Tour of northern Spain, 3 to 17 September 2023 – Alan Weaver
From Sunday 3 September to Sunday 17 September, the Beacon’s Alan Weaver, Si Walker and Si Turner toured for 407 miles (655 km) through northern Spain as part of a lager group of 14 riders. Here’s Alan’s account of their adventures…
Ride from Medstead to the ferry terminal, Portsmouth
The day started with a drive down to Medstead with my two fellow riders, Si Walker and Si Turner. It was a good journey down with no problems with traffic and arriving on time at the agreed meeting place in the village. We had a short time to say hello and meet the others in the group and have a few sandwiches before getting changed into our cycle gear and then setting off to Portsmouth ferry terminal. The ride was pleasant as it was very warm and dry and on a steady, undulating route. We had an early supper at the Churchillian, a Wetherspoons pub just outside Portsmouth on a hillside overlooking the estuary and the Isle of Wight. Unfortunately, the pub was out of a lot of food but a burger and chips sufficed. From there it was roughly a 20-minute descent to the port via local cycle-ways and paths. We had to wait for a while to get on the ferry, but no problems at all getting the bike on board and securely tied up in preparation for the crossing. Two of us are in a four-berth cabin; it would have been very tight to have had four people in there for two nights! So just looking forward (not!) to spending the next 33 hours on the ferry before we arrive at the Port of Bilbao…
Brittany ferry crossing to Bilbao
We set sail on Sunday 3 September at 21:30, on board the ship Galicia. We finally docked at 08:00 on Tuesday 5 September at the very impressive Port of Bilbao. A lovely smooth crossing; a most relaxing start to what turned out to be a very testing few days!
Day 1: Port of Bilbao to Areatza
It took a while to disembark from the ship and away from the port area, but overall it was all relatively easy and stress free. After a four-mile cycle into the nearby town, we (a group of 14) stopped for breakfast at a small café in the town square. After enjoying a beautiful and freshly made cheese and potato tortilla, we continued on our way to the first hotel of the trip in Areatza. Following that, we then made a rather tortuous route through Bilbao, partly on the road and partly on cycle paths. There were many traffic lights holding us up several times and splitting the group, as well as folk walking close to the lanes; eyes very wide open was the order of the day! We passed the Guggenheim Museum on the right and followed the river path out of Bilbao. The roads were generally quiet with a steep climb before a leisurely lunch stop at a café/bar in Ugao-Miraballes. When we arrived at the café, what we first assumed was a local cycle club were already sat outside with every single rider wearing the exact same coloured kit and all riding the same blue and white Cube bikes. Then, while we were waiting for the food and drinks to arrive, more riders rode past the end of the road, once again all wearing the same coloured kit and all riding the same blue/white Cube bikes. It was quite a spectacular sight to see, probably around 30+ cyclists in total, all wearing the same kit and all riding the same coloured Cube bikes. We have since established that it was most probably a package tour organised by “Huerzeler – The Cycling Experience”.
After that, it was time to head out and by this time it was a rather warm 32 °C and we had a steady climb ahead of us before a refreshing descent into the town where we were staying. We are in the hills here with lovely surroundings; it’s also very warm!
Overall, we had an interesting and steady day of cycling. It’s a different approach when carrying bags as it is a lot slower and harder on the inclines; obvious, really! After a few beers (for hydration purposes of course), we had supper in the hotel.
Overnight venue: Hotel Balneario de Areatza
Day 2: Areatza to Beasain
A good breakfast was followed by leaving the hotel at 09:30. After a ride through the town to get on to the main road, we had to go up a short, slippery section of very rough track before joining the main road again and also just before the start of a truly brutal climb. A short descent followed yet another long and fairly steep climb, and then it levelled off, after which we stopped in a town for coffee. The local folk are all very pleasant and accommodating, the drivers also very good in being careful at passing when we are in a group together. The architecture is very similar to alpine buildings and it is very hilly as you see from the ride profile. The route used a lot of cycle-ways adjacent to the road or was away from the road following streams, so appeared to be disused railway cuttings; all very safe and cycle friendly. Another climb followed and again it was a challenge. We had a great descent before lunch (scrambled egg with mushroom and prawns) in a town café. In truth, I could have eaten much more than was provided but it was a reasonable price. The final climb of the day was another real brute. In the afternoon, the temperature was around 38ºC in the shade; it didn’t feel like it as there was a steady breeze, but when we stopped, you instantly became soaked in sweat. In direct sunshine, refer to the photo of my Garmin below! Needless to say, an ice cream and coke 7½ miles from the end was indeed very welcomed. I think it’s been the hardest day’s riding I’ve done in a long while; it would have been tough without bags, never mind with them, and the heat made it harder, but overall, a rewarding day.
