Last month I had my first experience of seeing the Vuelta Ciclista a España at close quarters – close enough to see the effort on the cyclists’ faces, witness the strength and endurance of those participants as they pushed themselves to their physical limits – it was amazing to think that just days earlier some of them had taken part in the Tour de France as well!
Here’s a run down of all the stages to give you an idea of just how arduous this cycling game is: (game! sorry, lads!)
A quick calculation means that they covered around 3,170 kilometres over the 21 days, not counting time trials, and averaged 175 km a day – not bad! According to the two entertaining Spanish television commentators, cyclists need to take in 6,000 calories a day to sustain this effort – well, the training might help as well, of course – they commented that the UK’s own Chris Froome, who is held in high regard in Spain, was stick thin compared to some – unfortunately, despite being victorious in the Tour de France in 2013 and 2015, this year in Spain he suffered a mishap and fractured a foot. Inevitably, he had to drop out, but not before completing that stage.
The reason that this year’s Vuelta caught my attention was because Stage 18 would be passing through Riaza, a small town in the mountains in Segovia a stone’s throw from where my husband was born. I know this area well – been going there for 40 years, in fact. In the end we didn’t see the tour there, though – I was lucky enough to be taken to Avila to watch Stage 19 instead. I say ‘lucky’ because my ‘guide’ for the day was a nephew-in-law who is from Avila, knows the area like the back of his hand and is a keen cyclist – result!! As well as that, Avila is a beautiful place, surrounded by an impressive – and intact – city wall.
The cyclists had to ride up the slope in the shadow of the city wall, over cobble stones – not ideal! But this was an excellent spot to get some photos – they had to slow down (a bit!) so you just had to make sure you stayed on the right side of the Guardia Civil, who were stationed along the road at intervals.
I have to say the crowds were very well behaved and the Guardia Civil are no longer that fearsome, gun toting bunch they once were – although they still look quite tough!
When I looked at the shots I’d got – more by luck than judgement as they went past in a blur – what amazed me was how closely they cycled to one another – when you thought you were looking at one cyclist you realised there was another right behind him.
Of course this race – or any other – couldn’t take place without the veritable army of support vehicles, carrying spare bikes, spare parts, drinks, food, medical supplies – in fact, everything but spare arms and legs, it would seem – and then there were the valiant cameramen perched precariously on the back of motorbikes to get those exciting shots for television.
The scenery in some of the mountainous areas in northern Spain was nothing short of spectacular and when you realise that these guys have to cycle up those mountains – it hits you just what a monumental effort it must be to get that fit. That evening we made our way home to Madrid on the ‘back road’ (I think that means we avoided paying a toll!) and we stopped to admire the wonderful view across the hills of El Escorial – the 16th century monastery built on the proceeds of 16th century ‘Spanish gold’ (’nuff said!) My photo doesn’t do it justice but it looked splendid nestled into the hillside at dusk.
I am more pleased with this one of the car headlights meandering up through the valley below us.
We saw the final stage of the Vuelta in Madrid – I left my camera at home because there were too many people and the pace of the race was too fast and furious to even hope to get a good shot. Up and down the main streets they pedalled – the pelotón streaked past us – one giant mass of multi coloured logo covered lycra.
In the distance we could hear the excitement rising in the commentators’ voices – the end couldn’t be far off – but we decided to savour the atmosphere from a ‘terraza’ with a ‘tinto’ or two. Down this end of the Gran Vía at least the world was starting to go by more slowly.
Exciting news!! I’ve just discovered that the Vuelta a España Cycle Race 2015 will be passing through Riaza this year! Where? I hear you cry! Well, Riaza just happens to be a small town up the road from where my husband was born – nestling in the foothills of a snow capped sierra in Segovia, on that inhospitable central ‘meseta’ of the Iberian Peninsula. ‘Meseta’ was a word I first heard in geography lessons at school. It means ‘plateau’ I remember my teacher explaining. Little did I know that 10 years later I would find myself gazing out across that very plateau from the window of my in-laws’ house in a tiny village about 15 miles from RIAZA! – The snow capped sierra was the Guadarrama mountains, which separate Segovia from Madrid.
