Touring in Spain

by BobOne of the great things about epic rides–and any adventure for that matter–is that you’re risking something. But you never plan on actually failing. The mountain climber knows that he could fall off a cliff, sure, but deep down, he doesn’t think it will happen to him. So when I decided to grow my hair long, quit my job, and ride my bike from Spain to Germany, I knew it would be a long and lonely ride, but I had no idea that it would cost me so much.

I flew into Madrid with two friends, Robert and Stan. Robert is a large, intelligent, sad-eyed man who also quit his job and brought a bicycle to Europe, but only to do local rides–he wanted to earn a living in Spain. Stan, who somehow manages to look like a hippie even when he cuts all his hair off, had sold his business, but he preferred buses and cigarettes to bicycles. After hanging out in Madrid for two or three days (time gets elusive when jet lag is mixed with Sangría), we took a bus down to Granada, which is in Andalusía, the southern part of Spain.

Granada to Alhama de Grenada
On the morning I left Granada, I felt exhilaration and dread. The whole world was opening itself up to me, and I was alive. It was thrilling to break the bike out of the box, build it up, and load the panniers. On the other hand, I was going to ride across several foreign countries. Alone.


The good news was that Robert was going to ride along with me the first day. Robert stayed out all night discussing anarchism and drinking beer with some new-found friends and came stumbling into the hostal at 8:00 in the morning, just as I was about to leave. “Wait up,” he said and grabbed his bike. He was wearing jeans and a fleece jacket but what the hell.

Robert was never big on planning. He plodded along behind me, trying to shake off a hangover and letting me set the pace with my big, heavy bike loaded with camping gear, clothes, books, and whatever else you need to live in Europe for a few months. We stopped at this café where bikers hang out–old bikers–and ordered some tapas and salad and beer. Robert drank the beer, but I stuck to water. Then he turned back to Granada, and I felt alone again.

As I rode over the brown and green patches of land, few cars passed either way. The Spanish countryside was not quite alive that time of year in February–only a few trees were in blossom and the farmers dragged slow tractors across empty fields–but it was still striking in its lonely beauty. At one point, I chugged up a long hill for an hour or two, and as I climbed over it, a wonderful vista unfolded before me–there were pine trees and more of the Spanish countryside that seemed like home for some unknown reason, and in the distance there was a huge reservoir that was a shade of blue I’d never seen before. The forest of pines created a scent that is similar, but not quite the same, to anything I’d smelt before–and this new smell livened my senses. And then I went flying down the hill toward the reservoir, fully equipped and reaching speeds of more than 60 kms/hour, leaning that heavy bike hard into turns, my long hair flying straight back. I laughed and soared.


I only went 58 kms (about 36 miles) the first day, but with my bike weighing about 100 pounds, my average speed was less than 10 miles an hour. Sure, it was mostly uphill, but my legs were a throbbing mess. I checked into a pension, which usually costs around $10 a night, took a typical euro-drip shower, and read The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Alhama de Granada to Antequera
Before I started this day’s journey, I thought I had to ride only about 50 kilometers across relatively flat roads. I was wrong. I ended up riding 105 kilometers down into valleys and up over mountains.


I wasn’t very hungry in the morning, so I just ate a piece of bread, filled up my water bottles, and left around 8:00 in the morning. I took this winding beautiful road out in the middle of nowhere, and everything was going great. At one point, a shepherd cracked his whip and explained to the sheep that I was no one to be feared. The ride was gorgeous with a long, winding downhill that took me from the top of the mountain to a lake to the bottom of a valley and was otherwise uneventful until about 1:00. I had planned on eating in Riogordo, which was only 20 kilometers away. Bad idea, since it was granny gear the whole way up. With my bike weighed down like that–over 100 pounds–I just can’t go very fast uphill. About the time I thought Riogordo should be popping up, I asked a guy who’d gotten out of his car to piss to tell me how far Riogordo was. He said 2 or 3 kilometers, just over the hill. It was 14, all uphill. In retrospect, I think he might have said “doce o trece” (twelve or thirteen) instead of “dos o tres.” Regardless, the damage to my mind was done. I kept arriving at the next bend in the road thinking that the descent would begin, but I kept going up, and up, and up. Hours went by. I was so hungry I was getting dizzy.

