Beautiful day to be up in the mountains! Sending love & light from Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park!
Last night we all gathered together for one more group dinner somewhere in the heart of Bilbao. Over ten burgers and two goat cheese and vegetable sandwiches, conversation quickly turned to suggestions for the next long distance Team Gerbil ride. Ciarán made a strong sensible argument for Holland. “It’s flat and there’s tulips!” Paul was set on New Zealand and I worked hard to convince everyone to come to Colorado.
This morning Sam, Elena and Paul are setting off early to drive the van back to Girona and return the bikes. What took us seven days to cover on two wheels will take them just under six hours by car.
After everyone else says their goodbyes I leave my suitcase behind reception and head out to explore the city. I’m the only one spending an extra day in Bilbao. My original plan was to spend the afternoon at the Guggenheim but it’s closed since it’s Monday. Thor said not to worry because the outside of the building, a masterpiece of architecture by Frank Gehry, is better than any of the art inside, and I’m finding myself in agreement.
Out in front of the museum Jeff Koons’ Puppy–Thor swears everyone in Spain pronounces it Poopy–stands at attention.
In Bilbao the bugs are back and the trees are full. We’ve followed the cusp of spring all week as we moved from the Mediterranean, up into the Pyrenees, and down to the Bay of Biscay. It’s much warmer here and quite pleasant.
My legs aren’t exactly cramping but they’re almost too heavy to pick up and move forward. I rest for a minute in the Parque de Doña Casilda de Iturrizar where three more of the happiest dogs in the world frolic off leash.
Then I rally myself for a sluggish circular stroll through downtown.
Walking the length of a brand new city is one of my single most favorite things to do but after a few hours I’m so tired I can barely stand. Then when I sit down on a bench in the Parque República de Abando I realize I’m too tired to even sit up. Would anyone notice if I just lay down and close my eyes for a minute?
Sure, this isn’t the safest way to experience a foreign country but I’m checked out of one hotel and unable to check in to the next one yet. I realize I’m putting myself in a very vulnerable position . . . but my passport is secure in my backpack under my head . . . and I don’t have any cash on me . . . and . . .
Just like that I’m out. Full on sleeping on a park bench like a homeless person under a fragrant and fully blossomed tree on a beautiful spring day. It’s a power nap—I’m only unconscious for about fifteen minutes—but it restores enough energy for me to stand once more. I stretch in the afternoon sun and think the one thought that has been on my mind more than any other this week: Food. Now.
This morning at breakfast I ate a big slice of this delicious Spanish style egg and potato pancake thing, plus scrambled eggs, a plain croissant, a chocolate croissant, two glasses of orange juice, black tea, almost half a pineapple, four slices of cheese, and a chocolate donut. Now it’s nearly 2:00 pm and I could eat it all again.
I really want one more ice cream for the road but I don’t have any euros left and the ice cream cart lady doesn’t want my credit card. Instead I find an Aldi grocery store and for less than ten euros I’m stocked up for a late lunch, dinner, tomorrow’s breakfast, and snacks for the plane.
And with that I call it a day. I’ve trekked up and down the Gran Vía de Don Diego López de Haro. I’ve seen the Nervión River, the ever-so-slightly over the top Statue of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the outside of the Guggenheim . . . now I will see the inside of a taxi and my new hotel by the airport, where I will have many opportunities to practice both Kaixo! and Eskerrik asco.
In my hotel room I slather myself with Icy Hot and look back at the totality of our route. It’s phenomenal just how far the wild winds of fortune carried us. In the end only two of the eleven cyclists completed the entire route–Mark and Paul. But whether by bike, or by van, or by bus, all twelve of us made it over 500 miles from Girona to Bilbao, relatively unscathed, and we’re all the better for it.
I know my life is in a really beautiful place because I really don’t want to leave but I also can’t wait to get home. Tomorrow I will wake up at 4:30 am to head to the airport and retrace my route back to the States. Two-hour flight to Munich —> zombie-like layover —> ten and a half hour flight to Denver.
And before I know it I’ll be home, collapsed on my bed with my pups. As I drift off to sleep Tobi will be in his usual protective and alert state.
When I wake up the following morning, Banjo, who has astonishingly passed the majority of those damned Gu gel packets through his cast iron intestines, will have maneuvered his way up to snooze by my side, just like he has every night for the past twelve years.
The next Team Gerbil ride could happen anywhere in the world. It’s exciting to think of the possibilities. The only thing I know for sure is that wherever it is, I’ll be there, ready to conquer it with a big smile on my face.
Sending all my wild ecstatic love to Paul, Andy, Mark, Ciarán, Thor, Vanda, Helen, Alistair, Sam, Claire, and Elena! Until the Gerbils ride again! ❤ ❤ ❤
Today’s route: San Sebastián to Bilbao
Today’s distance: 118 kilometers / 73 miles
Today’s elevation gain: 1,983 meters / 6,506 feet
TOTAL DISTANCE: 705 KILOMETERS / 438 MILES
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 10,747 METERS / 35,259 FEET
San Sebastián is a bustling city and today is the first Sunday this spring where it hasn’t been raining here. Everyone is out on the road—locals, tourists, buses, cyclists. Oh my goodness there are so many cyclists! It’s important for us to stick close together, which is easier said than done when you factor in traffic, stoplights, and a never-ending stream of roundabouts. (Boy do Europeans really like roundabouts!)
