Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Cycling across Spain - Top 5's

Having finished our big ride through Spain last September (see previous posts!), I thought I would include a few fun Top 5’s which may be helpful to others planning such a trip. We covered about 1200km cycling from Ribadesella on the north Asturian coast of Spain, all the way south to Fuengirola on the southern Costa del Sol coast. During the trip, after the hard days cycling, our overnight stays were spent in Riaño, Sahagun, Tordesillas, Avilla, Arenas de San Pedro, Guadalupe, Castuera, Pozoblanco, Estepa and El Chorro.

Here are some of the best and the worse of the trip!

Great Places to include on your Spain tour

Obviously being on push bikes we wanted to keep the KM down, so did not cherry pick the best locations on route and zip zag east to west much. We chose the best locations on a fairly straight north to south route, through Spain. So places like Leon, Cadiz, Madrid, Barcelona, etc were out! This said, we found some great places on the trip, and did build in the odd zig zag to take in places of great interest like Avilla and Guadelupe. My Top 5 of the locations we visited:

1) Guadalupe. We did a bit of a detour to include this one, as the Monastery where we stayed for the night looked so stunning on the internet that the extra 50km or so to include it seemed worth the effort. It did not disappoint. The village is picture postcard pretty, and this is one of the places I will be definitely be re visiting when I have more time.

2) Avila. I have passed the walled city of Avila previously when I have been racing by in a car, and always wanted to stop by and see it in detail, so the ride gave me the opportunity to call in and get a better view. This is another location we took a short detour to include. Again, we were not disappointed. The place is amazing, and again we had interesting accommodation in an ex Palace so it’s another for my “I’ll be back!” list.

3) El Chorro. A favourite of mine, as it is only a few hours drive from where I live. The amazing scenery around El Chorro, which is located in a gorge, and the nearby lakes makes it a great place to visit any time of the year for hiking, climbing, biking, kayaking, etc. Home to the famous Kings Walk, arguably the world's most dangerous path!

4) Cordoba. A stunning and historic town, and another place near my home so a place I have visited on many occasions by car, Cordoba was an excellent place to spend the night. An early arrival gave us plenty of time to enjoy some fine authentic tapas and drinks in the streets around the amazing Cordoba Mosque / Cathedral (Mezquita). We also took the opportunity to visit the inside of the Mezquita prior to our ride the next day.

5) Ribadesella. I guess this being the start point of the tour, it was not strictly one of the overnight stops, but all the same Ribadesella is a superb, interesting and scenic start point. The seafood, the ‘poured from on high’ cider, its lovely harbour and the wealth of outdoor activities on offer in the Picos area, all look well worth a longer stay in the future. We enjoyed a great pre ride balmy summer evening in one of the town’s squares, in front of a historic church, whilst enjoying some great fresh seafood ‘soggy rice’ (the menu translation of Risotto, which I guess is a whole lot more descriptive than the word Risotto!).

The mild disappointment award – nothing badly wrong with our first overnight stop location of Riaño, but I guess I was looking for another historic and interesting old Spanish mountain town. I have since found out that historic and interesting old Riaño is at the bottom of the adjacent lake, lost to modern times when the dams were built for water management. The current ‘new’ Riaño was, in comparison with our other locations, a bit modern and clinical. The hotel was great, the ride there was great, the scenery was great, but the town was not what I had hoped up for!

Top 5 Tour de Spain foods

We had been hoping for lots of pasta, rice and good high energy foods to help our endurance each day on the bikes. In reality pasta was a lot harder to find than we had anticipated. Italian restaurants are not ten a penny in the remote parts of northern Spain. Here’s a few of the foods we discovered and lived on:

1) Broken Eggs and Chorizo – Heuvos rotas (broken eggs) is a superb hangover cure, but I’m not so not sure about its health properties for keen cyclists, and I doubt you will see much of this within the Tour de France rider’s diets! This is fried eggs, served over fried potatoes or chips, with lots of bits of fried chorizo spicy sausage spread throughout. Very tasty!

2) Revuelta – This comes in many formats with different ingredients. It is basically scrambled eggs with any combo of wild mushrooms, prawns, chorizo, asparagus, etc.

