We knew that we would be faced with a few long days to make up the shortfall we had experienced on day 2 when we had been battered by the weather and terrain in the northern part of the course. This was one of those days.
Rising at 5 am from our bivies we set off for the town of Tabernas. Most famous for its part as the production base for many of the spaghetti western movies of the past including Fistful Of dollars, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly amongst others. The question begged to be asked why these iconic Hollywood movies weren't filmed in the USA in a desert state like New Mexico.
Getting to Tabernas involved some technical riding mostly across a sand filled riverbed and through one long winding valley surrounded on all sounds by steep foreboding crumbling cliffs.
Riding sand is difficult. It is energy sapping and the key to doing it successfully is maintaining a high cadence (high rate of pedal turnover) in addition to ensuring you keep your front wheel straight. Once you turn your front wheel there is a very strong likelihood it will jackknife on you and you either come to a very quick stop or simply fall off. The former happened numerous times, the latter thankfully only once. And when it did occur my fall was almost in slow motion onto soft sand. The bruise however was a deep one and it left me concerned how it would unfold over the next 12-24 hours. Getting injured at any time on a bike is frustrating. Getting injured 1/2 way around a gruelling 745km bike race doubly so.
This was Spaghetti Western Country and they didn't hold back in letting you know as you passed numerous permanent movie sets along the route to Tabernas.
As dawn broke we were still a solid 10km of riding from breakfast. The air was motionless inside our mini-canyon and we knew we were headed for a hot day. Some groups who rode this section the previous day recorded 51 degrees C.
The climb out of the river bed that we had spent the previous 2 hours riding was a steep one but thankfully short and with food beckoning not as hard as some. Still a steep hill though.
Riding up that short but steep hill into Tabernas we passed what seemed like a disused bull fighting ring. Too small to having ever been a fully functioning one our assumption was that it too was possibly once a movie set.
5 hours earlier we had stopped riding for the night and having kept April company through the technical part of the course she had pushed on ahead of us as we caught a few hours sleep. We found her in Tabernas, and taking one look at her breakfast politely asked if she (Spanish speaking that she was) could order the same for us. Nothing quite beats a piece of toast smeared in tomato and dripping with olive oil accompanied by a tortilla with olives and two double espresso's to get the heart going for the day. Oh and let's not forget the 1.5 litres of fresh bottled water too. Oh, and a glass of freshly squeezed OJ. The small luxuries of life.
Leaving Tabernas was no easy thing given the luxury of the breakfast we had enjoyed. Not making it any easier was the 14km uphill climb around countless hairpins during what was fast becoming another very warm day. 2.5 hours of climbing with no respite makes for a interesting way to spend your morning.
Prior to the climb we had passed an impossibly large solar farm. One of a few that we had passed en-route during the ride and we both expressed surprise we hadn't seen more of them given the relentless free solar energy being smashed on our backs as we cycled. This was the largest farm by some measure.
As we climbed the solar farm would periodically appear below us. Each time appearing to be further away and more remote. That ridge line in the background was where we were yesterday and the location of the large white telescopic stations. Situated almost directly behind the solar farm. Despite the rigours of the climb, being able to reference our progress over the previous 12 hours gave us a sense of accomplishment.
A common pose struck hundred's of times during the course of the ride. That being of me bent over the front handlebars gasping for breath after conquering yet another hill in searing heat under cloudless skies.
The view from the other side of the hill was the beginning of what they called the ''world of plastic''. Thousands of white plastic covered greenhouses that are the production centre for much of Western Europe's fruit and vegetables. The enormity of it has to be seen to be believed. An environmental mess that serves to satiate the appetites of the wealthy economies of the west.
Once we had crested the hill out of Tabernas we had a 25km free wheel into the town of Nijar. Here we enjoyed the second fulfilling meal of the day and I took time to change my rear brake pads. They had been squealing in pain for the last 50km and after I took them off I could see why. Pads they were no more. Basically I was pressing metal onto the metal brake disc. After 25 km of downhill riding and constant use the brake disc itself was hot enough to fry an egg on. And my fingers.
''Insalada Nixta''. Basically a tuna salad. heavenly after a hard morning ride in the searing heat. The cold can of Coke didn't touch the sides. The second one marginally so.
Post lunch it didn't get any warmer. We endured one undulating dip after another as we passed by the multitude of greenhouses we had viewed from higher up and afar prior to lunch. The rancid smell of fertiliser permeating the air which combined with a hot westerly wind made for an interesting early afternoon's ride. You seek shade where you can find it and in this instance a solitary tree roadside will do the trick. Providing both shelter from the sun and the howling warm westerly that was blowing across the landscape.
The landscape mid afternoon was foreboding. Barren , rocky, moonscape like and not a soul to be seen.
We were however buoyed by the fact that the coastline was getting ever closer. You could smell the saltiness in the air and it was somewhat milder than the scorched earth territory we'd been passing across the last few hours.
Nothing quite like a 5 km freewheel down to the coast to revive lagging spirits late in the afternoon
We made time for a pit stop at a beachside bar where we luxuriated under the canopy of a palm umbrella. Somewhat incongruous mind you given we were decked in dust covered lycra surrounded by scantily clad beach and swim wear folk all sipping pina colada's and enjoying a later afternoon tapa's.
We had envisaged the coastline to be flat and relatively easy and we had planned to make up some more of our lost time along this stretch. Working against us were three things. One it was blowing a gale and we were riding straight into it. Secondly much of the ride was undulating and once we left the beaches and followed the route a few km's inland the terrain was treeless, up and down hills, rocky and technical to ride. Thirdly, many of the sections along this part of the route took us across beach. Yes, beach. Soft sand again. Plenty of it. Plenty of technical energy sapping riding. Which as night fell became only more difficult.
Slightly inland from the coastline and it was barren and parched and technical. Oh and steep too.
The route dipped into and away from the coastline with irritating regularity.
Nothing moist about the environment here.
To prove how windy it was I stopped and took a screen shot of the weather where we were. That's blowing a constant 23 mph (40kph approx) with gusts to 35 mph (55kph) . There were sections on the main road where we were in danger of being blown into the path of cars passing us. There were also sections, at nightfall where we found ourselves in danger of being blown off the track and over a steep cliff. Probably the only reason we didn't stop riding was because we couldn't see how dangerous a moment we were in.
Our aim at lunch back in Nijar had been to make it to Almeria where we would sleep for a few hours before making the final push to the finish line.
For some macabre reason the directors of the race decided to route us onto a beach for the 15 km leading into Almeria. Having been riding since 5 am that day and with it now fast approaching midnight there was a definite loss of humour between the two of us and the organisers of the race. Sand riding is difficult at the best of times. Try it after you've been cycling for 19 hours, into a howling gale, in the middle of the night, not having had a decent meal since midday and you can understand where our mindset was at. Not a good place at all.
To compound matters, once we left the 15km of beach riding we thought we had reached Almeria to discover in fact we were in one of its eastern suburbs and still had another 15km to ride through desolate streets devoid of people or life. Oh and the wind continued unabated.
We arrived at our hotel in central Almeria at 1 am. 20 hours after leaving our bivvies outside of Tabernas. A massive day of riding. Exhausted doesn't begin to cover it. Shattered more likely. Still 180 km to go to the finish.