Distance: 75 miles
Total Distance: 237 miles
Last night was one of the worst sleeps of my entire life. As if the traffic and the drunk people passing by overhead weren’t bad enough, not long after laying my head down I was startled by a pair of headlights appearing from the darkness and coming to a stop just metres from me, shining right in my face.
I was certain I’d been caught by the farmer and would be dragged kicking and screaming from my sleeping bag and forced to leave, but then I heard voices from inside the vehicle. There were two men inside talking to each other in Spanish. I realised they didn’t know I was there. I lay perfectly still and waited for them to go away and a few minutes later the car reversed and headed back to the road, leaving me alone once again. I’m pretty sure I’d just witnessed some sort of drug-related transaction.
But that wasn’t the end of my nighttime woes. I must have snatched a grand total of 30 minutes sleep the entire night. This was mainly due to the biting flies that kept flitting around me and landing on any exposed patch of skin. When I batted them off they would return seconds later. I tried to escape by huddling down inside my sleeping bag but this was unbearably hot and I soon had to come up for air and face the flies again.
Lying there in a semi-lucid daze for hours, I was eventually roused around 5.30 am by the patrolling farmer doing the rounds with a barking dog. I quickly packed up and wheeled my bike out of the field before he reached me. I had never felt this tired in my life and was essentially starting the day on zero sleep. Nevertheless I clambered back onto the saddle and began another long day on the road.
I joined a dirt track skirting the edge of the field and climbed upwards with my lights on, the sun still low behind the hills. I was so low on energy, I decided there and then I would get myself a room for the night in the city of Puertollano, 75 miles ahead.
But first I had to get there. I continued along the dirt road, the occasional passing truck sending clouds of dust into my eyes. As I climbed to the top of the rise, a plume of black smoke silhouetted against the pink dawn sky caught my eye, trailing upwards from a fiery blaze amongst the trees. At first I thought I was heading towards a forest fire and prepared myself for a quick escape, but as I neared the smoke I soon realised it was just a series of controlled fires from a farm just off road. All the forest fires I encountered on the Pacific Crest Trail had made me paranoid.
At the end of the climb I began a much needed gentle descent into the town of Villa Del Rio. It was still early and people were just beginning to stir. My one priority was to hunt for some coffee and food to fuel me for the long difficult day that lay ahead.
From Villa Del Rio, I would begin a long, 15 mile ascent up into the mountains of the catchily-named Parque Natural Sierra de Cardeña y Montoro. It was going to be a tough climb and I would need some energy. I found a bakery to buy some breakfast and coffee before reluctantly getting back on the bike. I left town and the climb began gradually, undulating through the foothills, the larger peaks getting ever closer. The increasingly remote scenery was beautiful, and it felt good to be away from towns and busy roads. Despite my lack of sleep I was feeling alright, and to keep me going I set myself the goal of getting all the way to the top without having to get off and push.
I passed through a strange, isolated mountain community in the middle of nowhere, bizarrely patrolled by a military guard despite appearing to be just a smattering of dilapidated buildings. I have no idea what this place was and it doesn’t appear on Google Maps. Very mysterious. The road steepened and zigzagged upwards in never-ending switchbacks to reach the high point of the day. I eventually made it to the top without having to push my bike. There was a nice, comfortable breeze and I embraced it, letting it cool me down as I descended past more abandoned looking farms towards the remote village of Venta Del Charco.
Venta Del Charco must be a popular cycling hotspot as I met several cyclists while going about my business in town. Filling up on water at the local bar, I got chatting to a guy just out for the day. He looked down at my battered old trainers with disdain and told me I need better shoes. I’d made it almost 200 miles with no problems so I wasn’t too bothered about his opinion. Come back to me when you’ve cycled from Gibraltar to London!
