Andalucian Cycle Training Camps

When northern Europe is still in the grip winter weather, the lure of warm weather cycling can be irresistible.

It's a chance to ride in shorts and get some long days in the saddle early in the season.

Previously we've headed to Lanzarote for open water swimming camps that gave plenty of free time to ride.  Warm weather couldn't be guaranteed early February but it was better than home.

This year I waited a month and in March went on a cycle training camp in Andalucia, Spain. I wrote about why I went here, but briefly I wanted to see the city of Seville, ride somewhere different to normal, and didn't want to go to Majorca.

This piece is not all about cycling in Andalucia.  I did just four rides in a Spanish Province that's bigger (33,694 square miles) than Scotland (30,090 square miles) the country in which I live. Trying to summarise all the cycling opportunities would be daft.

But I can share some information which might be useful to anyone thinking of heading to a cycle training camp there.  I found five providers and I've marked their bases on this map.  They are, Andalucian Cycling Experience,  Wheels in WheelsEpic CyclingCycle Sierra Nevada, and Custom Cycle Coaching.

Most are clustered in the east to be near the Sierra Nevada mountains.  I have no knowledge of three of these providers - they may be good or bad - but I can tell you a little about Andalucian Cycling Experience with whom I rode.  Firstly though, the weather.

Weather:  Good weather in Spain is not guaranteed in February and March.  I regularly visited the Costa Blanca for forty years and made this mistake several times.  I had to abandon a week-long hike through the mountains one March our to thunder and lightning storms that caused serious flooding.

That's not a lake, it's a flooded field
I'd often hear folks saying "No es normal", but they're wrong.  It is.  It just doesn't feel normal when most of the year you're baked alive.  So I knew what to expect.  Make sure you do too.  The cyclists who'd visited a week earlier than me only rode for three days due to rain and dangerously high winds.  The week after me it was pretty rough too.  So if you're heading to Spain in March, take warm kit; shoes covers, longs, warmers and goretex.

So what is a 'training camp'?  There doesn't seem to be one accepted format.  The Openwater Swim Camps and Triathlon Camps I've done at Club La Santa are highly structured and pretty much run to timetable.  There's a high level of coaching mixed with fitness training, plus evening talks.

I did my first Cycle Training Camp in Spain way back in 2012 and as you can read, it was not what I expected.
Denia cycle camp, 2012
The photo above shows 33 people on the Train In Spain camp and we split into three groups each day.  A support vehicle travelled between them, carrying water, food bags and kit.  There was no coaching, we just bashed out the miles.  Yet, as I wrote at the time, I learnt lots from talking to fellow riders who'd done more than me.  It was thoroughly enjoyable.

The contrast with my recent Andalucian Camp couldn't have been greater, because I was the only rider there!  I was expecting to be one of thirty again, yet I was all alone.  Two others, a couple, had booked on the 'camp' but postponed.  Yet the owners, Ashley and Claire still charged me a single room supplement, which I felt was a little harsh.

All by myself...
Still, I had a guide to myself each day and we had lots of time to talk while riding.  I was told the maximum number their operation takes is around twenty.  They also offer mountain biking and gentle touring on hybrid bikes of which they have a fleet, so this was clearly a very different operation to the one I'd experienced in Denia.

What about the riding?  The area in which Andalucian Cycling Experience operate offers fantastic cycling and I've embedded a Relive video of one of the routes to give you an idea of what it's like.

Remember, these are not the Sierra Nevada mountains.  From their base in Montecorto they can go south-west to the mountain climbs of the Sierra de Grazalema or north east to the (very steeply) rolling roads through cultivated land.  The whole place is surprisingly green, party due to the time of year and partly due to the heavy rain.  That said, this is cattle country, the home of bull-flighting.

Setenil de las Bodegas
Ronda and Setenil de las Bodegas are fascinating tourist spots to which there are coach trips from Seville.
I thoroughly enjoyed the riding and the guides were great company.  I missed not having other people to ride with, after all that was a key part of my previous training camp experience.  I also rode well within my abilities, because there was no group pushing me to go further or faster.

Las Palomas climb
There are only couple of big, long climbs and we tackled one of them on my last day.  A beautiful sinuous road climb to Puerto de Las Palomas, a notch in the Sierra de Grazalema, then drop down into Grazalema town for coffee and cakes.  Tucked in the rain-shadow of peaks, and close to the Atlantic, it is apparently the wettest town in Spain.

After all this I still don't know which experience is closest to the standard Cycle Training Camp, the one I did in 2012 or the one I've just enjoyed.  I hope I've given you a few thoughts to consider if you're heading to ride in this part of the world.  If you want to see the GPS tracks of the four ride, then you can find them here.

Relive 'Ride-3, Andalusia'

March Chalenge #1 - Explore Andalucia

I've been visiting Spain for forty years.  During that time I've seen a lot of the country.

I've mountain-biked in Extremadura, climbed hiked and cycled the Pyrenees, ridden the ancient pilgrim route to Santiago, and spent many, many weeks living between Valencia and Alicante where my parents lived and died.

Andalusia had escaped my attention so I decided this was the month to rectify this oversight.

I would combine a cycle training camp with a visit to some of the great Andalusian cities of Granada, Ronda and Seville.

I decided I would not take the training camp too seriously - after all I'm not training for anything - so I could mix the riding with city exploring.  I looked at a few companies offering camps, and decided to go with Andalucian Cycling Experience.  They had great reviews, promptly replied to emails, the dates worked but in truth, the main reason was their location.  From their Montecorto base I could easily reach Ronda and Seville.

To save you hunting, the others were Wheels in Wheels, Epic Cycling, Cycle Sierra Nevada, and Custom Cycle Coaching.
Montecorto, home to Andalucian Cycling Experience
The experience of cycling in Andalucia deserves a separate post which I shall write.  However, just getting to the lovely village of Montecorto proved a challenge worthy of my #yr60 programme!