Once we make it out of downtown we’re riding fast and strong, absorbing the energy from the cycling clubs crowding the road. At one point we even stop and watch a time trial race go by. One by one I catch whiffs of competitiveness floating off the backs of the male gerbils of our clan. It’s fun to observe and it gets me cycling faster as well.
All throughout Spain drivers have been accommodating and careful and here on the coast road out of San Sebastián it’s no different. It’s an accepted way of life and a huge national sport, which garners a lot of respect and safety for everyone sharing the road. We’re all in our big chain rings, charging the stunning coastal descents and doing our darndest to keep up with the pros. It’s exhilarating.
Somehow I miraculously find myself in the lead. Up ahead I see a tourist lookout with absurd photo ops and signal the group to stop. I don’t know about them but I could use a break from the adrenaline rush.
We gather together and ask a local woman to take our picture. Mark makes the international hand gesture of air clicking a now ancient point and shoot camera. “Por favor, una fotografia?”
“We don’t speak Spanish here,” she replies in heavily accented English as she takes our phones and frames the shots. She is polite but firm. “If you would like to learn, try asking about Basque.”
Aha! That’s why the teenager behind the counter at the ice cream shop last night rolled her eyes at me with such force I could hear them creaking in their sockets. Broken Spanish is much more offensive than perfectly good English in a region that has been fighting for its independence since Francisco Franco came into power in 1939 and banned the Basque language. It wasn’t until Franco died in 1975 that these people were legally allowed to speak their own native tongue.
Face palm! God being a tourist can make you feel like such an ass sometimes.
(And yes, we have been eating a lot of ice cream on this trip, what’s it to you?)
We wind our way along the coast for almost 50 miles until we hit the harbor town of Lekeitio. All day we’ve been referring to it as the K-town because no one could remember the name. Luckily Sam drew us another map and Paul has taken to writing town names on his leg before setting out for the day.
There’s a festival in the town square by the water. At first it calls to us—culture, music, dancing!—and then we come to terms with how hungry (make that hangry) and impatient we are. The restaurants are spilling over with patrons wistfully chomping on tapas, sipping beer and wine in the salty sea air. To them this is a beautiful lazy Sunday, but we’re in our standard mode of Drastic Calorie Deficit (read : famished) and this is not going to work.
Sam has a brilliant idea. “What if we just go to a store and buy a few baguettes and some cheese?”
Damn it Sam, you’re a genius! But why . . . whyyyyyyyyy . . . did you wait until the last day to come up with this brilliant plan??!
We’re so hungry each of us could eat an entire baguette, which we almost do. Sam purchases four enormous loaves of bread while Mark and Paul go in search of condiments and cold cuts. There’s only seven of us and after ten minutes of eating, the cheddar/edam/salami/bologna/turkey/pepperoni is gone and there’s really not much bread left . . .
Yesterday on our way into San Sebastián I managed to master one single word in Basque: Kaixo! which means Hello. Today I’m working diligently on the much more complicated phrase for Thank You: Eskerrik asco.
I’m also spending a good portion of the day singing I, Don Quixote from Man of La Mancha. After Lekeitio our post-lunch route sends us through magnificent rolling farmland. Sam, Claire and Paul are up in front. Andy and Mark are close behind. Ciarán and I are holding steady in the middle. The road bobs us up and down, around and through.
Sometimes I sing to myself and then when I know Ciarán is out of earshot, I belt loudly for the livestock in my best Peter O’Toole impersonation (Simon Gilbert actually). They probably can’t hear me over their constantly clanging bells but I don’t care. This is apparently my super secret weirdo happy place: singing to sheep and cows and horses on the back roads of foreign countries.
And the wild winds of fortune
Will carry me onward
Oh whithersoever they blow
Whithersoever they blow
Onward to glory I go!
In time the farmland morphs into another magical fairyland, this one called Urdaibai Reserva de la Biosfera. It’s a forest and bird sanctuary that runs high along the cliffs of the coast. But it’s now been two hours since lunch and the hobbits are ready for high tea, so we wend our way back down to sea level in the harbor town of Bermeo. A quick coffee perks everyone up and we get moving once again.
Climbing back out of Bermeo requires a steep jaunt up a 14% grade hill. It almost breaks me. Seriously folks, a hill like this defies physics. I’ll allow the fine folks at Fat Cyclist to make the point a little clearer:
For the first time on this trip, I hop off my bike and push it up the last hundred feet. Up until this point I had been getting stronger with each ride but this afternoon I’m losing steam with every mile. It doesn’t matter how much energy (food) I put into my body. It’s my brain that’s slowly giving up and we still have a ways to go.
Once we make it back into the forest I’m done. I have no choice but to call it in. I’ve ridden 73 miles and climbed over 6,500’ since this morning. I don’t have another 28 miles in me. As the last six riders fill up their water bottles and pound protein bars, I quietly put my bike in the back of the van, doing my best to hold back tears of disappointment. My mood has tanked and I don’t want to affect anyone else’s resolve.
I hop into the cab of the van with Alistair and he can tell I’m upset. As the remaining cyclists spin their wheels back onto the pavement, Alistair turns down the volume of his BBC Radio play and let’s me cry it out. I give myself seven seconds. I don’t know why that’s the magic number but it is. I count to seven, wipe my eyes, and make a choice. I know I can turn this perceived failure into a success; I just have to figure out how.
