Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Cycling Across Spain, Tim Dawson

First published Cycling Plus c. October 1998

I am squatting on the hard shoulder of the motorway between Toledo and Madrid trying to mend a puncture. The pounding hailstones will cut open my face any second, I am sure, unless one of the full carriageway of speeding lorries hits me first. My head spins with fatigue, after 60 miles into the wind, I am soaked to the skin and, a powerful gust has just toppled my upturned bike down the steep ditch beside the road.

As I gaze down to see my saddlebag lying beside the partially rotted corpse of a German Shepherd dog it is impossible not to wonder, why I am doing this?

The answer is that I wanted instant adventure. I am in my mid 30s, married and do a demanding professional job, so time is limited. Backpacking around the world, crewing a yacht in the Caribbean or hiking in the Himalayas are not feasible. Cycling alone and unsupported across the Spain - from Gibraltar to Bilbao - seemed heroic and just about possible.

Ten days would be enough, I had calculated. Ninety miles a day seemed within the bounds of my capabilities. A few weeks with a pre-recorded cassette provided me with half a dozen words Spanish. But without prior bookings, sag wagons, tour leaders, useful guidebooks or knowledge of the Spanish interior, it felt like a genuine adventure.

And if it was going to be an adventure it was possible that things would go wrong. There would be roads that were not ideal for cycling, punctures and bad weather. Not that this made fishing my bike out of the diesel enriched mud beside the motorway any more fun. But I had achieved one objective.

All that I could think about was my journey. How much further would I have to go before I would find a hotel? Would my strength hold up for the second week of cycling? And would I be able to dry my few clothes before I had to set out tomorrow? After five days riding, the anxieties and pressures of my daily life back home were completely forgotten.

And most the experiences that displaced my work-day worries were ecstatically joyful. The sight of Toledo and Segovia from their best road vantages are high octane experiences when you have made the journey to them alone on two wheels. Spain's roadside blooms - in spring at least - are the most dazzling flower show. And the climb up to the monastery of Escorail easily repaid ten years of dreaming.

The idea of crossing Iberia came from Laurie Lee. Bored of London in the 1930s, he spent two years wandering south from northern Spain to Andalucia. His prose conveys a feeling of poetic wonder and exploration.

And such a journey gives you an incredible - if no doubt unreal - sense of knowing a country and its people. The extent to which the language changes from province to province, for example, is rendered uncomfortably real. My attempts to order sandwiches were perfectly understood in Andalucia, but met with incomprehension as I rode into Old Castile.

The varying approaches to Holy Week celebrations reveal the enormously differing attitudes to religion and display. In Seville, over a million people crowded its labyrinthine medieval streets to watch marching penitents carry elaborately carved floats depicting Christ and the Madonna. Several processions each day for a week encountered equal enthusiasm, I learned.

The same ceremony in Cuidad Real - an ancient city so completely rebuilt it could be a new town - was shambolic. A desultory crowd trailed behind a gaudy modern float without obvious interest or passion. And in Madrid the procession appeared to excite no one but the tourists. Once it had passed though the city's central square providing momentary excitement for the video-camera-touting classes, it marched on uncheered.

My decision to start in Gibraltar was arbitrary, and a few hours looking around seemed sufficient. The view from my hotel, The Rock, was stupendous however. The Bay of Algecerias is massive - I could see over 40 merchant ships as well as the coasts of Spain and Africa. Best of all though, as I sipped my sherry, was the sea, which, if everything went to plan I would not see again until the end of my ride.

I had planned my first day cycling to be among the hardest, and the 212 kilometres from the coast to Seville lived up to expectations. The road climbs though gentle, rocky hills which, during spring at least, are indecently green. Meandering between small lakes, the scenery could have been Alpine. It was not the hills that did for me, though, but the wind. My twisting and turning route set me alternately with and against it. The latter was a real struggle and after seven hours in the saddle powered only by breakfast and a couple of energy bars, I had the worst hunger knock I have ever experienced.

Fortunately I was able to stumble into a roadside bar where enormous Spanish lunches were still being served. To the amused encouragement of half a dozen old men I stuffed my face and allowed my body sugar to work its magic. The next 70 kilometres felt like they were fuelled by adrenaline alone, but without the food, I could scarcely have walked 70 steps.

