Story by Jon Edwards
When I sit on the bus thinking about it all I invariably find myself yearning for the next opportunity to be ‘out there’, in the uneven world, in the rough places with no handrails and steep drops, heart pumping, lungs bursting and eyes straining to grasp the beauty of it all. Then there’s the lycra….
It’s so wet in The Basque Country the fish wear anoraks. An ancient land straddling the border of France and Spain collecting Atlantic storms, its rugged hills and deep valleys are an outdoor type’s paradise – if it would just stop raining. Indeed, my recent discovery of the hitherto obscure pleasure of hurtling downhill, clinging to handlebars whilst wearing a potty on my head can be directly linked to the lure of this damp but undulating beauty, its fresh clean air and heart swelling views. I double dare you to go there and not find yourself one morning inexplicably walking up a steep hill, gaining a new perspective with each step, and wondering what happened to that nasty hangover…well that’s what happened to me. Sort of.
I had been in the Basque Country for around 4 months when all this happened. I’d been merrily fulfilling a lifelong dream of living and working in a foreign culture, learning a new language and failing to chat up girls with a whole new set of verbs, when I felt there was probably more to life that romantic ineptitude and Chorizo. San Sebastian was where I stayed, a beautiful coastal town with gorgeous beaches and a lively social scene of tourists, students and surfers. The area is still alive with political and cultural struggle of the Basque people against the dominant Spanish culture. Political rallies regularly reclaim the streets of the the old town from hordes of tourists and make a brutish police presence are common site – along with the Chorizo. All a bit much really, so I began to look inland.
It started when I bought myself a mountain bike. This event was the culmination of a lengthy process of due diligence, throughout which the highest standards of fiscal rectitude, and consumer prudence were adhered to – a) Pub conversation, b) Internet search c) ‘Ooh! That looks pretty!’ d) CLICK.
One week later a large brown cardboard box arrived carrying my passport to a new life of vertiginous tongue swallowing adventure and all I needed was an Allen Key…
Early tool related frustrations were soon forgotten when the following weekend I joined three colleagues Bob, Karl, and James, on my first Basque biking expedition. We took the local train inland and after only 15 minutes the town was far behind us as the first of the mountains, which crowd around San Sebastian (like the rest of the tourists eager to get to the beach), shouldered past us – and soon enough we were surrounded. The only thing to do was climb! – actually there was time for a lovely latte and biscuity thing…. but THEN we climbed!
It’s wet in the Basque Country – I think I’ve covered that before – and with wetness comes mud, and mud makes cycling uphill …well lets just say it’s hard. If you doubt that, get one hamster, put it in its wheel, pour two parts runny clay and one part cow pat over the rungs and watch it struggle on, paying close attention to its poor little hamster expression…not too happy I think we all agree. As my recently shiny new bike toiled up the muddy hill my face began to twitch and was soon transformed into an set of features now known as ‘the unhappy hamster.’
The hill went on, and on. Then in a turn of events that shocked no one, it went on some more. I was fast running out of credible reasons to stop (sticky gears, call of nature, stone in shoe) and was in danger of regurgitating my lovely biscuity thing all over my new shorts. Breathing raggedly I stuck to the wheel of Bob ‘King of the Mountains’ Summers (who was clearly doing his best to refrain from whistling a happy tune as he glided upward) and hoped to avoid disgrace. Thankfully just as I could go on no further, we went on no further.
Going up seems so unpleasant – until you start to go down.
James “I am rubbish at directions – no honestly. Follow me!”, our leader for the day, gave myself and fellow greenhorn Karl some pertinent advice before the descent: “Just be careful of your brakes. The last bloke I brought up here broke his arm. Follow meeeee!” …and he was off. There was nothing for it but to be off too.
This must be the steep bit I thought, before getting to the steep bit. I felt that the gradient, uneven terrain and my lack of an exoskeleton warranted at least a cursory investigation of the breaking options. Despite what James had said I pulled on a lever and found that rolling head long down a mountain was not quite as scary as SKIDDING headlong down one so I released the brake and held on tight.
If I told you I had not – several times during that first descent – wished I was elsewhere doing cool, safe, and completely non-life-threatening elsewhere stuff I would be telling a half truth. In fact I tried to wish this repeatedly but only got as far as “I wi..” before all brain power was again diverted to avoid bone-crunching disaster. Then I fell.
Nothing heroic, no ‘airtime’, no cartwheeling just mud and pain. I slipped in a particularly aggressive swathe of muddiness, lost the front end and gave my ankle (already twisted from soccer heroics) a nasty bang. I didn’t cry but it did make my leg jiggle uncontrollably which could have been mistaken by the casual observer as fear. I knew better of course it was pain – oh, and fear.
It was at this point that I started to enjoy myself. The gradient eased and the mud retreated and I swept down the mountain with increasing confidence. The high I felt was beautiful. There’s nothing quite like almost killing yourself to really make your afternoon. My senses primed by adrenaline took in everything with joyous clarity, the freshness on the mountain air, the smell of the woods, the buzz of knobled tires over the rocky track. All this mixed with the sense of achievement I had from surviving my first decent made for an addictive cocktail. All too soon we were back on tarmac and moments later we plonked our mud splattered bodies in the local plaza for a well earned beer. I was already thinking of the next trip.
Despite the fear, or perhaps because of it (no, I just checked it was definitely despite it), I went on a dozen or so more mountain biking excursions around the Basque Country. Each trip gave me more confidence, more speed in the downhill sections, more guts to go over the seemingly impossible drops, and more puff to get up the long climbs. If a more fun way to enjoy a hilly country has been invented I feel sure it must be illegal (but if you know what it is you’ll tell me anyway, right..?).