rest in between each. It should hardly be the most challenging of excursions.

After the usual confusion of trying to find the right way out of town, we found ourselves pedalling along quiet D-roads in glorious sunshine, albeit into a strongly northerly headwind that was to stay with us for most of the day.

There were a couple of people fishing in the Loire as be did a ride past before heading North

I took a couple of ibuprofen to ease my knee pain and our Komoot navigation soon had us heading out into the countryside to continue our journey. A few parts of the route were on unpaved surfaces reminiscent of the L’Eroica vintage bike ride, but it was easy enough to navigate the potholes.

The crunch of gravel under our wheels featured on a few stretches of the route

Large parts of the route were virtually traffic-free and we did see a few French cyclists. Just as in the UK, Sunday seems to be the main day for cycling. They’re not a particularly sociable bunch, most of our cries of ´bonjour´ being ignored.

We encountered a typical French market in one of the small towns en-route and stopped to pick up more water. We were also looking for a pharmacy so that we could buy more painkillers (for the misbehaving knee) and some sun protection cream, but it soon became clear that every French pharmacy, and most everything else except bars, are closed on a Sunday.

Market day in a town whose name I can’t remember!

As we came to the outskirts of Chateuabriant, we were directed onto a cycleway that was once a railway line. At first we thought it was going to take us out of our way but Komoot directed us along it for 15 miles or so. The surface was perfect, the surrounding deciduous woodland so much more alive with birdsong than the pine forests in the South West we’d passed through earlier in the week, and we were sheltered from the wind, at least for a while.

We enjoyed some of the best riding of the week along this converted railway line

After covering 35 miles since we’d set out, and having left the cycleway for roads again, we stopped to discuss where we should stay for the night. I looked up my blog post from 2012 to remind myself about the name of a loverly Auberge where i had dined and stayed overnight back then. It was 40 miles away but my knee was suitably numbed and so we set up a route to the destination in Komoot and started pedalling. One hour later we decided to check that the Restaurant Auberge La Tourelle would be open when we arrived. To our disappointment, it would not.

We carried on travelling North and at 5pm stopped in the town of Janzé to consider our options for a bed for the night and food. They were limited – no hotels in the town and one pizzeria that was due to open at 6pm. Further research turned up a gîte in Domloup, just northwest of the larger town of Chateaugiron. We booked a room and pedalled on into the continuing northerly wind, but at least it was sunny. It was our first totally dry day of the last five.

We arrived at La Métairie a little after 6pm to be greeted by Jo-Jo, the owners’ dog. The room was great but had just one double bed, not the two we thought we had booked. Alain, the husband of the couple running the establishment quickly reassured us that this would be converted into two singles while we were out for dinner. He then furnished us a bottle of local apple juice that we gratefully consumed while watching the swifts dart around the courtyard.

Being a Sunday evening, there was only one restaurant in the town open, and it was 2km away. Alain kindly offered to drive us there and back. The restaurant was a rather odd, modern, self-service place on a business park but the food was fine, if not exceptional, and we were glad of it, having cycled a little over 60 miles.

Rochefort to Les Herbiers – a much better day’s riding, despite the afternoon rain

Rather than breakfast at the hotel, we perched outside of a cafe in the centre of Rochefort and shared a huge almond croissant. A couple of double espressos each kicked started us into riding North again and we enjoyed two benefits over the last couple of days: it wasn’t raining (well, not more than a few drops here and there) and we had a tailwind most of the time. We had about 230 miles to go to our final destination of Saint-Malo, so only needed to cover around 50 miles each day.

Most of the morning was spent on long, straight D roads with relatively light traffic so we made great progress, averaging 14.5 miles an hour by the time we reached our lunch stop. It was agreed that we’d follow my Komoot navigation and the previously evening I had carefully plotted a route that was reasonably direct but avoided major roads.

We rode several sections on dedicated cycleways, some alongside rivers and canals, and passed through lovely villages and towns in the Vendée.