Overnight venue: Hotel Restaurante Dolarea
Day 3: Beasain to Estella
We left the modern town of Beasain at 09:00 to try to beat the heat. After about four miles we had a 12½-mile climb, which varied between a pleasant 3-4% gradient to about 10% in small sections. The first planned coffee stop at the top of the first climb was closed, so another six miles further on to the next town. We stopped in the square and had coffee and cake which was good as it was getting quite warm. The next climb came shortly afterwards, extending seven miles to the highest point of the route, and the lunch stop was also closed! There were vultures flying around on the thermals, which was quite spectacular to watch. The scenery was wonderful, in parts very much like Provence with high-sided limestone cliffs forming a gorge. So we cycled on again but had a fantastic 10-mile descent to the next town for drinks outside a small bar. The temperature was near to 40 °C now – baking hot! At this point we had not had lunch, so decided to carry on to the hotel where I had a very welcome pasta carbonara and a beer at about 16:00. Overall, a super day of cycling: long, challenging climbs and sweeping descents in fantastic scenery. The folk and traffic were again all very considerate and accommodating.
Overnight venue: Hotel Restaurante Casa Luisa
Day 4: Estella to Pamplona
A slightly delayed start due to a rider having a puncture and the tyre quickly deflating once again, so we left at 09:30 and it was already getting warm. After passing through the town into the ‘sticks’, we partially followed one of the Camino de Santiago paths adjacent to the road with lots of walkers. There was a steady climb for a few kilometres, passing a dam and reservoir with spectacular scenery all around. We stopped for a late morning cold drink at a local café bar. At another point, a local Spanish couple were sat by the side of their house, both shelling walnuts into a large bucket. Another six-mile climb followed with more spectacular views across to Pamplona. The twisting and fast descent that followed was superb. The road met the plain and we then had a relatively flat ride in towards Pamplona. We stopped for some lunch, cold drinks and an ice cream, which were all very cheap at €7.50. On the outskirts, we used a cycle path which was mixed gravel and tarmac in places, very bumpy and uneven, crossing the river several times on rickety bridges. After about 12 miles along the path, we reached the hotel on the opposite side of the city. It’s been another baking hot day at around 39 °C and has been rather lumpy. The architecture has changed now that we are out of the hills, being more traditional Spanish buildings and I guess it will change again as we make progress. The Vuelta sets off from the town on Sunday afternoon and the Bora-Hansgrohe professional cycling team are also staying at our hotel. We have a rest day tomorrow, so will probably take a short ride or walk around the city.
Overnight venue: Hotel Villava Pamplona
Day 5: Rest day walk into Pamplona
A rest day today, so the two Sis and I walked into the city centre to explore the sights. We had a look around the town walls and had a coffee before going into the bullring for a fantastic guided tour; it was very interesting to see how they managed the bulls before the famous Bull Run through the streets of Pamplona and also prior to the bull fights. It’s a very picturesque place with narrow streets in the old part. All very clean (no litter) and a very civilised and beautiful town.
Overnight venue: Hotel Villava Pamplona
Day 6: Pamplona to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (France)
It’s the Vuelta time trial in Pamplona today at 14:00, but we left the town before the start and also to avoid being caught in any potential road closures. The Bora-Hansgrohe team bus and all the support vehicles with staff and riders were at the hotel last night although we only saw a few of them and none of the pro team riders. It was very interesting to see the overall setup and look inside the large support vehicle; so many sets of Roval wheels hanging up! Needless to say, there was a strong police presence for most of the night surrounding all the team’s vehicles. We set off at about 09:00 for the first few kilometres on a cycle path and a steady low gradient, but it later ramped up for a few kilometres and was getting hotter. There were a lot of walkers again as we followed part of the Camino de Santiago walking route, the scallop shell motif marking the way. Before lunch was another climb up to just over 3,200 feet; there were some spectacular views. After which was a fast twisting descent towards a café for lunch. Once again, lovely food and so tasty and just what we needed! The architecture has changed again back to an alpine style. After lunch, we came across a motorcycle accident where the rider looked as though he had ‘over-cooked’ it on a twisting section of downhill. With around six miles to go, we crossed into the Pyrenees Department of France and it was a steady ride mostly downhill into the town. The 10+ mile descent came complete with lots of switch backs and hairpins, which were indeed tremendous fun, although it would have much better without the panniers! Tomorrow is a rest day but there are three additional rides planned, so not sure yet which one I’ll opt for…
Overnight venue: Hotel Restaurant des Remparts
Day 7: ‘Rest day’ Pyrenean climb
A non-travelling ‘rest’ day today, but I woke up with a really bad sore throat, so what better way to nurse it than doing a 10-mile climb straight from the hotel door? Define the word ‘rest’, I asked myself. We ended up doing a circuit around some local Pyrenean hills. The climb was an absolute beast for the first three miles with gradients of about 20%. It then eased a bit to the top at 6½ miles to an overall elevation of over 4,000 feet. We stopped at about the mid-point on the climb for a quick coffee at the Refuge Orisson but also to admire the views of the landscape. After the coffee stop, the climb was a bit more manageable, thank heavens. It was one of the hardest climbs I’ve done over such a short distance to the top and I didn’t stop until the coffee stop and then afterwards until the summit. There were many Camino walkers going up the climb on their path, some giving encouragement as we rode past them up the hill. After a brief stop, at the top, we continued to the long, twisting and often quite steep descent. Lots of gravel and damp corners, under tree cover to negotiate, making it hard work. It eventually levelled off to leave around a six-mile ride on a shallow gradient down into the town. We had a superb ride – very challenging, but equally also very rewarding.
