‘Eres del Belkin?’
‘Sorry? Um, cómo?’
‘You are with Belkin?’ the hotel receptionist asked. ‘You are with the group?’
‘No,’ I said, ‘just me. No group. I don’t like groups.’
‘I think maybe you are with the group,’ she smiled, tilting her head towards a pale blue Bianchi parked beside the lift.
‘Just an old touring bike,’ I said, ‘with a couple of bags,’ tilting my head towards the front of the hotel, as if she could see through the wall to the tree outside where I had left it, unlocked.
‘Where should I put my bicycle tonight?’ I asked.
‘In your room?’ she suggested, still smiling.
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I had been on the road for more than three weeks now and this was the first time a hotel had even come close to suggesting I put my bike in my room. I had travelled on the Bike Express from England to Provence, planning to cycle along the Mediterranean, up the Canal du Midi to Toulouse and down the Garonne to Bordeaux, then along the Atlantic to Brittany for the ferry back to Britain. However, I had found the bike path along the Canal du Midi so boring I decided, rather rashly, to turn south, load up on cassoulet and rough wine in the Languedoc and then pedal along the Spanish Pyrenees to Bilbao for the ferry to Portsmouth.
Or very much Plan B.
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I wanted to stop in Pamplona on the way to Bilbao, since I had stopped there a few summers before, while walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela – or what an Irish pilgrim I met on the Camino called the longest pub crawl on the planet. We just happened to walk into Pamplona in the middle of the Festival of San Fermín that summer, so I decided to let my fellow pilgrims walk on without me, get a room in a nice hotel for a couple of nights and try to get a ticket to a bullfight.
With the help of the hotel barman and a few more euros than I had hoped to spend, I got a ticket to see Juan José Padilla perform at the Plaza de Toros. Now known as The Pirate because of his black eye-patch, Padilla was almost killed by a horn through the head during a bullfight in Zaragoza in October 2011, breaking both his jaw and his skull and leaving his right ear deaf and his left eye blind. The horn apparently missed his brain by milimetres, the Spanish doctors saying he was lucky to be alive.
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I left the bags in the lobby and carried my bike up the stairs to the second floor of the hotel. My legs needed the exercise, since I had hardly cycled at all that day.
The plan from Pamplona was to cycle up the hills to the Basque village of Santesteban and then down to San Sebastián, before the final ride along the Atlantic to Bilbao. As I was leaving Pamplona on the road to Santesteban, I was stopped by a NO CICLISTAS sign, the black bicycle inside the red circle. The only other road to the coast was a proper motorway, so I decided to cycle back into town and put my bike on the train. But when I got to the station, I was told even local trains to San Sebastián did not take bicycles.
Sitting outside the train station in Pamplona, staring hopelessly at my road map, I spotted a taxi that looked big enough for a bike. Only an hour or so later and a hundred or so euros poorer, I was in San Sebastián, looking for a hotel that liked bikes. All the hotels seemed to be full that day, so I followed the signs to the Tourist Information Centre, where they found me a room in a four-star hotel in the hills on the edge of town that, I was told, really liked bikes.
I climbed to the top of the stairs with my bike and steered it down the hallway. It looked more like a college dormitory than a four-star hotel. All the doors on both sides of the hallway were open, with bottles of mineral water stacked outside each room. Thin young men in short socks and green and black cycling gear wandered from room to room, as if unsure whose room was whose. The only door not open was at the end of the hallway. I unlocked the door, put my bike beside the double bed, turned on the air conditioning and went back downstairs to the lobby for my bags, a bit bemused.
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I had been to San Sebastián a few years before, towards the beginning of a bike ride along the Spanish Pyrenees to the Mediterranean, then back along the French Pyrenees to the Atlantic. I had found a book in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge called Both Sides of the Pyrenees, written by Bernard Newman and published in London in 1952, in which Newman tells the story of his troubled traverses of the Pyrenees on a three-speed bike named George. It sounded like fun, especially with a few more gears.
Heading out of the hotel later that afternoon to some pintxos bars in the old part of town that I rather fondly remembered from my previous visit, I had to walk around a big white bus with a big grey belkin on its side. The first time I was in San Sebastián, I stayed at a two-star hotel near the train station, spending much of that afternoon drinking beer in the train station bar and watching the Tour de France on its fuzzy television. Even for a somewhat casual follower of the Tour, Belkin rang a few bells.*
I knew, for example, that Belkin had done well as a team at the Tour de France that summer and that the team had a couple of riders who had finished quite high in the general classification, though I could not have told you who or how high. When I got back to England, I found out that Belkin had finished second in the team classification that year, with Laurens ten Dam finishing ninth and Bauke Mollema finishing tenth in the general classification. As I walked down to the bars below, I wondered what they were doing here. Pretty steep hills, I thought, probably a good place to practise.