I have always liked cycling and my first bike was bought for me in 1963 as a reward for passing my 11 plus (damn! now you know how old I am!) Anyway, that was a good 17 years before our (well, I say ‘our’ but, apparently, he is Belgian-British)renowned Tour de France winner, Bradley Wiggins, was even born, so I wasn’t under the spell of the so called ‘Wiggo factor’ which swept the U.K. after his triumph in the Tour in 2012 and spurred every man and his dog – to coin a phrase! funny mental image! – to take up cycling, but maybe my love of cycle racing has been revived by the Wiggo factor. Over the years I’ve followed the fortunes of Spanish racers Miguel Indurain, who won the Tour de France FIVE times in a row in the 1990s and Pedro Delgado, whose successful career started slightly earlier. Occasionally my husband would accompany me on a bike ride, although he wasn’t that keen and, if truth be told, he was a danger to himself and others when on a bike. He disliked the uphill slogs, but gloried in the downhill and used to speed like a demon, shouting ‘Allá va……….. Bahamontes………………..!!!!!!!!!!!’.
Bahamontes? Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of him! Only one of Spain’s greatest road racers, born in 1928 (so I AM going back a bit! – that would make him 87 this year, but I think he’s still around.) He was known in his hey day as ‘el Aguila (the Eagle) de Toledo’ and won the Tour de France in 1959, was 2nd in the Vuelta in 1957, and won stages in both races as well as the coveted title of King of the Mountain on numerous occasions – apparently, he wasn’t very good on the descent, but was master of the uphill climb – the opposite of my husband!
Anyway, back to the present. The last ‘etapa’ of this year’s Vuelta a España will finish in the capital, Madrid, on September 13 and I aim to be there – to soak up the atmosphere, revisit old haunts and capture a few shots for posterity.
A few years ago we took a balloon ride over the skies of Cataluña. Our pilot drove us to a small town called Igualada to the north west of Barcelona, his crew following us with all the equipment – acres of lightweight yellow and black material which formed the balloon canopy, the basket, gas cylinders and a lot of rope. The experience includes helping to lay out the balloon, fill it with gas and then hop in to the basket before they untether it and you float up into a clear blue sky.
So here we are, stretching the balloon canopy out on the grass of a local park. The obliging townsfolk were well used to this and before we’d finished we had attracted the attention of all the local children who gave us a noisy send-off.
Below are two pictures from inside the balloon, the second showing the basket still lying on its side.
Our instructions were to leap into the basket once the balloon was fully inflated – at that point the basket rights itself – last one in is a cissy (and more to the point would have to wave goodbye as the rest of us sailed skyward).
Whilst the balloon is being inflated it is firmly tethered with guy ropes to something solid – in this case the bumpers of the support vehicles – two whacking great 4 x 4s.
If the wind gets up, it all starts to get a bit unwieldy, but we were lucky – only a couple of hairy moments.
Like I say, our pilot encouraged a very hands-on approach – he got us involved with every stage of this fascinating (if slightly scary) process – like below – having a go at igniting the gas – this produced a really loud roaring noise – a bit worrying when you’re not used to it!
But as you can see from the next pictures, eventually we were ready and the command to untie the guy ropes was issued, we waved goodbye to the excited collection of local kids whose play area we had invaded for over an hour on this balmy Spanish evening, and away we went.
The views were fantastic – like this Dinky toy red tractor ploughing a vast field,
or the geometrical plots of houses we floated over, with their swimming pools and vegetable plots and flower gardens.
But the landing was always my biggest concern – I didn’t really relish the thought of being dragged along the ground at speed at the mercy of an unstoppable, giant balloon – like you see in the films. Our first attempt had to be aborted – our pilot had his eye on a nice level field, and after negotiating the telegraph wires and big trees on the descent he was refused permission to land by a very irate little Spaniard who was jealously guarding his crop (of weeds!) So we went up again, carefully avoiding those power cables. The driver of the support vehicle, who had been tracking us, hared along the road in pursuit. Our man then spied a ploughed field and headed straight for it. ‘Mmm ……..’ I thought, ‘looks a bit bumpy’ , but actually the field was on a gradient and this worked in our favour because the edge of the basket just caught nicely in one of the furrows and anchored us immediately to the spot. All smiles!