Category Archives: Cycling

Cycling Day 10: Plasencia To Salamanca

Click here to see the detailed statistics of today’s cycle.

Too tired to write the blurb tonight but come back tomorrow for the full story. The stats and pictures will hopefully suffice for the moment. Some of the photos do need explaining…

Cycling Day 9: Cáceres To Plasencia

Click here to see the detailed statistics of today’s cycle.

An interesting day… I had no great expectations that it would be. Just another few hours trundling along the N-630. I set off with no definite destination in mind; the plan was to cycle as far as Carcaboso and I had already identified that there was a campsite in nearby Plasencia. Would that be the place to finally break my run of cheap hotels and hostels? In the end I did stop in Plasencia, but more of that in a few moments…

I started the clock on my Cyclemeter app not in the centre of Cáceres but as I passed the campsite that I had visited yesterday evening but refused to pay €21 for the privilege of having use of a private toilet. This prevented a bit a double counting of kilometres en route to Nordkapp although in the final reckoning we are talking perhaps four kilometres in total. I noticed a sign not far into the cycle: Salamanca was 197 km away. The plan was to arrive there on Sunday and take Monday off as a rest day but 197 km was most certainly an achievable distance in two days rather than three so I resolved there and then to do just that. As I sit here typing in Plasencia, there remain 130 of those kilometres to cycle but on past experience that’s not a fanciful target for one day. Remember the cycle to Valencia in 2013? (No? Read book 2…). Terrain may, however, be an issue.

I could see mountains in the distance not long after spotting the sign for Salamanca. These were no longer hills, they were most definitely mountains albeit small ones. The landscape gradually changed from being quite pretty – again, very reminiscent of the Yorkshire Dales (did that bloke just say ‘hola’ or ‘eh-up’?) – to being semi-spectacular. For the first third of today’s ride the N-630 moved away from its big brother, the motorway, but as I moved into the mountainous area it was replaced with… Was it a road? Was it a railway? It didn’t have any tracks although it was covered in tarmac. The N-630 crossed this deserted yet substantial ‘way’ via a bridge that must have taken months to construct and millions of euros in finance. Had it been abandoned when the financial squeeze took effect? Too many unknowns. I cycled on. The answer to my questions came as I began to cycle along the edge of the Alcantara lake. I had been waving merry ‘buen camino’ to a small group of walkers who were approaching a bridge but then as I cast my gaze to the right as I crossed the bridge over the Rio Almonte I could see another, very large bridge in mid construction. There was a second, almost identical bridge at almost exactly the same stage of construction over the Rio Tajo a few kilometres away at the other corner of the lake. A sign confirmed what I had now worked out for myself; it was another of Spain’s high-speed railway lines in mid development. Impressive stuff. The deserted ‘way’ that I had seen earlier was simply awaiting the arrival of the rails to make it a ‘railway’. I think it looked fantastic and if you live between north London and Birmingham it’s what is coming to you soon, hopefully. (As an aside, I was surprised yesterday to find out that the Greens in the UK are against HS2. Why?)

The road continued to climb as I made my way towards Grimaldo. Once again I spent a few minutes chatting with the young German who is trying to complete the route of the Via de la Plata following the walking route itself. I think he is doing it for religious reasons so there is an element of penance about his journey. The only thing I was suffering from – or rather the bike – was a slight wobble.

I noticed it as I started cycling downhill from Grimaldo but put it down to the road surface which although ‘good’ was not quite as good as it had been along earlier stretches of the N-630. At around 2.30pm I pulled into a service station to buy some peanuts (I had to suffice with a couple of ‘energy’ bars which required more energy in opening that they probably contained) and then, after a few moments of rest I got back onto Reggie and set off. Something wasn’t quite right. I looked down at front wheel and it did seem a little deflated (had it been disappointed by finding no peanuts as well?). I stopped and investigated. Although not flat, there was definitely an issue. Something momentous had just happened: after two and a bit crossings of Europe by bike (plus two lengthy trips in the UK)… I was experiencing my very first puncture. My heart sank.

