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350 Miles On A Bike : The Pain in Spain

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The man in the welding shop in Mijas, Spain, squinted into the midday Andalusia sun. Pointing his finger skyward he said, “ Arriba.

We knew too well what that meant. Another climb.

Arriba, meaning up, as in “up there,” had become a familiar term to us on this extended bicycle ride and other bike trips we made through the Andalusia region of southern Spain during a five-week vacation.

Besides being among the hottest and largest countries in Europe, Spain also is the second highest after Switzerland. With a few exceptions on the southern coast, once you turn inland you will be in hill-climbing gears. The legs of Spain’s Pedro Delgado, the 1988 Tour de France winner, were carved in these mountains. We learned firsthand that the pain of biking in Spain is not in the plains, it’s in the mountains.

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Years of commuting 40 miles daily, plus weekend rides in the Sierra Nevada foothills near our home, had given us the legs to tackle just about anything the Spanish Sierra could offer.

However, Mother Nature had a cruel surprise for us during this 150-mile ride through the southern interior mountains.

To familiarize ourselves with road conditions we explored the coastal foothills in a series of one-day, 50-mile outings.

These rides originated from our friends’ home in Mijas, a popular Costa del Sol tourist haunt in the coastal mountains overlooking Fuengirola, about 60 miles east of Gibraltar.

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Along the way we visited the Museo Arqueologico Municipal in Benalmadena, a storehouse of artifacts from Spain and Latin America. It’s a surprising collection for such a tiny museum, and worth a visit. We also came across a tiny church whose former “mad” priest had landscaped it with an odd combination of statuary such as Snow White and the Eight Dwarfs and Rin Tin-Tin.

Expect the unexpected on Andalusian roads--goats and sometimes no guard rails or safety barriers where you need them most, such as on blind corners, for example.

Anxious for a longer ride, we asked our host, Ken Brown, publisher of Lookout, the largest English-language magazine in Spain, for a suggestion. Brown recommended Ronda, which he described as “a magnificent trip.” He was right . . . only he had never done the 150-mile loop on a bike.

Andalusian roads feature constant ascents and fearsome, white-knuckle descents. There is great solitude in these mountains, along with an abundance of wind. The wind became our most troublesome companion during the 150-mile tour from Mijas to Ronda via the towns of Alhaurin el Grande, Cartama, Estacion Cartama, Pizzara, Alora, Ardales, Carratraca, El Burgo, Yunquera, Alozaina, Tolox and Coin.

Dominating the skyline near Alora are the remnants of a 14th-Century Moorish castle. The Cross of Humilladero, commemorating the Arab surrender to Spain, is kept there, as is the Monastery of Nuestra Senora de las Flores, whose 16th-Century ceiling is astonishing.

Our route took us through the El Chorro Gorge, one of Spain’s premier natural wonders. Its towering limestone cliffs are girdled by rickety-looking catwalks on which the more adventurous can view the reservoir below. The less brave can observe the gorge through the windows of the Cordoba-Malaga train that snakes its way via a series of bridges and tunnels through solid rock.

El Chorro was the gateway to Mother Nature’s cruel surprise. After a 10-mile climb up a 9% to 10% grade, and shortly before cresting the summit near the ruins of Bobastro, furious winds began to batter us.

They were to plague us for the next day and a half, wrecking our plans to reach Ronda in 24 hours. Further, the climb had cut into our water supply. The irony was that after reaching the summit, the road followed the shoreline of a reservoir nearly a mile away.

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Bobastro was the site of one of the most serious rebellions against the Moors. It lasted for more than a century. Our memories of the area are etched in wind, not stone.

We pushed on to Ardales, battling cross winds for six miles on a rapidly deteriorating road. After “refueling” with water in Ardales, we fought the wind up a four-mile switchback road to Carratraca, a white pueblo surrounded by Andean-type mountains.

We spent the night at the Hotel del Principe, whose interior, with its huge wooden doors, endless stairs and serpentine hallways, resembled something a Hollywood director might have chosen as atmosphere for a horror movie.

In the morning we bought bread at the panaderia (bakery). As we were returning to the hotel we were stopped by an elderly man excitedly waving a newspaper. Proudly, he pointed out an article on a Belgian cyclist who had broken the world’s one-hour record for most miles.

Cycling is the second most popular sport in Spain, after soccer, and strangers will spontaneously discuss cycling, your equipment and their cycling heroes with you.

Before leaving Carratraca we checked our day’s route with the innkeeper. She threw up her hands in horror when she saw our proposed route.

“Muy mal!” she said two or three times. Heeding her advice, we detoured 18 miles toward Teba and had breakfast in the Venta El Cordobes, whose adjacent pig sty did little to curb our appetites or those of several hard-drinking truck drivers.

One of the delights of bike touring in Andalusia is the food. Because the Mediterranean is near it means fresh, inexpensive fish served in two kinds of portions--large and extra large. Wholesome Spanish bread and frequent intakes of french fries more than met our carbohydrate needs. We quickly became addicted to ice-cold gazpacho soup and tortilla espanola , a delicious Spanish potato pancake.

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Wind a Constant

The roads were smoother from Teba to Ronda, but the wind was constant. As we climbed out of a community called Cuevas del Becerro, a sudden gust tossed my wife off the road into a ditch. Fortunately, the landing was soft. I barely managed to hold onto my bicycle and maintain my balance.

After that climb we began a fast descent into Ronda and toward a memorable meeting on its outskirts.

When we stopped for a map check opposite an isolated army sentry post, its lone occupant crossed the road to greet us. We took pictures of him and then he spoke the only words of English he apparently knew: “Greg LeMond,” the American cycling star and 1986 Tour de France winner.

