London to Barcelona by bike.
The only way to stop the shooting pains in the back of my legs is to kneel down. The dense crowd gives me a chance to hide for a moment. I try to convince my adrenal gland to calm itself; my heart ready to pop from its comfortable cage. A friend, also on his knees, looks horrible. His face is a clammy, grey slate. He smells bitter with anxiety. At least I’m not the only one. In about four minutes, six blood-thirsty bulls will shred through this slippery-strip of cobbles I‘m trapped on. Thousands of thrill seeking fuckwits will try to get out of the way. Some will fail. On a normal day I’d say my chances of survival were ok, but I’ve cycled 800 miles to be here. I’m moving with the grace of Bernard Manning on a ketamine comedown. Today is important for me. It’s the closest I’ve come to shaking my maker’s hand.
In January, as every year, a group of us decide what were going to do for our summer holidays. The idea of another July spent chewing the walls of my mouth in a crowded field wasn’t cutting it. We wanted a challenge. “How about cycling to Barcelona? We could go to Pamplona on the way and do that bull thing”, one of us coughs up. With a void of any other ideas, it was decided.
Six months later, nearly to the day, and I’m in padded spandex. Pedalling my transport off a ferry I look out at a dawning Normandy. I am that much closer to the bulls. I’ve been given the captain’s armband for the day. This is not because the team trust me as a strong and just leader, but because they want a guinea pig; a sentiment openly discussed. Within an hour our cadre was split into three pairs. The middle couple were now going up a newly built motorway, the wrong way. With our phones already sapped, we have the fortune to see them from the bridge they should have been on.
As captain I had do something, so we took chase. Three minutes later we were arrested. The seemingly displeased policemen escorted us to the next available exit. At the roadside we were made to hand over blue and red notes until they said stop. I summoned some pidgin French to explain that this was all in aid of charity and we were stupid Englishmen lost in their wonderful land. It seemed to work. They gave us a lift to make up for time lost and advice on where to eat that night; his brother’s restaurant. They kept the cash. At exactly the same time as this, the third duo were being invited to eat with locals on a nearby farm. Gifted barn eggs were proof. Somehow, we all made it to Le Mans.
"I’ve cycled 800 miles to be here. I’m moving with the grace of Bernard Manning on a ketamine comedown. Today is important for me. It’s the closest I’ve come to shaking my maker’s hand."
The Loire Valley is an abundance of natural resources and postcard fodder. It was like cycling through an advert for Lenor. Moving at 20mph allows you time to notice things like that. The morning view from my tent window would make the Cotswolds shit itself with fear. We tried as much as possible to imbibe some of the local culture. We tried. Under a tight schedule that usually meant eating stuff. I have never seen wheels of Camembert being chased with Cognac and Gauloises cigarettes before. Not whilst riding a bike anyway. The deft multitasking was impressive.
The armband had gone full circle and I was at the helm again. We were somewhere coastal, south of Bordeaux, when I made a decision that affected the next 24 hours. Taking a wrong turn meant a 40km detour through the lush but monotonous pine tree plains. All I had to eat was a cured sausage left over from a previous meal, so I snarfed it down as we rode. At 11pm we were lost so we dined at the only building with a light on. We pleaded with the landlord to sleep in his garden. He obliged. Only I did no sleeping; the sausage was cursed. Instead I spent the night hopping around the small green space looking for places to offload my obsidian slurry. Morning came and it was time to leave, but cramping left me inert. They went ahead a man down, leaving me ailing in a restaurant owner’s garden, in a forest, in France. Tough love. Eventually I caught up in Biarritz.
It was shortly after our one day break in Biarritz – both a posh Brighton and a surfer’s stronghold – that we began to suffer our first injuries. Stopping is a bad idea. We spent whole days entertaining ourselves exchanging descriptions of pain. To boot, the further south we went the more the heat became an issue. As we neared the border an electronic pharmacy sign read 42˚C. One of us looked particularly feeble and said he couldn’t see straight. It was suggested he wear his helmet. Seconds later he was in a ditch, unconscious.
Our first stop over the border was in Basque country, San Sebastian. It was where we watched Spain conquer the Dutch in the World Cup final. Our schedule got us there just in time. A collapsed wheel and an almost immediately successful hitch-hike provided some drama, but the game is what we’ll remember. Being in the country of the winning team is something everyone must try. The one night in history Basques accepted Spanish unification. Our mandatory exercise meant the first sniff of alcohol got us hammered. Supporting Spain was easy.
"One of us looked particularly feeble and said he couldn’t see straight. It was suggested he wear his helmet. Seconds later he was in a ditch, unconscious."
We arrived a day early in Pamplona but some of us weren’t allowed to run. We had the wrong shoes. Safety first; I understood. The next day, properly shod, we took to the runway. At 8am the thunder of a firework rang through the town. Release the bulls. My chest flooded with adrenalin purging any fatigue; the moisture in my mouth evaporated. Most of the crowd surged, but I wanted to see a bull before I ran. Then I’d know what to do. Our group was split immediately. From a standstill I went to a full sprint, hurdling and checking bodies to stay mobile, upright and away from the predators. They passed, I hadn’t been hit. The priority now changed: get to the bullfighting arena before the gates were closed.
The rush was more acute than when I jumped from an aeroplane last year. At least with that there is logic: pull cord, live. With the run it’s nearly all down to chance. And this is precisely why it’s incredible. The t-shirt I wore that day had to be thrown away. It was covered in someone else’s blood. Inimitable, but unrepeatable.
The final four days to Barcelona were the hottest, and therefore, hardest rides yet. Fluids were going down a litre an hour and nothing came out the other end. Now down to three men – our party halved – we, and our bikes, were breaking down. On a particularly difficult day, one of our team described the landscape as massive, yellow and shit. Body and brain were hurting from heat. We were pedalling Neanderthals. Seconds after the comment, he misjudged a hairpin and crashed off a cliff. Spain had feelings too. A well placed thicket saved him from martyrdom.
The finish line, when it came, was Gaudi’s mesmeric Sagrada Família. Getting there earlier by train, the other three had prepared a ceremony. Police tape to crack through and sparkling piss to celebrate. Finishing something like this feels odd; euphoria gives way quicker than expected to a craving for more. Not for bikes or for bulls, but a shared sense of achievement and experience. We did what we said we’d do, and loved every arse-chafing minute.
15 days. 1118 miles. London to Barcelona.
If you’ve read this far then this is worth a look: www.bullsandbikes.com