Not too far up the road the team rides right past a sign that says the road is closed. But it only says it in Spanish and Basque so they don’t notice. Alistair and I translate the bad news and speed past them to assess the damage up ahead. When the road block appears I climb out of the van and run up as far as I can go. Around the first corner I see some major renovation work from a mudslide but on a bike it could be passable.
This is a swiftly curving coastal road so I can’t see anything past where I’m standing. We look at the map, which shows a very long detour, and give the team the news. They decide to push forward and will call us if they have to turn around.
Back out on the main road the first two thoughts that pass through my mind are ‘gas station’ and ‘snacks’. We stop and fill up on water, granola bars, salted nuts, and chips, then drive the detour and pull off at the top of the last big hill on the route. We’re parked far enough off the road that the team could sail right by us without noticing. It’s getting dark so I pull my lights off my bike and carry the snacks up to the corner.
Gerbil Team Six has ten more miles to go, then they have to navigate bridges and major city traffic to get into downtown Bilbao. I attach my lights to the bikes that need them most and wish everyone luck. Barring any emergencies, we’ll see them next at the hotel.
Alistair has driven in Bilbao before and it’s hard enough for him to maneuver the van through downtown. We park somewhat illegally in front of the hotel and get word to the other four riders (who had called it a day after lunch) that we’re here. While we wait for the last members of our little clan to make their way into the city, Elena, Helen, Thor, Vanda, and I get to work on disassembling bikes. Thor brings down his pedal spanner and allen keys. Wahoos and saddles come off. I start a pile of water bottles that need to go back to Bike Breaks.
My disappointment has been marvelously absent since I wiped my eyes in the van and changed my mind. I’ve enjoyed feeding the team and cheering them on. I’m a natural troubleshooter and I like these tasks of handing off luggage, checking gear inventory, packing the bikes precisely inside the van. With a big grin on my face I envision myself doing this again, not just for fun but as a job.
Today’s ride was one of the most difficult all week and in the end only six insane–I mean incredible–cyclists finish all 101 miles of it. One by one they arrive at the hotel equal parts overjoyed and exhausted.
It’s hard to believe the cycling is done. How is it possible that we rode so far and yet it all flew by so quickly?
Sending so much love from Bilbao ❤ ❤ ❤
Today’s route: Pamplona to San Sebastián
Today’s distance: 106 kilometers / 66 miles
Today’s elevation gain: 1,887 meters / 6,194 feet
TOTAL DISTANCE: 587 kilometers / 365 miles
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 8,764 meters / 28,759 feet
Our journey through the region of Navarra (Pamplona is its capital) was quick and today we’re moving into the Basque Country. It’s truly like crossing a border into a whole new land. Out here the hillsides are dotted with an ancient breed of ponies called pottoks.
The language is changing and town names begin to have an inordinate number of K’s, X’s and Z’s. Pro-independence political posters and murals blanket walls in every village.
We do a ton of climbing at the beginning of the day and then, for eleven delicious miles, we coast uninterrupted through a fairyland of waterfalls. All the rain from the past few days is making its way down to the sea. Water cascades towards us from every angle as if the entire mountain is weeping. It seeps through the muddy walls of moss on our right, crosses the street under our tires, and flows into the massive gush of the Urumea Ibaia River on our left.
The Eden-like experience feels like a joyful daydream.
In a village called Goizueta, the world’s happiest dog races through the streets.
And by the end of the day we’ve left the snow covered Pyrenees behind us and followed the river all the way to the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. San Sebastián greets us with warmth, sun, and a hopping tourist scene unlike anything we’ve seen so far.
From the beach I have a chance to video chat with my mom and my sister. My dog Banjo is still in rough shape but definitely on the mend. He had his entire back shaved so the topical solutions for his awful rash can seep directly into his skin. It breaks my heart to see him but they swear he’s in great spirits. His iron coated intestinal tract has even started expelling the Gu gel packets he swallowed fourteen days ago. After two weeks of nonstop worry, it seems like we’re finally moving away from the possibility of a blockage and emergency surgery.
They also report on my other dog Tobi, who remains totally and blissfully fine (as usual) and has not considered eating anything that could kill him or contracted a noxious disease. Once again I can’t believe how unimaginably lucky I am to have them there taking care of my pack so that I get to be here in the land of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
Anyone on the lookout for a unique and unforgettable travel destination should add this place to their list! Sending wild, enamored love all the way from San Sebastián ❤ ❤ ❤
Today’s route: Jaca to Pamplona
Today’s distance: 134 kilometers / 83 miles
Today’s elevation gain: 1,335 meters / 4,381 feet
TOTAL DISTANCE: 481 kilometers / 299 miles
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 6,877 meters / 22,565 feet
Today starts out cold and cloudy, and quickly becomes cold and raining. I don’t know if it’s any easier to start dry and get wet than it is to start wet and stay wet. But I do know that today my head and my heart are in a very different place than they were two days ago.
My first two rides were fantastic but strenuous. I was working through jet lag and getting comfortable with a new bike and (awesome) new people in a foreign country. Then I had a day off. Then my third ride was literally perfect, just perfect. Stunning, beautiful, fun, engaging. I was in my element and having a blast. So today, even though it’s a terrible day in terms of weather, my spirits are soaring and I’m up for the challenge. In fact, I’m relishing it.
