The joys of cycling on the Costa Brava
A personal view
Each year, the kindly folk from Elitecycling in Crystal Palace arrange a week’s training in Spain for members of Penge Cycle Club. The aim is to work hard, have fun, and drink as many cocktails as decency allows. And to meet like-minded cyclists who know that a warm and sunny week in February thrashing up and down some Spanish mountains will in some mysterious way set them up to cope with an English winter.
If you are looking for your name in lights, I am sorry if you are disappointed. This blog is not an authoritative chronicle of our joyous week, but a personal record of things that went well, or not so well, in my search for greater cycling proficiency. I was not alone in this pursuit, of course. The great pleasures of the week were very much the product of everyone’s efforts and the interactions between all the players. So I hope you will enjoy the blog in that spirit – a contribution to all the wonderful postings and photos on our Whatsapp page.
Saturday, 1 February 2020
We have just left the EU. The Spanish were very welcoming and invited us to live here.
After a smooth transition from Gatwick to Alicante – all persons, luggage and bikes delivered with no breakages – the 20 intrepid Penge cyclists were met by our three Elite leaders, Paul, Richard and Gary. We were transported to Hotel Albir Playa (no, it is not on the beach). The hotel is comfortable, with a generous buffet morning and evening for hungry cyclists, and an unbelievably cheap bar. It is also full of Scandinavian tourists escaping the -10oC temperatures at home for weeks at a time.
We are not the only cycling group staying in the hotel. There is another group of wraith-thin 20 year-old Belgian men in fully matching kit who look very serious beside our aspiring but (in comparison) rag-tag bunch of mamils and mafils (to be fair, some younger, some older, some approaching 90 kg). Personally, I think our group is going to have much more fun.
With all the bikes unpacked, assembled or rented from Elite Bikes (no relation) across the road from the hotel, and everyone in their cycling glad rags, we were ready for our first outing. The aim was to ride for an hour to discover any niggles or adjustments of bikes or kit or persons and to make sure we were not going to embarrass ourselves beyond ways that have not already happened in the public arena that is south London.
On return, we assembled for dinner. This is always a slightly tricky moment. We know the leaders, of course. But outside of cycling together and drinking coffee and eating cake at Winnie’s excellent café, only some of us will have spent time together socially. Who do we sit with? Who do we chat to? What do we talk about? Bikes, of course, but conversations quickly drift into the more personal. It is fun to watch these new friendships unfold. Everyone is here for one thing, to become stronger cyclists. But along the way, we need to get on if we are going to spend day after day together and expose our cycling aspirations, strengths, and weaknesses, helping each other to get the most out of our week together. This is a time to be kind and supportive, tolerant, amazed at the talent on display, so we can bask in the glory of a week well spent.
The first evening passes well.
Here is our ride (with my stats, natch):
Down to some serious work.
The evening before, we stood together by the hotel pool in the chilly Albir evening (so avoiding the Scandinavian disco and dance in the bar) and through some alchemy of decision making and the help of the leaders, divided ourselves into three groups of roughly equal abilities for the following day.
Day 2 was another warm day in sunny Spain – what a pleasure. All the extra layers to protect against the cold of the mountains and wind on the descents stayed firmly in our pockets.
As we climbed into the mountains, I recalled the serious joys of my trip last year. The scenery is stunning, the roads perfectly maintained, and the company encouraging and inspiring. As usual, I was at the back on the climbs. I need to work with Paul to strengthen my leg muscles so that I have just that bit more oomph to give on the hills. From time to time, I can feel the Hand of God in the middle of my back pushing me gently up the hill. Then, lo and behold, a minute later Paul comes cycling past. Go figure.
Downhill, I am fine. No, I am a demon. Many of the people that pass me going up, I pass coming down. I am not entirely sure how this works. I think it has to do with the tiniest margins of muscle strength and power, combined with a sense of fearlessness and joy at being in control on the descents, and Paul’s voice in my head saying, “Stay on the drops. Brake before the curve, not in the curve. Use your knees.” It works a charm.