I left town and cycled along empty roads and even emptier dirt tracks until I reached the village of Azuel. It was here that I joined the busy N-420 road, which I would follow for the next 11 miles. Cycling along this road was not fun at all. It was a long and difficult climb. Lorries were passing by within inches of my bike, and the road was hot and dusty with no shelter. It was so stressful I had to keep stopping by the side of the road to give myself a break from the constant fear of death. Every time I heard a vehicle approaching behind me I squeezed myself as far to the right as I possibly could without plummeting down the cliff, and steeled myself for a collision which never happened.
Finally, I reached the gravel road where I was supposed to turn off. Along this track it was 20 miles to my destination at Puertollano, saving me the 10 extra miles I would have had to ride along the road. Despite the added distance, continuing along the road would be a lot quicker. However, I was out here to enjoy myself and couldn’t take another minute of riding on the terrifying highway. The off road option would be slower but it would be a lot more attractive and a lot more fun. I continued along the scenic route and within five minutes I knew I had made the right decision when I spotted a water fountain by the side of the track gushing ice cold water.
It was a welcome sight. I had plenty of water already but none that I particularly wanted to drink. It was so hot that no matter how cold my water was when I filled up, within a matter of minutes it would be approaching boiling point. I guzzled hungrily from the pipe, dunking my head under and washing the dirt off my legs. Suitably refreshed, I carried on down the bumpy road, slowly but steadily.
I was following a hiking route along a wide track. Progress was a lot slower than on the road but I was enjoying the sporadic shade and beautiful surroundings. I arrived in the tiny remote community of Ventillas, an island of civilisation in the middle of nowhere. Just a few small houses surrounding a tiny square with a water fountain in the centre. I couldn’t imagine who would live in such a strange location but it was incredibly peaceful. I could hear the odd voice floating outside from within but other than a solitary dog asleep in the shade I didn’t see a single person until I began heading out of town on a rocky trail, when I heard a man’s voice call out behind me “A dónde vas?” Despite my limited Spanish I knew this meant “Where are you going?”
I turned round to face a short, hairy man with a red eye, very few teeth and no thumbs. He told me I couldn’t go that way as the path was too bad. I told him that wasn’t a problem for my bike and my map was telling me to go that way anyway. He kept shouting that I shouldn’t carry on and his insistence started to plant the seeds of doubt in my mind. I asked him if there was a better way to Puertollano and he advised me to go back the way I came and follow the big road. I’d come so far since leaving that road, there was no way I was going to turn back now. And so I thanked him for his advice, but ignored it and carried on.
He was not wrong about the road being bad. The gravel road turned into a rocky track which was impossible to cycle on. I had to push my bike over and around boulders and rockfall for about a mile before it became smooth enough to cycle on again. Unfortunately it then immediately became too steep and I had to push my bike up a 45-degree slope. It was almost impossible. I had to push it a few inches at a time, stick on the brakes to stop it slipping backwards, recover from the exertion, then repeat. Over and over again. It took me ages.
It transpired that Puertollano was on the other side of a mountain, and whereas the road would have taken me all the way around the mountain at a relatively level gradient, the route my Garmin had taken me down went up and over. I had to push my bike more or less the entire way, every now and then riding a few hundred metres when it became level enough to do so.
With a lot of difficulty, I finally reached the top and collapsed at the summit. The panorama was stunning and despite the challenge it was completely worth it for this view … and the descent. Going down was a lot of fun.
I wasn’t too far from Puertollano now but I was absolutely dead. I was wolfing down the energy supplements to keep me upright. Only the thought of the shower and the bed at the end of the day was keeping me going. The last ten miles were a blur. I’d slowed down considerably and ran out of water for the last few miles but I finally made it. I stumbled into the first shop I saw with wobbling legs and a dry mouth and inhaled a Fanta.
I booked a room in the first hotel I could find. Thankfully, they let me bring my dirty bike upstairs as I didn’t want to leave it outside all night. There is nothing in this world like a post-ride shower, and the one I had in this small hotel room in Spain was the best I’d ever had in my life.