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
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 Kit
Lucky Strike / Shimano XTR / Hope
Mini Brakes /Marzocchi Atom fork
Air Deuter Rucksack
T Shirt (short sleeve)
Kodak disposable camera
Topeak Hummer multi-tool & one tyre lever
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)
for the photo quality!)
|Across the Pyrenees
70 miles, 13 mph average5
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
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
34 miles, 12 mph average6
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'
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
28 miles, 8 mph average7
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
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
22 miles, 8 mph average8
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
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
43 miles, 10 mph average9
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
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
43 miles, 10 mph average10
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
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.