Less than an hour after we begin pedaling my feet have gone numb. Not just my toes today, but everything from the tip of my toes to the base of my heels. I can sort of feel the back of my heels rub against the back of my shoes but that’s it. My legs do the work while my feet are just clipped in and along for the ride. Here’s hoping I can get them back from the brink later!
Last night I sacrificed one of my ice packs to Mark so today, in return, he’s loaning me his spare gloves. My usual thin gloves are no match for the freezing cold air so I’m very lucky to have his. Even though the rain has quickly soaked these new gloves, which now seem to weigh about five pounds each, my fingers are staying warm(ish).
We’ve naturally broken up into pace groups and I’m back with Mark, Ciarán, and Andy just like yesterday. We’ve got a long way to go and the weather conditions are not going to change anytime soon. The scenery is probably gorgeous but the rain is spitting into my eyeballs like ice chips so I can’t really tell. Taking pictures of the gushing Aragón River below us as we wind our way down through an awe-inspiring canyon is sadly not on the agenda for a ride like this.
Chatter is kept to a minimum. We need to stay strong and focused–that’s it. With my head clear and my heart in it, I’ve got the resolve I need to sustain a decent pace through a long grueling slog. I know I’m going to be out here for 83 miles. I might as well get them done as quickly as possible.
Luckily, we’re in a relatively uninhabited area so there’s little traffic to deal with. Also we’ve gotten better as a team at figuring out lunch spots before we hit the road so we can put our heads down and pedal to the goal without stopping. (Well actually I should say Sam has gotten better at figuring them out for us. He even draws maps!)
Paul runs fully catered cycling tours in Ireland, but this trip through the Pyrenees is basically a group of nutcases flying blind. Other than the route and hotels, we’re figuring it out as we go. For the most part it’s awesome, except for when we arrive in town around 6:00 pm, a bunch of starving maniacs, and can’t find dinner for two hours. Damn you relaxed and luxurious Spanish culture with your tiny tapas and your oh-so-late (yet completely delicious) dinners!
Even though he’s taking his own rest day to explore the architecture back in Jaca, Sam has located a café in the miniature mountain town of Salvatierra de Esca for us to stop for lunch. We lost Mark at a turn after the canyon and he’s way ahead of us, so Andy, Ciarán and I stop at the café without him. It’s the kind of place were you can’t imagine how they possibly stay in business. The owner seems surprised that he has any customers at all.
We’re a soggy mess, dripping puddles of water all over the place but the owner doesn’t seem to mind. He’s more impressed with the fact that we were out there at all. I stumble to explain we’re on bikes from Jaca to Pamplona. His eyes widen and he laughs in disbelief, much like the owner at Bike Breaks in Girona had on Day 3.
Alistair arrives in the van with Elena in tow. I’m thrilled to have access to my suitcase and a dry change of clothes. I’m so cold I’m mostly in shock. In the bathroom I use the hand dryer to blow hot air on my toes but the feeling seems like it’ll be lost for the rest of the day.
Claire and Paul arrive at the café soon after and decisions are made: Claire, Elena and Ciarán are done for the day. They will proceed to Pamplona in a taxi. We got word that Thor, Vanda, and Helen took a detour to stay on the flat main road. The mileage is the same but they’ll avert the mountain ahead of us. Mark’s already on his way to the top. Paul, Andy, and I are ready to start climbing. Everyone is accounted for and it’s time to go.
We crawl at a slow steady pace, pelted by rain the entire way. We’ve wrapped our feet in newspaper to help absorb some of the water in our shoes but it’s ineffectual at best. At the top of the mountain the rain suspends itself just long enough for a roadside pee break and my second act as a world-class chanteuse.
The sun doesn’t actually come out but eventually the rain subsides for good. About halfway down the far side we see Alistair and the van. He’s found Mark again. We scoop him up into our mini peloton and truck on to Pamplona as a foursome. With an energy gel in me I take the lead for a little while. I’m finally starting to dry out but my feet are still frozen.
Pamplona is a brightly painted city filled with homages to Hemingway and the running of the bulls everywhere you look.
Today the team does a really good job of post-ride snacking to stave off the pre-dinner blood sugar drop. We find an incredible Italian place called La Sangiovesa not far from our hotel. I order a large avocado salad and a family size pesto ravioli, all for myself, and stuff more bread into my mouth than you might think one stomach could handle. After dinner we stroll the busy streets–it’s Friday night in Pamplona!–and find a gelato shop for one more binge before bed.
A few folks are heading out for drinks but I’m ready to be supine and sleeping.
Sending happy, exhausted love from Pamplona! ❤ ❤ ❤
Today’s route: Aínsa to Jaca
Today’s distance: 90 kilometers / 56 miles
Today’s elevation gain: 1,672 meters / 5,484 feet
TOTAL DISTANCE: 347 kilometers / 216 miles
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 5,542 meters / 18,184 feet
The sun is back out and we are very happy today.
Temperatures drop drastically as we continue to climb. Snow begins to pile up on the sides of the road and, just as my toes start to freeze, I get my first flat. I graciously allow Paul to fix it while I snack and take beautiful pictures of the vast and sweeping landscape.
I don’t mention the fact that I can change my own puncture. Instead I allow myself to be taken care of by willing, chivalrous men (all happily married by the way so you can hold back the winks and nudges) and it’s quite lovely. Those of you who have followed my full story know this isn’t always easy for me. But see . . . I’m trying!