My mind immediately flashed back to Athens Airport in 2013 and the stresses I had endured trying to inflate my tyres. It had scuppered my attempt to cycle to my intended departure point and resulted in much faffing around in Athens itself (read the book for more details). But I kept calm. “It’s only a flat(ish) front tyre” I told myself. Over the course of the next 20 minutes I tried to carry out a textbook removal and replacement of the inner tube. I thought carefully about each stage, I remembered which way the wheel had been facing when I removed it from the bike, I checked for obvious causes of the puncture on both sides of the tyre (although didn’t find anything) and then readied my equipment like a surgeon preparing for open heart surgery. I probably looked a right pillock. There is a video you can watch on YouTube showing a guy who has no arms changing an inner tube with his feet. Go find it; it’s impressive. Surely I could manage with all four limbs in fully functioning order! I eased the tyre over the rim, removed the old inner tube (checking that too), replaced it with a new one, inflated it slightly, very satisfyingly popped the tyre back over the rim (that was the bit I’m most impressed with, apart from the next bit of course – are you ready?) and inflated the tyre using the Presta valve. Yes, I’ll repeat that. I inflated the tyre using the Presta valve. Quite impressive, no? OK, I know what you are thinking. Let’s move on…

I, however, was genuinely delighted with my efforts. For the next couple of kilometres I stopped a few times just to check that it wasn’t all a dream and that I had managed to repair my bicycle without the help of a bike mechanic. Bloody marvelous!

It was perhaps another 20 km to Plasencia and just outside the town I paused to check the accommodation options. There was a campsite on the other side of town – €16,50 according to the Rough Guide – but there was also an albergue in town for €17. It would mean sharing with potential snorers but… I would give it a try. I reserved my bed online and found the building without problem. Well, apart from the fact that it was closed. After perhaps half an hour (I could change an inner tube in that time!), the guy running the place turned up to explain that I would have the place to myself. No snorers, no middle of the night farting (by others) but no one to compare travelling notes with. No one to tell that I had changed my own inner tube. Oh well, perhaps another day. Hang on, no, not another day. One puncture is sufficient, no? 

Cáceres: Bicycle Meets… Steps

But we persisted and succeeded in seeing an extraordinary wall city. World Heritage site with good reason!

Cycling Day 8: Mérida To Cáceres

Click here to see the detailed statistics of today’s cycle.

It required a short climb out of Mérida this morning to rejoin my almost constant companion on this leg of the cycle, the N-630, but it wasn’t too many minutes into cycling along the road that I stopped to realign my clothes to the weather conditions. It was decidedly cold (although not to such an extreme that turned my extremities numb; just relative to the days on the cycle up to that point) and the sky a threatening grey. On went the waterproof socks (that I bought last summer to use in conjunction with my Keen SPD cycling sandals while cycling in Scotland), the merino wool arm warmers given to me by Alpe Deux (highly recommended!) and the Buff. My waterproof jacket was poised… I kept them on for the next couple of hours but fortunately it didn’t rain and actually, one by one, all of the additional items of weatherproofing were removed. They did, however, make me feel snug and warm; good to know for when I begin to head north through the Arctic Circle later in the summer.

If you think me discussing items of clothing is a little on the boring side, just wait until I start discussing the roads! I’ll get it out of the way now. Straight, quiet and long… Hundreds of millions of Euros must have been poured into paying for the motorway that has never been further than a kilometre to my side over these past few days and in terms of keeping the traffic away from me; brilliant! But what has been left is a bizarrely good quality, albeit thin, main road stretching from Seville in the south to the north coast. At times I feel almost embarrassed to be using it.

The absence of traffic allowed me to complete a gentle u-turn to the other side of the road at the point where I met John, his recumbent bicycle and his dog. It wasn’t so much a conversation that took place, more of an interview with me asking him the kinds of things you would ask if you met someone from your own country cycling in the opposite direction to you on a quiet road in a foreign country. From Birmingham he had sold his house and given up his job (that he had combined with being a full-time carer for his father, now sadly deceased) to go off cycling for a year. He’d caught the ferry from Portsmouth to Santander and was heading to Gibraltar for a ‘rendez-vous’. Then he would pedal off in the direction of Greece. It wasn’t the first time he’d done this kind of thing; various European trips had come before. Having cycled through the night because he couldn’t find a place to string up his hammock – he had no tent so ‘wild hammocked’ instead – he was looking forward to stopping soon. Having not been on the look out for conveniently spaced trees in the previous 24 hours I wasn’t able to recommend anywhere. He did ask me one question: what did I think were the advantages of… using a recumbent bike? “Comfort?” I was spot on! Having exhausted my list of questions we went our separate ways. Perhaps I missed my vocation as an investigative reporter.

