“Al hombre osado la fortuna le da la mano”

I wake up in a large king sized bed in a room having dreamt of olive eating ewoks and slowly come to with growing excitement at the day dawning. What looked like a small hotel last night called the Hotel and Spa Sierra de Cazorla in a little town called La Iruela is in fact a large hotel with massive lounge and bar area overlooking a valley of unbelievable natural beauty. Think olive groves, whitewashed stone and stucco houses and winding paths leading to nowhere but their own end.

I make my way down the spiral staircase and the empty vibe of last night is replaced by large groups of senior tourists all tea and elbows and chatting and walking slowly (pace line disrupted by my long legs) and suddenly I am a long way from home.

Great coffee (automatic machine at both ends of the dining room) with adjacent cauldrons of warm milk. For fuel it’s an all you can eat buffet – plates piled high with sliced meats, cheeses, chacuterie, some tomato and garlic paste (Ajo!) which I grow quickly to love. Later I learn it’s called Pan Con Tomate, which on toast makes a pretty simple and tasty snack any time of day.

We eat and chat – Howard has planned three big days mountain biking and I’m very excited to get the bike off the Land Rover and get rolling. Before that we have some prep work to do – quick fit on the rental he has organized for me, adjust saddle height, pitch, my pedals are on and we’re loading before you know it.

After breakfast is picked clean we head back to our rooms to change and gear up. I’m itching to try on my new Rapha Race series bib shorts which I picked up in the London flagship store a couple days earlier. I’m also hopeful to get to grips with my new Garmin Etrex, which is going to be my guide on TransPortgual in May and which I still mostly suck at using

It’s a damp morning and the only expected day of marginal weather, but it is November and is to be expected and consequently does nothing to dampen my mood. We set up the rental bike and get it dialed in to my measurements and it feels pretty good. In fact really good for the ride coming up.

There’s no driving today – its wheels rolling from the hotel. We set a steady pace and after a short, very short descent to the town of Iruela turn up onto the first of 25km of basically steady climbing planned today. It’s a good warm-up! No pushy-footing around here Mshter Bond. I’m happy to be back on the bike after a week’s break and the town slips quickly behind us as we attack the mountain road which goes on and on and on.

I love climbing because I am very slow and steady and don’t ever do foolish things like jump and attack. However the presence of one, just one, other rider has been known to reverse this flow of common sense, and slowly but surely our pace picks up and we’re moving towards threshold real quick. It’s a nice place to hang, tongue out. Sweating like crazy the suffering makes the view even more magical as the town falls under our gaze, and the forests pan out with the elevation lines passing.

Was there fog? I very vaguely remember having a sense of inner damp followed by a sense of abundant sweat as we crank up towards the first off-roading point. It’s a short stop there, check in with the support crew in the Land Rover and we’re off again.

The forest trail is not forgiving in the fun sense of the word. First things first, there is loose gravel, sometimes almost loamy bits appear, then it’s back to the baby head steep sections, then a brief respite of loose gravel followed by some marginally distressing single track that pushes deep in the red zone. There is really no opportunity to just relax and ride. You’re on the rail. Well, just the edge of the rail. But still on the rail. It’s a beautiful challenge – working to stay there.

I’m not one for junk food but when we reach the 20km point and stop for a snack we have bread and ham and chips to gorge on – I try to limit the stuffing, but it’s hard and in the end ludicrously take the entire 400g bag of chips and stuff ‘em in my little camel pack. For what? For comfort? Ballast? Goat feed?

Ah, I was attacked with climbing fever! The last 5kms are the hardest by far and it’s a slow walking pace often times coupled with intense, super intense focus not to slip on the line and pop off. Howard’s in full mountain goat mode and making it look easy (I keep hoping he’ll stop for a cigarette, or a vape, but it never happens. Curse this healthy living!)

I can blame altitude (Montreal is at sea level) or perhaps jetlag (but I only crossed one time zone yesterday) so I just have to blame it on my new shorts. Takes a while to get used to them evidently.

After the amazing climb we wind up for some killer single track and then onto some amazing ancient trails which lead us along the ridge and opening up views beneath us and through the fog. We pull up on the ridge and catch a view. It’s been two hours more or less and in more civilized parts, tea is being served. Here in the mountains we’re picking raw, unfiltered refreshment straight from the source. What’s left of my breath is taken.

We light up again for the downhill, which is equally rewarding to the climb. Long flowing sections of ancient paths zigzag down the contours and drive through great rocky outcrops. We pick up speed, bleed it off on short punchy climbs and continue down the mountain.

One last look-out over a very sheer and very deep cliff edge shows off the town of Carzola and the castle revealed in all its glory – the stages of its construction from Moorish to Templar explained by Howard. It’s amazing to see a civilization stretching back so far in time and know that nobody had been able to conquer this castle in all that time. Only negotiation led to it changing hands over the centuries.

If you look closely at the next pictures you’ll see the zig-zag trail that takes us back to the hotel. Not your normal end of ride experience that’s for sure!

In summary, it’s great to ride right up to the café/bar in the hotel and relax into great comfortable chairs and recount the day over a couple beers and some tapas. The wood fire is burning, the view is spectacular over the valley, and I settle back thinking about what has been a great introduction to the riding this park has to offer.