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from Littlehuan


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Lorenzo of the Mountains.

Descending mountains on a bicycle is as intensely cold an experience as I ever wish to have. To go instantly from maximum exertion and no wind-chill to freewheeling in 40mph winds does not make one toasty warm. No glove yet invented or shoe cover yet produced is enough. No amount of facial hair is protective. (I have plenty now) One time, my glasses iced over. Anyone who does this with only a newspaper shoved up their lycra top has my total respect.

Spartacus being nails

It was in this sorry state that I arrived at Lorenzo’s door, in a tiny village in the shadow of the fearsome Porte Belate. I was welcomed by his wife, who used my pitiful Spanish and her expressive gestures to usher me into the shower and fetch me a beer and pistachios. Now there was a Warmshowers welcome! Logs flickered and embers glowed in both the fire and the stove. The place felt like home instantly. My bicycle found a home in the only vacant corner of a stuffed woodshed. Wet things were hung over the local iteration of the AGA, my shoes stuffed with newspaper and placed beside it. The scene was perfect in winter, but sadly my language skills were not sufficient to ask, “This is all very well for December, but how do you cook and avoid boiling alive in your own home in July?!”

On Lorenzo’s return he set to work preparing the salad to accompany the meal. Not a salad fan at the best of times, let alone after the day’s riding I’d had I watched with suspicion. To my visible relief calorie-rich anchovies and olives went in alongside the leaves. Then began the almost ceremonial dressing. Dark olive oil poured on and on into the bowl, with balsamic vinegar, then a taste. Somehow more oil was needed, along with some cider vinegar for sharpness, and some salt. The resulting salad was the best I’ve ever tasted, and would have made a whole meal even for a starving cyclist. Praise indeed.

Lorenzo’s son was something of a guitarist, and musical instruments littered the house. After my failure to find a way to bring the Martin Backpacker along, and my unsuccessful attempt to learn the ukulele while living out of a one-person tent, I could not resist, and we shared music which crossed cultures and languages all night. At a late hour, Lorenzo and I chatted about my future, and I commented that my delicate musician’s fingers mark me out as using my brain, not my hands, to make a living. He gestured to the guitar and said, ” Maybe you can use your hands to make work. I think it’s better…”

Encouraged and affirmed by an encounter only hours old, I slept soundly. I’d hoped that this trip would allow me to find confidence to face the future, and though I’m not naive enough to think I’ll walk back into England a professional musician, maybe music can be part of what I do next.

At breakfast the next day Lorenzo gave me more local knowledge about a bike path into Pamplona. It turned out to be ace, for most of the way…

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He also bestowed me with a couple of gifts. Turron is a marzipan/fudge hybrid which is a popular Spanish Christmas gift. Though not so popular in Lorenzo’s house cos this stuff was from four Christmases ago and three years out of date. I tried it, but the sugar had leached out and it tasted rank. And I got some dried fruit, which I poured into my porridge the next day. But the raisins had pips in! Deseeding raisins an unexpected addition to my morning ritual then…

Lorenzo of the mountains. Great guy. Amazing salad. Crap presents. Cheers.


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Finding my way.

Despite not wanting to be the sort of tourist that stares inanely at my iPad while pretty churches and grand vistas go unexamined, I’ve found myself staring at the map a few times too many already on this trip. I’m a bit too closely wedded to my carefully plotted path, which joins blue dots on an electronic map. The intense emotional upheaval which accompanies, at least for me, a “route barre”* or a missed turning (too many to count, I’m rubbish at wayfinding…) is perhaps a signal for me to slow down and enjoy the ride.

My route choice has been so far so good, an excellent balance between direct and quiet. It reminds me that this whole trip is a balance between a pure journey, and one with a destination.

The trick to finding seems to be to stick to D roads, but this can be misleading, since some are dual carriageways. I’ve found that the lower the number the better the road for cycling. I’ve spent many happy kilometres on the D1 in the Loire, and the D7 in the Vendee. Higher numbers seem to be the newer roads which have superseded the old ones, leaving them for me to enjoy. Please avoid the D105 into La Rochelle if you can though, the only place in France I’ve felt at risk of being removed from this life by a two-trucked HGV.

