Mike left Spindles on his around the world cycle tour in January. This is his first update.
I made it to Santiago De Compostela on my birthday and in time for the Easter weekend. Although it has not been easy, looking at the map brings on a flush of pride that I have made it this far and without any major dramas. I know there is still an extremely long way to go but one step at a time.
The main challenge has been the weather. This winter in Europe has been a hard one and it seems to be dragging it’s heels leaving. My memory has turned the ride to Poole into one long rainy day. The day I caught the ferry, the sailing was already delayed for an hour due to high winds. On reaching the terminal I was forbidden to cycle aboard the ship due to the wind. After being questioned for a long time by the extremely interested and knowledgeable cycle mad customs officers, I left the relative shelter of their hanger and headed up the boarding ramp struggling against the wind to stay on my feet and keep the bike upright. Once the bike was lashed down and I was seated upstairs another hour passed before the ferry was allowed to set sail. Out in the channel the swell was quite high but bearable. I disembarked in Cherbourg in similar wet and gusty weather.
I had made no plan of my route down the western side of France and little research had been conducted. So I set of down small country lanes and just headed south. I was amazed just how similar the landscape, flora and fauna are in Normandy comparative to my stomping grounds in Wiltshire. Just before I became annoyed with the small roads and their incredibly steep ups and downs I found a “Greenway” heading east to Carentan. I was aware of the Eurovelo routes and decided they were the going to be the quickest way for me to get far from the English weather and landscapes. So off I went down disused rail lines that had been converted to cycleways, passing rivers who had escaped the confines of their banks and fields hidden below waters that had nowhere to go. The tracks where heavily flooded in places and had become quite sticky but I preferred this to being on the roads. Being in Normandy and so close to the D day beaches added a new appreciation to the bravery of the hundreds of thousands who fought through this quagmire.
I turned south again after Carentan and after another soaking and unable to find anywhere to stay I was taken in by a wonderful French family. I was thoroughly wet, tired and a bit daunted by what I had let myself in for but their hospitality, a hot shower and the laughter which flowed that night did my spirits the world of good. It reminded me that this is what it was all about, ups and downs, meeting decent members of the human race and making friends and memories.
I had to stop in Avranches after seeing a WW2 U.S. tank in the middle of a roundabout. According to the local tourist office it took General Patton two months to fight his way there from the beaches in the north. The town is set atop of a rocky outcrop and will always be a major strategic point. I did wish the ran would stop for a moment so I could see the views and take some snaps but alas it keep falling.
Under more grey skies I made my way towards Le Mont Saint Michel along the flat estuary banks but the weather did break for a bit in the evening and I was able to wander around the streets and battlements after the rest of the tourists had gone home and was accompanied only by the sound of the waves lapping at the foot of the huge defensive walls. I was reading about it’s history and all the battles fought and was struck by the fact that the huge battlements were now entirely redundant as the gates were wide open day and night for anyone of any race or religion to enter. All the fighting and building seemed quite futile now, but without it such an amazing place would not exist.
Next I followed rivers and canals to Antrain, Rennes and arrived at Nantes on La Loire. The tow paths were good in places and bad in others. The rain was still falling so I kept my head down and just cycled. The only problem was in the town of Redon, after taking a hotel to dry everything out and get my washing done. There was only myself and a lady guest staying so the owner felt it was safe enough to leave my laundry on the door handle to my room. Neither of us were expecting for the lady to pinch most of it. At 6”4 and a 34” inside leg I’m not sure how she was expecting to fit into my trousers, or boxers, or size 12 socks. She might have got away with the t-shirt but it was my buff that I was most annoyed about. The early mornings were so cold that without it I was seriously concerned my ears may fall off due to frostbite. We recovered all of it with the exception of some wool socks but I still had my thick hiking ones so was not overly bothered.
Following La Loire west to the coast and then turning south I passed though La Rochelle, Rochefort which was all very cold, frozen tent cold, wet and very flat, Holland flat. Then just before I took the ferry at Royan, pine forests emerged and between them was a sandy floor. This pine forest extends all the way to Bayonne and the sandy beach which separates the forest from the Atlantic extends for the same distance too. On a couple of occasions, the sun appeared and the sandy beach looked inviting, if it wasn’t for the winds. This stretch was broken up by small seasonal coastal resorts which meant camping was a breeze as no one was around at all. Food and water were the only issues, I had to go inland to find them as 99% of these resort towns were entirely shut down for winter. The forest had been planted on the orders of Napoleon 3rd so as to turn the marshland to usable land, and as I lay in my tent at night I could hear water trickling beneath the sands but I could not reach it.
As the forest is highly managed there was little wildlife aside from the occasional deer melting from the track into the forest. The falcons and eagles that had been present in numbers since I arrived on the continent are unable to hunt in such dense canopies and due to the lack of anyone using the cycleways it became quite a lonely time. As the land is still very flat here I never got to see more than a few hundred meters which was filled with the track and the pines. Plenty of time to think.
