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Follow here my journey and stories around the World. 

 

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Team ŠKODA: meeting the cycling Pros

Ivan Blanco

Allez les bleus, par ici pour vous (bientôt)
Para los amigos de Indurain, es por aquí

 

How the heck did I end up in Paris with two former French Pro cyclists and 19 more passionate amateurs contending to enter Team ŠKODA…?

Lazy? Then scroll down and watch the video

If we go really really way back, we could say that my Kindergarten years and my always riding everywhere would be the beginning… But this isn't an autobiography so, fast forward to July 2015, in the middle of the Tour de France, I finally got myself my long desired road bike. Some of you may know that my return to the cycling World was with my 1st ever Saint James Pilgrimage, crossing Spain with my 30 something kg bike and bags to get home and live a life-changing journey; you can read all the 15 days over here.

 
Further and higher!
 

Hang in there

With the aim of going further and higher in my cycling goals, after long hours of internet scouting, and the Tour de France making me eager to get a new bike asap, I found one 3rd hand Cannondale Carbon bike which wasn't used more than 2000 km by its previous owners and was in mint condition, what a deal! What else could I ask, well, Serge, the seller (and with coincidentally the same last name as my mother…) was quitting road cycling due to a health condition, so he also sold me his completely new cycling shoes and threw in two free jersey and bib-shorts: what a way to start my road cycling adventure!

 
330 kms in one day?
Crazy?

Always!
 

I didn't take long to surpass the previous owners kilometric milestones and with just two big rides almost hit a quarter of that. Following goal after goal, my work commutes started to be mostly just on my bike and weekends opened up opportunities of travel and discovery never imagined, like a Col de Turini ride topping 180 km on my Strava (GPS tracking app), to just a week after hitting my still record ride of 330 km from Nice to Hyères (south-east part of Southern France) and back in one single journey; yes, some suffering and lots of food involved and, straight 11 hours sleep.

Another even more ambitious goal was attempted, but technical circumstances postponed it for a future momento… don’t be impatient, it will it will, you will know in time.

Committed to make it my main transport method, today I ride to work 20 km each way, surpassing already the 3k mark for this year, and close to the 10k for my still very young Cannondale. You truly know you love to ride, when you hit days of non-riding and feel that something is missing… or like Remi from Café du Cycliste said: you’re screwed mate, you’ve been bitten by the road bike bug!

True that, and loving it!

Cote d'Azur commutes

So without delaying more the initial question, on the final weekend of the Paris-Nice Pro cycling race, which I talked about here in another blog entry, I went for a pint and chill after one of my best cycling weekends up to that moment. Discovering a contest in CyclingHeroes.com via ŠKODA, I typed in the requested info an Bio and didn’t think much about it. Some kms had to be ridden via the Strava app, where my daily commutes did fulfill the needs more than enough.

Paris-Nice Challenge sunrise

I didn’t really think much about it anymore until a few weeks later… Checking the commercial tab in my mailbox, sifting through some electronics shop emails, Groupon discounts, Rouleur stories, photo gear emails, etc. Suddenly one catches my eye with “Congratulations” and signed by ŠKODA France… At first I thought, oh my, again an email where I might have won a car but need to give my details, bank account to some Prince in Africa… or else. But surprise surprise, I was among the 40 finalists to be part of the amateur ŠKODA cycling team!!! I couldn't believe it, I had to recheck what this was all about. The final 10 will win:

 
  • 3 weekends of exclusive coaching from Jérôme Pineau, 13 times Tour de France rider, 2 times climber’s jersey winner, and Florian Rousseau, 10 times track cycling World Champ and 3 times Olympic Gold medallist
  • All expenses payed
  • To ride a carbon road bike
  • Team equipment
  • Take part at the Etape du Tour, the most challenging sportive with 143 kms, 4 climbs of more than 1600m, gathering 15000 participants
  • ... and boy, this was just the appetizer!
 

