It is a lesser known but universal rule that, if your birthday falls whilst holidaying in another country, you don’t get any older.
This happy quirk in the space-time continuum has allowed me to ditch many a spare year along the way. So, with a particularly troublesome end-of-decade anniversary looming I determined to do the sensible thing and run off to Spain until it passed. Not only does this mean I will perpetually remain 39, it also ensures I can spend time in the sun and mountains on my bike. Win.
After arriving at Alicante airport a slight 5 day, 1000km hiatus commenced whilst I bundled the bike in a hire car and set out to visit a great friend in the stunning, if unseasonably chilly, south-east.
Detour completed, I returned to Alicante to thaw out and catch up with my companion in mayhem, for a week of mountain biking in the Sierra de Espuña national park.
Less than 90 minutes from the airport these stunning mountainous slopes provide an near endless number of trails which bisect the park providing everything from scree covered slopes which tumble perilously down the mountainside to, wooded trails and dry stream beds. Whilst the foothills, the Barrancos de Gebas, are a virtual playground of dusty hard-packed dirt trails winding through crumpled valleys to the plains below.
Arriving without a plan, as usual, a chat with a local cyclist and a map of walking trails provided a good starting point, as did a brilliant, if less directional you tube video .
The downside of this lackadaisical approach became clear when, over the days to come we found ourselves, sweating and cursing our way down overgrown animal trails which started promisingly but petered out into dense undergrowth. Or, more often than not, pushing and hauling bikes up and down vertical rock faces, loose boulders making feet and wheels slide out from underneath and the small, picturesque miniature holly bushes vying with spiked pedals to take chunks from unwitting shins.
However, we did find trails aplenty and they were tough, challenging, technical, adrenalin fuelled hours of fun, including the better known Mil Curvas (1000 bends) and the giant playground which is the Badlands of Barrancos de Gebas. The pictures at the end don’t do them justice in either gradient or enjoyment. In fact, it was the kind of area where, if so inclined, anything could become a bike park, even the patches of ground between road bends or hopping down olive terraces as well as dry stream beds and crumbling water courses.
The appeal of riding in mountains is as enormous as the environment. The sheer, colossal scale of them is inspiring and humbling. Vertiginous rock, varied, loose-rocked, technical terrain, lung-shattering climbs and unbelievable descents which start at barren altitude and wind and slither down through boulders, scrub and lush forest to end in stream beds and (if lucky) the odd local bar and a cold beer.
The one slight, if significant, disadvantage for me is a crippling fear of heights. Combine this with a distinct lack of technical skill, especially in the art of braking, and it makes for some interesting times.
As the week progressed so too did the many moments when my fear, rookie bike handling and (I’m going to blame equipment a little) rather basic brakes combined for some hair-raising, bruise inducing moments.
Plummeting down a mountainside on a trail of boulders and loose rocks, barely wider than the bike, a sheer, 500ft drop on my right hand side. Running through my head is a piece of well-known health and safety signage –
“In case of emergency pull lever”.
Apparently this sound piece of advice doesn’t extend to brake levers. If you do, it turns out the wheels lock up and the bike goes into an uncontrolled skid/slide towards the edge of aforementioned precipice.
It’s a quandary. Don’t apply brakes and gather speed/lose control/fly off mountainside or…. do pull brakes, realise they don’t help and achieve same anyway.
Some quick tuition from my companion (who smugly seemed to have no brake-
malfunctioning problems – but arguably whizzier components) recommended a smooth process of gradually feathering, apply gently, like a smooth ABS system on a car, avoiding lock out, skidding, death etc…..Easier said than done when terrified fingers won’t release their death grip on the bars.
However, as the week progressed, I was pleased to note at least some improvement in my general riding abilities which meant that I could and did enjoy a huge number of the trails. It was wonderful to feel the sunshine again after months of UK winter, at 20 degrees Celsius, warm enough to wear a t-shirt but cool enough to cycle.
And so quiet, with few other walkers or cyclists the only sounds were birds, insects and the crunch or tyres on trail (as well-as the odd expletive when falling off or encountering the prickly plant life).
Studded with pine trees and a million rosemary bushes the mountain side also gave off an amazing perfume. These fragrant shrubs releasing their wonderful aroma as the bikes crashed through them collecting scratches and cuts on already torn legs.
Finally, the dreaded birthday came and went in a cloud of dust and bikes on the Barrancos de Gebas as well as an obligatory birthday-suited dip in the worlds coldest lake (or so it felt), cake, cards and dancing.
Actually, it wasn’t so bad. Life is pretty good, I can travel, I can learn new skills, I can cycle, I can get up every day knowing that I have my health, never something which I take for granted given previous experience (The pleasure of the pain). I also have people in my life whom I cherish, wonderful friendships which reflect so many good things about the last few decades.
Age, as some wise person once said, is relative and, as the years roll by I become comfier and more content in my own skin. For all of that and much, much more I am thankful.
So, after a week of serious trail riding, which pushed me not only to my technical limits but also the edge of my personal fears, a little bit of me (mostly skin) remains cleaved to the trails and Rosemary bushes of the Sierra de Espuña. Maybe one day I’ll return with some new brakes to reclaim it.