Grey skies but good riding in the Vendée where cyclists are well catered for

At one point, Andy noticed a huge bicycle frame attached to the side of a building so we went back to photograph it. We’ve no idea who built it or why, and the local guard dog had no intention of letting us in to find out.

As we continued North, the terrain became hillier after the first 50 miles and just after 3pm it started to rain again. It wasn’t heavy but it was persistent. Despite this, we decided to carry on to the next major town, Les Herbiers, so that we would have miles in hand. It would give us the option of shorter days ahead, or exploring a little more.

We had a sufficient break from the rain to dry out whilst riding but as as came into Led Herbiers, with 80 miles covered, it started to rain again. We took immediate shelter in a hotel doorway, then we went inside and booked a room at Hotel de Relais. It had its own restaurant so after showering and changing we took dinner there. We were tired and it was raining again, so there was little temptation to explore the town.

St Julien en Born to Arcachon, via Europe’s largest sand dune

We washed most of our clothes on Monday evening so Tuesday morning was a slow start while we waited for them to finish drying. We left at about 9:30 and had little trouble finding our way back onto Eurovelo 1. The weather was again warm and sunny.

Just a few miles into the ride we met a British couple. They were cycling south to San Sebastien on heavily-loaded touring bikes and wild camping, hence the large volume of provisions.

Once again we were riding along perfectly smooth, quiet cycleways no sign of traffic, except as we passed through small towns.

It was remarkable how few opportunities for refreshments there were. Some were open in the towns close to the cycleways but many were not. Early May is clearly out-of-season in this part of the world.

This is one significant disadvantage of following Eurovelo 1, the other being boredom – the scenery is great for a while but it’s just mile after mile of pine forest. We did have a bright green gecko cross our paths at one point, but that was the high point of the wildlife experience too.

We started to alternate between the signposted Eurovelo 1 route and using Komoot. One advantage of the Komoot app is that it’s easy to zoom out and look at the map on a smartphone screen, rather than have to squint at it on an impossibly small Garmin screen. Personally, I can see no reason for Garmin to existing now that Komoot is available. Garmin is over-complicated in every way and I’ve developed an aversion to going anywhere near them over the years. When you consider that Komoot gives you global maps too, and all for a £29 on-off lifetime payment, Garmin hasn’t got a leg to stand on. Yes, there is potentially an argument about battery life in smartphones, but I don’t find any problem for most rides and carrying a small back-up battery is not a problem for longer days in the saddle.

Towards the tail end of the ride, we were running parallel to Europe’s largest sand dune. This is what Wikipedia has to say about the Dune du Pilat:

The dune has a volume of about 60,000,000 m³, measuring around 500 m wide from east to west and 2.7 km in length from north to south.[2] Its height is currently 110 meters above sea level.

Andy failing to demonstrate the sheer scale of this dune, despite having enjoyed a lot of French bread

We saw a few other cyclists and walkers during the day and took the odd detour to look at the sea but for the most part we intent on reaching Arcachon, one possible destination for the evening, and perhaps even crossing over to Bélisair on Cap Ferret by ferry. As it was, when we arrived in Arcachon we were told (incorrectly) that the last ferry had departed for the evening so we walked into the first half-decent hotel we stumbled upon and booked a room for the night. It was a bit above our budget but we were tired and it was the easy option. The adjacent restaurant provided good, fishy sustenance.

We’d covered another 69 miles into the northerly wind but with otherwise good weather.

Catching up with old friends and a mountainous experience

Thirty four years ago, I had just started my first marketing agency and within a few weeks I had a call from one Paddy O’Farrell. Paddy was running sales and marketing for a small division of Ericsson at the time and was looking for marketing help. I remember the phone call because I was in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, Paddy was in Coventry. He asked me how long it took to drive between the two places. I told him and he said, “I’ll see you in an hour and a half then.” No ifs, no buts. We then worked together for six years before he left Ericsson and life took him in a completely different direction. We had become good friends during that time but, as so often happens in the craziness of everyday life, we lost touch. I think we last met at his house in 1990 and for the last 13 years he has lived with his wife, Fay, in Malaga.

