With the cycling season all but over I'm looking forward to spending more time on my new book about cycling around the Iberian Peninsula. I feel like I've been stuck in the mountains and heat of Andalusia for an eternity. I can't wait to relive some of the most pleasant (though on occasions, harrowing) cycling I've done in the decades I've been at it. In many respects, writing about your adventures is every bit as enjoyable (and sometimes just as gruelling) as the real thing.
Home to fortune hunters during the early 19th century, when silver was discovered in the Sierra Almagrera Mountains, Cuevas del Almanzora is one of the oldest towns in the province of Almería. Just a short distance to the east is a collection of mines, dating back to prehistoric times. Tin, sulphur, lead and iron ore have all been mined here, while the area is strewn with artificial caves once inhabited by the miners.
‘Flowing’ through the town is the Rio Almanzora, which travels 90 kilometres due east from the northern slopes of the Sierra de los Filabres to the Mediterranean coast. Yet, as I cycled over the bridge along the A-332 early next morning, the only thing that seemed to be moving was me. There wasn’t the slightest trickle, just of all things, a football pitch. It was hardly the well manicured bed of grass you might otherwise imagine, rather a combination of flourishing weeds and buckled cement. Perhaps someone’s attempt to utilise what had become a perennial waste of space during the town’s hotter months, it was nevertheless difficult to imagine any form of life flourishing in such a dreary depression.
An hour’s ride from Cuevas del Almanzora is Murcia’s Costa Cálida (Warm Coast), a 250 kilometre stretch of coastline from the border with Almería province to the northern fishing village of El Mojón. Though well known for its beach resorts, particularly in the seaside towns of Águilas and the Puerto de Mazarrón, the area is relatively unspoiled compared with other more congested locations along the Mediterranean coast.
Murcia also lays claim to having the largest saltwater lake, Mar Menor (Small Sea), in Europe. Semicircular in shape and no deeper than 7 metres, the lagoon is separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a 22 kilometre sandstrip ranging in width between 100 and 1,200 metres. Inhabited during prehistoric times and later by the Phoenicians and the Moors, the area, relatively high in salinity, was used by the Romans to develop a valuable salt industry. You’ve got to hand it to the Romans, they were an enterprising lot. Today, Mar Menor has become more of a haven for tourists who flock to the cluster of hotels, restaurants and resorts scattered along its spit.
In contrast to a refreshing new view around almost every bend in the road, were the long stark stretches of tarmac further inland. In the midst of a bleak and desolate landscape, they felt as uninviting as just about anything I could recall. The air was filled with brown dust; dust caked on my wheel rims and dust on the bonnets of the occasional car that passed by.
Despite the mounting heat, there were other cyclists out on the road, most heading in the in the opposite direction towards Cuevas del Almanzora or further south along the coast. Some were wearing fishnets covering their faces from the dust and wind. For the moment, it made me appreciate Arthurs Seat back home, where despite its steepness you can at least breathe clean air and are usually well protected from the wind no matter which direction it might be blowing from.
Nevertheless, Arthurs Seat does have the occasional magpie that feels the urge to swoop on unsuspecting cyclists during early spring. That’s when you’re most likely to come across another cyclist wearing a forest of spikes, or more specifically cable ties, attached to his helmet for protection. I guess it’s an indisputably more comfortable solution to a potential problem than riding with a fishnet covering your face to reduce the amount of dust and flies. Suffice to say, despite all the technology used today to help the pros ride faster and with more ease, I’ve never seen either contrivance on the face or head of a cyclist in the Vuelta a España, nor for that matter any other road race.