Saturday 11 September 2010


I woke up at half past eight - fairly early considering the long day and late night yesterday. I sorted my luggage out and then went to San Gines for breakfast. The churros con chocolate was delicious!

The world famous Chocolatería San Gines

What a breakfast! Churros con chocolate and a coffee!

That tasted lush!

I spent the rest of the morning being a guiri, visiting all of the tourist shops. I bought myself a Real Madrid t-shirt, a DVD and some coasters. I then went back to the hotel to pick up my backpack and check out, and then took the metro to the airport. Once there. I made my way to left luggage to retrieve my bike box, and then checked it all in.

I had got to the airport early so had loads of time to spare. The gate changed twice, which was a pain, and there was the usual scrum at the gate. The flight wasn't full, and I managed to get a seat by the emergency exit with more leg room. Unfortunately, I was sat next to an idiot with a crap pair of headphones and a drum app on his iPhone, who sat there tapping away for most of the flight. Thankfully my mp3 player was fully charged, so I put my music on and managed to ignore him.

Mum had very kindly offered to meet me from the airport, which I really appreciated as it would have been really difficult getting my gear on and off the tube with the Saturday night crowds. We'd been worried about whether the bike box would fit into the car, but it fit with a little room to spare, and we made it home at about half past eight.

Friday 10 September 2010

Stage 7 - Madrid

I was up fairly early, but was delayed by having to get the landlady out of bed. I'd have left the money out but she had my passport. I knew that today's stage would be a fairly ong one, but I didn't know quite how long as I'd had to make up the route myself again using Google Maps, given that the road used in the book has since been converted to a motorway.

I was on the road for 9 o'clock, and had intended to stop at a cafe on the road out of Cercadilla, but there wa only one cafe open with no food, and with only a single customer drinking what looked like sherry! I would have to stop at the next village.

There was a lovely fast descent out of Cercadilla, along a new road and with next to no traffic. There were a few bends so I wasn't likely to beat my new record of 45mph, but I was able to build up some good speed by using the full width of the road given that there were very few cars about. I stopped off at the next village for breakfast - a coffee and a cake.

I carried on my way, making good time. Using the road signs, I reckoned I should comfortably make it to the Madrid office for 2 o'clock, in time for a late lunch. I took the bypass around El Escorial. It was a shame that I didn't have the time to stop a it looked like a lovely old town. I'll just have to come back another time!

There was a fantastic descent from El Escorial, again along a new road, but this time there was lots of traffic running both ways, with lots of bends in the road, and I was conscious that the drivers behind me couldn't wait to overtake me so I had to be careful. Fortunately I was only overtaken where it was safe to do so, and I was soon at the bottom of the descent. I could now see the Cuatro Torres and the leaning towers of the Caja Madrid buildings in the distance, so it felt like I was coming into the home straight.

I continued with my route with no problems, until I reached Majadahonda... maybe the road layouts had changed since the Google Maps and Street View images were updated - there were certainly roadworks going on - or perhaps I'd not written the instructions down correctly. Whatever, I missed a turning and got lost for the first time on the tour. The 1:200,000 map wasn't much use at all, and the Google Maps on my phone wasn't great as it wa so bright that I couldn't see the screen very well, even in the shade, so I decided to follow the white road signs (as opposed to the blue motorway ones). However, these led me to motorways twice, so they clearly hadn't changd the road signs when upgrading the roads.

It was clear that I wouldn't make it to the Madrid office for 2 o'clock, so I sent an e-mail to the office to tell them I'd be running late, and they kindly said that they'd wait for me. I then headed up a promising looking road, the M-503 (M for Madrid, not Motorway!). This road was very busy and went through the inevitable roadworks. I pulled off at the next junction to get by bearings and also buy some water.

I was also running low on cash, and the only nearby ATM was out of order. Fortunately I had enough cash to buy some water, and a tortilla and small cana in a bar. As I was inside, I was able to use my phone, and it was Google Maps and GPS to the rescue again. I e-mailed the office again with a new ETA, and headed off along the same road, onto the M-502, and dropped off into Casa de Campo, through Plaza de Espana, along the Gran Vía to Cibeles, before cycling up La Castellana to the Torre Picasso, where our Madrid office is based.

