Cycling Tour of Spain 2022, Part 2 of 3: Our week by the calendar.
I live in North Carolina, and most of the folks who participated in our Spain Tour have some connection to North Carolina. It only makes sense to tell stories of our cycling trip from that perspective. Although we don’t take NC to Spain, or vice versa, our mentality does travel as we traverse these two cycling destinations. Let me use chronology to tell tales.
For some background, each year, we take up to 12 people with us to Spain to cycle, run and see the remote landscape. We are staying in our beautiful villa halfway up a mountain in the village of Parcent. This year, we had participants as young as 17 and as old as 72, all riding and running on the same courses. Here is how our week “went down.”
Day 1: As folks finished their travels and reached our villa, Marten and Patty delivered our rental bikes. This wonderful Dutch guy pulled up in his van and parked next to our tennis courts, calling people over to get their bikes set up. Everyone was impressed with the bike quality. We were in the mountains of Spain, so everyone got a carbon-framed bike with carbon wheels and disc brakes. I got an upgrade to Di2 shifters for an extra $20 for the week. While Marten worked with everyone to get their bikes ready to ride, I drove to local airports and train stations to pick up the late arrivals. While I was gone, everyone took a ride down the hill to the local cycling café to try out the bike they would ride on for the next week. Connor went into the shop, full of enthusiasm to ride.
The café had no parking for cars-just cyclists. He asked the guy making his coffee if anyone interesting had come in to get a cup of coffee today. The guy pointed to the chair near the bar and told him that Matthieu van der Poel was sitting there not even an hour ago. Connor looked on Strava to see if the guy was telling the truth, and he confirmed that van der Poel was riding in the area this week. Connor was super excited at the celebrity sighting; if the pros were training here, he couldn’t wait to jump into training himself. Some people went for a run that afternoon in the rain, but today was an arrival and jet lag day for nearly everyone. Linda and Cristal made a fantastic taco bar that evening, and we started drinking some of the local wine. Folks began going to bed right after dinner. I was one of those who went to bed quickly, but more than half of the crowd stayed up playing a variation of Uno until the wee hours.
Day 2: We market our breakfast as a European Breakfast. That means it is full of variety, but it is the same every day. Cristal drove into town to get fresh bread from the baker, and Linda put out a spread of yogurt, oatmeal, granola, meats, cheeses, fruits, and juices. That all said, nearly everyone’s first stop was the coffee pot. Paul, our airlines pilot, served as our weatherman. He showed us images of the current jet stream and helped us all come to terms with the reality that the rain was here for the next two days. Our plans to ride each day for 3 to 5 hours were blown up, as rain and sub-50-degree weather doesn’t mix well. I had initially planned a ride through two different valleys today, but the rain wouldn’t stop long enough for anything to dry. Despite the wet and cold, I decided that we would make a short go of it. Late morning, we all headed out for an hour ride instead of sitting in our villa all day. Group 1 was the slower group and left with Alex 15 minutes ahead of the faster group. I went with group 2 to have both groups finish simultaneously. We passed other cyclists braving the cold and the rain, but Group 1 decided it was too hard, and Alex turned the group around and headed back to the villa instead of completing the loop. Group 2 splintered into two smaller groups, but four members got an unexpected gift when we were 15 minutes from returning to the villa. The police asked us to pull over as a women’s professional bike race approached us on the road from Orba. They stopped all traffic in both directions while the cyclists passed us. None of us had ever seen a women’s race before, and it was cool to see an official UCI vehicle and support cars riding as an organized group as the ladies raced as hard as they could in the cold and the rain. We took a video as they passed us, and I have watched that video several times since we came home. It helped us realize that these ladies were tough enough to race in these conditions no matter how much we struggled with the inclement weather. All of us were impressed.
Day 3: Paul, the weatherman, reassured us that there would be no change from crummy conditions today. Rain be damned, I decided to replace the scheduled ride with a time trial up the Col de Rates. The start of the category two mountain was two miles from the villa, and this chain of mountains is a part of La Vuelta more often than it isn’t. We made a loop around Parcent to warm up; then, we let people leave one minute apart to climb the mountain as fast as possible. The published KOM for the mountain was 13 minutes, and our fastest rider did it in 19 minutes. We had vehicles pick the riders up at the top of the mountain, as I had no interest in watching them fearfully descend on wet roads. We got some great photos on the summit, and we went back to the villa for hot showers and good food.
Day 4: The weather broke, and we received our first “normal day” in Spain. March gets less than an inch of rain per year, on average. We had several inches just in the last two days, and we were all glad to see the clouds leave and the sun that defines Spain return. After breakfast, the riders left in three groups, while the non-riders left to go to some local villages at the coast. Alex debriefed everyone on the ride, reminding them that this was one of his favorite rides on the whole planet. We call it the Bennies Loop, as it takes us through a series of villages that all have the letters “Beni” in them. We had no rain or wind, and the air temperature was exactly what we expected. The long climb up the Bennie’s valley was the stuff of memories, unlike anything we have in NC. The valley starts with orange groves at the lower elevations. When we are halfway up the valley, the orange groves are replaced with rows of olive trees. Finally, as we reach the summit, olives give way to cherry trees in full blossom. We had a little jockeying to see who would get the KOM points at the summit, and Nelson and Connor did some competitive Sprints against each other as they always do. The sun was bright and shined on us nearly all day, and we did the 55-mile route with almost no one needing to fill up their water bottles.