When we returned, I did my stretches, had a shower, and went off for a coffee with Steve. We sat in a café near the beach and chatted amiably about the ride, work, retirement, the joys of being 70, and pleasures of travelling to exotic places (with or without a bicycle).
There are five of us over 60. That’s 25% of the group. I am surprised, really. It just shows what a lifetime of immaturity and overambition can achieve.
When we got back and I loaded my ride into Strava, it showed 49 achievements. I was very excited at my performance, until I realized that most of them were for second fastest time, not personal record. This is because this is the second time I have ridden these segments. When I looked at the actual times, I was a minute slower on the hills. I was fitter last year, it would appear. Even the PRs, which were all on the downhills, were only a few seconds faster than last. I was mildly deflated. Must try harder.
After dinner and our evening briefing from Paul, I had a chat with two of the other Penge elders about being last on the hills. David D. (a much stronger rider) was very kind. He pointed out that someone has to be last, and that it makes everyone else on the ride feel better because it wasn’t them. Now I feel all altruistic.
When I got back, I had a pee. It was the colour of maple syrup (No. 2 Amber, if you must know). I need to drink more tomorrow.
Torture, terror and trouble on Tudons
The ride up from Albir to the Puerto de Tudons is 1024 m of climb over 24 km. On the website, the average gradient is described as 5%. The reality was torture: climbs of between 8% and 11% interspersed with long drags of 5% to 7%. 24 km is a long way.
The descents were terrifying. The speed of descent was faster than yesterday because the curves were less sharp. The swooping glides downhill were intoxicating. There comes a point, however, where some sand on the road or the smallest lapse of attention could end you up in the woods or over the edge of a precipice. By the bottom, I was shattered.
Some of the stronger riders from yesterday’s effort (Lynsey, David D.) joined the faster top group today, leaving our group still strong but less stretched. We held ourselves together quite well. Here is me on the ascent still capable of breathing, smiling, pedalling and waving at the same time.
And here is our little band at a stunning stopping point on the way down
Two are missing, Chris and Paul. Chris had multiple blowouts; our first bit of trouble. Paul fixed the final one with an energy bar wrapper. The man is a genius.
Shortly after this picture was taken, Jon realized that higher up, he had dropped his credit card, €20, and his hotel room key. The second bit of trouble. Despondent, he set off back up the hill to the point where he thought he had dropped them. Paul, now on his way down with Chris, convinced him to turn around and re-join us.
The fastest group, who had set off 15 minutes after we left the hotel, now caught up with us at our stopping point. We descended all together in a great swish of tires. It was inspiring. It is one of my favourite moments when we cycle, everyone moving together with deep concentration at the heart of such intense physical effort.
Before we got back to the hotel, Paul engaged us in one of his favourite exercises, the chain gang. I describe it here for those who have not had the pleasure.
We cycle in two columns. In reality, we are forming a loop. The front rider on the outside column rides to the head of the inside column and slows down a bit. The rider behind in the outside column fills in the gap, and then performs the same manoeuvre. At the back, the last inside rider joins the outside column. It is known variously as chain gang or pace riding (US) or bit-and-bit (UK). When it works well, it is an elegant, balletic harmony of cycling. We did our best.
When we got back, I had a pee. In spite of drinking three bottles of water, coffee, and a Coke, it was still the colour of maple syrup (No. 1 Medium today). I must drink more.
A short reflection. After breakfast, the elderly Norwegians and Swedes with whom we share the dining room shuffle off to a room across the patio off the lobby. They are mainly in their 80s, and seem remarkably unfit (except for the dancers). What do they do in there? Is it a briefing about activities the next day? Or Spanish lessons? One thought is that they are all in fact 300 years old and go off for secret rejuvenation treatment. There is something in their zombie-like shuffle as they leave the lobby that makes me think they have given up their will to some stronger inhuman power. I am fearful of following them in case I become fodder for their rejuvenation process.
