Thursday, August 16, 2012

A Ride In The Spanish Sun

Today’s little story starts on a cold winter night and finishes with me sweating on the shaded terrace at El Mirlo Blanco, without doubt the best restaurant in the small, picturesque town of Mijas, not far from Malága, in southern Spain. 

On the chilly evening in question, I made a visit to a former club mate who was selling his unused bike box. Though it wasn’t the most expensive type, it would be perfect for me to carry my bike on planes, specifically on holiday to Spain for the coming family summer holiday. “It’s a bit big,” said my wife, when I dragged it proudly through the door and presented it to her like a pet cat with a dead mouse. Big it was, but in the rip off world that is low-cost airlines, I thought the £50 EasyJet charged to take it - containing my bike - from Stansted to Malaga and back was thoroughly reasonable, so I enthusiastically added it to the not so low cost of our tickets. With holiday plans taking shape, my wife pointed out that perhaps it would be wise to ensure the car we hired in Spain was large enough to carry the box to and from our accommodation. This little observation got me thinking: was our own car big enough to take the box to the airport? It was. Just. Provided we didn’t take any luggage. Or children. Bollocks.

I began searching and found that Marbella Rent a Bike would charge €140 to deliver a Scott Speedster 30 to our holiday apartment and pick it up eight days later. We were away in the middle of the racing season and I didn’t want two weeks without riding, so that would have to do, even though this whole thing was getting rather expensive.

In June, whilst on my annual motorcycling holiday (you can read all about that elsewhere on this blog) I began to develop a sore throat which developed into a nasty hacking cough and a very tight chest. No problem, it was still three weeks until the family holiday, so it was bound to be better by then, surely? It had better be, can you imagine cycling in 30 degrees or more, with the sun blasting down, reflecting its heat off the parched rocks as you slave up another hill, all the while struggling for breath, coughing and spluttering? Imagine that. I got bored waiting to see the doctor and the 35 minutes I spent getting frustrated in the waiting room failed to cure me, so off I wheezed on holiday, hoping the sunshine and dry weather would do me some good.

Sounding like a small child being strangled, the crowing cockerel which woke me every morning took some getting used to, especially as my young children were supposedly happily asleep in the room next door. The hideous crowing would send me stumbling, bleary-eyed down the stairs in my cycling shorts and after a coughing fit and repeated blowing of my nose, an affliction I had developed after my first visit to the pool, I’d carry the bike down the endless stairs to the road. After a brief ride through the seaside strip of habitation, each day I’d turn left and head into the scorched brown countryside, its mountain backdrop meaning there was not one foot of flat road, never a comfortable experience for someone whose cycling is done around flat Cambridgeshire. I felt sluggish, but the bike felt just the same, with a relaxed geometry and plenty of flex in the frame, especially around the bottom bracket: it was slower than my own bikes.

Even though my ever helpful wife would never allow such indulgence, I was on holiday, so didn’t want to spend the whole time on the bike, besides, these rides were about trying to maintain fitness, not increase it, so the routes I picked were no more than 15 miles, allowing me to get back and have breakfast with my family, before we all headed to the pool or beach for the day. One of the routes I rode wound through the widely spread village of Entrerrios and its bumpy road surfaces, another by-passed that village and took in the steep gradients of the main road to Alhaurín El Grande. These rides conformed to a rule: they were mostly uphill on the way out, meaning they were mostly down hill coming back, allowing some practice in descending at speeds up to 45 mph. This was just as well, as with each mile I rode inland the temperature rose, the tightness in my chest increased as did my nasal discharge, both of which made those hills even more difficult. 

The roads were generally quiet on these rides, though there were plenty of other cyclists. I took extreme pleasure in overtaking some of the locals as they cruised up the hills, which is not something I’m accustomed to doing! One group even shouted some unintelligible banter my way as I sped past, they smiled and waved when I went back the other way too. On one ride I spotted a rider well ahead of me and set him as a target. By the top of the first hill he only had about 50 yards on me, but got away on a brief but steep descent. Then, on the longest climb, when the gradient edged above 10% I would close him down again, rhythmically grinding away at my pedals, as he fought with his bike, out of the saddle, thrashing side to side. At one stage I was within 20 feet of him, but the gradient eased and he opened the gap again. I never caught him.

The plan for the ride to Mijas was that I would set off early and meet my family there, my wife having driven and maybe even stopped to take photos of me heaving up a hill en route. Though it was only a short distance, I knew it was hilly as I had driven there before. I passed through the outskirts of town in no time, comfortably spinning past empty shells of dusty, half built flats and hotels, evidence of the financial crisis Spain is suffering. Suffering as I was about to. It started at the bottom of the biggest climb on the route, about six or seven miles into the ride. It’s over two miles long and averages about 9%, but has ramps of 13%. As I toiled upwards the noise of buzzing crickets filled my head and the sun started to bake me, beating oppressively down on my rapidly tiring form, no humidity, just heat. Heat, noise, sweat, wheezing discomfort and that steep, long road. I reluctantly gave in and selected the inner of the three chainrings to ease the effort to get to the top and was grateful for the chance to get some rest and cooler air on the descent. 

I’d mentioned a BP petrol station at Alhaurín as being a good place for my wife to take some snaps, but the final two climbs to get there were less severe than I remembered, so I arrived before her. Carrying on, I genuinely thought that the next stretch of road was flat, so I briefly imagined myself smugly waiting for her in Mijas, sitting in the sun, looking at the view, perhaps with a cold drink. Oh how wrong I was.

I took the first exit at the roundabout and climbed a steep ramp which I thought was about 100 yards long. Over the first crest the smooth surface deteriorated to cracks and ruts, making progress more difficult. To make things worse, though the gradient eased, it kept going up. And up. And up some more. Further inland now, it was hotter still, the road followed the side of the mountain, which dropped away on my right, leaving the road desperately exposed to sun, though with amazing views. By now though, I was now grovelling over my handlebars and unable to see much further than my front wheel, unwilling to look much further for fear of what suffering the road ahead might reveal. I ground on and on, my morale eventually lifted by the beep of our car horn and the sound of my daughters shouting encouragement through the open windows.

With a puff of my cheeks, I passed them parked at the top of the hill and began what I was sure would be either downhill or flat all the way to Mijas. The surface was still poor, hindering my speed, though I enjoyed a brief descent and the cooling breeze it brought. All too soon there was a steep but short dig, which I ground my way up, too lazy to change from the biggest chainring. My wife overtook again and I threw an empty water bottle through the window, then enjoyed following her down hill for a while, savouring the sight of the girls waving at me through the rear window, not daring to take my hands off the bars to wave back. Then they were gone, another steep section, about 500 yards long separated us and I was left to ride the last couple of miles on my own.

The final descent into the town was steep and tested the substandard brakes on the bike, before the roundabout just round the final hairpin bend. Out of the saddle, partly to ease the pain in my back, I sprinted past a couple of slow moving cars into town, before finishing the last of my water and waiting a couple of minutes before my family emerged from the car park lifts. 

Sat at the restaurant I watched my children misbehaving and my frustrated wife dealing with them, occasionally interjecting with the odd bit of fatherly wisdom. I enjoyed the satisfying glow of exertion with a jug of water, a veal entrecôte. And a small, smug glass of wine. 

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Long Road to The Alps: Motorbike Trip 2012

Magnificent: adj Extremely beautiful, elaborate, or impressive. 
If that doesn’t describe the Alps, then not many words will. Dramatic maybe. Beautiful? Certainly. Dangerous? Definitely: only a couple of weeks after my friend and travel partner Ian and I took the cable car to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, nine climbers were killed in an avalanche as they set off from there to climb Mont Blanc. Whatever words or hyperbole you use to describe this mountain range, I love it and, despite less than perfect weather on most of my previous visits, I keep heading back for more.
Having just cleaned my pushbike after a wet and grimy 65 miles that morning, my drive was damp as I wheeled my BMW K13R out of the garage into the waiting sun for its pre-trip wash. Surprisingly soon I was standing in the sun admiring my handiwork, then went inside to finish packing, before returning to the bike to load the luggage. With panniers attached, sat nav mounted and tank bag fitted, it’s lines, which could never be described as lithe, were bloated by the luggage, making it look longer lower and fatter than normal. I checked my watch: hours yet.
England’s cricketers were beating a good West Indies team, Twitter was quiet, Facebook boring, no unread emails to delete. Food then. Ian sent me a text message about the cricket, which turned into a brief exchange about how long it would take to get ready, which in turn led to us meeting at Whittlesford Services, 90 minutes early. There’s no point in sitting at home doing nothing but clock watching, let’s go!
I filled with petrol and began to slip into the familiar routine: unclip tank bag, fill up, tank bag back on, all the while getting warmer and warmer, pay, then ride off feeling cold from the sweat which had built up inside my leathers. As we launched onto the A505 I experienced an unusual disconnect, feeling excited because the only time I ever ride this road is to start one of our trips, then realizing that that was exactly what I was doing. It nearly surprised me, here at last, the culmination of the unusually minimal planning but much anticipation. We tipped onto the M11 and began the uneventful journey south. 
There was a change in the trip this year, for the first time ever, the next morning the Pride of Calais would set sail without us, we’d be overtaking it (or should that be undertaking) on the Eurotunnel; no comfort, but plenty of speed. While riding a bike is a pleasure, it is fraught with risk as motorcyclists have to endure the idiocy of the many vacant motorists allowed share our roads, one of whom tried to share the exact piece of M11 that Ian and his GSXR-600 were on, I saw another a woman sat so close to the steering wheel, her chin was no more than six inches from it, no room for effective control, but I’m sure she was’t concerned, there was nothing on her bonnet or even ten feet in front of it. Yet. Mostly, the journey passed in boredom and anticipation, it always feels longer than it is, though I enjoyed snatching occasional glances at my shadow, stock still with that of my wheels bouncing on the road surface. With music in my ears, I managed to keep entertained.
We stayed the night at the Holiday Inn Express near the Eurotunnel terminal, where two boys, they were no more than 20 years old, issued our keys then served us beer while we watched England’s footballers playing on the TV. No, I don’t know who they were playing or who won: it’s football. Up early in the morning, we left as planned, but arrived at check-in a minute too late and were forced to take a train half an hour later than intended. We headed to the terminal building and bought the most appallingly tasteless coffee one could imagine, then stood in the car park watching other bikes arriving and looking for a bin in which to deposit our still full cardboard cups.
Riding 520 motorway miles in one day is only doable if broken into bite sized chunks. The prospect of riding until my tank is empty, just over 200 miles, is so unreal as to be beyond comprehension, let alone contemplation. If you go too fast, the stress of concentration increases the fatigue, so each 100 miles or so should be seen as an 80-90mph sprint designed only to waste time between filling up your tank. The bits in between are hard work and, as the day goes on, generally dominated by deep pain in the back side, bouts of intense concentration, wandering attention and random songs on the mp3 player. The first 40 miles of each stint tend to pass very quickly, the next 40 less so and, you’ve guessed it the last 20 are interminable. Sitting on a motorbike for hours is not easy, at least, not like driving a car. But it is so much more than grind and toil, if you think all dual carriageway riding is boring, you’re wrong, though only in part: that day was brilliant in places, partly due to the prospect of adventure and fantastic, undiscovered places, though also the company and camaraderie when we stopped. It’s hard to sum it up really, just miles of featureless tarmac, and some weather, and some petrol stops, and some more featureless tarmac, and some more weather. Which for the most part was very good, though as we approached Dôle I noticed dark clouds on the distant horizon which appeared to be on a collision course with us. I had checked the weather app on my phone and had seen there was a line of showers heading east and it was obviously those I could see. Eventually the sun disappeared and the road surface darkened, legacy of a recent soaking, we started passing cars being chased by rainbow filled clouds of spray created by the fading sun. With about five miles to go before we could take refuge at some motorway services, we were engulfed in an absolute deluge: big fat rain drops noisily thumping onto my helmet, stinging me through my leathers and finally, a warning whiff of diesel on the roundabout at the petrol station.
Petrol, coffee and chocolate devoured we watched as the rain stopped and the gutters emptied. I dithered, unable to decide whether to don waterproofs, un-strapping them from the bike, before putting them back again and making do with waterproof gloves, mainly to keep the lowered temperatures at bay rather than any dampness. Soon enough we were on the road I have declared the best bit of motorway in Europe. It is the A40 and I mentioned it in the notes from last year’s account. Just after Bourg-en Bresse it starts to get a bit bendy as it passes through the southern tip of the Jura Mountains. I wasn’t aware, but once you’ve negotiated the suburbs of Geneva, this sort of action continues, especially as the higher you go in the mountains, the more it resembles a rural dual carriageway than a major trunk road. The last few miles are great fun after a day of relative tedium. All sorts of bends greet you, though all are wide and well surfaced, the only problem being the traffic; this is the only road up to the Mont Blanc Tunnel, so both carriageways are needed to pass the lorries which chug and creep up the hill, spewing heat and fumes into your helmet as you pass.
Guided by the sat nav, we found our hosts’ house in an affluent back street of Chamonix. We were greeted with a Gallic kiss from both Peps and Benja, who provided more friendship and hospitality than I could ever have dreamt of, including great food, wine and digestifs to finish us off. All evening though, every time they peeped through the gathering clouds, I would steal a peek at those magnificent mountains, or the glacier which reaches toward the town down the rocky slopes, like the awesome clawed hand of a giant white malevolent monster.
Aching, tired, replete and drunk I went to bed to hazily reflect on a long, epic day. We had travelled from one end of the country to the other, seen changes in weather and in scenery. Travelled from coast to mountains: from boring to exciting. An epic day indeed.