On my Camino I can go anywhere - by Emma Pooley

By Alice Peyredieu

In March 2020, when the true threat of the new corona virus became apparent across Europe, I was on holiday in Spain. Specifically, I was trying to ride my gravel bike as far along the Altravesur route as I could in 10 days. I was a bit wary of setting off, looking at the situation in northern Italy… but it seemed so unlikely that any other European country would let it get out of hand like that. Anyway, Spain only had a handful of Corona cases and they were mostly clustered in Barcelona. And after a stressful period at work, I was really longing for some sunshine and day after day of riding my bike. I joked that if the flight back was cancelled, I’d ride home instead.

Thus it was that after 4 days cycling from village to village through Andalucia, friendly welcomes from hotel and hostel owners, and no sign of facemasks or hand gel or any other precautions… I was caught unawares. Suddenly, in the space of 24 hours, everything changed. The government announced a lockdown in Andalucia. The hotel I was headed to that evening called me to say they couldn’t accept guests. Restaurants were closed. Far from having an excuse to ride across Europe, it became clear I had to find my way onto a flight ASAP or risk being locked in a hotel room for weeks (or as it transpired in Spain: months!). So the next day, a panicked 160km ride back to Malaga airport - braving hostile stares and even shouted abuse from people angry at what looked like casual tourism amidst a pandemic. The airport was ghostlike, the flight delayed, and I got home to my village near Zürich at about 3am - via Basel, a bus, a train, and finally a car-share.

I have to admit: I was annoyed. Annoyed at myself for taking the risk of travelling at a time of uncertainty. Annoyed at the waste of all that packing and travel for just 5 days’ cycling (I try to minimise flying; I think it’s only justifiable for longer trips). Annoyed at the virus for ruining my holiday. And annoyed at myself for being annoyed - because it was becoming increasingly clear that Covid-19 was going to cost many thousands of lives and millions of livelihoods, and having a holiday cut short is utterly trivial.

But there’s no point moping at home, especially if home is just an hour’s ride away from the mountains! Together with a buddy, Liesbeth, who was also on holiday, I came up with an alternative plan: we would bike-pack from the front door instead! We were lucky that in Switzerland there was never a full lockdown: we were always allowed out to do sport, as long as we kept 2m away from others and didn’t ride or run in groups.

Of course there were restrictions because of Corona: we needed to stay local and minimise contact with other people - so no hostels or hotels or restaurants, and minimum resupplying. We also needed to stay low, because of snow. That sounded boring at first, but it turned out to be anything but! The thing I love about my gravel bike is that I’m finding so many quiet and beautiful tracks and paths close to home: new to me despite living in the area for 15 years. It’s a little like mountain running in being immersed in nature and quietness, far away from traffic - but I can go so much further than on foot! And I really feel that on my Camino I can go anywhere: it’s great on the road as well as on rough stuff, and when the going gets technical, it’s my skills that are the limiting factor - not the bike.

I planned what I thought was a relatively easy first day, but it soon became apparent that the going was a lot slower than I realised when weighed down with all the gear to bivouac above the snow line, plus cooking equipment and food. Plus a bottle of red wine because, well, it was a holiday! We rode separately (Corona precaution) and only ended up in sight of each other for the last 10km or so. At the last fountain before our bivouac spot I filled up a 3L water bladder and we started the final push - it was literally a push. The last climb was outrageously steep, and for the first time that day we encountered real snow. At some point I lost control and my bike fell on me: I was stuck there in the snow trapped beneath it, unable to escape from the weight of all the gear. Liesbeth laughed at me, and I laughed at myself, and it was worth it despite getting soaked through - because we had wine with our campfire dinner, and the view of the snowy mountains was amazing. I slightly melted my bike shoes by trying to dry them next to the fire, but they still fit and I think the novel drippy-plastic finish is rather cool.

The next day, stinking of sweat but also of woodsmoke, we set off for a longer ride. The first pass involved hiking up through knee-deep snow for 4km, half-carrying and half-pushing the bikes. Any hope I had of riding down the other side was dashed; it was just too steep and the snow too deep. I discovered that not all snow is alike for hike-a-biking: soft snow is tiring, because it’s slippery and drags on feet and wheels. But tougher still is snow that has an icy crust on top, from melting and re-freezing: all the same disadvantages of being slippery and draggy PLUS the added pain of the sharp icy crust scraping your shins at every step! Some swear words were uttered on the descent. I’m surprised that Liesbeth is still my friend after that route planning - but she had the smart idea of rolling her knee warmers down to act as shin guards. After a few tough hours we made it back onto dry gravel on the other side of the pass. We sat in the sun to assess our bleeding shins, soaked and frozen feet, and the fact we had only covered 15km in half a day. And we laughed, put on dry socks, and carried on (with a shortcut).

That two-day bike-packing trip felt as refreshing and relaxing as a week-long holiday. I laughed so hard that my stomach hurt, which was good as it evened out the soreness from hike-a-bike, lift-a-bike, and crusty snow. It was the first of quite a few bike-packing trips within 50km of home this year, and the start of rediscovering the joy of local adventures. After years of planning my racing, training and travel months or even years in advance, it’s been liberating to be more spontaneous. The off-road cycling adventures don’t feel like training, because I never think about heart rate or power or even distance - just about getting over the next climb (often weighed down by camping gear, food, and wine!) and getting to the camping spot before dark. I’ve enjoyed riding my bike this year more than I can remember.

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