Upon closer inspection, Andy finds a minuscule piece of glass in my tire.
On the way down the far side of the mountain, I kid you not, Ciarán gets two flats of his own. The wind is frigid as we coast downhill but in time the temperature rises and we start to feel our toes again. The landscape makes another drastic shift and for many miles we follow the gushing Rio Guarga. Suddenly it’s hard to remember that we were ever cold.
What is there to say besides, Holy cannoli everything about this ride was amazing! Freezing toes, ice in our cleats, four flat tires in under an hour . . . ain’t no thang when you’re in a beautiful place with wonderful people ❤ ❤ ❤
Today’s route: Balaguer to Aínsa
Today’s distance: 0 kilometers / 0 miles
Today’s elevation gain: 0 meters / 0 feet
TOTAL DISTANCE: 257 kilometers / 160 miles
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 3,870 meters / 12,700 feet
I awake to the sound of rain inside my hotel room. This can’t be good. The erratic leak that appeared in the corner last night is now a constant stream of multiple drips. I place the wastebasket from the bathroom under as many of the drops as I can and pull back the curtain of the picture window. Heavy droplets bounce off the sidewalk, pooling into large puddles that the cars splash through. The deluge churns up mud in the river that runs along the far side of the street.
Downstairs in the hotel café I find our team of gerbils divided. Sam, Thor and Claire are decked out in rain gear and determined to ride. Andy, thoroughly undecided, is in cycling shorts but a regular shirt. Ciarán is wearing jeans. The rest are not yet present. I’m in yoga pants and a hoodie so you know exactly where my head is.
I don’t make this decision lightly. I’ve spent a lot of time on the bike in terrible weather conditions and I take pride in pushing myself past my perceived limits. But it’s also early in the week and I don’t want to get hurt. Flashbacks of flying over the trunk of the car that hit me just outside of Sligo last year race through my head. It’s dark out, the rain is heavy, and there are a number of busy streets to navigate to get out of this city. I just don’t want to do it when I’m not at 100%.
So I decide to sit this one out. I decide to enjoy a rest day exploring cities I’ve never come close to before. In fact four of us do. Seven gerbils bravely set out onto the rain slicked streets and Team Dry—myself, Andy, Ciarán, and Elena our Spanish translator—heads over to an adorable café to make a plan to get ourselves to the next town.
Option A is an all-day somewhat sketchy route involving four separate buses. They don’t necessarily line up in a real schedule and one of them only departs once a day. If we miss it we’re stuck. Option B is we all pitch in for a taxi to drive us nonstop to Aínsa. Well who wants to spend a full day of vacation in a bus station? Decision made, we enjoy oversized pastries, coffees and hot chocolates while Elena kindly negotiates with the cab company.
Within the hour our driver is out front and we’re on our way. We pile into the taxi and he takes off through town at 130 kph. That’s roughly 80 miles an hour through the city before even making his way onto anything resembling a motorway. We’re holding on for dear life as he nearly launches us into the stratosphere. This supposed two-hour drive will likely be closer to 45 minutes.
Spain is comprised of 17 autonomous communities, also known as regions, and on this trip we get to visit four. Today we’re crossing over from Catalonia into Aragon. Though we’re happy to take in the scenic shift from the interior of a warm taxi, we can’t help but feel for our friends on the road. The car is taking a different route so we’re unlikely to pass them. On our way through the countryside we get word that Helen and Vanda have joined our support driver, Alistair, in the van. It’s a smart move and they send us a cute picture of themselves smiling and dry, cozied up in the cab.
That leaves five cyclists on the road and it’s getting colder. Crossing over into Aragon also means climbing higher into the mountains. We’re not only moving north, we’re moving up. So now the cyclists don’t just have the muscle fatigue effect of elevation gain (the number of vertical feet we climb over the course of any given day), but they’re also dealing with a higher altitude. Altitude drops the temperature and turns rain into slush.
Consider this difference: A) You start at sea level (0’), climb to 1,000’, coast back down to sea level and climb again. You’ve now climbed a total of 2,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. B) You start at 3,000’, climb to 4,000’, coast back down to 3,000’ and climb again. Same total elevation gain but you’re doing so at a higher altitude and therefore have to deal with everything that comes with that difference. Make sense?
The taxi driver revs the engine and starts up a brutal hill flanked by snow. The rain is morphing into something more like sleet and we cringe knowing what our friends are in for once they make it this far. Today’s route is just as long as the previous ones we’ve done, but the difficulty lies in the majority of the climbing being at the tail end. These cyclists have been wet since the minute they stepped outside and they’ll be pretty stretched for stamina when they reach the hardest part.
Aínsa is the polar opposite of forgettable, dull Balaguer. Voted one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, Aínsa boasts a cobbled Plaza Mayor from the 12th century and outstanding views of some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees. After quick naps at the hotel (don’t tell the others!) Team Dry can’t help but step out in the rain to explore the old town.
After a late lunch at a hole-in-the-wall pub we head back to the hotel. We know the riders will be dead tired and near frozen by the time they arrive. Andy suggests we form a Welcome Party and we’re all in. In a hilarious mix of Google translate from Ciarán’s phone and my pathetic Spanish skills (“Nosotros amigos tienen mucho mucho frio!”), he and I manage to convince the attendant to give us everybody’s room keys. When Alistair pulls up with the van Team Dry works quickly to get everyone’s suitcases up to their rooms. This way we can greet them with high fives and keys so they can go immediately upstairs for hot showers without the hassle of digging out passports and checking in.
