My feelings about work travel are equivocal. On one hand I get to travel to locations that are cycling legend. I spend my visits discussing bikes and those who love them, digging into the technical and emotional aspects of a thing that is dear to me. I ride over roads momentarily packed with thousands of fans whose ghosts I can hear cheering me upward. Or rather, I buck photo equipment and oversized bags of snacks up steep Pyrenean slopes in the hot sun while the photo crew, skeptical cows and borrowed neo-pro talent traverse the same segments of beautiful view over and over again.
That’s right. I travel halfway around the world to the epicenter of cycling only to frequently be denied by the glass window of “look but don’t touch.” It’s a work trip, after all, and there isn’t time for fun. Hop back on the plane, fly home and miss another several days of riding while I readjust to a different world and a pesky new timezone. Just as my lingering cold dissipates and I begin to feel at home, it’s time to start planning the next visit. Nobody feels sympathy for someone who travels to Spain for work and eyes glaze when I explain there’s so much I don’t have time to enjoy. I know what they are thinking about: the cool stuff that I haven’t made time to do. And I realized it was time to go deeper.
This April was different. Longer, because I opted to roll two trips into one four-week adventure. More stressful, because I was commuting and working in the office during one of the most hectic times of the year. My daily 45 minute drive took me right under the Guggenhiem, out of bustling Bilbao straight into a busy workplace of looming deadlines and endless distraction. But between the floorboards of work I frequently found the cracks where I could disappear for a few hours and make up those rides and activities I had missed over the years.
I played tourist for days and saw the sights that were hidden in plain view. I played local for a few more and sweated on Basque climbs I have only read about. I gave a personal bike tour of my favorite ride in San Sebastian to visiting Lithuanians and I made new friends.
In a strange switch that I suppose I could have anticipated, my rides with friends were the short ones, sneaked in during lunches or before meetings. The longer weekend vueltas that I would normally arrange with buddies here in the US were my times to decompress and explore. Workmates spent valuable Saturday mornings with families as I slipped out the door of my 6th floor flat in the heart of Bilbao, a destination in mind with no clue how to get there. Cyclists have a special ability—we read maps differently than other people. We tease out the mid-weight lines indicating secondary routes. Darker green areas aren’t towns, we go there. City streets are for Cokes and croissants, we definitely add a few on any worthy ride, but we are searching for Those Roads. We look for the sinuous turns standing apart from other strokes and dashes that indicate noteworthy climbs. We know those roads will have names painted on them.
The Basque Country is dominated with mountains but not the sort of 45 minute climbs that you can really sink your teeth into. These are largely short, punchy-to-savage and plentiful. It was only towards the end of my trip that I discovered the moderate terrain between Bilbao and Gernika. I spent four magical hours exploring, dodging warm rain showers, taking in the sweet baking odor of grasses drying in the sudden sun, taking no wrong turns. Farm fields and excellent time-trial roads gave way to six-percent grades winding into the hills between me and the Atlantic. Twisting climbs perched on rocky oceanside cliffs, tiny villages nestled in coves and welcome big-ring rollers dotted the coast.
Wrapping up my ride along the Nervion River heading back into the heart of the city, I stopped for coffee and recounted my ride. At about 90 minutes in, I was happily noting this was one of the best rides in recent memory. By 150 I was reasoning with myself—I have ridden a lot of places, but this ride is better than just “among the best.” Drinking a Cortado after four hours of flawless route selection and fairytale views I reached a certainty—if I had done rides that were just as beautiful and fulfilling but I couldn’t remember them immediately then by default this must surely have been the best ride ever. And so, it was.
May is past, June is filled with more trips and I am starting to feel the pressure to Ride With Friends. To date I have ridden with 27 people. The number looks small to me considering my lofty goals. But my requirements are stringent – I am only counting rides of an hour or more and I am only considering rides with several people if we all have time to actually talk more than in passing. So that means 27 real connections when ordinarily I might have ridden with the same five or six people all summer. At this rate, to think I might ride with a good portion of my 300 or so Facebook friends seems wishful thinking. But I will keep working on it!
About Me—I grew up all over the southwestern US, never spending too much time in any one location. Now I count “driving around and checking shit out” as perhaps my favorite pastime behind work and riding. I am a creative director at Orbea Bicycles and consider myself lucky because the company is more like a family than a job and, also, because Spain (duh!) I have made lasting friendships with folks at Challenge Tires, Castelli Cycling, Enve Composites, Kali Protectives andRace Face that keep my cycling fun, sexy and purposeful with their incomparable gear. Thanks to Padraig and Red Kite Prayer for prompting me to expand this idea, and thank you for reading. The selected images and many others can be viewed on instagram under the hashtag #jmhridewithfriends or in my profile @jmhstagram.