Day 13 - Villecomtal to Toulouse

Date: January 16th, 2016
Distance: 130 km
Song of the Day: All You'll Ever Need to Know - Actionslacks

I had been hoping it would be clear all night so my tent would dry out, and I was almost right. My tent was frozen solid when I got up. I was warm all night though. A couple layers of wool had me nice and toasty.

Getting up was not easy. Trying to scrape the ice off the tent with my finger nails was no fun. My body was still warm, but I had to stop frequently to heat up my hands again. The mud didn't help either because it hadn't frozen like I would have expected. Instead it just became a cold sticky goo. The mud just kept getting on everything. My shoes were caked with it. After this I feel way more sorry for the kids in the trenches in WWI. Imagine having it rain for days and when it finally stops you are stuck with freezing mud. Yuck. I did eventually get packed up, but again it took way longer than it should have. At least I got a great view to enjoy.

Heading out, the roads were like a kid on a pogo stick, up and down all day long. I was paralleling the Pyrenees and running crosswise to a series of ridges coming down out of them. The whole day was a climb up one steep grade, a long descent of the far side, pass a little village, and head up the next hill. Now there are a lot of cute little villages out here, but I felt like I kept passing the same one over and over. Still, a sunny day, even if it is cold, is better than rain. I think this is the first day it didn't rain once. Plus, the views were spectacular and that's hard to beat.

I made a big error at the end of the day, though. I had been letting my phone navigate for me, thinking it might know the best path. I am not making that mistake ever again. The direction it was giving me hadn't been great during the day. For the most part I could find my way around when it messed up, but an hour before sunset it started leading me across country. This usually means more stopping to look at my phone, so I wasn't really excited about it. The phone said to go left, and I wanted to go straight. Still, I was giving it a go. Wrong. Always trust your instincts. That direction lead me down a deep ravine, up the other side, and that is where the road ended. Well, the paved road did. There was a muddy tractor path across a field. Imagine asking for a restaurant and being given directions to a hot dog stand. Not fully wrong, jut not at all what you wanted. At this point I was stuck, though, since I didn't want to go all the way back. So I crossed that field, and then the next. Eventually I made it back to a paved road. Then the phone told me to go straight. Only, there wasn't a straight. It was just a field. At that point I turned off the navigation on my phone. I'm never doing that again.

That only wasted an hour. I did get to Toulouse, but quite a bit after dark. D'oh! I didn't even get a chance to see the city. Such is the life I guess.


Day 12 - Biarritz to Villecomtal

Date: January 15th, 2016
Distance: 123 km
Song of the Day: A Talk with George - Jonathan Coulton

Getting packed up took forever today. It was raining again. I can pack up a tent in 10 minutes if it is dry, but being cold and wet makes things take so much longer. I'm really starting to resent all the rain.

The rain didn't last that long, though, and I was making pretty good time. Fewer hills than yesterday. I was having a great time, and then Pau. That is a town in France here. I had seen it on the map and it looked like a normal town. Maybe a little bigger than most. This one had castles, though. Not really the giant defensive kind, more like the Disney kind. The signs described them as "chateaus". I got the impression that they were currently the local parliament for this province of France. Originally they must have been something else. I am not sure what surprised me more: that all these palaces had been built here, or the fact that I had known nothing about them before coming. There was also a great view of the Pyrenees from the cast...chateau.

I did get chased out of Pau by a bit of a squall. After that it cleared off again and started to get cold. Very cold. I did push on as fast as I could. I plan to get to Toulouse tomorrow, so I need to get in 120 something kilometers in the day. I passed through a couple of towns in the fading light and eventually I found a good place off the road to camp out in. There were some pretty good spots of mud in the area though. I did find a place to pitch my tent, but only after coating my shoes with mud. The last thing I did before climbing into my tent was to stare at the stars for a bit. I think this is the first time I have seen them in a couple of weeks.


Day 11 - San Sebastian to Biorotte

Date: January 14th, 2016
Distance: 107 km
Song of the Day: I Went to Spain - The Pernice Brothers

I left San Sebastian this morning just as it began to rain. So it is going to be like that. Fine. The road out of town was pretty unpleasant as well. Lots of heavy trucks, not much that was fun to see. But I finally got off the highway and onto some smaller roads that lead me to the border.