My colleagues were waiting for me under the shade of a big parasol outside one of the terraza bars. They bought me a large beer and some tapas (croquetas de jamón and jamón tostadas) which were gratefully received. We took some photos - the first of the day - and spent a while catching up on things. I was conscious that the standard of my Spanish has lapsed somewhat - I haven't spent much time learning or practicing Spanish recently because I've been so busy in and out of work, so I will definitely have to concentrate more. All too soon, my colleagues had to go back to work, and I had to get to Barajas to box my bike up, so we said our goodbyes and I set off for the airport.

Outside the Torre Picasso

The traffic was mental, but as at home, you're OK if you assert yourself. I did a left at the Nuevos Ministerios, following the road round to Calle de Alcalá, careful to avoid the underpass and then the overpass. I passed the Plaza de Toros de las Ventas and before I knew it I was pulling up outside the left luggage office at Barajas.

It seemed like a lot longer than a week since I was there last. I retrieved my bike box, and it was in a lot worse a state than I remembered, so I spend a good half hour taping it back together as best I could, thankful that I'd had the foresight to buy another roll of tape the day before. I dismantled my bike, and noticed that one of bolts holding the rear mech in place had come away, which could explain why the gears had been jumping about a bit (I'd put this down to the chain having two quick links). I was fortunate that the other bolt had held out, otherwise I'd have been in big trouble. Once my bike was boxed up, I checked it back into left luggage and took the metro back to Gran Vía. I was really looking to checking into the premium room at the hotel (especially is it was free!) and I wasn't disappointed. The room was a good size, with a big bed and a balcony. I had a quick shower and changed, then went out to 'ir de tapas' for one last time along the Gran Vía, and via fnac, Puerta del Sol, with its unmistakeable Tio Pepe sign, and the Plaza Mayor.

Gran Vía (Obviously!)

At Puerta del Sol

I found a nice run of tapas bars on Calle Cava Baja, and started off with pata negra de bellota in Toma Jamón, with its distinctive beer pumps in the shape of jamón, before moving to another for chorizo al vino, and then more food in another.

I love the road name signs in Madrid

Jamón beer pumps in Toma Jamón

I then went over to Plaza de Santa Ana, which was heaving. There were no free tables outside, so I sat inside one of the bars and spent a while chatting to a German guy in Spanish, which was rather amusing. By now it was after midnight, and it had been a hectic day. I'd cycled just under 70 miles and was feeling very tired, so I headed back to the hotel, taking a few photos along the way.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Stage 6 - Cercadilla

I woke up at about 8 o'clock and decided to have breakfast in the bar downstairs. Five churros and a black coffee for 2.50€, excellent value. The bar was busy, and noisy.

I hadn't shaved for nearly a week, and I was starting to get paranoid about being left with a white (ie untanned) beard, so I went for a walk to buy a pack of razors and some gel, and I was relieved that I didn't have a white beard once I'd had a shave.

I packed up my stuff, checked out, loaded up my bike and set off. I wasn't looking forward to today's stage at all, as I'd be climbing for about 20 miles, before descending for another eight. My left knee had begun playing up, as it sometimes does, so I strapped it up with the neoprene support I'd brought with me, and that seemed to do the trick. I quite often get a sore knee when cycling, so I'd done well to get this far without it bothering me.

I stopped off at a hardware shop near the hotel to buy some brown parcel tape, as I'll need to do some serious patching on my bike on Saturday. Luckily they had a roll, so I wouldn't have to worry about buying it in Cercadilla or Madrid.

By the time I'd finished sodding about, and actually made it out of Segovia, it was 11:30. On my way out, there was a cycle path following the main road. I distinctly got the impression that this road had also been upgraded since the book had been written. In the book, there were two options for today's climb: stay on the main road and go over the Puerto de Navacerrada (1,860m); or cycle through a pine forest and up a track to the Puerto de la Fuenfría (1,797m). It was my intention to cycle up the latter, given my experiences on the roads so far. Whilst I was pedalling along the path, another cyclist pulled up alongside me and we had a chat. He told me in no uncertain terms not to go over on the main road, as the road was too dangerous. He even stopped to look at my map so he could be sure I was going the right way.

