All the Gear and No Idea

Big bike ride #4

OK, putting aside the Brokeback Mountain jokes for a moment, how do two guys get on when spending ten days together for 24/7 biking, rooming and camping. It takes a lot to get on with anyone for that long. Personally, I even manage to irritate myself after a while, which many who spend time around me can attest to I’m sure.

Sam and I have known each for over five years. We worked together previously and worked well, developing a good personal friendship, borne out of a deep respect professionally. We aren’t BFFs but are close and share a lot of similar values and life experience, being also largely age equivalent. This was our third ride and would be the most challenging physically. When you take this kind of trip, there are two key elements to it, the activity itself and compatibility off the bike.

We were at around 450 kilometres travelled so far, had climbed around 4000m and the fatigue was starting to bite. Leaving Arnedo, the first 20km were as hard as the last 20km, the wind was hitting us full on today with crosswinds and headwings gusting at 30km plus and I picked up three punctures in one morning – including one in a brand new tube and tyre – bringing the total to a record five. It was going to be one of those f**king days where 60km felt like 120km.

Usually on these trips you get one day where its basically just not a good day. Today was that day. It was an adventure for sure, the kind of adventure commuter cyclists have most days going into London, but slightly more industrial.

We left Arnedo and soon found we were in the middle of an Agro-industrial belt that stretched all the way to our final destination of the day Estella. The scenery and architecture was a far cry from what we’d seen in Castille Y Leon. This place was designed to feed and not enchant.

It was a straight road lined with farms, factories and plants with a whole array of sights and scents that were far from an eco-tourist’s dream if that’s your bag. This road was very different from Sunday’s straight road we’d hoofed down. This one had 18 wheel articulated lorries flying past at 100kmh every 30/60 seconds for the entire five hours, often less than an arm’s length away. If you’ve ever ridden a bike with one of these going past, it’s probably the same as being in a rowboat when the QE2 passes by. As it approaches, you hear a kind of mechanical scream and you learn when its on you very quickly. You’re then pushed forwards and sideways before being slightly whipped back into its wake as the last wheels pass you.

The route was littered with debris that blessed me with three flat tyres – a new daily record – as well as roadkill of a different kind. As well as the usual rats, birds and rabbits, we cycled past and over six dead snakes that were bright green, thick and must have been at least half a metre long. BTW, did you know they don’t crunch when you do that (sorry!!!). This continued for most of the day, interspersed with the occasional flat tyre, that left us dispirited as our energy levels were generally lower anyway.

But its days like this that provide you with different perspective, challenge and opportunity to take a view on many things. These are the times when you question your rationale, motives and find your boundaries as its easy to quit when things don’t go your way. The gift of days like this is getting on with it and keeping your composure when you want to have the world’s biggest tantrum and launch the fucking bike across the road after the third flat tyre thanks to the debris on the road.

We finally got to our destination – tonight we were camping – and you could still pick up the traces of the agro-industrial Rioja region in the evening air. But Sam cooked up one of his wonder pasta’s, we took a beer and then I took 800mg of Ibuprofen, a sleeping pill that would take down a rhino and cried myself to sleep on my two inch campbed.

Tomorrow it’s a short run into Pamplona and no more cycling for a day and a half.

Strava stats

Today was another carb heavy day with toast and croissants then bread with ham for lunch, an afternoon cake and then dinner of 125g of pasta with sauce and tuna. We drank less water today – around three litres – plus a couple of well

Pain

In my experience pain comes in three forms - injury, fatigue and wear. Clearly riding when injured makes no sense so you’ll need to take a view as to whether something is a show-stopper as you can suffer long term effects if not addressed. The other two issues I believe are about prevention, pain management and adequate recovery.

We were back on the road after a welcome 36 hours rest in Pamplona with the bikes being checked and parts replaced as well. We were reticent about leaving Pamplona and had debated on taking another day but were on the road now and it was good to be moving again.

A tribute to the famous Encierras of the Pamplona San Fermin bull festival

Day one on these trips is usually filled with great energy, achievement and progress, most of which we had apart from the progress.

We'd spend an afternoon and evening in Madrid, which is a lovely city that also carried a kind of malaise in the centre, bruised from the global economic crisis, and a shadow of its former self. The grandiose Franco-esque buildings still overshadow the city and financial district with its modern buildings and new satellite cities house the middle class, while the centre remains almost abandoned to tourists, young people and crack addicts. Spain's youth unemployment drifts between 45% and 49% and the country is in economic and political paralysis with no end in sight for now, which you can see on the faces of many and makes people watching a different experience.

