An extract from a distinctive day during the hot summer cycle from southern Greece to southern Portugal as described in Along The Med on a Bike Called Reggie.
Saturday 17th August
When I emerged from the tent at 7am, after a night of only brief spells of sleep, I stretched in a way that would have any onlookers worried that I might be in the early stages of metamorphosis into The Incredible Hulk. I even gave out a few sounds that would have confirmed their suspicions. Mercifully, with no other campers around to see me, I was saved the indignity of any strange looks. My body ached from a combination of long-term and short-term fatigue, but the stretching did have the desired effect of ironing out some of the more nagging body pains, at least temporarily. I wanted to find evidence of where the annoying children who had kept me awake until midnight were sleeping, but looked around in vain. Toys were strewn on several nearby pitches, but the parents had inadvertently forgotten to put up the sign stating ‘the screaming kids you are looking for are in here; please feel free to come over and berate them in a way that we are incapable of doing through our own lack of parenting skills’. I did look for it.
I packed quickly and by 8am was outside the campsite reception, wondering what the day would bring forth. Before having emerged from the tent, I had consulted the Warm Showers website to see if there were any potential hosts who might be willing to accommodate me, either in Valencia on the Sunday evening or somewhere halfway between Camping Trillas and Valencia for that evening, Saturday. I noticed that the distance between where I was standing and the hosts in Valencia was 235km. That was, of course, as-the-crow-flies but when I looked at the map, my route along the coast was a very straight one and had I been a crow, I would have flown more or less along the route that I was intending to cycle. My plan was to continue to follow the N-340 road along which I had been cycling for much of the previous day and which had few twists and turns, so I reckoned that a distance of around 240km to Valencia was a reasonable estimation. Over two days, that would be fine: 120km today, 120km tomorrow. I would cycle the first of those 120km and then look for accommodation. This would be around the area of a coastal town called Peniscola and there were no Warm Showers people listed as living along that section of my route so it would probably be a campsite. There were, however, lots of potential hosts in Valencia. I had a basic plan for the weekend.
I paid the bill when the reception opened at 8am. €22 for the pleasure of being kept awake until 2am seemed a little excessive but in true British style I paid up and, when asked if I had had a nice stay, I lied through my teeth, explaining that everything had been “perfect… gracias”. With the formalities completed and with only a modicum of enthusiasm, I set off for a weekend of what I fully expected to be cycling drudgery.
Breakfast was in Tarragona, just 10km south of Camping Trillas. Having found a small over-the-counter food outlet on the main street into the town, I ordered a couple of pastries filled with a thick, dark meat of some description. They would, I thought, help sustain me through the long ride ahead. Outside the shop, I plunged one of the pastries into my mouth and was a little taken aback; it wasn’t meat that I was tasting, it was a rich, dark chocolate. The expectation of savoury and the delivery of sweet was a pleasure in itself and I continued to devour the delicious, calorie-filled snacks with even more gusto than I would have done if they had been what I was expecting. The short experience put a smile back on my face as well as, no doubt, a number of large, brown smudges.
The screaming kids were now well behind me and on the long, straight, flat and surprisingly quiet road I was making good progress. In fact, by 10:30am I had already clocked up some 50km. On a ‘normal’ day of cycling (if indeed one of those had ever existed), this was a distance that was usually achieved at around lunchtime and I would be considering my options for places to take an extended middle-of-the-day pause and perhaps even a little snooze. It made me wonder, should I be able to maintain the same level of progress, how far I would have travelled by 1pm. When 1pm arrived, I had already travelled just over 100km. I couldn’t remember ever having done that before. Indeed, the only day previously when I had been a little taken aback by how far I had cycled in one morning, was back in Croatia. It had been cycling day 19 and as I ate my lunch under the awning of a small supermarket just outside the town of Posedarje I had been delighted that I had already cycled 70km. Such was the exceptional nature of my cycling progress that day, that it had stuck in my mind ever since and had never been surpassed. Until now of course. Over 100km, in just five hours since leaving the reception building of Camping Trillas. 50km every two and a half hours, 25km every hour and a quarter. Although most of my distance and time keeping was via the cycling app on my phone, I was also using a small CatEye computer as a back up. It was usually much easier to refer to the CatEye than the app, as it didn’t require me to stop, unlock it and then find an angle at which I could actually read the screen in the bright sunlight, which was the case with the phone. When I scrolled through the various statistics on the cycling computer, it confirmed that of the five hours since leaving the campsite, four had been spent moving on the bike and that my average was just over 25km/hr. That was good going! The remaining hour, incidentally, was made up of my breakfast pause, various drink stops and a good number of traffic light halts back in Tarragona.