Overnight venue: Hotel Restaurant des Remparts
Day 8: Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port (France) to Auritz (Spain)
A night of hell, with my sore throat keeping me awake for most of the night. Thank goodness today was a short one with only one climb, with a gradual ascent. After this came a cracking descent but with quite a noticeable drop in the temperature. Unfortunately, this only served to trigger my chesty cough. I’m really hoping tomorrow will see some improvement in my health as it is really taking its toll on me, I’m afraid. Last night there was a big storm with thunder and lightning and heavy rain. It was forecast rain for today, but thankfully it didn’t materialise. However, it was much cooler this morning. After leaving the pretty town of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we took an undulating route out to start a climb to the Col d’Ispeguy at over 2,000 feet. A 6 to 7% incline for most of the way made it a comfortable, steady ride almost into the clouds with a superb view back into France and into Spain as this was the border. A coffee stop at the top preceded a not-so-fast twisting descent, which required a jacket and arm warmers as I was soaked from perspiration on the climb. We had lunch in a small town, hamburger with fried egg and chips being the order of the day; very tasty and filling. After lunch, we had a short ride of roughly 12 miles to the alpine-style hostel, which was situated in a very small hamlet. We just got in before the rain came down!
A good day as it stayed dry and no aches after yesterday’s huge climb The evening meal was simply outstanding, and the beds were so comfy, just like being back at home. Sadly the morning service wasn’t quite as good, the coffee machine broke, the demand for cereals was greater than the amount of cereals available, but we only had three bowls between fourteen of us anyway and who would have thought that sourcing fourteen spoons would prove so challenging? Trying to consume a yogurt with a fork is really time-consuming!
Overnight venue: Hostel Mendaurpe
Day 9: Auritz to Azkoita
I had an early night last night with plenty of paracetamol taken, and went to bed fully clothed as l was shaking with cold. This morning, my sore throat has moved more to more of a chesty cough, so the plan was to ride nice and steady. Today was another cool morning and there had been another night of heavy rain (and owls hooting). We set off in the dry but the clouds were low as we started the first big climb of the day to 2,000 feet. Coffee was in a small bar and by this time we were wet from the rain. We set off again, descending, taking care on the damp roads. In the valley, the temperature had risen by 10 °C and the valley was in bright sunshine, but it didn’t last as we started the second big climb to another 2,000 feet; this was a bit harder as the gradient was steeper on the lower half. Lunch (another burger and chips was taken) was almost at the top in a café, where upon it started to pour down. It was still raining when we set off again, but eased off on the next descent. As we approached Azkoita, we took part road and bike path to the other side of town to the hotel. Not many photos today due to the poor weather. It was a day for arm warmers and raincoat as it was quite chilly on the descents and being wet.
