Thursday, August 15, 2013

From Spain to Switzerland...by bike!

It’s become an annual occurrence of mine to cycle around Europe in my summer break from Colombia with a few friends in tow.  This blog documented my coast to coast trip across the USA in 2010, and also mentions  trips from Barcelona to Milan in 2011, and to Spain from England last year, but for one time constraint and another, I’ve not always been able to go into as much as detail as I’d like to have done.  Anyway, this year saw the 2012 crew decide to embark on another tour across Europe on our bikes, so myself, university mate, James Birchall and sort of university mate, Andy Kenny, put our heads metaphorically together through Facebook messages over a few months to come up with the plan of cycling from the Basque city of Bilbao, on Spain’s northern coast, to Geneva, just inside the Swiss border and on the edge of the mighty Alps.  As our trips tend to coincide with the Tour de France, we also thought we’d stick in an ascent of the legendary Alpine climb, Alp D’Huez, where the tour was going up in its 100th anniversary year, and why not also pass by the engineering magnificence of the Millau bridge in the south of France?  There we had it, route sorted!

In Spain, with views over to the Pyrenees and France
Unfortunately, the preparation didn’t go as planned for Andy, who injured his knee on a training ride the week before we were due to fly out, so we were a man down straight from the off, which complicated equipment issues for us, such as tents and stoves, as well as him obviously missing out on a week of his holiday.   Nevertheless, James and I proudly boasted that we felt fitter than last year, and together with James’ new bike, and some fine sunshine, we confidently cycled out of Bilbao on a Saturday afternoon, with the remnants of a stinking hangover being masked by the usual excitement and anticipation of what the next 2 weeks and 700 plus miles of cycling would hold for us.  This year’s route distinguished itself from last year’s monotonous riding through northern France by thrusting us straight into steep, but short, coastal climbs, before gradually climbing the higher peaks of the Central Massif, and then onto the Alpine ascents that are infamous with professional and amateur cyclists alike.

The world's tallest bridge, the Millau Viaduct, 
Spain’s wealthy Basque country didn’t feel like part of a country with 25% unemployment, I suppose that’s why so many people there want to be independent, but did provide us with very pleasant coastal roads and a reintroduction to the cycle tourer diet.  Eating huge bowls of cereal and bananas for breakfast, lunchtime ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches, and all rounded off with chorizo and tomato pasta for our evening meal, interspersed with cakes, ice creams, cookies and nuts throughout the day, is very enjoyable.  I hear that Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic are on gluten free diets so I’m not sure what they’d make of ours, but it works for us.

James trying to shelter from the hail
San Sebastian was beautiful and had an incredible cycle infrastructure, including exclusive cycling tunnels, but Biarritz, on the French Atlantic, wasn’t as glitzy as I’d imagined, maybe that’s why the ‘Beer and Tits’ nickname originated, but still it had a nice beach and was a decent place to take it easy for a day.  We gradually made our way eastwards, increasing the mileage up to a hefty 85 miles on one day, but also into hilly inland areas, more vulnerable to heavy afternoon thunderstorms.  We had a bit of luck for a few days, avoiding them by diving into bus shelters on the edge of town at the last minute or sitting in McDonalds making use of the free wifi, before we were caught out.  Arriving at the top of a 1,000m peak, dark clouds hovered above us, and despite descending at 30mph, we weren’t able to out run the impending storm.  All of a sudden a barrage of ice cubed sized hail forced us to duck for cover under trees (not ideal in an electrical storm), whilst hailstones continued to ping off our helmets and chink our bike frames as thunder rumbled around us.  A few passing cars slowed down to see why the two resting bicycles didn’t have any cyclists on them, but it didn’t get us down the mountain any quicker and a cold and wet descent meant a break from camping in a ‘Chambe D’Hote’ was in order to dry ourselves and our kit out.

Spirits were raised the next day by a return to clear blue skies and scorching temperatures, as well as some lovely cycling through the Ardeche region, passing scented lavender fields, before we met up with our crooked companion, Andy, that evening.  His knee hadn’t quite repaired itself on the beach in Barcelona (blame the beer), but he felt up for the challenge to plough along with us for the second week towards Geneva, where he was then set to start another week of intense cycling through the Alps on a separate holiday.  Cycling predominantly with his right leg and a concoction of drugs that would make Lance Armstrong jealous, he more than kept up with James and I, leaving the prospect open of still being able to make it up Alp D’Huez.