The Sierra de Guadarrama from a distance

My handlebars had begun squeaking over the last day or so, and it was getting progressively worse, driving me nuts. I stopped when I could stand it no more to remove the bars and lube the bracket, which did the trick and the squeaking thankfully stopped.

Lunch was a nice big slice of tortilla and a small caña at a roadside cafe. Up until then it had been nearly all uphill, but only a gradual climb. Now the climbing began in earnest, just a couple of miles on from the lunch stop. I pulled off the main road, through a small pueblo, and then onto the road that would take me through the forest and over the Puerto de la Fuenfría. There was a locked barrier across the road, which was great as that meant no traffic. According to the signs it was forestry commission land, so there would probably be the odd vehicle, but nothing that should bother me.

The start of the climb

Loving it!

After a steep initial climb, it did level off a bit, and it was great cycling along in the middle of a huge forest, the silence only broken by the hum from my tyres. As I climbed higher, there were more and more insects hovering around me. For some reason I always attract insects when I go away, and I invariably end up with loads of bites, so I'd prepared for this and brought some citronella spray along with me, and it worked a treat!

The road had become a track which was metalled, but was broken in places, whilst other stretches had been recently resurfaced. There were a few forks which weren't described in the book, and I really didn't fancy getting lost in such a huge forest, so I made use of the 'my location' Google Maps feature on my GPS-enabled phone to help me turn off the path where I was supposed to. Things then became quite tricky, as the surface over last three miles up to the top was loose rocks, and it was a right bugger to steer with all the weight on my bike. I was really glad I was wearing my knobbly tyres, as the surface would have cut my slicks to ribbons. Up until now, I hadn't met anybody else all the way through the forest, but then I met a guy coming the other way and we stopped for a chat. I was so chuffed when he told me that there was only 2km to go! There was one 100 yard stretch where I had to get off and push, because the surface was so bad that it was impossible for me to gain any forward momentum. My bike is so heavy with all the gear on, it weighs a ton, and had a mind of its own on the rough surface, making it hard work to push.

Inside the final 2km

Before too long, I was at the top, and it felt fantastic. By now, my leg muscles were the tightest they've been all week, but it didn't stop me and I could probably have continued climbing all day. I'm definitely not the fastest nor the fittest of cyclists, but I've proven that I can do some serious climbing, and it feels so good. I got off at the to have a bit of a rest, enjoy the scenery and take some photos.

At the top

View from the top

I had to take the descent slowly at first, as there were lots of sharp bends, and the surface was loose gravel. The scenery was fantastic, so I stopped quite a few time to take photos. Eventually the gravel covering the road gave way to tarmac and, with no traffic, I was able to build up some speed. I tucked myself in to make myself as aerodynamic as possible, and I reached 45 mph, smashing my previous record of 39.5 mph. Not bad with a fully loaded bike.

On the road down

Panorama on the way down

Loving it even more!

Fantastic scenery

Posing again!

I was soon in Cercadilla, and I found the hostal and checked in. I left my bike in the restaurant, which was closed today, and went up to my room. I was given a really big room with, a last, a proper sized bath. I ignored the notices about saving water and filled the bath right up and had a nice long soak.

Afterwards, I went for a walk to get some bananas and something for breakfast tomorrow, as I would be leaving early so I could get to the Madrid office on time. There was one shop near the station which sold water, so I got a few bottles in. As the restaurant in the hostal was closed, I went to a bar across the road for dinner. It was very quiet in there, just me and a guy with a young daughter in there. I went for the chuletas de cordero and a beer, but as soon as had I finished eating, the owner made it very clear that he wasn't going to stay open. As this was the only place in town, I bought a bottle of the red stuff, and went back to my room to spend the rest of the evening watching TV. That might not sound great, but as Cav had won today's stage of the Vuelta, they kept on showing the final sprint, and post-ride interviews on the news. I also watched The Simpsons in Spanish... part two of Who Killed Mr Burns.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Stage 5 - Segovia

I didn't get much sleep. It was one of those nights where it was very muggy, and there was no air conditioning. I woke up at about 3 o'clock, and had trouble getting back to sleep. I must have nodded off at some point though, as I woke with a start when the alarm went off at 7:45.

