Saskia Martin / From Bad to Better

All my holidays involve riding bikes. I simply can’t sit still and I’m always on the quest for the right type of epic.

Mentally exhausted and with holiday plans in disarray, Saskia Martin looked to the desert wilderness of Andalusia to force a reset. Heading south to ride the Badlands route with her friend Cat Karalis, the redemption Saskia sought proved elusive but she did discover a sense of self and a way of once again moving forward.

Illustrated with her own beautiful photography, Saskia offers a warm and honest reflection on the healing properties of friendship and the freedom of the road.


As a senior product developer for Rapha, my job is to make our designer’s dreams and concepts into a reality. But as it’s a very fast-paced role – which I love because I thrive in chaos and under time constraints – that brings with it a certain degree of pressure and I was close to burn out.

With this feeling compounded by both work and home life revolving around bikes, I woke up one morning and didn’t want to ride. I was still commuting by bike but even that was exhausting. A physical tiredness but also an emotional sense of weariness that was devastating—I was basically going through a break-up with my bikes.

These issues couldn’t have come at a worse time because I’d signed up for the Atlas Mountain Race with my friend Cat. So when this was postponed and still having a window of annual leave to fill, we decided to book a flight to Málaga to see if I could rediscover my cycling mojo by riding the Badlands route. A fuck-it attitude of let’s see how we will do.

My friendship with Cat grew through working together at Rapha. From Regent’s Park laps to weekend bivvying, we’re always searching for our next cycling adventure and have a shared Excel spreadsheet permanently detailing our packing lists. All sub-categorised, a tick underneath each heading tells us who’s bringing what. 

Just getting our boxed bikes to the airport proved one of the trip’s biggest challenges. Cat was taking her Cannondale MTB so her box weighed in at 30 kg – my Juliana gravel bike a relatively svelte 25 kg – but both proved a burden as we pushed and pulled them across London’s Tower Bridge at 5:00am in the morning.

Landing in Málaga saw us building our bikes outside the terminal before riding to the train station and, unbeknownst to us, a train strike. With no news on a resumption of services, we decided to take back logistical control and ride to Granada and the start of the Badlands route.

Messaging my friend to ask if he could make us a route, he sent one through but warned us not to question the elevation as he’d just done an A to B on Komoot. It was Day Minus One and we had 130 km to cover with 2,500 m of climbing—no problem!

From the outside, our hostel in Granada looked really dodgy but proved to be a palace. Which added to our guilt when we got the camping stove going in our room to brew up our morning coffee. As we’d planned to bivvy each night, this would be our last taste of luxury until our pre-booked Airbnb in Colmenar. I’d used Google Maps to pinpoint each evening’s placement for our makeshift camps but that didn’t exactly go to plan either.

Setting off from Granada we got our first taste of the terrain with a few tumbles to fuel our adrenaline levels. Stopping to spend the night on the edge of a small town, we were pitted against a torrential downpour and gale force winds. These meteorological challenges prompted a shockingly-bad attempt at fixing up a shelter to protect us from the elements. With a tarparline stretched over our bikes, we resorted to supporting the centre of our ‘roof’ with a stick in an effort to divert the rivulets of water away from our heads. Surprisingly, considering the climatic conditions, I slept like a log—Cat, not so much.

Waking up on Day Two, I felt refreshed but Cat had slight bivvy eyes. Automatically slipping into my efficient mode, I prepped breakfast and quickly packed up everything for the off. Naturally we immediately began to climb—a rutted track that was so steep we were forced to push our bikes with outstretched arms and bent knees. Finally reaching the top, any sense of elation was immediately quashed by a British cycle-brand busy with their photoshoot.

Leaving behind the models on bikes, photographer, art director, assistants and cars – so much for seeking out the wilderness – we found our way through a series of gorges that sliced through the arid hillsides. A mini Grand Canyon with wild goats and an isolated monastery adding a touch of local colour—also provided by my Garmin and its coded difficulty ratings on the climb profiles. Ranging from a benign green through yellow, orange and finally a heart-palpitating dark red, I would shout out our colour zone at every opportune moment.

Feeling the need for some creature comforts, we decided to book a hotel for the night. On arrival – after we were passed on the road by the photoshoot crew – this establishment proved curiously reminiscent of a Hollywood film set. Embracing its quirky charms and taking the opportunity to wash out our kit, we slept without the need to take turns holding a stick and both woke ready to greet the next day’s challenges.

With this restful night providing an added vigour to our riding, the off-road trails gradually transitioned into a section of forest—both of us enjoying the changes in shade and light and a part of the trip where the chatter of our conversations proved particularly resonant. With our voices and laughter held in this timber-like lattice, it reminded me that what I love about bike-packing is the sound as you ride—the hum of tyres on smooth tarmac or the crunch of gravel on a trail. Very unfortunately I’d been advised that it would be okay to fit these really cheap disc pads and they were screaming whenever I slowed down. To such an extent that I dreaded descending and anyone who knows me, knows that I love to descend. All I wanted to do was climb because at least that meant I could avoid the anxiety of coming down again.

