BIKEPACKING SPAIN

I needed fear to quiet my ego, focus my mind, and expose my true strengths. I needed solitude to reflect on how those strengths shaped my identity. - Jill Homer

I applied for the Lael’s Womens Scholarship in autumn 2016 (bajadivide.com/scholarship) to bikepack Baja California peninsula on my own. It seemed like an exciting opportunity, something that I have never done before, but also didn’t feel scared doing it, rather being very curious about how I would handle it on my own. I was very positive and looking forward to the end of November, the time of the announcement.

Unfortunately I was not the one. I admit, that I got dissapointed, but I was still determined to do it anyways, and if  it was not going to be Baja, then I go somewhere else. So I dug myself in the bikepacking webpages and found an alternative route: Altravesur in Southern Spain. Basically it was ranked as something super hard, but the mountains and the isolation convienced me. And that was it, I wanted to do it no matter what. 

I started this super long, exciting and a bit frustrating process of planning my first solo trip ever. And nothing went as I planned, especially when it came to ordering the bike. Knowing that I had a 2,5 weeks trip to USA beforehand in March, it was pure luck (and of course with the support from my friend Andras, the owner of Mesterbike) the bike arrived at least one day before I took off to the States.

I had training plans to do prior to the trip, to get familiar with the ‘machine’, learn how to handle it, do mechanical repairs on it, deal with tubeless system…etc, but I simply had no time for that. After I came back from the States, I had roughly two weeks left before departing for Spain. I still had all the bike bags to sew, figure out the water carrying solutions and the camping combo, and on top of all this: chaotic days at work. 

I started to get minor anxiety attacks with the date approaching, and nightmares about the things that could go wrong. To sum it up I was unprepared, but very excited and tried to stay positive. I did a test packing and a pathetic test ride in the parking lot. Everything seemed to be working, the bike was comfy, just heavy as shit (approximately 30kg)…but that’s not so bad, right?

Gergo helped me packing the bike into the box, together with everything…leaving only the bare essentials to carry on the plane. There was no way back at this point, only ahead, so I told to myself “Be brave, be strong, woman!" I said my goodbyes, put all the good lucks in my pocket and I was off to Málaga. 

First morning I am all set and ready to start my journey from Málaga. The first 30km on the coast line is rather boring, but soon I take off towards the first National Park of Sierra de Tejeda, Almijara and Almara. A Warmshower bed for the night is waiting for me on the top of the village Alcuncin. The climb to the village is hard, but with a magnificent view. That evening I felt something new, not sure how I should call it, but something between being lonely and freedom. 

I wake up to the sound of rain, "That’s great” I think to myself, but I expected that, rain is forcasted for the upcoming 3 days.  

There are three main things which I was afraid might happen during the trip:

Rain. If it rains, there is mud, and if there is mud, it’s usually a nasty mud. The type of mud that breaks derailleurs. The one which breaks your spirit.

Wild camping. I’ve never really wild camped before (apart from one night on a farmer’s land). I was naturally afraid, that someone would come during the night, try to steal my bike or hurt me. 

Injury. If I got into an accident in the middle of nowhere, hurt myself and there wouldn’t be a person to help me.

So it rains a bit, but then it stops when I come out from the bungalow. I enter the national park road straight away, and it looks like I have it all for myself. Well, for most of the trip, it seems like I am all alone in Spain, the roads are completely empty, the villages are empty, it looks like everyone is having a siesta inside their houses….all day long.

During the day there were few rain drops here and there and I think to myself that’s how Spanish people call rain. Well, if that’s the case, I am gonna be just fine then! 

Next stop is the village called Alhama de Granada, where I hope to find replacement for my broken power bank, that just died on me the night before. First seems like a mission impossible, but I am lucky enough and eventually I leave the village with 2 new power banks. My frame bag is full of unhealthy snacks and I have a blown up stomach, after I ate lunch for 4 people. 

So I hit the road towards my first wild camping in the middle of nowhere, and when I say middle of nowhere, I am not lying. A narrow hiking path leads me towards the direction of the supposably existing camping. The campground looks abandoned, the refugios are trashed, the water is marked as “no potable” and trashbags all around. For a person, who never wild camped before it looks totally dodgy. I set up my tiny little tent (never tested it prior, whether I fit in or not), do some gear adjustments…hmm…only making it worse, and finally cocoon myself into the tent. The tiredness after riding all day, helps with falling asleep, but just until the rain starts to pour. And it pours like there is no tomorrow. Dammit. 

