You are in Basque Country

Tapas – Day 6

The world is usually a better place after a bit of sleep. I’d beaten myself up a bit last night but was a bit more objective in the morning. I’d been measuring myself against the best in the world, at their best, when in reality this was my first time riding this way, carrying a huge sleep debt into the ride and with completely untested kit and methods. This whole exercise was to learn all the things that could go wrong before the race so in that respect this ride was a huge success.

“This whole trip was to learn all the things that could go wrong before the race, so in that respect it was a huge success.”

Bilbao was less than 100km away and my flight wasn’t until 19:40. I was more than comfortable for time but I was still keen to get out of this nasty hotel and put some distance between me and the ghosts of the previous night. I raided my pack for a Clif bar, washed it down with the leftover Coke from the night before and was away by 07:00. The skies were grey and the ground was damp from overnight showers. The coastal breeze and the damp air meant it was a cold start but I was in better spirits. With a more rational mind I swapped yesterday’s despair for a chance to review what I’d learned on the ride.


My route took me along the coast for a stretch and I felt cleansed as the sun began to poke through the clouds. The morning sun really is the best tonic. With the Garmin out of action and big question marks over my pre-planned route I’d switched to using Google Maps. The N-643 was a major road that flowed all the way to Bilbao and seemed OK for cycling, so I pretty much followed that. My original route had three meaningful climbs on it but I had no way of knowing what this new route would have.

Coast road

It was a wide road and the traffic, as it did yesterday, hovered behind me waiting for an empty stretch of opposite road before making any pass, despite me being a couple of metres off the road, into the hard shoulder. It made me think of the opposite end of the spectrum and what I imagine will be a lot of close passes on the way to Turkey, with roads that may not even have a shoulder. As I climbed the first hill of the day my knees reminded me that we still had issues. I was in quite a lot of pain and this was a big concern. I knew I could manage today but, compared to the Transcontinental, the climbing I’d done wasn’t that crazy. My race will be 3 times further than this ride and include 4-5 times the elevation. How would I cope with that? Could I cope with that? My immediate focus was on managing my output and minimising the damage I was doing. Having missed out on so much training over the last few months I couldn’t risk a long recovery process after this ride.

A wooden tower with a viewing platform caught my eye. It reminded me of structures I’d seen in Norway and I stopped to climb it, hoping to be rewarded with a spectacular view. On my way up I was met with the message ‘You are in Basque Country’. A simple sentence but enough to jolt me into remembering how lucky I was to be riding my bike in such a beautiful part of the world, regardless of my struggles. It made up for the lack of any view at the top of the platform. What bizarre thought process led to this being built here, I wonder? Barely 100m further and the road grazed the edge of the Atlantic and offered a view back along the coastline. The sun had stopped messing about and put in a proper appearance. I was in Basque Country.

After passing the coastal town Deba I turned inland and began to track along the river Deba. I figured this is where the biggest of those climbs would be, so it was not a great time for the battery in my gears to die. I’m using Di2 electronic gearing for several reasons, which I’ll cover in another post, but the sensor I have to monitor battery life had stopped working the day I left London. When the battery dies you’re left with whatever gear you had selected at the time. I was lucky and had a relatively low gear when it failed, but with my knees in a bad way I couldn’t really afford to be pushing the wrong gear. I’d been struggling to charge the Di2 properly for a few days now, remembering stories from the TCR blogs and Facebook group of how it doesn’t really like being charged from the dynamo. I plugged in my portable battery and, conscious of the loose connection that had, I lined the charging unit up in my frame bag so that I could glance down and check the status light as I was moving.

Slipping seatpostElgoibar was the mid point on this short but lumpy ride to Bilbao.
I’d not really had any breakfast to speak of so jumped off the main road and crossed the river into the pretty town. I meandered through the old town squares and found a bar to charge the Di2 properly and find some real food to fuel me for the last climbs. A brace of pork buns hit the spot a treat and with a satisfied belly I rode on, knowing that would be my last stop before Bilbao. The roads now bored through the mountains and spanned over the valleys and I started to wonder if my new route would spare me the volume of climbing I’d been expecting. Even so, when I noticed my saddle had dropped again I stopped to reset it, just in case. This had been slipping since I left London, regardless of how much I cranked the bolt and I wonder how much this has contributed to my knee injury.

Torq banoffeeSoon enough I passed a sign warning of an 8% climb for the next 2km. This was it. This was my last obstacle and I was pretty sure it was a downhill stretch after that. Time to raid the bag for the emergency rations I’d been carrying. Torq products are a new discovery for me, having stuck with the tried and tested SiS products until now. The banoffee caffeine gel is a lovely thing and that gave me a nice boost as I teased my knees up and over this last climb. What goes up must come down and so the 8% warning sign at the top was a joyous thing to see. I knew my route rolled gently down for the next 40km to my final destination. When I arrived I would still need to find somewhere to get a box and package my bike up for the flight home. There was also tapas that needed eating!