3) Menu del Dia – I’m pretty sure restaurants in Spain, by law, have to offer a good value three course meal each day, called the Menu del Dia (menu of the day). This was our value choice on many evenings. Choosing from the 3 or 4 starters, 3 or 4 mains, and a few deserts for about 10 euros. Good simple cheap good.

4) Bocadillos de Lomo – Pork baguettes. Another popular Spanish snack. Thinly sliced Pork, hot off the grill, in a fresh baguette. A good, quick, fresh lunchtime filler!

5) Tostada – the simple Spanish breakfast, a large fresh roll cut in half and toasted and served with fried tomato and olive oil, butter and marmalade (rarely), garlic or simply olive oil. With fresh squeezed orange juice, a great start to the day.

On board we were getting through large quantities of sugary Haribo sweets. NB - I had problems buying the simple commercial isotonic energy drinks in the petrol stations in the north so be wary if you are relying on these.

Top 5 Gadgets

1) Garmin SatEdge 705 Nav and Ride Recorder – a superb gadget for keeping a record of distance travelled, metres climbed, location, etc. I never leave home on the bike without it!

2) GoPro HD Hero 2 digital camera / video recorder. Took the great high definition footage of the ride. A lifelong top quality memory of a once in a lifetime adventure.

3) Live ride position tracking (via android Smartphone). We knocked up a quick webpage on our blog to allow family, followers and sponsors to follow the ride live. The page showed our current position and speed. We used the simple free app from Instamapper which runs on your android smartphone ( This worked great. NB I was using this in my home country Spain, so please check to see if you will incur any roaming network charges before using this abroad!

4) Mobile Phone – need I say more – what did we do before we had these things! Great for keeping in touch with family and friends, finding hotels, taking photos and video, using as a backup map, etc.

5) Laptop and Internet – The laptop came along for blog updates, emailing, backing up the days ride data, video and photos, finding the next hotel, etc.

Top 2 Bikes

Well we only had two on the tour, my Trek and the Pinarello Iain had been kindly borrowed by Smithy. So I will have to be biased and say the Trek was bike of the tour! Both bikes did a great job, the Pinarello unluckily had three punctures to the Trek’s zero, and made a little more ride noise.

1) Trek

2) Pinarello

Top 5 Sections of the Ride

1) Puerto del Pico. On the road from Avilla to Arenas de San Pedro, the amazing drop from the 1352m altitude crest of the Puerto del Pico. This was an amazing ride, around 15km of fast sweeping downhill bends. In the warm afternoon sun, possibly the best 15km in the saddle I have ever ridden. Amazing scenery and drop after drop after drop.

2) The climb to Riaño. The only climb to make it into my personal top 5 riding moments of the tour. Sure climbing is tough, and this is a long long climb, but it was the first hours of the tour, the sun was shining, the scenery was amazing, and we started from sea level and crested the 1280m Puerto de El Ponton that afternoon. An epic road.

3) The drop into Extremadura. The drop just after the village of Puerto de San Vicente on the EX102, our introduction to Extremadura, on route for Guadalupe was another stunning piece of two wheel pedal powered heaven! Another great winding, well surfaced, long, downhill section, in hot sun, with superb bends and amazing scenery.

4) The road from Ardales to El Chorro. This section starts with a nice winding road, up the side of the scenic man made lakes, which then transforms into a tight scenic fast drop on, a very narrow road, through an amazing part forested valley. At times you are riding under the rocky overhangs, before coming out at the bottom of the gorge, with the amazing Kings Walk to your left. Stunning scenery yet again!

5) The ride from the Puerto de las Pescadoras to the beach at Fuengirola. A bit of a boring one this one, and the part of the ride we did in very uncharacteristic miserable drizzly rain. But it has to be a highlight as it was the final 15km. Your legs are suddenly full of energy, the last 10 days saddle soreness fades to a distant memory and you realise you only have 15, mostly fast downhill, kilometres to the ‘finish line’. A fairly cautious fast downhill ride, as living in Spain I’m not used to riding in the rain (this was probably my first day riding in rain in about 7 years!). Then we threaded our way through the backstreets of Fuengirola to the beach. Time to meet the family, spray some cava and take a run and jump into the Med!