We were arriving into Northern Spain's bull fighting country now as we approached Pamplona. As we passed villages and towns Plaza de Toros (bullrings) were suddenly appearing, the centre of a town or village, like modern day coliseum's and as popular as football stadiums. Agree with it or not, it is a very real part of the culture of Spain and south west France. Its history is Roman but was developed by the invading Moors into the roots of the spectacle still watched today. Bulls are raised trained in France and never get to see a human other than on horseback. You can see the reference to and reverence of the toro, iconic throughout the region.

So to our day. In geek cycling terms, today was a perfect day after all. We had started the day a little fatigued, still cold and putting on damp gear after the bags had gotten wet from the storm and the shoes sodden. The sky was grey and the forecast was highly changeable but we were, however, blessed with a 20kmh tail wind that helped us the whole day. I’ve spoken before about the effect on your day and mood with a head wind or tail wind – making up to 20% difference – so we took advantage of this gift.

When asked to describe what the real meaning of joy is, everybody would probably have a different version. Uniquely individual, it’s a feeling and sensation that courses through you at rare and beautiful moments in your life.

It may be the joy of new life, of seeing someone who takes your breath away for that split second before you move into that feeling of familiarity with them or of feeling truly alive and enlightened in a spiritual sense of oneness. It’s the kind of feeling that people try to re-enact by ingesting, inhaling or injecting but it’s a natural high that comes from being in the moment.

I wouldn’t have thought that sitting on a bike I never thought this was going to be one of those moments. Totally unexpected, it happened as we started our descent from the top of a mountain. It had taken the best part of two hours to ride and walk up 1800m to the ski resort of Naverracada, which in the summer is barren, with grey slate and closed buildings everywhere.

It was only as we started to roll downhill that the feeling started to hit. For 20km we continued, the road continually inviting us to go on, effortlessly gaining speed and taking in the most remarkable scenery of forest pines, rivers and mountains with all its wildlife all in complete joyful isolation. We were literally the only people on this stretch of road, except the occasional resident.

What is that feeling like? It’s a total mix of scents, sights, sounds, feelings on your skin and emotions as you process everything at high speed. It’s probably what a dog experiences when it sticks its head out the window as you drive. You are riding downhill at 40kmh with the wind you create biting your skin, you hear the trees moving, a mélange of birds, rivers and streams and then the smells of the flora and fauna, the freshness of the air, the smell of the wild animals and then you’re occasionally hit by that fresh damp cold air as you pass a stream. All this changes with each split second you are rolling downhill. And any cyclist will know the rarity of riding 20km without having to pedal.

The journey continued on past a beautiful lake and to Garganta de los Montes, our stop for the night and the first night of camping. It had been a very special day.

Strava Stats

Sam is a highly proficient and accomplished outdoorsman. Qualified, he has all kinds of awards and badges and can do things like make fire, build shelter and perform open heart surgery with a spork.

I’ve always been fascinated by the intrepid. Explorers of the past and present day. I love reading the tales of those who have travelled around the planet, no matter on what, and told their stories – usually of experiences with other people and mostly how open minded individuals generally are and are welcoming and curious, no matter what their tribe. It’s a human instinct to be curious, as is the ability to dream, and neither should ever be extinguished in an individual by someone else.

I think personally it’s a romantic dream to one day travel for months on end around the world, never stopping, never looking back, always experiencing something new every day as you never stay still in one place. I’ve also found it an incredible place to be, sat quietly on a bike, with the luxury of time to examine your own thoughts as you become attuned to your surroundings, rhythm of your movement and the energy that flows through your entire body as a result.

It was the end of a week’s non-stop cycling today, each day on the go between eight and eleven hours (despite Strava’s claims). The fatigue was beginning to set in a little so the easier days ahead, including a rest day in Pamplona, were inviting.

Doing this makes you realize just how elite the professionals on the Tour de France and Giro de Italia are. Their average training regimes will include four to five hours cycling per day and they will top 150/200km, including climbs which is an average speed of 30/40kmh. Their fat burn rate can be up to a kilo a day, which is amazing if you’re on a crash diet but if you’re a sinewed athlete, this will be a problem as having to consume up to 10,000 calories a day either side of five hours of riding must be quite challenging for these human greyhounds.

The wind can be a key factors in your achievement and subsequent enjoyment on any day of any road trip but particularly a long distance ride. Having ridden through Provence twice, you get to learn very quickly about the wind – The Mistral – is an infamous gale that perpetually blows between 40 and 100kmh through most of the year, originating in the centre of France and heading down through to the Mediterranean.

If you’ve never cycled in proper wind, it can have an exhilarating and debilitating effect on your mood, day and overall progress depending on the direction. You can only hope for a tailwind but the balance of nature eventually leaving you riding into the wind at some point, usually bringing an onset of Tourette’s for me anyway.