Julie & Ken Stammers are keen cyclists who completed a 4-month bicycle tour in the summer of 2011 from Spain to the UK and back again – over 6,500 kilometers.
To get ready for the trip, Julie started by reading about other cyclists’ journeys.
“I avidly read hundreds of inspirational accounts written by experienced cycle tourists, some of whom have been around the world several times over, all of whom seemed to have undertaken journeys far more adventurous than the one we were planning. Our total experience of cycle touring was a just couple of cycling holidays with an organised tour company. Not much to go on really!”
“As we set off our heads were full of doubts. Are the bikes too heavy? Are we fit enough? Can we climb the mountains? Is it too far? The questions were endless.”
This is a journal from Julie & Ken’s first week of the journey, when they learned some valuable lessons. You can also read their full trip journal.
Day 1 – And we’re off… (April 2, 2011)
I hope the title of this entry does not give the impression of speed, as that would be misleading. Despite having spent weeks and weeks preparing for this moment, we end up spending the whole morning running around in circles, turning things off, defrosting the freezer and endless other tasks, trying to think of everything that we needed to do to leave the house for 4 months. Would we ever actually be ready to set off?
We loaded the bikes and immediately Ken’s stand broke off. Perhaps we are carrying too much stuff? We were on about Version number 99 of the packing list, as we had moved from the idea of light-weight credit card touring to fully-loaded touring. The original idea was that we would travel light, with just the bare essentials, and stay in hotels or hostels. However, we became increasingly worried that we might have problems finding accommodation as and when we needed it so our solution was to carry the tent, sleeping bags and sleeping mats.
We had had a trial run of loading the bikes to make sure they felt balanced but we hadn’t actually been out on them fully loaded. This wasn’t an oversight, but a deliberate decision. Any route from our house involves either big hills or mountains and riding a fully loaded bike for the first time was always going to be difficult and disheartening. If we had tried it beforehand I could envisage us giving up the idea, so we left it until we were committed to the trip, knowing that, at that point we would overcome any initial difficulties no matter what.
After a technical adjustment (removing the broken stand) we started on our grand trip at 2pm. Not exactly the early start I had envisaged. Whilst working out the route I had planned that we would cover around 100km a day with two rest days off each week, giving a total of 500km a week. Having said that we had left ourselves plenty of extra time to account for any unforeseen problems.
We were not even out of sight of our village when I fell off the bike. The combination of 20kg of stuff and gravity stopped me in my tracks at the first hill and I just couldn’t release my feet from the pedals quick enough, so I ended up upside-down still attached to my pedals and a with a grazed knee.
Ken wasn’t doing much better – he felt as though the whole of his bike was waggling around from side to side as he struggled up the hills, making him feel unbalanced and in danger of coming off at any moment. We both decide that using cleats might not be such a good idea for the first few days and we’re really glad we had decided to buy pedals with a cleat one side and a flat face on the other.
No more than 10km from home, and we were seriously tempted to stay for our first night in our friend’s Bed & Breakfast. Fortunately, she wasn’t at home because given we can actually see our house across the valley from her place, it would have been a seriously embarrassing start to the trip.
With grit and determination we do make it to our intended destination, the small town of Loja, 47km from home and with a not inconsiderable climb over the Puerto de los Alazores (1,028 metres) in the middle. No too bad after all for our first attempt. We found a nice hotel and checked in for a quiet night. That was when the wedding party arrived. No sleep for us then!
Day 2 – Loja to Almedinilla (April 3, 2011)
The day started with us both a little jaded through lack of sleep and with a long climb. The middle of the day involved another long climb, and the day ended with a long climb. I guess you get the picture. Unfortunately, when we reached the top of the first climb we were greeted by wind and rain, which stayed with us for the rest of the day. The wind was not so much of a problem when climbing as the road rising up in front of us gave us shelter but once we crested the tops we felt extremely vulnerable to being blown off track.
This was not an attractive option given the steep mountain sides with nothing between us and the drop below. Neither did we have much confidence that our tyres would stick to the slippery, wet road in the pouring rain. We are used to racing bikes with the slimmest of tyres and virtually no grip on wet roads.