Top 5 climbs

1) 1280m Puerto de El Porton, heading for Riano. The big one on the first day of the tour, as described above a stunningly scenic climb from sea level to 1280m. Great climb.

2) 1564m Puerto de Menga, heading from Arenas de San Pedro. The first of two big climbs on the day from Avila. After a long flat start out of Avilla, this is a good climb with a set of hairpin bends near the top, just to finish you off!

3) 750m Puerto de Calatraveno, heading into Cordoba. Not the highest of peaks we topped, but this was a welcome sight on the ‘very strong headwindy’ ride from Pozoblanco to Cordoba. From here it was pretty much all downhill into Cordoba, although the strong winds this day made even the downhill hard work!

4) Alhaurin el Grande. This was ‘out of the saddle’ bottom gear, probably the steepest climb we did on the whole tour, and not one we needed to do. In the rare drizzly rain I got lost, embarrassingly only about 20km from where I live, meaning we had this pig of a climb to do within 25km of the finish line. We then got some duff directions from a local (maybe my Spanish is not so good!) and pretty much had to do half of it again! Doh!

5) The climb to Guadalupe. This was a small and simple 3 or 4 km climb. Nothing at all to worry about, but it was its position in terms of the day’s ride which made it one of the toughest on the tour for me. This little final climb, up to the stunningly pretty town of Guadalupe, was as the end of a hot 118km day, with some 1678km of previous climbs! It was great to see a great place for photos near the top, obviously needing a photo stop, to take a break half way up this one!

Top 5 road side signs – The road signs we loved seeing!

1) Any sign saying ‘Puerto….’. These brown signs, showing the altitude, mark the top of most of the big climbs! A very welcome sight. We had one or two false alarms, with brown tourist signs, which looked like the top markers, placed half way up!

2) Fuengirola - The finish line!

3) Extremadura – for some unknown reason we were really looking forward to entering the region known as Extremadura, which translates literally to ‘Extremely Tough’. And in places it really was, like the 41km section of the ride when it was 36 degrees in the shade, but there was no shade – nothing at all for 41km – no villages, shops, fuel stations, trees for shade - nothing!

4) That night’s town sign! The place name sign, at the entry to the village or town we were staying at each night, was always very welcome sight! And for me the most welcome of these were Guadalupe and Castuera, both coming at the end of a tough hot day in the saddle!

5) Andalucia – My home county, and a sign that we were nearing the end of the ride. Although Andalucia is a very big place, about two thirds the area of England. We still had four days in the saddle after seeing this sign on day 9, on route for Pozoblanco!

Top 5 sights

1) The stunning mountains, rivers, bridges and the gorge on the way up to Riaño.

2) The Monastery of Guadalupe – an amazing place, and how great to be able to stay inside the Monastery itself. The Extremadura road, about 40km prior to getting into Guadalaupe was also pretty sensational, with flocks of vultures gliding in the thermals above the rocky ravines.

3) The walled city of Avilla. Another amazing historic place to stay, I have superb memories of having a nice few drinks just outside the walls, on a warm evening, looking out over the plains to the distant mountains range we would be riding over the next day.

4) The old centre of Cordoba, with its unique and huge old Mesquita. A great place to sit and ponder centuries of history.

5) The raw barrenness and extreme living environment of Extremadura, which was particularly dramatic as we rode towards Castuera. With groups of malnourished looking sheep, in barren fields with hardly any signs of plant life, all huddled tightly together in the smallest pockets of shade coming from some small rocky outcrops.

Running a very close 6th was an iced pint glass full of Cruzcampo beer, and a half pint of gin and tonic with plenty of ice in a nice goldfish bowl vase, on a table outside a sunny bar in a beautiful historic square at the end of each day!

And I should probably give a mention to the 100’s of great castles and monuments which we passed, giving extra interest to each days ride.

Worse sights

1) Crawler lane signs. These are not put out for nothing. The immense cost of building another uphill lane means that when you see these signs, the road is going to be going uphill, at quite a climb rate, for a long time! Bugga!

2) Road closed. Luckily we only had one of these, but it was pretty disheartening heading into a howling head wind, and adding about 20km to the ride to Cordoba. On the brighter side when we had to turn back at least we had a strong tail wind for a short while!

