Words by Erik Allen, photos by Conquista Bikepacking
My name is Erik Allen, and I am from a small town in Holland. I’ve been pedaling for a long time, but in recent years, I discovered bikepacking. Since then, I’ve signed up for a couple events and used them to discover the world every year.
I read that La Conquista Bikepacking had some of the greatest cultural significance in the world, including castles, Roman ruins, cave paintings, and more. It follows a 650-kilometre route from deep and empty Spain to the coast, tracing the route that El Cid Campeador made on horseback from Burgos to Valencia 1,000 years ago. I decided to repeat the ultra-distance feat, following the philosophy of minimalism, camaraderie, and enthusiasm for discovery, but this time my mount would be my bicycle, instead of Bavieca, Cid’s horse.
I flew to Madrid and made my way to Burgos, the starting point of La Conquista Bikepacking. The briefing was in bilingual English/Spanish in an impressive Middle Ages Monastery. I met bikepackers from the USA, Germany, France, Spain, Canada, and Belgium. After some advice and anecdotes, we pick up our jerseys, caps, and leave a personal backpack for the logistics van that we’ll pick up in Valencia, at the end of the ride. I head back to the hotel to have dinner and rest.
My bike setup is going to be light. It consists of a saddle bag for clothing and a sleeping bag; a power bag for chargers and energy bars; a handlebar bag for tools, spare parts, hygiene, and some clothing; and two 750ml bottles. There are numerous drinking fountains along the route, and we have to seal our safe passage at six checkpoints, where there will be some food.
It’s almost 7 a.m., it’s a little cool, and we are ready under the Cathedral of Burgos, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a massive building from the 13th century that dwarfs us. The organizers give us a geo-locator, I open the track on my GPS, and we set out like the Cid Campeador did 1,000 years ago to conquer Valencia.
We cross the city with a police escort and immediately take a dirt road surrounded by green wheat fields and poppies. As we ride, we discover hermitages, old monasteries, castles, and medieval towns, some of which have been abandoned. We cross the impressive Lobos River Canyon with its towering limestone walls dotted with vegetation.
My objective today is the town of Medinaceli, at Checkpoint #2, just over 200 kilometres away. On the way, we pass through Sad Hill, an emblematic place of Western cinema where The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly was filmed with Clint Eastwood. We ride through Santo Domingo de Silos, with its Monks monastery. I stop at a bakery to buy some local bread and sausages that taste amazing.
I arrive at Medinaceli, where they have provided us with a place to sleep under a roof, shower, and feast on fruit, drinks, and snacks. I take out my stove, have some dinner, and unfold my sleeping bag almost without strength. It has been a long day at the office.
I pack my luggage and leave before dawn. The town is shrouded in mysterious fog, and I see forests, moorlands, and the rising sun introduces me to its inhabitants: birds of prey, foxes, deer, and wild boars. Soon, it is the villagers who greet me in surprise as I pass by in Cobeta, Molina de Aragón, and Albarracín. “Where are you going with that all that gear?” Some ask me. “To Valencia!” I answer.
It seems unbelievable, but I feel better today than yesterday. I am tired but adapted to the terrain that follows dirt roads with some lonely paved roads. I pass by thick forests, lagoons, and a small desert of impressive reddish colors. I arrive at the city of Teruel, where I am surprised by its Mudejar art buildings from the Middle Ages. The fourth checkpoint is at a bikepacking store called Surya that links up with the Montañas Vacías route, which is part of my route. The shop has left us drinks and delicious ham. Today, after 220 kilometres and many emotions, I prefer to rest in a small and cozy hotel in the city.
I leave Teruel at 7 a.m. Today, there are only 140 kilometres left until Valencia, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Although it is not a competition, if I arrive before 12 p.m., I will be a “Silver Finisher,” so I ride fast along the greenway, an old mining train track, going through tunnels that have been adapted to a cycle path. It’s mostly downhill, which helps me improve my average speed, but I stop because I see Ulrich, a German who has broken his chain, standing beside his bike, hands full of grease. Among bikepackers, there is an unwritten code of assistance between us, so I help him fix his chain with a spare link, and we continue southeast.
The last obstacle will be the Sierra Calderona Natural Park, a climb along a dirt track with 350 metres of climbing to a high point with views of the sea. Here I stop, take out my stove, and have some soup. I continue descending to the orchard of Valencia and enter the city that El Cid conquered 1,000 years ago, but this time it is the city that conquers me with its climate, food, and its City of Arts and Sciences as an emblematic building and its modern port.
My GPS tells me that I only have one kilometre left when I see some flags on the beach. There are other participants from Canada, Spain, France, and some of the event organizers. They stamp the last checkpoint in exchange for a portion of paella and my finisher medal. Not bad for a battered bikepacker.
I am a finisher after almost 60 hours, 651 kilometres, and 8,560 metres of climbing. I leave everything in the sand, and I can’t help but be tempted to take a bath in the Mediterranean.
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