Jerome Pineau in the center

But nothing is set yet, and the first stage was a Skype call with one of the coaches and someone from the organisation, and why not, on a Saturday, the same precise day two of my best friends got married and I was to be their photographer in the lovely town of Antibes. Due to this, I was unable to make it for the first call, so we rescheduled one after lunch… Exactly when we left the restaurant and with a few rosé wine glasses more, call came in and we had one great conversation about my cycling history, motivation, gear and some football chat about Madrid or Barcelona… Yep, the coach I got to talk with was Jérôme :)

If things were to go well, one week later we would have to meet at the famous Paris-Roubaix start. On Monday we would have the results and logistics would have to be deployed or not. No news on that day, so I simply started to think on some alternative weekend ride and was glad to have a nice chat with one of the Pros… But, next day an email came in: Congratulations! I had made it into the last 20 and had to start booking my tickets with destination: Paris! Unbelievable! I didn’t really sleep much that week and during half of it my head was looking forward to one unique weekend. This, bringing our bikes and ourselves, the hotel where to go, and the time we had to meet was all the info we were revealed.

What, I’m in the last 20 out of 900?¡?!

Having to work the day of travel, Friday was a late arrival for me, building up my bike, and some late dinner available at the reception’s microwave… Intrigue, jitters and excitement mixed up with some vague attempts of self control… eventually, sleepiness took over.

Day 1 hit the agenda and as well as during my Saint James Bike Pilgrimage, I praised myself to get one fulfilling breakfast to jumpstart the ‘race’ for a spot in the first ever Skoda Cycling Team. Talking about team, my first acquaintance was Mikael and we started talking about what might expect us, our cycling marks and he also graciously lend me the key to unscrew my pedals, which ended up being the only thing we would need that day. Seeing young Antoine overhearing us, I invited him over so we could meet as well. This started to look very promising already!

Destination Compiègne, legendary starting point of the Paris-Roubaix

After a quick refresh and bag check, the first ride of the weekend was going to be… On a bus. With some very far away photos of the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre, I had enough evidence that I 'was' in Paris. We went direction Compiègne to the starting town of the Paris-Roubaix pro cycling race, also known as the Hell of the North due to its treacherous parcours, on the same day the Pro teams were to be presented. With no clue of what was expecting us, with only pedals in our hands, my dreams of a cobble ride soon vanished. We however arrived to the very cobbly center with one big production film and photo crew awaiting us right from the exit of the bus. Each of us, more or less, was a bit overwhelmed by such attention and amazed when we finally got to face our coaches Jérôme Pineau and Florian Rousseau… After... of course, a few repetitive takes :)

The agenda for the morning ended up being pretty Media oriented and among Paul Barrocas, Skoda France’s Marketing Department Chief welcoming us for the upcoming press conference, interviews, some shootings and little revelations came to light like the fact that not only would the last 10 keep their shirts but also the gorgeous looking Lapierre Carbon bicycles that stood shiny and very desirable over that other pretty looking Skoda they were on... Hmmm... if I were to make into the final 10, I’d be happy to propose some kind of trade offs…

 
Enough, it’s time to pedal!
 

However, as exciting and glamorous this day was being presented, we weren't asked to put on our cycling garments just for the looks. The more challenge relevant task was to assess our power and put the base for further improvement if we were to join the final 10. First, home trainer sessions of 2 min gaps with max bpm (heart-beats per minute) -30, then -20 and -10, to end up in a very intense 10 secs at full speed. Never having done this, I don't really know if my data is worthy or not, however, for the data addicts among you there you go: my max bpm is around 193, at -10 got almost 400W and at the 10s sprint got it up to 720 with max bpm only at 185. 

Taking the opportunity of a dream come true, I escaped over to the presentations area and got the cherry on the cake for what was already one unique cycling experience. I saw again one of my favourite riders, Peter Sagan, who was presented together with his mates from the Team Tinkoff Saxxo, and I probably met his biggest, ‘little’, fan too:

We concluded this first long journey with one delicious buffet dinner back at the hotel and some nice mingling with the rest of the contenders was on the table. The best about it? The great camaraderie atmosphere and passion for the same sport, without the competitive mode that could be expected, was among all of us and it rather seemed to be a gathering of cycling friends coming back from a long day ride and share the same table with one big smile each... we were at that moment, the Skoda family! 

