For this trip, I planned to stay in reasonably large towns, wherever possible. When I rode to Barcelona from home last year, in the great company of my friend Richard Stanton, we nearly found ourselves without a roof over our heads at night on more than one occassion. I didn’t want a repeat of that situation while on my own in the sierras of Spain. In larger towns or cities, there’s usually somewhere to stay. The next two big places north of Cáceres are Plasencia, about 50 miles away, and Salamanca, another 80 miles further north. With a great day’s riding behind me, I thought that Plasencia would be a good place to stay yesterday evening (Friday), and I would then continue to Salamanca for Saturday. Then I looked up the weather forecasts. Friday was getting cooler and showers were promised again. No problem. But the forecast for Salamanca on Saturday was grim. It would be below freezing the morning only rising to a balmy 6 degrees C at mid afternoon. Worse still, both rain and snow were predicted. Now, I’m usually up for a biking challenge but this had the potential to become both a miserable and potentially dangerous ride. I was supposed to be here to enjoy myself and even at home I draw the line at riding in snow. It was time for a rethink. I considered cutting the trip short but after a chat with my wife Sally, back in the freezing UK, decided to explore other options.
The bicycle was caused by a volcanco. (I know that’s a dramatic change of subject but bear with me, your honour, it is relevant to the case.) Two hundred and three years ago next month, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded in the biggest eruption ever recorded. It diminished in height by nearly 5,000 feet while projecting 24 cubic miles of ash and rock skywards. Krakatoa was a minor “pop” in comparison. The result was a dramatic fall in temperatures around the world, crop failures, and disease and death on a massive scale. One year later, in 1816, Baron von Drais, a forestry manager in Baden, Germany, figured out that you could balance on a log with one wheel at the front and one at the back, steering with the one at the front. Nobody knows quite why he did it but it was probably related to the shortage of horses, most of which had been eaten in response to the drought and subsequent food shortages caused by Tambora’s eruption. Maybe he wanted a new way to move logs, maybe he wanted something to ride and couldn’t find a horse in one piece. Regardless, he had invented the “Draisine” or “Hobby Horse”, the forerunner of all modern bicycles. Even if you have no interest in bicycles at all, I recommend the book “Re:Cyclists – 200 Years on Two Wheels”, a brilliant, fact-filled book by Michael Hutchinson that describes the numerous social revolutions, including women’s emancipation, that were directly influenced, if not driven by the development of the bicycle.
So, back to Cáceres. I did a bit more weather research, both for Spain and the south of France, thinking that I might find a way to get to somewhere more hospitable. Everywhere looked a bit cool and unreliable due to cold weather heading in from the east. Then I remembered another volcano, Teide. This is the dormant one that dominates the largest of Spain’s Canary Islands, Tenerife, off the west coast of Africa. It’s a Mecca for cyclists, amateur and professional alike, and the climb up Teide is one of the classics, right up there with Alpe d’Huez and the formidable Mont Ventoux, both of which I had gasped up a couple of years earlier with my good friend Byron Wheeler and his then seventeen-year-old son. I holidayed in Tenerife with my family about three years ago and since then had it in the back of my mind to tackle Teide one day. After checking out the weather for the next few days, which was going to be aroud 19 or 20 degrees C and mostly sunny, this suddenly seemed like too good an opportunity to miss. The new goal of the trip was not the north coast of Spain but the highest point of the road on Monte Teide, Tenerife.
I switched my Easyjet flight from Bilbao to Bristol to one from Tenerife to Bristol next Tuesday evening, booked a cheap flight (113 Euros) with Iberia from Madrid to Tenerife and set about figuring out how to get to Madrid with the bike. By the way, Iberia does its best but is not exactly bike friendly. You pay for your flight before they confirm that they can take the bike. Then they check – I don’t know with whom – and send a second confirmation an hour later to confirm that the bike can travel with you. You can’t pay the 45 Euros for the bike over the phone or online. You need to make a separate trip the “customer service” desk at the airport to hand over payment. It seems to me that most companies with “customer service” departments fail to deliver what customers need, but that may be an age-related perception.
I loaded up my bike at the hotel in Cáceres on Friday morning, asked Google Maps to direct me to the nearest bike shop and half an hour later arrived at “La Bicicleta”. I needed something to put the bike in so that I could either take it by train to Madrid or into a rental car and then onto a plane. I was greeted by a young and enthusiastic mechanic by the name of Jesus.
Jesus didn’t speak much English but explained that his colleague, a German guy called Raphael did, and that Raphael would arrive soon. A few minutes later Raphael arrived, declared that because I was British we must be enemies (what a memory), and told me that he didn’t have bike bags in stock but that he could partly dismantle my bike and put it into a cardboard box for one million Euros. Twenty seconds later we had renegotiated that down to a mutually acceptable 20 Euros. Rafael then told me that Europcar, a few hundred metres away, was the best place for car rental and that if I mentioned his name I would get a discount. He was right and Juan at Europcar, himself a keen cyclist, could not have been more helpful. He offered a choice of cars at a lower rate than I could find online then drove me back to La Bicicleta to make sure the bike box would fit into the car. Jesus helped me bundle it in and I set off for the 300km journey to Madrid.
I knew that I wouldn’t have the energy for sight-seeing so I booked into a Marriott airport hotel, and had a great dinner in the restaurant, followed by early night. This morning it was 4C and raining heavily in Madrid. After a huge detour to fill up the rental car with fuel, I managed to find Europcar rental returns at terminal 1, although I was looking for the same at terminal 4, dragged bike and luggage onto the transfer bus and checked in at the aiport. Then, for the first time in my life, I went through both security and passport control twice. I don’t know how that happened but I eventually ended up at the right gate and had an unevenfull flight to Tenerife North Airport and a smooth pre-booked transfer to my accommodation on the south coast.
My plan is to ride up Teide on Monday as the final leg of this trip. It should be interesting. After Ventoux and Alpe d´Huez I said I’d never do really big climbs again – they’re just too demanding. Alpe d’Huez rises through twenty-one numbered switchbacks to 1,860 metres above sea level; Mont Ventoux becomes a virtual moonscape, peaking at 1,912 metres. The road to Teide reaches 2,190 metres, by far the highest I will ever have climbed. In fact the top of the volcano is at 3,781 metres, but only accessible by cable car. Here’s a nice description of one of several routes to the top.
I may not have reached the original destination of this trip but Teide is a bucket-list climb that I hope to check off the list on Monday.
Of course, I could ride up the volcano on Sunday (today, by the time I finish this post and you read it), but there’s a reason that goes back 34 years why I won’t be doing that. I’ll explain tomorrow.