Reaching Seville felt an epic triumph, but the welcome I received exceeded all expectations. As I neared the city centre I hit huge waves of people dressed up to the nines, taking part if the first perambulation of Holy Week. By the time I reached the cathedral, the streets were too packed to progress at all. Eventually I reconciled myself to retracing my steps to join the ring road en route to the friends with whom I was staying.

The stiff jabs of pain from my legs the next morning were not to disappear until long after I returned to Britain. But sore though they were off the bike, I was never troubled on the road. Nor did my muscle's fatigue affect my ability to pedal - perhaps this is what professional cyclists feel like during the three week tours?

Happily the road from Seville to Cordoba is quiet and, as it follows the course of a river, flat. It was here though that I first encountered the curious Spanish practice with unwanted dogs. Many owners appear take their animals onto a quite stretch of road and slit their throats. I saw the corpses of endless individual dogs an one pair of very fresh Alsations. Those who feel unable to bring their pets lives to a swift end simply leave their unwanted animals to the mercy of speeding traffic - which if you are on two wheels rather then four can be terrifying.

It was also in Cordoba that I realised how difficult it would be finding accommodation during the country's main national holiday. From the grandest hotels to the simplest pensions there was not a room in town. I was forced to cover a few more miles before finding a motel with vacancies.

In the days to come, it was the search for hotels that gave me most cause for concern. Beds in the tourist centres were mostly full. Far more worrying, however, were the long empty roads where there could be 30 miles between villages, not all of which boasted hostelries.

On one day I was fortunate enough to come across a fabulous hunting lodge from which wood smoke puffed in a steep gorge between mountains. The next day I rode on and on, searching villages with ever greater desperation looking for a place to sleep. Long after I wanted to give up, a simple barn of a building, with the word 'camas' (beds) painted on its gable wall, hoved into view. Never have I been happier to break bread with itinerant farm labourers.

My journey into Madrid was also a long, forlorn search for somewhere to sleep. I had planned to miss the capital entirely. In Toledo, one of the big effects of Spanish tourism, there was no chance of a bed. I set off on the motorway feeling sure that there would be a travel lodge on its outskirts. The skies opened and the road rolled on without a sign of anywhere to stay or even a promising looking town to which I could have turned.

The upshot was an unexpected 70 kilometre drag and an unscheduled night on the town. After five days without hearing anyone speaking English, it was as reassuring to hear my native tongue, as it was to be taken for a Spaniard in one of Spain's endless Irish bars.

Until now I had been lucky with roads - no real disasters and only one stretch of motorway. From the Royal monesty of Escorail just north of Madrid - to Segovia, however, proved to be the most sever physical test I have ever endured.

The map showed two possible routes - a flat main road and an obviously hilly minor road. I had this 75 kilometre stage planned as a rest day, and decided that bit of climbing would be fun. From the sunny spring of the plain, however, the road went up and up. Soon there were patches of snow, but I was generating plenty of heat. It rose further until everything was covered in half a meter of white carpet. Cars carrying skis were now passing me en route to the ski station of Navacerrada.

Here two and three meter icicles hung from the gables, snowboarders ran around in day-glo quilted jackets and my spit froze on contact with the ground. I had stopped only twice on the ascent of 2000 meters and was feeling like a polka dot king.

Until I started to descend. By the third hair pin I was wearing every piece of clothing I had with me and still had to stop every kilometre to choke back the tears of pain and try to warm my extremities. By Segovia I felt freeze dried.

Before my departure I had joked that once I reached Spain's centre, the rest of my journey would be down hill. And although not strictly true, the five days after Segovia turned out to be far the easier. My legs were stronger, the wind more accommodating and the towns and villages of La Mancha flew by.

Nevertheless, by Vitoria - the Basque country's second city - I was beginning to tire of my routine. Every day I looked for a hotel, unpacked, handwashed my kit, found somewhere to eat, had a quick look around and then collapsed into a long deep sleep. After nine days, I wanted to stay in one place and to wear ordinary clothes.

Happily, the high of eventually reaching Bilbao kept me going a little longer. Rain poured during my last day on my bike, and the industrial detritus that surrounds the Basque capital is as widespread as it is depressing. But I scarcely noticed.

The appeal of crossing a country is the feeling of achievement. I had come from the shimmering heat of Gibraltar depending on my wits and self propelled. Soaked again from the rain I rode to the shore of the Bay of Biscay, ten kilometres from Bilbao. There I waded in fully clothed and dizzy with joy.


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