Overnight venue: Hotel Larramendi Torrea
Day 10: Azkoita to Lekeito
Feeling a lot better with just a tight chest, but not to worry, once again the perfect cure wasn’t far away. We all gathered at the front of the hotel and we were just about to depart when a very enthusiastic elderly gentleman arrived on a scooter, wearing a cycle trade top. In broken English he asked where we were headed. One in our party was better at Spanish than he was at English, so a brief conversation took place and he was shown the general direction in which we intended to cycle with the aid of a Garmin. Although it wasn’t needed, he decided that he would lead us out of the town. So off we went, 14 of us following a very smokey scooter – very smokey, in fact. But the more we slowed down to avoid the exhaust fumes, the more he slowed down too; a truly no-win situation, I’m afraid! It was a gentle and gradual climb out of the town and then a few miles later, we signalled that we intended to turn right. At this point, the very enthusiastic man on the scooter had seen our intentions in his mirrors and had done a quick U-turn. Returning to the group frantically waving his arms around, “No no no, sigueme en su lugar…” he repeatedly kept shouting (which we later established meant “follow me instead”) and was pointing in the direction of the main road and not at our intended route onto the very narrow lane. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; if only we had listened to him! Our chosen route started at around 6% and very slowly edged its way to about 12%. The road surface was very difficult and very challenging as there were leaves and debris on a damp, concrete road, causing the rear wheel to spin in places. With about just over a mile to go, it ramped up yet again to around 20%. It would have been hard enough on a lightweight carbon bike, but loaded up with panniers, it took the pain to a whole new level. Needless to say, I’m not ashamed to say that with just a few yards to go, l had to climb off and walk. There were four more climbs to do after this one but they were a lot shorter and involved a whole lot less climbing. This was a truly brutal and sadistic climb right from the hotel door, 5½ miles long and with 2,100 feet of climbing. On the plus side, today was better weather-wise; it was overcast and warm this morning but brightened up later in the day. We finally reached the coast and then enjoyed a stunning and beautiful ride into the town of Lekeito and the hotel was on the sea front. All of the sudden, all that pain seemed worthwhile: sand, sea and beautiful hot sunshine.
Overnight venue: Hotel Silken Palacio Uribarren
Day 11: Lekeito to Bilbao
Frustratingly, my chesty cough was a little worse this morning making, the first 20 miles and the first couple of climbs rather uncomfortable. We had a tasty evening meal at the hotel last night and similar breakfast this morning. It was a dry, warm start to today’s ride but as usual there was a climb straight out of the hotel. We passed through Guernica, which is well known in regard to being bombed during the Spanish Civil War and via a painting by Picasso. The second climb of the day started immediately out of the town after we had a coffee. Lunch was at a roadside café, opposite an industrial estate. Some country lanes brought a few more short, sharp hills and a visit to a mock castle. Eventually we reached the coast and a difficult cycle path that had steps in several places, making the passage difficult. Spain’s idea of a cycle path is way different to the UK. As we entered the outskirts of Bilbao, there were some good paths to ride, arriving at the transporter bridge where we had a fantastic and freshly made ‘cheesecake’ ice cream. Once across the bridge, there were some shorter but very steep little climbs in the centre of the town to negotiate before we finally arrived at the stunning-looking hotel. Overall, it was quite a challenging final day with the climbing and the less-than-cycle-friendly cycle coastal path. Tomorrow will just be a short ride to the ferry terminal and then we’re homeward-bound.
Overnight venue: Hotel URH Palacio de Oriol
Day 12: Hotel to the Port of Bilbao
A very short hop via the cycle paths to the port.
Brittany ferry crossing to Portsmouth
We set sail from the Port of Bilbao at 13:00 Saturday 16 September (on the Galicia again) and docked at Portsmouth at 17:30 Sunday 17 September. I was very privileged to have seen a mother whale and its calf, in the Bay of Biscay, albeit a good distance away from the ship. Overall, the experience on board the ship was very good; the food was extremely well presented and very tasty and I enjoyed a great night’s sleep both incoming and on the return journey to Portsmouth. The return journey was quite a few hours shorter than the first sailing, which was a blessing as there is only so much sea that you can look at after all!
Ride from Portsmouth to Medstead
Thankfully, we disembarked the ferry really quickly, before any of the vehicles, and then we cycled out of the town via the local cycle paths and out into the countryside. By the time we arrived back to the car at Medstead, it was proper;y pitch black, but having a group of us all cycling together made it relatively easy to see where we were going in the very dark and unlit roads and back lanes. With the bikes all loaded onto the car and a couple of cups of freshly brewed coffee plus a few of slices of pizza later, it was time to bid our farewells to the rest of the group and set off on the 2½-hour return journey home.
So that’s it folks; as quick as it all started, it’s all come to an end!
Distance: 407.22 miles (655.003 km)
Ascended: 36,170 feet (110,246 m)
Actual riding time: 40 hours, 10 minutes and 4 seconds
Average speed: 10.1 mph (16.25 km/h)
Max speed: 41.3 mph (66.46 km/h)
Calories used: 14,948
Average heart rate: 108 bpm
Max heart rate: 178 bpm
Average temperature: 27 °C
Thanks to Si Walker and Si Turner for their company on what was a great first multi-day touring trip for me. Also a massive thank you to Si Walker who very kindly drove me and Si Turner and transported the bikes and all the kit to and from Medstead, and also for providing his valuable assistance in compiling this ride report.