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In the morning, I pulled on my bibs, packed my bags and went downstairs for breakfast. A young woman was waiting at the bottom of the stairs, smiling.
‘Desayuno?’ I asked.
‘This way, please,’ she said, gesturing towards some closed double doors with a small Restaurante sign above them.
‘Ah, of course,’ I said, noticing, however, that some guests were having their breakfast in the hotel bar that morning.
When I opened the double doors, I was met by two smiling waiters, who ushered me to the near end of a long table, the only table in the room obviously set for breakfast that morning. The other end of the table, the end closest to the buffet, was occupied by the Belkin boys and their support team, with the boys seriously tucking into their breakfasts and only a couple of the support staff even glancing in my direction.
I helped myself to the buffet, as I had been told to do by the waiters before they rushed off to the other end of the table, and then went back to the buffet to get a cup of coffee.
‘The cappuccino machine is broken,’ one of the Belkin boys said in a distinct Dutch accent. ‘If you want a decent cup of coffee, you have to ask the kitchen.’
‘Oh okay,’ I said. ‘The kitchen.’
The Belkin boys were keeping the kitchen busy. Besides orders for decent cups of coffee, the waiters rushed in and out, taking away piles of empty plates and bringing back yet more plates heaped with spaghetti and various kinds of omelette. The Belkin boys seemed to be eating an awful lot that morning. I finished my toast and coffee, left without even the support staff noticing and climbed the stairs to my room, to fetch my bike and my bags.
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I cruised into town on my bike and, after a couple of wrong turns, found the narrow toll road to Monte Agueldo, hoping to stay as close to the coast as possible before turning south to Durango and Bilbao. There were very few cars climbing the road that morning, but there were a surprising number of bicycles, with their riders urging me on as they passed on bagless racing bikes.
I paid the toll at the top of the climb, then had an easy ride high above the Atlantic, before a sudden drop to Orio to pass under the motorway and over the river towards Zarautz. After the bridge, the road climbed through densely wooded hills, with cyclists curiously gathering alongside the road, especially the steep bits. As I pedalled slowly around one seriously steep bend, I found myself surrounded by a crowd of cyclists, laughing, clapping their gloved hands and encouraging me in Spanish to pedal faster. I seemed to be the only cyclist on the road now, with only the occasional car or the occasional motorcycle passing me, all headed towards Zarautz.
When I got to the edge of town, a policeman stopped me and told me I must get off the road now. The cyclists were coming.
‘Que ciclistas?’ I asked.
He cocked his head, looked at me slightly sideways and said, ‘La Clásica.’
‘La Clásica de San Sebastián?’ he tried.
‘A bike race?’ I asked.
‘Yes, a bike race,’ he said. ‘A big bike race. The best bike race. Oye, where is your helmet?’
Zarautz is a seaside town, with a long high street running along a long sandy beach, lined with bars, seafood restaurants and a couple of fairly funky surf shops. I pulled over at a bar in the middle of town, with cocktail tables and wicker chairs outside. A table beside the road was free, so I parked my bike against a tree, dropped my map, my sweaty watch and my even sweatier cycling gloves on the table to show it was now taken and went inside to order a cold coke and an even colder beer.
I was on my third or fourth beer when the parade of official race cars and motorcycles began to peter out and people began to bunch along the high street. My table was almost on the street, so I had a front row seat. The barman came outside, wiping his hands on his jeans, and stood beside my table, arms crossed, to watch the race.
He took a good look at my bike and asked how far I was going that day. I told him probably Deba, then Bilbao the day after that. He told me Deba was nice, but Zarautz was nicer. I asked him whether he liked bikes and he said, yes, of course. He was Spanish and the Spanish liked bikes, just like the French and the Italians. He told me he supported Movistar and that Valverde would win the Classic that year (which he did, by the way, with Mollema coming a close second) and then he asked me what team I supported.
‘Yo?’ I asked, pointing to myself with my thumb. ‘Estoy con Belkin.’
*Belkin is now known as Jumbo Visma.