 
¡One big family!
 

One last thing was another photo shoot and a very early Saturday night's sleep. The next day was heavier in cycling and my first ever Time Trial was about to happen…

That’s all for now, with episode 1 already available, you will have to wait until episode 2 to discover who will be part of the #TeamSkoda and hit the #RoadToMorzine! 

If you wish to see what this all looked like and take the opportunity to revamp your French, then watch the video below and stay tuned for our 2nd and very exciting day!

Going North: Day 2 St. Jean de Luz - Ulia

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

On your first day of holidays, there's nothing better than wake up from a good night's rest in a very comfortable bed and indulge into the wide and great breakfast buffet that most hotels offer... Well, that was going to be the first and last time I would have such a rest on this Northern Saint James Way pilgrimage.

It truly was one great day to continue my journey and enter my dear home country: beautiful Spain! Sunday, brightly blue lit sky and bustling Saint Jean de Luz was anticipating a day full of pleasant surprises.

First pleasant surprise? Breakfast!

Champion's breakfast

With typical French pastry and products, this first meal of the day was a glorious one. Bonne Maman marmalade, French bread and toasts, mmmm Nutella, freshly pressed orange juice, fruits and the king fruit for cyclists and Minions... bananas! It was one great treat to myself after one hard month of work; the F1 is obviously the busiest time in Monaco (my place of work, check back on day 0). Besides, it's always good to fill up your belly and specially so before any long day cycling as you will see later on...

Second pleasant surprise? Without even leaving St. Jean de Luz, on another attempt to find a Camino credential (see day 1) at the town's church, music was in the air and when I approached, there was a very peculiar dance of sticks and jumps going on. A group of about 10 dancers in typical Basque region fashion were bickering sticks and jumping from one side to another, the energy and mood were fantastic and like the txikoli from the day before, it dived me again into Basque Country's culture.

2nd surprise: Paloteadores

However, going on to look for my credential, sadly the church was closed, but I found a priest just leaving it. I asked him if he had one, but he didn't, though, it was enough to start a conversation and make it the third pleasant surprise of the day!

3rd surprise: Dominique

Father Dominique who is in charge of the impressive Church Saint Jean Baptiste, kindly invited me over to his nearby house to at least get a stamp on a blank page. His kindness and positivity made me continue with him a photo project I started on my first Saint James Way; my photo-interviews of pilgrims and locals that I came across.

Having slept until quite late, this great encounter and the mesmerizing beauty of Saint Jean de Luz made me run late even more. After a detour to the lighthouse and the port, I quickly entered again into wild nature of thin thin paths, threatening cliffs and... punctures! Every cyclist's most annoying issue didn't wait long and it wasn't going to be the last one... but with the Basque Country's landscapes, even punctures are a great thing.

With views like this... even punctures are a good thing!

When I managed to get some traction, I got to cross the border to my dear Spain and reach its first town, Irún. This Basque town is usually the starting point for the several Northern Saint James Ways, which is reflected on the services and signs of the Camino. With the help of some fellow cyclist, that had engaged all his family for a Sunday ride, I entered the town easily. On my way out, there was only one route and it took me at least 10km inland and away from any coast, when I suddenly realized that I had taken the wrong Camino and was following the Basque Camino.

You can check out my rerouting below:

A little discomforted from my accidental detour, my fourth pleasant surprise was right in time with the sun starting to set down. I arrived to Pasai Donibane which had a great mood and energy in every corner. The orange colours of the settling sun, the children playing everywhere, families and friends enjoying a beautiful Sunday evening was the best thing I could wish for ending yet another cycling day. 

