Introduction


Long distance cyclists must be a breed apart; always looking for new boundaries and fresh challenges. Having already been bitten by the 'epic ride bug' I had previously ridden Land's End to John O'Groats, The Three Peaks Race and an off-road ride over the Pyrenees from Pamplona to Biarritz, I guess there was some logic in the progression to ride from the farthest South Westerly point of the UK to the same compass reference in mainland Europe. To add to the challenge the ride was to be undertaken as quickly as possible, solo and unsupported.

So the training began in earnest in the springtime. I'd been riding at least twice a week over the winter, so it wasn't too hard to step up the miles in preparation. It's often said that the hardest part of such a challenge is setting the date, so I procured a ticket on the Plymouth - Santander ferry and a return flight from Faro for a week later. Now all I had to do was link the two together!

From experience I knew that travelling light was of the utmost importance. There is always something one wishes one had brought, but too often so many superfluous items are carried adding fatigue and unsettling the bike's handling characteristics.

I used a 1:400,000 Michelin road atlas that was big enough to show the minor roads but not so small in scale that I would need to carry dozens of pages. Only the pages I'd need were cut out of the atlas, and even these were trimmed down to within a 20-mile radius of the planned route in case of diversions.

I had two criteria for the route:

1. To avoid major roads

2. To pass through places of historical interest or scenic beauty

So after many hours poring over the maps and double-checking distances I set my course.



Land's End - Cape St.Vincent
150 miles, 15 mph average6 July 04Day 1
Cornwall


I am fortunate enough to live just an hour's drive from Land's End and so I was able to have a good night's sleep and eat a hearty breakfast before being chauffeur driven to Cornwall's most remote corner. After the obligatory photo at the First & Last Signpost 1 I set off on a familiar route that took me along the rugged north coast 2, down through Truro 4 for a lunch stop at home and on to the south coast at Carlyon Bay 5. The exceptionally pretty River Fowey was crossed on the Bodinnick Ferry 6 and from there came the long but steady climb to Lanreath 7 where a good friend's wife had laid on some very welcome tea and cake to fuel me on to Bodmin Moor and Cornwall's highest village at Minions (320m) 8. At least half of the height gained in the 18-mile climb was then lost in a high-speed moment flying down steep country lanes.

It had been near perfect cycling weather all day; patchy cloud, between 15 and 20 degrees and only a gentle headwind.

I make a convenient overnight stop at my brother's house in St Dominick 9 and kick-off early the next day making a diversion to call on a friend at Ivybridge 11 for coffee and enjoy a downhill blast to the ferry port 12 with an ever-increasing tailwind under ominous grey skies. The heavens open just as I am boarding and although it's midday the light has faded to dusk. By evening the ship is in the clutches of an horrendous storm with a force 9 gale in the infamous Bay of Biscay lying in wait ahead. So severe were the weather warnings that the captain slowed the ship to almost a standstill for the worst of the storm to pass in front of us.



Land's End - Cape St.Vincent
144 miles, 12 mph average8 July 04Day 2
Cantabria & The Picos


The journey proper begins here and as the ferry docks in Santander 1 I can see the limestone crags of the Picos de Europa rising above me. The storm has passed; a mild breeze is all that remains but some cloud still hangs onto the mountaintops. The road rises steadily through the foothills but at San Miguel de Luena 2 it becomes a real mountain road and has to make switchbacks across the gradient for the next 10 miles taking it up to some 1011m above sea level at the Puerto del Escudo. Just beyond the pass lies Lake Ebro supplying fresh water for cities as far afield as Burgos and Bilbao. I emerge onto a high plateau that then gently descends through dense forests of beech and chestnut to cross Spain's longest river the Ebro at Ruerrero. From here it flows over five hundred miles southeast into the Mediterranean south of Barcelona.

The second big climb of the day takes me out over rugged Cantabrian farmland over a second pass at 1050m and up past the rocky promontory of Amaya. Even though the sun is now shining, there's a distinct chill in the air at this altitude and as the wind is blowing from the northwest I divert my course due south to Osorno to make the most of a tail wind.

As the light begins to fade I call at a motel on the main road but they won't allow me to take my bike to the room, so I head into the town. There is only one hotel and the landlady has a complete fit when she sees the bike in the foyer, but she eventually agrees to let me keep it in their store, although she is less than amused when I ask her to let me out at 6:00 a.m. the next day. At 30 Euros for one night in a very hum-drum place with clean but distinctly 70's décor I felt I'd not got much of a bargain. However all that changed at dinner. There was a set menu for 10 Euros that included a delicious thick soup, two tender beefsteaks, desert, water and a whole bottle of Rioja!