After I left Biarritz the sun came out and I could see down the coast to Spain and I could see mountains for the 1st time in a month. I was pleased to see a different landscape but nervous at the challenge of getting through them. I arrived in Hendaye on the Spanish border with the sun shining on the sandy beach, things seemed to be warming up and I found a hotel no more than 500 meters from a bridge which was the border. Every time in France when I was asked where I was going my response was “Spain pour la solei”, which always drew nods of approval and smiles of laughter, so I was looking forward to crossing and seeing what Spain had to offer. The next morning I was woken by revving car engines and spinning tyres….”ruddy chavs get everywhere” I thought and opened the shutters to see what all the fuss was about. I had to squint my eyes due the light reflecting of the
snow-covered cityscape. I walked out to the bridge to see what the roads were like, not how I had expected my first visit to mainland Spain to go. After seeing how the locals were coping with the conditions I decided it was safer to stay off the roads for the day and so shot a few snaps of snow covered palms and beaches.
The following day you wouldn’t have known it had snowed. I followed La Bidassoa upstream heading for the mountains. At a couple of points in the valley I had to stop the bike before I was blown off it, and then I began to notice how many windfarms there are. Oh dear! I used the old main road along the valley and it was empty of traffic due to a newer expressway having been built but a couple of times it was necessary to use it. This being the major arterial route south to Pamplona there was a huge number of HGVs grinding their way up hill and I was relieved every time I was back on the old road due to the high winds and the buffeting from the passing trucks. The new expressway has a 3km long tunnel saving it from ascending over the highest point of the pass, they missed out on the views I was treated to. From the top of the pass all the way to Pamplona I had to pedal down every hill or I would have been stopped by the headwind, highly annoying after struggling up some big climbs.
The landscape has changed again from the mountains to rolling hills and flat plains which do nothing to abate the incessant winds. The skies are much bigger with it and just watching the clouds race across them is a simple pastime I enjoy. I am seeing vultures now too, not something I was expecting but more than welcome.
I learnt about the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Pamplona, which as it turns out is going my way, so I picked up my booklet to fill with stamps in the hope of getting a certificate which grants me free entry to heaven. Instead of heading west straight away I headed for Olite and Tudela as in France I was told I must visit the Bardenas Reales, a small desert area, which is between the two.
I am glad I did as both towns and the desert were well worth the trip and I was exceptionally lucky to have the best weather yet for crossing the Bardenas Reales. From Tudela I followed the Rio Ebro upstream to Haro. This landscape has old castles and churches dotted all over and every hilltop has a town on it. You can tell this is a landscape that has been populated for a very long period of time.
I travelled west to Burgos following the Camino and it wasn’t until I arrived in Leon that I began to see other travellers. And as I exited Leon I found I had broken the rear rim. I headed back in and found a cycle shop who were working on it as soon as I pointed out the problem. Them had one in stock and I was away again after roughly and hour. Apart from the panniers knocking a bit and the rear derailleur getting a gummed up every now and again I have had no issues with the bike, it is the rider which is the problem in not fuelling himself properly sometimes.
Since Leon I’ve had some big ascents to make and been stopped atop one for a day due to a snow storm making it too dangerous for even the walkers, who’s numbers had gradually increased all the way to Saria where they just skyrocketed. Apparently, Saria is the closest point to Santiago one is able to walk from, the minimum distance being 100kms for walkers and 200kms for cyclists.
I have my pass to heaven, have rested for several days and am now ready to turn south to follow the Portuguese Way to Lisbon. Hopefully springtime will not be too long in arriving.
Looking back to France now my abiding memories will be of terrible weather, empty trails and stunning food. I don’t think I will see such well-maintained and signposted cycle routes again and if you think that the food in England is getting better, your probably right but it still has light years to catch up with the French, and I’m talking about every single establishment I ate at, be it restaurants for evening meals or kebab stalls for a fatty lunch. The cyclists need a few more manners though, the lycra clad ones that is. Everyone on a mountain bike said bonjour and the occasional lycra racer did but on the whole, they ignored my nods and hellos. This is the opposite to Spain where everyone, who isn’t having a bad day, has said ‘hola’ whether they are mounted on a cycle or not, without doubt extraordinarily friendly but then it could be that they welcome all who follow the route of the pilgrims. I still have a lot of miles to cover in both countries so my opinions may change, and I hope they do for the better.
The bike has been as it should reliable. It got dropped once in a hotel and smashed the mirror but I managed to replace it the same day with a bigger one, which works out better as I don’t want to be looking for trouble behind me, just glancing at it. It is also better for shaving and getting dirt out of my eyes with. I have sent a couple of kgs. of unused stuff home but I’m glad I did overload as I needed to get my fitness levels up to be able to cope with the terrain in Spain. France was flat so I’ve really only been doing hills for a month. My legs are getting bigger and I cannot believe how much I have to eat everyday just to stay on top of my energy levels, which once or twice has been a challenge and I noticed how readily it effects my moods and ability to think, but it is all part of the journey.
These are just the brief highlights (got to keep some back for a future book!) and despite some terrible weather I think things have gone well so far and I am really enjoying myself.
All the best,
P.S. If you want to follow me a bit more regularly I am on Facebook as Mike Braney or Instagram as Michaelsviewpoint