Keen Scottish cyclist Nick green, who runs mobile bike mechanic business Hammer & Cycle, decided to ride back from a family holiday in Portugal (while the others took the plane!). He describes his bike packing trip.
When our family holiday near Lisbon came to an end last month, I didn’t join the others on the long drive to the airport. Instead, I unpacked my road bike and set off north with the vague idea of returning to the UK overland through Portugal and Spain.
I knew there was a ferry from Santander in ten days’ time and on the free road map that came with the hire car it looked a reasonable distance to cycle. That was about the level of organisation that had gone in beforehand.
Nothing was pre-booked and I knew nothing about the country along the way, on the basis that no adventure was ever improved by planning.
Unsurprisingly, I ended the trip wiser about Portugal and Spain, and about bike packing in general.
I had a frame bag and a seat pack, both large size but only half full. On the front, I had my Altura bar bag, which was handy for quickly detaching when I left the bike and wanted to take my valuables with me.
With the bags fitted so snugly to the bike I could ride pretty much as normal. The handling and feel of the road bike was unaffected by the load and that greatly enhanced the pleasure of cycling. The bags were very robust and waterproof.
On the downside, the Apidura bags are really intended to stay on the bike so if you are removing them to go into a hotel at night and fitting them again in the morning, it does become a bit laborious with all the straps and clips involved.
Also, it was difficult to extract water bottles with the frame bag in place. I was worried that my cages were going to break so it might be wise to have side-access water bottle cages.
Road surfaces were generally very good and a road bike with 25mm tyres was perfectly suitable. There didn’t seem to be many bike shops around so a major breakdown might have been quite problematic. Most towns seemed to be on the rail network though, which would have provided a bailout option if required.
In broad terms, the coast of Portugal is flat and windy, usually from the north it seemed. Inland it becomes endlessly hilly and hot but less windy. The hills are all about the same size and stretch to the horizon in every direction. The pattern of the day’s cycling was to climb slowly for a few kilometres then descend very fast and start over again.
Inland Spain is similar countryside but as you travel north toward the coast it becomes more rugged and mountainous. This was the best scenery of the trip. The coastline is also very beautiful and indented with fantastic bays and beaches.
I had expected the heat to be a problem but although temperatures got into the 40s it wasn’t as oppressive as I had expected. Any movement on the bike created a pleasant breeze and it was easy to find cold drinks along the way.
Many people had suggested that I take a siesta to avoid the afternoon heat but in the end I couldn’t see the point. The roads were much quieter in the afternoons and the heat didn’t subside until after five anyway. In proper British style I ignored the weather and just got on with it.
Whether you enjoy travelling alone is a personal matter. In general I don’t mind it except in the evenings when I wasn’t enthusiastic about going out to find interesting restaurants or bars on my own. There are practical problems as a solo traveller, such as what to do with your bike when you leave it to shop, eat, check into a hotel or just go to the loo.
My useful tip for this is to use filling stations. Although rarely picturesque, they do seem to be open all the time, they sell cold water and snacks and they have good loos which you can park your bike directly outside. These things come to dominate your thoughts with no one to talk to!
One thing I particularly liked in both countries was the universal 3G phone coverage. I didn’t find a forest, mountain top or remote beach that didn’t have a better signal than many UK city centres. I don’t know how they do it but it is very handy for navigation, finding accommodation and annoying your friends at home with sunny photos.
Portugal is a relatively cheap country for visitors, and Spain only marginally less so. A very decent hotel was about 30€ B&B for a single room and I had some very good dinners for only 10€ or so. Roadside cafes seem to come along every 10 minutes, making it very hard to resist numerous cafe con leche stops each day.
For the first week I did about 150km each day, but then slowed down when I realised I had plenty of time in hand for the ferry. In total, I covered 1200km, which was hard at times but quite manageable.
The oddest experience was being overtaken by a pick up truck carrying a bagpiper and drummer playing “Scotland the Brave”. I am (reasonably) certain this actually happened although it was very hot.
Most of the way I avoided cities, which are incredibly frustrating to navigate on a bike, but I am glad I got to visit Santander which is very beautiful. From here I caught the ferry to Portsmouth.
The crossing is very comfortable if you don’t suffer from seasickness and in only 24 hours you are steaming past the Isle of Wight into Portsmouth harbour.
With more time I might have continued by bike up to Glasgow but I suspect that, once the hot weather, empty smooth roads and cheap seafood had gone, the romanticism of the trip might have disappeared quickly, too.