This was one of my first long distance rides and probably gave me a real taste for the epic journeys that I enjoyed in later years. I had been riding mountain bikes enthusiastically for less than a year, when I saw the charity Scope advertising a three-day ride over the Pyrenees. The idea immediately captured my imagination and I set about raising the £1,000 sponsorship required in haste. The plan would have been to fly out from London but I decided to make a week of it by taking the ferry from Plymouth and riding from Santander to meet the group at Bilbao Airport.

As the difficult part of the route (on the trails over the mountains) was guided, I took no maps, but decided to simply set course along the Cantabrian coast heading east to Bilbao.

Across the Pyrenees (off road)

Off Road Kit

Airborne Lucky Strike / Shimano XTR / Hope
Mini Brakes /Marzocchi Atom fork

Air Deuter Rucksack

Cotton shorts

T Shirt (short sleeve)

Kodak disposable camera

Topeak Hummer multi-tool & one tyre lever

Mobile phone

Blackburn compact pump

Sudo-crème, travel toothpaste, pain killers

Specialised spare tube & Park self-adhesive patches

Travel docs, pen & passport

Antiseptic wet-wipes (x20)

Camelback water carrier

Cash, credit card & cash point card

Toothbrush, razor & comb (handles all cut off)


Polythene bags

TOTAL bike weight




100g(apologies for the photo quality!)













1,900gTOTAL carried weight

Across the Pyrenees (off road)
70 miles, 13 mph average5 Sept 02Day 1
Santander - San Juan de Somorrostro

After a comfortable if somewhat dull ferry crossing from Plymouth I rode out onto the Santander quayside to a mixture of sunshine and showers. Although I was itching to get a few miles of virgin territory in, there is no direct route east out of Santander for the cyclist as bikes are banned from the autopiste. Instead I took the ferry to Pedrena 1 for just one Euro. A short stiff climb took me out onto the arrow straight road to Arnuero 2 and onto Santona 3. I cruised down into the town in the hope of finding another passenger ferry to take me over to the sand spit that extends northwest from Laredo 4. My luck was in; as to ride around would have been a ten-mile plus diversion. As I was waiting for the boat, I noticed a large gathering of young girls outside of what appeared to be the town hall. They were all giggles and excitability, as if awaiting the arrival of a pop star. Some were carrying posters and photos of the focus of their adulation, hoping perhaps that these might get autographed. On making a few enquiries it transpired that the young man in question was in fact a famous matador and what I'd thought was the town hall was the bullring!

The next 30 miles were a mixture of torture and torment as the road followed the coast, rising and falling steeply across the foothills of the Picos de Europa and winding in and out of each bay and estuary. I didn't mind the climbs too much, but the road crossed over the main A8 several times and as it did so I could see the distances to Bilbao signposted below. At the next bridge I had ridden about 10 miles but read that I had only moved 3 miles closer to Bilbao due to the serpentine meanderings of the old road.

At Islares 5 I took a diversion off the road down a sandy track that led to a stunning beach. Unfortunately the track became an unrideable cliff path, but carrying the bike around the headland gave me a great view back along the beach and I could imagine how lovely it would be in the summer months. By the time I reached Castro-Urdiales I figured I had a few more hours of daylight so I pressed on up the two mile climb that felt like at least a 1 in 5 gradient. It was another long hard climb to San Juan de Somorrostro 7 and with about a mile to go in darkness the heavens opened. I found the only hotel in town and staggered in only to be told they were fully booked. The car park was empty, I wasn't exactly on a major tourist route and it was just about the end of the season. Maybe the receptionist just didn't like the look of a drowned rat speaking Spanish like a Portuguese!

To my better fortune there was a truck stop across the road and they found my dishevelled appearance far more amusing, and even arranged for my bike to be locked up out of harm's way. For 25 Euros I had a comfortable if basic room, breakfast and a three-course meal of hearty dimensions. The trucker's canteen was another unique experience. A dozen or so tables were set for individuals only and all facing forwards somewhat like classroom desks. Either Spanish truckers don't like to talk over dinner or the proprietors don't like to encourage idle banter.

