They say all endurance athletes are running away from something, but what compelled my brother to cycle from London to Lisbon on little training or prior experience was more the lure of the open road, coupled with a forgiving employer and an even more understanding family. Various people planned to join him along the way and I decided on tackling the section from Oviedo in Northern Spain to the finish via the Atlantic coast.
Day 1 Asturias airport to Ribadejo; 125km, 1547m climbing
Bikes packed, the pre-dawn dash to Stansted and the horror of modern day air travel. We nearly missed the flight but by 11am we are outside the airport ready to go, the sun is shining an Asturias looked beautiful. JK arrives, a little later than advertised, looking remarkably similar to how I left him 2 weeks previously on the ferry from Portsmouth. So much for the transformational power of bike riding.
We’re keen to get off. Straight out of the airport the road plunges down into a wooded valley and then straight back up the other side. We are joined by Sean, another old family friend but immediately we are all separated. A look at the profile for this section gives a sense of the coastal terrain in Asturias – there’s little or no flat road, it’s either up or down. And so it continued for the next 50 km’s, we probably exchanged around 10 words as we each battled the gradients with fully loaded bikes. When I say loaded, I have to thanks our friends at Restrap for their large frame bag that JK and I were using – Sean on the other hand and taken a ‘more is more’ approach and added an extra 20kg of luggage onto his bike for his 4-day tour. More on that later.
Progress was slow so we stopped for lunch at around 50km. A few beers, some tapas and time for a proper catch-up – we could have stayed there all afternoon but our hotel was booked and we were keen to get in before sunset. The terrain softened a little as we headed towards Galica, an endless series of perfectly deserted beaches encouraged exploration but the 15% gradients to access them less so.
A coffee stop in lovely Luarca set us up for the late afternoon ride to Ribadejo, passing low-key holiday towns and surfing communities reminiscent of our own childhood holidays in South West Ireland. So far the Satnav had been spot on, we rolled off the main highway and headed out into the wild countryside, it felt wrong but I had faith in the tech and sure enough the route took us under the motorway and onto a service road leading to the bike lane over the bridge to Ribadejo. Our hotel was right on the river so navigation was easy and we enjoyed a beer on the terrace in the setting sun. That night we treated ourself to the best restaurant in town, some great wine, huge steaks and brandies to finish. This was my kind of cycling trip.
Day 2 Ribadejo to Melide; 144km, 2092m climbing.
Despite our indulgences we were back on the road before 9am. A stiff, steep cobbled climb 50km out of the hotel got the legs warmed up but the next 30km were flat and we trundled along making good, easy progress. The roads were empty, even by mid-morning. This is rural, green Spain but here it felt more like the Oregon – wide roads and endless pine forests. We drifted inland and the road began to rise, gently at first and them, suddenly, a monstrous 20% gradient presented itself – no short, sharp dig, this went on an on as we gained over 500m in a little over 1km. I struggled but just about managed to stay upright but Sean, with his saddlebags of doom had no chance. We rejoined the main road and swapped bikes as I could see from the profile that there was a long day’s climbing ahead. The road continued to rise but the savage gradients were replaced with a more gentle rise to a high plateau. Stopping for coffee we met a group of American christians touring the religious sites of the region – we were on the ‘Camino do Santiago’, the pilgrims route and for the next couple of days these fellow travellers would be a constant presence. Just before lunch we picked up a puncture, maybe we would be lucky and that would be it.
After lunch the terrain became increasingly rural; narrow lanes and dogs, crazy dogs around every corner, thankfully on leashes. And the roads started to get worse, it was fun at first, a proper adventure as we encountered the road less travelled, down narrow paths, grassy lanes and goat tracks.
We got to the town of Friol by mid afternoon, only 20km to go. In broken Spanish a local in a bar told us not to take the direct route to Melide, but make a further 20km detour via another town. We’d been down some rough-stuff already so I’m sure it would be fine. How wrong I was. After 10km the road ran out, first this;
and finally this.
Having faced down a field of bulls and fixed a couple more punctures the light started to fade but we were challenged with another 300km of climbing up to the high plains. Here the terrain was more reminiscent of the North Pennines, albeit with much better weather than when I was last there. I fear my travelling companions had now lost all faith in my routing as we headed up yet another steep climb, this was a real sting in the tail of an already long day. But, for me I loved it all – the total unpredictability, the unforgiving terrain and sheer wildness of the countryside. We rolled into town in darkness and I sorted out getting provisions and dealing with the hotel booking whilst the others recovered from the day’s excursions. There was little drinking that night and after a disappointing pizza we heard back for an early’ish night, more climbing awaited us the following day.
Day 3 Melide to Porto-Novo; 143 km, 1788m climbing.