But pleasant surprise number five was heading towards me while I was looking over to the seaside next to the town's church. Many teenagers were queuing in front of it and wearing some kind of uniform... then they entered, and on 3 to 4 minutes intervals, applauses were heard from inside... after the third time, curiosity struck me, so I locked my bike and went in... it was full of people, no sitting place available and one of my best experiences was about to happen! Ranging from age 10 to 18, these kids were singing in chorus from some rather ecclesiastical songs up to some more commercial ones like Robbie Williams' "Angels". Nonetheless, the highest emotional point was reached when they started to sing "Caminante no hay camino" (=Wanderer, there's no path), based on a poem from Spanish writer Antonio Machado from the 19th century. It is not only a symbol for any Saint James Pilgrim, it can actually be considered one of our anthems!

Here's the moment:

5th pleasant surprise

If this wasn't enough to make me want to stay in this wonderful town, only one thing could... the town's fully booked albuergue (=pilgrim hostel)! Thus, the choice only was to continue my route... however, an inconvenient or... rather, pleasant surprise number six was on its way: I had to cross the town's estuary by boat, there's even an arrow hinting to that! 

Excited to literally embark my dear Orbeiña (see day 0 for reference) to go over-seas, I first did a quick pit stop to have some delicious tortilla (=Spanish omelette; one of our national dishes) and a beer. While fuelling up my engine a curious local approached me, Miguel. I told him about all my stories and journeys, and he told me where I could find the next albergue. We actually still keep in touch and I discovered he likes photography too. He told me some peculiarities of this little town, but I'll better just let his words speak about it:

Mascarón de "La casa de Iriberri" - © Miguel Artola

"In a small book about Pasai Donibane, when it starts to talk about the houses of important lineage, it states this: 'The house of Iriberri - One of its walls corresponds to the church's portico side. Its kitchen used to be right next to the parish which nowadays is the door that leads up to the cemetery. On the left side of this door, there's still a mascaron with no clues of its provenance. This house belonged to Alonso Villaviciosa."

He also made me aware that there is a shipyard nearby where they create vintage boats like the one shown in this beautiful photo he shared with me:

Boats from Pasai Donibana - © Miguel Artola

Very sadly, with the sun already hiding on the nearby hills, I had to leave Pasai Donibane which automatically became one of my preferred towns on the whole North Saint James Way, and it was just day two. However, as we say in Spanish No hay mal que por bien no venga (=Every cloud has a silver lining), it made me climb up to Mount Ulia where I shot one of my best pictures and it still gives me goosebumps when I remember being up there and seeing this:

Mesmerizing

After such a journey, with the clock ticking 10pm (pilgrim's usual going to sleep time...) I arrived to the only albergue up there just in time before they were closing. The restaurant guys had just left and unfortunately, the nearest restaurant had closed too, and the vending machines weren't working... I was there, hungry, tired and left with just one apple! It pretty much looked like one hard starving night and one of the best eaten apples I ever had.

Nevertheless, the stunning views over the night lit San Sebastian and fellow Valencia pilgrims with whom I started to talk were worth it. So much, that providence, destiny or just my seventh pleasant surprise of the day made that, they weren't hungry anymore and left a slice of tortilla and some crackers, which they kindly offered me. 

This truly was another example of the beauty doing the Saint James Pilgrimages have and specially, all the amazing, kind and helpful people you find along the Way. 

 
2nd Camino cycling tip: always carry a meal’s worth of food, you never know when you’ll need it most.
— June 7th 2015
 

Start and end of this day were all about our most basic need, food, but all what happened in the middle made this another unforgettable Camino experience!

If you wish to see more, stay tuned for amazing people and stories on my next Going North posts ;)

Going North: day 0 of my Northern Way to Santiago!

Ivan Blanco

Español aquí

Bull runnings, punctures, clay roads, branches, vineyards, puddles, tornado like storms, singing, laughing, amazing people and many stories more... that’s the “Camino de Santiago”!