3) Trees bending towards you to greet you! We did pretty badly with head winds – On 10 of our 12 days in the saddle, we were riding into the wind. Although this did help provide us with one of the highlights, as we slip streamed a tractor at about 45-50khm for about 15km on the way into Medina de Rioseco.

4) Flat tyres. Actually I did OK with a clean run, but Iain suffered 3 punctures on route.

5) Long long long loooooooong flat empty straight roads. Days 2 and 3 threw up lots of arrow straight quiet flat roads. Easy for cycling good distances in theory, but not great cycling roads. Some camber changes, direction changes, mountain scenery and descents always make the journey more of an adventure.

Oh and maybe I should add in empty glasses!

Top flora and fauna

1) The numerous flocks of Vultures and other large birds of prey we witnessed during the journey. Well I assume they were different flocks of vultures, and not the same group following us with interest each day! Just about 10km from the start a large buzzard swept down and made a kill right beside the road just in front of us.

2) Sunflowers. On the early northern part of the ride we rode through hundreds of fields of ‘just past their best’ sunflowers, which were quite a dramatic sight.

3) Olives. A sign that we were getting close to the finish, as we started to ride through horizon filling displays of field after field of olive trees, with the ripe green fruits ready for harvesting.

4) The interesting and exotic road kills, which we would have preferred to see running along beside us, but gave the ride interest all the same. The Spanish wildlife, or ex wildlife, like snakes and wild boar.

5) The chicken which crossed the road a few feet in front of our speeding bikes – why did it do that?

Great places to stay while cycling in Spain

My top 5 of the Accommodation we used during the trip:

1) The Hospederia del Real Monasterio – The amazing Monastery in the very picturesque Guadalupe. A superb and historic place to stay.

2) The Hotel Palacio de Valderrábanos, an old palace inside the beautiful walled city of Avila, just North West of Madrid. Avila is definitely one of the places I have picked to return to. The Palace was another great and historic place to stay.

3) Hostal Casa de Larios in Estepa. A strange choice this one as Estepa, as nice as it was, does not compare to the previous two locations. We turned up on spec in Estepa with nowhere booked. This ‘hostal’ just happened to be across the road from where we chose to stop for a drink after the ride. The owner was most hospitable, and the place was superb, modern and contemporary, better than some of the higher starred hotels we used! Highly recommended – Amazed they currently seem to have no website!

4) La Garganta Hotel at El Chorro, a great hotel in a great location with stunning views over the Guadalhorce valley to the Kings Walk. With a pool and Spa. A great location for our last night away.

5) Hotel Puerta de Sahagun, the ghost hotel on the outskirts of Sahagun. A strange one this one, a stunning and modern hotel which probably has probably capacity for over 1,000 guests, but the night we were there I guess there were 10 guests! Great place all the same.

Our Greatest Luxury

A support driver and car to transport our bags, allowing us to ride light each day!

This no doubt greatly enhanced the ease and enjoyment of this tour. We rented a hire car one way from Bilboa to Malaga, and got in touch with Alex, our superb Support Vehicle Driver through the online working away volunteers webiste

Alex came along for the tour, and hopefully had as good a time as we had. We simply paid his food and lodgings and provided the car and fuel. This worked superbly and I would highly recommend this approach, the Workaway website and our new friend Alex Oyston personally.

My Top Homer Simpson ‘Doh’ Moment

With a lack of place name signs, wondering if we were going in the right direction, after going some 20km up a main ‘N’ road hopefully towards Madrid, we stopped to check. With the sun blasting down on the screen of my smartphone from the south, I turned around to face north to get some shade. I then saw the arrow on the Sat Nav map on the phone and got that horrible realisation, and sinking feeling, having seen that we were going in the completely wrong direction! Mmmmm – it took a while, but it finally dawned on me that if I faced in the direction we are cycling (south) with the sun on the screen, the arrow on the screen will turn, and we are suddenly going in the right direction! Doh!

If you are planning on cycling through Spain, I’d recommend reading our previous daily Spain Tour updates, which may prove useful while planning your ride. Any questions please feel free to leave a comment and we will try and help!

More information on things to do in Spain.

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