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350 Miles On A Bike : The Pain in Spain

October 16, 1988|DEREK POGSON and DEVARA BERGER | Pogson and Berger are Sacramento free-lance writers. and

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.

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.

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.

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.

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