The point of this narrative is that Paddy and I connected on Facebook a while back and when he read that I was planning a cycling trip to Spain he asked if I would be anywhere near Malaga. I wasn’t going to be and in any case Paddy was holidaying in Tenerife during my trip. When I decided to come to Tenerife, I got in touch and we agreed to meet for lunch yesterday (Monday), together with Fay, their son Antony and Antony’s partner, Lisa. Hence my assault on El Teide would wait until Monday.

Before lunch, I took a short ride the check out the bike, after taking it out of the box and putting various bits back together because it had been partly dismantled. Traffic was busy and on far too many occasions drivers were either inconsiderate or downright dangerous. I really can’t recommend Tenerife as a place for cyclists, despite the climate. My experience of France, mainland Spain and even the UK has been infinitely better. Nevertheless, I managed a loop of twenty-odd miles without serious injury and felt that this was enough to put me in good shape for the next day’s challenge.

Lunch in the little port of Los Abrigos was delightful with great food, great conversation and modest consumption of wine. I had wanted to tell Paddy that Ericsson remained a client for 33 years, until the end of 2017, at which time the division in question was sold to another global company called Flex. Despite that, Flex immediately hired our agency to continue the work. Paddy’s phone call to me in 1984 had initiated a business relationship that has lasted 34 years and picking up the bill for lunch was the very least I could do to thank him.

Lunch with Paddy, Fay, Antony and Lisa. The best possible start to my brief trip to Tenerife.

I set off to climb El Teide at 7:20 this morning, while it was nice and cool. After ploughing through Monday morning traffic near the coast, I went through several small towns and, because I took the most direct route offered by Google Maps, ended up on one stretch of road that was so steep I could not turn the pedals and had to push the bike for about 500 metres. I thought to myself that if the whole route was going to be like this, I’d never make it. My fears were unfounded though and I soon began to settle into the climb, reaching an approximate mid-way point of Vilaflor at about 10:30. I refuelled there with a sandwich, apple tart and water, rested for about 20 minutes and then set out to do the last and most testing 25km of the climb along TF-21. I saw a few other cyclists, mostly brief glimpses of their backs, and pushed on slowly through the pine forest. It was reminiscent of Mont Ventoux. Of course, it was tough going but no more so than I had expected. The scenery was breathtaking, as was the oxygen-depleted air. There was absolutely no risk of rain because the clouds were below me. I don’t know of any recorded incidence of clouds raining in an upwards direction, but I’m sure someone can enlighten me!

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Keeping the clouds beneath you avoids the risk of rain

The peak of the climb arrived suddenly and earlier than expected. I passed a sign for “El Teida” but it’s a national park, not a precise point on the map. In retrospect, I think I could have turned around and gone home at that point, my goal achieved but I kept going and there was a long descent into a kind of valley followed by a climb up to the park’s visitor centre.

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Arrival! The “lucky” socks were chosen for me by my daughter, Matilda, obviously without knowledge of VC Walcot´s club jersey colours!

I chatted with a couple of cyclists from the north east of England. They thought that we had topped-out by this point so I turned around and headed back the way I had come, including climbing back up the long descent I’d enjoyed less than an hour earlier.

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I strayed from my intended route on the way back down and added a few kilometres to the ride but with my target achieved, it just didn’t matter. I arrived back at my accommodation at 16:20 having covered a total distance of 64.1 miles and climbed 10,598 feet, most of it in half that mileage, of course. My average speed was a miserly 8.9mph but I was pleased with that under the circumstances.

Dinner tonight is at Chez Paddy, with Anthony doing the cooking. I’m sure it’ll be the perfect end to this trip.