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One thing which has struck me is the number of roadside crosses and crucifixes you see, which are sometimes large and ornate. I even passed between an Our Lady Crowned Queen of Heaven gazing helplessly at her crucified Son from across the road. But the one I stopped to photograph was this, a really simple one from just outside Les Brouzils. I expect it flowers in the summer, too. As I was crossing to get the picture, a near-peleton of road cyclists went past, relaxed and chatting, perhaps three abreast, one of many I’ve seen. I wonder if such a group would be tolerated on UK roads? It confirmed for me I’d made a good choice of route and I carried on.

The lure of a warm bed tonight has been overwhelming. I thought I would miss my Couchsurfing host in La Rochelle for one more night, but just by pedalling along I found myself with daylight remaining and a couple of hours to go to my host. One more embarrassing text, to confirm the bed-space I’d postponed hours earlier, and here I am with the gracious Ilaria, and her charming children. I hope to take some time to see the city tomorrow, then it’s back to my little tent, parked unobtrusively at the roadside between dusk and dawn.

*The socialist French seem to be spending their way out of this recession with big capital works. I’ve seen a railway line being electrified, and every village seems to be getting their roads done. I hope it works for them.


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Not so easy…

With only a few days to go, I’ve been feeling really nervous about the trip today. You know, lots of self-doubt, procrastination, a bit of insecurity, taking it out on those around me, that sort of thing. Horrid little questions I wish would go away.

“It’s too far, you’ll never finish, the miles will get on top of you, you’ll be a cold, wet, lonely failure.”

Here’s me looking anything but cold in a snowfield at minus 10. Yes, my kit is frozen solid.

Well I might have bitten off more than I can chew, with 2500km in 26 days; what, with the kit I’m taking,  my propensity to get lost going to the corner shop, and my desire to curl up into a ball when things get difficult. But there’s a chance I’ll make good progress on the flat of France and ride myself into form for the hills of Spain. That I’ll encounter fair weather and following winds. And that I’ll roll into Santander with a day to spare, wondering what all the fuss was about. But if I fail, on who’s terms will I fail? On the brilliant CTC Trail Leader course I did recently, with the inimitable Craig Walmsley, we spent a bit of time mapping out shortcuts; alternative routes and escapes back to base if things go differently to the plan. And I’ve planned such routes for this trip. Wouldn’t it be amazing if I took so many interesting detours, accepted so many offers of hospitality and thought, wrote or photographed so much that I had to ride straight to the ferry terminal or miss Christmas? Would my trip be of any less value if its destination was other than the westernmost tip of Spain?

“You’re irresponsible. It’s such a big risk for the future.”

Ok, Ok, I return home as an unemployment statistic. Jobs will be advertised and posts filled while I am away. But this trip is space for really good decisions about my future and deciding how I want to spend my days. Might my redundancy provide so many opportunities at a time when I’m able to take them? Can I convince people the skills I love to share are worth paying for, and make my passion my career?  Is someone who’s proved themselves self-reliant, determined and creative more or less employable? Why not read the intrepid and highly readable Travelling Two’s answer.

“You’re a bad dad for doing this.”

Yes, I’ve heard it in my own mind and even from others. I’m worried about my girls. Just now I want to shower them in love and never let them go. But there is absolutely no good time to do this from their perspective. They want their dad like they want ice cream before dinner- but if it’s good it’s good enough to wait for. I can’t wait to write them special messages. The eldest has asked me to write a letter. That’s great. In an age of email my child values the physical, written word. But I hope to befriend the technology to share stories face to face, or at least webcam to webcam. I’m determined that the dad they get for Christmas will be an improved, relaxed, calmer, more fulfilled version of the one they love now. And I’ll be the best beard in the playground at school. Except the terrifying headmistress, Miss Whiskers.*

If this was easy for me, it’s likely I wouldn’t be attempting it. I’ve planned something which takes me as far as can in the time I have. Long nights and short days add to the difficulty, as does the need to make and break camp each day. The weather will whisper threats of snow and ice, and silently deliver her promise. My journey will require my best and test my resolve to its limits. For how else will I find out what my best is, or where my limits are? I’ll be cold, wet, hungry and scared at times, but equally I’ll be warm, safe, energised and excited. Emotions will undulate and moods will swing. But I will do this. And I will do it well.