Before that however, we had to stop off in Grenoble.  I’d previously heard good things about this place, but I reserve the right to call this city perhaps the most boring one I’ve ever had the misfortune to stumble across.  I’d say cycling 6 miles in the evening, along main roads, without finding even one bar open, makes it more akin to the nuclear decimated Chenobyl than a supposedly wealthy western European city.  At least we weren’t short of conversations though with our campsite neighbours well involved in their own domestic dispute and the campsite itself boasting toilets that smelt very much of stale urine.  A lovely place to stay, it was not.  Anyway, the Alps beckoned and at least Grenoble has a good cycle network, enabling us to make a rapid escape for the mountains.

Alp D'Huez - Andy 3rd, James 1st, Me 2nd
The name of Alp D’Huez rightly reverberates around cyclists conversations throughout the world.  It features regularly in the Tour de France and this year the cyclists were, for the first time, subjected to not one, but two ascents of the mountain.  This involves around 8.5 miles of continuous climbing with 22 hairpin corners ramping up the gradient to around 13% in places, taking you from the valley basin at 700m to the ski resort, at about 1,850m.  The tour and its 500,000 fans had filled the mountain the week before, so the roads were freshly ‘decorated’ with support for Froome, Quintana, Contador and co, all adding to the mythical nature of the climb.  James finished first in about 80 minutes, I was a few minutes behind and Andy’s ever expanding right leg managed to power him up not too long afterwards, a top effort from all of us.  We found a podium to get a photo in our new, and increasingly dirty, Union Jack jerseys, where the inevitable comparisons to Froome and Wiggins were made (!), they’d get up the climb in about 40 minutes or so, half our time and that’s an incredible average speed of over 12mph, doing it twice!  The information leaflet said around 400 cyclists go up every day in the summer, but I’d say this is a very conservative estimate, and the continual stream of weary cyclists that came passed us as we enjoyed a celebratory beer even included one guy with a baby on the back his bike!   These days are always the highlight of the holiday for various reasons, none more so than being surrounded by stunning scenery and feeling very proud of what you and your mates have just achieved.  Obviously  knowing that the climbing is just about done, leaving you to cycle down at 35mph, is pretty good fun too…

Unfortunately a visit to the Grenoble campsite was once again called for, where our rubbish bag from the previous stay still hadn’t been removed, but we treated ourselves to a rotisserie chicken and manufactured a fridge out of Andy’s pannier for the beer.  All that was now left was the 100 miles or so of cycling to Geneva, via a stop off at beautiful Lake Annecy, to complete another cycle tour across Europe and finish with a few well earned beers!  Geneva is as expensive as you might have imagined, and also full of prostitutes we realised, which you might not have thought of.  Consequently walking around slightly inebriated at 3am looking for a takeaway felt more like walking down the seedy Avenida Sexta in Cali or Amsterdam's Red Light District than a classy European city, but I suppose nowhere's ever perfect.  It does have free public transport to the airport though, which is a very advantageous when taking your 25kg cardboard box and bike back home!   

Last day's cycling at Lake Annecy
When telling people about these trips afterwards they are often astounded by what they entail, and when planning them you do think if you really want to put yourself through the long, hot days, sudden rainstorms and endless climbs all over again.  But that unpredictability for me is what cycle touring is all about.  Cycling with your mates, experiencing all these continual challenges can be occasionally frustrating, but when finishing in a new city together and being able to look back at how far you have travelled in such a short space of time, you can feel rightly pleased with yourself.  Obviously you also feel a hell of a lot fitter, maybe with a few niggling pains, but having seen a huge part of a country, eaten its food, spoken the language and shared the usual jokes and bugbears for 2 weeks we start to think where the next tour could take us.  Maybe the World Cup or something else will get in the way next year, who knows, but if not, I’m sure we’ll get planning and think of where we could go.  Europe's compactness, fine summer weather and beautiful towns and cities always make it an attractive choice, but across the pond The Pacific Coast Highway, from LA to San Francisco, is widely regarded as an excellent cycle tour.  Wherever we choose I'm sure there'll be the usual trials and tribulations - wonderful weather, stunning views, evening beers, as well as a scruffy campsite or two and some horrendous hangovers hanging on the handlebars...but hopefully we'll once again be able to look back on what we've done, have a few more stories to tell and some well toned and tanned legs to match!


Here are some facts and stats about the trip:

Distance travelled - 722 miles (I think!)

Longest day - 85 miles, Lavaur to St. Affrique

Average mileage over 14 days - 52 miles a day

Highest point - 1,850m, Alp D'Huez

1,000m+ passes - 3

Accommodation - 11 camping nights, 4 hotel/Chambre D'Hote/hostel nights

Hottest day - 40oC, Viviers to St. Donat

Punctures - 0

Thunder storms that stopped us cycling - 4

Hail storms that stopped us cycling - 1

Evening meals - 9 'Pasta Delights' cooked on the stove, 5 burgers/pizzas eaten in restaurants

Countries visited - 3, Spain, France and Switzerland

Song of the tour - Ian Brown - Stellify









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