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