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La Indomable sportive

Trevor Ward
1 Dec 2016

In tackling the 200km La Indomable, it's more than just the parcours and a rubbing brake pad that Cyclist finds hard to stomach

The start of the La Indomable Gran Fondo in the shadow of Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountains is really the end.

It’s the start of a 200km sportive, but for me it’s the end of six months of training and sacrifice.

Over the course of a Scottish winter, I’ve logged 7,000km and 60,000m of elevation in wind, rain and temperatures that rarely reached double figures.

So as the countdown begins in the pretty Alpujarran town of Berja, I can’t help thinking that whatever happens during the next few hours, whether I finish in the top 100 or in the back of the broom wagon, I’ve already achieved my goal just by getting to the start.

At least that’s what I keep telling myself as it dawns on me in the cold half-light of early morning, among the expectant chatter and colourful jerseys of a thousand other riders, that I’m not feeling quite right.

Awkward question

The question riders always ask each other before the start of an event like this is, ‘How are the legs?’. It’s not ‘How’s the mind?’ or ‘How’s your mood?’ and it’s definitely never, ‘How are the bowels?’

You can shake off the heaviness from your legs just by riding, and you can clear any mental cobwebs on that first climb.

But that uncomfortable, bloated sensation that feels like a big pebble down the front of your bibs? That’s a different matter entirely.

As we roll over the start line and begin our neutralised procession through Berja’s narrow streets and pretty squares, my mind is torn between concentrating on the wheels in front and contemplating the potentially catastrophic consequences of my condition.

The discomfort is manageable, but eventually I’ll need to drink and eat something. What if that provokes a sudden and seismic reaction?

Will there be a bar or bush nearby? Will I need to resort to improvising with a casquette, as both Tom Simpson and Greg LeMond famously did?

Fast and furious

Despite us being neutralised behind the race director’s vehicle and police outriders as we roll out, it’s a fast and furious first 15km as we wind our way from a starting altitude of 300m down to the Mediterranean coast.

Although it doesn’t demand much pedalling, it does require total concentration as any sudden squeezing of brakes by a rider in front causes the bunch to concertina abruptly in and out of curves.

It’s a relief to finally reach the coast where we can spread out and enjoy some breathing room.

We hammer through Adra, where the local population is out in force to cheer us on, despite it not yet being 9am on Saturday.

I remember this road, the N-340, from a cycling adventure years ago that was cut short when I suffered a fractured skull after being clipped by a truck.

During my week-long recovery in a Malaga hospital, I learned the road was nicknamed La Carretera de la Muerte – Death Highway – because of the number of accidents.

Back then, the very idea of 1,000 riders taking over the width of La Carretera de la Muerte on bikes would have been dismissed as the ramblings of a madman.

But 30 years on, thanks to the vision of the Club Ciclista de Berja and a brand new coastal motorway that now carries most of the heavy traffic, it’s a reality.

But despite the N-340 being virtually a country lane these days – and there being a rolling road closure in operation – I still feel a slight ripple of anxiety that only subsides when we finally turn right and head inland again.

This marks the start of a 30km drag that takes us from sea level up to the Puerto de Haza del Lino at an altitude of 1,320m.

Up until this point my average speed has been a healthy 45kmh. That figure will tumble relentlessly over the rest of the day.

Going backwards

Initially, the increase in the gradient is barely perceptible, but what is becoming increasingly noticeable is the number of riders overtaking me.

Three other Brits – Kym, Charlie and Nick, all fellow guests of my hosts, Vamos Cycling – pull alongside me and we compare notes.

Yes, it’s already feeling warm, and aren’t the views great apart from all those hideous polytunnels? How am I feeling? Er, OK thanks.

I decide this is enough for the time being. If we were members of the same racing team taking La Indomable seriously, I might go into more detail, but these are strangers enjoying a nice cycling holiday in Spain.

They don’t need to know that I probably need more roughage.

They tell me they have altered their original plan to do the long route – 197km with 4,000m of climbing – and are now doing the shorter version – 147km/3,000m – because of how hot it’s been during the last few days.

Endless revolutions

I’m starting to fall behind them so tell them to carry on without me.

My bike feels unduly ponderous beneath me, with the pedals seeming to take forever to complete each revolution, and I’m not even on one of the steep parts of the climb.

I’m beginning to think the shorter parcours might be a sensible move for me too, but I have the rest of the climb to make up my mind as the route doesn’t split until the summit.

I can’t understand why my bike feels so leaden. It was a last minute replacement after my original choice – a Fuji Gran Fondo 2.3 – fell foul of Spain’s prohibition of disc brakes in mass-participation events.

But while the brakes on the bike I’m now riding may be legal, they are about to cause me a whole world of trouble.

About halfway up the climb, a Spanish rider shouts something at me, pointing to my rear wheel. I have no idea what he’s just said but decide to stop and investigate.

The problem is instantly evident – a rear brake pad is rubbing against the wheel rim. I give it an outwards yank, but with no joy.

I dig out my multitool and try to re-centre the callipers, sweat dripping over my finely honed adjustments. It still rubs.

It appears my bike is as constipated as I am.

