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Electric biking in northern Spain

Tamsyn and Graham head off on a four-week cycle tour of northern Spain, from coastal paths to mountain tops, and from orchid-rich meadows to deep river ravines.

19 Jun 2024 5 min read

We are not “cyclists”! We cycle in walking boots, waterproofs and 15-year-old cycling shorts.

But my husband Graham and I have just completed a four-week cycle tour from Santander to Somiedo Natural Park in northern Spain, climbing to 1486m with the aid of our “magic” electric bikes.

Our cycling history consisted of doing practically nothing round our hilly mid Wales home. When our children were young we completed three cycle camping holidays in Brittany which introduced us to the joy of travelling with all you need on your bike. Then in 2022 and 2023 we experimented with electric bike holidays in the Scottish Inner Hebrides. We were able to climb hills we would previously never have attempted and use different levels of power depending on fitness and energy.

That feeling of freedom and independence was so intoxicating, we bought our own Raleigh Motus electric bikes. To celebrate my 60th birthday we arranged extra annual leave and created a mini adventure, consistent with our wish to stay “flight free” whenever we can. 

Tamsyn at Playa de Gerra

We chose this area because it was easy to get to by ferry – we had no idea how stunning it would be. Planning the route was a challenge, particularly finding a quiet way out of Santander. We wanted to travel on small roads whenever possible, not exceed our physical capabilities or our battery range, and stay in interesting places. Graham spent many evenings on the laptop painstakingly negotiating Google maps, Google earth and Street view to create our route, which our son then transferred onto his Garmin for us. 

This planning was the secret to the trip’s success and gave Graham enormous satisfaction. We booked all our accommodation in advance, staying mostly in local B and Bs but with a couple of self-catering nights to enable use of a washing machine. We found a bike rescue company (ETA) who would cover us in Europe, giving us reassurance we would not be stranded if we had a disaster. Before leaving we practiced packing our panniers (two 56 litre panniers and one small pannier each) and found we could easily fit in all we needed: clothes, waterproofs, sandals, walking boots, things for the journey including mini playing cards and travel backgammon, electronics and chargers, and bike repair tools.

Before going I was nervous we were being too ambitious but kept repeating the phrase “Feel the fear and do it anyway”. So, we did it! 

Graham and the bikes, just west of Ubarico

We live on the Powys/Herefordshire border 22 miles from a train station, and though we considered taking the bikes on the train to the port, we didn’t want to risk difficulties with timing and logistics, so we loaded our bikes on the car and drove down to where my cousin lives, near Plymouth, so we could leave the car there while we were away.

Getting onto the ferry was easy. Port staff directed us to join other cyclists where we found instant camaraderie, and together we pushed our bikes onto the ferry where the crew helped us secure them. We splashed out on a lovely cabin (worth every penny) but we were only charged £1 each for the bikes! Another advantage of going by bike was that we were first off the ferry and zipped straight through passport control. 

The ferry departed at 6pm and arrived in the afternoon the next day. An absolute highlight was seeing four pods of dolphins swimming directly towards the ferry, only turning at the last second. It was so exciting and joyful!

What was memorable about the trip? It’s almost impossible to put into words but here are a few highlights: the quiet roads, the constant musical soundtrack of bird song and cow bells, the feeling of freedom having all we needed in our panniers, the sense of achievement, the physical exhaustion at the end of the day, the joy of sharing an adventure, the “days off” when we climbed high peaks or collapsed reading books, the wildflowers, “Menu del Dia” three course lunches including delicious wine for about 14 euros, eating juicy mandarins in the sun, the sensations of warmth, wind and rain on our faces, and the kindness and warmth we encountered. 

The mountaintop village of Alles

We cycled on one minor road with almost no traffic which wound its way along the top of a ridge with 360 degree views out to the snowcapped Picos de Europa mountains in front, the sea behind, meadows filled with asphodel flowers and cows on one side and long stretches of woods in the valley below on the other side. 

Another road followed the river at the bottom of a gorge for miles. The river was crystal clear with patches of turquoise typical of areas with limestone geology. Several of our mountain walks had the most stunning wildflowers, gentians, pansies, orchids and swathes of tiny petticoat daffodils. Graham is an ecologist and loved seeing the rich biodiversity, while at the same time feeling it highlighted what we have lost in the UK.

The weather was mixed, mostly dry with some warm sunny days and a few showery days. It was May and locals report that the weather was colder than usual at this time of year. The rainy days didn’t detract from the trip at all, and made the mountainous areas even more dramatic and atmospheric.

We realised quite early that we had paced the trip just right with a good number of rest days. The batteries performed better than expected, which gave us increasing confidence as the trip progressed. Charging was never a problem – we took the batteries off the bikes each night and charged them in our rooms using our European adaptor plugs.

A bar in Merodio, a small village near Panes

We got by with our rudimentary Spanish, Google translate and a lot of smiling! A challenge was the later meal times – we are used to eating at about 6pm, but the Spanish seem to eat about 8 or 9pm which is hard when you’ve been cycling all day and are hungry! The shops are often closed in the afternoons, so we made sure we kept well stocked up with nuts.

Overall, our key to success was staying flexible. While the trip did challenge us, it was well within our capabilities and it was incredibly satisfying to have completed it.

Our total distance travelled was a little over 600 miles, the longest day being 40 miles. Not nearly as impressive as the retired couple we met who had brought a tandem on their car and ridden it 50 miles up a mountain in a day. But they loved hearing our tales of savouring every moment of every day, even the rainy ones, and the freedom of being car-free. 

There was a wistful look in their eyes as they waved us off, telling us they admired the way we had been brave and that we were an “inspiration”. We’ll take that!

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