Enthused by this personal best performance, I chose not to stop for lunch, opting instead to continue grazing when the verdant pastures of a roadside shop or, more often than not, a petrol station appeared. I started to pay much more attention to the distance signs that I was passing; the first one I came to after having realised what astonishing progress I was making, told me that Valencia was 170km away and that I would find Castello (which was now looking a more likely candidate as a place to stop overnight instead of Peniscola) after another 100km. The statistics of possible distances that I could cycle in what remained of the day bounced around my mind like a ping-pong ball on concrete. I should be hitting 150km by 3:30pm and, if I chose to continue, 200km by 6pm. I smiled at the ridiculous nature of such distances being achieved and began to spend just as much time wondering when I would succumb to tiredness and either drag myself into a roadside campsite or reach for my phone and book a hotel room in the next town. Clearly, I would never make it as far as Valencia in just one day of cycling, but where would I end up?
It was good to have something to think about, as the area through which I was travelling was far from inspiring. It was turning out to be very much a continuation of what I had experienced for large chuncks of the previous day. For most of the time, the N-340 was keeping me well away from the coast and, when I glanced to my left across several hundred metres of either scrubland or farmers’ fields, all I could see was one long line of urban sprawl by the sea. It didn’t look in the least bit appealing. From a distance, most things do look much better than when you get up close and personal. (Me in black lycra for example.) Have you ever seen anything or anywhere filmed from a helicopter that doesn’t look gorgeous? Back in the 1980s, didn’t Britain look like a seamless carpet of beauty from Anneka Rice’s seat in the helicopter on ‘stop the clock!’ Treasure Hunt? Not convinced? How about France when the helicopter lingers over the riders of the Tour de France? Undoubtedly France is a very attractive country but not everything matches the pristine beauty of the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. It does from those Tour de France helicopters. I would challenge anyone to find the concrete strip of apartment blocks and hotels along the coast between Tarragona and Valencia in any way beautiful, from any distance or from any angle, apart, that is, from a distance where they are no longer visible. They looked horrid from a distance; I had no reason to believe that up close they were any better.
Seeing the sea might have had the effect of softening the hard edge to the monotonous man-made blight along the coast but I wasn’t able to spot it very often. I would have to trust the cartographers at Michelin who, via their map, informed me that the Mediterranean was indeed where I assumed it was. To my right, the views were a little more pleasant, since for much of the time mountains could be seen climbing towards the plateau that is central Spain. They reminded me of my decision to turn my back on coastal Spain and to head inland in order to complete the journey to Cape St. Vincent in Portugal. I just needed to get to Valencia first and then head west.
With a reduced amount of time spent stopping, I not only maintained but started to build upon my already excellent progress. I pledged that, should I be able to reach the 200km point before 5pm – probably somewhere around Castello de la Plana – I would continue all the way to Valencia and treat myself with a day off in a city of which I had heard many good things but had never had the opportunity to visit. It still seemed a bit fanciful however until the clocks of this Spanish costa struck five and my CatEye cycling computer recorded a distance of 201.5km. This was crazy!
Of the 21 stages of the 2013 Tour de France, only six had required the cyclists to cycle over 200km in one day. Now let’s not get carried away here. Chris Froome et al were cycling their stages at speeds of around (sometimes well in excess of) 40km/hr. I was ‘just’ pootling along at around 25km/hr. Indeed, when Chris Froome completed the longest stage of the race, from Givors to the summit of Mont Ventoux, a distance of some 242.5km, which included four rated climbs in addition to the final one, he did so by averaging 41.7km/hr. That’s impressive stuff! I was cycling along probably the longest, continuously flat section of the entire ride from Greece to Portugal. It does put my own efforts into perspective. But cycling as far as Valencia would stretch my distance to potentially over 270km (or 170 miles). That would be significantly more than the professional slackers of the Tour de France! Goodness. Was that really a possibility? It would be the equivalent of cycling from London to Sheffield along the M1 in one day, but I had already arrived in Nottingham, kind of. At least I wasn’t having to put up with all those road works around Leicester. (There are always road works around Leicester on the M1, or so it seems.)