For now, I flick open the quick release. For the rest of the climb I repeat over and over to myself, ‘Remember to close the QR before starting the descent.’ I continue the upward slog feeling more weighed down then ever.

By the time I reach the top, my mind is made up: I will turn right and follow the riders doing the lesser ruta corta.

It’s taken me so long to get up here the feed station has run out of food and plastic cups.

If I want a drink of Coke, I’ll have to swig it straight from the neck of a plastic bottle dozens of other riders have already slobbered over.

Safety first

I decline and refill my bidons instead. So far my regular, small sips of water have provoked no negative reflexes down below.

To my dismay, the road continues rising. We’re now on the Sierra de Contraviesa, and the much longed-for downhill is still a good 16km away, after a twisting, lumpy ride along the length of this mountain range.

But consolation comes in the shape of the views on both sides. To our right, the Alpujarra mountains unfurl to the coast, while to our left, the snow-capped bulk of Mulhacén – the highest mountain in mainland Spain – broods in front of a crystal blue sky.

Although we’re only 1,300m above sea level, it feels like the roof of the world, such is the emptiness of the landscape in all directions.

When we finally reach the end of the ridge, it’s a fast, snaking descent that plunges into the heart of the Guadalfeo valley and towards Cadiar, the biggest pueblo blanco we’ll pass through all day – and home to Vamos Cycling.

On leaving the town, we turn left to start the next challenge, a 7km climb up to another ridge, this one defining the southern foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

After the euphoria – and speed – of the descent from the Contraviesa, this climb, with its relentless hairpins and inconsistent gradient, is a hard slog beneath the midday sun.

After turning right onto the ridge road, the climbing continues, although I’m momentarily distracted by the wailing sirens and flashing lights of a couple of police outriders catching up with me.

The group of race leaders – who have an extra 50km and 1,000m of climbing in their legs – are already overtaking me.

There are three of them, followed by a service car. It’s remarkably easy for me to resist the temptation to try to hop on to their wheels.

Mistaken identity

We’re approaching the village of Mecina Bombarón and the sound of the sirens has brought out a few groups of spectators.

The leading riders receive the applause they deserve but I’m amazed when I too am regaled with cheers of appreciation.

Clearly they’ve mistaken me for the fourth-placed rider overall, not one of the participants from the ruta corta who is struggling with a bad case of constipation.

I’m suddenly galvanised. If I can keep within touching distance – OK, if I can still remain within audible range of the sirens without any other riders passing me – even if only for a few kilometres, I will be able to soak in the adoration of the villages we pass through.

So it’s a great disappointment when no one bothers to tear themselves away from their TVs in Yegen and my brave bid to bridge the gap goes unnoticed.

Just around the next corner is one of those feed stations Spanish sportives are famed for – tables groaning under the weight of ‘proper’, solid food and an army of helpers refilling water bottles and proffering snacks without you even having to unclip.

This time the service is even better, as they’re not sure if I am fourth-placed overall on the corta larga, or an anonymous backmarker on the short route.

Only when another police outrider signals the imminent arrival of the chasing bunch am I exposed as a cheap imposter and am left to fend for myself.

At the next town – the aptly named Valor – I sense I can still milk a bit more out of my vicarious celebrity when a pair of (genuine) poursuivants overtake me.

This time, aided by the downward-sloping road, I manage to make it on to their wheels for the length of the high street and can feel myself blushing at the rapturous reception we receive.

Normal service

When we are out of sight of the spectators, I stop pedalling, feel a bit sick and return to my true calling as one of life’s eternal domestiques.

The descent from the ridge is on wide roads with broad, sweeping bends, allowing plenty of recovery time and a chance to assess whether the sandwich, banana and figs I devoured at the last feed station are having any effect on my digestive system.

I conclude, with relief, that I won’t be needing my casquette any time soon.

With this sense of impending doom finally removed, and having resigned myself to having to expend excessive wattage because of my recalcitrant rear brake pads, I am determined to enjoy the final stretch of La Indomable.

Scenically, it doesn’t disappoint, taking us down another empty road that twists and bucks between dramatic rocky outcrops on the way to the Beninar reservoir.

Before we get there, there’s a final feed station in the tiny village of Lucainena where, as well as dispensing the usual array of bocadillos, cakes and fruit, the residents are also providing shade in the form of umbrellas.

In the case of non-Spanish riders such as myself, we also find ourselves the impromptu centrepiece of various hastily assembled family photos.

The tête de la course may not have approved, but for us in the gruppetto, it’s a spontaneous celebration of the simple joy of cycling.

The feed station is in a dip, so the umbrella holders also act as pushers to get us on the move again.

After climbing through a gap in the rock wall overlooking the reservoir, we emerge onto a barren tableland.

After battling a headwind over a series of false flats, the road commences a lazy, twisting descent and suddenly Berja appears below, almost within touching distance.

The final 2km are a seemingly endless drag along a dual carriageway, but by the time I claim my finisher’s bracelet and post-ride meal – a generous portion of plato alpujareño (mixed grill with egg and chips) – and beer, my digestive traumas of that morning seem a distant memory. 

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