Inflection Point

At some point, you reach a destination. You turn and head home. We rode to the Picos de Europa in northern Spain, rode until we ran out of asphalt in Fuente Dé, 1,000m up into the national park, sheer walls of limestone rising above our heads from where we camped.

We spent a week and a half exploring the beautiful national park of the Picos – Spain’s oldest, and one of the smallest. We arrived in Potes – a pretty town to the east of the park, popular with British tourists – in late September. We’d left the high plateau of the Meseta the day before, setting off early in the morning from our roadside hotel in the middle of nowhere on a long, straight quiet Roman road heading north. The bright sunshine cast long shadows over the plain in the cool crisp morning.

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With a favourable breeze for the first time in I don’t know how long, we made swift progress, reaching a possible stopping point for the day by early afternoon, covering around 70km. After a tapas lunch in a bar in the old town centre, we decided to push on, and see if we could get to the Picos. We climbed gently and steadily into the Cordillera Cantabrica mountain range, lifting us above the plain we had been travelling over for the last few days, passing through a narrow gorge, and then suddenly at the col, with an unexpected panoramic vista of the whole Picos de Europa range stretching out in front of us, beyond a long valley at our feet. The landscape tumbled down in front of us, flowing towards the sea to the north. The last 30km of the day’s 135km of riding was pure joy; a series of gently switching back curves etched into the rocky side of the valley, with breathtaking views opening between gaps in the trees, the late afternoon sun on our faces. We arrived tired and happy in a campsite full of British and German campervans and settled in for the next few days.

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After recharging and stretching the legs in a different way, walking in the hills around Potes on the edge of the Picos national park, we relocated to Fuente Dé, the cable car station at the head of the valley for some more walking, getting right into the mountains. The ride was 23km of climbing, to over 1,000m, where we camped for another 3 nights. It really was the end of the road – the only way of going on was on foot over the mountain passes, or by cable car up to the top of the cliff that towered above our camp spot.

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The elevation, steep valley sides and the fading summer meant the nights were cool and heavy with moisture, mornings crisp and fresh and the days warm. It was a perfect hide-away, and despite being round the corner from the popular cable car, it felt like we were miles from civilisation. We walked in the mountains, taking the cable car up and walking back down from the barren rocks and peaks into the steep, lush green valley. I ran too – incredible trails amongst the high peaks – the vultures still high above, and small rebecos – wild mountain goats – surprised to see me.

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We’d reached as far as we could go, the inflection point of our journey. We’d run out of road and had to turn round. We planned our next couple of weeks, and decided to ride north to the coast before heading back east to France and Biarritz and a train to Paris. But we were enjoying the Picos so much we had time for a few more days around the other side of the park in Las Arenas for some more walking and riding. The transfer this time was a speedy 70km of mostly downhill, with a gentle climb back up the next valley to Las Arenas. Leaving early in the morning, the wind chill forced a defrosting coffee stop as we went back through Potes, and then onwards along the valley towards the sea, through sheer cleft gorges forged by the river, and then along salmon and trout courses of the river Cares.

We camped again in Las Arenas for a few nights, basing ourselves there to ride to the Lagos de Covadonga – a famous climb often used in the Vuelta a España – and to walk the Cares gorge. The Covadonga ride was a tough one. The “flat” approach to the climb had around 500m of ascent in, and we managed to coincide with a vintage motorbike rally, leaving us choking in a near constant stream of dirty exhaust and noise. The weather was fine though, and when we left the bikers at a roadside bar at around midday, we had the climb ahead of us in sunshine. With around 10km to the summit, we had some 1,000m of ascent to negotiate, making for a tough average gradient. Several sections of over 15% – one with two overheated cars broken down on – made us grateful we weren’t carrying our luggage with us. The climb was worth it, as we finally emerged above the trees, some giving in to autumn, past the obligatory cows, motionless in the middle of the road, to gaze down on the high lakes at the top of the climb. After a heavy late lunch of traditional regional stew, we turned and made our way back, taking the steep corners of the descent carefully. Our legs were heavy for the return “flat” section, but the final downhill stretch back into town was beautiful.