Yep, I crossed into France today. Country three on this trip. It is funny, crossing the border things here just seemed more...French. Of course the street signs changed, but also the streets and the buildings themselves. I can't really put my finger on it, but things were just different.

The weather was not however. I was soaked through by this point. Rain sucks. It sucks all the heat out of your fingers and toes. It sucks out all your energy. It sucks the enjoyment out of where you are. It sucks all your extra time to do anything. Rain just plain sucks.

Fortunately the rain started letting up about mid-afternoon. This was right as I was hitting Bayonne. I should mention that France does have a pretty good way of making cute fishing villages. I didn't really want to stop because I had lost so much time because of the rain, but I had to take a least a minute to enjoy the view. I am going to be much happier along the way if I don't feel rushed all the time.

Heading inland, the roads started getting hilly. Not steep, but they weren't making me any faster. I was still in Farm Land, but not like Spain or Portugal. Portugal had small rocky farms that reminded me of New England. Spain had these vast fields that wouldn't have been out of place in Iowa or central California. France has something in between. For some reason, it reminded me of Indiana.

Finding a place to camp was a bit of a challenge, though. Most of the land was cultivated, so there were no trees to be hidden by. The places that weren't open tended to be the steep slopes of hills, or soaking creek bottoms. I found a little dirt road that lead down into some land next to a creek. It was nice and secluded, but somewhat swampy. The parts that weren't had lots of brambles to contend with. I should write a post about how to pick a good wild camping site. For now, I will just say I did find a nice spot away from everything.


Day 10 - Bilbao to San Sebastian

Date: January 13th, 2016
Distance: 122 km
Song of the Day: Departure - REM

I was back on the road today. My legs are still a bit sore and I wish I had some more days to chill out. I was able to go pretty well throughout the day, but the first bit was terrible. Getting out of Bilbao I was on a busy narrow highway, with lots of trucks along a road passing industrial estates--not much fun to ride along or to look at. Oh, and the smell! There must have been a waste treatment plant or something out there. It smelled like raw sewage for miles. Yuck. Eventually, though, the trucks went away and the road became better. Just as I thought I was going to start enjoying the ride, I came to a giant hill. The sign at the top said 338 meters. That is kind of how it goes though. You take the good with the bad. I don't get to do the amazing stuff without going through the crappy stuff. At least it wasn't raining, and I did get a great picture of the valley from the top.

I also got an amazing ride down the Deba river valley. I lost count of the number of tunnels. There were plenty of winding curves and steep drops. Even better, it was lots of kilometers with a slight downward slope. If it is too steep I have to brake around the corners. A moderate grade is best, as I can just coast along. I also started seeing many more recreation cyclists. There have been a few since Salamanca, but many more around Bilbao. On this road I passed dozens of guys. It is always guys, and always in spandex. It was fun to see a group of them and hear them yelling encouragement.

The end of the valley was a small estuary along the Atlantic coast. This part of Spain has a rocky and hilly coastline. So more up and down. The views are fantastic, though. Well worth the hard climbs and gross smells of earlier in the day. I also saw my first guy on a touring bike. He was struggling up the back side of a bluff I had just finished climbing. We passed shouting some hopeful thoughts, but in a language the other probably couldn't understand. I know I hadn't a clue what he was saying. It was just good to see that I am not alone, that there are more than a few of us out there.

I made it to San Sebastian just before dark. From what I could see in the fading light, it looks amazing. I will have to check it out more tomorrow before I leave. I hope to make it into France tomorrow, country number 3 on this trip.


Day 9 - Bilbao

Date: January 12th, 2016
Distance: Rest day

I took a day off in Bilbao. It was nice to have a bit of time to relax and work on some things without needing to rush off down the road. I am still trying to make up as much time as I can while heading through Europe, but I planned to have a bit of time here and there. Plus, I need some time off the bike. I feel good but I can't afford to wear out my legs or my knees. I have a lot of miles to go and I will need them.

That said, Bilbao is not a bad place to burn a day in. It is the one city in the world that appears to be the most defined by its architecture. It isn't some specific style either, the city is an eclectic mixture of designs from the past few hundred years. What is impressive is how Bilbao embraces this array of styles. It is one of the few towns where a Frank Gehry building doesn't look out of place. This embellishment isn't just for famous buildings either. Each apartment block or retail building has the same chance to emphasize their own unique qualities. I have to say, I am not sure the Guggenheim is the best designed building in the city.

