Rachel Dixon. When I heard about Ticket to Ride’s new “cycle surfari” from Bordeaux to Bilbao – cycling 300 miles over seven days and surfing en route – I jumped at the chance to join. OK, so I only ever cycle a few miles to work. And sure, I’ve never been on a surfboard. But how hard can it be?
It’s a sunny afternoon in September when I meet the other seven members of the group at a campsite in Lacanau, near Bordeaux. The trip is aimed at competent surfers, but basic lessons can be provided – and the conditions are perfect for my first surf lesson. I even manage to stand up a couple of times, before an evening around the campfire and a sound night’s sleep on a comfy camp bed in my one-man tent.
The next morning, I skip pre-breakfast surfing, mindful that I have a 55-mile bike ride to Biscarrosse ahead of me. Those 55 miles turn into 75, thanks to a few wrong turns (this was a recce trip, after all). But the ride through Les Landes is largely easy, through flat farmland, and there’s a lake to swim in when we arrive at our destination.
Max, the trip leader, guides us through some yoga stretches before we crack open the beers. Most nights we eat homemade meals with wine at the campsite (paella, fajitas, Thai green curry), but tonight we head out for pizza. With our luggage transported and camps set up each day, we don’t need to think about pitching tents.
It’s on the second day of cycling that the scale of the challenge hits me. My tired legs are desperately trying to keep pace with the peloton in torrential rain – what had I let myself in for? Thankfully, it’s a shorter ride, mostly through a pine forest, and the sun comes out when we reach Mimizan. Surf conditions are too dangerous for beginners, so I rest by the pool.
Beach yoga kickstarts the next morning, followed by surfing. Then it’s back on the bike for a long ride to Seignosse, a small surfers’ town surrounded by forest just outside Hossegor, another surf mecca. On cycle paths almost all the way, we whiz past pretty villages, but don’t have time to stop and explore. In the evening, we refuel with craft beer and tapas at the Heads Beach Brewing Company.
The next morning, big waves at Hossegor are quite scary for a novice; but it’s great to see the group’s more experienced surfers in action.
Today we’re heading into the Basque country. We cycle along busy roads to lively Biarritz for lunch, then through Saint-Jean-de-Luz, a lovely fishing port with grand 18th-century buildings. Our final stop is Hendaye, a seaside resort near the Spanish border. I stop for a glass of rosé before dinner back at the campsite.
Morning dawns bright and clear and I paddle out on the board – beginners stay within their depth in the white water, so this is a step up. And the cycling is about to step up, too. To get from France to Spain we need to cross the Pyrenees over Jaizkibel, the western-most range. It’s a long, slow, excruciating climb to the top (547 metres). I tuck in between two riders (one is the Olympic snowboarder Jenny Jones, who sometimes works with Ticket to Ride) and pedal in my lowest gear. Reaching the summit is an incredible feeling: we round a corner and run into a professional cycling team, who fill our water bottles and take our photos while we catch our breath and take in the view.
I have no hope of keeping up with Jenny on the descent – she sprints off while I cling tight to my handlebars, trying not to fly off the side of the mountain. It’s still the longest, fastest downhill of my life, and I love it; it makes the agony of climbing worth every painful minute.
We don’t have time to stop for lunch in San Sebastián, cycling straight past the tempting pintxos bars before tackling more hills on the way out of the city. We do manage a pitstop in Orio (for Oreo ice-cream) before reaching Zarautz and its long beach. On future trips, there will be a rest day here to maximise surfing time.
The penultimate day of riding is along a gorgeous, rolling coastal road that sweeps up to panoramic headlands and then down to fishing villages and small towns. We stop for a beer on the quayside in Lekeitio, where a feria is in full swing. It’s too flat to surf, so we swim out to a tiny island, Isla de Garraitz, instead. Cycling to our clifftop campsite, I get off and push – it’s so steep, I fear falling off backwards.
Days pass in a blur of cycling, surfing, eating and sleeping, but it’s finally time for the last push: Bilbao. We turn inland, stopping at Guernica for coffee and at Larrabetzu, a town on the Camino del Norte pilgrimage route, for lunch. One minute we are cycling through hail storms, the next through blazing sunshine.
There’s a final climb into Bilbao, a city cruelly ringed by mountains – our total accumulative elevation for the trip is 4,267 metres. Breaching the city limits and plunging downhill to our hostel is pure euphoria. I forget my exhaustion on a bar crawl of the Casco Viejo, and squeeze in a trip to the Guggenheim the next day.
After this debut trip, Ticket to Ride shortened the route (it now starts in Mimizan) and added a couple of easier options (Bordeaux to Biarritz, and northern Spain). Other changes include a simpler camp set-up, and more of a mix of camping and hostels. I would also suggest paying more attention to nutrition on the road: I’m pretty sure Tour de France riders don’t live on cheese baguettes.
So, a cycle surfari proved a bit harder than I expected. OK, a lot harder. But no pain, no gain – and the feeling as we cycled into Bilbao was worth any amount of pain.
The trip was provided by Ticket to Ride. There is limited availability on cycle surfaris from Bordeaux to Biarritz (18-25 May and 4-11 Sept, £1,195);Bordeaux to Bilbao (25 May-2 June and 14-22 Sept, £1,295); and northern Spain (8-15 June, £1,195). Trips include transfers, most meals and surf equipment but not flights and bikes