I picked up a bicycle again a little under two years ago. It had been a sabbatical of almost ten years, the time in between having been filled with various team sports, a few gym memberships and a mild interest in running. When I look back at my more youthful years now I recognise that I always had an affinity with the bicycle.
In the beginning there was the bicycle I learned to ride on, I remember the first ride with no stabilisers being on the road that led to the neighbourhood’s garages. Then there was my Raleigh NightBurner BMX that had red handle bar and top-tube pads that I loved, neglected (on arrival of a new mountain bike) and then cried over when I discovered that my Dad had given it away.
I clearly remember an image of the mountain bike that replaced the BMX being in a photo taken in our front garden, a Universal twelve speed in two-tone bright green and white colourscheme sat proudly against the garden wall. I was always jealous of my friends who flashed their fancy eighteen speed mountain bikes around, but that didn’t stop me from bicycle rides in the Devonshire countryside with them (or even sometimes my Dad on a Sunday evening) or racing around the local industrial park when it was abandoned at night or on a Sunday.
Finally there was a bright yellow mountain bike with Grip Shift gears that a work-colleague won in Corona Beer sales competition at Tiger Tiger and which I immediately purchased so I could commute between work and university in my third year of university, and for a few more years after that. I distinctly remember blowing my nose after cycling home through traffic, along Oxford Road in Manchester, and a rather disgusting black, car exhaust fume infused snot always being dispelled when I got home. That bike was given away when I finally got my driving license, it was heavy and I was tired of it lingering unused in the hallways.
Almost two years on from the return of a bicycle in my life I find myself enjoying the whole experience, football, Ultimate Frisbee and running had left me with niggling injuries and pains, some that still haunt me today, but for the most part cycling just leaves me fatigued rather than being unable to walk properly on a Monday morning. My fitness levels are the best they have probably ever been and I have managed to ride across an entire country in South Korea, to the highest point in Thailand, as high as it was possible to ride in the Sierra Nevada and also a ride that encircled the Sierra Nevada. This means I feel there is more to give, so the logical advancement is more specific challenges, amateur races like Gran Fondos.
Earlier this year I picked out a local Gran Fondo, ‘La Indomable’ (the indomitable for those English speakers amongst you) a mass start amateur race that both begins and ends in Berja, a small town in the bottom reaches of the Alpujarras, a mountainous region that extends from the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada to the Mediterranean coastline. I paid my entry fee, booked a hire car and over the following months upped my training schedule accordingly.
I drove from Granada to Berja on the Friday evening on the eve of the race, collected my competitor number for my bike and shirt before heading to El Ejido, a nearby farming town in the middle of the ‘plastic sea’ (Google it!) to rest for the night. The following morning my alarm rang at 06:00 and I showered, geared up and drove back to Berja. I put my bike together (small hire car…) and nervously made my way to the start line.
I waited patiently on the start line as in the region of 1,200 other competitors made the same journey along the start grid toward the start line. I had got there a little early before the scheduled depart and found myself about fifty bikes from the front, as the crowds increased behind me we gradually bunched up. To add to the nerves the inflatable marker that stretched above the start line lost power and collapsed on the riders at the very front and the guy that was immediately to my right suffered a dramatic hissing puncture despite not even having moved yet.
Eventually the cavalcade of police cars, motorbikes, ambulances and race control cars ahead of the riders organised themselves and a flare was shot in the sky to signal the start. To my great relief I clipped into my pedals first attempt and we all rolled away through the streets of Berja. The mass of riders couldn’t pick up much pace through the town’s twisty roads, lined with locals clapping and cheering, but when we hit the main road the pace gradually built up and as we climbed steadily to a closed dual carriage way the pace lit up. The descent to the coastline and the ensuing 30 km along it set a frantic pace that didn’t dip much below 40km an hour and often crept upto 70km an hour. I somehow avoided a lost water bottle that sent riders scattering across the highway taking evasive action, but there were none of the serious pile ups that I had feared.
The road snaked inland towards Albunol where the first major climb of the race began to Alto del Hazo del Lino, 28km long and rising to 1,295m above the sea level that we had just turned away from. This was where I realised my true place amongst the amateur cycling ranks. I climbed at a solid pace for me, knowing there was still another 137km to go after the peak was reached, but I gradually dropped places to those who were lighter than me and those (who seemed to be everybody) who were riding carbon fibre bikes that were 2kg lighter than mine. Physics and genetics are a cruel beast, and when you are giving away 20kg+ to most Spanish riders because you’re 193cm tall you’ll inevitably lose time. That being said I had looked at the profile and knew that if I conserved energy now I would benefit in more suitable terrain later in the race.
