This blog post is the first of many documenting my 1200-mile bikepacking trip from Gibraltar to London in August 2017. Throughout my journey I was too exhausted/lazy to document anything so I’m doing this now retroactively, several weeks too late. I’ll be posting these bi-weekly over the next few weeks, so enjoy!
Distance: 75 miles
Total Distance: 75 miles
It has begun!
I’d flown into Gibraltar from London the night before, ready to make my long, slow, painful way back to England. I waited anxiously at the airport for the cardboard box containing my home for the next three weeks to appear on the conveyor belt. I was fully expecting it to have suffered irreparable damage from baggage-mishandlers and was relieved to discover it was still in one piece. Well, not exactly, since I had had to take it apart bit by bit to fit it in the box. All the parts were intact however, I just had to fit them all back together. I spent the next hour lurking in the dark outside the airport, reassembling my bike by torchlight. It took a lot longer than it had to take it apart.
I had previously planned to cycle a few miles this evening to give myself a head start, and find a spot to camp a short distance over the border. But by the time my bike was complete it was totally dark and I was ready to sleep. I decided it would be better to get a good night’s sleep and set off bright and early in the morning. I checked into the cheapest hostel I could find, struggled my bike up the stairs, ate a sad pouch of uncooked rice on my bed with a plastic spork and went straight to sleep. Living the dream.
My alarm woke me well before sunrise, feeling refreshed and ready for my first long day on the road. I was 1250 miles away from London, and with only 17 days to cover the distance before I had to be back in the office I was looking at an average of about 75 miles a day. Should be easy enough right?
The rock of Gibraltar loomed over the bay, its top obscured by a halo of clouds, waves lapping at its base. I wouldn’t see the sea again until I reached the coast at Dieppe. Only the entire length of Spain and France stood in the way.
I set off at a slow pace, following a scenic route along the coast as the sun rose and the day grew warmer. Passing industrial estates and factories, I soon left the sea behind and headed inland, where the road rose up into the hills.
The town dwindled away behind me and I headed ever upwards, the road becoming steeper and steeper. Before long I headed off road, where the path switched from paved tarmac to gravel and then finally to deep sand, in which my front tyre was suddenly submerged. I came to a sudden stop and was sent sprawling to the ground
The sand was impossible to ride on. It took me an hour to haul my bike through four miles of it, wading up to my ankles at times. There was no on road alternative that wouldn’t have added an impractical distance to my day. When planning my route I had tried to avoid off road options as much as possible, but sometimes – particularly in Southern Spain – a mile of dirt track could save ten miles on the road. Going off-piste was often the most practical option, especially as I was somewhat time-constrained.
Ploughing through the thick sand was painfully slow-going and my trainers were soon overflowing. Eventually the path joined an aqueduct where the flat, paved path was a relief.
The heat was ludicrous, and it only got worse as the day went on and I began the long, long climb up to 1000 metres. I stopped for lunch at a lovely town called Gaucin, already feeling the exhaustion and hitting the energy supplements to keep me going.
I continued climbing through the mountainous, barren terrain of Andalusia which brought back fond memories of being back in the California desert. There was very little traffic on the roads. Every now and then a dusty car or a truck would come whizzing past but I more or less had the roads to myself. The gradient continued to steepen, and at times – despite my extensive 14-week training plan – I shamefully ended up having to push my bike. Every now and then a nice downhill stretch would appear to take the strain off, but once I reached the bottom it would inevitably result in even more climbing.
After a sweaty eternity I reached the day’s literal and figurative high point – the Puerto de Encinas Borrachas at 1000 metres. The vast, dry expanse of Southern Spain spread out in front of me, and I could just about make out my final glimpse of the sea and the hazy silhouette of Gibraltar Rock behind me.
I took a few moments to prepare myself for the long, speedy descent down to the city of Ronda, 300 metres below, then plummeted down the mountain. My overloaded bike moved faster than it had all day, and the wind felt incredible on my sunburnt face. I can’t describe how satisfying it was to rack up those next few miles so quickly after the excruciatingly slow afternoon I had had. The road eventually flattened out and I trundled into Ronda, a beautiful city perched on the lip of a canyon over the El Tajo Gorge.
I received a lot of strange looks as I wandered through the town, going about my various errands. I wasn’t sure if this was due to my heavily-laden bike, my helmet-mounted GoPro (which made me look like a teletubby) or the almost-visible stink lines emanating from my body. Probably a combination of all three. Having a stranger silently stare at you is quite unnerving so I would always try to diffuse the awkwardness with a cheerful “Hola!” 99% of the time this would result in a nice, friendly conversation, while the other 1% the starer would quickly look away and shuffle off as if they’d been caught doing something they shouldn’t.
After filling up my water bottles at a cafe I hit the road again, the sun starting to set as the afternoon waned. I began another difficult climb. Though it was nowhere near as long or as steep as my previous climb, I was really starting to flag. My pace had slowed to a crawl. I was about 60 miles through the day and hoping to do at least another ten before nightfall.
Before long I turned off road again and joined a dirt track winding through fields and farmland, passing a number of mountain bikers heading back home to Ronda. I knew it was going to be a challenge to find a suitable place to sleep as it was flat, open farmland as far as the eye could see. Nowhere to hide. It wasn’t until I’d had to switch my lights on that I spotted a small embankment in the field to my right, almost exactly at the 75-mile point. I dragged my bike up the hill to a spot just out of sight of the road. I inflated my sleeping pad and lay my head down ready for a night under the stars.
And what a beautiful night it was. Despite the occasional truck clanking by, it was one of the most peaceful night’s sleeps of my life. The heat of the day died down and there was a nice cool breeze in the air. It felt great to be ahead of schedule, even if only by a few hundred metres. I lay on my back looking up at the night sky and drifted off, knowing that no matter how good I felt at the present moment, I would still feel sore as fuck in the morning.