From the coldest, to the highest and most crowded places (1.10.23)
At 5:30 on Sunday morning the night was over. It became slowly too restless on the street, which led directly past my sleeping place. Also the first dog owners went through the village (Villanueva de las Torres). Just a few reasons why I prefer to spend the night outside of villages. As I struggled out of my sleeping bag and bivouac, I first noticed how cold it was. Only 6 degrees, more than 35 degrees difference in temperature from last afternoon. I put on all I had to wear and quickly headed out to kick up my heels to warm up. Shortly after 7, I reached the intersection where the road from Gorafe joined my route from the left. I was hungry, it was just before sunrise and by now another degree colder than when I started today. From my supplies were only the pack of Turrón and the Haribo left, calories were the most important thing. I drove on rather slowly, shivering and unmotivated. The first thoughts came up not to continue to Tarifa, but directly to Málaga, where my wife and daughter would travel the next day. I was freezing despite two merino undershirts, a jersey, a scarf, thick hat, down jacket and rain jacket, I had no more energy. Shortly after 8:15 the first rays of sunlight reached my street. And no later than 15 minutes later, I had to take off almost all clothes, because it was like a flipped switch.
With the sun’s energy, I went on again. The surrounding fields were mostly irrigated. And the water with the clay-like underground often formed a slippery and sticky mass that completely clogged my tires. Somehow I still made progress, and reached Darro around 10 o’clock. First I had already gotten me at the gas station new granola bars and Coke. In Darro I found a bodega where the employees were still busy with cleanup from last night. However, some Spaniards had already come for an early morning drink. I ordered a baguette and coffee, and gave my phone and powerbank to the waitress, asking her to charge them. It was getting more and more crowded. The conversations revolved around politics and soccer, as far as I could understand. At the next table, people were busily playing dominoes at a breathtaking speed. I took a long break and only continued around 11:30, after a few more coffees, and after my phone and powerbank were sufficiently charged again. I continued through olive groves and lightly wooded areas slowly, but surely, towards Grenada. But before that, the highest point of the Iberica Traversa with 1891 m was on the agenda. Around 14:45 I reached Quéntar at the foot of the climb up to the Collado del Alguacil. At the village fountain I refilled my bottles. I had just passed a house with a sign restaurant, but could not see any entrance. From the fountain I saw that the entrance was on the second floor of the house, with access from another street. It seemed to be well frequented, and without further ado I stopped in. There was only one table free. I ordered something, not knowing exactly what to expect. There were tappas, bread, and I found it very tasty. Then came the main meal. Potatoes, meatballs with a super tasty sauce and vegetables. It tasted delicious, and for the first time during an ultracycling event, I didn’t manage to eat it all. After I paid (super cheap it was too), I leisurely went up to the Collado del Alguacil.
The climb was easy to ride, and from the highest point there was a view all the way to Pico del Veleta, the highest peak reachable by road bike in Europe at 3384m. “At least I’ll be spared that,” I thought. But the participants of the road version had to face the long climb of almost 50km. I set off on the descent, which to my positive surprise was tarred. In Guéjar Sierra, I treated myself to a cold Coke before tackling the final kilometers to Granada. It rolled very well on the road, and I was able to reach the next checkpoint in Granada, at the Plaza Mirador de San Nicolás, with a view of the Alhambra, shortly after 8 pm. In Granada itself, all hell broke loose that Sunday evening. People upon people. I think all the tourists in the world were here today. A confusion of languages and cultures. An Australian tourist took a few pictures of me.
She was traveling through Europe, or at least Spain, with her Canadian friend. For me it was just too noisy and too hectic after the many days in nowhere. I booked a hotel in the center, checked in, and after showering, bought dinner and stuff for the next day. Afterwards, I finally had the opportunity to repair my gears and other problems on my bike.
Moonscapes and pushing uphill (2.10.)
The next morning Granada was as if deserted. Hardly anyone was on the road. Even the cars could be counted on one hand. It went quickly again on gravel roads further south out of the city and the surrounding towns into a rural area. First with many olive groves in an alternation of tar and gravel. My gears were working noticeably better, but somehow still not perfect. I decided to just change the shifting cable to be on the safe side, although I couldn’t see any damage from the outside. No sooner said than done, it brought no improvement. I would now make it to the finish in Tarifa even with a defective gearshift. But the bike held out until the end. After the olive groves, the area became noticeably drier, more barren, and stonier. Through a kind of moon or Mars landscape it went uphill. “You could shoot science fiction movies set on Mars here,” I thought.