I went for breakfast at the bar downstairs: freshly squeezed orange juice, toast and coffee. The toast was done on the griddle with butter, so was a bit like a fried slice, and was delicious with strawberry jam. Whilst I was sat there at the bar, the locals were coming in for a quick coffee and a chat, and disappearing as soon as they'd drunk their coffee. It was all very civilised, with everyone saying "Hola, buenos días" when someone walked in.

I'd left my bike round the back of the hotel, on a private terrace, and it was just as I'd left it. I've been getting a bit blasé and not bothering to put the lock on. I checked out of the hotel and went to take some more photos from around the city wall.

The city walls.

Me with grey stubble - I'm getting old!

View over the town.

Just about to set off.

Once I was done, I made my way through the city to get onto the Segovia road. I love stopping to ask the way. I haven't a clue what they say most of the time, and just concentrate on the hand signals and listen for they key words for left, right and straight on.

Once out of Ávila, the roads changed for the better. The road to El Esquinar was by far the best I've been on so far, very much a country lane, with next to no traffic, wonderful scenery, and going through what seemed like the middle of nowhere. And Carmen was right... my legs and back felt good after my massage the day before, so I did love her today!

A lovely old milestone - 18 leagues to Madrid and four to Ávila.

I passed a newish looking cycle path which went away from the road I was on but, according to the sign, joined it further on. I thought 'sod it!' and went along the cycle path. It was fab until I came to a steep hill which was so steep I couldn't cycle up it without my front wheel coming up off the ground, so I had no choice but to get off and push. The only thing was that there were some bulls or cows (I didn't hang about to check!) either side of the path, with no fences. They fortunately didn't show much more than a passing interest, and I was just glad I wasn't wearing my red cycling jersey!

Not sure if the bulls should beware of the cyclists...

...or the cyclists should beware of the bulls!

I carried on along the path and rejoined the main road further on. I then passed three cyclists going the other way, bikes loaded with panniers and camping gear. I've seen lots of cyclists so far on this ride, but these were the first tourers I'd encountered. We stopped and had a brief chat. They were Spanish, and on a ten day ride to Lisbon and back. They're going to have their work cut out!

I pedalled my way on to El Esquinar, where I'd planned to stop for lunch, pausing every now and then to stop and admire the view. I was disappointed to see that there were so many wind turbines along the way - a real blot on the landscape. Without going into a rant, I just hate wind turbines because they're not at all efficient or reliable, and they are such an eyesore.

I do hate wind turbines!

That way!

Lovely cycling country... no cars.

I took the El Esquinar turning off the main road and followed the signs towards the town centre, but it seemed like a ghost town, just lots of houses with nobody about. I then spotted a lady carrying some shopping bags, so I stopped and asked her if there were any bars or cafes nearby. She gave me a look that said "You berk!" and pointed "¡Por allá!", "Over there!".

I turned the corner and went to the end of the road, and I was in the main square. It was really busy, and seemed like the whole town was there. The local school had obviously just tipped out as there were loads of kids running around. I was amazed to see a "taberna irlandesa". A bloody Irish bar in such a small town in rural Spain! I went to another bar and asked for some tortilla and a small caña. I couldn't get what the barman was saying to me, so one of the guys in the bar tried to translate by repeating what the barman had said, but very loudly, which made me laugh and he got a bit narked, thinking I was taking the pee out of him. It turned out that the barman was asking whether I wanted a pincho or a porción, as he gave me a pincho - a mouthful on a cocktail stick, so I ordered a porción as well.

It was great to walk around the square when I'd finished in the bar. It wasn't as busy as it had been earlier, but there was a group of kids with quite a big age range having a kick about, and small groups of people sitting in the shade chatting away. All very relaxed. I bought some bananas and water and made my way out of El Espinar.

An Irish pub, in rural Spain... please!

Kids playing footie in the main square, jumpers for goalposts style.

The local town hall. Four flags, four taxes!

After the best morning's cycling, the afternoon went a bit pear-shaped. I ended up on another busy main road, on a steep climb, with bugger all room, and just like yesterday I got tooted up by the odd car. I did about 15 miles on the main road, with two really nasty climbs, before pulling off back onto the country lanes across a level crossing, and through a lovely old pueblo called Riofrio. There was then a really short, sharp descent with loads of hairpins, and ruts in the road where the underside of cars had come into contact with the tarmac. This was swiftly followed by the nasty climb which the book had warned about, and I just about made it in my granny gear.