Okay, now before I get too crazy, I will say that not all the buildings are that great. There are more than a few boring buildings, places that don't enhance the general aesthetic value of the city. You also can't have a large number of styles around without a few places that are amazingly ugly. In general, though, the various structures stitch together to form a city that is better than any one design is on its own. If you love architecture, this is somewhere you must visit.

Even if that isn't your passion, you can still have a great afternoon walking the wide boulevards of the city. Relax and enjoy a conversation and a drink at the local cafe-bar, visit the tiny streets and shops in the old town. Bilbao has a vibrant street life, but not as much of the hustle and bustle of New York or Chicago. There are lots of young hip people around, and just as many older dapper gents and ladies. For a town I selected as a day to recover, it was quite nice.


Day 8 - Briviesca to Bilbao

Date: January 11th, 2016
Distance: 130 km
Song of the Day: Rebels - Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

For how miserable yesterday was, this day made up for it. It was one of those days when it just feels good to be alive. I can't believe how lucky I am to be living this life and be here right now. The sun was shining and the road was mostly downhill. Man, I was cruising, usually going more that 40 kilometers an hour. I know, that isn't anything in a car, but on a bike it feels like flying.

I had a bit of a climb up to Pancorbo. What an amazing place. I could have taken pictures all day. I did get some video of the descent, but I should have started it sooner. It was so good I almost rode back up to do it again. If you get a chance, ride from Pancorbo to Bilbao. It will be worth it. There is one tunnel that is a bit scary, since this is still a major truck route after all. Fortunately, this one had a wide shoulder and no trucks were going through it at the same time I was. From there on, it is just a scream down this windy highway set among some amazing limestone hills. So good. This is the reason I do this. On a beautiful day, doing something I love, something amazing and in a place that no one has ever heard of. It doesn't get better.

After Mirada de Ebro I lost the nice parallel highway again. For a bit I was on some rural tractor roads up into the mountains. I must have crossed the freeway five times for what seemed like no real reason. Eventually I hit another small highway that went along the freeway down into Bilboa. It was so weird to be on this little country road, through tiny farming villages a few hundred years old, all of which are in the shadow of this giant freeway, a huge edifice of modern efficiency rammed through the pastoral setting. It felt like the old world and the modern one being jammed together. In a way, though, it didn't seem out of place. You can't change the past and you can't stop the future. Somehow the two will come together.

The scenery I couldn't get enough of though. I always thought of Spain as sort of an austere landscape. Even the farm lands I had been going through the previous days, though lush, were still somewhat limited in variety. This part of northern Spain is not that. Lots of mountains, lots of trees and rivers, and dotted with little villages and farms. I had to stop myself from taking pictures of everything. I wish I could share this experience with you all. These words have not done it justice. Even the few pictures I have taken are just a brief taste of how beautiful this day was.


Day 7 - Corcos to Briviesca

Date: January 10th, 2016
Distance: 170 km
Song of the Day: Where I Lay My Hat (That's My Home) - Marvin Gaye

What a miserable day. It rained the whole day, until just after sunset. My feet were numb most of the day, and my hands for a long time too. At least I had the wind with me. My phone was so wet I couldn't really take any pictures. The few times I had to turn into the wind it was awful. Stinging rain in my face, my speed dropping to maybe a couple of miles an hour. I wouldn't have made it 20 miles if I was going the other way.

I passed through Burgos with the sun still up so I kept going. I wanted to make as much distance today as I could so that tomorrow would be better. The good news was that after Burgos I was back on a straight highway that would parallel the main freeway. The bad news was that it was also a major truck route. It had a wide shoulder, so I felt pretty safe. It wasn't a fun ride though, especially once it got dark.

I pulled off the highway at Briviesca and eventually found a place to stay. I was even able to catch the last half of the Seahawks game. I love that I can send messages to my brothers in real time about a football game half a world away. It is an amazing world we live in.


Day 6 - Boadilla to Corcos

Date: January 9th, 2016
Distance: 197 km
Song of the Day: Good Times Roll - The Cars

See, that is how you do that. Almost 200 kilometers with no rain and good winds. Also, not many hills. This part of Spain reminds me a lot of the plains of the US, just lots of open country. Farm fields, and not much else. I hit Salamanca just about noon. It reminded me of a town like Omaha or Minneapolis, a place that just rises out of the farmland around it. I only stopped long enough to have an empenada before being chased off by a brief rain storm that was gone before I even hit the city limits.

From there I spent most of the afternoon on cruise. I had a good highway paralleling the main freeway, so I didn't need to stop and navigate, just put the pedal down and go. I was doing more than 30 kilometers an hour for a lot of the afternoon, until I hit Tordesilles that is. After that I lost my nice highway and it was onto back roads again. I couldn't complain too much since there was more to see on the little roads. Lots of tiny towns and so forth. I still lost a lot of time figuring out which road to take.

I passed Valladolid just before sunset, but I wasn't ready to quit. I set off into the darkness but didn't make it that far. I stopped after finding a nice bit of woods to camp in. I cooked a hot meal on my stove and went to bed as it started raining again.


Day 5 - Guarda to Boadilla

Date: January 8th, 2016
Distance: 110 km
Song of the Day: Don Quixote - Gordon Lightfoot

Left Guarda in the Rain. It didn't last that long. I couldn't shake the clouds though, which was too bad. I really can't express how much I like this part of Portugal. There isn't really anything flashy about it, I can't point to some great castle or cathedral. Really it is just all the small hamlets, river valleys, and boulder strewn landscape. The road wasn't easy. Just a winding highway with steep climbs and descents. Around each one there was something new though, a great view of the valley or a rocky stream. A simple house. An old stone wall. It seemed like an old place with lots of old stories hidden in the stones and the trees. I wish I knew more about it.

I did cross into Spain today finally. That felt really great. I always like the days where I can cross into another country under my own power. Sure, it wasn't much of a border crossing. The guard posts are just decoration now. This is the EU, so no one is going to stop you from crossing.

It soon became apparent why the border is there and not somewhere else. The land changed rapidly, descending and flattening out. The small rocky paddocks of Portugal gave way to the wide pastures in Spain. Sure, that is less exciting, but at least it isn't as hilly. Even better I had the wind at my back. It would have been great riding, except I picked up a storm just before getting to Spain. The damn thing would just not let up. It rained. Then it poured. Then it drizzled, and misted. It just kept coming. I really don't mind the being wet, I just wish it hadn't been all day because the damp just makes everything much more miserable. It is hard to enjoy the scenery when it is obscured by clouds and you are soaked clean through. I guess there are other parts of Spain that are flooding, so I it could be worse. Still, I am hoping for some even slightly drier weather over the next few days.


Day 4 - Pocos to Guarda

Date: January 7th, 2016
Distance: 116 km
Song of the Day: Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys - Willie Nelson

Having a much better time today. It rained a bit, but nothing like yesterday. My clothes could dry out a little while I rode. Plus I was having a great tailwind so it was fast going. Beyond that, this part of Portugal is amazing. Hilly, but less so than the last few days. Gorgeous pastures with stone cottages, pastoral towns with a quiet sort of charm to them. The landscape also began to get more rocky. Large granite outcrops and boulders littered the area. It is no wonder the houses were built out of stone, the material was everywhere. The places that are used tend to have this great pastoral charm to them. Not modern, but elegant and antique. With a type of craft and attention to detail I don't see much anymore.

But there are also many abandoned houses in the area. A few have their windows broken out, just a few shards of glass left hanging in the frames. A few are boarded up, but usually those boards are kicked in or rotting away. Most, however, have just a hole where a window or a door used to be. You can look in and see the broken tiles and timbers from the roof that has fallen in. I am fascinated by it. These aren't just out in the fields, some are right in the center of town, often next to, or even attached to, an elegantly maintained building. It adds this wonderful surreal element to the whole place. Makes me wonder what happened to the houses. Why did everyone let it fall to ruin? Do the people who live there even notice them anymore? What ghosts are hidden in those crumbling stones?

As it began to get dark, I got off the N17 highway which had been my route most of the day. I took a back road, which wasn't too squiggly on the map. I was hoping that meant it was flat. It wasn't. Instead I rode up the toughest climb I have done so far on this trip. Normally I race the setting sun, and today I did that while also racing a storm front. The sunset was dark, red, and ugly. In a movie it would have meant the end of the world; in real life it wasn't that bad. I was exhausted and running on empty by the time I got to Guarda though.