The carousel is on what is probably its 15th lap, five minutes ago it was full of suitcases of varying shapes and sizes, now there are just a couple left. I am on my own, approaching 11.30 at night, in the arrivals baggage reclaim of the tiny Asturius airport in northern Spain. A old Spanish lady hobbles past and lugs a huge beaten up case off the conveyor. She drags it past me, giving me a 'sorry for your loss' look. She knows what has been slowly dawning on me, my bike did not make the flight!
I make the lonely walk to the information desk. A nice gent quickly and efficiently types my details into his DOS based 90s computer, and confirms that my bike is currently still loitering at Heathrow. ''Next flight here is in 2 days, it will be on that flight.'' he explained. ''I'm only here for 4 days!'' I replied. ''Ok, I'll get it flown to Madrid, driven here and then to your hotel tomorrow'' he confidently concluded. Somehow I wasn't convinced l'd see it again. I rejoin my travelling companion who had earlier gone off to sort out the car hire. '"Uh-oh'' was his reaction when seeing me bikeless. ''Mate, can you give me a backie up the Angliru?''
So we are here to ride some of Cantabrico's toughest climbs, featured regularly in the Vuelta Espana, although without a bike I am somewhat screwed. I don't panic, it wouldn't help the situation, tomorrow is another day and I will try to find somewhere to hire a bike and salvage the holiday.
Luck is on our side as we discover an excellent bike shop within a mile from our hotel in Oviedo. Carmabike had me fully equipped and ready to roll by the following lunchtime. Although alot heavier than my beloved Pinarello, it boasted a lower gear (34F 32R), a gear than would save my bacon on many occasions over the next few days.
Our hotel, by the way, was a monster. I'd never seen anything like it. Its structure was totally out of scale and out of sorts to the rest of the buildings in town. It was like a space ship dominating the surroundings and wherever you were in town you could always see it and easily find your way back. Even at the top of the first climb out of town (Alto de Naranco, the summit finish on stage 9 of this years Vuelta) we looked over Oviedo and it was unmissable, like a blot on the landscape. You would never be able to get lost! The room however did offer a perfect view of the mountains that we were just about to embark on. We just did a small loop on day one, but it featured an interesting off road section. For miles we rode up and down a great meandering track across beautiful countryside, not knowing if it would just end abruptly and we would have to back track. But after some serious ramps and fun descents it popped out at a road which would take us back to town.
The following day's planned route was, on reflection, a bit ambitious, especially when you add in the unprecedented heatwave (we rode all day in the 40+ heat, all the locals we met said it's never usually this hot). We were in for quite a day.
First up was the Angliru, arguably the most famous climb in Spain. The lower gear here would help but in reality anything other than a one to one ratio is asking for trouble. When climbs are described, the stats you get are often misleading, 'average X% for Ykms, and max's at Z%' etc etc. Forget all that, the important factors are; A) have you had enough breakfast? B) are you actually getting too old for all this? and C) have you applied enough chamois cream? Now let's take these one at a time.
A) You literally can not eat enough breakfast pre long ride. We raid the buffet like locusts, course after course, ham, eggs, awful euro cereal flakes, oh and then the cake course !! Cake for breakfast, oh yes the perks of the long ride. Golden rule, of course, is to also take a small (empty) bag with you into breakfast. Most of the staff shouldn't notice that you leave 30 minutes later with a bulging full bag stuffed full of prepped sandwitches and of course more cake.
B) Now who is insinuating that I am too old for this? At 46 I'm still in my (elongated 30 year) prime :) The strength is still there but it's the inability to recover quickly that seems to be the limiting factor. Oh and my knees are buggered, walking up stairs is definitely not my forte! That and motivation, but more about that later.
C) Fortunately I had followed one of the golden rules when travelling on a plane with a bike; always keep your cycling shoes in separate luggage, so if your bike is lost you still had your own shoes to ride with the hire bike. Unfortunately I had packed my chamois cream in with my bike. Now I've shared lots of things with mates; beer, money, clothes, girls but one thing you don't share is chamois cream. The fear of possible repercussions from a double dip is far too great. So I tackle it all without the essential bottom protection.
I had been looking forward to riding up the Angliru for a while. It is pretty much the last of the classic climbs on my to do list and yes, it did live up to all expections. Very tough and nasty, especially the section towards the end know as La Cuena les Cabres - a sustained super steep pitch that had us weaving at maximum power, yet barely moving. Its position near the top of the climb, after you've already negotiated the previous harsh kilometres, means keeping moving borders on the impossible and it is potentially close to unrideable for some.