It was 3:00 when I finally got to Riogordo. None of the restaurants were open, so I walked into a little market and met a kind woman who fixed me a ham and cheese sandwich, which I devoured right there sitting on the floor of the market, along with some fruit and cookies. I felt nauseous, but I knew I had to get back on my bike and keep going so I could make it before dark. From Riogordo, the road kept climbing and climbing and climbing. I wanted to stop, I wanted to throw up, I wanted to cry. I could manage only the latter. I pulled into Antequera near the end of twilight, found a cheap hostal, and slept hard.

Antequera to Ardales
I woke up with a sore throat and thought about staying in Antequera another day, but then I decided to ride through the pain. You see, Stan was taking a bus to Ronda and I wanted to meet him there so we could hang out and talk. The day started with a tough 10 km climb outside Antequera–it was about as steep as the Sundance road in Utah. I then rode down through the rolling hills of a valley, similar to the one I’d seen the day before that had a bullfighting ring out in the middle of nowhere.

After a full morning of riding–my legs were still sore from Wednesday’s brutal ride to Antequera–I dropped into a valley, crossed a stone bridge, and rode into a great pueblo blanco (white village) called Álora. Álora is a set of white houses on the side of a hill, overshadowed by a large Moorish castle and a cathedral. I ate lunch in a café owned by a family that argued and shouted the whole time, and then I went to the tourist office to get directions–that’s when I found out about a great city called Ardales. I decided to cut the day short and stay in Ardales so that my sore throat would go away and I could recover. I left Álora and wound down into la valle del sol (the valley of the sun), and then started the 23 km climb up the mountain pass. Naturally, I rounded each vista hoping that I’d see the end of the mountains, but it took two hours of steady climbing to reach the top–I stopped only to drink a can of Gatorade and eat cookies. Finally, I started the quick descent to Ardales, which is halfway down a beautiful rural valley. The woman in the tourist office at Álora was right–Ardales was one of the most beautiful, quaint village I’d seen so far on my little journey. Like many other Andalusian villages, it had a bunch of while houses with Spanish tiles on a hill below a large Moorish castle and the catholic cathedral that overran it.

Before nightfall on this Friday night, all the men in the village hung out in groups in the town square (el centro) and drank beer and busted each others’ chops. That’s what it seemed like–I had a difficult time understanding that dialect of Spanish. If the pattern held true, the young people would hang out in the town square later that night, and at about 3:00 in the morning, there would be a desperate scramble to make sure everyone had a partner. I was too tired to find out.

Ardales to Ronda
The day began poorly. First, I had a horrible stomach ache from the calamares (fried squid rings) I’d eaten the night before. I decided I was sick so I stayed in bed until 10:00. I felt bad because I was violating the mountain bikers’ credo: Ride through it. The year before I had ridden the last ten miles of a bike ride with a separated shoulder, done the 90-mile White Rim trail on the hottest day of the year, and raced with a broken collarbone and injured leg the week after getting hit by a car.

I decided in my mind that my body was not sick, so I hopped up and ate as much food as I could cram inside–an orange and part of a banana. I started the ride at 10:30. It had been raining during the night, so all the farmers who have been so discouraged with the ongoing drought were outside near the road talking excitedly about the rain. We nodded and said hi to each other oh so cheerfully. Then up, up, up another mountain pass (I counted 10 in all during the 4-day ride). As I was climbing, a farmer was pointing towards where I was headed and he was shaking his head and frowning and talking in country Spanish gibberish. He was either saying that the roads are in horrible condition, or closed, or that a horrible storm was coming. Anyway, something horrible was going to happen. Now you see, I look at Spanish farmers as being the salt of the earth–Spanish flat hats, wool sweaters, dark pants and shoes, in touch with the earth–so I had this nasty thought that he knew what was going on and I didn’t, that he wasn’t just a babbling farmer, that I was headed for Trouble.

I was worried about the road, the weather, and my bike. It turned out that all I had to do was ride up two relatively easy mountain passes, and then I’m in Ronda, the last city before the flat lands–yippee! I never thought I’d be so glad to get out of the mountains, but that was some hard, rugged riding through beautiful, treacherous countryside–green rolling hills, valleys with white houses and Spanish tile, patches of green and brown and evenly spaced olive trees, mountains on both sides (or sometimes below)–I’ll remember it forever, but I don’t want to do it again. What I did in the mountains during those four days on that heavy bike was way more difficult than anything I’ve done before or since.