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Our final day in the Picos, we took a short taxi ride to the northern end of the Cares gorge – a steep mile-deep channel through the Picos. Starting early, we arrived in atmospheric low clouds skirting the bottom of the valley. An old service path that was cut to lay a hydroelectric water channel in the side of the gorge now provides a footpath right through the gorge. The scenery is spectacular, the sheer edges of the path dropping right down into the river far below, and the tops of the mountains draw your eyes straight up to the sky, a vertical panorama of rock. It feels like another world. Tenacious oaks clung to the sides of the gorge, finding a small footing in cracks or peaks, or in small forests high above on a shoulder of rock. The colours prematurely advanced through the scarce water, pushing the trees into autumn. We trod the borderline between rock and air as summer faded around us, the land retaining the heat. Another turning point before we started our journey home.

The next day, we rode away early, back down the valley to where we’d branched off on the way from Potes to Las Arenas, back along the salmon river, cycling in the shadow of the Picos, flitting in and out of pockets of sunshine casting beams through the silhouette trees, leaves starting to fall around us. I followed Sarah round the curves of the road, barely pedalling, each of us absorbed by the magical sense around us, the journey behind us, the road still ahead. I had a lump in my throat and my eyes glistened.

This time we kept north to the sea. Finally the sea. We’d swam last in the Mediterranean when we left the south coast of France, and the storms sweeping in in waves across the Bay of Biscay had kept us further south. Now our coast-to-coast ride was complete. Seagulls wheeled above, and it was strange to be in their presence again. We rode down a headland to the small fishing town of St Vicente de la Barquera, a 45km ride from Las Arenas. It turned out to be a little gem, with a campsite on the other side of an estuary from the town, right next to a great surf beach. We decided we were in need of a little beach time, and after pitching our tent we hired boards and ran into the waves. From our camp spot we could see the sun set behind the Picos on the horizon across the estuary behind the town.

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After a couple of days playing in the surf, we continued along the coast, parallel to our outbound path, dipping into bays and climbing back out on repeat. Sarah was feeling particularly strong after two days’ rest, and I was shaking off the efforts of “surfing” – repeated wipe-outs, lots of paddling and getting knocked around by waves – and suffering badly on the climbs for the first time. We’d grown so accustomed to riding together, we knew how the other was feeling without them saying anything; we knew where each other would go and would anticipate each other’s moves. I wasn’t saying much, just focusing on keeping some sort of rhythm going through the climbs.

It was the 1st of October, the day the Catalonian devolved government had set for the region’s contested independence vote. It was a complete mess, with shocking images of the military police beating civilians who were trying to vote, police breaking into schools where ballot boxes were being used, and outcry in Madrid as the national government objected to what it calls an illegal referendum. Whatever the legitimacy of the plebiscite, it was an incredibly heavy-handed response from Rajoy and his government, which went no way towards reconciliation. Who knows where this one will go? Some commentators in the Spanish press drew comparisons of the level of division with that witnessed under Franco and in the civil war, which casts a strangely long shadow.

The next day, we approached Bilbao, leaving busy roads on the approach to find an unlikely “via verde” at the top of an incredibly steep single lane track, which took us right to the heart of the city, the last stretch along the river and past the striking Guggenheim museum. We checked into a hotel in the old town for a couple of nights to soak up the culture and sample the excellent pintxos in the bars around the old town. One evening, wandering around, we heard the clatter of pans being struck as an impromptu protest in support of Catalan independence sprung up, Basque flags flying alongside Catalan ones from buildings all over town. We saw echoes of this all through the rest of the Spanish Basque country, Catalan flags flying from windows, graffiti calling for the release of ETA members from prison and for independence for the Basque country. I wonder what the reverberations of the Catalan vote will be in the Basque country.

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From Bilbao, we left the city by a ridiculously steep suburban road that turned into a footpath, and ended in some steps, before climbing again, courtesy of the “maps.me” app. From there the route was great, winding along a hillside above the city and then down a twisting, curving descent and along a valley to Guernica, and then a climb into the hills and the low coastal clouds. We rose and dipped again along pleasant coastal roads between slightly bleak-looking small towns on the sea, arriving in a campsite at the top of a hill with a pitch overlooking the sea and the passing clouds. The next day we continued to San Sebastian – Donostia in Basque – for another city visit. It was nice to revisit where we’d been on our honeymoon two years previously, and interesting to explore the Tabakalera centre – a converted tobacco factory, now an arts gallery, cinema and cultural space.