Across the Pyrenees (off road)
34 miles, 12 mph average6 Sept 02Day 2
Bilbao - Roncesvalles

Bilbao must be one of the most bike unfriendly cities in the world. Wedged between the sea and the mountains, the only cycleable way in from the west is along a horrible valley road too narrow for two lorries to pass each way without trapping a rider up against the hedge. To add to my misery I had been unable to dry my gear from the night before. It seemed an endless trail of oil refineries and industrial estates. The city centre itself had no cycle lanes at all and the road out towards the airport involved negotiating a tunnel from which bikes were banned so I had to run the gauntlet between the traffic and the guards on the tollbooths.

The centre of town is now well known for the Guggenheim museum on the banks of the Rio Nervion. A titanium-clad masterpiece built in 1997 by American architect Frank O. Gehry; it houses a vast collection of modern art including Jeff Koons' 'Puppy'. There didn't appear to be anywhere safe to leave bicycles so I had to forego a tour of the museum itself.

At least this setback put me ahead of schedule to make my rendezvous with the group arriving by plane.

To my amazement a crowd of over 70 finally amassed on the airport steps. I had been expecting a maximum of a dozen riders. There was a huge buzz of anticipation regarding what we had let ourselves in for. The group was as large as it was diverse, ranging from teenage downhillers to middle-aged housewives, but we were all united in our goal of crossing the mountain range off road and agreeing that the hardest part (the fund raising) was over!

We were shepherded onto two coaches bound for the Basque country, Pamplona 9 and up into the Pyrenees. On the way through Pamplona we passed a monument to the town's greatest son; Miguel Indurain who won the Tour de France five times in succession between 1991 and '95. Of course it is also famous for the fiesta of Los Sanfermines held each July when 6 bulls are released to run rampage through the streets.

By mid afternoon we reached Roncesvalles 10, collect our belongings and were delighted to find we are to stay at the Colegiata Real - a 13th century monastery that has served travellers down the centuries and is a major halt on the Pilgrim's way to Santiago de Compostella. With no time to waste we were sent out to the woods for a two-hour ride to test our off road skills and endurance. It's a very savvy plan as the guides were then able to sort us into groups according to ability so that no one is left struggling behind or bored to tears way out in front.

Across the Pyrenees (off road)
28 miles, 8 mph average7 Sept 02Day 3
Roncesvalles - Elizondo

Unfortunately our hosts had underestimated just how much bike riders can eat and our delicious meal of local stew left us all going to bed with stomachs still grumbling. It was much the same situation at breakfast and we had missed the local shops' opening hours. Nevertheless we set out in high spirits, even knowing that the day would involve more climbing that descending. We were soon above the tree line and could see back down the trail, and once out of the woods the track was less muddy with enough grip to stand on the pedals when necessary.

The first descent brought out all the competitive instincts and it seemed that many of those that had suffered on the climb, were now in their element, whooping down through the trees; tyres struggling for traction on the wet mud. Our guides were professional mountain bikers that had come over from Morzine and Les Gets in the Alps and were able to show us how to pick out the correct lines through the corners allowing the bike to glide and carve. Before long I was flying downhill faster than I'd ever ridden.

Even though it had been an exhilarating day's ride, we were all glad to roll into the typical Basque village of Elizondo 11 for a chance to clean the bikes, our clothes and ourselves.

Across the Pyrenees (off road)
22 miles, 8 mph average8 Sept 02Day 4
Elizondo - St Pee sur Nivelle

The day started with more climbing of course, but within three hours we were at one of the highest points of the trip. There were gorgeous views of the forest-clad hills all around, although somewhat ominously two large birds of prey circled above us. It turned out that they were just keeping an eye on their nesting site in the rocky crags higher up.

