I managed to wake up at a reasonable time and get myself ready, and was in the saddle and on the road, by 7.45am. The weather forecast was for sunshine and warm temperatures but at that time of morning, I thought, “You’re better playing safe”. I therefore settled upon a base-layer, with T-shirt over the top, to keep any cool breezes at bay; though in a nod to the fact that I am in Spain, in summertime, I did opt for shorts. I was taking the T-shirt and base layer off again after about 500 yards and replacing them with a vest. It wasn’t that I had misjudged the early morning temperatures; my assessment on that score had been quite correct. But what I hadn’t bargained for, was riding almost vertically from the hostel as I headed towards the outskirts of Santander. Cycling uphill, when you’ve barely woken up, soon does wake you up … and it also generates a lot of body heat!
To begin with, unsurprisingly, my route snaked its way between houses, up side streets, by children’s play areas, past an industrial estate, and through a retail/business park. I couldn’t believe how quiet the roads were, until it dawned on me some time later in the morning, that it was Sunday. This dawning came when a group of about 25 cyclists passed me. “Hola”, they each said as they passed the strange Englishman with a flag and flowers on his bike and wearing a vest, instead of one of those cycling tops that seem to be laden with an advert for every company under the sun. “Hola”, I replied; not quite 25 times but thereabouts! “Oh yes; it’s Sunday,” I realised, as ‘the Spanish 25’ reminded of the large groups of cyclists that I encountered on weekend rides back home, as I prepared for the pilgrimage that I am currently embarked upon; weekend rides spent in the company of Mike Dwyer, David Godfrey, Dr Kieran Grey, and Chris 1, Chris 2, and Chris 3 (namely, Williams, Love, and Roberts). All fine cyclists, lovely people, and great friends.
It was refreshing to encounter a sign, as the surroundings became more rural, urging motor vehicles to allow at least 1.5 metres between them and any cyclists they overtake. “We could do with some of them back home,” I thought, before allowing my mind get back to following my eyes as they looked around at the beautiful Spanish countryside. I was surprised at first at just how green and lush that countryside was but then I thought about it a little more, and realised that it actually makes total sense since I am currently in northern Spain where the rainfall is much higher. Before she qualified as a professional social worker, Julie worked in children’s homes. She told me about several trips and holidays that staff took with the children and always spoke very fondly of one particular trip to San Sebastian (to the East of Santander and Bilbao). The joy that Julie felt about that trip, and what she had helped the kids to achieve during those two weeks, was palpable whenever she talked about it. But every time she told me about it, Julie also told me how it rained nearly every day. And it didn’t just rain; it poured down and was often accompanied by electric storms. So yes; no wonder it’s green and lush! Green and lush and more like riding through places in North Wales than through Spain: more Betws-y-Coed, than Benicassim.
The first sun cream of the trip was applied at approximately 10am. I had been riding in the shadow of hills for much of the previous half an hour and hadn't noticed the sun creeping up on me. When I rode out into a wide(ish) valley, the heat was noticeable and I could feel my left-arm begin to tingle despite the cool breeze. Half an hour later, I decided that some sustenance was in order, especially since I had skipped breakfast, and within a few minutes, found myself riding past the Autoservicio Bar El Puente, in the small town of Selaya. The Estrella Damm, advertised on the bar’s canopy sounded like it would be most refreshing in the morning sun. But sense prevailed and I settled on a coffee and croissant. Maybe I’ll have a cerveza later!