 

The change of direction and a tale of two volcanoes

For this trip, I planned to stay in reasonably large towns, wherever possible. When I rode to Barcelona from home last year, in the great company of my friend Richard Stanton, we nearly found ourselves without a roof over our heads at night on more than one occassion. I didn’t want a repeat of that situation while on my own in the sierras of Spain. In larger towns or cities, there’s usually somewhere to stay. The next two big places north of Cáceres are Plasencia, about 50 miles away, and Salamanca, another 80 miles further north. With a great day’s riding behind me, I thought that Plasencia would be a good place to stay yesterday evening (Friday), and I would then continue to Salamanca for Saturday. Then I looked up the weather forecasts. Friday was getting cooler and showers were promised again. No problem. But the forecast for Salamanca on Saturday was grim. It would be below freezing the morning only rising to a balmy 6 degrees C at mid afternoon. Worse still, both rain and snow were predicted. Now, I’m usually up for a biking challenge but this had the potential to become both a miserable and potentially dangerous ride. I was supposed to be here to enjoy myself and even at home I draw the line at riding in snow. It was time for a rethink. I considered cutting the trip short but after a chat with my wife Sally, back in the freezing UK, decided to explore other options.

The bicycle was caused by a volcanco. (I know that’s a dramatic change of subject but bear with me, your honour, it is relevant to the case.) Two hundred and three years ago next month, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded in the biggest eruption ever recorded. It diminished in height by nearly 5,000 feet while projecting 24 cubic miles of ash and rock skywards. Krakatoa was a minor “pop” in comparison. The result was a dramatic fall in temperatures around the world, crop failures, and disease and death on a massive scale. One year later, in 1816, Baron von Drais, a forestry manager in Baden, Germany, figured out that you could balance on a log with one wheel at the front and one at the back, steering with the one at the front. Nobody knows quite why he did it but it was probably related to the shortage of horses, most of which had been eaten in response to the drought and subsequent food shortages caused by Tambora’s eruption. Maybe he wanted a new way to move logs, maybe he wanted something to ride and couldn’t find a horse in one piece. Regardless, he had invented the “Draisine” or “Hobby Horse”, the forerunner of all modern bicycles. Even if you have no interest in bicycles at all, I recommend the book “Re:Cyclists – 200 Years on Two Wheels”, a brilliant, fact-filled book by Michael Hutchinson that describes the numerous social revolutions, including women’s emancipation, that were directly influenced, if not driven by the development of the bicycle.

So, back to Cáceres.  I did a bit more weather research, both for Spain and the south of France, thinking that I might find a way to get to somewhere more hospitable. Everywhere looked a bit cool and unreliable due to cold weather heading in from the east. Then I remembered another volcano, Teide. This is the dormant one that dominates the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, Tenerife, off the west coast of Africa. It’s a Mecca for cyclists, amateur and professional alike, and the climb up Teide is one of the classics, right up there with Alpe d’Huez and the formidable Mont Ventoux, both of which I had gasped up a couple of years earlier with my good friend Byron Wheeler and his then seventeen-year-old son. I holidayed in Tenerife with my family about three years ago and since then had it in the back of my mind to tackle Teide one day. After checking out the weather for the next few days, which was going to be aroud 19 or 20 degrees C and mostly sunny, this suddenly seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. The new goal of the trip was not the north coast of Spain but the highest point of the road on Monte Teide, Tenerife.

I switched my Easyjet flight from Bilbao to Bristol to one from Tenerife to Bristol next Tuesday evening, booked a cheap flight (113 Euros) with Iberia from Madrid to Tenerife and set about figuring out how to get to Madrid with the bike. By the way, Iberia does its best but is not exactly bike friendly. You pay for your flight before they confirm that they can take the bike. Then they check – I don’t know with whom – and send a second confirmation an hour later to confirm that the bike can travel with you. You can’t pay the 45 Euros for the bike over the phone or online. You need to make a separate trip the “customer service” desk at the airport to hand over payment. It seems to me that most companies with “customer service” departments fail to deliver what customers need, but that may be an age-related perception.

I loaded up my bike at the hotel in Cáceres on Friday morning, asked Google Maps to direct me to the nearest bike shop and half an hour later arrived at “La Bicicleta”. I needed something to put the bike in so that I could either take it by train to Madrid or into a rental car and then onto a plane. I was greeted by a young and enthusiastic mechanic by the name of Jesus.