I literally beg the rain to stop, but it does not…let’s just say: it does not want to stop. The tent gets wet on the inside, mainly due to condensation, causing everything -  which is not in a drybag - getting wet. I put myself into rain gear and get going. The road to the village is sketchy and rocky, but at least it is going down. But at one point I get lost a bit and it takes me 3 hours to get to the village which is only 20 km away from the camping spot. I get myself a room, turn up the heater to max and hope for my stuff to dry before the morning. At this point my motivation and my mood is zero. I think for a second that it will rain forever and I should just call it over…but then I clear out my toughts and I try to embrace and appreciate where I am. 

Albunelas is placed in between two canyons, remote as it could get and surronded by endless hills of almond and orange trees, it truly takes my breath away. After a good night sleep, I decide to continue to Granada the next day despite the rain. My bike needs a service and I do not want to risk going into Sierra Nevada with non-functioning brakes and other gear issues. It is approximately 40km to cycle to Granada and I have to catch the bike shop closing at 13h (it was Saturday, with the upcoming 1st of May holiday on Monday).  At 11:30AM I fall through the door of the Granada bike shop totally happy and relieved that I made it. While my bike is getting a fix, I try my first “tostadas con tomate y aceite” and it’s love at first bite. It becomes my daily treat for the rest of the trip. 

Change of plans: with the new disc brake pads and fixed gears I am heading North-East through Gaudix basin towards the National park of Baza. Majestic Sierra Nevada is on my right and I feel a bit of regret, that I have to skip it, but it is an unfortunate situation, and going back south from Granada would take too much time, which I don’t have. I find a room for the evening in the village of Purullenas right before it starts to rain again. I spend my evening in the Hostal bar with old men drinking beer and watching football match. After the time consuming process of morning packing I run into a dutch touring cyclist, who tells me, he is doing 150 km per day, I feel like I should be doing more kms and not only my average 60-70 km per day. I leave the village fully determined that on that day I am gonna make it to the Sierra de Segura. Eveything goes well, I am cruising through the tiny little villages, the vistas (views) are out of this world, the road is a perfect gravel, and I am riding like crazy between endless olive tree plantations. I feel free and I cannot stop smiling! It is almost siesta time, meaning tostada time, and my GPS friend says 10 km until the first village Pozo Alcon. Then suddenly, from one second to another my bike literally stops. I look down and there is big nasty mud all around me. Dammit, I start to panic, and my brain instantly starts to search for different options to save my ass, as fast as possible. 

Options given:

I eat something, and then see what I can come up with.

I cry first and then wait for a car, which might never come

I push the bike until I reach dry road

I carry the bike until I can ride it again

After a few seconds I realize that the first 3 is not an option. I am way too nervous to eat, I would probably grow a beard before a car passes me by, and the pushing wouldn’t work either, because of my tiny mud clearance (should have followed the 2.1 tire recommendation).

I deattach the front dry bag and pour out surplus water, and then start to carry a 25 kg heavy bike for 5 meters and rest for another 5 minutes, and then repeat the same and repeat and repeat, until I reach a small stream where I am able to clean the tires with water and a wooden stick. After that I can continue to push the bike through the bushes and high grass for the next 3 km until I get on a dry road. Feeling relieved, but still have 6 km to go, and it is an extremely steep climb out of the canyon. I manage to “keep my shit together” until I hit the pavement, and that is the moment when I get a small emotional breakdown. A strong wave of emotions is going through me: relief, fear, adrenalin, happiness. Then I just cry all the way to the village. There I meet Tom and Pete, two Aussies, just crossing the village and it seems like someone sent them there for me. Even if only for a quick chat, it feels comforting to share my feelings and frustrations about the trip, but mostly it feels good to talk to someone after days of solitude.

I find my spot for the night in the nearby camping, trying to figure out the route for next day, with help of the receptionist lady, using my “no Spanish” Spanish. I wrote in my diary the night before that the route I would take in the morning depends on how brave I would wake up.

The morning is sunny but chilly, I am at the foothill of Natural Park Sierras de Cazorla, Segura and the Villas (they also call it the Yellowstone of Spain) and I feel good, so I decide to ride on the forest road which consisted of small footpaths, crossing little bridges very steep ascents and everything is going great, until I am again stuck in the mud. The forest is getting denser and I assume the mud to get deeper as well, because it is all under shadow.