Here is the ride. My PRs were better today, on the uphills as well as the downhills. I compared my performance on Strava with others age 70-74. I was way down the list. Gosh, there are some fit fuckers out there.
Possible disaster. I think I may have hamstring tendonitis.
After our two strenuous rides on Sunday and Monday, the tendon at the back of the left knee is seriously sore, despite doing my stretches when we have returned from each ride. I treated it with ibuprofen pills and gel yesterday, but it is still sore this morning after a night’s sleep and elevation. The lesson is to stay better hydrated.
The problem is not uncommon, but according to t’internet will require 10 days’ rest, or hydrocortisone injections, or surgery (to do what?). That would scupper the rest of the rides for this week, and possibly the Hell of the Ashdown on the 16th of February.
These issues become more common as we get older. Clearly, the human body is not designed to sit on a bike for 8 hours or run for 40 km. On the other hand, I am stupidly proud of my first proper sports injury. Having come rather late in the day to such antics, it is no wonder that bits start to go ping without warning.
To satisfy myself that I was not wholly broken, and clearly against the advice on that famous website medically_you_are_dying_of_everything.com, I went out for a 6 km spin this morning along the beach at Altea to test things out. The stiffness has eased a bit, so I am hopeful for more rides this week.
I got back to the hotel at 10 AM, just as the hardcore group were setting off on their 70-mile ride, the week’s toughest. Gorgeous weather again, possibly 27oC on the coast. At 12 noon, I joined the more sedate group who cycled to Calpe for lunch, 16 km along the coast road.
Paul: ”Yeah, it’s flat, just along the coast, innit?” I made no comment. Lunch by the beach was good, and then another “flat” ride back.
The ride for the group who went up into the mountains turned out to be particularly tough. Hot, no shade, little access to water, and some mishaps (but no disasters) along the way meant the group didn’t return to the hotel until 5 PM. Everyone had clearly worked extremely hard. “Shattered” comes to mind. But a late dinner followed by drinks in the bar seemed to restore everyone’s spirits.
Tomorrow is supposed to be a rest day, and much colder. Paul’s idea of a rest day, however, is “just a 45-mile ride along the coast for lunch (there and back).” So, it will be a choice between riding to lunch or being bundled up on the beach with my blanket and a book.
My bike has been in full sympathy with my infirmity. My Garmin cadence sensor gave up the ghost. My rear brake was shrieking every time I stopped; the rotor has now been replaced. And coming back from Calpe, the rear derailleur cable snapped. Elite Bikes are making a tidy profit from my travails, along with the local pharmacy with sales of ibuprofen tablets and ibuprofen gel and an ice pack.
I hope tomorrow runs a bit more smoothly.
On Sunday, at breakfast, I spoke with a man who was sitting with the Belgian boy-wonder cycling team to ask about who they were and their plans. He was clearly not a cyclist – he must have weighed at least as much as two of his cyclists put together. He was their soigneur, he said. No, I didn’t know what it meant either, so I looked it up in some online dictionary. “One who looks after equipment,” it said. I mentioned this to Paul, and he said, in the cycling world, the soigneur is not merely a quartermaster but also a masseur. A vital member of the team.
After dinner tonight, I mentioned to Joost (for that is the soigneur’s name) that I had hamstring tendonitis and asked if he could give me advice on how best to treat it. “Come to my room in 10 minutes,” he said. But instead of just giving advice, he told me to take off my trousers (“including your underwear”) and with the utmost discretion gave me a 45-minute proper cyclist’s leg massage. It was extraordinary. “I’m not Jesus Christ,” he kept saying, “I just look after the boys.” Whatever else, after 45 minutes, my legs felt spiritually uplifted from the laying on of hands. The pain from the tendonitis was a faint memory.
 For reference, they are Mysenlan-Baboco-Douterloigne, a group of students with a serious commitment to cycling.
The weather started cold and cloudy, with low mist on the hills, so the ride for the “rest” day was cancelled. The mountain cyclists from yesterday seemed fully recovered.
