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Pumping Coffee and Clams

Fuelled on a diet of spicy chorizo, baby clams and olives: “Simon Felton, you are the unstoppable tapas machine”. well that’s what my head was telling my legs anyway. Having already climbed 1,000 metres of spiraling Andaluçian mountain road, my thighs weren’t exactly pumping to the tune of slick, well-oiled pistons.

Meanwhile, my heart was pumping to the beat of techno garage, and the chilled January air rendered my lungs freezer storage for a growing ball of sticky mucus. It was our first day on two wheels in the mountains for myself and my riding partner Paul. We had already broken the snowline where the third rate road deteriorated to a gravel slide, and after a final sapping one-in-three climb we reached our first peak in the Sierra Nevada range of Spanish Andaluçia.

And while I had the sleek helmet and bug eyewear of a serious mountain biker, my baggy fatigue shorts and Converse trainers (cheese packed in canvas) were no match for the piercing wind chill factor. I was drenched in cold sweat and things were going numb. ‘Hey, nice vista!’ Yeah right, whatever.

The city of Granada, situated just 10 kms from the western extension of the vast Sierras was our base for one week, and where our total preparation régime was planned out and not adhered to. It began at 9pm the night before, and finished around 11am with breakfast in the New Park Café (with four hours sleep in the middle). Here, the volatile mix of San Miguel and too numerous bivalve molluscs courtesy of a plethora of tapas bars, was mopped up by chocolate pastries and caffinated treacle. And whilst we mapped out the day’s route, the locals, on their first of many siestas, were filtering through the doors stronger than the coffee.

The first day’s ride was all about building stamina and pace. The following morning we selected a similarly rated climb, hoping to take it with considerably more ease than the previous day. Mind you, getting out of town was tough enough – mixing it up with a carnival of mopeds, cars, out of control pedestrians and stray dogs amongst the narrow cobbled streets and plazas. A real buzz, though we could have done without the blanket smog.

As we approached the foothills and the village of Zubia, the climb began. Our destination was La Cornichuela (1600 metres) covering an actual road distance of around 25kms. After the most monstrous road hill in my life out of Zubia, we picked up a rough track through a farm and continued the winding ascent on road bordered by pine forest. From 1300 metres turning the wheels became a real mind game and my tendons tightened like wood.

A pesky dog appeared from nowhere, intent on weaving its way around our crawling motion. It was unshakable, unnerving, and so irritating, though a couple of outward kicks saw him off. It took around two hours to reach the summit, upon which the sense of achievement was bigger than the view, which was magnificent – a wineglass shaped valley of rough scrubland opening out in to the flat plains of Granada itself. We picked up, and lost the same canine snapper on the 15 minute descent, reaching precarious speeds of 45 mph through the sweeping bends – and thankfully the clams stayed down.

Our accommodation for the week was the family-run Hostal Europa in the town centre which we selected the previous day by driving around Granada’s tragic one-way system for two hours. The twin room with a balcony cost just 3,000 pts (£14) a night for us both. There was always football on TV in the owner’s lounge, and you could here the chanting from the other side of the plaza. That evening, like many, I took a cold shower, the hot option being unavailable. I nonchalantly dressed in full balcony view, at first unaware, and then fully aware of the senõra on the balcony opposite who was taking in her washing.

There are two lively spots in town, both of which are busy with students and locals of all ages throughout the week, and swarming on the weekend. We made for the streets between Plaza Nueva and the Gran Via, stopping off at an internet café to collect our mail, and then on to the Moroccan tea rooms in the Moorish Albacín quarter district for a chillin’ pot of Chinese Green.

And then came the tapas. First up was a dodgy looking joint which could be nothing but authentic. “Oolah, dos Montillas por favor.” We ordered two glasses of chilled fino. Forget your Granny’s sweet cream sherry, a glass of the absolute bone-dry brown stuff from Jerez simply cries out for a dish of olives. A few more bars later and it was 3am – and time to get horizontal. It was clear that we needed to adjust to the Spanish body clock; which does not involve going out at 8 o’clock, chucking 7 pints of beer down your neck, knowing that come 11.15 it’s on with the lights, out with the industrial cleaning fluid, and “thank you very much for coming, now piss off.”

The following morning, after our now established breakfast ritual, we made some pre-ride bike checks in the plaza. The square was patrolled by Senoir policía whose duties included smoking, and spitting on cars from the comfort of his van. However, our tampering tempted him to leave his mechanical niche, and divert the trajectory of his tobacco-tainted saliva at our tyres instead.

We headed east through Cenes de Vegas, and climbed almost vertically for several kilometres on yet another secondary road into the mountains. Our target was a ridge some 900 metres upwards via a 10 km ascent, and probably the most intense climb of the trip. “Just massage and go” was Paul’s advice. I now know why John Wayne walked the way he did. It’s all about saddle position, and if you get it wrong, you lose all penile feeling. The pace however was good, and I controlled my breathing and concentration by staring 3 feet ahead of the wheel. The secondary road became third rate, strewn with potholes, and the last kilometre drained all my reserve energy and emotion. But achievement is all conquering, and a pretty nice view over the Embalse reservoir coupled with the resurgence in feeling made it so worth while.

That night we felt quite fresh. Our stamina was building each day. And after visiting a couple of bars we were ready to tuck into something more substantial. Bar L’Esquina was the answer. I ordered a chorizo bocadillo (bar sandwich). The barman obliged me by hacking up a squishy brown tube of pig’s blood. A little frying transformed the raw flesh into a spicy, oily fill. A couple of bottles of Rioja sustained our appetite through the night, as we made our way through a blackboard of bocadillos and several plates of whitebait.

Our final ride was a gentle 6 hour climb from Granada, skirting the Embalse reservoir and up to the pretty village of Güéjar Sierra, where we picked up an old mining track through a dense ravine to the village of Majada Del Palo. Here we were treated to a truly awesome panorama of the Corral del Valeta (3396m), where you have the option of taking on the highest road in Europe to Valeta’s summit – a ride for the summer. Instead we headed back early to take a peak at the remains of the Alhambra Palace, perched high on a hill dominating one side of the city. The Palace is an awe-inspiring monument of Moorish Granada – the longest running kingdom of North Africa settlers, widely regarded as the eighth wonder of the world. It certainly lived up to this reputation, a uniquely proportioned complex, jam packed with original architectural and decorative arts, bridging the gap between oriental and western civilizations.

Do we fancy going again? Try this Spring. Though you may not see us during the week, as we’ll be camping out in the mountains, but you may spot us stretched outside a café on the odd rest day – putting in that all important preparation.

Getting there: We booked a charter flight with Unijet, flying from Gatwick to Malaga for £69 each including airport tax (the bikes went free). We hired a car for the week at a cost of £85 from Helle Helios. A Vauxhall Corsa was big enough for bike bags and rucksacks. Tel. 0039 95 28 23 038, Fax. 28 23 038, Where to Stay: There are plenty of bargain hostels in the centre of Granada, many of which are listed the Rough Guide to Spain. We stayed at the Hostal Europa, c/de la Cruz (tel 95 82 78 744). Useful bits: You can pick up a bike Bag for around £80 from good bike shops. Buy the Parque Natural Sierra Nevada map (scale 1:100.000), available from most bookshops in Granada, and the Andaluçia Mountain Bike guidebook and Granada street map from the Granada tourist information centre.

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