As an experience, cycling Spain End to End on the N630 is missing something. Cars. Rob Ainsley explains…
I thought I knew all about cycling in Spain. I’ve done the road-bike-holiday stuff with friends, in Mallorca, Girona and such. Vuelta-grade views all day, sociable set-menu in the historic square at night.
And I’ve done the city-bike-explorer thing, trundling waterside paths and hidden plazas of Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid etc at coffee-stop pace in happy solitude.
Both are examples of what cycling’s really all about: making friends back home envious with Facebook posts and Strava uploads.
But it turns out I didn’t know Spain. I’ve just done its End to End, and it was a revelación, an epifanía.
(Basic Spanish is easy, and as you can see, you can guess a lot of words. You’ll soon be ordering set menus, talking gear ratios with locals, and pleading with baggage handlers not to trash your STIs.)
There’s no standard Iberian E2E, no ‘Land’s End–John o’Groats’. But my intensive research – haphazard Googling of bike blogs, in other words – revealed something fascinating. The N630 highway runs over 800km from near Cádiz on the south coast up to Gijón on the north coast. But it’s now bypassed by the recently-completed A66 motorway, running parallel all the way. (There’s plenty of space to put it.)
Which means the N630 is virtually untrafficked almost everywhere. It often feels like the world’s biggest cycleway: 500 miles of wide, smooth, well-graded tarmac spanning the country, with more bikes than cars 90% of the time, usually local pelotons replying to your ¡buenos días! with something friendly you never quite decipher.
But you’re never far from a village with coffee, cake and flan: a desserted highway.
And in the rare busy sections – from León up to 1380m and over the spectacular mountain pass to Asturias for example – you have a spacious hard shoulder that’s a good de facto cycle lane, selfie space and bush lavatory. (Drinking water fountains are plentiful, so hydration is easy, but there’s a catch: What goes in…)
You know the M74/A74 north of Lockerbie? The A1(M)/A168 east of Harrogate? Or the M20/A20 round Ashford? Well, nothing like that. Much better.
And, surprise surprise, Spanish motorists proved far more courteous and patient than their UK counterparts, passing wide and slow. Even the trucks. Even some of the taxis. I know plenty of Spanish swear words; I never got to use them.
Slopes are gradual in the south, as imperceptible as climate change. North is where its gets more precipitous, in rainy, green Asturias, where they play bagpipes and drink cider poured from head height.
We clambered 500m up El Cordal, a noted roadies’ back-lanes challenge with astounding views. It’s in the shadow of notorious spirit-breaker Angliru next door, though our ascent was shadow-free thanks to heavy rain. But a great descent, with something dramatic new to see at every turn. Such as piles of gravel in the road, or flood-damage ruts, or metre-wide puddles that turn out to be as deep.
Riding in towns and cities was easy. Spain is investing in decent segregated urban cycleways, with good priority at side roads, plied by shopping locals and by day-riders heading out on their road bikes. Sometimes they’re red, sometimes green.
Which applied to my face occasionally too, after underdoing the sunblock and overdoing the seafood respectively.
(It was Man v Prawn. Man won, but only on points.)
So the discovery for me, the revelatory side of Spain, was that – if you choose your route smartly, and the A66/N630 story isn’t unique – it’s a country ideal for fast, light, long-distance touring, not just the ‘training week’ or the ‘city explorer’: 150km a day? Easy! You finish in time for a siesta.
As my ride partner found to his delight, on his carbon frame that weighs less than his onboard sound system. I was lugging two big panniers full of civvies, but he was surviving out of a saddlebag, happy to do his evening paseo in full lycra and clacking cleats. We never had trouble getting the waiter’s attention, at least.
So, done the UK End-to-End? Up for similar, but with sunnier weather, tastier food, historic towns – Seville, Mérida, Cáceres, Salamanca – and roads mostly as smooth as the chocolate dip for your morning churros? Consider Spain. You have nothing to lose.
Well, maybe your adaptors. I’ve left a trail of them in hotel room sockets along the N630.