Holidays always seem more exciting if they require an early start. That’s how I’d always felt anyway. It was now though, amongst the dark and bumping into bits of furniture at 2am, that I was realising how naive and ill-founded this belief of mine was. I don’t need excitement anyway, I need sleep.
By the time I’d had some cereal and a coffee, got dressed and spent a panicky 10 minutes frantically removing things from my suitcase in what turned out to be a vain attempt at bringing the weight of it under the threshold my taxi had arrived. I sat in silence in the back asking myself why I’d opted for the first flight of the day as we made our way through the roundabouts of the A24 towards Gatwick.
After arriving at the airport and successfully navigating passport control I proceeded to hunt out breakfast. Two coffees in half an hour and what said porridge but resembled the brain of a small mammal later I was a little more alert but still had eyes that couldn’t open fully, or at least thats how they felt. I reassured myself with the comfort in knowing that it’ll be ok, I’ll sleep on the plane. Wrong. I was fortunate enough to have booked a seat that was encircled by a rather loud and gobby bunch of #ladsladslads. With every utterance of theirs audible to the whole plane, and the added bonus of a healthy smattering of profanities and stories of violence I plugged in my earphones and let Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane steal me away to a place of calm and space. Or as close as I could get with “The Geezers” as I had now named them turning their collective volume all the way up to 11.
Touchdown on Spanish asphalt spelt the end of this two hour ordeal, bar one of them letting off a loud a pungent fart at passport control, sending the rest of them into hysterics. I bet the EU can’t wait for Brexit.
My trip to this hot and sunny corner of Europe is wholly the fault of my mother, sister and nephew leaving the UK for better times and climes. I spend the next couple of days with them, exploring their new home and local amenities, enjoying their pool and the air conditioning. I also unpacked my new bike that will be kept here for my visits and proceeded to do the minor build and set-up tasks required: putting the bars and pedals on, balancing the brakes, indexing the gears and pumping up the tyres.
The next day I have breakfast under the sun, accompanied by the sound of water gently cascading into the pool alongside me, before I kit up and roll out.
Long flat roads roll on for kilometre after kilometre, past fields of orange trees and olive groves, the various shades of browns and deep, burnt oranges that make up the roadside tundra as the sand and soil fill the ground around me pass with a permanence that quickly becomes as normal as the green fields of Blighty. In the distance the mountains suddenly fill the land and sky, disturbing the ease of the topography with a viciousness of raw beauty. I try to pick out which one I am heading towards but finally come to the conclusion that I should instead enjoy the ride and my unfamiliar surroundings.
My refocusing is rewarded with roads that wind and meander through gorges, amongst flora and fauna that cling to rocky outreaches and past vacant industrial and residential memories of the past, as a sign warns me to look out for reptiles. Snakes and lizards and turtles, oh my!
The road continues to weave its way and I wait patiently yet excitedly for the climbing to begin. But as I pass through Beniaján and Torreaguera it dawns on me how flat these town are. Where has the climb gone?
Not to worry, soon after I pass through Los Ramos I make a right turn that takes me up Cabezo de la Plata, slowly at first, through the desolate isolation of abandoned outbuildings, graffiti on the side of broken walls, the occasional dwelling in the distance, all the while the Murcian sand-coloured scenery fills the view as the gradient picks up. I am joined by a local rider who I can see is pushing up this climb in his big ring, each rotation making his knees quiver has he applies the required power through his pedals, like a Murcian version of Rigoberto Uran. I sit on his wheel for about 500 meters before I spin past and we swap positions. Up we go, round arching bends that swoop down before picking up again. A switchback is added to cement the feeling of a proper climbing experience. We pass under trees that thrust out of the rocks and provide us with some shade in the warmth of the day before we crest the climb. He says something to me in Spanish, I’ve no idea what (I need to work on that). I give him a nod and a thumbs up and he turns around to descend the way we’ve just come up. I however, press on. My descent is a wide road, totally vacant of any traffic allowing me to tuck in and fully enjoy the feeling of the fresh air racing over me.
At the bottom I rejoin the flat roads and make my way home past palm trees and terracotta coloured houses, the Mediterranean Sea accompanies me for part of the way, and a blue, cloudless sky stretches out until it disappears. Roundabout followed by roundabout breaks up the straights, taking me into and out of headwinds and tailwinds, although the headwind always seems stronger than the tailwinds. As the mercury rises to a not insignificant 33 degrees I reach for a bidon only to find it empty. My main focus turns to keeping an eye out for a shop, but all I come across is a restaurant in a town absent of people and opposite some graffiti that said “construir casas pero no para locales” (build homes but not for locals), clearly the influx of what Brits call expats when its us that move overseas but call migrants when non-Brits move to the UK is having some real social and economic impacts to the local communities. We’re not as different as from on another as we’re led to believe. Who really thought we were anyway?
I have no choice but to press on and eventually come across a petrol station. The irony of a non-engined mode of transport effectively needing a refuel at a place designed solely for engined vehicles is not lost on me. I pick up the first bottle of water I see, hand over my euros to the man behind the counter, we exchange smiles and I head outside to immediately neck about a quarter of the bottle and decant the rest into my bidons.
Back on the road, joined only by the searing heat and a haze on the road ahead I am passed fairly regularly by traffic, however unlike back home, here the drivers give you more than enough space, often being completely on the other side of the road. There is no impatience either, on the occasions where overtaking me requires them to show patience, they do this without fuss or any displays or irritability or vexation. This alone would have made this ride brilliant, but it is merely part of life here. It makes me feel included, respected and part of where I am.
The bike is running smooth and deftly, apart from when I’m not pedalling and the siesta’s silence is shattered by my Hunt freehub shouting its presence to anyone willing and unwilling to know, it takes no prisoners. The gearing is different from what I’m used to, my 53/39, 25-12 now merely a part of me left back in the UK, here I opt for a 52/36, 30-12 in an attempt to find that sweet spot between power for the long flats and a bigger ratio option for when the roads go vertical. This has taken me a while to get my head around and a few times I’m caught out thinking the jump between the sprockets won’t be as big as they are. But then, if you’re not making mistakes you’re not learning and so I know I’ll get there after a few more clunks and sweary moments as my expectations are reminded that I’m not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Arriving back I throw my leg over the top tube, grab a cold Estrella from the fridge and dunk my feel in the pool as I pour through the photos of my ride under the dazzling and all mighty sun king.
By the time I drain the bottle of all it’s hoppy goodness I’ve already decided that a) I’m going to have another beer, and b) tomorrow’s ride will be to the ancient Roman town of Cartagena. Time to plan a route I guess.