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Jesus was a big fan of the bike the even took it for a short ride while we waited for his colleague, Rafael, to arrive

Jesus didn’t speak much English but explained that his colleague, a German guy called Raphael did, and that Raphael would arrive soon. A few minutes later Raphael arrived, declared that because I was British we must be enemies (what a memory), and told me that he didn’t have bike bags in stock but that he could partly dismantle my bike and put it into a cardboard box for one million Euros. Twenty seconds later we had renegotiated that down to a mutually acceptable 20 Euros. Rafael then told me that Europcar, a few hundred metres away, was the best place for car rental and that if I mentioned his name I would get a discount. He was right and Juan at Europcar, himself a keen cyclist, could not have been more helpful. He offered a choice of cars at a lower rate than I could find online then drove me back to La Bicicleta to make sure the bike box would fit into the car. Jesus helped me bundle it in and I set off for the 300km journey to Madrid.

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With the help of Jesus, I was just able to squeeze the bike into the small Fiat car

I knew that I wouldn’t have the energy for sight-seeing so I booked into a Marriott airport hotel, and had a great dinner in the restaurant, followed by early night. This morning it was 4C and raining heavily in Madrid. After a huge detour to fill up the rental car with fuel, I managed to find Europcar rental returns at terminal 1, although I was looking for the same at terminal 4, dragged bike and luggage onto the transfer bus and checked in at the aiport. Then, for the first time in my life, I went through both security and passport control twice. I don’t know how that happened but I eventually ended up at the right gate and had an unevenfull flight to Tenerife North Airport and a smooth pre-booked transfer to my accommodation on the south coast.

My plan is to ride up Teide on Monday as the final leg of this trip. It should be interesting. After Ventoux and Alpe d´Huez I said I’d never do really big climbs again – they’re just too demanding. Alpe d’Huez rises through twenty-one numbered switchbacks to 1,860 metres above sea level; Mont Ventoux becomes a virtual moonscape, peaking at 1,912 metres. The road to Teide reaches 2,190 metres, by far the highest I will ever have climbed. In fact the top of the volcano is at 3,781 metres, but only accessible by cable car. Here’s a nice description of one of several routes to the top.

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Monte Teide, Tenerife, Canary Islands. Photo published under Creative Commons License. https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Nikodem_Nijaki

I may not have reached the original destination of this trip but Teide is a bucket-list climb that I hope to check off the list on Monday.

Of course, I could ride up the volcano on Sunday (today, by the time I finish this post and you read it), but there’s a reason that goes back 34 years why I won’t be doing that. I’ll explain tomorrow.

 

 

 

The rain in Spain falls mainly on me

Two things I forget to mention yesterday: storks nesting on top of high voltage pylons and bull fighting. The former were frequently visible on the road from Huelva to Seville. How enterprising of the storks to adapt these man-made monstrosities for their own use. And speaking of monstrosities, there’s the bull fighting. It was on the television in the bar where I stopped for tapa and a glass of vino tinto yesterday evening. I´m amazed and disappointed that Spanish society hasn’t seen fit to totally ban the barbaric practice of taunting and maiming dumb animals in the name of ‘sport’.

Onto today. The forecast was for rain and this time it was unequivocally accurate. I set off in the rain from the rather splendid Vincci La Rabida Hotel in the middle of Seville, using Google Maps to navigate my way to the N630, or Ruta de la Plata. As I mentioned yesterday, the N630 will take me all the way to the north coast of Spain and it announced the fact by stating on a signpost at the outskirts of Seville that I had just 804km to go. Road signs every kilometre count down the distance.

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It’s a grey, wet day but this one road will take me all the way from Seville to the north coast of Spain, so at least navigation shouldn’t be too much of a challenge.

For a few miles it was quite flat. The wind was coming from a WSW direction. When you’re cycling long distances, wind direction is surprisingly important. Even a 4mph headwind can make progress noticeably more demanding, whereas a 4mph tailwind can make life a breeze, if you´ll excuse the pun. According to the forecast, today’s wind speed would involve gusts of up to 45km per hour. Combine that with persistent rain from mid-morning, my overweight luggage and the undulating landscape of the sierras of south-east Spain (I´ll need to look up the name for the particular range of hills I traversed) and you have the perfect recipe for a reasonably challenging day´s slog on a bike.

