Picos de Europa 29/5/19 – 3/6/19

My recent trip to the Picos de Europa was a combination of a few things but sat primarily in my own head as my opportunity to ride somewhere new for my annual trip to be with myself and my bike for a few days. We have a Bespoke Rpm90 trip here later in September so there would be a small part of research going on but it was not the main focus of the trip. For me, it was 6 whole days to find out where I am at within my own journey as an adventurer, dad of two young children, Rpm90 business owner and therefor general looker after of lots of people. Life is good, really good. Life is busy, really busy and even busier with the multitude of ways that people can reach you 24/7. WhatsApp, SMS, Calls, email, Insta message and even the old fashioned letters from school. Time to go a little off grid and see what would still be pinging away on my patched up iPhone 7 upon my return. A couple of friends, Gav and George had raved about the Picos, so armed with a return flight to Bilbao, my fully loaded Titanium Reilly dream machine, overnight sleeping kit and a couple of maps, I headed excitedly into this personally unknown area of a country that I know well.

Mountain road above Cavadonga

The Picos de Europa is a mountain range that sits firmly at the top of Spain, to the west of Bilbao. They are West of the Pyrenees and pretty much roll onto the turbulent coastline of the Bay of Biscay. With the heat of mainland Spain to the South and some wild seas to the North, its always going to be an area where mountain weather can come and go in its extremes. A place to keep you on your toes, my kind of place.

My bike was fully loaded for all weathers and loaded for sleeping out too. I was also planning to bivvy out each alternate night to enjoy the solitude of these remote mountains.  I had pre-booked a couple of hostels too as an opportunity to get a good sleep in a bed and wake up to the smell of breakfast being prepared for me.  My route was roughly planned and would take me in an anti-clockwise loop around the mountains starting in the Saja valley near Cabazon de la Sal. I knew I would be riding primarily on tarmac roads with a few gravel sections thrown in. Gav and George had mentioned that you hardly see any cars here so some tarmac touring seemed easy on the head to plan in the busy few weeks leading up to the trip.

A Titanium bike in bikepacking setup

Within a few kilometres of heading out, it was apparent that this was going to be a really special place to ride. The rich green lower mountains, the quietness, the vast array of wildflowers, the switchback roads and the lack of people. As the kilometres clicked up so did the scale of the Wildness of the land. The first snowcapped peaks appeared set against the unpolluted blue sky and the heat of the sun started to really intensify too. I have lived in the mountains of Europe before and know that this time of the year carries an infectious buzz as everything springs into life after the depths of winter. There’s an energy within the land and its people that feels genuine. It’s the special treat for the people, flora and fauna that habit these parts before the summer tourists properly roll in to take over. I was fortunate to have six days of Spains finest sunshine to be sat above me to add to some extra healing powers to my mountain retreat.

Mountains and Roads

From the twisting tarmac roads, I could see plenty of 4×4 tracks and gravel paths that will be revisited another time. Its always fun to be in the first few days of exploring a new land, get your bearings, talking to locals and starting to piece together other ways of getting around here on a bike. Within a couple of days, I had the email address of a local Spanish guy who would possibly be up for a return trip to explore some remote trails in the mountains and I had some great scribbles on my map for a local mountain guide. As I carried on into the mountains though I was almost overwhelmed at the scale of what was surrounding me. Stunningly detailed mountains that looked so untouched. Along with the terrain, the heat was really starting to play a part in changing things from a steady bike tour into a ride that needed more careful consideration and respect. My urge to go fully off-road onto those trails faded as the challenge to ride on the road became greater.

A first night under the stars in the mountains above Cavadonga was perfect for getting that solo time in nature and time alone. The night sky was as good as any I have seen for a long time and although sleep didn’t come as easily as expected the stars and the sounds of nature were equally as healing for my tired body. I continued to venture around the west side of the Picos and into some seriously dramatic terrain that bought both joy and challenge. So stunning and so quiet but a combination of 36-degree heat, a lack of water and a brutal detour due to a broken road in a gorge meant a punishing day in the saddle and a real test of myself and my kit. The constant search for water and the inability to properly hydrate was tough. In the end, it became a necessity to flag down cars and ask for water. I had a hostel booked and was really using it as a goal to get to, they had messaged me to say that dinner, wine and a bed was waiting. Of course, I could have slept out again but something drove me to keep doing all I could to fulfil my Plan A. I counted down the kilometres, stopped a lot and rolled in around 9 pm after 4000m of climbing in around 130km, dehydrated, cramping and frazzled by the sun. Pasta, roast pork and wine never tasted so good.

I woke, ate toast, drank coffee, sorted my kit and gingerly sat in the saddle. I felt pretty beaten up from the day before. I was now at the furthest point from my base in the East and was aware that I was in some big terrain, The sun was already burning and I had to get some clarity about the day ahead, find out about any road closures and double check my plan. I was not keen to have a repeat of the previous day. As all of this was happening I became aware that I had not really thought much about all those things from back home that I thought I needed to think about! My pre-trip reason for my annual cycling meditation tour. I had been focused on the roads, the terrain, finding water, finding food and generally getting myself and a fully loaded bike up and over another mountain whilst being distracted by the gradient profile on my Garmin. These huge mountains and the challenge that they dished up were exactly what I needed even though they were giving me a good kick in the backside. I didn’t have time to think about the stuff I thought I would think about, I had had some proper looking after myself to do. This was all good.

As the days rolled on, the heat became easier to manage, my bike ticked along, my body and my mind all seemed to settle together. We had adapted to the landscape and we adapted to the weather, my eyes opened to see things differently. To really take in the landscape and feel the nature and appreciate where I was. I was able to turn off that frickin Garmin and revert to just getting the map out at a junction to see that things were generally heading in the right direction whatever the gradient. It had arrived, that feeling when you just let all the personal barriers down, let go of your expectations, empty your mind of others and connect with yourself and connect with everything around you.  When it feels like this you feel like you can go on riding forever. You are riding just for you and chasing nothing. It becomes that unforced meditation that takes you back home post trip, to your basecamp, to your family, your partner, your work and your life with a different energy and a different pair of eyes. It hurt a bit, I hurt a lot for a while but it made me a much better me. Gracias Los Picos.