FAIL 14: The Quest for Shade on a Cycling Tour from Portugal to Belgium

A reggae legend once told me, ‘the hardest part is the start!’ But let me tell you, Johnny Osbourne never faced the world of long-distance cycling. The start may be tough, but stopping, oh, stopping is a beast of its own. It’s like vertigo, a swirling chaos that leaves you dizzy and disoriented, a sailor back on solid ground after weeks at sea or a diver breaking the surface after a deep plunge. Everything becomes surreal, nothing makes sense, and you yearn for something to hold on to, but there’s nothing, just an immovable void.

For fourteen relentless days, I pushed forward, covering at the very least a hundred kilometers a day, as landscapes, faces, and weather slowly morphed around me. From scorching 43-degree heat to 10-degree cold which by then felt like -10! I rode on. My journey, a long bike ride from my new home in Portugal to my old abode in Belgium, driven by a selfish urge, wrapped in a cloak of nobility.

Cycling 4 Climate, a Dutch organization, became my accomplice in this mad escapade. I sought to unveil the harsh reality of Europe’s summers, where wildfires, droughts, and monstrous storms ravage the land. I had witnessed the fury of it all in Spain, chasing wildfires for a video project. Daily, I faced encroaching droughts and mountains ablaze, a glaring testament to global warming’s undeniable grasp.

I had boasted to the folks at Cycling 4 Climate that I would uncover the grim imagery and tales of this chaos. Yet, my quest proved more challenging than expected. A couple of dried-up riverbeds and one mild heatwave were all that crossed my path. Not as dramatic as I had envisioned, much to my chagrin. But the irony! While I pedaled my way through a pleasant ride, Europe was aflame. Italy, Greece, and countless regions were engulfed in a living hell. Spain’s Salamanca lay submerged, Greek islands evacuated, and wildfires raged unchecked. I, oblivious, moved on.

On the first day, a blistering 43-degree onslaught struck me hard. Dehydration and a missed lunch had me shivering and cramping. I had learned my lesson the hard way – starting at the peak of warmth was pure folly. The body’s alarm bells rang, demanding fluids, salts, sustenance – anything to endure. Yet, this baptism by fire also honed my adaptation and acclimatization, transforming anything below 35 degrees into a refreshing breeze.

My body was ill-prepared, lacking training, but it adapted with each sluggish mile. The first four to five days were a shock to my system, but by the dawn of the fifth, I emerged stronger, fitter. 800 km or so had forged a new me, no longer plagued by sore legs or doubt. I eased into the journey, a carefully crafted sequence – 100 km, 160 km, 80 km, 180 km, 180 km, 120 km – with faux rest days to test my limits.

Riding on a new and unfamiliar bike, the Ritchey Outback, was no cakewalk. But with long rides, the bike’s instinctive fit was fast-tracked. Within three days, the saddle descended a centimeter, the handlebars rose 1.5 cm. And oh, the divine combination of the Brooks B17 leather saddle and Redshift suspension post! After five days I wondered why I would ever need any of my other bikes.

My hands, though, bore the brunt of the ride.

But what did I learn in this ride: the body is a marvel, adapting at lightning speed if given a mere chance. It’s not just the ride that matters; it’s everything around it. A descent into darkness signals the body’s relentless struggle to emerge. Sleep, fuel, and awaken anew! Quality versus quantity, a timeless debate. The hard way, the curvy hilly path, it’s what makes the journey truly rich. Scenic routes stretch into infinity, carrying us farther than the swift, flat and boring straights that usually also have way more traffic.

My mullet SRAM set up and the breathtaking beauty around me rescued me when I faltered. A choice between spinning in heaven or grinding in limbo – a choice I now grasp with conviction.

Some may scoff at my 40-50 gear ratio, deeming it impractical. But let me tell you, I’d rather crawl at a snail’s pace on my bike than trudge alongside it on foot. At 9 km/hr, I ascend with ease, spinning like Dory’s eternal mantra, ‘just keep spinning!’

Ride more, spend less. Money-saving, freedom-inducing, and happiness-filling – camping provided an oasis of simplicity. Electricity, showers, and toilets beckoned for a pittance. Sure, the showers weren’t always warm, but the feeling of liberation overpowered any discomfort. Invest in quality camping gear; it’s a wise financial decision!

Dirtied bibs, sweat-drenched pads – these burdens I shed with utmost priority. Even before cleaning myself, my bibs took precedence. Two bibs ensured a fresh start, ready to replace the soiled one during lunch stops. Fountains, showers, gas station toilets – they all became laundry hubs. Drying them in the wind or my bike’s Tailfin rack became routine, while gravel rides forced me to use the cockpit so they wouldn’t gather all the dust…. Good hygiene kept chafing and saddle sores at bay, but a repair cream, not chamois cream, was my secret weapon. The night heals a lot of noisy disco first in her quiet silent work.

I could still feel some skin issues but if irritation struck one side, saddle straightening proved transformative. Lowering the saddle offered relief from sores. My perfect saddle-post combo alleviated much, though I’m unsure if it can weather a 400km day-to-day ordeal.

Who needs bibs and pads, anyway? Like many have pointed out, they’re the source of the issue. I’ve embraced the liberation of normal underwear for a bit over 60-80 km rides. Then I could jump in bibs, saving them a fair bit but also changing pressure points by doing so, diversity is key! That’s how I aired my privates on faux rest days, riding as much as possible without the bibs. Flat pedals, my steadfast ally! While one side is clipless and most used, the other remains flat, enabling constant repositioning. Knee pains may tease, but swift movements wash away their sting. Diversity is key again! Different positions all around the pressure points.

On day 11, I found no food before reaching camping, I had some leftover pâté from a can and managed to be offered some bread, but the next day would be so grim, while riding 140km flat with a massive tailwind—this was by far the hardest day.

I learnt that lesson then, riding is the main part but the priorities are elsewhere. When arriving to a city later that day I packed nervously as many burgers as I could, I bought enough candies to make a broken Halloween for half the kids of Texas and I checked myself in a hotel real early, then went on the hunt for pasta and veggies. The next and last day of my ride rolled under my wheels while I was sitting watching it all happen, wondering if I couldn’t ride just another week now that it felt so natural and easy.

My main tips in short: no ratio is too lame, eat and store food like it’s the end of the world, have a good sleep pattern and keep it all clean! I promise you a wonderful 2100km tour if you do so! Also do take the via Verde and Santiago ways and all the “ vélo route “ you can find in France, it might add 300km to your trip and some steep inclines but it’s so much easier to take the hard route than the easy one!

I’ll be back for part two going back down south and trying to apply all I learned in this FAIL! (“Fail” because I was three days late on schedule and spent way too much money to make this a clever bike tour). To be continued!