Working through the mountain like this gave me the unsettling notion that the ending of The Sound of Music is somewhat unrealistic. I would think that at least one of Von Trapp family would have been foot weary after climbing through the Alps, but no–they sang and twirled. Adventure is fun to anticipate and recall as a distant memory, but not necessarily to experience.

Some of the day’s highlights:

  • Eating lunch in Cuevas del Becerro. Two groups of men were playing cards, one group clearly an inferior group. Each of those guys at the B table probably wanted to sit at the A table, which was dominated by a large man with a booming voice that silenced the chattering shouts of the others at his table. He probably sat in the same chair every day, there with his back to the window.
  • When I finished eating at the same bar/café, a couple of guys (one from each table) came out to talk to me. One thought I was Inglés (British), and the guy from the B table who didn’t say much later asked if I was from Germany. We talked biking talk, and then we sniffed each others’ crotches. He owns four bikes–two road and two mountain. I told him I only have three.
  • Early in the day, I said “Buenos Días” to a farmer. He said “Bueno Día” and then “Goot morr-ning.” I shouted “Good morning!” back at him and smiled. His smile showed three missing teeth. It seemed like a little thing, but I started crying. I don’t really know why.
  • When I arrived in Ronda, Stan was walking up the street. “You look good,” he said. It felt good to check into the hostal, take a shower, and plan my next stage.

Ronda to Zahara
After spending three days in Ronda, I felt discouraged that I was still so fatigued. The only thing I did besides lie in bed for three days was to walk over to the 100-foot gorge that divides the city and watch Carnaval events. Each city has its Carnaval at different times of the year, and I was lucky enough to witness Ronda’s celebration, which was something of a family celebration. Most of the children and many of the adults dress up in costumes–goblins, crazy tribesmen, American soldiers, men as women with gaudy makeup and big boobs, men as men with huge penises–and these people march up and down the main city rambla (walkway) until a more formal parade starts with the same groups of people and a few floats, and the people on the floats throw confetti and candy to the people lined up in the street, and the people in the streets shoot the floats with silly string or shaving cream. Fun and festive. I gave the best costume award to two guys who dressed up as gypsies and sold worthless trinkets for about a hundred pesetas a trinket. They kept pestering people to buy stuff and refusing to take no for an answer. Afterwards, most of the adults–including Stan and I–went into bars and hung out.

Then I rode from Ronda to Zahara, which was a short, downhill ride. I tried to take a shortcut by rattling past a Cerrado (road closed) sign, and I just would up boondoggling toward the reservoir on a badly abused narrow road. I asked a shepherd with five teeth and one eye where Zahara was, and he pointed to a white village on top of a mountain, but he said I couldn’t get there on that road. It stopped at the lake.


We talked about it for awhile and he decided to show me how to get to the paved road that would take me to Zahara. I had to slide the bike down an embankment, past his sheep, and onto a dirt path that crossed several rivulets of a late winter river. He and I talked as we pushed toward the other side of the valley–I couldn’t understand him very well–I think he kept repeating that the road was closed and that motorcycles and trucks can cross the river where we passed. I said thank you and pushed my bike up the side of the mountain toward the road I needed to be on. Then I rode up to Zahara, which is–you guessed it–a white town set on the side of a mountain below a 12th century Moorish castle and an 18th century Catholic church.

Zahara was a friendly little town with great food, a quaint atmosphere, and stunning views at every turn–it’s like that when you mix a white village with a green mountain in the middle of mountain foothills that mark the start of the sierra, and then you put a big lake nearby and throw in some cactuses and olive trees. I hated to leave it, especially in light of the new tourist construction going up that inevitably will make the rich richer and make the rest of the place grumpy and less quaint. Same thing happened to Moab, but that’s a different story.