In the forest, however, this wasn’t so much of an issue as my style of riding at home meant I could confidently pick my line and brake less. And it was here that we first spotted through a gap in the trees, the white domes of the Calar Alto Observatory.

Struggling to work out the distance to this landmark, the road inevitably began to climb until I was finally sitting, eating some sweets, and taking in the architecture of this incredible mountain top cluster of buildings. Wishing we could stay and camp out under the stars, I also knew we faced a long descent and that my brakes would scream all the way down. Sure enough, the noise was so loud that when I finally reached the bottom I was crying—no fun at all and with an added sense of losing my thing. Because my thing is descending.

Searching for somewhere to spend the night, we decided on a lay-by next to a motorway. Admittedly it was a bit grim and we were bedeviled by swarms of mosquitoes but the sky was clear so we didn’t need to be covered by our tarp and we fell asleep under a blanket of stars.

Dawn saw us rising with the sun and counting our mosquito bites. Cat almost immediately had a puncture so, once fixed, we sought comfort in a café. Here I experienced one of the highlights of our trip – the shouts and laughter of the customers, the bustle of orders being brought to tables – and what I love about my rides in and around London. Lapping Regent’s Park isn’t exactly exciting but you do it with friends and go to a café afterwards. It sets you up right for the day—which was what I was witnessing in that little corner of Spain.

On our way again, this was the day we’d be crossing the Tabernas—the only official desert on the European continent. My favourite day as it turned out because the terrain was so technical that it cleared my mind of other concerns. We were riding tiny tracks with a drop off to either side and the knowledge that if either of us made a mistake the consequences could be severe. And although a barren landscape, the colours were truly vibrant and we loved carrying our bikes across rail tracks that disappeared either way into the distance.

Closing in on the end of our sojourn, in some ways I was feeling a little deflated. We were always behind in our plans due to the problems with our transfer from the airport and this meant we’d cut out some sections of the official Badlands route. And there was this voice in my head telling me that we should have done more. Cat patiently pointed out that we were on holiday and should only do what we want to do and not worry about the rest. It took me some time but eventually I managed to get to that place and this process was helped by our time at a campsite by the sea. We rented a plot and there were toilets and showers – such luxury – and you fell asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the beach.

To ride the route with Cat – an experienced ultra-distance racer and one of the most wonderful people in my world – was why I kept on moving forward. Every time I doubted or questioned, she was there with a gentle reminder of how to be present and embrace the moment. And what struck me as we wound our way back in the direction of Málaga and our waiting Airbnb, was the constantly shifting landscapes we’d ridden through. Road, desert, forest, beach, rolling coastal-California—jaw-dropping visual surprises like the desert train tracks and flamingos in a lagoon. Views and vistas that I tried to capture with my camera as an added reminder of the joys we had both shared.

In all honesty, I use cycling as therapy—I run away from my problems by riding my bike. But when we returned home and everyone was asking how we got on, I had to put on this front and tell them how amazing our trip was. Because I really wish I could say that I found my cycling mojo in the Badlands of southern Spain but I didn’t.

What I did find was a desire to ride my bike a little more. And our trip gave me the time to reflect on what’s actually important to me and what makes me happy. Everything in life shapes you to one degree or another—the next time you go and do something, you do it as a different person. We’re always growing and I do understand that Badlands has changed me. I just haven’t as yet figured out how.


All images with kind permission of Saskia Martin

Cat Karalis

Badlands 2022

Cristina Sanser / Badlands

With 85% of the route off-road, Badlands is an unsupported, ultracycling gravel challenge that rewards self-sufficiency. So what happens if things take an unexpected turn under the searing sun of Andalusia?

Cristina Sanser had taken a whole year to prepare before rolling up to the September startline. But finding herself riding through a beautiful but unforgiving landscape, she needed to find the inner strength to stop and say enough.


Why Badlands? I suppose I should start by explaining that I’ve only been riding a bike for four years—and only consistently for a year and a half. With the whole Covid situation, I had to work from home and everything was so boring with no travelling allowed. My friends and I saw the Badlands documentary from last year and when the bars once again opened, we went for a drink and decided why not?

The year I spent training for it, in the back of mind I was doubting whether I would ever be ready. I’m pretty fit but everyone taking part in the challenge is super strong and I’m still working my way up the ladder in terms of technical ability. So in the end, I decided to just treat it as a holiday. I would sign up and whether I finished the race or not, this would be an excuse to visit another part of Spain and have some fun.

I was riding – unofficially – as a team. We entered two as a pair and one more as an individual but the plan was to ride together. Freya had recently moved to Girona from the UK and is super strong with a racing background—very much a mentor to me and really helpful advising on things like bike gearing and clothing. My other friend, Laura, is a sports scientist and cycling coach and my pre-race level of fitness was all due to her help and encouragement.


I was fully aware that we were facing certain metrics—the distance, the terrain, the allowed time window of six days. But we’d prepared well with a first training block that built up an endurance base, a second block with a higher intensity and then a third which combined elements of both. Quite a commitment when working office hours in a demanding role.