As the day continued I took to admiring the quality of Spanish signage – see previous post – as well as doing a bit of bird spotting; birds of prey circling above me, then hovering in the wind, ready to pounce, swallows darting in front of me across the road and storks peering down from their nests built upon telegraph poles and electricity pylons. Combined with the fresh feel to the day, the views reminded me a little of the Yorkshire Dales in the early summer; vibrant green, colourful spring flowers, dry stone walls, cattle and sheep… The final third of today’s cycle was probably the prettiest yet since leaving Seville.

As I approach Cáceres I was passed, slowly, by a Lycra-clad Spanish cyclist who had a remarkable resemblance to Lord Sugar. His name was, rather appropriately for the route, Santiago (not Alan). Over the next few kilometres we had a ‘conversation’. It was in comical contrast to the discussion that I had had with John earlier in the day and all the stranger as it took place in Spanish. Santiago guided me to the centre of Cáceres and before we split up he pointed me in the direction of Camping Cáceres… I wish he had been able to tell me that they would charge me €21 to stay the night as it would have saved me doubling back, just as I had done yesterday upon finding the grim campsite in Mérida. “It has an individual toilet and it is a category 1 site” explained the young woman on the reception desk. I explained that for only a few euros more I would be able to stay in a hotel in the town centre. I sensed that negotiation on price hadn’t been devolved down to her level so didn’t even try.

Back in the centre of Cáceres I found a nice square just outside the walled town and tucked into a bit of lunch. The German cyclist who I had first met in Zafra passed me; I called after him and we chatted for a few minutes about our respective trips. He too had met Birmingham John but I didn’t pass judgement.

Checking in at the Hotel Iberia (where the price was indeed only a few euros more than Camping Cáceres, including individual toilet) was a delight; nothing to do with the hotel itself or the place to store Reggie or the mirrors on most walls. What made it such a delight was the guy on the front desk. He could make serious money from running courses for some of his fellow customer service employees in Spain. I could personally recommend a few names. In addition to being simply happily pleasant, he pointed me in the direction of a laundrette which is where I spent a relaxing hour or so brushing up on cleaning-related instructions in Spanish. My clothes are now clean and I do not smell. Joy!

A late afternoon stroll around the old town of Cáceres had to be sacrificed for the washing but I do feel it needs more investigation and I will deviate back here in the morning before continuing my journey north. To where? Not sure. I’m tempted to just keep cycling tomorrow until I get tired. I should reach Salamanca by the end of the weekend and at that point a day off beckons.

In Praise Of… Spanish Road Signs

I’ve written much about the quality of road signs across Europe from the perspective of the travelling cyclist; French – the benchmark of excellence, Swiss – disappointingly poor (no distances), Italian – oh dear… (More details on the books). But I have to say that Spanish signs rival the French and in some ways eclipse them. I hate to think just how much of the national debt of Spain has been run up making sure that the roads are well signposted but as a traveller along them, I do appreciate the investment. Muchas gracias!

Here’s a of good example. The N-630 ‘Ruta de la Plata’ that I’m cycling along this week has an exemplary set of distance signs. Every 10km, 1km, 100m and 50m is indicated with the signs shown below. I have yet to see one that’s missing;

Cycling Day 7: Zafra To Mérida

Click here to see the detailed statistics of today’s cycle.

The day kicked off with a visit to the post office in Zafra to post the documents, clothes and zoom lens back to Britain, all 2.2 kg of them. I am indebted to the woman who served me who struggled through our conversation despite having recently suffered some personal life trauma. Naturally it would have been inappropriate to ask her about the details of said trauma but it was clear to see on her pained facial expressions and repeated sighs of exasperation with my simple wishes to send a package to the United Kingdom. I shall be eternally grateful for her having turned up at work today to serve a lowlife such as myself. [OK Andrew, I think you’ve made your point. Move on to the cycling bit please…]

Today I don’t really need to say much about the cycling because you can watch it. Zafra to Mérida condensed into 53 exhilarating seconds. Action!