Zahara to Sevilla
Even though my sore throat was gone, I was concerned that I still had very little energy. I thought riding outside the mountain range would speed things up a bit, and I was right. I rode about 85 kms (my bike battery died) and it was long and easy, which was important since I felt so strangely tired. I rode from Zahara to a campground about 10 km outside of Sevilla and camped for the first time. Spain isn’t a great place to camp while bicycle touring. It’s more expensive than regular pensions and hostals, and the campgrounds that I saw were nothing to brag about.


After a restless night of camping, I rode into Sevilla and met Stan and Robert, who arrived by train. Riding that big, loaded bike through the middle of a large European city was somewhat unnerving, but I survived. I checked into a hostal where the room was so narrow I could easily touch two opposing walls at the same time, and I headed straight for the Post Office to pick up my letter from Dana. I was excited to see the letter and I wanted to read it in private, so I walked back to the hostel, or thought I was walking there, but I was actually headed in the wrong direction and ended up at the famous Guadalquiver River that runs through Sevilla. It was a Europe moment–pigeons, ornate fences that separated the park bench area from the river, gold and gray building decorated with sculptures, “artists” painting the barges on the river, orange trees lining the fences–so I took advantage of it by sitting down in one of the benches to read Dana’s letter. I stayed there the better part of the afternoon, not really thinking about things but just relaxing and taking it all in, and trying to recover.

The End of the Journey
My friends left Sevilla and were on their way to Barcelona. I had planned on riding my bike to Barcelona, but when I got to Cordova, something inside snapped. Riding all those miles in such a fatigued state wore me down emotionally, and I decided to throw my bike on a train and head to Barcelona early. While riding the train, I felt depressed and intellectually dull, as if I had just been on a three-day drinking binge.

I got to Barcelona, met some friends at a hostel, and stupidly stayed up all night drinking and dancing. The next day I woke up and felt like I had the flu. I moved into an apartment with Robert and Stan, and decided to ride into France as soon as I recovered. The problem is that the flu never went away. After a week, I set my departure date in three days, but the sickness remained. Two weeks, three weeks, a month passed, and still no noticeable recovery. I went to a hospital in Barcelona, and the doctor diagnosed me with chronic fatigue syndrome. I had no idea what that was, so I decided to stay in Barcelona until it went away. I took several train trips around Europe, hoping that I would recover enough to ride, but no such luck.

I decided to give up and fly home after being sick in Europe for two months, and I left Barcelona with a horrible feeling of failure. I thought the sickness would go away after a few days in the States, but no such luck. I had to stop and rest each time I walked up a flight of stairs. When I tried to do a ride–even a five-mile ride on flat ground–I returned home and crashed in bed for the next two or three days. I could no longer read the books I wanted to read because I didn’t have the mental focus. Even though I was able to pay the bills as a career as a technical freelance writer, I had little energy left. All I could do was write articles for computer magazines, sleep fitfully, and watch television. A simple thing like walking around the block was a miserable experience. I had little or no sex drive and I gained 35 pounds.

I tried all sorts of crazy things to recover from the sickness, which doctors diagnosed as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). Conventional doctors have no remedies for CFS, so they resort to Prozac and other anti-depressants, which I tried for awhile. I also tried herbal medication and various vitamins. I took up belly dancing and meditation. After being sick for more than a year, I even visited a man who claimed he had a cure for CFS and AIDS. I spent a three-day weekend getting shots from this man, and after a few days I started feeling noticeably better. I found that if I went on a long walk, I could function normally for the rest of the day. Soon I was able to ride my bike again without suffering from what CFS patients call “payback.”

After riding slowly and lifting weights for a year, I was finally able to make a full recovery. I did another bicycle touring trip through Austria and Germany. I competed in the 24 Hours of Moab race last year, and I rode the White Rim Trail in one day this year. I guess the ultimate test to see if I’ve fully recovered will be The Leadville 100 race later this year. We’ll see.


1 Comment

  1. Comment by Allan Farrimond | 11.5.2008 | 12:01 pm

    I can appreciate what you are saying about riding in the mountains of Andalicia because I have made 3 trips in that area and visited most of the places you mention.
    It is not an easy ride but the atmosphere of the place and the people make all the effort worthwhile.
    Have you ever heard of El Camino de Santiago? I have cycled the French route from St.Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela twice,very hard but fantastic and next Spring I hope to cycle La Ruta de Le Plata from Sevilla to Santiago.
    Best of luck with your future trips.


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