We dropped three miles into Ronda in time to get a room at Hotel El Tajo. It is named after the nearly 500-foot chasm straddled by the city of Ronda, cradle of modern bullfighting.

The views in Ronda are not for the faint-hearted, nor those troubled by heights. One side of Ronda looks down a 600-foot escarpment.

Three bridges cross the almost 500-foot deep El Tajo chasm that divides Ronda’s old and new sections. A legend says that one of the bridge’s designers, Martin de Aldehuela, threw himself off Ronda’s cliffs so he would never have to design another bridge, at least not one that took 40 years to build. His fatal fall came while reaching for his hat, which the wind had blown off during an inspection of the bridge.

Built by the Moors

Aldehuela’s bridge is called the “new bridge,” though it was built 200 years ago. The other two bridges, the Viejo and San Miguel, were built by the Moors during their occupation of much of Spain.

Ronda’s history goes back more than 1,000 years. Its bullring is one of the oldest in Spain and houses a small museum crammed with bullfighting memorabilia. Spain’s greatest matador, Pedro Romero, fought in Ronda’s bullring and was later immortalized in Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises.”

We left Ronda early in the morning, when the town is at its most charming and before hordes of tourists emerged to prowl the many gift shops.

Soon we would be repaid for the luxury of the previous day’s descent into Ronda. Ahead lay two passes, one ominously named El Puerto del Viento (The Pass of the Wind) and another, El Puerto de Las Abejas (The Pass of the Bees).

A steady 2,500-foot climb took us past the home of the Spanish Foreign Legion. Amused recruits watched us as they prepared to march into the bleak countryside. My wife may have been the first female bicyclist they had ever seen in the area.

After cresting the first pass, we paused to admire the view and take photographs. Back on our bikes, the road fell away. Gravity tugged, pulling us faster and faster.

Washboard Pavement

It was a major effort to keep control, because with the slightest release of the brakes the bikes leaped forward on washboard pavement. For almost 10 miles our eyeballs bounced around and our teeth chattered from the constant pounding from the road.

We paused at a vista point to rest our hands, which were aching from the constant braking, and to enjoy the scenery. A huge statue of a forest ranger and a child (Mirador del Guarda Forestal) commanded the view over the mountain forest.

We dropped toward El Burgo in a gentle descent. With a diminishing wind, the climb over El Puerto de Las Abejas was less arduous, but another challenging descent awaited us. Numerous hairpin turns tested our brakes and bike-handling skills.

After making it through the pass, we had completed the hardest part of our journey, although some nasty hills still remained as we passed through Alozaina, Coin and Alhaurin el Grande before reaching Mijas. Counting the Ronda ride, we toured 350 miles through Andalusia.

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If you want to get away from 50 million tourists and see another side of Spain, do it on a bicycle.

A nice time to visit is the late summer or early fall, when most of the fiestas, ferias (fairs) and romerias (pilgrimages) take place. Our stay in Mijas coincided with a weeklong feria that included a bicycling race through the pueblo’s main thoroughfares.

Mijas has its own version of Pamplona’s famous Running of the Bulls, and though it lacks the danger and excitement of Pamplona, it does provide the boys of the town an opportunity to display their machismo. At night, the young girls of Mijas, dressed in stunning full-length gowns, perform classical flamenco and other folk dances in the village band shell.

The feria ends with a beautiful midnight candlelight procession of the Virgen de Mijas. She is carried throughout the pueblo and brought into all the Mijas churches before being returned to the tiny Virgen de la Pena church. After our grueling ride, the weeklong party of the feria was welcome relief.

Perhaps Spain’s most fascinating fiesta is the Romeria del Rocio, in which all of western Andalusia participates. The actual celebration occurs on Whit Sunday and Monday (early June), and honors La Blanca Paloma (The White Dove), a statue of the Virgin at the Sanctuary of El Rocio in the community of the same name, located in the salt marshes of the Guadalquivir River.

The Romeria del Rocio consists of three days of revelry, intense devotion and pagan fanaticism. It attracts a million pilgrims every Pentecost.

We found adequate lodging along our route, at low and moderate prices. Rooms generally cost between 1,500 and 3,000 pesetas ($13 to $26 U.S.) per day. The “Let’s Go: Spain, Portugal & Morocco” guide (St. Martin’s Press) proved to be an invaluable resource. Another excellent source of timely information about local events is Lookout, Spain’s national English-language magazine.

Some recommended accommodations in the Andalusia region:

--Hotel del Principe. Located in the center of Carratraca on the road between Ardales and Alora, adjacent to major mineral baths. There’s a communal game room with television, and storage for bicycles.

--Hotel el Tajo, 7 Calle Cruz Verde, in the center of Ronda. There is secured storage for bicycles.

--Fonda la Espanola, 3 Calle Jose Aparicio, Ronda. Sits around the corner from the local tourist office.

--Hotel Morales, 51 Calle Sevilla, Ronda.

--Hotel Residencia Monreal, 8 Calle Rodrigo Caro, Seville. Located near Seville’s famous cathedral.

--Huespedes Abades, 23 Calle Abades, Seville.

--Pension Vergara, 11 Calle Ximenez de Encisco, Seville.

--Hotel Residencia Gomerez, 10 Cuesta de Gomerez, Granada.

We are already planning a return to Spain in 1992 to join in the celebrations marking the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the New World by Columbus.

Our role in that observance will be to follow the route titled, “A Cycling Tour in Search of Columbus,” from Granada to Seville, about 505 miles. We’ll hope for a following wind, just as Christopher Columbus did.

For more information on travel to Spain, contact the National Tourist Office of Spain, 8383 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 960, Beverly Hills 90211, (213) 658-7188.


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