Spanish train

Before long, I was cycling into Segovia. There were bugger all signs, but I managed to find the aqueduct, which looked amazing. I then tried to find my way to the cathedral and the Plaza Mayor, as this is where the hostal was. I went around the houses a bit, but found it after asking a couple of locals for directions. The hostal looked very nice, a lovely old building with lots of marble and dark wood panelling. I unloaded my bike, and then carried it up to the first floor where there was a private terrace with a locked door, so no need to lock it up again.

I was given a double room but, like every hostal so far, it had a tiny bath, when I really fancied a good long soak in the bath. I showered and washed my kit then headed off out. There was a tourist information place on the Plaza Mayor so I picked up a map and then went for a wander past the cathedral and over to the Alcázar, the big castle. I don't do organised religion, but I do like seeing old churches and cathedrals from the outside, and the Segovia catherdral is a pretty spectacular building. The Alcázar was a short walk from the cathedral and again is a wonderful building. It was getting a bit late so I decided not to go inside as I'd rather get to see the rest of the town, in particular the aqueduct, before it got dark.

Bath for small people only :o(

Segovia cathederal.

A proper Fiat Cinquecento.

Outside the Alcázar.

Segovia Cathedral from the Alcázar.

The aqueduct was a 15 minute walk away, and it really is awesome (and free too!). The Romans were way ahead of their time, and had the knack of making a functional construction so aesthetically pleasing. I got up close and climbed the staircase to one side and viewed it from the top, taking loads of photos all the while.

Handsome bloke.

At the aqueduct.

An amazing feat of engineering.

"What have the Romans ever done for us?"

View over the city from the Aqueduct.


Segovia Cathedral by night.

Mmmmmm me encanta yendo de tapas!

Once I was done at the aqueduct, I went to 'ir de tapas', and had a great time going round the different tapas bars, having tortilla in one, chorizo al vino in another, pollo al ajillo somewhere else... all my favourites, washed down with beer to start, and rioja later on. All in all, a great evening!

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Stage 4 - Ávila

I got up at about 8 o'clock and left by 9 o'clock, By now I have developed a bit of a routine in the morning, getting ready then packing all my kit away.

I knew from the guide that there would be loads of uphill at the start of the ride, and I wasn't disappointed. I was very saddle sore from yesterday, and the skin was red raw, so I put a plaster over it which, it turned out, made it even worse.

I climbed out of Burgohondo and through a small village. The road I was supposed to go on was a single lane road over a mountain, but this was closed to all traffic for roadworks. With all the roadworks going on in Spain, I was bound to have this problem sooner or later. I was tempted to chance it, in the hope that I could do some offroading if required, but if the roadworks were at the top then there would be nothing but the road or a sheer drop, so I instead checked my map to make sure the diversion didn't take me onto a motorway.

After 15 minutes I came to the road which would take me over the top. It wasn't quite a motorway, but it was very fast and very steep, and the cycle lane was rather narrow in places. There was no tree cover, and it was extremely windy. Cycling along this road was really scary, probably the worst day's cycling I've ever experienced. I nearly lost control of my bike a couple of times, and I was really worried about coming off.

I stopped at the top - Puerto de la Paramera - and had a break, then I continued on my way down. Again, the wind was a big problem, and I had to brake all the way down to keep my speed to 15mph; any more and I was getting blown into the path of oncoming traffic. And my saddle sore was killing me.

I made it into Ávila for about 1 o'clock. I could recall the way to the hostal from memory, as it had been tricky working it out on Google Maps. I checked in, andparked my bike out in a courtyard at the back of the hostal. Once in my room, I squeezed myself into the tiny bath to soak the angry red skin where the plaster had been rubbing, before washing my kit and hanging it up to dry.