*Names have been changed to protect the innocent…


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Keeping the home fires burning

Here’s a wonderful guest post from my partner Christine, about what it’s like being the one left behind. Needless to say, without her support I wouldn’t be making this trip. With it, I know that anything is possible. She showed me what adventure is by jumping into this river when I wanted to stay on the bank. Her boldness inspired me to make this journey. Christine, it’s all your fault.

So about 4 weeks ago Patrick asked me my ‘opinion’ on his plans.

“Sounds good.” I said holding back the tears. But what can I do? Because as I thought about it the more I admired his determination to do this, and I would probably like to do the same given the opportunity. (there will be time… Pat)

So I decided to be supportive and, given Patrick’s loveable forgetfulness, try to get him as well equipped as possible. We settled on a on a ID bracelet as I can’t guarantee that he won’t get his hand caught in a crevice for 127 hours, and my idea of taking him to the vets to get him chipped did not go down well. Then there was the obligatory Trip to Go Outdoors where I asked the bloke for small long johns (for myself of course) a sports bra (definitely for myself) and then tried on a number of silly hats. Although we did buy dry bags, a water pouch, a red plastic blanket thing, oh, and some energy bars… Dear me, it’s starting to sound like a 80’s games show.

Then, of course, there are the snippets of information that Patrick keeps telling me.

“I don’t want to plan my route too much.” I must  have gone pale as he has now at least looked at a map and decided on which way he needs to point the bike.

“It’s going to be really cold this time of the year.” Erm, exactly how good is your sleeping bag?

“They close the passes cos of the snow sometimes.” You’ll need that titanium spork to dig yourself out then, I say. And today… today!

“They have bears.” What am I meant to say? Pack a few tins of John West salmon, start growing a beard (he already has) and they’ll accept you as one of their own!? It’s ok, they are all called either Pooh or Paddington depending on clothing. Just don’t get them mixed up; it pisses them off.

Obviously I have extensive knowledge of all these things, so it’s just as well I’m staying home. That and the fact that I need 6 layers and 2 duvets just to stay in a caravan.

No, I’ll be waiting at home for Patrick just hoping that he has remembered to eat.

Thanks, Christine. I’ll try.


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Reasons… Part 1

I’m surprised that not many people have demanded to know why I’m doing this. Some have asked “Why now?”* but it seems most people who know me know what I’m like, and that this is simply something I need to do. Cycle 2500 kilometres to the edge of Spain in 26 days with only my tent and the Atlantic for company. Typical stuff. But despite the persona I like to portray, (that of a grizzled outdoorsman and expert cyclist) ’til now I’m merely an armchair expert. I really have never done anything like this before. And that is one reason in itself.

The challenge of the elements, coupled with the terrain appeals and frightens in equal measure. If I was making this trip in summer I’d start from Amsterdam, and cycle through Belgium and across northern France. As it’s winter, I start in Brittany and hug the Atlantic coast to avoid the severest cold and iciest roads. Yes, I know this means I’ll get wet. I’m fine with that. As my Dad says, (precious morsels these- he doesn’t say much…) “It only goes to the skin, then it runs off.” And there’s always the Human Condom to climb into at the end of the day.

The Human Condom

But it’s the Cantabrian Mountains which have me a little nervous. I plan to skirt them to the south on the way west to Cape Finisterre, and follow the coast back to Santander for the ferry. But there’s no doubt- there will be hills. One author at the highly useful Freewheeling France suggests parts of the Camino Di Santiago route I’ll roughly follow are closed November-March. Not to worry, I’ll leave the true mountains to the bears (yes, really, there are bears!) and ride round anything I can’t ride over.

The solitude of a long bike ride punctuated by stealthy wild camps really appeals to me. Time to think. Time to write songs (more of that in a later post)  Time not only to ask the big questions of life, but perhaps to answer them too. The luxury of so much time to replace that of a warm bed or the arms of a loved one. Time to go.

* Why now? It’s the time I have available. Between episodes in my life and my work. At a crossroads. On the bike, as in life I’m awful at crossroads. Indecisive. Instictively knowing the way, but lacking the faith to take it. Self-doubt wins again. I check the map with cold hands and a heavy heart. I tell myself that next time I’ll roll through with confidence and trust myself. Trust the road. But I never do. Now it’s time to learn.

Reasons… Part 2 is here.