We cycled an average of 122km a day, for 26 of 30 days, covering a total of 3140km through Scotland, England, France and Spain. This was our journey from Glasgow to Gibraltar.
“Ready as we were ever going to be, we said our good byes and hit the road.”
When we set off from a service station just outside Glasgow we had no idea what the month ahead would bring. We had been packing frantically for the past couple of days, checking and re-checking our equipment, pruning out any unessential items and excess weight. Ready as we were ever going to be, we said our good byes and hit the road. I remember feeling nervous at first going over every pebble and small jolt in the road that the bike might somehow break. I had no idea of the beating my bike would withstand over the next 30 days. By lunch-time of the first day, Louis had cycled further than he had ever done before, by the end of the day, so had I. We had made it just south of Carlisle after peddling all day, and so decided to stop and set up for our first night camping in our tiny two-man tent.
The first three days were spent cycling to Manchester, where we would stay with my sister before getting the train to Dover to start our trip properly in Calais. The roads over the Yorkshire Dales were tough and slow. The climbs were steep and long, whilst the downhills were often to winding and too dangerous to build up any proper momentum. The scenery was beautiful; gaps in the clouds allowing sunlight to peak through and illuminate the rolling hills. By the third day we were spent. We were in much need of our rest day, which we spent travelling over to France.
We arrived in Calais late in the evening and cycled along the white cliffs, setting up camp as the sun set in the west. For the first time I thought about the vast expanse of land that lay ahead of us. But that was the extent of the knowledge I had about the journey ahead.
“With time, the days started to blur into one. The idea of Gibraltar was still a distant dream.”
The first few days of France were long, and made longer by some heavy rains. We remained in good spirits, despite waking to the familiar sound of rain on the tent for four or five days in a row. Everything got soaked eventually. After long days, with no time to dry out our wet cycling shoes, our feet became a real concern. The sun broke as we crossed the River Seine on the fifth day. We set up camp early in a farmer’s garden and left out all our gear to dry as we basked in the heat on the banks of the river.
We now headed to the west coast of France and started to head south more directly. With time, the days started to blur into one. The idea of Gibraltar was still a distant dream. The challenges which concerned us were on a much smaller scale: How far to the next bakery? Can we reach a supermarket before lunchtime? Where are we going to camp tonight? Each day was too preoccupied with the next challenge to ever think about the final goal. We got into a real routine as we headed to the south of France, racking up 90-mile days on end. We’d wake around 6am and cycle for an hour before breakfast which we would get from a village bakery each morning. After this, we would normally push hard until lunch-time, often getting 50 or 60 miles done before lunch. This allowed us to have a more relaxed afternoon ride and gave us a bit more flexibility, so we could find a decent spot to camp.
Camping was one of the best aspects of the trip and gave us a great sense of freedom on the road. We would ask farmers and owners permission to camp if we could see anyone, but often we were far from civilisation and would just pitch our tent somewhere that looked nice. Some nights we camped by beaches or lakes which would reflect the sunset. Other nights it would be in a dense forest or surrounded by miles of fields. We had a few hairy moments, like when we ended up camping under a motorway bridge, or when we stayed on a dirt track between an abandoned factory and railway line.
“When you were tired, hungry, lonely and bored it was important to not let yourself get down or feel overwhelmed.”
Through Spain we struggled more with the language, and found it harder to ask for directions, help, or permission to camp. In some ways we felt more isolated there. However, we had become such a sustainable unit as a pair that we needed less help anyway. The biggest trouble in Spain was the heat and the wind.
For the whole first week we battled into a strong headwind. It was demoralising at times, because, no matter how hard we pushed, the relentless wind would always slow your pace and sap your energy. In these times we would take 2km shifts at the head, one of us acting as a windbreak for the other. We would plod along silently, doing this dance for hours some days. The only good thing about the wind was that it would take the heat out of the Spanish air during the hottest parts of the day.
“I enjoyed the feeling of being really fit for the first time in years.”
We did our best to avoid the heat by cycling in pitch darkness for hours at the start of the day, rising earlier and earlier as the trip went on. By midday the heat was totally paralysing and we would siesta under a tree for hours until the sun had dropped and the temperature was low enough for us to peddle on. The days turned into weeks as we descended through Spain and before we knew it we were on the final stages of our journey. In some ways these were some of the most difficult of all. For the first time in the trip I was looking beyond my next meal and the days started to drag a little. The hardest part of the trip wasn’t the stamina or mental determination but actually just keeping positive all the time. When you were tired, hungry, lonely and bored it was important to not let yourself get down or feel overwhelmed.
As the final few days approached we felt mixed emotions. It was sad to know that such an incredible journey was about to come to an end, but we were also looking forward to a hot shower and our first night in a bed in a month. We decided we’d just try and enjoy the last few days as much as we could. We would lap up every hill and the burning thigh pains it would give us. I enjoyed the feeling of being really fit for the first time in years. We relished the nights cooking at a camping stove and sleeping in our trusty tent.
So, after some of the longest days of our whole trip, passing through Europe’s most southerly point, at around 3pm on the 4th of September, we crossed into Gibraltar. I felt amazingly proud to know that we’d come so far powered solely by ourselves.
The flight back took three hours to cover the distance we had sweated over for the last 30 days.