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.
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
So after many hours poring over the maps and double-checking distances
I set my course.
|Land's End -
150 miles, 15 mph average6
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 -
144 miles, 12 mph average8
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 -
144 miles, 12 mph average9
The Plains of Palencia & Castilla
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
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 -
155 miles, 13 mph average10
Sierra de la Pena de Francia & Sierra
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
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
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
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 -
140 miles, 13 mph average11
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
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,
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 -
137 miles, 15 mph average12
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
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.
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
|Land's End -
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.