I rode out of Belchite at 10.15am in heat that I can only describe as “scorching” and soon reached the ruins of the church of San Martín (or ‘Ruinas de la iglesia de San Martín’, if you want to be all Spanish about it!) Apparently, there is a whole village of ruins (that I didn’t get to see), sitting right next door to the current town of Belchite. The ‘new’ town is home to about 1,600 people, while the other – the original Belchite - is a town of ruins, after it was destroyed in just two weeks in 1937, in one of the Spanish Civil War's bloodiest battles. The original town has remained untouched ever since, in memory of the 3,000 people who died there.
I’ve been riding at about between 1000 and 2000 feet for the past few days, on a plateau in between the mountains and at this altitude, at least there is a cool breeze at times. That can be as refreshing as water for a split second; but it won’t keep you alive like water does, and you have to take on fluids when you can in this heat. The first town that I arrived at was Lechera, after about 10 miles, and as soon as I saw a cafeteria attached to a petrol station, and I took the opportunity to stop and enjoy my first coffee of the day, washed down with an aguar con gas. The road out of Lechera had recently been be resurfaced, so I enjoyed the smoothest ride of the trip so far, for about 4 miles … until the new tarmac ran out and I realised precisely why the surface is being ‘upgraded’: Bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, bump, bump! I soon left the province of Zaragoza and crossed into the province of Teruel, where the first town that I came to was Albalate del Arzobispo. I found a kiosk by a bridge over the Rio Martin and sat outside enjoying another coffee and another sparkling water. I was just about to leave when I became caught in the crossfire of a family’s water fight. Thankfully, the water that sprayed my direction, hit me and not my phone; or I might just have needed to ‘have a polite word’! Albalate del Arzobispo marked the half way point of my ride – just over 20 miles - and I began the second half at 1 PM, hoping to arrive Alcorisa at just after 3 PM. The amount of riding uphill, and in particular, the gradient, ensured that I didn’t actually arrive until 4.15pm.
I had descended - at quite a pace, it must be said - into Albalate del Arzobispo, so I knew that when I got back on my bike, I would have some sort of climb out of the town. This was quite manageable and although I stopped quite a few times, this was because I wanted to take photographs and not because I NEEDED to stop. I passed the lovely church of San Jose on my left, behind which there was a hill which appeared to house a wooden cross at its summit. I passed through the unmistakable scent of olive trees, and then pine trees, having their leaves, branches and trunks, heated by the afternoon sun, and through the most amazing geology. I reflected as I rode on just how little of the information that I learned in my geology lessons at school, I have managed to retain. I couldn't even tell you what the rock was that I was looking at today; just that it was beautiful. But I guess this is par for the course where my secondary education was concerned. I met some lovely people at my ‘big’ school and was taught by some very committed teachers (and some absolutely ruthless ones, it must be said). But ultimately, the values of the school and its obsession - even in those pre-‘league table’ days - on exam results, wasn't the best preparation for a young person to have. It all just led to learning by rote and, as soon as exam time was over, forgetting everything that you had learned. I'm grateful for the education that I was afforded by the state; but I believe – I know – that my real education began on the day that I met Julie Mountford. Oh: And the sooner we get rid of selective education, and stop writing children off at the age of 11, then the better. (Glad I’ve got that off my chest.)
As a few more miles went by, I was aware that I would soon arrive at the 30-mile stage, and the steep climb indicated by Google maps when I inspected the route last night. The climb continued up until I reached a sign declaring “Las Calzado, 620m” (that’s 2034 feet in ‘old money’) and was incredibly steep, very intense, and extremely hard work in the blistering heat. I continually found myself searching for an easier gear than the one I was already in and on more than one occasion, only found that easier gear by dismounting and pushing my bike. My whole body was tingling with exhaustion and my knees and ankles were aching as I walked. But that’s the first time they have really bothered me on the whole trip and overall, my body has stood up well, considering that for the past dozen years I have suffered with inflammation and severe pain in my joints. Julie always said, “Cut out sugar and acids, exercise more, and get to an acupuncturist”. I always knew that she was right but my focus was – rightly in my view - on Julie’s health and her cancer. She has been proved right in the past 16 months as I have tried to live by her values, headed her advice, and treated my body (most of the time, at least) with the respect that it deserves. This is just one of the ways in which Julie Mountford continues to look after me, even though she is no longer physically walking this earth.
Last Sunday, I was passed by hundreds (it seemed like hundreds anyway) of cyclists as I rode from Santander to Vega de Pas, in northern Spain. Today, as I slowly walked (trudged!) uphill, with the handlebars in my left hand and the saddle in my right, I was passed by (what seemed like) hundreds of bikers; motorbikers. They beeped their horn – in support, as many car drivers have done all week – and I nodded in response: If I’d have waved, I would have dropped my bike, such was my tiredness. And I thought about the thick black leathers that each and everyone of the bikers was wearing; “Good for safety,” I concluded, “but bloody hot on a day like today.”