We know the countryside around this area is very scenic and we feel cheated because we could hardly see it for the rain. However, the highlight of our day came when we called into a little bar for a cup of coffee and it came with tapas of bread, cheese, eggs and tuna. When we had a second cup of coffee, it came with chicken legs and chips, all for just €4. You can tell we were off the tourist trail.
We arrive at the small village of Almedinilla, 59km from Loja, soaking wet and worn out. Our next challenge was to find somewhere to stay. We pushed the bikes around a small and very typical Andalucían village, but, as we had already noted we were far from the tourist trail. There really wasn’t anything special at all about the area or the village, so why would there be anywhere to stay? We know we have camping gear but we are saturated through to the skin.
One of the problems we have discovered is that when we are on a steep climb, if we stopped, the gradient prevented us from getting started again and so once on our way upwards we were committed to getting to the top in one go. This meant that we were already wet before we were able to stop and pull on our waterproofs earlier in the day. The thought of pitching the tent in the pouring rain really didn’t appeal.
As it turned out, we were directed from a local bar to a beautiful old ‘Posada’ at the top of the village (a type of road-side inn from times past when mules were used to transport goods) complete with cobbled stone floors and a very welcome log fire. The young Spanish couple who own it are keen cycle tourists, a rarity in Spain. They had just returned from a cycle tour of Cuba. Again, something unusual in Spain. The Spanish, in general, prefer to take their vacations close to home. We sat for the evening around a table with a brasero (a metal pan filled with hot coals placed under a table covered with a thick cloth) toasting ourselves, filling out our journal on the computer and discussing our cycle tour with our hosts.
Day 3 – Onward and upward (April 4, 2011)
You might well be asking – why only 49 kilometres? However, if I say that I have only used one gear for most of today and that was the bottom gear you might start to understand our dismal lack of progress. I still feel that our original target of 100km per day is achievable – just not in this sort of terrain. It certainly won’t get any better tomorrow because, apparently, we have the hard bit to come!
In spite of the pain of so much climbing, the tiny mountain roads made for a fantastic day of cycling. We travelled the route of one of the stages of the Vuelta de España and the road was covered with encouraging messages all the way to the top. It was a day of perfect cycling weather; blue sky dotted with a few puffy, white clouds and virtually no wind. We are starting to feel much more settled on the bikes, getting used to their feel, the weight and the pace. Tomorrow we complete the run up to Jaén. It’s a city we have wanted to visit for a while, so we want to spend some time looking around. We may decide to stay an extra day.
Day 4 – Valdepeñas to Jaén (April 5, 2011)
As it turned out, the terrain today was relatively easy compared to yesterday. The day started with a 5km climb, followed by a long downhill stretch for about 20km. It should have been the easiest day yet, but the wind had other ideas. It came in such strong gusts from one side that it kept blowing us off our bikes, so we had to walk downhill – how frustrating is that? The twists and turns in the road meant that we could get back on the bikes for short stretches on the sheltered parts.
I do really start to worry about the overall distance we have planned. I seem to have either overestimated our ability or underestimated the impact of the elements. If we can’t improve on our daily distances we’ll need to shorten our route which would be very frustrating given the amount of time we spent planning it.
The scenery is really dramatic, with mountains, deep gorges and rocky outcrops, and one advantage of walking the bikes was that we had time to appreciate it. Once down the road we continue on the bikes – yes, you’ve guessed it – back up again! I do have to say ‘well done’ at this stage to the Ayuntamiento de Jaén, however, for providing a cycle path, a smooth ribbon of a track, completely separate from the busy main road, on the approach to Jaén. It made reaching the city a real pleasure.
Once into the actual city itself we adopt an approach which serves us well; we get off the bikes and walk straight into the city centre, ignoring all the signs which seem to want to direct us around the outskirts of the city and along one-way systems. We are able to walk the bikes the wrong way along one-way streets and through pedestrianised areas quickly making our way to the middle, as well as giving us the opportunity to look out for suitable hotels and hostals as we go.
We find quite an upmarket hotel right in the city-centre for a very reasonable rate and they are happy for us to leave our bikes in the lobby, right in front of the reception desk. We had thought before we set off that that finding places to stay that would let us take the bikes inside was going to be a difficulty, but in fact, so far, nobody seems to mind at all.
