Spokes – life on a bike

On Monday finally quarantine was lifted from the beaches in the province, all that is except for the Vejer beaches, we will have to wait a couple of weeks for that to change. A beach is a beach I say to myself, surely our coastline is just one long continual beach. Apparently I can swim on Mangueta beach (Barbate) but not El Palmar (Vejer). Out there in the ocean it’s hard to find the dividing line between these watery frontiers. The fish know they don’t exist, the seaweed drifts without barriers and waves wash uniformly across the sands untroubled by the politics of coronavirus. However none of this was any compensation for Rafa and I as the great god Aeolus came down and is now wreaking his own brand of quarantine upon us all. Force 7 levante winds have been blowing for 3 days shutting down shipping in the Strait and sweeping the coast clear of nascent beach goers. Our first sea swim since March 13th. is postponed until the weekend. So sitting here at home I reflect back to the beginning of the month, to a post I really should have written back then…

Just a memory… 1994 in the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales

May 2nd. 2020 – I haven’t swum in the sea in almost two months let alone seen the coast just 12km. from where I live. Quarantine has kept us all tightly confined to home with occasional forays to Vejer for signing documents (ouch!) and the food stores. While up on the Abejaruco hill for a run a couple of days ago the air was bright and clear and the coast from the Bay of Malabata to Cap Spartel in Morocco was clearly visible. Much closer I could see the ocean glistening off Zahara de los Atunes and that night I dreamt of empty beaches – empty, hot, summer beaches.

Mr. Skinny my rarely used road bike.

I woke up before dawn, an itch to get back on my bike needed scratching. The sea was in my mind, although distant I could almost smell the tang of salty air rolling up from the coast. Pulling on my lycra shorts and rummaging through a cupboard I found my bike shoes, the only ones I have, encrusted with mud from many weeks ago when the world seemed a freer place. Fat bike? Slim bike? Skinny bike? My choice of steed was invariably Fat or Slim, my two off-roading friends. Mr. Skinny was a rare mount as I dislike riding on busy narrow roads but today I would revel in a dawn ride on a lonely road towards an empty beach.

Riding a bike is like riding a bike. It’s not something you ever forget. I remember perfectly my first time spinning in circles as I couldn’t get the bike to go in a straight line. I was 5 years old and we had just moved to Beirut from London and were living in an apartment block called the Green Towers. There was a central patio and my father pushed me until eventually when he saw I had some momentum he let go. Round and round I went for what seemed like hours until eventually dizzy’d out I fell off. My first scuff, one of many. But they were all worthwhile. All my bruises, scrapes, blood soaked elbows and gravel damaged hands were part of an adventure, a big adventure on my own. I was going somewhere under my own steam, travelling fast even if it was just to the sweet shop on the corner.

Villa Tarazi, Beirut – hoping my brakes are working!

That feeling of freedom has accompanied me always, on all my adventures by bike. As a teenager what better sensation was there than being able to ride 20, 30, 40, 50 miles away from home with nothing but a sandwich and a bottle of water? The feeling of being entirely in charge of my own destiny, on a remote country road far from home speeding through villages and along hedge lined lanes with nothing but the wind in my hair for company. No parents telling me what to do and so far from school I felt as though I was running away forever. I particularly enjoyed random blow outs on deserted roads where fixing the puncture with sticky fingers accompanied by the sweet scent of rubber and glue gives such satisfaction – I am in charge of my life and nothing is going to stop me!

Somewhere on a weir near Oxford. Not sure who took the photo.

Having said that I didn’t really want a puncture on my ride to El Palmar. I wanted to get there intact as I wasn’t entirely sure that I had a puncture repair in my toolkit. There is no less heroic welcome than arriving at your destination with your bike over your shoulder. As I sped along I rode through pockets of warm air leaving the chill of dawn behind. A low mist hung in shallow clefts in the fields where sunflowers would be blooming bright yellow in a couple of months time. Ghostly white egrets flew up from damp ditches and I could almost feel the tide sucking me forward, that childhood feeling of freedom and self generated speed whisking me towards the sea. How good to be free of the struggles and conflict of a world under a dark cloud.

Blasting through the sunflowers – photo Tim Booth

There were no cars on the road, the curfew on driving to the beach still in place. This was the same road 30 years ago that I managed to overtake a creaking first generation white Fiat 500 with a blistering 40 knot Levante wind blasting me down the road. Joy! I’d only been a couple of months in Vejer, I’d driven south from Scotland with nothing more than the youthful optimism that I’d find my way in a land where I couldn’t speak the language and knew nobody. The writer Laurie Lee headed for Andalucía with a violin. I arrived with two surfboards, 3 sets of skis and my bike, a silver Marin Pine Mountain.

