Day 5 — Team Dry Has No Shame

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! ❤ ❤ ❤


Day 3 — The Road to Berga

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! ❤ ❤ ❤

Day 14, Galway

Rest day in Galway

Mileage:  0 miles                                                                     Elevation gain:   0′

Total mileage so far:  530.5 miles          Total elevation gain so far:  27,223′

I love getting the opportunity to write in new places, and Caffé Ristorante on the corner of 300 year-old Eyre Square in downtown Galway does not disappoint. I’m guessing the name loosely translates to Café Restaurant so you really know what you’re getting into before you even sit down. Clever stuff, guys! The staff is friendly, the mid-day raspberry muffins and tea divine.

This morning I covered the entire city with an eight mile walk that took me to the end of the Salthill Promenade and back. Galway Bay is beautiful and the city is alive and exciting.

Galway has everything a great city should have: Mexican food made by people who are actually from Mexico, traffic, pedestrian walkways, 24-hour delis, homeless people sleeping on the streets. I’m in heaven.

Even so, it’s difficult to write today. Everything I want to tell you about seems trite compared to what’s going on at home right now. My love/hate relationship with hostels for instance, or the saddle sores I’m sure you’ve been dying to read about.

My father believes our family history links back to a village called Carrick-on-Suir in County Tipperary, but the Lynch’s are especially prominent here in Galway—Lynch’s Castle which was built in the 15th century and oddly enough renovated into a bank in the 1960’s, Lynch House on Market Street where the elected mayor condemned and hanged his own son in 1493… greeeeaaaat. My family’s crest is even flying on a banner in the middle of town.

It’s fun to see my family name everywhere, but I didn’t come to Ireland to discover my heritage. Sure, I might buy myself a piece of jewelry while I’m here but it’s not going to be a claddagh ring. I don’t mean any offense to the people who do that. I’m just saying I feel my ties connected to the folks who had the idea to get the U.S.of A. started, even if it’s really hard to say that today in light of the tragedy in Charlottesville, VA.

The Latin Quarter of Galway comes alive with street performers at night.

I already know the best music is at Quay’s. I know the best lunch options are off the main thoroughfare—a burrito box from Tuco’s or a falafel sandwich from the Lane Café, taken to go and carried down to the river to eat with the swans and the sea gulls. Or perhaps even better, up to a grassy spot in Eyre Square, if you can find a few feet not already taken by the locals so grateful to have an afternoon in the sun.

Give me another day and I’ll have the bus lines figured out.

This is an environment I am very comfortable in. I could live here. And yet… the only souvenir I buy in the Latin Quarter is a tote bag with cartoon sheep on it because I have apparently, and very quickly I might add, come to miss the little buggers I’d been communing with every day out in the wilds.

I have a very big decision to make. Option A is I ride with Noel and Paul’s MizMal group for a day and then I stick with them. In three days I can make it to Malin Head, the northernmost tip of the country, via the direct route, straight through the middle as opposed to sticking to the coast. I’ll have company, no more saddle sores, and cut a few hundred miles out of my overall ride. Not only will it mean friends and conversation, it will mean going home sooner. I’ve been frustrated and lonely so often, I feel like I have a million reasons to quit. America is a hot mess right now but it’s still home and I miss my dogs something awful.

Option B is I keep going as originally intended. I ride with the group for one day and then I head back out into the wilds on my own for twelve more days of cycling. It’s the journey I came here to make. Do I finish what I started or do I crap out and head home? I really don’t know what to do. The news from home makes me feel even more disconnected than I already have but it also gives me a renewed sense of how important it is to see the world as one, to experience any kind of beauty at any moment it is available to us.

Walking back towards my hostel I come across a street mural by O’Connell’s bar on Station Street. It’s a set of wings painted by Kelsey Montague. Her work can be seen all over the world and this is the first one I’ve come across in person.

What lifts you? she asks. The answer comes to me very quickly. Travel lifts me, even though it can be difficult. Learning, exploring, understanding. Adventure lifts me. The consequent payoff of getting out of my comfort zone lifts me.