The temperature was again beyond 40 degrees Celsius, and there was no shade. After a descent, it was siesta time, I looked on the Internet to see if there might be a supermarket in one of the next towns that was open continuously. In all places on the way it was unfortunately not so. But Google found in Zaffaraya a continuously open supermarket, which would mean only just under 5 km detour (there and back). I cycled to the supermarket, but only to find that Google is unfortunately very often wrong about opening hours. Of course, this supermarket was also closed. Frustrated, I drove on. In Alfarnate, about 15 km away, there should at least be an open bar. But my trust in Google was gone, not least after my experiences during the TCR. It didn’t help, I had to go on. After a climb on paved road, it was a gravel road to go down to Alfarnate. The bar was actually open, and I could at least get some caloric and cold drinks, and refill the water bottles. To Villanueva del Trabuco, the next larger town, it was still a few kilometers (and hours, as I found out afterwards), so there the supermarkets should be open again. Shortly after Alfarnate, the road turned straight into a mountain. It was so steep that even pushing the bike created some challenges. I would have liked to have avoided the roughly 240 meters of elevation over 1.5 km along a rocky dirt road, which took me a little over 50 minutes. Down the road was noticeably better and I was able to take care of myself at the end in Villanueva del Trabuco the next larger town. After a break in an olive grove outside of town, we continued southwest, where Andy Buchs was “armed” with a camera once again, standing by the side of the road to take pictures. While we were still talking, Irena called Andy to express her displeasure with the steep climb to Alfarnate.
The following kilometers through the hilly area were unspectacular, and I could really enjoy the ride. I reached the next checkpoint in Antequera in the dark at about 21:25. For more than 20 minutes I tried to book a hotel room in the next town, Valle de Abdalajis. Either they didn’t understand me on the phone, or all the rooms were occupied. I needed a shower, that much was clear. Enervated, and feeling way too early, I drove to a hotel in Antequera, checked in, and let the day end comfortably.
Three kilometers to forget and amazing architecture in Ronda (03.10.)
Shortly after 6am I set off, further south. The next checkpoint was at Camino del Rey, only 32 km away. After a steep climb on asphalt at the exit of Antequera, I reached Valle de Abdalajis around 8:30. I bought some bread at a bakery, and sat in the sun outside the town on a steep climb to have a second breakfast. Just then, Irena came by there. We talked a bit longer before she pushed her bike further up the hill. After a phone call to my wife, I followed behind and reached the next checkpoint at Camino del Rey around 10 o’clock.
After that I continued on a road up to the next high plateau, and there on field and forest roads. In Ardales, it was meanwhile shortly before 12 o’clock, I went for groceries in a supermarket. I sat down on the beautiful village square to take a break and reached a single trail around 16:00. The route book said “2.9 km Technical, some short sections to carry the bike over rock slides”. Unbelievable, through a riverbed, too steep, too rocky.
At 18:35 I had successfully completed this episode, which I would prefer to erase from my memory. There were less than 2 hours of brightness left of the day. And I really wanted to reach Ronda, the next checkpoint, in the light. So throttle up, and, voila, I was in sunshine on the famous Puente Nuevo bridge, checkpoint 12.
After I took photos, another short shopping. I wanted to keep going, and if possible arrive in Tarifa the next day. One last night in the open, and then through. After a break with food, I continued along the Guadiaro River, over single trails. My helmet lamp was not enough here by far to illuminate the scenery. My progress was slow. Also gave me the signs that warned of falling danger to think. How many times in the last 1600 km I had passed steep places where there was no sign. My lamp was not enough to shine down to the bottom of the cliff. Perhaps it was just as a good thing. I made slow progress, sometimes riding, sometimes pushing. Just before the end of the single trail, where for a few kilometers I hit roads, Irena overtook me. She had a really bright helmet light, and I could not even follow. Next time I will upgrade to something brighter. In the next village I met Irena again. We filled up our bottles at a fountain, and rode a few kilometers together. In Cortes de Frontera we were both looking for good places to spend the night. I started thinking about just riding on and making it through the night to our destination, at least for a few more hours. While Irena continued to look for places to spend the night, I continued on. A few kilometers after the town, we turned off the asphalt road and onto a forest road again. It was noticeably cooler in the valley. But after only a few kilometers, the trail climbed again. Around 2am I found a good spot to spend the night. After the usual routine of connecting all devices to the powerbank, I gently dreamed away.
Happy Ending (04.10.)
At 6 o’clock the alarm clock rang. It was cloudy, but dry. The path ran through forests and across fields. Lots of cow gates to open and close. At one point I had to search the road a bit before continuing, but I made good time. I reached Jimena de la Frontera around 8 o’clock. There were a lot of hikers and runners here. Probably part of a prominent hiking route. I continued until I reached Castelar after another 22 km.
There should be a kiosk here. It was time to find something eatable. But there was no kiosk to be seen. According to the GPS, I had just passed it. I stopped and heard someone call out in English “Good morning, can I help? What are you looking for?”. “There is supposed to be a kiosk or small store here,” I replied. “Yes, is here in front,” was the reply in response. It was Freddy, as he introduced himself. An Englishman who had been stranded in the middle of nowhere here in southern Spain many years ago. “The owner’s son is visiting,” he continued. “They are feeding chickens, wait, I’ll let them know”. I walked into the store to find that the selection was really limited. Cookies, some vegetables and fruit, water, beer, coke. After a short wait, an old man came into the store. With hands and feet I was able to communicate, and so far had gathered everything I wanted to take on the counter. “Un momento,” the man said, and disappeared. I heard an exchange of words in Spanish, without even understanding anything. Then an even much older man came into the diner. I had been talking to the son so far, and to settle up, the boss came in. He carefully added up everything on a piece of paper, did the math again, and I paid. Somehow there was something about it. No scanner checkout, no electronic cash. By now, after 10 days, I was sufficiently decelerated. I filled up my water bottles, ate some cookies, and talked with Freddy for a while. “Man, you are living your dream,” he said to me. And somehow he was right. He had always loved to travel, and somehow now here in this place for years. I don’t think he had a regular job, but maybe I’m completely wrong and too biased. “What’s stopping you from living your dream and traveling again?” I asked him. “You don’t need a bike for that!”. He thought about it and “You don’t get what you want, you get what you need” he countered. I’m not the biggest Stones fan, but this song, and its lyrics, is one of my favorites. How did he know that now? I said goodbye to him wishing him well. Even now I still have to think of him. Freddy, I wish you all the best, even if you will never read this.