One by one they start to arrive. Paul is laughing a tad deliriously. Sam stumbles off his bike claiming to be a broken man. Mark believes he’s been hallucinating for miles and insists the van go out in search of Thor (who is last to arrive but OK from what we can discern). Claire, also known as The Rocket, simply has no words. Team Soaking Wet Gerbils has climbed over 8,000’ in close to 90 miles of rain, slush, and sleet.
Over an extravagant dinner on the plaza, complete with house made Spanish liqueur compliments of the chef, we toast their rock star status. Seriously these folks are hard core!
Sending admiration and love from Aínsa! ❤ ❤ ❤
Update on Banjo: His skin condition has been correctly diagnosed–it is dreadful but curable. Still at risk for surgery due to the packets. Gah!
Today’s route: Berga to Balaguer
Today’s distance: 127 kilometers / 79 miles
Today’s elevation gain: 1,609 meters / 5,281 feet
TOTAL DISTANCE: 257 kilometers / 160 miles
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 3,870 meters / 12,700 feet
Eight months ago when I went to Ireland to cycle the Wild Atlantic Way I was a fresh faced wee little sprite, a mere 39 years old. Something very serious has changed for me since then. Has this ever happened to you guys? I’ve crossed over into a new decade. I’ve . . . turned 40.
My post-ride routine used to be chocolate milk, some ice cream, and a high-five-holy-shit-I’m-awesome feeling of satisfaction. Now all that celebration has been replaced by a hot bath with Epsom salts, Aleve anti-inflammatory pills, a generous application of Icy Hot muscle rub, some kind of hemp oil supplement my sister gave me for pain, and an ice pack for my busted knee. That’s right, I hauled a 3 lb. bag of Epsom salts and seven one-time use ice packs a third of the way across the globe in my suitcase because I turned old.
Also this morning my spring allergies kicked into overdrive so I’m tossing in a daily Zyrtec and a Vitamin C tablet. It’s a miracle I can even stand up.
Suffice it to say, I’ve never cycled back-to-back rides like this before. Up until now, the day after a strenuous ride has been a luxurious day of rest. Not so in the Pyrenees. We’ve got just as many miles to conquer today as we did yesterday. The one saving grace is we got on the road by 8:30 am. It may or may not have taken us three attempts to find our way out of the city, but whatever, we made it.
Naturally, we’re climbing uphill out of Berga. And not so naturally, I can’t stop saying cacahuate. It’s the Spanish word for peanut and it’s too much fun. It’s distracting me from the constant stress being applied to my quads. Distraction is an important tool for me when I need to sit back into a climb and let all thoughts of ever finishing disappear from my mind. If all I think about is when I’ll be done, then the task takes forever. But if I can replace that thought with something else on repeat, then I can develop a rhythm that starts to feel like progress.
Sometimes I count pedal strokes or seconds. Sometimes I sing a few lines from a song over and over. This morning I just keep saying cacahuate. It makes me laugh though, so I’m not holding very steady as we roll along the foothills that will lead us up into the actual mountains.
For Wild Atlantic Cycling’s Mizen Head to Malin Head tour, Paul came up with the nickname MizMal. It’s a widely used term now but he claims ownership of the original idea. It occurs to Mark, a tall lanky Scotsman/elementary school gym teacher, that since we’re now riding Girona to Bilbao that makes this ride GirBil.
And *poof* just like that we’ve nicknamed ourselves the Gerbils.
I spend most of the morning with Andy, the other Scotsman I met last summer. I’m still working to find my stride but once we’re moving I actually feel stronger than yesterday. Andy and I pace each other well, taking turns in the lead. We’ve got four people ahead of us and five behind. Today we are the most average gerbils in the clan (go ahead and Google that one) and it suits us just fine.
We pass long swaths of green terraced hillside with family villas that could be small castles.
At the top of a long winding hill we have our first glimpse of snow covered mountains rising in the distance. We pass the standard European countryside churches and cows.
And then something quite delightful happens. We find ourselves on a truly amazing descent. It’s not steep, maybe negative 2.5-3% grade. Just enough to gain speed but still feel in control enough to take a sip of water and look up at the scenery as we coast by. This new road is peaceful and lined by trees on both sides. Not a single car passes us as we descend for miles. It goes on for so long I find myself laughing at how lucky we are to experience it.
The last part of the descent gets steeper and we merge onto a road with traffic. For me, the intensity rises quite a bit. Steep descents are just as challenging as steep climbs. You work different muscles and your mental stamina comes into play at a much higher level. At top speed, a tiny rock in the road could send you skidding into a guard rail if you’re not paying attention. By the time we reach the bottom I need a minute to calm my nerves.
Stopping for a snack can be hit or miss. On the one hand it’s important to stay on top of your calorie intake but on the other it messes with your sense of forward motion. All of a sudden our momentum crashes and we realize we’re in desperate need of real food. We’ve passed dozens of signs indicating towns, yet none of them have had any signs of life, and there is nothing in front of us that looks promising.
Andy sends out an SOS over social media and we soon receive messages from the folks ahead of us about a restaurant option in a town called Ponts. (OK, let’s go ahead and say the only restaurant option in Ponts.) Just as it starts to drizzle we hit the main drag and see two bikes leaned up against a wall. We’ve caught up to Mark and Ciarán (pronounced Kieran)—who have apparently been left in a cloud of wet dust by the speed demons, Claire and Sam.