Sunset selfie on the Camino de Santiago – 1996

Little did I realise that just as Laurie Lee earned his crust playing tunes on his journey south my trusty Marin would set in train a whole series of events that would see me leading groups of cyclists all across Andalucía, along the shores of Lake Malawi, through the banana groves of Cuba and across the Atlas mountains in Morocco. My simple trusty silver Marin became the key to a life quite literally on the road (or more likely a dusty road) and turned out to be the catalyst for an exciting life of travel and business.

Crossing the Luweya river, Malawi – 2002

Getting close to the beach I needlessly decided to try the Eurovelo cycle lane (my dedicated post here), the much heralded trail that starts in Cádiz and will eventually finish in Athens, a feat even Zeus would have admired. Abandoned since the start of the CV epidimic the track was covered in road chippings and stray broken branches so I picked the safer option of the road. Throughout the 1990’s I cycled thousands of kilometres leading groups from the top of Sierra Nevada to the beaches of Vejer. A typical day would see me putting together the group picnic at 0600, meeting the clients at 0800, loading bikes on our trailer at 0900 heading off somewhere in to the shimmering heat at 1030 then riding all day with a picnic (prepared by me and whoever the support driver was) until sundown. A beer with clients then bike cleaning, organising rooms then translating the menu all the way through dinner. By 2300 I was bushed and off to bed for maybe 6 hours sleep. Day after day after day.

Sierra Nevada, Spain with my first full suspension bike

It was tough but rewarding and between 1994 and 2008 we clocked up close to a million client kilometres of roads and trails. During the last few years of Discover Andalucía (the name of the company) I gave in to the pressures of running two diverse businesses simultaneously and handed the reins of management to others while I concentrated on the nascent Califa hotel and restaurant business which was soaking up time, energy and capital and needed my full attention. When in 2007 I moved house from Vejer to Santa Lucía my bikes of course came with me along with a dog, wife and two children (not in that order of importance!). I rolled my black Cube MBK into my shed and then didn’t look at it again for 5 years.

The success of the bike business! Hurricane Hotel 2006 – Mixing businesses, one of the few staff outings
with both Califa and Discover Andalucía personnel together.

It seems incredible to me now that I didn’t even look at my bike for so long – innumerable dawn rides through the mist and long shadowed sunsets sessions under strings of eucalyptus trees missed. But I had many other compensations including growing my business and teaching my own children to ride a bike. When I did eventually polish the dust off my mountain bike it was 2015, my brother Duncan had persuaded me to join in what has become a family tradition of an annual triathlon.

With cousins and my brothers – Team CuzLuv at the Blenheim Triathlon 2018

I bought some new bike shoes and some running shoes. For the first time in 20 years I went for a run, then a proper swim and finally I got on my bike. I hadn’t owned a road bike since my Holdsworth Autograph, the most beautiful bicycle I ever owned with slim Reynolds 531 tubing and the precision engineering of a full Campagnolo set up. The bike was stolen one night chained up to the railings of an Edinburgh wine bar I was working in and until Mr. Slim came along roads were ridden with the heavy hum of knobbly tires.

Day 5 on the Danube with my girls – somewhere between Mitterarnsdorf and Tülln (2017)

Back to the present and here I am on a bright clear windless day riding to the coast, my kids are still tucked up in bed – the idea of a bike ride is not quite so appealing to them now that they are teenagers. Freewheeling in to El Palmar I am presented with a landscape of empty car parks and utterly deserted beaches. It feels as though a plague has descended on the earth and I am the last survivor (irony intended ha ha). This feels close to the beaches I once knew back in the late 1980’s when straw and cane ‘chozas’ were built tucked in to the dunes to rent out to wealthy locals who would take them for the season. After the long hot summer the winter Atlantic storms would clear the coastline pummelling these primitive dwellings in to the sea. Today not even a dog walker or a surfer was leaving footprints in the sand.

I carried my bike up on to the dunes and sat there watching the waves roll in. I felt happy and immensely thankful. The horizon was uncluttered and the fresh tang of salt was sharp on my senses, the air charged with strong positive ions. I have got this far I say to myself, how much further is there to go?

The end of the road, early morning on the beach at El Palmar