Thursday, 31 July 2008

Road Rage

My watch says 108 F and we have just climbed 150m on an exposed stretch of road jumping from tiny patch of shade to tiny patch of shade for brief moments of relief from the heat. Meanwhile the modern pilgrim in his air conditioned car motors on the auto via way below us on a road carved through the landscape for his convenience. Such are the parallel worlds of pilgrim and 'normality' at least for today

Roadside Cafe

Needs must and with temperatures topping 100 F our riding is confined to early mornings and late evenings. Late last night, caught out in the dark, on an unexpectedly queer climb, we ended up camping in some scrub by the road side. It doesn't seen to bother the kids who are as happy having breakfast by the roadside as in a cafe. And thank goodness.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Cheated into Cheetos

Food is fuel and our tanks run dry quickly. Refueling, especially with three kids is essential but not always easy in France or Spain. We always seem to turn up at the wrong time. The Spanish eat at ten, except for the times we roll up when they have closed early. The one time we got it right we discovered we were in France and different rules were in play. Tonight in the one bar town of Lararrossoa, we got the time right but the bar was too busy to serve us before lights out at the Pension. So we settled, again, for six packets of Spanish cheesey wotsits.

Surprise, surprise

When we woke this morning and the mist lifted we found ourselves in the most unexpected place, at the Col du Ibaneta, almost in the shadow of the chapel that marks the summit. I guess sometimes you are where you want to be but you just don't know it.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Heaven can wait

Too wet, too late, too high. Mission abandoned for a wild camp at 1000m. Let's see what tomorrow brings.


900m up, in an emerald forest we are entering the cloud zone now. If this is a metaphor for getting to heaven, be warned, it takes a lot effort with so much gear.

The inner and outer journeys

While Stuart prepares for the next phase of his inner journey with some meditation on the price of coffee in France compared to Spain, I prefer to focus on worrying about the outer journey worrying about the approaching storms while doing my best to enjoy a tortilla sandwich.

The big one

We're on our way up to the Col du Ibaneta and it is truly a struggle. Even our 3000m + of training on the coast has not prepared us for this. Last night a mighty thunderstorm tried to warn us off, then a road traffic accident at the bottom of the mountain signalled doom: perhaps we need to pay more attention to these signs? Time now to rest, eat and drink before the climb continues

Sunday, 27 July 2008

To be a Pilgrim

What does it take to be a pilgrim? The kids seem to think we need big sticks, a large cloak, a leather satchel and a scallop shell. The man in the Pilgrim's office seemed insistent we should take some goat's cheese. Kirstie seems to think we'll need some kind of miracle to get us over 1000m of the Pyrenees tomorrow. We got the scallop shells, decided against the goat's cheese and live in hope of a miracle or at least a cool day, strong legs and deep wells of patience.

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What do you look like?

A few days ago we met some British cyclists, on a steep hill on the Basque
coast. The woman was practically cycling unloaded, while her other half
looked like a donkey; bag after bag stuffed onto his racks. "I don't do
heat very well," she apologised, "so he carries all my stuff." Her partner
wiped his brow. "It's a bit bumpy round here isn't it?" he said in rich
Brummie. A bit bumpy? I couldn't think of a less appropriate description. My
cellulite is a bit bumpy. This is something else altogether. We all said our
goodbyes and puffed off up the hill, aware that it was still several
unreasonable kilometres of climb to the nearest campsite.

I think it was the only time in nine days that anyone has spoken to us in
English. The English are a rare species round here. Touring cyclists are
even rarer it seems, so we look just a little out of place. And this prompts
a massive amount of attention. Wherever we park our bikes a crowd gathers. A
large crowd. And they're not content to have a discreet look. They examine
the instruments on the handlebars, they check out the brakes, their children
climb into the buggy, beep the horn and grab at the flags. And on the hills
the endless lycra clad racing cyclists (perhaps inspired by the Tour De
France) breeze past us with shouts of "allez, allez." Cars constantly beep
and their occupants give us the thumbs up. People wave and shout and
metaphorically push us on with their arms. It all began to make me feel a
bit self conscious.