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I knew something was making me tired after such a relatively short ride. I remember that downhill bit after 23 miles, and the price you have to pay for having fun!

As I mentioned, wind direction is incredibly important to cyclists. Edward Enfield, father of comedian Harry Enfield, has written several books about cycling round Europe, some of which I’ve read. What he said about headwinds struck a particular chord with me. This is the sentiment, although it may not be what he wrote word-for-word: “You can conquer a hill but a headwind grinds you down and eats into your soul.” And it’s true. The WSW wind today helped me more that it hindered but when the road veered north-west the crosswind was testing. When I rounded bends to the right and was travelling north-east, I didn’t even need to pedal. In the sunshine, this would have been a completely different ride.

The N630 is the Marie Celeste of major roads: it’s almost eerie in its emptiness. The parallel free motorway takes most of the traffic. On some stretches I would only see a car every 30 minutes or so. It was safe cycling. Even those drivers that did overtake me gave a me huge amount of space and were amazingly considerate. Contrast that with the UK where the microJoule of energy needed to turn a car steering wheel an inch to the right to give a cyclist a little more space when overtaking seems to be beyond the effort that many motorists are prepared to exert. For the record, the Highway Code states that cars should allow a gap of 1.5 metres when overtaking, not 1.5 feet.

I had made a reservation at the Hotel Leo in Monesterio, some 60 miles north of Seville, but was quite prepared to carry on to Zafra, a further 30 miles north, if I felt up to the task. However, by the time I got to Monesterio I was tired and soaking wet, my best “waterproofs” having been overcome by the repeated deluges driven into every tiny gap by the wind. I parked the bike in the basement and headed up to my room. To my delight, there was a heated towel rail in the bathroom, which meant that I could dry today´s attire and wash some more clothes too, knowing they would be dry before morning. The alternative solution, drying clothes with a hair dryer is a long winded process!

This is Ibérico ham country and there´s a museum dedicated to it in Monesterio, about a mile back on the other side of town. I had not intention of venturing out again in the rain so decided to skip the experience this time around. The bar-restaurant of the hotel offered a phenomenal selection of ham dishes, so I had the lamb. Very nice it was too.

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Vegetarians, please look away now. This simple but substantial lunch was just what I needed.

Washed down with a glass of red wine and a café con leche, lunch was followed by a rare afternoon nap. I can’t remember the last time I had one of those but I think I could get used to it.

I’ve been researching the route profile for tomorrow but can’t find it yet. The weather forecast is for showers, rather then persistent rain, and it will be a little cooler, around 14C. The town of Merida is about 60 miles away, so that’s a potential destination if the riding is hard again but I’ll try to put in a few more miles if I’m still feeling on form by the time I get there.

Despite missing my family back home, which I do a lot, I love my cycling and the phenomenal sense of freedom it engenders. Hard days like today can test that love but I know that tomorrow morning I’ll be as eager as ever to get back into the saddle and full of optimism and excitement about the day ahead. Onwards and upwards, but not too much of the latter, I hope. Time for dinner.

153 miles into the ride

It’s Tuesday evening and I’m sitting in my hotel room in Seville, having wandered around the city looking for a small Bluetooth keyboard for my iPad. The original decided to die sometime between the last time I used it – some months ago – and when I arrived into Faro, hence the lack of blog post for two days.

My first major concern for this trip was how to get the bike over safely. I do have a nice, sturdy bike box for airline travel. I didn’t have anywhere to put it if I’d brought it to Faro. I decided to resort to putting the bike into a big plastic bag so that baggage handlers could see what it was. Online opinions about the wisdom of such packaging vary from “it’s always worked for me” to “you have to be out of your tiny mind!”. The latter was from an ex-airline pilot, so he should know. Anyway, the upside of the plastic bag transport system is that you don’t have to disassemble the bike very much, so it doesn’t take long to put it back together. The task is made even easier at Faro airport because the baggage reclaim area has bike reassembly stations – two in the case of the one I flew into. These each consist of a bicycle stand, pump and pedal spanner. I had padded the bike with foam sheets and pipe lagging, held together with reusable cable ties (they them, they’re really good), and it arrived totally unscathed from the journey. I put all the packaging in the bin at the airport and now just have to figure out what to put the bike in to take it home when the time comes.

