If travel is a physics experiment, bike touring is a particle accelerator. Pedal off into the world and careen about, smacking into culture, language, food, physical hardship, boredom, satisfaction, splendid scenery laced with agricultural land, and all the emotions accompanying such a journey.
For better or worse, touring exposes you to greater ups and downs than motorized travel. I love it for that, and also sometimes yell four letter words at a headwind when I’m hangry. (Wind, the OG honey badger, doesn’t give a fuck.) Hills blazed in ten minutes in a car are an hour, two hours on a loaded touring bike; a passing rainstorm watched from a train is a scramble for gear and a sloshy moment for us.
Yet we choose to do this and it’s a privilege to have that choice. Some of you get it, and some think we’re nuts. You’re all correct.
The First Ten Days
I’m channeling my inner European and writing this from a cafe in Granada, snacking on pan con tomate and sipping mint tea, cigarette smoke from a nearby old man swirling in the air. This means a) I’m basically a native Spaniard and b) we survived the first leg of our trip.
We’ve got 340 miles behind us, 40+ hours of pedaling to get from Valencia to Granada to meet our friends Jen and Dave. Ten days (with one rest day) to yell WAKE UP at our bodies.
The first days of a bike tour are hard. Physically difficult to adjust to pedaling 5+ hours per day. It’s not just tired legs; my upper body is sore too. Emotionally tough as minds sync up to a new pace, a deliberate process of waking up, eating, and pedaling most of the day.
There’s little time for activities other than biking, logistics (food, lodging, route planning) and “oh damn, I’m too tired to do anything but stare at my phone.” I’m barely able to stay on top of work, but decided to document the trip on Instagram and Strava after six months off social media as creativity catalyst.
I’ll say this: Chelsea is tough as nails. After three years of no biking due to hand pain after our 2015 tour, she launched into this trip like a champ. Straight into the hills of Spain, which do NOT mess around. Our achy legs attest to that. Past tours kicked off with similar mileage, but half the vertical gain. Adjusting indeed.
Snapshots and Impressions of Touring in Spain
Rather than a recounting of each day, here’s a taste of the montaña rusa (rollercoaster) that is our experience of bike touring in Spain. Yes, it’s hard, but there’s a glimmer of light down the tunnel of leg pain. We KNOW we’ll get stronger if we just.keep.pedaling.
That was the first 10 days: moments of glory and plenty of “damn, this is hard.” Please don’t feel bad for us; we CHOSE to travel this way and knew (mostly) what to expect. It WILL get easier.
Snapshots, Or a Day in the Life of a Bike Traveler
Day 2, middle of nowhere near Alcala del Jucar
After a first day pedaling through fragrant orange groves, today is vineyards, sweeping views, quiet roads, sunshine. Life is good!
Well, until pain in Chelsea’s knee flares up. It’s bad enough that she has to walk steep climbs. Ruh roh. Why? Because I forgot to mark her seatpost before packing up her bike for the plane. #fail
This is trip-ending pain. I’m stressed, melancholic…but all I can do is carry more of her gear. Is it tendon? Muscle? She’s basically pedaling with one leg. For the next four days, she’ll battle this until massage and the body’s magical ability to heal triumph. Her ability to push through impresses me to no end.
The day’s highlight is a long, twisting descent into a river valley, where we relax at a picnic table. As always, you’ve gotta pay the piper – it’s a bruiser climb out a barely-rideable 12% grade. I pedal ahead, then run back to help Chelsea push her bike uphill to rest her knee.
This mutual support while bike touring strengthened our relationship in the past and feels good to revisit. Silver linings and optimism are the name of the game with bike touring. And perhaps always?
We soldier through into a headwind as storms threaten. Is bike touring ever easy?! Rarely. Satisfying? Yes.
50 miles, done. Time to sleep another 10 hours!
A “rest” day in Alcala del Jucar:
Our rest day is chock-full of catchup, both work for me since I work remotely during this trip as well as logistics mapping out the next couple days. It’s Saint’s Week and lodging is scarce (at best) and grocery stores are randomly closed. Not ideal in small villages where siesta hours already shut down everything from 2-5:30 pm. Getting in the swing of things!
My usually bulletproof stomach is off and I barely touch my pan tomate for breakfast and stare at food, uninterested. A starvation diet for riding 20+ hours/week is not ideal. It clears in a few days, perhaps a mix of over-exertion and dehydration? Me not eating sets off alarm bells for anyone who knows me, but I’ll survive.
Not to fear: we book the LAST room in all of Albacete, a city of 200,000. Turns out it’s because there’s a kid’s kung fu contest – mixed with Saint’s Week, it’s a volatile combo. Almost as volatile as the wind.
Days 4-6: Into the teeth of the gale
“It’s NEVER windy here,” says everyone we meet. Mmm hmmm. For three days, we beat our quads and spirits against the onslaught. Wind turbines spin merrily away as we crank uphill into the wind. Next trip, I’m Googling “prevailing winds” and buying a sail for our bikes.