So I sit down again to consider my options. My original plan is to reach the first village the very same day, after doing around 60-70 km, but it is already 1:00PM and I only made 20 km, meaning I am progressing slow and I don’t have info on how the terrain ahead looks like. I only have food for 1,5 days and I am not sure about water supplies either… Eventually I decide to return and continue towards the direction of Huescar. Unfortunately my navigation skills fail me again, and I make a 90km detour instead of a short trip of 40 km, and at the end of the day I am not even there where I should be.

Next morning I prepare for a long day of climbing after a short conversation with an old man. I told him where I am headed, and he holds his shaking head in his hands, repeating ‘muy montañoso, muy montañoso’, even with my little Spanish, I can understand that.

My GPS is constatly trying to get me to a private road, but the entrance is fenced, so I ride on the paved road next to it. First, I climb up to Puerto de la Losa on 1800m ASL. and then there is the craziest descent I have ever ridden, all the way down to Santiago de la Espada, just in time to catch the opening hours of the shop. The day continues in the same rhythm, long climbs and technical descents. I head for the camping I spotted on the map, but as it turns out I might be too early for the camp season, and what waits for me is a closed entrance. I head back to the village and again, I am the only tourist in the only Hostal in the village.

The next day I plan to have a short day, riding only 40 km to Riopar, stopping on the way to check out the source of the Rio Mundo and then camp at the nearby camping. I take the whole day slow and easy, make a short hike up to the beautiful waterfall and enjoy a long lunchbreak. But again I arrive in front of the door of a closed camping. Since it’s still quite early in the day, I decide to continue towards Alcaraz, and I am actually really happy to spend a night there, as it is insanely beautiful. Its history dates back to the 13th century, so my evening program was just to wander around the historic streets and eat my tarta de queso. My trip was coming to an end and I had approximately 3 days left to arrive to Valencia.

 

Next day I plan to cross the city of Albacete and find something to sleep in the surroundings. I was lucky to get the information about the bike road going all the way up from Alcaraz to Alabacete, built on what used to be a railroad (Via Verde). I push my paddles on an neverending, straight gravel road through 20 tunnels (some without lights), 2 viaducts, and 1 foot/cycle bridge, until I reach Albacete early afternoon. The landscape changed quickly and suddenly, and now I am surrounded by endless farm fields.

 

I decide to change the direction a bit and head towards the canyon of Jucar river, in hope of finding an accomodation for the night there. The canyon was incredibly narrow, fitting only the small river and a road wide enough for one car. The tiny villages are built into the rocks. I plan to find a room in Jorquera, which seemed like bigger village on the map, and it was just 16km away. After 16km there is still no village, and all seem a bit suspicious to me, but then I just look up and I realize the village is on the top of the canyon.

At the entrance of the village I ran into an old man, he was enjoying the last rays of the sunset and I ask in my modest Spanish, if he knows about some place where I could spend the night. He is very happy to talk to me, but unfortunately I don’t understand him very well, but what I get from our conversation, that this is a very small village and there in no room for me. Anyways, I continue up the canyon and stop at the village bar, to ask the same question. They tell me the same thing (surprise!) and direct me towards Alcala de Jucar, a village only 16 km further down the road, so I could be there in no time.

Unfortunately, I misunderstood the advice (of course!) and the road did not start to go down but up, and I find myself on the other side of the canyon, riding into the wrong direction, but only figuring it out, when I am already too far to turn back. I am drained, my water is running out and the headwind is eating my last bit of energy.

I start to cry like a baby and I promise myself that if I see a car passing by, I would just throw myself in the middle of the road and beg them to take me to that village. Since I cannot pedal even one more spin, I will just lie there and wait for the wild animals to eat my roasted body. 

 But there was no car.

 At one moment I stop, slap my face and tell to myself: “OK lady, at this moment, stop crying, get your shit together, put your jacket on and pedal as hard, as you can to get to that fucking village before it gets dark, ‘cuz you ain’t dying here”. So, that’s what I did.

Next morning I decide to have a day off before my last push to Valencia. My legs are grateful and I spend the day wondering around Alaca de Jucar, the hidden gem of Spanish tourism, and eating all the food possible.

I feel a bit worried about the last section, how I would handle 135km and roughly 2000m of elevation, but I wake up very positive and determined to do it. For a few kms I am accompanied by a group of couple hundred road cyclists, apparently they had a group ride that day. I enjoy the company for an hour or so, and then again I am left alone to finish what I started. From that point on, it just looked like endless rolling hills…until a few hours later, when I am ringing the doorbell of Valencia Hostel, at 4:00PM. I made it! 

I am not aware of it yet, what I have just accomplished. 

But I am here…I am here in the fucking Valencia.