Bike in a bag
Bike in a bag – the only way to travel
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Safely unpacked at Faro airport

After getting everything loaded up – and I really can’t understand how the bags came to be so heavy – I rode the short distance to the 3K Hotel on the aiport, grabbed something for dinner at the adjacent supermarket (the hotel restaurant was closed) and had an early night.

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Left or right?

I set out off at seven-thirty, rode through Faro and tried to locate a coastal cycleway that’s rumoured to run to the Spanish border. Along the 50 miles or so to said border, I encounted the route a few times but kept ending up back on the N125, the signposts for the cyleway being less than adquate. The landscape was mostly flat, I had a tailwind to push me along and for the most part, the cycling was reasonably easy. There were flamingos in the coastal lagoons, guard dogs barking from behind mesh fences at many of the more rural properties, orange groves a-plenty, and graffiti in even greater abundance. I spotted the ultimate confusing sign while searching for the ferry in Vila Real de Santo António to take me across to Spain.

After a short and uneventful crossing, I carried on heading east, deciding to go north around the industrial city of Huelva to avoid the worst of the traffic and main roads.

I arrived at my small hotel in San Juan del Puerto (a town that has little to commend it) around five-thirty in the afternoon, having covered about 95 miles, the last fifteen of which were becoming hard work, not least because I thought the journey was only going to be 80 miles but there was a miscalculation somewhere. The Hostal Toscana was clean, the welcome warm, the restaurant non-existent. I found a bar close by and finished off the day with chicken and chips and a couple of glasses of fine Rioja.

Today, knowing that I only had 50 miles or so to cover, I luxuriated in a late breakfast at a cafe across the road from my hotel. I then took the A472 to Sanlúcar la Mayor, about 20 miles west of Seville. The A472 was a delight. It’s a quiet road because it runs parallel with a motorway, so there’s little heavy traffic. There was a wide shoulder to ride on for most of the way and it was free of the gravel, broken glass and road-kill that so often blights these lanes on British roads. The long ascent up to Sanlúcar la Mayor gave me a taste of what’s to come as I head north tomorrow. With a heavily laden bike, I was into my lowest gear and wishing I had a few more that were lower still. I know that there will be many similar climbs in the coming days.

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Light traffic but cloudy skies on the A472 to Seville

Both yesterday and today, rain was forecast but didn’t materialise. Yesterday was quite cool, I guess around 14C, but today reached 20C and the sun even came out for a while as I approached Seville. I took a stroll around for a couple of hours and finally managed to find a replacement keyboard for the iPad. That’s what I’m typing on now. However, it’s a Spanish one with several of the keys in different places from those on a British keyboard. Add auto-correct to that and I’m almost certainly writing more rubbish than usual!

Seville is beautiful and a few iPhone photographs can’t do it justice, but here they are anyway.

 

 

Two days, 153 miles, and no rain. I’ve only had to swear at cars twice. And I’ve not yet had to resort to universal digital signage. Tomorrow I turn north to find the Ruta de la Plata, or Silver Route. The ancient pilgrimage and commercial path runs parallel to the N630, which will take me all 807km to my destination of Gijón on the north coast. My best guess is that I’ll arrive a week from today, but who knows what’s in store along the way?

 

On the road again…in Portugal and Spain

My last two really big rides were to celebrate my 60th and 65th birthdays, so they were five years apart (O-Level maths, 62%, Fairfield Grammar School, Bristol, 1967). I did a few century rides in between, but nothing on the same scale as these continental adventures. As I approach my 66th birthday, it occurs to me that one big ride every five years means that there probably aren’t going to be very many to look forward to. My New Year’s resolution for 2018 is, therefore, to fit in two big rides every year. It’s time for the first one.

