Two months ago I moved to Northern Spain, to a small town near Santander, to teach English. The decision was in no small part influenced by the geography of the place. A beautiful coastline hugged by a mountain range is a dreamy playground for the outdoorsy type. It’s no surprise that this area, on the border of Cantabria and the Basque country, is a hotspot for cycling. With quiet, good quality roads and elevation everywhere I wasted no time jumping on the bike.
One of my favourite things about cycling in this area is the rewards that come with challenging terrain. A lung-busting, switchback heavy climb is followed by a stunning descent with postcard views over the mountains and out to sea. A long day in the saddle is sprinkled with stops at local café’s dotting the valley floors. Somehow these oases always appear just when you need some calories and a café con leche. Still, after two months of riding, every time I order some tortilla potata (the perfect mid-ride snack, by the way) and a caffeine hit – a big grin engulfs my face, as I’m flooded with fond memories of similar Spanish pit stops.
Three years ago, somehow, now, I toured Spain with my brother as part of a long tour from England to Portugal. We mostly followed the Eurovelo 1 route; down the west coast of France and through pine forests spilling onto long sandy beaches, over the Pyrenees and into Spain along the Camino Frances pilgrimage route, before heading South along a lesser known pilgrim’s route the Ruta De La Plata, before hitting the sea on the southern Spanish coast and following the coastline west into Portugal.
It’s one of the best things I’ve ever done. Not because it was all sunshine and rainbows (although we did have ridiculous luck with the weather!), but because it was bloody difficult, often jaw-droppingly beautiful, often tedious and boring and stressful, and because I got to share all the ups and downs – literal and figurative – with my big brother.
The magic of bike touring
The effect of those five weeks can be powerful. On the tour, there’s a cathartic disconnect from non-tour existence, when it’s just you, the bike, and the road. Your mind finds a rhythm bouncing from base concern to base concern; when are we next going to eat? Where are we going to sleep tonight? How much energy is left in my legs? The space outside of these questions is filled by the passing scenery and the hum of turning pedals.
As the miles tick by, food tastes better as your body appreciates the calories more, sleep is deeper than normal as you recover, and time slows down as it becomes less significant. Life in the saddle forces you into these adjustments – and it feels good, not only when you’re touring but when something nudges you into remembering the simple routines of the road. Something like a big wedge of tortilla potato with some tough miles in your legs, with a big climb behind you and a big climb ahead.
Without fail, it still makes me smile. A hungry smile that makes my feet itch. A familiar itch that’s a testament to the pull of life on the road.
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