Two revelations in revisiting. Spain is not flat. San Sebastian is not a coastal village.
If you’re looking for a testing cycle, or a challenging place to jump start a van, Spain doesn’t only offer the Pyrenees, the route down the eastern half of the country has been a succession of mountain chains and so there’s been an onomatopoeic shift from the ‘ooooh’s’ of France to the ‘arghhs’ in Spain.
Reaching a peak of 1,200 meters in the Sistema Iberico the plateau has vineyards and you’re not greeted with signs to proudly announce your heady altitude, but by farmers ploughing fields. It’s demoralising struggling up an 8% climb which is higher than Ben Nevis only to see a tractor has made the same journey.
And then there was San Sebastian, my limited recollections from a boozy night spent on a Tapas crawl were of a small undiscovered village, a main high street that lead towards the beach, and well, not much else.
Unless San Sebastian had sprung up like Dubai I really was incredibly drunk that night 8 years ago. My Basque friend Jon walked me past Calle de San Jerónimo, ‘this is where all you find mostly the English people’, it looked familiar and clearly I hadn’t made it far past this one street previously.
I did correctly remember how delicious the pinxtos throughout the city was and it was an interesting time to be visiting the Basque country. Scotland had voted no to independence the day before I crossed the border, while the Basque countries own independence from Spain draws an interesting comparable. Natives flew the Basque and Scottish flags side by side from apartment balconies.
It made sense Jon was so forgiving of my drunken exploits, there was a celebration that night in Hernani, a small town to the south of San Sebastian, and it’s felt like there’s been either a bull fighting festival or farmers celebration each night since.
I cycled into the tiny village of Borja at mid-day on Tuesday to get a pre-siesta snack only to wander into the middle of a marching band and huge figures parading the crowded streets.
Aside from this one exception, almost every town is deserted for what felt like much of the day.
Never having cycled further than 25km in one-go before she had a big challenge of 400km in three days from Cordoba to Gibraltar ahead. As Louise was to find out, you’re never at your clumsiest than when carrying a laden bike around town and the first hint was even before leaving the hallway where our bikes were parked on the first morning. A quick turn of the handlebars and the bike crashed to the floor, pedals knocking into her shin.
It was the first of a collage of bruises she accumulated in the four days to go alongside the sun-burnt legs on day one, a sort of tartan kilt.
Among four of the toughest days I’d experienced for distance and heat, she was relentlessly positive. ‘It’s a bit hot, isn’t it?’ was about the closest to an outburst, she just keep pushing away and cycled 150km on the first day. The only indication that she had any struggle with such a huge distance was when confessing to nearly crying with 30km remaining until Seville.
As one final test there didn’t appear to be any route other than motorway into Gibraltar and my attempts to guide us down a dirt road across a river didn’t look optimistic when a bull wondered across the road in front of us.
I wasn’t humoring Louise when I said that was one of the physically hardest days I’d ever had.
But a shower, a pizza ordered directly to your hotel room, a cryo-sleep and lax motorway rules for cyclists will do wonders, and by 11am we were enjoying the view of the Rock of Gibraltar, we didn’t for one moment consider cycling up.
We’d lapped Gibraltar by about 4pm, and about three and half hours of that time was spent in bars while the rest of the time was spent posing triumphantly with a tyre dipped in the sea water or at Europa point Lighthouse looking towards Morocco across the Strait of Gibraltar.
That’s the next leg of the journey, but as Louise heads back the UK I was really amazed by how selfless she’d been to take on a challenge which was so unfamiliar and the strength she showed to persevere through what I found to be a really grueling challenge, but what must have seemed even more insurmountable to an inexperienced cyclist.