The inspiration for this next ride, which will start from Faro in Portugal on Monday morning, 12th March, was Andrew P. Sykes’ most recent book. Entitled “Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie“, it chronicles his journey from Gibraltar to a point so far north that it’s doesn’t get dark at night, at least in the summer. For convenience, I want to fly from Bristol Airport – it’s local – so I’m planning a slightly different route. I’ll fly to Faro in Portugal, stay at an airport hotel tomorrow evening, then turn right and head for the Spanish border. From Huelva, the first big town in Spain, I plan to ride into Seville for the night, then turn left the next day and cycle pretty much due north until I reach Gijón on the north coast of Spain, in the Asturias region. This route will differ from Andrew’s in that he cut north-east across from Huelva to Merida before picking up the Ruta Via de La Plata whereas I fancy a night in Seville to have a look around. Also, Andrew turned right just north of Zamora to head to Pamplona but his book mentions heavy traffic after doing so, and I don’t fancy that when there are said to be so many quieter roads for cycling in Spain. My current plan, therefore, is to keep going due north to Gijon and then figure out a way to get back home.

Andrew P. Sykes’ route follows Eurovelo 1 through Spain. I’m planning to cycle along a slight variant of this, starting in Faro (just to the left of Huelva on the south coast of Portugal) and heading to Gijón on the north coast of Spain. However, “planning” is a bit of a misnomer because I’ll probably make quite a few changes as I go along.

I’ve been a bit extravagant with respect to return flights. The original plan was to fly Easyjet from Bilbao to Bristol on Thursday, March 22nd. There’s just one flight per week on that route. However, Easyjet was also offering a flight from Asturias, near Gijón, to Stanstead in Essex on Wednesday, March 21st. It was £20, so I booked that too. Since then I’ve considered the option of flying back to Heathrow from Oviedo, which is about 30km south of Gijón, so I’ll already have been through it once. This has the advantage of being a daily flight, so timing is flexible.

This is going to be a different kind of experience from the earlier big rides. I’m going to be riding a modern bike, rather than one of the vintage machines I used for the last couple of trips. The greatest difference will be having brakes that don’t make my knuckles go white on every steep descent. More about the bike later. Time to start packing.

 

 

Bike fitting: valuable service or fit up?

Last weekend I went along to the fabulous ‘Bespoked Bristol‘, the UK hand built bicycle show. The beauty and quality of many of the bikes on show was amazing and UK custom bike building enterprises seem to be growing well alongside the general increase in cycling. Even the BBC website now features this piece on the trend so the show’s PR team is doing a good job.

On a couple of the stands, I encountered the issue of bike fitting. One renowned custom frame builder insisted that I really did need a detailed fitting session before they could possibly consider building a bike for me. Another stand offered a 2-hour fitting session for £120 (about $180 US).

This got me thinking, not least because within my modest collection I have bikes of varying geometries with nominal frame sizes of 21 inches to 24 inches, measured from the centre of the bottom bracket to centre of the top tube. With a little experimentation with stems, seat posts and saddles, and the relative positions of each, I have yet to come across a bike that I can’t adapt to be comfortable, even for long rides.

When I started to get sore knees on one trip, I did consult the oracle – YouTube – and quickly resolved the issue by shifting the saddle a little. A search this evening on YouTube turned up this video from Performance Cycling, which has had nearly 1 million views:

It’s very comprehensive but just six minutes and ten seconds long. There are plenty of similar ones and a whole stack of online advice about bike fitting in the forums.

Of course, the right fit is a very individual thing and depends on a number of factors, not least the kind of bike you want to ride and the kind of cycling you’re going to do. Head down on the drops is not ideal if you’re a commuter that needs to attempt 180 degree vision at all times! But whatever shape and size we are, some basic judgements on the frame and a little experimentation should be sufficient to ensure that cycling is a pleasure rather than a pain.

So next time someone tries to sell me a £120, 2-hour bike fitting session, I think I should politely suggest they “take a ride” – don’t you?