After Barcelona, I went back north to visit Figures. I went to Figueres for two reasons. The first is that I went there to see the Salvador Dalí Theatre/Museum. Dalí is one of my favorite artists. He is the master of Surrealist painting and his art is weird and crazy and has a lot to do with dreams, which appeals to me. His life was also a bit on the strange side, but that seems to go with the territory for great artists. Some people believe his life was even more surrealistic than his work.
The other reason for going to Figures was that I just needed more cycling time. Here it was the middle of July and I hadn't even completed my first 1000 miles of the year. It may seem strange to ride for 2 days to see a museum that will take 2 hours, but it was more of a cycling experience than anything else. If I took the short easy route to Barcelona to Madrid, it's about 700 km (450 miles). It's hardly worth even breaking out the bike for a run that short, so I obviously had to add a few days to the ride. Riding for two days in the wrong direction, and back into the foothills of the Pyrenees I just left seemed the obvious thing to do.
The ride from Barcelona to Figueres was pretty uneventful, but I learned a few things about Spain. I took the smallest looking roads I could find, but still ended up on some roads that were way freeway like than I prefer. However, I found that the Spanish drivers are in fact just as courteous as they seemed at first... at least to cyclists. They honk and cuss at other drivers just like everyone else, but they always give me plenty of room. I met a guy in Barcelona that told me the traffic laws here in Spain specify that a cyclist must be given 1.5 meters (5 feet) of room. That's a lot of room, and I'll have to say that I've never once had anyone encroach on that space unless I specifically invite them in. For example, if I'm in a town and holding up traffic but there's not enough room for a truck to pass I'll frequently just go to the side of the road and stop and signal them past. Sometimes I'll go over and keep going, but still signal them. Most of the time they still won't pass unless they can do it safely. Of the 11 countries I've cycled in, the French and Spanish are by far the most bicycle friendly.
At a gas station where I stopped for a drink I saw this display that was kind of amusing. I call this photo Fill er up, and it's a drive-in gas station-slash-bar. People can drive in, get some gas in the car and a shot of whiskey in the stomach and be good to go. It seems a bit funny, but it's pretty common.
The first day out of Barcelona consisted of riding up the coast for about 30 km before heading north. This part of Spain is called Costa Brava, and it's a big holiday destination for Europeans, and one of the big tourist draws for Spain as a whole. If you lived in one of the colder towns in northern Europe, you'd like it too. For Europeans, the coast of Spain and the nearby islands are roughly equivalent to Hawaii or Florida for Americans. Naturally, I try to avoid tourist draws, and this place was no exception. I ended up going through one beach town after another, each of which was indistinguishable from the previous one.
After I turned north, it was a simple day and a half run to Figueres. I saw quite a few bikes on the road, which always makes me a bit more comfortable.
You may remember back in my Russia page, I talked about my completely unreasonable fear of solo camping. I decided to tackle that fear, on any days where the ride hasn't been so brutal that I just really want a shower. I managed to camp one night before Figueres without incident, which makes it my first camping night since the night I wrote that little thing on fear by the Arctic Circle in Russia. I'm tackling my fears, but obviously not all that quickly.
I spent an extra day in Figueres, just because I didn't want to be rushed at the museum and it seems silly to spend two days riding to a town and then not look at it.
This town exemplifies a growing love/hate relationship I have with Lonely Planet. LP is supposed to be a Traveler's Guide, but they're a lot more tourist oriented than they let on. For example, they described Figueres as a sort of grimy industrial town that didn't have anything to offer besides the Dalí Museum. Now this may be true for your typical tourist, but I spent some time wandering the town and would describe it as a pretty ordinary middle-class town. It's the kind of place that's neither particularly good or bad. It's just a town where ordinary people live and get on with the business of living. Since that's what I came here to see, I don't mind that at all. LP takes this condescending attitude quite a bit, and it's really beginning to annoy me. I can say I have been in towns I'd describe as grimy little industrial towns all over the world, but it has to get pretty grimy for me to give it that handle.