It’s clear as we sit down that our waitress doesn’t speak a word of English, but I manage to eke out, “Soy vegetariano,” and “Por favor, es posible para no carne, no pescado?” She points to something on the menu and says patata. Yes please! And I end up with a perfectly delicious potato pancake type thing.
Oh if you could see how quickly a group of otherwise civilized adults will gorge on whatever is placed in front of them after they’ve ridden over 60 miles before lunch. The men have comically large chicken breasts on each of their plates and, while my potato thing could honestly use a little ketchup, I’ve devoured the vast majority of it by the time the waitress comes back to check on us.
As we head back onto the road as a foursome, the drizzle continues to spit and the real rain begins to threaten. For the last twenty minutes we are hit by a full storm. We arrive in Balaguer, soaking wet satisfied little gerbils. I toss my bike into the support van, grab my suitcase, and rush up to my hotel room. The first thing I do is get a hot bath running. Then I root through my suitcase to find my bag of Epsom salts before even taking off my helmet or my cleats.
Within minutes I am relaxed and refreshed, slathered in Icy Hot, ready for dinner. This is going to be an amazing week.
Here’s me and Andy–rained on but happy–on our way to Balaguer.
Update on Banjo: He doesn’t have cancer!
Today’s route: Girona to Berga
Today’s distance: 130 kilometers / 81 miles
Today’s elevation gain: 2,261 meters / 7,419 feet
TOTAL DISTANCE: 130 kilometers / 81 miles
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 2,261 meters / 7,419 feet
We start in the middle of downtown Girona, Spain at an awesome little bike shop called Bike Breaks, which is owned and operated by a professional cyclist and his wife. They, along with their staff, are working diligently to get us on the road as quickly as possible.
We’re an eclectic group of twelve: one support van driver and eleven cyclists ranging in abilities and ages. The youngest is 25 and I appear to be smack dab in the middle—15 years older than the youngest and most likely around 15 years younger than the oldest. Only one of us has traveled with her own bicycle. The rest are renting from Bike Breaks, so as anxious as we might be to get on the road, we’ve got a lot of small details to get in order.
The staff is attentive and efficient, adjusting saddles, installing pedals, making sure everyone has water bottles and a helmet. The owner asks our fearless leader Paul, who I met in Ireland last August and who graciously invited me to join this group, how far we’re riding today.
“We’re headed for Berga,” Paul replies while still looking down at the chain he’s busy greasing. From what I can tell, I’m the only one who notices the shop owner’s double take of incredulousness. He’s not exactly being rude. We’ve got 81 miles to cover and who knows how much elevation to climb. It’s an ambitious undertaking and it’s nearly 10:00 am for goodness’ sake. We should have started hours ago but the bike shop didn’t open until after 9:00 am, so here we are.
Paul continues nonchalantly. “We’re riding for a week, ending in Bilbao.”
And now I can’t possibly be the only one who notices his response because he lets out a bit of a laugh as his eyes widen. I love moments like this, when people who actually train for outrageous things see a bunch of relative amateurs try something equally audacious and their gut instinct is disbelief. Can these guys actually ride to Bilbao in seven days?
Because it really is a ludicrous idea. Eleven amateur cyclists tackling the Spanish Pyrenees, where professionals go to train and live. Eleven weekend riders, who don’t even really know each other that well, trudging over 500 miles together, climbing somewhere north of 40,000’ inside of one measly week? I love it. I love it so much to be looked at like I’m crazy for attempting something radical.
I glance around and notice everyone in the group remains confident and collected. It is in this moment that I know I’ve found my people.
The owner laughs and shakes his head. Perhaps there’s a part of him that wants to believe we can do it. Maybe he’s impressed with our gumption. We all make our way out to the square in front of the shop for a group picture. Grinning from ear to ear, we’re all either genuinely excited or genuinely stupid. Either way, we’re in this together and we’re as ready as we’ll ever be.
On our first moderate climb out of Girona we fumble a bit to find our stride. Cycling pros pass us repeatedly on our left as we get to know each other’s skill level and figure out who should be setting the pace. At the top of the hill we take another smiley group photo and I sip on a Gu gel. I can’t help but wonder if any of these packets have made their way out of my dog’s intestines.
It doesn’t take long for us to reach sweeping views of early spring countryside. More than 30% of Catalonia is protected by its government as a natural park system. Today we’re cycling through the Garrotxa Volcanic Zone, the Serra Cavallera mountain range, and the Serres de Milany-Santa Magdalena i Puigsacalm-Bellmunt.
To put it simply, the road to Berga is stunning.
Paul owns Wild Atlantic Cycling, but I never actually rode with him while I was in Ireland. He was driving the support van the day I joined the group from Galway to Westport. So I don’t find out until we hit the steepest part of the day’s climb that he’s the kind of cyclist who never loses his breath. He’s the kind of cyclist who coasts effortlessly up hills while blabbering ad nauseam about who knows what, and the whole time he thinks you’re engaged and able to respond.
He might be asking me something about the U.S. because his wife and kids are currently on a tour of Chicago. Or is it New York? Honestly I have no idea because all I can process is breathing and jet lag. Breathing and jet lag. Oh my god this is already so hard and I’m so tired I can’t see straight. That’s literally all I’ve got.
