Landing Overland: London To Madrid Off-Road For A Good Cause

Alvaro de la Camara Martin is an ultra-endurance fanatic and Co-Founder of Cycling 4 Soup, a collective using sport to share stories, explore new challenges and raise awareness of community issues. In February 2022, Alvaro decided to cycle from his home in South London to Madrid, all off-road on his gravel bike. His aim was to complete the 1500km route non-stop, solo, and unsupported in under 70 hours, in aid of Ella’s – a charity that supports women who have survived trafficking and sexual exploitation. Here, he shares how mental fatigue made him dig deeper than he ever has before and how his community brought some magic to the end of the ride.

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Alvaro stands atop his bike, silhouetted against the sun

 

I’ve been a supporter of Ella’s for a long time, helping where I can and following their incredible work helping victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation with a safe space and tailored support to get them back on their feet. With travel restrictions easing, I wanted to do something to support them and raise awareness through a new challenge.

After some thought, I came up with the idea of riding from my house in London to Madrid, in the winter and as one single push. The dark and cold would keep me thinking and digging deeper than waiting for warmer weather or breaking the ride up. I wanted to have to really fight for it, to reflect on the horrible situations these victims find themselves in before they get the support they need.

The plan was easy, London to Newhaven, ferry to Dieppe, Dieppe to Madrid nonstop. But when do things ever go to plan on rides like this?! To really test my limits physically and mentally, I decided to take my gravel bike.

Alvaro sets off in London

From the beginning, I told myself two things: First, if at any point I felt like I might crash due to tiredness, I would stop and sleep for a bit. Second, I would forget the miles, soak everything in and enjoy the fact that I was doing what I love the most.

If I’m completely honest, by the first night I was already telling myself that I was going to sleep. Then the sun came up and everything was back to feeling better. When the second night came, it felt like time stopped moving. I kept checking the time over and over, counting the minutes until my next food stop, which just made it worse. Finally, the sun rose again, warmer this time, and I started recognising the landscape I was riding through, giving me another push to keep going.

I knew the final night wouldn’t be as bad. Knowing it was the last night meant I was in a good state of mind heading into it… or so I thought.

I was so tired my eyes weren’t working properly, and my brain was frazzled. Looking at things in the pitch back was quite trippy and I thought I was seeing things. I wasn’t comfortable and was worried that the ride might come unstuck in the last push. I had to dig as deep as possible, remembering why I was riding and putting myself through this. I remembered to be grateful that I was able to ride my bike, and that’s what kept me pushing.  It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, by far, but I took every minute in and I think that’s what got me through.

Alvaro rides a gravel trail

The Spanish leg of my ride really highlighted to me how important community is for these challenges. My sister Maria and one of my best friends, Marcos, drove all the way to the north of Spain to follow me in my sister’s van, documenting and taking photos. The support was incredible and really raised my spirits. After the third night, when my head was all over the place, I remember feeling very broken and as soon as I saw them in the van everything changed. It was like Christmas came early!

More people joined as I got nearer the finish. After the Canencia mountain pass, my friend Javi and a few others joined me for the final 70km. It was a very special moment – we didn’t even stop, we hugged while we were riding. With 20km to go, even more people joined us, both familiar and unknown faces. They had heard about the challenge and wanted to show their support. Over 20 of us rode together and shared a good laugh as my challenge came to an end. I felt incredibly lucky to be surrounded by such a great group of human beings.

Alvaro poses behind his bike with his packs

Alvaro's route, displayed on his phone

It wasn’t all easy riding though and I had quite a few issues with my electronics. At one point, I found myself very far from civilization with my Wahoo out of battery, battery packs empty, tracker empty… I had to put my phone on airplane mode and managed to load offline maps through Komoot. Without so many backups, my ride would have been over.

I knew that snow might be a factor in parts of the ride, but I didn’t expect to encounter a four-metre-high wall of snow blocking the top of the final mountain pass. By the time I summited Cruz de la Demanda, I had been cycling for 60 hours nonstop, covering 1,430km, and was 2,000m up a mountain. I caught my breath, climbed off my bike and laid on the floor. My brain and body were totally at peace. I wasn’t angry or disappointed, I was just at peace.

This ride was a completely different game from anything I’ve done in the past. I don’t think I felt physically fatigued at any point – of course, I had some saddle sores, but not muscle fatigue. The mental side was the real challenge. This time I had to dig far deeper than I’ve ever done before and met a version of myself I’ve never looked in the eye before.

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