Blinking the sweat out of my eyes, I glance up ahead, willing the summit to be in sight. Bad idea. On the hardest day yet, after two hours of uphill cycling (up-mountain, through the Pyrenees, to be exact) the end is nowhere in sight. The enormous vultures circling overhead seem to be gathering in anticipation of an approaching end…
‘Stop! Halt! HAAAAAALT!’ cries Vas from the back, whilst jumping off his bike and plunging into a bush at the side of the path. Looking at each other in confusion, we jump off our bikes and run back towards him in mounting panic. Injury would not bode well at this point in our adventure.
‘Grapes!!’ he cries, emerging triumphant with a succulent clump. ‘Forage SKILLS’ he chuckles with satisfaction (Vas is a half-russian artist/illustrator who enjoys speaking in London slang, of course).
Such is the spontaneous joy of cycling with a bunch of eco-nuts from Bilbao to Barcelona, visiting permaculture projects, eco-communities, abandoned villages and enterprise hubs for alternative businesses and ways of living. When you get the opportunity to visit some of the most interesting and inspiring projects happening in Spain right now, you tend to brush off the side note of ‘oh and you’ve got to cycle through 1000km of the Pyrenees to get there’.
Actually, what was so great about the trip was the very fact that no one was a pro cyclist, by any means. And whilst there was an interesting sliding scale between zooming-ahead-feeling-great and mini panic attack at the sight of another hill, depending on the day, this usually worked out to mean that the panic attackers would have someone fit and healthy fanning them (or feeding them foraged grapes) and the zoom ahead-ers would have the extra ego boost of arriving at the project first to set up dinner and tents before the stragglers arrived.
Brake the Cycle combines ‘physical challenge with community building, healthy living and a coaching program to inspire and empower participants to live in a more holistic and ecologically conscious way’ — GREAT! So I was already expecting to visit some seriously cool places and experience a challenge for my body. What I didn’t expect was to have such a mind-altering and heart-opening experience (and to completely embrace the hippiness…).
There is something visceral about using your own muscles, sinew, bone and willpower to get you to these places and then engage your body and mind in learning alternative ways of life and self-organisation. Things that, when read about or described, seem trite, idealistic, or just plain dry, become KNOWN in a different kind of way. Embodied in your filthy, exhausted, exhilarated reality. Getting a tour of an abandoned medieval village, that used to hide 15th century peaceful rebels from the Catholic state, whilst still tingling from the buzz of an 8 hour cycle through the Spanish sun-kissed planes, makes the wonder of it all cement itself into your bones and send inspiration directly to that little, creative, oft-ignored kernel inside. Couple that with the fact that you are immersed in a group of interested, creative and talented people, camping, learning, cooking, cycling, singing, crying, dancing together and you’ve got an incubator for creative energy and passion.
Interestingly, the physical challenge becomes a barometer for your state of mind. The unusual feature of this trip was the fact that the focus was mostly on absorbing and learning about alternative ways of living from these amazing communities (rather than on the cycling for its own sake), leaving a gaping trap to fall into of viewing the cycling as just a long, sweaty means of transport from location to location. In this state, frustrations were likely to come out, boredom, and competitiveness between cyclists for the quickest time. Focusing on the end result was getting the better of us and defeating the object of this environmentalist/learning/experience based tour. So, one morning, after having our porridge and snacks, packing the tents down, doing some yoga and an opening morning circle, we decided to shift our focus. We decided to ‘smell the roses.’
Now, what began as a fairly self-explanatory idea to stop, have a breather, and smell some flowers throughout the day (mainly as a preventative measure against those vultures getting their way) has become a new filter through which many of us see life. Extraordinary things started to happen once we made the conscious decision to stay anchored and present in every moment throughout the day; to actually SEARCH for ‘roses’ — things to smell, explore, touch, experience. Ironically, we only ended up adding max one hour to every cycling day but the difference in experience was profound.