We were up before daylight, the plan was to rollout for an hour or so and then get breakfast but JK’s front tire was flat, we fixed that and headed out. At the top of the road we saw an open cafe and fearing that might be our only option so we stopped for breakfast. An hour gone and 50m covered so far. Eventually we got going and at last the route i’d plotted found good, well surfaced roads. The day had us dropping over 700m to sea level but for now it was a repeat of the previous day’s climb-descend-climb hamster wheel. The troops were struggling by mid-morning but we found a good cafe and restored by coffee and toasted sandwiches we headed west towards the coast.
It was late when we arrived for lunch at Padron, home of the eponymous pepper. The town was lively, the market was on and the great and the good were all out enjoying Sunday lunch. I’d done a little research and found a great restaurant – we had to wait for a table, always a good sign, so had a couple beers and then got carried away with a few carafes of wine with the food. It was one 4pm by the time we staggered out and back onto our bikes.
Remarkably, we made good, stately progress for the rest of the day, stopping only for a fortifying beer in the ancient town of Cambados. Sean had us in good cheer and the miles tumbled by, passing through beautiful Galician villages We were now on the West Atlantic coast and the land finally levelled out.
As the last of light faded we rode on past the sea and into a beautiful sunset over the beach opposite our hotel for the night. My routings may have been a little sketchy at times but being able to get directly to your hotel at the end of a long day is a real morale-saver. We had a trip to the spa, another big dinner and too much brandy – so far the drinking was proving as challenging as the riding.
Day 4 Porto-Novo to Fao 159km, 1408m climbing
Another beautiful morning, another climb to start the day but the reward was this view;
The roads here are busier than anything encountered so far as we passed through Pontevedra, home of the 2014 cycling world championships, and headed towards Vigo. We pulled off the main road and find a quiet, shady spot by the beach at Redondela, it was a wonderfully peaceful place and as such hard to head back out onto into the heavy traffic and the highway towards the Portuguese border.
At around midday we arrived at the border town of Tui – no customs or passports required but a symbolic crossing of the Minho river via this beautiful road bridge.
Immediately on the other side and we were faced with a couple of km’s of uphill Calcada – the rough, cobbled surface commonplace in much of Portugal – pretty to look at but not much fun on a heavy, puncture-prone bike. Northern Portugal is queiter and obviously less prosperous than it’s neighbour, the roads are good but rapidly change from paved, to bike paths and cinder tracks with no obvious reason as to why.
We were on a road headed towards the coast having crossed the border 30km inland. It was a pretty place and we were climbing gently up the side of a valley. My route had already taken us over a few nasty climbs in the interest of saving 50m, only to deposit us back on the highway shortly afterwards. I tried to discard these diversions as we rolled along but I could see a motorway junction coming up and the only option was a big haul over a steep escarpment before plunging down under the motorway. We had a heated discussion, I carried on and waited at the top – 5 or 10 mins went by but it soon became clear my companions had lost faith in the route, the navigator and most likely both. Fair enough, the run home was a simple 50km along a single road so I set off alone.
A heavy fog rolled in as I hit the Atlantic coast, adding a sense of foreboding but I felt good and left on my own I could get on with turning a big gear, eating up the miles. It felt great to be moving at speed along wide, flat coastal roads and I arrived at the hotel less than 2 hours later. The hotel was a huge resort hotel right on the Atlantic, but out of season it felt eerily quiet. I went for walk as darkness fell, waiting for the others and the inevitable inquest on the day’s events. In the end we agreed to disagree and quickly forgot about it – the benefits of travelling with old friends and family. I did check that junction by the way – they were right, there was no need to take that uphill diversion. Next time…
Day 5 Fao to Porto; 62km, 488m of climbing.
A cloudy day for the first time. Sean had to get to the airport by 10.30 for a flight back, and we were meeting 4 more riders joining us for the last leg to Lisbon. Time to focus on getting the miles covered as quickly as possible so we got in line formation and rolled along swiftly. No time for mid-morning coffees but bang on schedule we arrived at the very impressive Porto airport.
It’s slight surreal wheeling you bike into an airport arrivals hall but everyone was pretty laid back about it. It was sad to see Sean go, but fresh legs were arriving. Goodbye’s and hello’s were dealt with and then there was just the 2 of us to continue on to Porto itself. The routing didn’t let me down this time, we hit the coastal path and followed it around from the sea along the southside of the Duoro. A big thank-you to Duorobikes, a lovely shop on the way into town were we got our tyres back up to full pressure and restocked on inner tubes.
Porto looked like a cracking place, it’s on the list of places I must revisit. We crossed over the famous two-level road / rail bridge and immediately began the steep climb up the other side. I was a little concerned about this in my planning but the traffic was light, the gradient tough but not savage and we got up with little trouble.
The rain arrived later in the afternoon so I stayed in the hotel, slept a little and generally caught up with work and events at home. I helped build a bike that had been transported in a bike box. All was going well until I managed to snap the heads off the headset bolts which had been inserted the wrong way. The bike was unrideable, we would need to go to a bikeshop the next morning to get it sorted. Not the start I wanted for the next part of the journey.