Last hill top

I dropped onto the aerobars and started to ride a bit harder, spurred on by the higher speeds and the thought of being so close to the finish line. Since signing up for the Transcontinental I’ve often been distracted by thoughts of how I’ll feel as I approach Turkey. There was a real sense of accomplishment and a new confidence in how I looked at the race. My body had to be struggling but my mind was buzzing and I felt stronger than I had any right to feel. The power of the mind, huh? Zubero ridersIn the distance I saw a trio of club riders and eventually closed the gap. When I did I could see their kit had Zubero written on it. This was the Bilbao bike shop that a fellow TCR rider, Carlos, had recommended as somewhere to get a bike box. Incidentally, judging by his riding over the past few months he’ll be a very strong contender in the race. The guys put in a quick call to the shop and confirmed there’d be a box there waiting for me, but I’d need to hurry as they close for lunch at 13:30. It was 15km away and I had 30 minutes. No time for messing about then. A grateful thank you and I rode off with a deadline looming.

GuggenheimI was making good time and my mind-over-matter situation was masking the pain in my knees most of the time. As I rolled into Bilbao I checked the time. I was looking safe, but then I considered how the time would pan out. My bike would be broken down and then I’d by weighed down by this enormous cardboard box. I couldn’t come to Bilbao and not see the Guggenheim, so at the lights I quickly checked to see if I could detour past the museum. It would add a couple of minutes but if I pushed harder I could make it. In the end it was a bit underwhelming. It’s a pivotal piece of architecture but I guess having inspired so much work since its inception in 1997 its impact is diminished today. I’m glad to have seen it for myself though. Dashing through the busy town I found Zubero and acquired my box with two minutes to spare.

“I cruised the streets looking for a tapas bar worthy of a 1,400km journey. No pressure!”

I managed not to crash as I held the box under one arm and cruised around the streets looking for a tapas bar worthy of a 1,400km journey. The pressure! I checked reviews on the internet and set the bar high. Most were quite lively and I had no appetite for that right now. They just didn’t feel right. After lapping the town twice I ended up right back on the street where the bike shop was and at a small open-fronted bar with customers on tables in the street but only one at the bar inside. Perfect. I propped the bike and the box up outside and settled in.

Nipped out for tapas

“They’re heavier than you think” he said. “My friend, I’ve just pedalled here from London. I’m hungrier than you think!”

The friendly chap behind the bar showed me the board and offered me three, six or ten pintxos. Haha, ten obviously. As I was choosing my ten the lone customer at the counter chirped up with some polite advice. “They’re heavier than you think” he said. “My friend,” I replied, “I’ve just pedalled here from London. I’m hungrier than you think!” The barman recommended a local white that worked well with the food. To be honest, I didn’t really mind what it was as long as it was cold and refreshing. Fortunately he was right and it really did go down a treat.

As if to prove the point, I polished off the first ten in no time at all, washed down with five glasses of the local plonk. Then chased it with a plate of jamon and another five pintxos. Enough time had passed for Zubero to reopen so I popped back and paid them to box the bike up for me. They asked me to come back in an hour so I clip-clopped off around town in my Lycra and cleated shoes, giving zero fucks.

“The puzzled looks just glanced off me as I tap danced my way to the Guggenheim, not entirely in a straight line after five glasses of Jesus juice.”

Before I left London I absolutely knew I’d be buying some casual clothes when I got to Bilbao, but it’s funny how attitudes change after a day or two on the road. You strip away all the nonsense and the need to conform. It was liberating. The puzzled looks just glanced right off me as I tap danced my way back to the Guggenheim, not entirely in a straight line after five glasses of Jesus juice. There wasn’t really time to take in the exhibits but I grabbed myself a couple of cakes and a big glass of Rioja and put my feet up for 20 minutes. Bliss.

TT Check-in

€15 later and I was lugging my boxed bike towards a taxi and heading to the airport. Check-in was a breeze and I even managed to find a small tub of Ben & Jerry’s on my way to the gate. As I board the plane I’m greeted with a big smile and a native British accent. It’s funny the effect it has on a traveller – I instantly felt closer to home. I asked if there were any seats free with legroom and the attendant cheerily checked for me, possibly taking pity on the weary Power Ranger with the long legs. No wing seats or premium seats but she took a bit more time to find me an empty row at the back of the plane where I could stretch my legs. Thank you Vicki. It’s little moments like that which keep me coming back to British Airways.

Plane window

Goodbye Bilbao. It was a little odd to watch the coastline and the country I’d just spent days riding across whizz by so quickly. Five days of pedalling undone in an hour and 20 minutes. I’d learnt so much and was now able to appreciate the full value of the ride. I was concerned about my knees and just how much damage I’d done to them but in every other way the ride had been a huge success.

[Strava files 1 & 2]
Distance: 95.2km
Climbing: 1,151m
Moving time: 3h 50m
Stopped time: 1h 20m

6 thoughts on “You are in Basque Country

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