I ask a passerby to take my picture and when I look at myself smiling back on my phone, I realize my decision is already made. I’ll be riding strong and seeing this through to the end. I can’t wait to see what’s in store.

Sending love & light to everyone in Charlottesville ❤

Day 9, Sheep Shearing up on Connor Pass

Dingle → Ballybunnion via Connor Pass and Brandon Point

Mileage:  74.6 miles                                                     Elevation gain:   3,849′

Total mileage so far:   399.6 miles     Total elevation gain so far:   21,855′

This morning I’m climbing 1,700’ out of Dingle to the top of Connor Pass. I put my bike into the small ring manually. (Did I even mention the part about how my bicycle doesn’t let me shift down into my low gear while I’m riding and that’s a big part of why I haven’t gotten up all the steep hills?) I’m covered in grease but I’ll be able to make it all the way without dismounting.

It’s ridiculously windy at the top of the pass.I don’t stay long because I’ll get too cold if I do.

Halfway down the backside I come across some live action sheep shearing on the cliff side of the road. This is the beauty of traveling by bicycle. The drivers are concerned about passing on the dangerous single lane curves that fill this descent. Meanwhile I’m swiftly weaving my way through stopped traffic full of nervous tourists and pausing on the side of the road to chat with local sheep shearers. I never would have caught this if I was in a car.

They tell me I can have a discount on a haircut today.

The wind blasts up the pass with such ferocity that I barely need to squeeze my brakes for the three and a half mile coast down. Even with a 10% grade the wind holds me back to a comfortable cruise. Mount Brandon towers to my left and the ocean stretches out in front of me.

When I get down to the bottom I take a left to head out to Brandon Point. I’m not sure at the turn off if it’s going to be worth the extra miles but it absolutely is. The views of Ferndoyle Strand (beach) are so cool. Low tide has dramatically pulled the ocean far out from the shore. I’ve never seen anything like it.

I take a few pictures then ride down to the beach to experience the salty sea air and take a snack break. After that, and for a long time, I’m on a road that climbs high above the shoreline. Cow pastures fill the space in between me and the ocean. It’s a beautiful clear day and I am loving every minute of it.

The second half of my ride from Tralee to Ballybunnion is surprisingly boring. It’s the first dull stretch since I started in Kinsale. The route turns a bit inland and I kind of feel like I’m in Iowa farm country. (No offense, Bret.) For thirty miles I’ve got my head down, hands in the drops, spinning into the wind. This part is more of a workout than climbing the pass had been.

It’s a sweet relief when I get into the cute seaside resort town of Ballybunnion and can stop pedaling. This is where the River Shannon opens up to the sea. It’s a beautiful area and I feel quite welcome upon my arrival to town.

Day 7, Stopping To Take Pictures of Cows

Killarney → Dingle and the Slea Head Loop

Mileage:  67.3 miles                                                        Elevation gain:  2,892′

Total mileage so far: 325.0 miles           Total elevation gain so far: 18,006′

One of Noel’s pet peeves is people who stop on the side of the road to take pictures of cows. I never let on to him that I am one of those people. For our six days together he respectfully refrained from taking pictures of his food, which is my pet peeve, and I repeatedly beat back my urge to pull out my phone as we passed cow after cow after cow.

But those days are over. Noel is gone now and I’m free to take pictures of whatever I want.

Hey girl, how you doin’?

My first true solo ride is spectacular. From Killarney to the beginning of the Dingle Peninsula I cruise along back country roads around little farms. Once I get back out to the ocean the landscape changes and grows more and more dramatic the farther out I get.

Dingle town is a crowded tourist trap. I’m happy to get through it as quickly as I can and take the turn onto Slea Head Drive. I’m going to make a long loop out to Ballydavid where I’m meeting my parents. They landed a few days ago and have been traipsing about Dublin and Cork. This evening they’re coming to Dingle and we’ll all get a day together tomorrow.

Every inch of Slea Head Drive takes my breath away.

I’m tired today and with my parents now. Though the scenery and rides have already surpassed my expectations, homesickness is overwhelming me tonight. I hope I can fight my way through and see this journey to the end but in this moment I’m not exactly sure.

Sending love & light ❤