A few weeks before my trip, I had decided to have a massage either in Ávila or Segovia, and I'd found a really promising massage clinic in Ávila called Fisioterapia Armonía and I'd made a 5 o'clock appointment with Carmen. The clinic was situated outside the main city centre so I took a cab. There were no cabs passing on the street so I had to book one by phone in Spanish. Fortunately the lady in the cab office and I understood each other without having to repeat ourselves too many times, and I got there with 15 minutes to spare. Carmen's English was way better than my Spanish, and we conversed in 'Spanglish'. After all the cycling I had been doing, my muscles were really tight, and Carmen was quite brutal with me, but I really needed it. Afterwards she told me "Today you'll hate me, but tomorrow you'll love me!" She was right about the first bit and I hope she's also right about the second bit.

After my massage I popped into a nearby pharmacy and bought some painkilling cream for my saddle sore, then ordered a cab to take me to the aptly named 'Bicicletas Miguel' bike shop, which was located a short walk outside the main City walls. It was such a relief to get a new chain, as I'd become paranoid about my chain breaking again, which would have been a big, big problem without any spare quick links. Unfortunately, they didn't have any shorts in my size, but since I'd cut all the loose stitching back it hadn't started to unravel again, so I could be OK.

I took a walk back to the hostal, and stopped at a supermarket for some water and bananas (I'm really getting bored with bananas now, but there's not much else in the way of energy foods). I also treated myself to a litre bottle of Mahou beer. On leaving the supermarket I walked past a charcutería with lots of cooked meats in the window. Temptation got the better of me and I went in and asked for 100g of the best jamón ibérico. The guy sliced some off and put it on the scales, and weighed a bit over. I tried to say that in Spanish and he thought I wanted some more, slicing off another 50g before I could stop him. Shit happens!

I got back to the hostal without making any more random purchases, and was planning a proper tapas evening where you have a beer and a tapa in a bar and then move onto another bar. I started off in my room, making short work of the jamón, which was delicious, and the beer.

I wanted to go up onto the city wall. I knew that it shut at 8 o'clock and it was now nearly 7:30, so I went over to the gate and the lady told me that I wouldn't have time to walk the length of the wall and that I'd have to come back tomorrow. I managed to persuade her to let me in, promising that I'd be down by 8 o'clock, and went up to the top. The brickwork was in excellent condition - almost too good, and Trigger's broom sprung to mind. The weather had become very overcast by now, and it was trying to rain. The view though was great, and I could make out the mountain I had climbed and the road I had descended on into Ávila a few hours earlier. After enjoying the view, and taking some photos, I went back down and headed off in search for some tapas bars.

I went outside of the city walls and followed the flow of people who looked like they were going out for the night. I found an old tapas bar 'Bar Crisol' and parked myself down at the end of the bar, ordering a beer and some chorizo al vino. The owner was clearly a bullfighting nut and had loads of memorabilia hung up on the walls, along with loads of 'look at me' photos of him with different bullfighters. I wasn't fussed by the chorizo, but the beer was good so I had another.

I stayed in there for a while, reading the local paper and listening to the conversation of a group of workmen stood near me. I didn't have a clue what they were talking about, and I find it so frustrating. I guess I just need to practice more and watch more Spanish TV on the web.

Then I remembered that Spain were playing Argentina at football that evening. From what I'd been able to make out on TV, this was some kind of challenge/grudge match and it wouldn't be the sort of friendly where the reserves play. The Spanish first team squad had flown out to Argentina and players like Xavi and Casillas seemed like they were up for it. So was I! I enjoyed watching both teams play in the World Cup, so my 'ir de tapas' would have to wait until Segovia or Madrid. There was no football on the TV in the bar so I went in search of a bar that was showing it. I found one nearby bar that did have the footie on, but nobody seemed to be watching and it was a bit of a crappy bar, so I left without buying a drink and decided to find an old traditional bar in the old town. I soon found a bar that was showing the footie. There weren't many people in there, but it meant that I could get a stool by a table, and the game was just about to kick off, so I ordered some tortilla and a a glass of red.

Things went pear shaped for Spain quite quickly. Messi scored after 10 minutes and Higuaín got a second a few minutes later. The game was pretty much over when Tévez scored a third just before half time. The game had become a dull affair, so I left the bar about 15 minutes before the end. It turned out that I missed a couple of goals as the final score was 4-1 to Argentina. I walked back in the general direction of the hostal, not knowing exactly where I was, and I'm glad I did as I found the Plaza Mayor by accident. I stopped and took some photos, then made my way back to the hotel.