Forged in solitude: Following Luis Ángel Maté’s gravel pilgrimage

Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Luis Ángel Maté dedicated part of his pre-season on a 650km gravel journey along the famed Camino Ignaciano, from the Basque Loyola to the Catalan Manresa

Racing in a peloton with 200 riders thundering at high speed, fighting to maintain your position, with the risk of hitting the ground hard, makes for a stressful work environment. Riders have different ways of decompressing. For some, time spent with the family is how they relax; others simply put their feet up. And some need those moments of solitude where it’s just them, (maybe also a friend they can trust), their bike, and nature. It’s something a lot of cyclists can relate to: you need the calm sound of the leaves, the quiet hiss of the wind and that slow pace that allows you to gather your thoughts and think about the bigger picture. You need to think about life. In our latest adventure with Pachamama, we’re searching out that very moment of solitude. 

Luis Ángel Maté, a professional cyclist for the Basque team Euskaltel-Euskadi, is no stranger to long, solitary rides where he takes a step back from the professional peloton. These rides have often helped him reconnect with a sport he loves, but which can also be violent in terms of its focus on high performance and data.

A different dimension

And when he goes off the grid with his gravel bike, getting lost in places where there are no cars or other riders, he can tap into the energy that he sometimes misses when he’s too focused on his training and race calendar. 

“Solitude helps me find myself again,” he says. “Because when there’s no one else around, only then can you find who you are.”

In those moments, Maté is reminded that the fast pace of modern life takes us away from the best things we have: our appreciation of the small things, the need to slow down and the joy and gratitude for every moment we’ve been given.

“We have to enjoy every breath,” he says. “It’s a phrase that the late Michele Scarponi [the former professional who died in a crash while out training] used to remind us of with his actions.”

The Ignatian Way

And that’s why in December of last year, Maté took on a bike ride in his native Spain, which was also a journey into himself. Starting from the Basque municipality of Loyola, Maté rode 650 kilometres to reach the Catalan city of Manresa. The route is known as the Camino Ignatiano (Ignatian Way), first covered on foot by Saint Ignacio de Loyola – who later founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits – in 1522. Between the start and finish, some of the most beautiful and most diverse landscapes in northern Spain unfold: the Basque forests, the mountains and valleys of Navarra, the Aragonese flatlands, and then Catalonia, with its mixed and rugged views.

And much like Maté and the pilgrims who take the Way these days, Ignacio searched for reconciliation and forgiveness. While doing so, he went in the opposite direction of the other pilgrims, who were heading to Santiago de Compostela on the same road.

Maté has followed in the tracks of Saint Ignacio: his journey is a physical one, but also a spiritual one.

 “In these moments, I remind myself what I want to achieve and how I should achieve my goals. But I also remind myself that I need to pursue those goals differently. Without the stress of our society and the stress of competition,” he says. “These trips may not be the best way to prepare physically for a race, but mentally, they're so important to me. Cycling has become too obsessed with numbers and watts. You have to weigh your pasta and rice every day. And that’s too hard, particularly for the youngsters getting into the sport.”

A proper endurance challenge

Similarly to other long backpacking adventures, the Ignatian Way is not only for self-reflection and meditation. It’s a proper endurance challenge, with all the positives and the negatives that riding a bike for hundreds of kilometres every day entails. But even then, even in those challenging moments, the bike and the solitude can become wise counsellors. 

“The weather can be cold, particularly in December, or you may have a mechanical problem or one day you don’t fuel properly,” says Maté. “But that’s one thing cycling teaches you: that small crises and bad moments shall pass. As human beings, and not only cyclists, we need to learn to face these moments, which aren’t actually bad. The real bad things in life are very different.”

 Maté mainly rode on gravel roads in his pilgrimage, apart from a handful of sections where he switched to tarmac to get to a village in time for dinner and to find a place to sleep for the night. He had only booked one small hotel for the first night of the eight days he spent on the road. For the rest, he just looked at the map and improvised. 

“I stopped when I wanted, or if I had seen a place I liked. I remember I also bought some cheese from a dairyman,” he says.

And asked whether he would have preferred to walk the Camino instead of riding, Matê has no doubt. “The bike is the best means of transport: you can go fast, you can cover great distances, but also slow enough to enjoy a place.”

More adventures

Maté also says his season will be planned so he can give his all at the Vuelta a España. But he’s already thinking of the next adventure, though he has more ideas and plans than he has time to execute all of them.

In these trips, Maté looks not only for internal peace, but also for the roots of a sport that sometimes forgets the beauty of riding in solitude. The beauty of riding without pressure, in wild places, just for the sake of riding.

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