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France and Spain, 1992

Another conversation with old university rowing colleagues, another nutty idea for a summer holiday. "Let's all ride down to Barcelona for the Olympics and watch the rowing."


It didn't take long for the original group of six participants to wither away to just two, by which time the itinerary had changed into a trip through France and Spain, heading west after the Pyrenees rather than east.


So, awaking less than refreshed after a patchy night's sleep on the floor of the Portsmouth to St Malo ferry, Dave and I mounted our trusty steeds and turned the handlebars south. This was still in the days when my approach to route planning consisted of getting as far as possible in the least amount of time, so a relaxed holiday was not really on the cards. Nor were the quiet roads of the French countryside, since these were just not direct enough. It was not long, then, before the flashing blue light of a local gendarme's car indicated that the pedalling pair should stop, at which point it was explained that we had strayed onto a motorway. Acting like thick Englishmen we avoided any inconvenient fines and were shown onto a hopelessly roundabout route by the law-enforcer. A review of the maps was in order to make sure this didn't hapen again, and we realised that it would in fact be possible to carry on in the right direction without having to restrict ourselves to A roads which confusingly become M-ways.


We continued on our southerly journey through the sunflower fields and vineyards. The landscape seemed unnecessarliy hilly, but it was attractive and above all undoubtedly French, and in any case this was just the warm up for the proper hills that loomed ahead - ie the Pyrenees! As any keen follower of cycling will tell you, the Pyrenees are legendary, and many a holiday has turned into a futile attempt to emulate the achievements of the polka-dot-jerseyed greats of the Tour de France. The names are enough to make to make you want to turn and head for home, but if you can overcome this urge and head into the mountains to conquer the cols you can feel yourself growing in stature and enjoy the respect of the locals. "Ah, tu as fait le Tourmalet? Oof!"


So indeed the Tourmalet passed beneath our wheels, joining the cols d'Aspin, Souloir, Aubisque and Portalet, all not without a little sweating and various unprintable comments hissed through gritted teeth. The views were fantastic, and of course the downhills absurdly enjoyable.


We crossed the border and descended into Spain. Not planning to cycle in the nighttime, we had not brought any lights. This seemed like a reasonable decision until we found ourselves plunged into darkness as at full tilt we were swallowed by the gloomy mouth of a road tunnel. Trying to slam the brakes on in a controlled way proved surprisingly difficult, but the alternative was slamming into the wall of the tunnel, so with very little grace we somehow managed to get the situation under control and from then on decided to take things a little easier on the descents.


In Pamplona, Dave ran out of holiday, leaving me to continue on alone. Having crossed the Pyrenees I made the foolish assumption that the mountains had been done and everything now would be pretty straightforward. A bit of proper mapwork before heading off from the easy contours of the Thames valley would have disabused me of this niaive notion, but I found out soon enough that Spain is indeed one of the hilliest countries in Europe. There was no way to avoid them, however, so it was a case of grinning and bearing it. Into Logrono and on to El Burgo de Osma, passing the dramatically positioned town of Pinafiel, and then across the hot plains, swinging north again to reach the edge of the Picos de Europa, a beautiful limestone massif. The approach was not good: the previous night was spent in the awful Riano, probably once a pleasant enough place but now the original town has been lost beneath a reservoir and a new soul-less place been built above the new waters.


I had hoped that the splendour of the mountains would make up for the depressing night in Riano, where the only diversion had been the Elton John music in the bar. Alas, the weather had closed in and all I saw was the inside of the low cloud as it moved damply around the slopes. It was refreshing to see that it isn't only British people who soldier on gamely in the face of rubbish weather - there at the lookout platform high in the hills was a family of Europeans, car parked neatly as they stared into the fog, no doubt exercising their imaginations in a lively fashion.


Wearing all my clothes, which weren't doing a very good job of keeping the rain out, I extended the day's ride to reach the warm insides of the hotel at Cangas de Onis. A Roman hump-backed bridge rose high above the river in town. The next day the skies had returned to their proper holiday-blue and I bowled along through Arenas and on to Santillana del Mar, a confusingly landlocked but nonetheless beautiful village of cobbled streets and tasty local flan. Only one day of riding remained, and I made it to Santander in time to run out of money. Luckily I already had my ferry ticket for the float home.

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