In terms of a bike and equipment, budget played a part in the decisions we made. Everything is so expensive but fortunately I managed to upgrade to a BMC URS gravel bike—the geometry works better for me and it gives me more confidence if the surface is poor. And all of these different strands of preparation came together on a test ride in the Pyrenees—lots of climbing, super technical sections and sleeping outside. Mentally, we’d been planning this for so long that it felt settled in my brain. So I suppose, in a sense, I was prepared to suffer. To suffer a lot.

Perhaps inevitably, the closer we got to the start date the more our nerves began to build. I’d never raced before – ever – so the thoughts going through my head involved what would happen if I crashed in the first ten kilometres. Or maybe I wouldn’t be able to unclip and everyone would see me and laugh. And in hindsight it was a mistake to book a hotel outside of Granada’s city centre. We walked a lot before Badlands got underway but then we walked a lot during the race too.

Attending a rider briefing a couple of days before the start, we got to talk to people who had already raced Trans-Pyrenees and the previous year’s Badlands. Very simply, this proved to be super motivating and I left the briefing feeling that, yes, I could do this.

Race day arrived with Laura waking to a painful wisdom tooth. Typically, she cast aside any thoughts of not riding in the time it took to take some paracetamol and we rolled up at a park area to set off as a bunch. Riding amongst all the other competitors during the first 20 km, I was close to tears. What was I doing with all these super strong and experienced riders? But we’d spent 12 months preparing for this moment and that thought carried me through those initial nerves.


Climbing upwards and upwards, the gravel trails gradually became more technical and on some sections we were jumping on and off the bike. But even though the heat was intense and the riding hard, the first day was fun. I even have a picture of me smiling.

With the sun setting in the sky, we rolled into the village of Gorafe. My friends and l felt tired but seeing all the other competitors who’d also chosen this location to snatch a few hours rest gave us an emotional lift. We grabbed some food and then laid out our mats and sleeping bags on the roadside to sleep. Three hours later we woke up – not to say that I actually slept with all the night time noises – and got underway again to hit the desert before sunrise. 

This proved to be truly an amazing experience. Very technical – especially descending with bike lights – but it felt like an epic adventure. Approaching another small village, we stopped briefly for a couple of quick coffees before continuing. But even though we’d refilled all our bidons and hydration packs, we eventually began to run short of water and needed to ration how much we drank despite the intense heat. 

Freya had pushed on ahead – she’s such a strong rider – as the landscape gradually changed from gravel to sand. Really technical to ride but we’d managed to maintain a good race position and our spirits were up. And then, without warning, I crashed. Maybe because I was dehydrated – my Wahoo was reading 49°C – but my front wheel hit a soft patch of sand and I lost control. A silly mistake rather than a tragic accident but I hit my head when the bike went over. Taking a moment to gather my senses, all the good feelings that had buoyed our progress so far seemed to evaporate into the cloudless sky. Climbing back on my bike, for the next couple of hours I was dizzy and disorientated—cresting every rise with the expectation of a village and water but finding only barren nothingness.


Catching up with Laura at the end of a long and draining climb, I discovered her crying. And Laura never cries. A true lover of nature and always happiest in the mountains, seeing her upset made me realise that our race was starting to fall apart. Then Laura’s mum called to ask if Freya was still with us—she’d been dot watching and could see she was off route. I immediately called Freya and thankfully she answered. She’d taken a wrong turn and then had to backtrack – uphill – to regain the route. We’d already booked a hotel earlier that morning so we agreed to meet there and decide what to do. What she didn’t tell us over the call was that she’d been continually vomiting due to dehydration.

We now had a strong headwind and 25 km of super technical riding between us and the hotel. More walking than riding, it felt an impossible task and by then we’d run out of water. But somehow we managed to keep moving until we finally reached the hotel to be greeted by Freya. She’d cooked food for us – such an angel – and when we began to feel more comfortable we talked about our options.

The next day was 140 km with no stops for food or water. Food had never really been an issue but the availability of water in this scorching heat was a real concern. And what Freya and I hadn’t realised – because she didn’t want to burden us – was that Laura now had an infection in her tooth and had exhausted her supply of paracetamol. Weighing up these different factors, we all felt the same and decided to stop.

Will I return to race Badlands again? Looking back from the comfort of home, there’s a part of me that still questions whether we should have continued. I feel tears begin to well-up when I think of all that preparation and how we’d pictured ourselves finishing. But we made the decision together and we cried together.

Sometimes things are just out of your control and it would have been foolhardy to continue with Laura suffering and in pain. And I do recognise that mentally I’m very strong. Who knew – even if we didn’t finish – that I would find myself rolling up to the start line of Badlands? That I’d be happy to sleep in the street? And being able to say enough and accepting that it was the right decision—that proved far harder and took more strength than continuing to ride.


Cristina / Laura / Freya / Over&Out

Photography by Juanan Barros and Carlos Mazón

Badlands