10 Sept 2012
Blogger: Lorna Johnston
If you had told me a year ago that I would spend a sunny afternoon in August chilling out on a roof terrace with a beer in hand, listening to Ben Howard on the ipod and basking in the satisfaction of having just completed my first Cat1 climb I would have said you were off your rocker. Surely anything over a Cat4 is for ‘proper’ cyclists?! But last Friday I found myself doing exactly that.
I know I blogged a few months ago about embracing the rain and miserable weather in the UK, but having done so for several months and worrying about the onset of rickets I decided to combine a week in the sun with some cycling. Following the recommendation of a friend I took off to Montecorto to spend a week with the Andalucian Cycling Experience.
It's not flat in Andalucia, as Lorna was soon to discover!
To be honest, I had absolutely no idea what was in store. I knew I’d be doing some riding of varying mileage with other cyclists and that was about it but as I gazed out the window at the surrounding topography on the transfer from Malaga to Montecorto I began to get a little anxious. I laughed and put on some bravado as one of the guides, Jez, recounted a tale of a couple of lads who did 1200m of climbing on their first day and were horrified to discover that was just the warm up but managed a Cat1 climb by the end of the week. ‘Proper cyclists,’ I reckoned - ‘I’ll not be expected to do that.’
Montecorto is a traditional Spanish village lying 20km west of Ronda in the Malaga province. Away from the hordes and masses that frequent the coastal region this is a lovely little haven to kick back and relax after a hard morning in the saddle. I was staying in a townhouse with a large roof terrace which provided a spectacular panorama taking in the Sierra de Grazelama National Park. As the sun dropped down behind the foreboding mountain of Puerto de Las Palomas on my first night and cast a rich red glow across the landscape I was filled with trepidation as to what lay in store.
The taster I had last summer of riding on the continent in Northern France had merely whet my appetite for the main course I took on in Andalucia and my fears were soon cast aside. The roads looked like they had been built yesterday - no potholes, broken glass or car crash debris to contend with - and when we did actually come across any motor vehicles the drivers were relaxed and courteous.
These factors were all a great help when I was huffing and puffing my way up the winding gradients and weaving all over the road on my first day. I have to admit I really thought I had bitten off more than I could chew and I lagged behind the other two riders quite considerably although one was a cycling guide working in the French Alps and the other competes in half ironman competitions so it was silly to compare myself to them. The heat was an added complication for a Scottish lass like me and I managed to get through 3 litres of liquid on my first morning.
Done it - topping a mountain pass is always a thrill, especially when it's your first Cat 1
The following day we set off earlier to take advantage of the relative morning cool and had a pleasant ride out by the lake - it was quite flat and I enjoyed the quick miles to waken my legs up. But we soon turned the corner to face our first climb and the rest of the ride was either up,up,up or down. The mercury was tipping 42C as we returned to Montecorto and I really struggled on the last 10 miles. We had totalled just over 1200m of climbing on top of the 1090m the previous day and I was already spent. I had to admit defeat and take the following day as a ‘rest day’ or I very much doubt if I would ever have wanted to get back on a bike again.
Feeling fully refreshed on Friday, I met up with my new guide Heather and together with Alex and Jez we set off to conquer Las Palomas. The climb is 1300m over 12km and rises steadily from the lake like a snake slithering its way up the hillside. There is a large psychological element to the route as you can see the road stretching up into the distance the whole way and it seems to go on forever. Heather and I rode together and it was great to have her company and encouragement.
I didn’t climb very quickly but I did it nonetheless and even had enough in the legs for a victory sprint on the final 20m. I held my bike aloft for the obligatory photo and was beaming with pride at what I had just achieved. We were accompanied on the exhilirating descent to Grazelama by vultures enjoying the thermals overhead and I returned to Montecorto an exceedingly happy bunny. I had finally found my climbing legs and when I was told I would be riding ‘The Beast’ the following day I said ‘bring it on!’ thinking I had done the biggest climb in the area.
The ride out to the base of The Beast of El Bayor could be described as undulating in the very loosest sense - 23 miles of total ascent of 2000ft. My legs were heavy from the previous day and I was still under the false illusion that the climb was not going to be very big. And then Heather sprung it on me - we were about to ride another Cat1 which was 3km longer than Las Palomas. And - despite the death of my Garmin battery as we turned the first hairpin of the ascent which may suggest otherwise - I did it. I achieved two back to back Cat1 climbs at an average temperature of 32C and I’m still buzzing from it now.
I cannot thank Ashley and his team in Andalucia enough for their companionship, guiding and hard work in making my holiday such a fantastic experience. In total I managed to cram in 22,000ft of climbing in my 5 days riding in a mere 165 miles. It was hot, challenging and pushed me to my limit on several occasions but I loved nearly every single minute of it. I’m already planning on going back for a winter training camp which involves a time trial up Las Palomas, and I have to do ‘The Beast’ again to log the strava sections!
I achieved something I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would be able to do as a novice rider and am beginning to think I may soon be able to regard myself as a ‘proper cyclist.’