Where the road forked near the top of the climb I reached the first feed station, which was essentially breakfast as I had failed to be particularly organised in the morning, and the riders would spilt in two, those on the full 197km ‘larga’ course and those on the shorter 147km ‘corta’ course. I of course was on the ‘larga’, being English.
The climb continued on for another five or so kilometres before a long twisty descent. The benefit of closed roads meaning all riders could enjoy the full width of the tarmac rather than the usual one side, which was fortunate as I flirted with the edge on a few misjudged hairpins. In the valley below the next climb began immediately. I had followed some of this climb the previous week when I had gone through Orgiva, Pampaneira and onto Capileira on a training ride. This time the route took a different direction after Pampaneira through Portugos and then onto Trevelez, the highest village in Europe at 1,480m (obviously discounting ski resorts) the climb peaking out at 1,537m above sea level and lasting a mere 35km…
It’s safe to say I shed a few more places but I also kept a steady pace, didn’t go into the red and as the climb went on the air, although thinner, became cooler. The summer sun was now blazing above and my biggest task was staying hydrated, I utilised a natural spring to replenish both bottles (the natural spring turned into a bit of a scrum as about ten of us descended on it at one time) and there was an extra drinks station halfway up where I could grab an isotonic drink.
Reaching Trevelez was a massive psychological boost, the two hardest climbs were in the books, the halfway point of the race had been bridged 13km prior to the village and the rest of the route was much more appealing to my physical strengths. In the centre of the picturesque village there was a food station, many riders were milling around the shaded tent where you could grab a bocadillo with some of the local ham as well as the high carb fruit, sweets, sugary coca-cola and refreshing watermelon.
After a quick stretch I was back on my steed and spinning out of Trevelez, a steady climb followed where I had my first conversation with another rider who had come down from a region not far from Madrid.We exchanged pleasantries and cycled together for a while reeling in some other riders before we lost each other on a descent, I didn’t see him again until the finish, he’d had a spill somewhere en route and one of his legs was bloodied.
The profile of the remaining 85km of the race was much more suited to my strengths and I regularly reeled people in on both descents and on the shorter climbs which I find it easier to power over. At one point I had pulled back 98 places in the overall standings but somehow I lost 66 of those with time spent at the last feed station, with lots of people opting to ride straight through, on reflection I maybe should have just pocketed food items to go and not stood around for 5 or so minutes eating and drinking.
Some of the best roads were enjoyed towards the end, winding descents, lower category climbs and flying through villages where you were cheered on by spectators and locals enjoying cafe and bar terraces, I even felt quite emotional at one point, a combination of the unexpected support and the endorphins rushing through me. I particularly enjoyed the stretch through Lucainena and Darrical, a mostly single lane road precariously perched on a valley cliff face above the Rio de Ugijar that wound up and down. However I nearly had a big crash as I took too much speed into a corner, fluttering the brake levers as my rear wheel skidded and threatened to throw me into the cliff wall, I ran out of road and onto the dusty run off area and came so close to the rock face that my leg brushed the plants growing out of it as I let the wheels run and pulled myself back onto asphalt. If it had been on a corner on the drop-off side of the road I would have had to lay the bike down and take my chances on the asphalt.
Despite this hair-raising moment I survived the course, the final stretch into Berja was along a duel carriage way, the last chance to reel in a few riders I could see further up the road but I also lost a place or two to some fast finishers. I turned off the carriage way and into the main high street towards the finish, one big effort to fly down the start/finish straight was abruptly ended at the finish lane as I was headed the wrong side of the timing beam. I had to slam on the brakes, skid and swerve to make sure my timing chip was registered. It was quite a comical end. I finished the 197km course in 08 hours 39 minutes and 55 seconds.
Following the race there was a race finishers meal in the Centro de Usos Múltiples de Berja of a plato alpajurreno, something not to dissimilar to a traditional English breakfast. They gave me a knife and fork but I didn’t have the energy to cut into my chorizo or lomo so I just used my hands. There was a presentation for the various overall and age group winners (not me), but I left half-way through to get ready to head home.
My overall impression of the event and experience was extremely positive, the organisation was far beyond what I had expected. The organisers really paid attention to detail and the services they provided from photographers and medical staff to food and drink provisions was impressive. Personally I took away a level of satisfaction of having completed the event successfully and now I have a position that I can look forward to improving on in my next event.
There are some links below to both my results, the route and the event: