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.