Until the pilgrims started to filter in. Down at the coast they looked
weird, entering the gaudy seaside resorts with their trusted sticks, their
hanging rosary beads, their scallop shell necklaces, and their dull black
clothes and backpacks. In comparison, our bright flags, coloured outfits and
yellow trailers seemed at one with the beach crowd. "What do you look like?"
I muttered as I passed the lone peregrinos, aware that in just a day or two
we will be one of them. I doubt we'll fit in there either.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Stoked with coke

So 10 days riding and we've almost reached the start. 296km, 3300m of climb and we're 4km short of St Jean Pied de Port where we head West for Santiago at last. The boys have been amazing in the heat and the hills, powered by the occassional bottle of coke which provides half an hours entertainment as the drink is shuttled back and forth between bottle and glass. Small pleasures. Speaking of which, tomorrow will be a day of rest, our only task to find some scallop shells, apparently an essential pilgrim accessory.

Friday, 25 July 2008

You can have your cake and eat it

After the traffic traumas of San Sebastian we abandoned plans to hit Biarritz and have left the coast to head for the mountains. Kirstie's use of the French word for dog instead of boy left quite a few locals thinking we were crossing the Pyrenees with two puppies and a baby. And after several visits to pattisseries we have finally figured out how to ride and eat cakes. It will transform our riding.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Adios Espana, Bonjour La France

Crossing borders isn't half the fun it used to be. No police, papers or
passports anymore. But still in just a few metres so much can change. From beer to wine, bimbo bread to croissants, stale cake to divine creations. But if this is so obviously France why do we keep speaking Spanish?

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Feeling the heat

Someone turned up the heat today. It was 36C at 8pm when we finally rolled into San Sebastian after sweaty 34km. Kirstie added to the fun by racing ahead and almost joining a major motorway, requiring the rest of us to sprint after her uphill in the suffocating heat to warn her of impending doom. A few choice words were screamed over traffic noise in the heat of the moment but we are all friends again now.

In the spotlight

Twin spot headlights cut through the darkness and flash across our poorly
concealed tent. I wish we had decided to push on to a proper campsite, but
this was such a beautiful spot; high on the Basque coast, amidst the
eucalyptus, looking out over the Bay of Biscay. It was everything the last
few days of camping prisons were not; quiet, spacious, with spectacular
views, and free.

Another set of headlights swept around the car park. Was this some local
gathering point for Friday night al fresco parties or maybe a popular spot
for late night romantic rendezvous? I clambered gently over sleeping babies
to peek out of the tent and assess the situation. Had our cover been broken?
Should I wake the children? Move to amber alert? Put some clothes on? But
all seemed quieter; just lads chatting, smoking, sharing a beer, hanging
out. Naked and vulnerable I lay watching, waiting, wondering what next.

These feelings of vulnerability are much more familiar on the road,
especially in the early days and weeks in a new country. Without the comfort
of a habitual existence there are a thousand daily decisions to make, most
of them complicated by the added unfamiliarity of a language, customs and
culture I don't really understand. And while it feels good to try and strip
away habitual responses, doing so reveals something of the inherent
uncertainty of life and leaves me to face the consequences of every little
decision. Maybe ancient pilgrims felt this too, far from home, in unfamiliar
surroundings but at least they had the Templar Knights to protect them.

Squealing tyres on a hairpin bend and a third set of searchlights arrive on
the scene. But these are not stopping. Rubber leaves asphalt and hits the
gravel, a cloud of dust rising up and swirling towards the tent. Lads down
beers, cheer and toot their horns. The arriving hoons carve doughnuts round
and round the car park, revving angrily, tyres crunching, spitting stone,
sliding, slipping, swerving, headlights spinning, horns blaring. Then away.
The lads follow.
Silence returns. Dust settles. As the fumes disperse in the midnight breeze
I pick out the sweet smell of eucalyptus once again. The kids are still
sleeping and I sense my calmness returning. For now. Perhaps tomorrow we'll
go back to prison. Camping freedom is not without a price.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Need for speed

Ever played that computer game 'Need for Speed'? Well today was a cross between the scenes in the Pyrenees and Cote d'Azur. Without the speed of course. Still we've made Karautz, 40km and 403m climb. As usual we've done 160km to get 100km from Bilbao. At some point we will need some speed if we are to make Santiago, and we'll need to start heading the other way.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Having a nice holiday?