One day we saw a glimpse of a crystalline blue lake sparkling through the trees. Five minutes later we were crashing through the brush, tossing padded shorts aside, and diving into the cool, clear water. The feeling of the water being whooshed off skin by the wind as we carried on cycling was delicious. Another day, after a pretty gruelling climb through an extremely dry and desert-like part of Navarra, we approached a tiny town, with no water left in our bottles. Parched, tired, and disheartened, we sat in the meagre shade by the side of the road and forlornly looked at the boarded-up windows and padlocked gates. Siesta time in Spain is very inconvenient for water refills. After a few moments of debating, I marched up to a concrete gate and knocked loudly. After steeling myself to what sounded like a grizzly bear barking at me from inside, the gate was opened by an elderly lady. ‘…..Agua por favour?’
Fast forward five minutes and we are splashing around boisterously in her pool (ok, so we just got naked a lot) whilst she prepares us fresh tomatoes and garlic from her garden, bread, olives, jam and paté. Using a combination of broken Basque dialect and charades, we tell her that we are heading to the old and well known community of Lakabe. ‘Ah sí, grande montaña!’ she replies cheerfully, as we resignedly contemplate the fact that we thought we were 10k of flat riding away…She loads our panniers full of fresh figs, apples and onions and sends us on our way, whilst none of us can quite comprehend this level of kindness from a complete stranger.
Countless other incidents happened, from yoga in a mountainous field, to ecstatic dancing in a timber frame yurt on a permaculture farm, to extravagant chocolate-croissanty second breakfasts in hilltop Spanish towns, to starting a ‘bird watch’ club for all the magnificent birds of prey we saw through the plains, to bellowing out Irish folk songs each time we took on a hill, to bathing in natural hot springs, to delirious cuddle-puddles whilst having a lunch break literally ON THE ROAD in front of a bus stop. Worryingly, this seemed like a great choice at the time…
As Oli, a fellow cyclist, gloriously put it — ‘the main thing we’ve come here to do is enjoy the ride.
What’s the rush?’
An incredible sense of community developed as we supported each other in finding ‘roses’ to relish throughout the day, even if it turned out to be a shared but solitary experience. One that particularly stands out in my memory is the day when it rained for 3 hours… At the beginning of the tour, I would have despaired after half an hour of wet socks and cold hands, but at this point in the tour it felt like a blessing. As the light rain made it difficult to chat, we glided along in silence, through resinous pine forests and a growing mist rising from the wet ground, soaring like majestic swans in an eerie flock. Songs, abstract thoughts and feelings flowed in and out of my consciousness as a watery meditation set it, gaining a rhythm and pulse as it went on. It’s moments like these that have transformed my attitude to life away from the tour.
Waiting for a train isn’t necessarily an annoying space of time to be filled with phone faff or reading a paper, it’s a space to marvel at how cool it looks when one number flips to the next on the big clock at Canada Water. Or to turn back and watch the steely, glistening escalators making their pilgrimage up, up into the bright lights of Canary Wharf whilst swaying along to the melody of a busker guitarist.
It’s easy to read about ‘mindfulness’, ‘being present’, ‘embodiment’ or other related jargon, and understand them as just that. Words to read. Something you SHOULD be doing. Sometimes I’d find myself getting my phone out whilst on a walk to read a bit more about ‘holistic living’…er, what?!
My adventure with Brake the Cycle taught me the value of combining physical challenge with expanding one’s mind to what is possible in the world if you look at it in a different way. On the trip, we found that each supports and nourishes the other, giving the physical side a bigger purpose and the learning side of things a sense of grounding. A unique experience, and one that I feel many people would benefit from.
Oh, and we did eventually reach the top of that epic mountain on the hardest day. And when we did, after victorious hugs, high fives, and snack attacks, the breathtaking view from the top was a thousand times worth it.
By Eleanor O’Grady
Join us on our next coast to coast adventure between Barcelona and Bilbao here.