Land's End - Cape St.Vincent
144 miles, 12 mph average9 July 04Day 3
The Plains of Palencia & Castilla Y Leon


Much to the landlady's dismay I'm up early, but within the first mile I have to put all my clothes on to avoid the bitter pre-dawn chill. The flat wheat fields of the 'Meseta' make for easy riding and by the time the temperature has risen to a comfortable level by 11.00 a.m. I've covered the first 50 miles. Then the trouble sets in. As the land warms, so a hot wind picks up and there is nothing to stop its path except me. As the day wears on, the winds increase and by 4.00 p.m. I'm having to stand on the pedals to make progress on the flat and even have to pedal hard when the gradient falls away.

Whilst the scenery holds nothing of interest, I am charmed by each mediaeval village I pass. Every one has a typical vernacular square tower and plaza mayor built of local ochre stone topped with red-brown tiles. They seem untouched by time and almost uninhabited; in fact the road is eerily quiet with barely one car passing each quarter-hour. Near Carrion de los Condes 7 I pick up part of the Saint's Way and pass several hikers making their westwards pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

Castille is of course famous for its mighty castles built in the 10th & 11th centuries during the battles between Christians & Moors, however many were later built as grand residences with no military use until such excesses were curtailed by Fernando & Isobel some four hundred years later. Tordesillas 10 marks a landmark for me as at this point I cross one of Spain's longest river's; the Duero that flows west from here to Porto. Tordesillas also holds an historical landmark in that it was here that Spain's treaty with Portugal was signed in 1494 dividing up the lands of South America. However the Spanish cartographers had made an error and accidentally gave away Brazil to the Portuguese! No such mapmaking errors for me and from here its a hot headwind across rolling plains 50 more miles to Salamanca. Temperature is in the mid 30's; I'm getting severely fatigued, dehydrated and demoralised. Its difficult to even get the bike up past 10 mph, and by the time I make the Renaissance city of Salamanca 12, I just don't have the energy left to really enjoy its magnificent architecture. The whole of the centre is beautifully preserved with its fine sandstone Plaza, Cathedrals and University buildings. By a stroke of good fortune, just as I am about to leave the centre for some boring chain hotel, I come across a hostel right next to the Cathedral. Its single star rating belies the warm welcome and luxury of its rooms. My host is delighted for me to take the bike to the room, and once I'm showered I get straight back out to enjoy two dinners much to the waiter's bemusement!



Land's End - Cape St.Vincent
155 miles, 13 mph average10 July 04Day 4
Sierra de la Pena de Francia & Sierra de Gata


I'm up early after a deep, deep sleep and make my way down cobbled streets to the Roman Bridge to leave the city in what I consider to be some style as the bridge is only open to pedestrians and cyclists. Looking back at Salamanca at dawn I can see the Cathedral's two towers rising high. When the original 12th Century Romanesque Cathedral was too small, the Salamancans simply built another along side four hundred years later.

The 1732m peak of Pena de Francia has been visible since 20 miles east of Salamanca and as I pass through a delightful undulating land of almond and olive trees, I'm climbing steadily towards it.

Buzzards swoop gracefully over the road whilst flocks of black and white storks spread their wings in panic at the first sight of me. I've already gained a lot of height in the foothills and then the road takes a route around the back of the mountain and climbs with avengeance to the pretty village of La Alberca 13. Passing through the village, I'm lucky enough to meet a costumed trio playing traditional instruments. Just what they are celebrating escapes me, but it's a show they are only putting on for their own benefit and not some tourist slot.

Before too long I hit the road summit and the highest point of the whole ride at El Portillo some 1240m above sea level. The views from the top facing east back to Salamanca are wonderful, but the westward views over the Las Hurdes region are staggering.

The road zig-zags perilously down now losing 500m in just a few exhilarating miles. I hit speeds of up to 50 mph and even overtake a camper van! The only real downside to the 'downside' is the rapid gain in temperature and the post midday heat in the high 30's is accompanied by that headwind once more and even though the slope is with me, I have to keep up the effort. The descent ends in the Sierra de Gata at the Rio Hurdano (about half way between La Alberca and Pinofranqueado 14). It's little more than a stream at this time of year as its waters have been used for irrigation further upstream, and from this point onwards only the major rivers still flow and I pass many a dry river bed. However, a few more miles of fragrant pine forest brings me out into open country and down to Lake Borbollo.