With the Angluri in the bag, next up was the Gamoniteiro, which we took in our stride, then the Ermita de Alba which we raced up, still just about full of beans. Both pretty epic, the Gamoniteiro very long and the Ermita de Alba very steep with ever changing ramps and turns. So with the three big climbs of the day completed we thought the ride was done and dusted. Cue the first of my schoolboy errors (SBEs); with the emphasis on those three major climbs, I had neglected to look beforehand at the remaining profile. There was still 40 miles to go and it turned out to contain many, many tortuous climbs, where 20% was the norm. SBE number two; I just hadn't eaten or drunk enough for the baking conditions. I was wilting fast. It got to the point where we just couldn't believe the road could go up any more, it seemed unfeasible geographically that any more inclines were possible, yet around the corner was another pitch up. SBE number three; when you become extremely tired you don't think straight. Paul had asked me a question and I replied 'yes' but the question needed more time to register with my depleted brain. The question was 'do you have enough water?' A few minutes later I reached down for a drink, both bidons were empty. He had asked the question as were passing a cafe. My mental and physical deterioration was about an hour ahead of Paul's. We turned a corner up another climb. Halfway up Paul resorted to asking locals for water. I slumped to a halt and gratefully guzzled down the donation. My way of thanking the couple who had just given me water, was a bit odd but seemed instinctive at the time. I put my hands together, like I was praying, bowed my head and rode on. This certainly was a ride equal to the hardest of Cent Col days but with no support it was doubly as tough.
I am usually pretty impervious to long epic rides but with today's schoolboy errors I was now really struggling, totally depleted. Holding on to Paul's wheel was tough, he was still very strong, that is until his erratic heart palpitations started, we were now both broken! With still 15 miles to go luck would end up being on our side again as we were saved by some friendly locals. A small cafe came in view and we dived in to be greeted by Franck and his sister in law. Our poor state was clear to see and they set about righting us with food, drink, chat and a song! (Franck was a musician).
We were now totally rejuvenated for the last few miles and finished off the route in style. We arrived in front of our hotel after 99 miles, I would normally add another mile to take the ride over the century, but it seemed fitting not to on this occasion. Recording so many metres of ascent in less than 100 miles was the real testimont to this ride. Now for muchos muchos tapas.
The following day included a novelty climb up the Lacets de Casielles (Casielles laces), 19 hairpins in just 2.4kms, great stuff. I found it by accident when planning the route, it looked pretty crazy on the map and was well worth checking out. The main event of the day however was the Lagos de Covadonga and in total contrast to yesterday's heat, visibility was minimal. This climb is best known for the 1996 Vuelta, where Miguel Indurain famously climbed off his bike at the bottom of the climb, got into the team car, went back to the nearby team hotel, El Capitan and retired from cycling, never to race again. Well there must be something in the air on the Covadonga, as halfway up I considered 'doing an Indurain' myself. It wasn't that I was struggling too much (that's half the fun) and I certainly still love climbing, it's just I find myself missing being away from my daughter. I finish the climb of course, no dramatic epiphany, but just the realisation that I'd probably be doing less of this from now on, at least until she can help in the support car!
I have been retiring slowly from sport for a number of years now, quiting road races in 2012 and just concentrating on cyclocross, and more recently doing more adventure trips than any mass competitive events. The Covadonga is known for it's amazing views at the top. Today we couldn't see the lake until we were literally in it, the fog was so thick. The climb itself was not tough at all, I think yesterday's climbs were so severe that now 10-15% pitches are easy in comparison.
In no time our trip is over, so it's back to the airport to find out the fate of my bike. Now you couldn't make this up - the nice lady at the desk informed me that once the plane I was taking back to Heathrow had landed, my bike would be loaded on to it and flown back to Spain! We looked at each other and laughed. 'I'll try and stop that from happening' she concluded! Back at Heathrow and astonishingly it is not possible to stop this ridiculous scenario from playing out and my bike is now indeed on its way to Spain at the end of my holiday! So while I'm back home safe and sound, my bike takes its holiday to Spain.
I catch up with it, or to be more accurate it catches up with me two days after my return. It's hand delivered to my house with a smile. No damage done and the airline ended up paying for the hire and some compensation. So always just try and stay calm when the shit hits the fan, things work themselves out in the end and it all just adds to the adventure, because that is what life is and should be, an adventure......Bon voyage mes amis.
(Click on any highlighted text to see more information, including the location of the cols).