Lisbon to Malaga: A Bikepacking Adventure

I look back to see if the chase is on, and it is. Coming at me like a rocket is a Portuguese street dog. Black and tan hackles up, teeth and a bark to terrify most. Its body, lean and muscular, moves effortlessly towards me, but I have the advantage of already moving at a steady pace, having caught the pooch off guard. My eyes leave the dog for a split second to check the gravel road ahead, it’s long, straight and lined with the sort of dry desert vegetation that struggles for its fair share of water. I look back and the animal is nearing, so I press on the pedals a bit harder, my legs feeling the strain after a couple of revs - they’re not used to the extra effort, just long days of steady spinning. After a few more metres we hit a balance, the hound now only a couple of metres behind me has hit its top speed, and thankfully I still have gas left in the tank. I hold the speed and avoid the oncoming pot holes and puddles, one eye on the road and one on the dog. I wonder how long this chase will last? It’s not the first on this trip, and I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last either. This little fella has impressive stamina, but after another hundred metres he gives up, and I can see his ribs with the heavy breathing, as he leaves me in peace to continue my journey. As thankful as I am, I realise Ian my partner on this trip is a way behind, and no doubt will cross paths with this street dog as he returns to his patch.

We have ridden from Lisbon Airport, having landed at midnight. We built our bikes, discarded the cardboard boxes and got our heads down in a corner of the airport, for less sleep than we both needed. At 5am, we got up, packed our sleeping kit on our bikes and rolled out of the door into the darkness of another unknown adventure. We have six days to get to Malaga airport to catch our flight back home. We have nothing more than a basic route which is just over six hundred miles. Our plan is to ride as much gravel as we can manage, but still try and cover the distances we need to, to make the flight. We haven’t planned sleeping spots, food stops or anything else, making this one big adventure. Choosing to go with minimal kit, light and fast, I haven’t even packed a stove.

I love this simple way of life when you are bike packing point to point. The only thing you have to do is ride your bike, everything else is up to you. The more I do these trips, the more I realise how amazing riding your bike can be, and the incredible distances you can cover. I started with long one-off days riding, then moved to staying out for a night, then linking nights, and before I knew it I was linking countries. I don’t speak any Portuguese, and very little Spanish. Growing up in New Zealand, I never thought in my wildest dreams I would ever need to speak any language other than English. That’s how small town New Zealand is, or maybe how small town I was. Now after travelling through nearly fifty countries, I’m embarrassed if I can’t say at least please and thank you in the native tongue.

After two and a half days riding in Portugal, we hit the Spanish boarder, a short ferry crossing for six euros. Portugal had been interesting riding and some of the best gravel riding I have done. It was always nice and varied, featuring both the mountains and the sea. The landscapes always changing, keeping the riding interesting. The surfaces never that bad we wanted to be somewhere else, and I found myself a bit gutted we had blasted through Portugal so quickly, as I felt there was much more to explore. However Ryanair weren’t going to hold the plane for us, that’s for sure.

Crossing into Spain was familiar, I’ve raced here a few times and spent many training camps in this country. But I was seeing it through a different lens this time. We were blessed with a tail wind for most of the riding, however the first day in Spain our route swung head long into the coastal winds. I relished the challenge, but after 20 minutes forcing my way through the invisible wall, Ian told me he couldn’t sustain the pace and was about to push the puke button! Thankfully it didn’t last long. I backed off the pace and Ian keep his finger off the button as we swung west again, and had the stiff cool breeze back at our tails. It was all miles and smiles again.

It’s amazing how quickly on a trip like this, it can go from easy miles with a tale wind, to a grinding halt, because the track you are following turns to ankle deep soft sand. This happened just outside of Tarifa, the most southernly point of Spain. The plan was to make Gibraltar that afternoon, leaving us a shorter ride to do on our final day into Malaga. However in two kilometres of sand we lost most the afternoon. I could only laugh as I pushed and lifted my bike through this dry golden soup that swallowed every footstep and wheel. We ended up ten kilometres outside of Gibraltar, and under the darkness of the falling sky, we camped out of sight in a small crop of trees, about six hundred metres from a MacDonalds breakfast. After a flash of passports and a glory lap of the rock, we existed the madness of Gibraltar with haste. After spending a week on our own or passing through small villages, it was too overwhelming for the both of us. We were used to having the roads to ourselves, not sharing them with vehicles, every scooter under the sun, and several German cycling groups on tour to the Rock. It’s a shame to have been there and not ridden up the hill to see the famous apes, but I just wanted out of there as quickly as possible. Maybe it’s because I realised if I could smell other people they could probably smell me. As much as I’m a fan of merino wool, five days without washing, riding around nine hours a day is hard to mask even for the natural fibres.

The final day up the coast was slightly disappointing for me. It wasn’t the fact the trip was coming to an end, and I knew at this point we would make the flight. It was the limited choice of roads we had to ride on. It was either the main road, basically a double carriageway A road, with a small hard shoulder, or the beach front, with hundreds of holiday makers enjoying the sunny weather and sand between their toes. We jumped from one to the other, until a chance came to do a loop into the mountains behind Malaga. It took extra time and was a fight against gravity with tired legs, but for me it was a much better way to finish the final day away from everyone else and the business of reality. This journey has only got me thinking of much bigger, longer rides, linking more countries, cultures and learning experiences. I beg you to get involved.

By Steve Bate