As I cross the dam the temperature hits 40 degrees for the first time. I take on more water at every opportunity and by the end of the day I'll have consumed over 10 litres and still be dehydrated.

This region is known for its economic depravation and isolation (the first tarmac roads only came in the 1950s) but it has a genuine old-fashioned charm and the people are said to still speak the local chapurrian dialect. In 60 miles between Moraleja 16 and Alcantara 17 there is just one village and precious little else - just a vast open empty space.

Eventually Alcantara comes into view and I plunge into the gorge through which the River Tagus flows en route to Lisbon. To my amazement the main road still runs right over the drystone Roman Viaduct, but I guess that there's so little traffic it has survived intact for so many years. Alcantara's other highlight is the ruined convent of San Benito - used as HQ for the Knights of the Order of Alcantara, and I find a casa rurale offering rooms in a traditional house right next to the convent.



Land's End - Cape St.Vincent
140 miles, 13 mph average11 July 04Day 5
Extremadura, Serra de Sao Mamede &
The Portuguese Border Towns


Extremadura literally means 'land beyond the River Duoro', but to me it means 'extremely hard'. Acres upon acres of harsh barren landscape, baked in summer, frozen in winter. I start out under crystal clear skies and even by 9:00 a.m. it's getting hot. The map below doesn't show the road I actually took as a diversion led me some 40 miles out of my way to Brozas 18 and then on to Salorino direct on a new road. It was such a long diversion because there are just no other roads! The map also fails to acknowledge that there is a border crossing from the Chandovila monastery at La Codersera 19 to Arronches 22 high up in the Serra de Sao Mamede. At least in the mountains I can get some shade in the cork oaks that cover the hillsides, but only by riding on the wrong side of the road much to the annoyance of the very few motorists passing by!

The diversion has caused me to by-pass what would have been my fourth 1000m+ mountain pass, but as the heat builds in to the 40's by noon I'm glad to be descending into Portugal. It's so hot I have to drape a wet towel over my head to stay cool and keep my face in the shade. I'm further delayed by stupidly running out of sun block and so I ride into each village in search of a shop but of course it's Domingo and nothing is open except the occasional petrol station. At least these extra detours allow me to see each pueblo in more detail. The houses are low and immaculately whitewashed with tiny windows (to keep out the heat) with brightly painted surrounds in yellow, red or mostly blue, whilst the streets are cobbled with square cut white marble blocks.

The larger border towns of Estremoz 23, Evoramonte 24 and Evora 25 are all located on hilltops and are walled or fortified. Each played a significant part in the War of Restoration against the Spanish between 1640 and 1668. It's early evening by the time I reach the Unesco World Heritage Site of Evora. The city is full of fascinating sights like the 11th century cathedral (Se) and 16th century aqueduct. Evora was of great value to the Romans who named it after the wheat fields of the region Ebora Cerealis. I press on enjoying the relative cool of the late evening turning the pedals on arrow straight tree-lined roads leading to the ancient spa town of Viana do Alentejo, where I arrive in darkness. To my great delight, for just 20 Euros, I find a fabulous room, decorated in traditional dark oak with intricate lace work bed linen.



Land's End - Cape St.Vincent
137 miles, 15 mph average12 July 04Day 6
The Alentajo & West Coast


The Alentajo (meaning beyond the Tagus) occupies nearly one third of Portugal from the Tagus to the Algarve, and rolls with wheat fields, cork oaks and olive groves. The day follows it's usual pattern of building heat and wind, although after crossing the northern extremities of the Serra de Monchique and turning south at Odemira 30, the wind is behind me for the first time.

The temperature also drops markedly and comfortably to the high 20's with the proximity to the Atlantic. Glimpses of the ocean can now be had all along this road and after the village of Aljezur 31 famous for its Moorish castle, I turn right through the Serra do Espinhaco de Cao to get my first real view of the sea at Borderia.

The beaches of the west coast are still undeveloped and untouched by tourism, but one wonders for how much longer they will survive.

The road disintegrates over the exposed plains before the Cape 32, and by 5:00 p.m. I have reached what in the Middle Ages was believed to be the End of the World. The location is spectacular with its 200ft cliffs dropping vertically downwards and the Cape St Vincent lighthouse pumping out light over a 60 mile range.



Land's End - Cape St.Vincent
15-17 July 04Days 7-9
The Algarve


The last few days in hand were spent slowly meandering back to the airport at Faro, through the hideously overpopulated and overdeveloped Algarve. The additional mileage rounded-up the total for the trip to the 1000-mile target I had originally set myself.



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