The "Camino de Santiago" is a historic pilgrimage route that leads to the grave of the Apostle Santiago (St. James) and the most popular path is the French Way that goes from St. Jean Pied de Port (French Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (Spain), crossing unique cities like Pamplona, Burgos, León, Astorga and many more. There are 3 ways to do it, the classic walking, with a bicycle or riding a horse. The almost 800km that separate the French border with Santiago, the capital of the Galician region, are one big 30 days hike away for walking pilgrims or around 15 days for bike pilgrims. Keep in mind, most parts of it go through narrow forest paths, treacherous stoned and tree rooted hills, clay roads and only sometimes, some neat tarmac... With this in mind, I gave my dear Orbea mountain bike a very relaxing flight trip to St. Jean Pied de Port, before putting her to the biggest challenge yet! 

The “Camino de Santiago”: cycling 800km, 15 days of fun & many amazing stories!
— September 2014

It was in September 2014 when I had the chance to live this unique adventure that ended being one big turning point in my life. It brought me back my passion for cycling, adventures and photography as a means to tell stories. It pushed me to create my blog and start telling the incredible experiences I lived during this journey... if you’re curious, go over to www.theworldisahandkerchief.com/caminodesantiago where you can read and see my 15 days journey.

See below a few pictures of my last year's trip:

So it was then, that this journey reignited my love for the two wheels movement which I abandoned for some years. Thanks to this and my writings on this blog, it lifted up my involvement with the cycling World and soon after concluding my adventure I started to collaborate with LikeBike Monte Carlo: the most prestigious bicycle show in the World, managing their social media presence and content, as well as providing my photo skills for their events. It’s an exhibition of The Best in cycling in all its forms and colours; the next edition will be back in June 2016. On the other hand, I also started to bike commute to work, some 22km each way, which not only gets you fit, it also helps to avoid the very very common delays and strikes that the French rail system has us so much used to... and, it’s pure joy to overtake the cars queuing in traffic jams!

The incredible routes of the Camino de Santiago

Having an 18 days holiday in June, my head started to look for options... hmmm the amazing Norway was always on my list, but I'd rather visit it in winter and see its Aurora Borealis... Iceland is another one on my bucket list and they even have a mountain bike competition in June... Oh! But maybe I could do another Camino, though the Northern route seems too long to do in those days with it’s almost 200km more than the French one... “let’s check” I told to myself. Once the idea stuck in my mind and since this route looked like a rather flat trail things started to get going.

Therefore, I was slowly preparing for yet another unique journey. It was very clear to me, that my trusted Orbea (also 'Orbeiña' for friends) was going to be again my inseparable companion. Not only, I also had some amazing new apparel to try out, two cycling kits, one more urban the other more road like, from the French clothing brand Café du Cycliste, with a style not far from the great tradition of French cycling, but with the quality and performance of today’s best clothing brands. They are mainly an online retailer, but they just recently opened a real Café which perfectly reflects their brand and in one of the best spots of Nice’s Port.

The Real Café! ©Café du Cycliste

Being on a better shape than on my previous Camino, I was pretty confident to drag my 25kg loaded bike and bags across the 'easy' Northern path... delusional ... that’s probably what I can say now, from my former mental state!

A UNESCO World Heritage Site!

The Northern route is not as popular and crowded as the French Camino, but it's known to be a very beautiful route, harder than the French option and apparently closer to the St. James Apostle’s real one. Overshadowed by its French counterpart, which on top of its greater popularity, is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1993, this North against French rivalry finally reached equal terms; within the last meeting of the UNESCO committee on July 8th, the Northern path is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site too, due to its growing popularity (2nd option after the French Way) and its historic relevance. This will obviously increase the number of pilgrims going for it, but it will also increase the protection and services attached to it.

The Northern Saint James Way (purple line)!

As I said to myself back on my first Camino “Off I go!”!

It was in June this year when freshly landed in Biarritz, bike mounted, gears in place and with the thrill for a new adventure growing and growing, I was getting ready for a 15 days journey crossing the Northern Spanish territory to encounter fascinating stories, stunning landscapes, delicious food and amazing friends of the "Camino del Norte"; the Northern St. James Way!

Stay tuned to my next blog entries to see what happened on my "Camino del Norte"!