Whatever. It’s just weather. It will pass. My stomach is feeling better and so long as I eat, I don’t swear (too much) at the *&$@!$ headwinds. Grind it out.
The roads are quiet and the scenery undulates and flows under our wheels. Lodging is varied and fun – ancient Airbnbs, “casa rurales” and “complejos,” farmhouses and old estates for cheap. We both have entertaining audiobooks and that always helps.
Day 7: Cruising on a Via Verde….
FUN! We eat a giant breakfast of soy yogurt, fruit, and granola from a huge grocery store haul the day before, fountains splashing all around us. We’re staying in a “casa rural,” an apartment in the country that is cheap and pretty with custom wood and metal work.
Our route for the day is one of the Via Verdes (greenway), disused railway lines reconditioned for use by walkers and cyclists. Spain is criss-crossed by dozens of these. This one, from Reolid to Beas de Segura, is a real treat: crushed gravel, rolling hills through vineyards, ruined houses along the side, picnic benches, and a niiiice overall descent to our stay for the night.
It’s a (much-needed) easy day, a break from the rude awakening this first week from hills and headwinds. A cyclist rolls up beside us and we chat with British Monty for an hour about his adventures. Turns out he’s bike toured through Bend and near my hometown in Idaho, along with all over Spain. Small world. Always.
Our stop for the night is a complejo, an old estate that hosts a lot of weddings. The owner (Arturo) is a cheery, helpful cyclist who offers the use of his bike repair gear and chats with me. My Spanish is improving, but man, my brain hurts when I get off the rails from “we need to book a room” or “do you have…?” and venture into general conversation. Patience, practice…
Day 8: Beas de Segura to Ubeda
The skies are hazy and it’s hot. I’m thankful for a 2nd day in a row with no wind. A guy collects wild asparagus along the road and we keep seeing him at each pullout as we slowly roll by up a 1,000 climb.
We spend the day pedaling through endless olive groves, a monoculture of the “Spanish liquid gold.” (Tell a Spaniard that Italy’s olive oil is better to set off some fireworks!) Despite the ham-lovers in Spain, eating here as a vegan is quite easy since things are cooked (ahem soaked!) in olive oil rather than lard.
We find a cafe and relax awhile, Chelsea fueling on coffee. Then we hit the grocery store Dia (right before the 2 pm siesta closure) and score vegan croissants and chocolate pudding. Later, I sit by the ruins of an old house and dip croissants in the pudding, grinning like a maniac. I don’t eat like this at home, but hey, when in the middle of nowhere with a huge climb incoming…
That powers us up the final climb, a winding 2,000 footer. I FaceTime with a couple friends during the climb, chatting with them to pass the time. For such a long trip, staying in touch is a priority for me and it’s nice to see friendly faces.
Our stop for the night is in Úbeda, probably named because it contains the word BED and we have two comfortable, queen-size ones in our hotel. Bike touring makes you appreciate the small things!
Day 9: North of Granada on a road busy with holiday traffic:
Thirty minutes ago, we laughed hysterically as we scooped food into our mouths by the side of the road like disheveled bike vagrants. Now we huddle under a tree as the sky unleashes fury, rain lashing the ground.
“Hey, pass me that bar of chocolate.” We gobble half of it. The ups and downs of bike touring, plus the constant companion of hunger, packed into less than an hour. The simple things are all that matter in these moments.
We woke that morning to pouring rain. We’ve got gear, but it still sucks to pedal a big day getting soaked. These days make sunshine feel so good, but also can make you question whether you made the right choice leaving the warm, comfortable hotel room just to pedal like some lunatic through the Spanish countryside. If we didn’t need to meet our friends, we’d stay inside!
Actually, after feeling tired yesterday, today I’m good, joking about the annoying swish swish of my rain pants and how terrible the weather is. Chelsea, on the other hand, might give her bike to any passing car in return for a ride to Granada… Luckily, bike touring is a team sport. I spoon feed her cold lentils from a can in the rain – “living the dream, baby!” She stares at me like I’m crazy.
Waiting out rain and 4,500′ of climbing means we are toeing the line for a sunset finish in a cold drizzle. Luckily, our buddies Jen and Dave drive out from Granada to meet us at our Airbnb for the evening. When they offer us a ride with 9 miles to go (all climbing), ego be damned: hell YES we accept the ride. This ain’t the Tour de France and we don’t have to pedal every single mile.
As we climb up an endless hill in their van, the temperature drops and sleet, then hail thunders on the roof. I turn the heat up and grin. Bike touring is all about contrast, and right now it’s reeeeal nice to be warm and dry in the company of good friends.
Tomorrow, Chelsea will go for a hike with Jen and Dave while I pedal solo into Granada. A perfect day on the bike. Well, mostly: doubletrack mud sticks to my tires so badly I can’t even move a couple times. Find that silver lining – at least there aren’t any cars? The sun is shining?
I calmly tear off a fender and pedal on. Sometimes, it’s all you can do.