After the early morning climb out of Santander, the middle part of the ride was gently undulating. I knew that after 25 miles the route would begin to climb again – to over 2000 feet – and in planning the trip, had therefore decided that I’d best stop for the night after about 30 miles, given that this was my first day in Spain. When I reached the top of a particularly steep part of the climb, and a sign stating proudly “Puerto de la Braguia, 720 metres”, I stopped for a rest. “It can’t be much further now, can it?” I asked myself and 5 minutes later, when I hopped back into the saddle, I found out that the answer was “No; it isn’t much further”. I had no sooner started peddling, than I reached the brow of the hill and another sign declaring “Vega de Pas 6”; 6 kilometres that is, and downhill all the way. I let my bike roll down the hill and was enjoying the freedom that not having to peddle brings with it when I heard the unmistakable sound of air being expelled from my back wheel; another puncture and this one a mystery, since I was nowhere near any thorns and there was no glass on the road. With about a mile to go to my destination, I decided that fixing the puncture could wait until I was there. I would push my bike the rest of the way and absorb the afternoon sunshine.
I actually enjoyed the walk, taking in my surroundings at a much slower pace that I had done up to that point. And I became quite emotional; initially as I surveyed the scene around me, and especially when I reached a spring at the side of the road; one of those around which a stone feature has been created. This reminded me of a bike ride that Julie and I did in the countryside surrounding the beautiful medieval French town of Sommieres, in October 2014. A particular photograph of Julie came to mind, in which she is filling her water bottle at a spring in a small village and for some reason I decided that I would take a similar photograph of myself. What goes through the mind at these times? Am I somehow thinking that if I re-create the moment it will bring Jule back? Cleary not. Or am I simply wanting to re-create a moment in time when Jule was alive? Put myself back in that moment, just for a moment?
I eventually reached my destination – ‘Posada La Braniza’ in the village of Vega de Pas – at 6.30pm. The village was very remote, set in a valley – or rather, a ‘bowl’ - surrounded by steep hills on all sides. I could see my direction of travel for tomorrow morning and the hills looked even more daunting in real life than they had on paper when I planned the route. But for now, it was a case of enjoying the peaceful surroundings and the beautiful accommodation, with its oak beams, brightly painted bedroom walls, and balcony on which I could sit and look across the valley floor. A feature of my ride had been how many cow bells I had heard, echoing from fields as I rode by. As I sat on the balcony, it was like ‘The Cow Bell Orchestra’ has moved into town; the lovely sound seemed to be coming from all directions, with the cows seemingly trying their best to play a tune.
My evening was spent in a local bar called ‘Le Café’, enjoying a mixed salad and some asparagus in mayonnaise, washed down with a bottle of agua con gas, while watching France, the hosts of Euro 2016, put 5 goals past Iceland, who only days earlier, had beaten England by 2 goals to 1, and eliminated them from the tournament. I rode back to ‘La Braniza’ in the dark, managed to get to bed for 11pm, and clearly dropped off to sleep before some of the local cows … for I distinctly remember hearing cow bells as I lay in bed … or was I simply dreaming?
Distance 31 miles (50km)
Time spent in the saddle: 3 hours 30 mins
Elevation gained: 3,431 feet
Maximum Speed: 31 miles per hour
Average speed: 9 miles per hour
1. Be kind to cyclists; 2. Here are the cyclists; 3-9. The Spanish countryside; 10 & 11. Autoservicio Bar El Puente, in the small town of Selaya; 12. It's 25 degrees; 13-22. More of the Spanish countryside; 23 & 24. A breather; 25. The road ahead; 26 & 27. The only way is down; 28. I'm here!; 29-34. Vega de Pas; 35. 'El Cafe'
Julie and I used to always have a 'song of the day' whenever we were on our travels, and that is a tradition that I have decided to continue. Song of the day for today - day 9 of my bike ride back to Julie's beach and my first in Spain - is 'Cry For Help' by Rick Astley. Yes: Rick Astley! It was on a playlist that I was listening to (through just one headphone!) as I rode along some quiet country lanes today. I didn't care for that Stock/Aitkin/Waterman rubbish that Rick released at the end of the 80s but this offering, from the album 'Free', is quite beautiful song. It was released in 1991, just a year after Julie and I became couple, and was one of Julie's favourite songs of that year. If you haven't heard it, give it a listen. K x