I’m quickly discovering that the hard work involved in a trip like this is not just riding the bike; loading and unloading the bike, trying to keep the bags organized, washing the cycling kit, downloading the photos from the camera, writing up the journal entry for the day, amongst other things, all seem to keep me busy. Funny thing is that Ken seems to be busy inspecting the inside of his eyelids whilst all of this is going on!
Day 5 – Relaxing in Jaén (April 6, 2011)
After a night punctuated by the sound of dustbins and other heavy items crashing around in the wind, we awoke to an overcast sky and an extremely gusty day.
We decided that this would be a good time to take a break and see what Jaén has to offer. Quite a lot actually; a castle perched high above the city from which we got a fantastic view of tomorrow´s ride (which looked completely flat – yippee!), an absolutely gigantic cathedral and a bustling city centre with a really good atmosphere. The weather forecast for tomorrow looked better and so suddenly my hopes for our first 100km ride are revived.
Day 6 – Jaén to Arquillos (April 7, 2011)
Our day starts bright and early with a clear blue sky. There is a bit of a breeze but nothing like the fierce wind of yesterday. Although we make a prompt start, I have seriously underestimated the time it takes to navigate our way out of a big city and time is moving on before we eventually escape the clutches of Jaén.
We really should have adopted our approach of walking with the bikes until we reached the outskirts but we were so excited about being off again that we leapt straight on the bikes and promptly ended up cycling round and round in confusing loops around the city roads – something we really need to remember in the future.
The impression of flatness we had gained from the birds-eye view over the countryside from Jaén castle proves to be somewhat misleading. The route is actually undulating. Ken has also developed a new game called ‘hunt the squeak’ which involves lots of stopping and starting to tinker around with things, tightening, greasing and oiling them and so by the time we stop for lunch it is clear that we will not achieve our goal of 100km today. This target really is proving to be illusive.
We are definitely moving deeper into rural Spain – most of the villages are just one or two houses, a few tractors and some sleepy dogs. With the afternoon temperatures hitting 32°C it seems like the dogs have the right idea. Luck is with us when we see the first ‘Hostal’ sign of the day just at the right time – we have covered 83km and we’re ready to stop. We had thought that, given the isolation of the region, we might have to wild camp by the roadside. WiFi is not a feature of the accommodation, neither is hot water, but beds are, so we’re not going to complain!
Day 7 – Arquillos to Villamanrique (April 8, 2011)
Another clear blue sky with blazing sunshine. Another undulating road. The first 30km are somewhat spoilt by heavy traffic. After that we are then able to pick up what turns out to be an absolute gem of a road. It is tiny, smooth and virtually traffic free. It travels through rolling green hills, dotted here and there with clumps of pine trees and the air is thick with the scent of rock roses. A truly beautiful landscape.
We have now left Andalucia behind and move into the province of Castilla La Mancha. For the second day in a row we come upon a ‘Hostal’ exactly at the right moment. We have covered a similar distance to that covered yesterday, still a bit short of our target. This place is in an altogether different class from the one we stayed at yesterday. It is a beautiful stone building that originally was a flour mill that has been converted for guests. This time the owner tells us we can leave the bikes in the bar! And it has both hot water and beds – double bliss (but unfortunately still no WiFi connection).
Ken is still playing ‘hunt the squeak’ – before the trip started we did try to think through potential technical problems and we are carrying sufficient spare parts and tools to nearly build a new bike. However, I hadn’t really foreseen the frustration of a minor problem like a squeak. It doesn’t actually impact on our ability to ride other than nearly driving us insane listening to it. It is going to have to be tracked down.
Footnote: At last! The next day we hit our 100km per day target with a run of 123 kilometres from Arquillos to Villamanrique. After all the hill climbing of the previous few days it was great to find ourselves on a perfectly flat and perfectly straight road. We were able to really get the big cog spinning, eat up those kilometres and set our minds at rest about our ability to cover the distance. It does, however, take a day or two longer to track down the source of the squeak (the seat post needed re-greasing).
Read more about Ken & Julie’s adventures on their trip journal. All photos are courtesy of Julie & Ken.