It did seem that cycling all the way to Valencia was now a real possibility. I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) be stupid by straining myself to the point of it becoming dangerous for me to continue, but I felt generally OK. Tired, yes, but not ‘bonkingly’ tired. My mental resolve to get this whole unappealing section of the trip done and dusted seemed to be countering the arguments telling me I really should call it a day. A case of mind over matter if ever there was one. The final sign that I had made the decision to cycle as far as Valencia would come at the point where I stopped cycling, to ensure that I had secured some accommodation in the city. That moment arrived at around 5:30pm, only half an hour or so after having realised that reaching Valencia was no longer just a possibility but now a real probability. I had thought about the arguments carefully and had come to the conclusion that not to continue all the way to Valencia would no longer be a wise decision, as it would all but eliminate my chances of getting a good day of rest off the bike. Bearing in mind that on the previous ‘rest day’ I had actually climbed Mont Ventoux, the last opportunity I had had to do nothing but wander, snap a few pictures and generally relax had been way back in Nice on the 5th August. It was now the 17th August and I did need to take time out to recuperate and plan for the final push to the finishing line. I pulled out my phone, logged on to Booking.com and found a nice hotel in the centre of Valencia with ‘Botanic’ in the title. If a hotel has ‘Botanic’ in its name, it must be a place of ultimate natural relaxation. The booking procedure over, I found a position on the saddle that was comfortable – not easy to do after over 200km and nine hours of sitting on the same thing – and set off for Valencia!
The terrain was just as helpfully flat as it had been all day, but over the course of the next few hours, fatigue did become a factor in my ability to maintain the progress that I had been making up to that point. My average speed dipped somewhat, to well below 20km/hr. I still had another four hours of cycling ahead of me, perhaps longer if my speed were to drop further, but as I no longer had a choice, I continued.
It was almost inevitable that as we got nearer to the greater urban area of Valencia, the road, yes, our dear friend the N-340, ejected Reggie and me. It was just after the town of Sagunt and not wanting to get lost at this late stage of the day, I called upon the directional skills of Google Maps to help me fathom a way into the centre of the city. Curiously, this initially sent me on a 2km trek along the service roads needed to tend to the orange plantations north of Valencia, which, if nothing else was an interesting diversion (probably the first of the day). It did, however, do the job it was designed for and before long, I was once again cycling along… the N-340. The road’s foray into the world of motorways had clearly not been a rewarding one and it had reverted back to being a simple single carriageway road. The N-340 just didn’t have ‘autovia’ in its DNA.
I had thought that 8pm would be my arrival time in the city centre but, yet again, the suburbs of a big city took their toll and traffic light after traffic light (and one level crossing) held me back. By this point, I was now chomping at the bit and simply wanted to eat, drink and be happy in a comfortable hotel bedroom. I paused for some water and to check on progress but when I looked at the screen of my phone I noticed a missed call. Another minor disaster at my flat back in the UK? Please no… The number was prefixed by ‘34’, the international code for Spain and I called them back. It was the Hotel Jardin Botanico.
“There is a problem with the air conditioning in your room…”
I didn’t believe a word of it. I had, alas, made a sufficient number of these bookings to have worked out the system. Reservation is made online, email is sent to the hotel, room is confirmed, email is sent to customer. But usually, the final confirmation email arrives within seconds of the booking having been made, implying that no double-checking has taken place. On a number of occasions, I had arrived at a hotel only for the person on reception to go looking for the email: “Ah yes, here it is!”
To their credit, the Hotel Jardin Botanico, where I had been genuinely looking forward to staying as the online pictures depicted as oasis of calm and relaxation, had made a booking on my behalf at an alternative, city-centre ‘luxury’ hotel and they were going to pick up the tab. The man on the phone started to list the facilities:
“Restaurant, fitness centre, free wi-fi, car hire[!], laundry, babysitting[!!], bar, bicycle hire[!!!]…”
“OK! Yes, that’s fine…”
I would reserve my judgement as to whether it was indeed ‘luxury’ until my arrival.
By the time I had cycled 270km, I was still some way from the city centre, it was past 9pm and it was getting dark. I reached for my lights, clicked them into position and turned them on. The directions, courtesy of my phone, were doing the hard work of making sure that I was taking the correct roads; I was more or less at the point where I would have followed directions into the sea. After many left and right turns, I crossed the Pont d’Arago, over a river that is no longer a river (more of that later) and to the doors of the Hotel Dimar. It looked OK, even though it lacked the soothing vegetation of the Hotel Jardin Botanico.
I smiled with relief and with delight. On most occasions over the previous seven weeks of cycling, when I arrived at my final destination I was happy to leave the statistics to later in the day. Outside the hotel in Valencia, other matters could wait. The statistics told the story of what had been an epic day in the saddle, by far the longest distance I had ever travelled in one day, on two wheels, in my life:
Cycling Day 40: Tarragona To Valencia
Started: August 17, 2013, 7:59 AM
Ride Time: 11 hours, 14 minutes, 33 seconds
Stopped Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes, 10 seconds
Arrived: August 17, 2013, 9:19 PM
Average speed: 24.78 km/hr (15.40 miles/hr)
Distance: 278.54 km (173.08 miles)
(That’s just after junction 37 on the M1 by the way, the turn off for Barnsley.)