February 2018 was an eventful month, to say the least. We were only a few weeks into the new year, but – for both Alex and me – it was already proving to be a rather crappy one. The cold and endless grey showed no signs of relenting, work was uninspiring, homesickness was brewing… and everything, generally, seemed to be a spectacular shade of shmeh.*
*Possibly being a bit dramatic here. February was also an excellent month, because Alex and I got engaged! But heart-warming romance isn’t helping me set up the scene here… so just go with it.
Quite understandably, both of us were feeling a little grim. Which is why, one Sunday evening (in what can only be explained as a burst of inspiration, combined with a serious case of seasonal affective disorder) a number of, interesting decisions were made:
- We would both quit our jobs.
- We would give up our apartment.
- We would go travel for a few months and, amongst a few other goals,
- I would finally fulfil my dream of completing a long-distance cycle tour.
It was an ambition that had been simmering for several years already, but only in February this year did the timing feel just right. The two best remedies for stagnation, I’ve found, are a change of scenery and a kick up the ass. Cycling several hundred kilometres seemed like it would deliver well on both. And so, just a few days later, Alex’s and my resignation letters were signed, sealed and delivered. There was no turning back. My cycle tour was no longer a question of when, but where.
(At this point, I’d also like to give a shout out to my friend, Julian. Because without him indulging this ridiculous idea of mine and agreeing to go with me, I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it. Well, maybe I would have. But going alone wouldn’t have been half as fun.)
PLANNING THE ROUTE
Deciding on the nitty gritties of the final itinerary was a long and very boring process that I don’t care to repeat – neither in reality nor here. But to cut a long story short, Alex and I knew we would be based in the south west of France for a while and so, for the sake of convenience, I used that as my starting point. Looking at a map one day, I suddenly had the realisation that we were super close to the Spanish border (duh) and thought of my mom, who – when I was growing up – often talked about the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage and how much she wanted to walk it.
So, as a tribute to her, I decided on the northern most route of the pilgrimage for our tour; starting from the French-Spanish border on the Atlantic and heading westward along the northern coastline via San Sebastian, Bilbao and Santander etc., before heading inland towards the final destination: Santiago de Compostela. I followed the exact route as best as I could, but also used Komoot, Gaia GPS and Ride with GPS to find the best bike-friendly alternatives when that wasn’t possible. For our two weeks on the road, Julian and I reckoned that 60km a day would be a good number. Long enough to cover a bit of distance, but short enough to stop and enjoy the towns and villages we’d be passing through. A strict accommodation budget of 15€ per person per night – generous, I know – gave us very few available options (and even fewer that didn’t look like roach-infested brothels), but eventually we had a place to stay every night and were more or less ready to go.
AND OFF WE WENT
16 May 2018. After almost three months of planning, booking, tinkering and minimal training (because life), the day had finally come. Our bike bags were all packed and ready, but actually (because staying light was so important) we didn’t have much with us at all**. For two whole weeks of travelling, I managed to get by with just:
- 3 sets of cycling kit
- 1 rain vest + helmet cover
- 2 sets of normal clothes
- 1 tiny bag of toiletries
- 1 2.5l CamelBak hydration pack
- 1 mini tool-kit for any unexpected incidents en-route, plus a few spare parts
- 1 GPS
- 1 power bank
- 1 phone
- 1 pair of trusty Birkenstocks and, VERY importantly,
- 1 compact hammock
**We had to pack so lightly, in fact, that I couldn’t even bring along my camera. So all photos here are 100% #iphoneonly. I personally don’t think they turned out half bad.
The epic voyage began with a train from Toulouse to Bayonne – a pretty holiday town close to the Spanish border. From there it was a short cycle to Biarritz, where we spent the first night. The next morning, the tour officially began with a cycle across the border into Spain and one VERY long road ahead of us.
The next fourteen days were a bit of a blur, with long hours in the saddle punctuated by a few memorable moments each day. Stumbling upon a beautiful church, for example, or a hidden beach that the guidebooks hadn’t told us about. Also memorable – but for slightly different reasons – was a ridiculous number of punctures, the intoxicated man who legitimately tried to eat a bowl of olive pips, as well as Julian’s Great Fall of May 25th. A slip of the back wheel sent him over the handlebars and skipping along the tarmac – with two substantial roasties on his butt and forearm (soon nicknamed Margarita and Salami) to show for it. Thankfully, the incident occurred close to a farmhouse, where a very kind Spanish lady cleaned up poor Julian and comforted him with sweet words that neither of us could understand. We also got a free snack. Score!
What was most surprising about the trip is that I’d prepared myself for the actual cycling to be the most challenging part, when the worst bits were mostly psychological: frustration with the weather (Southern France/Northern Spain had one of its wettest, coldest springs in recent years), waning enthusiasm for the food (IF I EVER SEE STALE BREAD AND JAM AGAIN) and, of course, the expected tension that comes with travelling rough with someone for +–384 hours in a row.
AIN’T HINDSIGHT SWELL
Arriving in Santiago de Compostela, I’ll be honest, was a weird feeling. It was a bit like how you feel after binge watching an entire series in a single weekend. When we reached the end, there wasn’t a huge sense of fulfilment or accomplishment. Mainly just exhaustion, and the feeling of, ”now what?”
Only now, several weeks later, has the impact of our trip really started to sink in – as well as the lessons learned. Of which there were many. Because every good story needs a moral, amiright?
I learned that the world isn’t such a shitty place after all. We got by with a lot of kindness from strangers. Like the old lady who offered to wash our clothes without expecting anything in return. I’ll always cherish that.
I learned that we humans really complicate stuff. Some clothes on your back, good company, a simple meal and a roof over your head at night are pretty much all you need to get by.
And cheesy I know (but so very true), I learned that you really CAN do whatever the hell you want in life! All it takes is some planning, persistence and patience. And accepting that it probably won’t turn out exactly as you had in mind. But that’s okay too.
ONE LAST THING
The hot stats. Because I wouldn’t be a man of the advertising world if I didn’t wrap up with a whole lot of impressive figures, now would I?
- total distance travelled: 932.7 km
- total height gained: 14 056 m
- top speed: 68.2 km/h (we actually tried pretty hard to beat this, but with fully-loaded bikes our hopes were quickly diminished)
- number of calories burnt while cycling: 30 862 cal per person
- number of punctures: 15
- number of snack bars consumed: 84
- longest consecutive meal streak of bread, jam and chorizo: 5
- number of nights in a shared double bed (because there were no twin rooms available): 6
- total organic reach: 738 258 impressions (lol jk)
And on that note, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to start planning the next one…