On the other hand, if I'm in some small town out in the middle of my route from A to B, LP is far more likely to have at least some info on the town than any other guidebook I've tried. It misses lots of towns, but catches more than anyone else. Most of the time this isn't important, but it's nice to have some info on a town when I'm tired and looking for lodging.
At any rate, with the extra day in Figueres, I decided to go through my panniers and clean them up a bit. Why I decided to ride over the Pyrenees and then clean out the excessive weight is a mystery, but that's how it worked out. I managed to throw away about 5 pounds of junk. It's amazing what you can accumulate even when you're as weight conscious as I am. I even found that like an idiot I was carrying ten pounds of guidebooks for places I was visiting in October that I could have left at Noelle's without penalty. I figured better late than never, and mailed them back to her. Not the smartest thing I've ever done.
To get from Figueres to Madrid, I had a choice of two routes. The first would be to backtrack south about halfway to Barcelona and ride across the plains. The other would be to go west through the Pyrenees again, and then approach it from the north. Of course, when I put it that way you can plainly see it isn't a choice at all since there's obviously only one possible answer. I headed off to the west to see what there was to see. I ended up with an interesting experience today, but before I get to it let me digress again to another subject or two:
Everyone knows the little verse: "The rain in Spain stays mainly on the plane". If you don't, it means you've missed out on a really good movie. Now the problem with this poem is that it's not very accurate, since the rain is mainly in the Pyrenees, so being a big fan of precision, I made up my own verse: "The sun in Spain can really fry your brain". I hit some pretty brutal sun about 2 days before Barcelona. Actually, the sun here is no hotter than in Vietnam, Oz or South Africa... but of course, none of those rhyme with brain.
Whenever I get out of the sun for a while, I forget to put on liberal doses of sun-block and have to learn the lesson all over again. I didn't actually get any nasty sunburns or blisters this time like I did in SA, but I got enough to remind me to put the sun-block on. You should always use the sun-block, since distance cycling is roughly equivalent to spending 8 hours at the beach without being able to turn over. I always buy the strongest stuff I can find, which usually has an SPF of around 50-60. I don't think there's any point in putting anything weaker than that on. The really strong stuff is sometimes a bit hard to find. In SA, I bought sunblock made for babies in the baby section of a pharmacy. In Europe, you have to ask for it in a pharmacy and the clerk will dig around in the back and produce the right stuff.
In South Africa I bought a heart rate monitor (HRM) and wore it for about 1000 miles. It was stolen in Cape Town along with my flashing light on the back of my lunchbox. That makes the only successful theft I've suffered, although there was another attempt at the whole bike in Saigon. I had the bike locked down but didn't have the motion sensor turned on, or I would have been able to prevent even that one. I ended up buying a new one in France, because I find it useful. I bought a Sigma both times, which is a German brand. It costs half of what a Polar does and works just fine.
HRMs are useful because they give you an accurate indication of real exertion, which may not have anything to do with perceived exertion. No matter what your exercise goal is, matching your exertion to your goal is the key. There is an ideal heart rate for burning fat, building muscle, building endurance, etc. The HRM can tell you if you are working in a range that is productive towards your goal or not.
Everyone has a minimum and maximum heart rate. The ideal rates for both of these are genetically determined, but how close you are to ideal is determined by your conditioning. The better your condition, the closer you will be to these ideal rates.
In my case, I determined in SA that my maximum heart rate while in reasonably good shape is around 165 BPM (beats per minute). I have no idea if that's good, bad or indifferent but it is what it is since I have to nearly kill myself to get that and hold it for a minute or two. Once you have your maximum heart rate, there are a few exercise ranges you want to stay in to accomplish certain goals:
|90-100%||Anaerobic range. This is the range where your cardiovascular system can't keep up
with the demands made on it, so it starts taking the oxygen it needs from muscle tissue, and it takes
the energy it needs from Glycogen stored in the muscles (NOT from fat). If you're trying to
build strength, you operate in this range for short periods of time, and then use rest
periods to let your cardiovascular system catch up. That's why you see body builders lift
massive amounts of weight, and then rest for a few minutes before doing it again.