Now I really only wanted to reach the finish and accelerated. It suited me that the route was on asphalt for the next few kilometers. It went super well. After 30 km, 16 km flat and fast, 14 km uphill again, partly through a cork oak forest, the course continued on gravel for almost the rest of the way. About 40 km from the finish there was a restaurant where I could fill up my bottles and buy a final Coke. I would reach Tarifa in the afternoon. After that, there were still 170 km to Malaga, part of which I wanted to complete on the same day. After another 20 kilometers, at Almodovar Dam & Reservoir, I was caught by violent gusts of wind. It pushed me smoothly off the track. The crosswind was really unpleasant. What was even more unpleasant was that after a few kilometers, the track wound right into the wind. But now it was not far. For a few days my power meter had been complaining that the battery was nearing the end. Now it gave up its spirit. Still quickly changed the battery, I came with only 17 remaining kilometers again on a normal road. Shortly before, Andy was standing at the edge another time, this time with the bike and camera. We rode together until just before Tarifa.
In fact, 5 kilometers before the end, I had to eat something quick again. A handful of gummy bears fixed it. Clearly, you can actually save that, but some things are a matter of the head. At 15:08 I was at the finish. Andy took photos, I took photos, everyone took photos. After a few minutes we shifted our conversation to a booth cafe, which was next to the finish. After a coffee, I said goodbye to Andy, and headed off towards Malaga. First, we headed northeast over the mountains to Algeciras (neighboring town of Gibraltar). The headwind was there again, and I barely made it up the mountain. At the top there was a restaurant and I treated myself to a last bocadillo. My brain felt deflated, but not out of the tires. Not a single flat tire in almost 1700 km. But my head was empty. The legs were still OK so far, but I began to wonder how much further I should go towards Malaga. In Algeciras I drove straight to the bus station. The next bus to Malaga came in 45 minutes, and I bought a ticket for 16 euros. Bicycle transport was no problem, said the woman behind the counter. The bus driver saw it differently. He didn’t want to take me, at least that’s what I gathered from his articulation and his partly quite loud words. I answered politely but firmly in English that I would now remove my front wheel and put the bike in the luggage compartment, which was almost empty. Eventually he gave up, opened the luggage compartment from the other side, and I stowed my bike. But maybe I was just too dirty for him. Because by now almost 48 hours without a shower, sweating over dusty roads, I looked dusty tanned. I sat on the bus, reach Malaga around 11 pm, and reached the Airbnb of my wife and daughter only 15 minutes later. Almost had the same discussions again as with the bus driver. So dirty in the beautiful apartment? The bathroom was right behind the front door, that was my salvation.
I spent the next few days with the girls in Malaga. Sightseeing and hiking were on the program. Also one could still jump very well into the Mediterranean Sea. The bike was quickly packed, and except for the usual chaos at Düsseldorf airport (the airport with the slowest luggage processing I know, and I know a lot of airports for professional reasons) the return trip went smoothly. Well, the man in the next seat of my wife had to throw up constantly. Was probably fear of flying, we hoped. In the end, all was well.
Almost 1700 km from the Pyrenees to the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula are quite a journey. In return, one is more than rewarded with impressive landscapes and impressions. You can’t compare the three different ultracycling events I participated in. The “Swiss Bike Adventure, SBA” captivated with beautiful landscapes on premium asphalt in a country with more than cyclist and bikepacking friendly infrastructure. Then the Transcontinental TCR09 with its length, challenging regulations, many different countries and cultures, many meters of altitude, impossible courses (for road bikes). Third over hill and dale through breathtaking landscapes through Spain at the Iberica Traversa, (IT). I am glad to have been at the start of all three events, and to have successfully competed in all of them. If you are thinking about starting ultracycling, you should consider the SBA. One may also take more time than I did. Who likes to ride a bit more lonely through beautiful landscapes should sign up for the IT (Gravel or Road are alternatives). If you want to go to your limit, the TCR is recommended. Neither the IT, nor the TCR are, in my opinion, suitable for beginners in the long distance range. But if you want to climb a new level, go ahead. Last, but not least: At the Iberica Traversa I was able to collect another 1000 Euros for the street children in Malabon. Once again, I would like to thank all donors from the bottom of my heart. Without you I probably would have turned off earlier to Málaga, or maybe I would not have started at all!