After crossing over at the summit, we descended into the next valley and stopped at a cycling café in Alcala de la Jovada. The Spanish ham and cheese sandwich was quickly becoming the go-to lunch food for everyone who ate meat, and some people sat next to a heater to warm their cold hands and feet. Everyone was quick to compliment the choice of route and its beauty. I didn’t tell them what was ahead, but I didn’t need two. Once we “finished” the ride down the backside of the valley, we crossed back over the mountain range, and it took most people about an hour to climb back up and retrieve the altitude over those 12 miles. However, once we reached the summit, the pain of the up and down terrain was lost from everyone’s mind, as we had clear views of the Mediterranean Sea. The riders were in awe at the view in front of them. They could see that they were about to descend from 2300 feet of elevation to sea level in about 20 minutes using high-speed switchbacks. We passed another hundred cyclists coming from the opposite direction, and we were all glad that we went up the Bennies and down this way, not the reverse. Once we arrived home, everyone quickly showered and headed to Parcent Bodegas to tour the winemaking process and taste four local flavors. Many people didn’t’ have enough food in their stomachs, and the wine got to them. Linda called me, and I drove to pick up people to get them home.
Day 5: Everyone was now fully adjusted to Spanish time, and Alex introduced everyone to his favorite ride-the Confrides. This day started with a climb up the front side of the Col de Rates and a fast descent down the backside into the Tarbena bowl long before the sun was high in the sky. Alex led group 1, and I led group 2 again. We saw a hundred cyclists in the first two hours before stopping for a snack in the ancient Roman settlement of Guadalest. As we left the small village with only a single paved road, I stopped the group to listen to a rooster crowing outside of town, as it reminded me of our chickens back home.
Once we crossed over the Confrides summit, we descended to a town where we all connected and ate lunch. As group 1 was leaving, group 2 was arriving, and I checked in with everyone to see how they were doing. We had an hour of small up and down sections before getting a 12-mile “all-downhill” section back into Parcent. A group of three decided to form a pack line and time-trial from Famorca to Parcent. Many folks showered, ate, and rested that evening.
Day 6: We had lost two days of scheduled routes, and I knew we needed at least one day that included lunch at a café on the Mediterranean. Today was that day. We left in three groups, and the first group could follow the route perfectly. They rode through a national park and reached the town of Moraira around 11:30 in time to meet the non-riders for a seaside lunch of swordfish and fries. Group 2 got lost and skipped lunch at the beach. The ride back to the villa was not complicated, but it took us straight up before going straight into the Alcalali valley. A modified version of Uno had taken over all late-day activities in the villa that afternoon and evening, and folks stayed up late playing that game.
Day 7’s riding agenda was one we decided never to do again. It was a 100 km ride from our villa into downtown Valencia. Lenny, the 72-year-old, decided to jump in with the faster group and ride in a paceline with them into the city. He hung tough and never complained, and all the members of his group wanted to be like him when they got older. However, once we reached town and crossed into town, there was no reasonable way to store the bikes while exploring the city, and the rental bus we used to return everyone to Parcent at the end of the day arrived late. The traffic in the city felt as dangerous as riding in NC, and no one found great joy in riding in the urban sprawl of Valencia.
Many of the riders knew that when they got off their bikes in Valencia, the cycling portion of the trip was over. It was bittersweet, as most of them wanted to keep exploring Spain. We had three additional routes in our collection that we never got to ride, and most folks never got to experience the training stress they expected. Although inclement weather like that was as unexpected as a tornado, the week was over, and we had no more chances left to ride.
However, like all activities we organize, we sought feedback from our attendees to improve the experience, and we have already made some changes to next year. We will have a charter bus pick everyone up in Madrid at noonish on arrival day. We decided no one should be concerned about navigating train stations or rental cars in another country if they don’t need to. We have already talked to our bus charter vendor and have scheduled the first pickup for 2023.
Second, we will have our bikes picked up in Denia on the last day at a café right on the beach. Our route that day will lead us through Parc Natural del Montgo, with stunning views, climbs, and descents before a beautiful lunch with the potential for a boat ride to an offshore island for an afternoon of relaxation on the beach (weather depending!) The car ride back to the villa is only 28 km, so we can shuttle back whenever they want to go.
Third, we are doing away with SAG vehicles. Alex and I both discussed how little value they added and how valuable it was for the riders to have our expertise on the bikes as they rode into unknown places.
Lastly, we will do this for two consecutive weeks next year. We have enough interest in the tour to offer it twice next year, and our biggest concern is getting someone to watch our chickens for two consecutive weeks while we are gone.
The intangibles of the trip were too many to count or document. A few of them are worth mentioning, though. We didn’t just ride together. We ate three meals together each day, as well. When we weren’t riding, we checked out local places, went to La Liga soccer games, explored markets at the beach, and sat near a swimming pool with orange groves and olives on all sides. There is no way to put a value on that. I never took out my Garmin Radar for those fearful of riding on the road in an unknown place. Simply put, I never felt unsafe enough to justify it. How can you place a value on civilized car drivers?
Join us in 2023.