For ME, this is 150-160 BPM but it will be very different for each person.
|80-90%||Aerobic range. This is the range where your cardiovascular system can just keep
up with the demands. This means that your body is working most effectively. It's putting
out the maximum long-term sustainable level. If you're trying to build up cardiovascular
endurance and effectiveness, you operate in this range.
The bottom end of this range is the ideal fat-burning area. Your body is using energy at close to its maximum sustainable rate, but it has enough extra capacity to devote to getting the energy from breakdown of fat. From this standpoint, it is much better to operate close to the bottom of this range for longer periods of time, than to operate at the higher end for shorter periods.
For me, this is 130-150 BPM. Most of the time, I operate in this range.
So anyway, here I was riding along out of Figueres. When I left in the morning, I figured I'd stop for a break around 30 km (18 miles) or so. Of course, one problem I sort of have is that I'm a lot like a big lumbering machine. It's hard to get me started, and hard to get me stopped. Usually, when it's really time for a break, and a break would be an effective thing to do, I just don't want to stop if I'm in the zone, or even close to it. I hit 30 km and was in the middle of nowhere, and didn't feel like stopping so I decided to hit 40 km.
About 40 km I hit a hill. I'd been climbing hills and going back down the other side all morning so this was nothing new. Once I started climbing, it changed a bit. It was a constant and steady uphill just like the ride up the France side of the Pyrenees, that just seemed to keep on going. I should mention that the constant slope of these roads is just good road building. A perfect road up a mountain would have exactly the same slope for every meter of the ride. That way you avoid having steep hills where a truck has to strain up it, just to lose the momentum going down the other side. In order to achieve this, you get to places where you have to chop off the top of a hill, go around it, tunnel through it, make a fill, build a bridge, switchback or some combination of those. All of these cost time, effort and money, so a good high quality road will be pretty even, and a cheap road will have a lot of ups and downs because the easiest thing to do is follow the contour of the land. Some mountains are easier to make a nice steady slope than others. In the case of the Pyrenees, they just happen to have the right shape that it probably wasn't all that much costlier to make a nice steady road to the top than it would have been to make a more uneven road. In general, IF I could make myself stop to rest the nice steady slope would be better for me just like it is for any other vehicle. OK, enough about road-building. I get a bit nostalgic for moving dirt and rock once in a while. Fortunately I always get over it before any actual dirt gets moved.
I started up this hill, and it just kept going, and going, and going. And while the hill kept going, I kept going. Mile after mile, and hour after hour I just kept climbing. The hill was steep enough that I was down to my lowest speed and cranking along at 5 KPH. I decided I needed to build up a bit of conditioning, just because I was feeling a bit weak on my trip up the Pyrenees, and I wanted to do a bit better with this one, and I was about 20 pounds lighter which should make some difference. I arbitrarily decided I'd stop either at the top of the hill, or at 50 km as I had some hopes of finally cranking out a 100 km day.
So here I was just like that stupid bunny on the commercials just going and going and going. I was drinking lots of water as appropriate, sweating like a pig in the hot sun (about 35 C - 95 F), and watching the scenery. Since I was in the foothills of the Pyrenees again, the scenery was great, but my camera was dead. If you do the math, you'll see that I was moving at 5 KPH, and had arbitrarily decided to stop in 10 KM, or 2 hours.
