Badlands. A 745 km off road bike packing race. It starts in Granada (A) and finishes in Capileira (B) . 85% of it is off road and in total we will climb over 16,000 meters (52,500 ft approx) in elevation.
When you sign up for a 745 km off road bike race that touts itself as being the toughest in Europe and then calls itself ''Badlands'' you expect it to be tough. Given the experience of Day 1 it would be fair to say that the organisers are gifted with the talent of the understatement.
In the riders brief it makes mention that the first section (ie: first 100km) and the last section (120km ) are the toughest of all the sections. Why ease riders into a 750 km cycling slaughterfest when you can immediately throw them into a 45km climb from the very get go. And that's what we did.
Like eager children at their first day of school we assembled in central Granada at 7.30 am for a 8 am push off. The atmosphere a mix of trepidation and excitement. The first 4km we were told would be processional and neutralised (no overtaking the lead vehicle) behind a police car that led us immediately into the foothills surrounding Granada. Once the police car disappeared around a corner at 4km the race was on in earnest. At this point we had already started to climb and it was a routine that stayed constant for the next 4-5 hours. By midmorning we had encountered dirt tracks that a hiker would find difficult to navigate, 4WD wide country tracks, and even some smooth bitumen. The weather forecast was for a maximum of 31 C (92F) and it would seem the Spanish meteorologists were more accurate than their British colleagues for it was very soon that if not a little hotter given the reflective heat off the black tar.
The landscape was a mix of farming land and sparsely treed forests and one climb in particular up a series of hairpins in an area recently devastated by a bush fire cast an eerie atmosphere over proceedings. It was also bloody hot and with shade at premium it was a common sight to see 2-3 cyclists sharing the shadow of whatever tree or large bush it was that sat roadside.
We stopped mid morning for a caffeine hit at a small cafe in a hilly but small village and then pushed onto higher ground before finding refuge in a restaurant in a village seemingly in the middle of nowhere where we adjourned for lunch.
The only real difference from the morning to the afternoon ride was the heat and our energy levels. The excitement of the start and the fresh legs now a distant memory as we headed deeper into the hills north east from Granada.
We were both carrying what we perceived to be enough water but very soon realised that it would need replenishing at most opportunities. Those opportunities presented themselves via water fountains in each village.
The climbing was relentless and the heat oppressive beyond belief and when we finally arrived into the village of Gorafe at the 150 km point it would be fair to say we were somewhat spent. The only establishment open was a taverna that had already being swamped by the riders ahead of us (of which there were plenty at this stage). The downside of this was that most of what he had originally had to offer in way of drink and food had already been consumed leaving us to satisfy ourselves with some bland overcooked pasta mixed with a can of tuna and washed down with somewhat diluted lemon drink.
As bad as we may have felt the taverna forecourt looked like a triage centre near the front line of the Western Front. Dishevelled riders bent over tables in a state of exhaustion and several competitors making repairs to their bikes or trying to re-inflate tyres.
Our aim had been to cover 165km on the day and bivy somewhere just beyond Gorafe. So soon after arriving we pushed off again only to be confronted by a 20 degree slope that climbed for 3 km up to a plateau. Now 20 degrees may not sound steep but in the Tour De France that would rate it as ''upgradable'' and that would be ''ungradable'' for professional cyclists carrying nothing but themselves and their ultralight bikes up the slope. For us it was ourselves and bike packing bikes laden with gear. Slight difference then you might conclude.
As had been my approach throughout the day, when the slope slowed my cycling down to less than 4kph I would find it more efficient and energy saving to get off and push the bike as I had calculated I could walk and push at 4kph regardless of the angle of the gradient. So as we left Gorafe and for the 8th time that day I found myself pushing my bike rather than riding it.
After the brutal climb out of Gorafe we travelled across a plateau before encountering a very technical piece of the track that required us to fully illuminate the track with all means of lighting that we had and sit heavily on both sets of brakes to help negotiate what was a very steep and rock strewn aspect of the track.
By 2 am we had decided enough was enough and set about selecting a spot to bivy for the night. A disused olive grove field seemed the most appropriate place to down bikes for the night.
In our case, to ''bivy'' basically means rolling out a waterproof light weight shell of a bag that looks like a non existent sleeping bag. You then inflate an air mattress and place it inside the bivy bag. Presto you have waterproof sleeping quarters for the the night. For me, sleeping clothes were a pair of thermal long johns, woollen socks, thermal vest and a puffer jacket. The balance of my other clothes were rolled up into a spare bag and became my pillow.
My riding companion, Nick W-W had bought along a sleeping bag. Purposeful but as we discovered unnecessarily warm given the mild weather.
It takes sometime to get to sleep when your heart is racing above 100 beats a minute and had been doing so for the last 18 hours so though we had stopped riding at 2 am it was well past 3 am by the time I finally fell asleep. With our plan to rise at 6 am that meant a precious 3 hours of fitful sleep to help me get through the next day.
I will say this though. You sleep in the middle of farmers field in remote and isolated Spain you are not going to have any ambient light to destroy your view of the universe and constellation. The clarity of the stars was truly amazing and a peaceful way to end what seemed like a hectic day. Seemed like it (hectic), because it was. It was also extremely challenging and didn't augur well for the days ahead.
Our only solace was that the directors had stated this and the last section were the toughest. So perhaps things will get better tomorrow.
All eager and ready to go at the start line....
Crossing a reservoir was a highlight if only because we were able to enjoy about 400 meters of smooth bitumen that was flat. A novelty for the first day of riding. Flat and smooth.....
Meeting a local cowboy walking his horse and dog down an impossibly steep section of road didn't detract from the fact that it was steep and hot. Notice the cloudless skies.
One climb up an impossible amount of hairpins through an area recently devastated by bushfires was both eerie and hot. Very hot. Oh and very steep.
One of the many 'ramps' we encountered during the day where the '' I can walk quicker than ride this '' rule was instigated.
...and another similar ramp. Eight of them in total during the day.
Looking back sometimes gives you a sense of perspective of achievement. Here the road we had been on that wound itself down the valley floor can be seen from about the mid point of the climb out of the valley.
The terrain was a mix of everything. At least by mid afternoon clouds had started to appear and provided relief, minimal though it was, from the searing heat.
Not a lot of water in these parts. And seemingly not a lot of rain recently either. There was certainly a parched feeling to everything.
At some points the track narrowed between gullies as it weaved itself north east. This felt like true cowboy and Indian country and I couldn't help get the feeling that at some point I'd See Geronimo sitting high up on the ridge line about to launch an ambush attack on us. Clearly the heat was getting to me.
This was a functioning monastery. Not sure what these monks had done in their previous lives to deserve to be banished to here but it was in the middle of absolutely nowhere and hot as hell.
The terrain was never flat on day 1. The upside of that it was always interesting. The downside was that we had to ride it. For some reason too, the organisers had very early on displayed a penchant for directing us down old river beds that were filled with soft sand. Always a lot of fun to ride in the searing heat. Being down in the river beds also meant zero wind and at the altitude we were at the air was excessively dry.
Gorafe Taverna at 10 pm on day 1. Triage centre for 266 silly cyclists smashing themselves silly on a bike ride through countryside Spain in the first week of September.