But I will make a few comments… Firstly technical ones. One photograph was taken every 10 seconds on the GoPro. This equates to about 4 hours 25 minutes in real time. The aspect ratio of 4:3 was chosen so as to reduce the file size. The sunsets that I filmed back in Cádiz were recorded in 2.7k format – the HD version of HD – and they weren’t easy to handle so choosing the older format sorted that problem. However, as you watch, look at how the black bands on either side of the YouTube video move. I think I may be able to adjust the format in YouTube Capture to 4:3 but the video above is 16:9. YouTube is attempting to ‘smooth’ out the video (which it normally does extremely well – who needs a Steadicam?) and I think this has resulted in the shifting around of the black bands on either side of the ‘screen’. More expert knowledge, if you have it, would be appreciated. I also used the extra GoPro battery pack that I bought back in Estepona for the first time. It has done its job well and doesn’t affect the practicality of using the GoPro apart from no longer having use of the back screen display. This wasn’t an issue. 53 seconds isn’t long so I may try another ride with a photo every 4 seconds. I’ll wait, however, until I have an interesting piece of Europe through which to cycle. Or another long-winded visit to the Spanish post office. [Keep to the point Andrew…]

So, the cycling! It was almost all downhill. The easiest 73 km I can ever remember cycling. The weather was with me; one interesting thing to watch in the video is the sky and how, over the course of four and a half hours the clouds become greater and greater. Shortly after arriving in Mérida the heavens opened and for two hours it was heavy rain. Fortunately I was able to hide under the awning of a café in the main square and then in my room at the hostel where I am staying. You may have noticed from the GPS track (or, if you are very observant, from the video) that after a brief visit to the tourist office here in Mérida to ask where the campsite was (at the end of the conversation the nice lady serving me asked where I was from; a good sign that my Spanish is improving! She would never have got a job at the… Sorry!) I cycled the 3 km out of town to find the campsite. Practically empty, scruffy and generally not very hospitable (would I be happy leaving all my stuff there while I came back into town to explore the Roman ruins?) I immediately returned into the centre of Mérida to the hostel. This did add an extra 7/8 km to the final length of the cycling day but we all know that there are lies, damn lies and statistics (well actually there aren’t; there are just those who understand them and those who don’t… but that’s an argument for another day!) and it does help me nudge a little nearer to my target average of 75 km per day. It currently stands at 67.1, up from yesterday’s 66.2. Apologies if that kind of stuff bored you but remember, I do have a degree in mathematics…

Once the rain stopped I went to explore the Roman ruins of Mérida. Very impressive they are too. See a few pictures below.

Tomorrow it’s back to the serious cycling. It’s a slightly more challenging 72 km to Cáceres (which I will probably transform into about 80 km). Sarah Harrison on Twitter (@sarah_a_h) tells me that there is a campsite in Cáceres where each pitch has an individual toilet. Sounds interesting…

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Sunglasses: Third Time Lucky?

Pair 1: bought at an outdoor shop in the UK, lost somewhere in or near Tarifa on cycling day one.

Pair 2: bought at El Cortes Inglés in Seville for about £11, broken at some point in the following 12 hours. My fault? Probably. Too late to return them.

Pair 3… Should I go cheap again? Or wait until I can find an outdoor shop to buy some good quality ones? Spain doesn’t seem to do outdoor shops like we have back in Britain, however, and it could be a lengthy search. How about cycling sunglasses? Aren’t they horribly expensive? Only one way to find out…

I’ve just been to Zafra’s finest purveyor of bicycles, Bicicletas Rodrigues. Well, I think they are. Zafra’s only has one bike shop but they looked as though they knew their stuff. The ones in the locked cabinet? €120. Ouch. What about these? Under €40 with an extra 15% discount on all stock! It’s just like Homebase without the naff furniture. So that would be about… £25. Not so expensive. Are they 100% UV? Mmm… What’s that in Spanish? Ah yes, look at the multilinguinal leaflet inside the carrying case (they have a carrying case?!)… “100% absorption of ultraviolet UV400 Rays“. Ah yes, UV400 rays. Those are the ones I meant… The others are not important. “Polarised category 3 filter…” and a second set of orange lenses to “…improve vision in poor or diffuse light.” I bet Superman didn’t have them! So here they are, my new sunglasses:

Any downsides?” No, not at all! “What are they called?” Err… Spuick. “On the side of the glasses where it’s written, doesn’t that look a bit like…” STOP! No it doesn’t!

Now, repeat after me: “I will not lose my new sunglasses and I will not break them. At least not until after my arrival in Nordkapp…”