Lucien our guide gave us a knowing wink and said with typical Gallic understatement, "So now we have a little downhill ride, OK". What followed was a total of over 10 miles of descending over a mixture of grassy fields, steep muddy banks and flowing singletrack through the woods. I punctured about halfway down and was relieved to let my heart rate return to normal. The fluid in my hydraulic brakes had begun to boil rendering them useless, and my forearms were aching with the effort of hanging on. By the time the tube had been changed I was ready to bale down the hill once more. At one point I had started to catch the rider in front and could see a chance to pass on the inside of a bend although it meant going through a puddle he had swerved to avoid. As I hit the water the bike came to a virtual standstill as I sunk past my axles, getting soaked in freezing brown sludge. "The guy in front of me just did that!" exclaimed my rival, wryly explaining his choice of line!

We had been told to regroup at the St Pee Lake 12 and the temptation to dive right into the cool water was too much. Once the mud had fallen from our legs and backs, and the salty sweat rinsed out of our eyes, we hit the road refreshed for the last five miles into town. It was Sunday and as we entered town we caught the back end of a road race. The Gendarmerie had closed the road to traffic and the streets were lined with locals chanting "Allez-Allez!" Our leading group put on a dramatic spurt of speed and even managed to overtake a few of the back markers!

We spent the night in relative luxury, with a grand farewell dinner, prize giving and proper hotel rooms rather than the dormitories we had shared the previous two nights. Later in the bar we were treated to an impromptu concert from a pair of local characters. Even though we had crossed into France for the second time, this was still very much Basque country and the beautiful songs they sang were of the traditional struggle against oppression genre, all helped along by a heady mix of bier et calvados!

Across the Pyrenees (off road)
43 miles, 10 mph average9 Sept 02Day 5
St Pee sur Nivelle - St Jean de Luz

A late start. The first hill saw quite a few of us holding our thumping heads in our hands and asking ourselves why we had drunk so much the night before. A few more miles soon blew away the cobwebs however, and the sun came out to reveal the view towards the Atlantic coast. On a number of occasions we had passed the stocky Pyrenean horses on the trail or had been able to hear the charming tone of the bells around their necks distinguishing them from the wild pottock ponies. At one point we had rounded a corner travelling downhill in close convoy and at considerable speed to find a mother and foal blocking the way. The shout went out from the first rider "Whoa!" and the call was passed down the line, "Whoa, whoa, whoa-whoa!" At which point Pete, the wag at the end of the tail sang out, "Don't you want me baby!"

In St Jean 13 we had been told to circle the town centre until all the groups had joined the 'peloton'. Only in France would the sight of 70 or so filthy mountain bikers blocking the traffic be welcomed with such glee. Folks stood up from the pavement cafes, put down their morning papers and café-au-laits and cheered us through. They had no idea whom we were or where we had been, but they shared in our mutual appreciation of the joys of cycling. The resort's claim to fame is that it was the site of Louis XIV's marriage to the Spanish Infanta Maria Teresa in 1660, an event cementing an alliance between France and Spain. A final lap of the promenade took us out to the beach where a great deal of backslapping; posing for photos and vows to repeat the experience as soon as possible went on.

Once the group had split up, I caught a lift back to bypass Bilbao to avoid the horrendous traffic situation and retraced my wheel-prints in a westerly direction to find a lovely hotel in Solorzano for the night. The landlady kindly agreed to wash my cycling gear (which was by now close to a state of decay), and left it in the boiler room to dry overnight.

Across the Pyrenees (off road)
43 miles, 10 mph average10 Sept 02Day 6
Bilbao - Santander

I woke in a panic, realising that I had to be on board the 10am ferry well before that time. My legs were stiff and sore from the days of climbing, but I had no choice but to press on at full speed. It was for once glorious sunshine and the landscape that had looked somewhat uninviting on my arrival came alive in verdant hues. I had to keep my head down and pedal frantically, constantly checking the mileage and time. On arrival back in Pedrena I could see the Brittany Ferries ship docked in Santander across the bay, smoke rising slowly from her funnels. I had just 30 minutes to go, but the faithful barco returned me to the dockside just in the nick of time. I spent a great deal of the return crossing to Plymouth asleep on the deck in the sun.

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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