When you're racing in a peloton with 200 riders going at high speed, fighting to maintain your position and risking hitting the ground hard every day, you need a calm place to decompress.
You need those moments of solitude where it's just you (or maybe a friend you can trust), your bike, and nature. 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.
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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 that he loves, but which can also be violent in terms of its high-performing, data-driven element.
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 that energy he sometimes misses when he's too focused on his training and race calendar.
"Solitude helps me find myself again. Because when there's no one else around you, only then you can find who you are," he says.
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In those moments, Maté is reminded that our fast-paced 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. It's a phrase that the late Michele Scarponi [the former professional who died in a crash while he was on a training ride] used to remind us with his actions," he remembers.
The Ignatian Way
And that's why in December of last year, Maté took on a profound bike ride in his country of Spain, and within 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 Ignaciano (Ignatian Way), first covered 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 northern Spain landscapes unfolds: 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 instead heading to Santiago de Compostela through the same road.
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And much like Saint Ignacio, Maté has been riding his gravel bike in a different direction than most professional riders, who prefer the fast paved roads and rely on the constant pressure of power numbers and bike computers to lead their path.
"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 competitions," he says.
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," he says. "But that's one thing that 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."
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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 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 once," he says.
And asked whether he had 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 to enjoy a place."
Maté also says his season will be planned so he can give everything at the Vuelta a España, but he's already thinking of the next adventure — though he has many ideas and many plans, but little time to execute all of them.
"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, and you have to weigh your pasta and rice every day. And that's too hard, particularly for the youngsters getting into the sport," he says.
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In these trips, Maté not only looks for his 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.