Tired, and in need of a rest, we decided to relax in Biarritz for a couple of days before catching our train to Paris and completing the final stretch of our journey. We got a good deal on a hotel between the old fishing port and the surf beach to the south of the city, and checked in for two nights. The city was much more relaxed and pleasant than we were expecting. Off-season, it had echoes of its past grandeur mellowed by the omnipresent surf culture, beach bums rubbing shoulders with fashionistas. Spending a couple of days on the beach, surfing, relaxing and going for great fresh seafood in the evening and soaking up the last of the warm sun after several cloudy days was the perfect way to end the southern European stretch of our adventure. We caught the high-speed evening TGV train to Paris, putting our heads down for the night in an apartment near the Eiffel Tower and then an early start to get the local train out of the city and towards the final stretch to Dieppe.

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The next two days were almost all on quiet roads and then the Avenue Verte cycle route that runs between Paris and London, via the Dieppe to Newhaven ferry crossing. The landscape was suddenly very English again, and we rode past fields of familiar-looking dairy cows, early autumn leaves drifting lazily around us, trees in deepening green, some reds and browns already, the sun warm but no longer hot. The land was undulating, no longer steep. Arriving in Dieppe in the early afternoon before our evening crossing, we killed some time with a celebratory chocolate and banana crepe on the quayside. On the ferry, I watched the French coast recede from view, shafts of sunlight lighting up the sea, returning to our island in the north, as one Greek man we met termed it.

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Our final night before home was with my cousin’s family in Hove, which entailed an abrupt reintroduction to British cycle routes from Newhaven along the coast on “National Cycle Route 2” in the dark. We were waved off the ferry in a gap between articulated lorries, and left the port following cycle route signs. Quite quickly, it led us through quiet suburbs, up a steep hill to a footpath up a dark track and onto a potholed, gravel puddle-riddled bridleway high above the main road. Negotiating the pitch black, we followed the cycle route now on tarmac, still full of potholes, down before it spewed us out onto the main road. A few miles of pavement and main road and an hour later, we arrived on Brighton seafront, cycling past people heading to or back from nights out, homeless people sheltering on the covered benches along the promenade.

My cousin Sarah and husband Matt hosted us for the night, and saw us off the next day ready for the final ride. It was strange readjusting to driving on the left, the familiar number plates everywhere, the drivers closer and faster than we were used to. The ride was fast, a tail wind blessing us for the home straight, and we reached the outskirts of London on main roads and country lanes fairly quickly, via a pub lunch. We hit the afternoon school run in south London, impatient cars and kids everywhere, and our stress levels began to respond to riding in London traffic. Misled by more cycle route signs to Greenwich, we eventually made it to the Greenwich foot tunnel, where a young man busked Leonard Cohen songs to no one next to the Cutty Sark.

We walked under the river to the familiarity of the north side of the Thames, and then followed the canal back up to Victoria Park, retracing our tyre prints from our outbound journey six months earlier. Riding back through the expanding construction site around the Olympic Park and past the velodrome again, we arrived at our front door, detouring for one last food shop to fill the panniers. We wheeled our bikes back into the hall, 5,000km on from the last time they’d been there, us feeling the fatigue of more than the ride.

We’re settling into home life slowly. The first couple of weeks we were awake with the dawn, and ready for bed as soon as it got dark. We were constantly hungry and tired, and longing for wide horizons and the open air. It’s a strange adjustment to make, living back indoors, without the imperative to cycle every day. Travelling across the country to see friends and family by train feels almost like cheating. I think it’s too early still to sum up how we feel about our trip, and how it might have changed us, but it’s been a nourishing, enriching experience. The Big Smoke still seems strangely big and scary, the pace of life too forced. We’ve taken solace in the outdoor spaces, escaping on our bikes to Epping Forest along wooded trails from Leytonstone, already plotting the next ride.

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One thought on “Inflection Point

  1. Beautifully written finale. Must get to the Picos! Thanks for this and all the blogs. A magnificent trip wrapped round some brilliant refugee support. Well done both. P&V

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