The two hours went by, but I was noticing some weirdness in the old cycling machine. The really weird thing was that my heart rate was bouncing up and down around 165. As conditioning deteriorates from sitting around for six months, heart rate for a given exertion will increase. That's just being out of shape. So an exertion rate where my HR would have been 130 going into Cape Town, might be 140 or 150 now. I chalked the high rate up to bad conditioning, and kept plugging away since I felt fine. I've found that there's nothing quite as satisfying as the top of a hard-won hill, but the second best thing is the feeling of satisfaction I get when I'm really tired, and really want to stop, and I pass a perfect looking resting place. In this case, I got to 50 KM, and then 51, and then 52, and at each one I looked at the road ahead and it looked like I might be approaching the top. It's really impossible to tell, but I'm gullible enough that I can easily convince myself of things, and I really wanted to NOT to stop on this hill. There's no good reason why I shouldn't stop, except that I hate getting going again after a stop, and Mr. Ego was telling me to quit being such a whiner.
About 53 KM, I came around yet another corner and saw another switchback in front of me and decided I'd had enough. I had been cranking for well over 2 hours with a HR of 155-165, and I decided it was time to stop. I found a place that had a little bit of shade, and I just ran out of gas. I pulled the bike over, leaned it against the convenient guard rail and practically fell off. When I got off the bike, I found that I couldn't really stand up very well, and my breathing was erratic and not sounding all that good. I laid down on the side road I'd stopped on, which was a gravel road complete with lots of rocks, and just laid there for a few minutes with my helmet on, laying flat on my back and trying to get my breathing and heart back under control. I lay there for what may have been five minutes or may have been 15, then made a Herculean effort and removed my shoes. Then of course, I had to lay back and rest again. Another five minutes later, I managed to get up and get a water bottle. Now since I did all this when the local yipping dog was barking non-stop and I couldn't be bothered to move or even acknowledge his annoyance, and when there was a nice grassy area 10 feet away; I knew something was amiss.
After resting a while, I surmised that this was a mild case of heat exhaustion. This is a malady that happens to athletes or others that work hard in high temperatures. Your muscles generate heat, which your body has to get rid of to maintain its internal temperature. However, the heat dispersal system (mostly sweating) has a limited capacity, so if you generate more heat than it can handle, your body temperature starts increasing. This throws off a lot of temperature sensitive mechanism in the body, and if it continues then you can collapse, have a heat stroke or lots of other unpleasant things. When I read about heat exhaustion, the Big Red Flag indicating that there may be a problem is an abnormally high and erratic pulse. Your body is increasing the pulse to use blood flow to move heat from internal organs to the skin to try to cool the organs, and the size of the blood vessels changes to increase heat dissipation. The increased blood flow messes up the oxygen transfer in the lungs, which makes your breathing wigg out. Even though I'd read that just a few months before in Cape Town, and I had a big heart rate monitor showing me the data in real time, I didn't put two and two together until I nearly collapsed. There's a lesson to be learned there.
Once I had rested, I went ahead and had lunch since it was past lunchtime anyway. I'm finding that hard exercise is a serious appetite suppressant, so I have to make myself eat when I'm cycling. Then I tackled the rest of the hill, but got very militant with the HRM. Anytime I got over 150, I backed off on the throttle until I got it back down under the zone. I don't think I actually had a serious case of Heat Exhaustion, but it could have been if I'd kept pushing myself.
As I was approaching Figueres, I saw this road sign. By now, you know my map reading skills are barely adequate. This sign said:
That got me to thinking, "FRANCE!! I'm only 10 miles from France!!" Once I made that astounding discovery, I looked more carefully at the map. It turns out that when I went through Andorra, David actually recommended I take a different, slightly lower and easier route that went through the Pyrenees just east of Andorra. I was pretty close to the outlet from that route. After Figueres, I was going to go east through the foothills of the Pyrenees again, and then head south to Madrid.
You're probably guessing what I actually did. I just couldn't quite live with my performance the last time over the route to Andorra (or lack thereof), and I was only a couple of days south of it, so I said to myself, "Self. You need to improve your performance over that pass" (I do that a lot when I'm on the bike). It was only a couple of days out of the way, and seemed like a fun thing to do. Besides that, my camera had completely died by now, and so I thought (incorrectly) that I might get a good deal on one in Andorra. So, after Figueres I left to ride over the same pass once again. That explains the weird loop in the map back at the start of this page.