I am sitting in a beach bar on a sunny terrace in Lekeitio, drinking a
strong morning coffee and eating tortilla. Below me on the beach the
holidaymakers are already settled with their sunshades and beach blankets,
many of them having a dip in the sea despite its chilly temperature. As
usual there is a crowd around our bikes, pointing out milometer, altimeter
and mirror and examining the kiddie cranks and buggies. A baby grabs at the
multicoloured kite tails that flap behind the trailer and another child
beeps the horn.

"Are you having a nice holiday?" I ask my daughter, who is watching two
Spanish toddlers try to master a diabolo between them. Pink sunglasses on,
dolly in her lap, Hannah shakes her head. "No, Mummy, this is not nice
holiday," she replies politely. "My have nice holiday soon." She grabs dolly's
dummy, stuffs it into her own mouth and runs off to chase the pigeons.
Wherever Hannah thinks Spain is, she is sure she hasn't found it yet. But
this is definitely Spain; in fact it's the very heart of it; Basque country,
where slow progress has been slowed further by the alien dialect,
unfathomable street signs, and steep mountainous terrain.

But in many ways I share my daughter's view. It's another world which we
view through a lens. From under my shady umbrella I enjoy this enduring
vista of old men gathering to pace up and down in the shade while supping
wine and sharing stories; of tourists trying to stay ahead of melting ice
creams, and of barely dressed teenagers batting volleyballs over nets. I
share their sun and their sunny leisure time. I dip my feet into their waves
and bury my toes into their warm sand. But then we move on. To another
place; of smoking hot rims and tyres, of pumping pedals gradually up 300
metres of climb; pushing over a scorched mountain and dropping down into yet
another paradise.

And I like it this way; entering and leaving this world, sometimes two and
three times in a day. Hannah is right; this isn't just a nice holiday. It
can be punishingly hard work, an endurance test and sometimes a slog. But it
is undoubtedly Spain, in all its sunny glory. The sky is blue, the tortilla
is warm and the bikes wait patiently for the start of another day's riding.
Meanwhile three Scandanavian tourists arrive at the next table and order a
round of drinks.

"My God, touring bikes," one exclaims. "On these hills?" says another. They
shake their heads and laugh.

Sunday, 20 July 2008

Coming up trumps

We've reached Lekeitoi after a long and hilly 37km topped off with a totally unnecessary 150m climb to a campsite. And then the kids wanted to play Top Trumps. You have to admire their stamina! The grown ups were already trumped.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

Pilgrim's Progress

Well no one said it would be easy. We're busy acclimatising, learning how to cope with the heat, the hills and the hoons. If a Pilgrim's progress is slow, deliberate and full of challenge, then we are certainly on track. Reached Mundaka about 75km from Bilbao along a VERY hilly coastal route. Sunny. slow and scenic

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Without a car

We were busy abandoning our car to head off to the ferry on bikes when my
phone bleeped to warn me of incoming email; an enquiry from someone
developing ideas for "a new, iconic British road movie," a film exploring
the way the car has shaped our lives, landscapes and way of living. I
thought she'd got the wrong person since I'm not exactly an advocate for
motoring. But turns out she was after an alternative view of life on the
road, without a car. Now that's something I can talk about.

As a car user, cyclist and pedestrian I sometimes find myself comparing what
I get from these different ways of traveling, what I notice and what I
become when I get into the car, climb onto my bike or head off on foot. No
doubt we live in times when the car is king and so undeniably convenient but
how much do we know about what we lose by driving compared to cycling or
walking, or what we have lost to accommodate the car in our cities, towns,
villages, countryside, lives. Many of us know only the car and have no other
positive personal, first hand reference point to compare it to.