About 3 miles outside Alcorisa, I finally hit a downhill stretch that continued to the edge of the town. From the outskirts, it looked like some of the buildings had seen better days, but even if some of them were a bit ramshackled, they were set against a magnificent geological backdrop. I headed to the Hostel Casa de la Fuente (Calle Cura Aguilar, 2, Alcorisa, 44550), but it was closed; so I rang the number on the door and made my way to the Bar Goya, just 50 yards away, while I waited for the owner of the hotel to arrive. A group of Spanish men sitting outside the bar all spoke to me as if I was their long lost friend. Then I tripped over the step as I entered the bar and they all laughed; I’d like to think with me, rather that at me, but I’m not really sure. I asked for an agua con gas and after that had been drunk in record time, couldn’t resist the San Miguel that was staring right into my eyes. Sade was playing on the music system as I arrived (‘Hang on to your love’, if you must know) and Alba, the barmaid, could tell that I was impressed. “You like Sade?” she asked. “Yes, I do; very much”. Alba spoke English far better than I speak Spanish and although it was quite broken at times, we were able to have a decent conversation. She asked about the picture on my T-shirt and the website address on my back, before returning to her ‘chores’ and serving the men sat outside. I returned to my San Miguel and then made my usual weekend Facetime call to my dad, sister, and brother-in-law. When I l had finished the call, Alba tapped me on the shoulder and showed me her phone. She had our charity’s website on her web browser and pointed to the pictures of Julie. “She is very beautiful”, she said. I nodded, barely able to speak with emotion; and I cried inside.
The hotel owner’s ‘representative’ (Raul) turned up after about half an hour and led me to my room, which looks like it could have been subjected to Julie’s interior design and decorating skills. I’ve said it about most of the accommodation that I have stayed in on this pilgrimage, but Julie would have loved it; she really, really, would have loved this room. The wooden ceiling joints and beams were exposed in the ceiling; all of the furniture was old-fashioned and made from a lovely wood (I’m not an expert on the types!) and included an old wash bowl stand in the corner; there were embroidered pillow cases and cushions; and everything, including the bath and hand towels, was one shade of purple or other. I know I am a right ‘cry-baby, but I couldn’t help but have another whinge as soon as Raul left the room. I just can’t believe that Julie isn’t here to enjoy the things that she loved so much; or even for me to go home and tell her about how much she would have loved this thing or that.
I spent this evening back at Bar Goya, where I watched the Euro 2016 final, al fresco. I spent some more time talking to Alba, the bartender, and she told me that she is actually a qualified primary school teacher, but has to work in the bar because there are simply no jobs. She bemoaned the state of the Spanish economy, and the impact that it is having on young people, but had clearly decided to focus on building a future, and retained an upbeat attitude to life. Several members of Alba’s family were at the bar and we all had a photo taken together before I retuned to my hotel. She had told them all about my ride – and the reasons for it – and they all made a fuss of me. It was very humbling to be welcomed into the Alcorisa community – well, okay, into the Bar Goya community – and it reminded me of nights that Julie and I often experienced when we holidayed in Greece quite a bit, in the 1990s. Julie had one of those faces you see; the sort that wherever she was in the world, attracted people to her and made them feel safe and warm in her company; the sort that would lead to complete strangers divulging their inner troubles and/or life stories, within minutes of meeting her. She would have loved these people and this evening; and back in the 90s, when she still drank alcohol, I reckon I’d have had quite a job in trying to drag her away at the end of the night. It was a job to drag myself away to be honest; but I did and I am now back in my beautiful room. I feel completely exhausted after today’s steep climb and my joints are aching so much that I have taken double the usual medication, and had three pints (well, actually, half litres) of San Miguel. I have completed 620 odd miles of bike riding on this trip, thus far, and according my route planning, have just over 100 to go. Whether I’ll actually be able to ride all of that last 100 plus miles remains to be seen and will depend, I would guess, not only on my joints but also on how rough the roads are, and how steep they are.
If the roads do turn out to be very rough and/or steep, then I might well not be able to ride all the way to Benicassim. But that doesn’t concern me. I am going there whether I make it all the way by bike or not. And what I have managed to do so far is an achievement in itself. I am my biggest critic; Julie always told me off for that. But even I can see that simply devising this ride in the weeks after Julie's death was an achievement, let alone seeing through the planning, the creation of the charity, the publicity, putting practical arrangements into place, and then carrying out the ride to this point. I have struggled to function since Julie died and some days, it has been a struggle just to get out of bed; it often still is. And that was always bound to be the case: You don't just carry on as if nothing has happened when the most incredible person that you will ever meet, suffers so much because of cancer, and the disease eventually takes her life. So I have moped; I have been – and often still am - depressed and down; I have cried and still do; I have longed to be with Julie; but I have also devised, and carried out, a bike ride that has seen me ride over 600 miles so far … and counting.
Distance 42 miles (68 km)
Time spent in the saddle: 3 hours 45 mins
Elevation gained: 2,341 feet
Maximum Speed: 34.6 miles per hour
Average speed: 10.8 miles per hour
Total distance now covered: 677 miles (1090 km)