Except wait, now he’s making fun of me for having a granny gear, but I don’t have a granny gear. A granny gear, for the uninitiated, is a third tiny chain ring, which gets you into a super low gear. Beginner bikes have them. Heavy touring bikes have them. My speedy 2018 Cannondale Synapse road bike with Ultegra components and sweet disc brakes, however, decidedly does not.
This perks me up and I attempt to put Paul in place. “I don’t have a granny gear,” I barely squeak out between huffs and puffs.
“What?” he asks.
I have to wait until I level out at the top of the hill to catch my breath and try again.
“I don’t have a granny gear!” I yell this time with way too much oomph. But Paul is thick skinned. He can take it. We set a rule for the rest of the week: if he’s talking and I’m not responding, he needs to stop talking.
An hour after lunch the team wants to stop for a coffee. What is this, afternoon tea? Am I cycling with hobbits? I’m stressed about getting to Berga before dark so I continue on alone. We’re all using Wahoo GPS route trackers so I won’t get lost, but I am getting extremely tired.
It doesn’t take long for the group to catch up and overtake me. One by one they pass and I try to stay positive. This is the most elevation gain I’ve ever climbed in a single day and I know the jet lag is a legitimate strike against me.
Paul lags behind to lend encouragement. Starving after twenty more miles, we stop for a break at the only little store we can find. The language here is a mix of Spanish, French and Catalan. Friendly locals try their best to figure out what the heck we want. Paul is dying for peanuts. I will literally murder someone in exchange for a bag of potato chips. We stumble our way through a ridiculous conversation with outrageously patient old villagers who seem to have stepped out of a time machine from the past.
Five minutes later on the sidewalk, we laugh as we stuff our gaping maws with Lays potato chips, mini Oreos, peanuts, Cokes, and pork rinds for the meat eater. We’re in agreement—this is what it’s all about.
When we hit Berga we are instantly lost off course. The Wahoo routes are programmed to get us into town but one thing no one planned for was specific directions to each hotel. Local teenagers tell us which way to go, which involves carrying our bicycles down a flight of stairs. Bikes precariously hoisted to our shoulders, stepping carefully so as not to slip in our cleats, I ask him, “Hey do you remember that time in Berga when we had to carry our bikes down the stairs?”
This is live action memory making. This is everything I love about being on an adventure.
We’re the last to arrive at the hotel. Everyone has kindly waited for us before setting out in search of dinner. We twelve wander for far too long in search of a restaurant open on a Monday night in this tiny town and settle on a bar called La Tosca where we are the only diners.
My second hotel room in Spain confirms I am indeed back in the Land of Twin Sized Beds, but I’m too tired to care. (Seriously though, how do adult Europeans find it normal to sleep in child-sized beds?) I am exhausted and I am happy. Unfortunately I am also over-caffeinated from all the Gu gels and Cokes, but no bother. I’ll drift off to sleep eventually.
Sending blissful buzzy love from Berga! ❤ ❤ ❤
Six days ago my twelve-year old mutt Banjo, who I adore in the slightly excessive my-children-have-fur kind of way, got into my cycling supply bag and ate twelve Chocolate Outrage Gu gels, packaging and all—one for each year of his divine little life, I suppose. Here’s a visual for your gastrointestinal imagination.
After a call to the animal poison control hotline and a few hours in the emergency room, complete with X-rays and induced vomiting, only four little pieces came out. Then, sometime around 11:00 pm, while I was waiting for results from radiology, the on-call doctor kindly informed me that I should also really get the rash on Banjo’s back re-checked because, to her, it looked like cancer.
Four little pieces from twelve full packets–the rest of the mess still lodged in his body somewhere, which at any moment could cause a blockage requiring surgery. Also maybe cancer, but we won’t know about that until sometime on Saturday, you know, after I’ve boarded a plane to Barcelona.
So now it’s Saturday and I am scared and stressed and sad because my favorite being on the planet is in such distress, and yet I’m scared and stressed and excited because I have an incredible adventure ahead of me in Spain. My sister is patient and kind as I wring my hands all the way to the airport. We have a good plan in place with my sister, a midwife, and my mom, a vet tech, taking care of Banjo in my absence. I couldn’t ask for a better combo but I’m still feeling conflicted as I board my Lufthansa flight.
The one good thing about all the focus on my dog this week is that I haven’t had anytime whatsoever to worry about the more than 500 miles and 43,000’ of climbing waiting for me in the Spanish Pyrenees. As I settle into my seat it starts to dawn on me where I’m going and what I’ll be attempting when I get there. I post a picture to Instagram captioned, “Nervous and excited on my way to Barcelona! What have I done?”
I won’t sleep a wink on the red eye–nine hours to Munich followed by a quick layover and two more hours to Barcelona. A severe rainstorm will greet me at my final destination but so will our group’s bright and friendly Spanish translator and fellow cyclist. She’ll drive us an hour and a half to Girona where I will try to make up for the eight hour time difference with a power nap before meeting the rest for dinner—a blur of tapas devoured alongside a batch of salty Brits, Northern Irish and even a few Scotsmen.
I’ll crash early to take in nine full hours of sleep and then . . . well you know what’ll happen next . . . I’ll get on my bike and cycle my fool little heart out.
Sending love and light from Catalonia ❤ ❤ ❤