For me cycling is a positive alternative to travelling by car. It brings me
back into contact with the elements, terrain, natural world, my physical
being and other people. There is no insulation, no tin box, no protection
from the sun, rain, storm, wind. You feel the weather and know what it is.
You know the terrain more intimately too; feeling the rise and fall of the
road, noticing the slow drag, that gentle run down, that hill you never
sense in the car. You feel your legs working, your heart pumping, the cold
air in your lungs on a winter's morning, you growing stronger as you make it
up that hill you struggled with for weeks and how that illness makes you
sluggish, saps your energy, slows you down. On a bike you are part once more
of the social world of pedestrians and that special club of other cyclists
amongst which there is a camaraderie you don't get amongst drivers - the
passing nod, wave or hello, a recognition of someone else who is willing to
make an effort to get where they want to go.

And when we ride as a family, we're doing something together, as a unit,
getting to amazing places under our own steam and realising we can do that
without resort to a car. We slow down, stop more, see more, experience more,
feel more. Right now as we head off to Spain to tackle the Pyrenees and the
ancient Pilgrims route to Santiago de Compostela, we're off on a journey
that is part family holiday, part physical challenge, part adventure, and
part complete change of scene and lifestyle. We leave behind the car, the
house, the routine for an itinerant existence where we'll stay where we
stay, stop where we stop and let the journey unfold; campsites, hostels,
hotels, wild camp spots, there'll be a bit of everything I'm sure. Sunshine,
rain, wind, hilld, mountaind, flat, on-road, off-road, inland and coastal
riding. The variety, freedom and unpredictability is quite intoxicating...
at least in prospect. The reality is much more mixed - of course there'll be
different routines, boredom, hard bits, arguments - all the things there are
at home. Our life on the road is family life transported to a different
setting, played out to a different rhythm, against changing backdrops, with
the added daily stimulus of encounters with new people, places and
experiences. And then there's the daily satisfaction of knowing you got
there under your own steam and that extraordinary things are possible if you
can just pursue them in little chunks one day at a time. Now who can say
that about travelling by car?

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

On the road

We started in a fitting way for a pilgrimage; in a church car park in Portsmouth. God answered our prayers and provided bus lanes all the way to the ferry.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Worlds apart

I'm sitting in a café in Manchester, waiting to go to a meeting to discuss a piece of work that consumed me for a month but failed to please the client. I feel ready for a break.

When we're on the road, away from 'normal' life, people often stop and ask us why do we do it; why push bikes over mountain passes, sleep out in scrubland, pedal around the world on 'pointless' family challenges. Sometimes I wonder myself.

But sitting waiting for my verbal clobbering, downing a quick coffee and croissant outside a dirty café on a fume filled city street, watching everyone rushing around their worlds of work, I'm more inclined to wonder why we do that.

Why do we spend so much of our lives getting up, going to work, putting up with pointless jobs and stupid bosses; downplaying stress, ignoring pollution, excusing rudeness; telling ourselves we need the money, the car, the clothes, the phone, the nights out; kidding ourselves we've got a good job, we're going places, we're going to make a difference, that it will all be worth it in the end; living on autopilot and thinking that is how life is, who we are, what we are. Why do we spend so much time living a life of habit?

You see it's not a pointless challenge to take time out, push bikes uphill and sleep in the scrub. Taking to the road challenges the mindless routines that have a habit of creeping back into everyday living. When you live a life of habit, life loses its edge and you lose yours. Our 'pointless'
journeys take us back to basics, remind us of the easily forgotten, underlying simplicity of life; what we need is food, water, shelter, health, family and friends; everything else is fluff.

But I'm not in that world, not yet. Not this week. Coffee and croissant finished. Got to get on. Meeting to get to. People to see. Things to do. Lots of things. Important things. Naturally. Busy. Busy. Busy me. Simplicity will have to wait. Until next week.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Looking forward to the after (normal) life

Hannah tries out her new buggy, home for six weeks

Just a couple of weeks to go and we're in that strange transition phase; trying to maintain our 'normal' life while getting everything and everyone ready for this summer's adventure. There's so much to organise - finances, bikes, equipment, clothes, camping gear, children - that just occassionally I wonder if it will all be worth it.

But experience tells me that beyond the logistical nightmares of preparation, life on the road ultimately has an elegant simplicity that is hard to find in everyday living. We don't know what this journey will hold, you never do. But in the midst of all the madness of preparation I sure am looking forward to the after (normal) life.