Now those of you with better map-reading skills than I have will by now have noticed that I had just decided to ride over the Pyrenees from North to South. The only problem with that theory was that I was now on the Southern side of the range. That means... you guessed it. I rode over the pass David mentioned going from South to North, and then immediately rode over the next pass over from North to South. Which obviously means I rode over the Pyrenees twice in two days.
My performance for this trip was quite a bit better than last time. My load on the bike was about 20 Pounds (9 KG) lighter, which makes things a bit easier, but not as much as you would think. It only reduces my total load by about 5%. I started the day one mountain over from where I started last time, so I climbed about an extra 500 meters (1500 feet) or so before I started. Other than that, I rode about the same distance as last time in only 4 1/2 hours of cycling which chopped a half hour off my cycling time. I also only stopped to rest 4 times during the climb, and for much shorter periods of time, so my total time for the day was much shorter. Not only that, I RODE my bike all the way to the top like a man. I never did quite get to where I believed my old mantra about no shame in pushing the bike, at least not for 7-12% slopes.
After that, I stopped at the same-old gas station for a drink, yelled my traditional "Let er Rip", and bonzaied back down the other side to Andorra la Vella. I eventually did buy a new camera there. Oddly enough, after exhaustive research using the Andorra la Vella yellow pages, I ended up at the exact same camera shop I stopped by the first time through. I didn't get much of a deal on it and the manual was in Spanish which wasn't all that helpful. Fortunately, since I throw the paper manual away and get an electronic one anyway it was no big deal. I just downloaded the English version. In the end, the camera was a lot more than I would have paid over the Internet, even after I added the cost for shipping and paying VAT (tax), but I couldn't be bothered to do all that.
On the Spain side of Andorra, I went through the exact same pass that's my favorite part of the Pyrenees. Guess what? New cameras come with a battery that's nearly dead (makes the battery last longer on the shelf I assume). That means... I went through my favorite part of the Pyrenees twice without getting a single photo. I guess if you want to see it, you'll just have to go there.
At the bottom of the pass, I stopped at my favorite little hostel for the night, and tried to figure out how to work my camera from the Spanish manual. I managed to get parts of it figured out. Here's the first real shot with the new camera (actually, two shots stitched together). The new camera is a Nikon CoolPix 5000, 5 megapixel. I was very tempted to get a Nikon D100 digital SLR, and even had one in my hand in Andorra la Vella, but decided at the last moment I didn't want to add a few thousand dollars to the load I'm hauling around. I'm still not sure that was the right decision. The new camera is much better than my old Canon, both in resolution and functionality. I probably shouldn't whinge so much about the Canon since it lasted over a year on a bicycle, but I will anyway. My computer's still working, so there's no excuse for the camera dying. You probably won't notice the difference in quality between the 5 mpx and 3 mpx I used to have on these pages because I chop the files down to about 10% of their original quality to make the page load faster, but if I ever print them I should see a difference.
This part of the Pyrenees has quite a bit of water, and I would assume that it's shipped all over the place.
Speaking of water, nearly every hotel I've been to in Spain has a weird little short tub that's only about a meter long. I assume they do this to save water, assuming that grownups will take showers and the tub is for kids. I don't find this to be a huge problem, but I need a tub to do my patented Hatler Special Hand Washing Method on my clothes.
I put this photo in here simply to show that I give more consideration to providing you with amusement than good sense. Here I'm getting ready to wash my jersey, and haven't even washed the sun block off my face.
The only exception to this that I've seen is one in Granada that's even too long for me. It's well over 2 meters. Maybe the Spanish are all extremists.
Later on, when I got to Madrid I found that water is not exactly in really short supply there, but it's fun to tease the Madrilleños about it. Madrid is one of the few cities that I've been to that doesn't have a proper river, lake or anything like that nearby and all their water is apparently shipped in from the Pyrenees or the Sierras.
Next - Aragon/Madrid