The morning consisted of meandering to the coffee shop and then walking to the beach to watch an intrepid group who had planned to swim in the sea not swim in the sea because of big waves and strong undertow. Drowning on a cycling holiday would be regrettable.
Some have walked up to the lighthouse this morning. Reservations have been made for Friday night at Zero Zero, the excellent fish restaurant and cocktail bar (not necessarily in that order). Fiona has gone for a walk to look at churches in Altea. It is a rest day after all.
Steve and I walked up to the lighthouse after lunch. He is as much of a talker as I am. Conversation ranged over myriad topics, but the world is now a much better place for our discussions. The view from the top was stunning.
Having successfully cycled to Calpe and back on Tuesday, Paul suggested that today I ride to Moraira, a bit further along the coast, following the “rest day” non-ride from yesterday. I was joined by two others. Between us we managed to spend 6 hours cycling 60 km. This included getting lost (in spite of the Garmin) by misinterpreting Paul’s road directions; having two minor off-road adventures (don’t ask); and a leisurely late lunch at a café on the seafront at Moraira.
Each of us worked hard and felt satisfied with our achievements at the end of the ride, I think. (Even the Garmin, which had had a hissy fit and refused to start before we set off this morning – leading to a moment of intense panic on my part – recorded our ride faithfully.)
As we returned through Altea, the road along the sea where we normally cycle was blocked off by red and white tape. I thought there had been an accident but there were no signs of emergency vehicles. One of the people standing guard by the tape said that we couldn’t go through because they were making a film. I spluttered, “But we live here!” Not quite the truth, but near enough. He looked concerned, and after a quick conversation with his companions about “casa” and other things Spanish, let us pass. The road was almost deserted. A few people strolled aimlessly. A man was walking a dog. Two vintage cars sat motionless on the tarmac. No one was in costume, that we could see. Eventually, we came across a camera rig. One or two worried looking crew members whispered to each other as we went by, wondering, perhaps, why we were cycling through their film. From what I understand, film making is a long, boring and tedious process. One of my co-riders suggested they were making a bad Spanish soap opera.
A mile and a small off-road diversion later, we found ourselves back at the hotel.
The fitter cyclists did Coll de Rates, often described as THE classic ride in these hills. Advertised at an average gradient of 5%, it is, of course, no such thing.
Our ride. The little finger at the top is us getting lost.
Last day cycling.
My tendons still feel a tad tender, but OK under a light load. So, with three other gents (Steve, Andy and John M) we repeated the ride to Moraira and back with a stop for coffee. Another success, with my legs beginning to return to full function. I had to stop myself from pushing too hard, so all bodes well for HOTA. We cycled uphill past two e-cyclists. What a triumph!
My Garmin was again temperamental. Fortunately, I knew the route, but as the ride progressed, the information on the screen became increasingly erratic. At the end, apparently, we had travelled 33 meters at a stately 7.1 kph with zero cadence. Can Garmins be repaired? Or publicly humiliated? (“Bad Garmin! Bad Garmin!”) The outcome, of course, is that there is no record of the ride on Strava. I will see if I can pinch one from one of my co-riders. I am thinking of defecting to Wahoo.
When we got back, I packed my bike into its box with none of the drama of last Friday. Once you learn how to do something, it seems simple. So instead of multiple attempts taking 3 hours and a visit to Winnie’s, I did it in one go of 45 minutes. Delivered to the bike store in the basement, it is ready to go into the trailer tomorrow morning and be towed to the airport behind our bus.
This has been a lovely week. I feel sad it’s over. The gentle awkwardness from the first night has wholly dissipated. Groups have formed and gelled but remained fluid. I have spoken with everyone and made new cycling friends. Some conversations have stretched over days. I have laughed a lot. It has been relaxed and stimulating.
The cycling efforts seem to have been generally satisfying. While a bunch of us goes to Zero Zero this evening to get squiffy on cocktails and eat decent food, the leaders will organize the last day of our adventure and ensure that our return home is as smooth as our departure. Thanks to everyone for such a great week, and to Paul, Gary and Richard especially.