This was the cunning plan.  I don't have a bikebox, so planned to borrow one from my friend Allister in Northumberland.  I'd stay with him overnight, leave the car, and he'd drive me to Newcastle airport for the Malaga flight early Saturday morning. 

The 'Beast from the East' weather hit the UK days before I left home in North West Scotland.  "Stay in your homes", was the advice.  EasyJet cancelled all its Friday flights from Newcastle.  Hotels were full to overflowing.  Allister had to walk five miles home through deep snow because there was no way to get up his track.  Suddenly my Andalucian Cycling Experience was looking doubtful.

Is it a sledge or bike box?
I set off from home early Friday morning.  The Amber weather warning across Scotland's central belt switched to Yellow as I reached it and I sailed through.

While the side roads were snow-choked, the main roads were clear and, with relatively few cars using them, I made it to Newcastle Airport Hotel in a little over five hours - that's actually faster than normal.

Meanwhile, Allister had sledged the bike box down his track and met me at the hotel which I'd reserved on the moment the weather looked doubtful.

 I was set.

And alone.

When I reached Montecorto I discovered I was the only person on this cycle training camp!  Two other riders had postponed their trips (there was only ever three of us) so I had the town-house and cycle guide Drew all to myself.  Initially I was slightly narked by this - one of my reasons for coming had been to ride and hang out with other cyclists.  As it was it worked out very well.

No strap, snapped cable tie, open catches
I was also rather lucky.  Allister had given me a ratchet compression strap to wrap around and secure the Polaris Bike Pod box.

At the other end, the strap had disappeared, along with the luggage tag identifier that the airline had wrapped around it.  These straps hold ladders of car roofs and simply do not snap, so it must have been cut off by baggage handlers.

Also one set of cable-ties had snapped, and two of the locks on the bike box pinged open, putting enormous strain on the remaining catches.

I was lucky the bike and contents survived.

This was the second time a Polaris Bike Pod had sprung open on me.  For the return I had it 'wrapped' in a thick clingfilm-like wrapped in the departure hall which added €20 to the flight but meant it arrived intact.

Andalucia might have escaped the snow but it had suffered storms.  The previous week's cyclists missed a few days riding because of torrential rain and  especially high winds.

It was completely unseasonable for this part of the world, and while it moderated, the rain hadn't entirely disappeared.  So we switched days around to suit the weather.

 When it was raining hard in the mountains,  I headed north to explore Seville.  There's a single-line metro and it's easy to drive to a large well signed park-and-ride and take the train into the centre.  Andalucia had also been hit by storms and all the city parks were closed for clear-up crews to work.  I'd identified three 'must-do' sights in Seville.
Real Alcazar, Seville
The Real Alcazar is an Moorish fort/place which is now the royal residence in the city.  The cool architecture, designed for summer days over 40C, was harder to appreciate in the chilly temperature, but the beauty shone through.  There were a surprising number of tourists too.

So many tourists that the queue to get into the cathedral was just too long to contemplate, so I walked to the third on my list, the Plaza Espana.  I remember the publicity around 1992 Seville Expo and considered taking the metro out to the site, but saw photos showing it was pretty much wasteland.
Plaza Espana, Seville
I was slightly underwhelmed by Seville.  I'm not sure why.  Perhaps it was the temperature?  It's a city designed for the heat of the sun.

Whereas Ronda is impressive.  Essentially it's one old square with a bridge over a breathtaking gorge.  Drew included a stop here during one of our rides and it was a great way to visit.  Yet again, there was a overwhelming number of tourists even in March.

So what about Granada?  The big tourist attraction here is the Alhambra, but I discovered tickets must be bought a month in advance.  Plus Liz had told me to leave something to do with her.  So that will have to wait.  Next, I'll write something about the cycling which really was very good.

Feb Challenge #4 - Heal Quicker!

Now this really is a challenge - my deltoid muscle must heal and impingement end before I can swim again.

Getting older sucks.  After age 50 it has been quite a battle to stay fit.  The main reason being the time injuries take to heal.

At least I have time.  Two friends locally have tumours.  One has weeks to live.  One doesn't.  Now that really sucks.  My niggles are insignificant compared to theirs.

The problem for older 'athletes' is not getting these little injuries, everything gets those.  It's that they don't heal as fast and consequently, they compound.

Then a couple of weeks ago I fell of my mountain bike, as reported here.  I thought I'd banged up my arm.  It was feeling better, so I swam.

Thirty minutes later it felt like someone was sticking hot knives into my shoulder, my right shoulder this time.  Our GP reckons it's 'just' my deltoid, which is relatively good as muscles have a better blood supply than tendons or ligaments.  Subsequently, our local physiotherapist thinks it tendon impingement due to inflammation from the original impact.  Significantly, both agree it's not my rotator cuff, which might require surgery.

My challenge, to cure my sink swim legs, has been pushed back because I can't swim right now.  I just need patience and time.  Which fortunately, I have.  I think.

Feb Challenge #3 - Ride the Strathpuffer Mountain Bike Course

Working for The Adventure Show I've filmed and edited the Strathpuffer 24hr MTB race quite a few times.

Yet I had never ridden it.  Now that has changed.  However, my lap of the 'Puffer course proved a little more eventful than I anticipated.

Watching all the pictures from every camera we've had on the course I felt as if I knew my way around.

Also I imagined such a famous course would be way marked.  So it was almost an afterthought I downloaded the .GPX file and put it on my Garmin watch.  Turned out, that file was absolutely essential - the only way I could work out where to go.

Feb Challenge #2 - A Two Night Break in a Dog Friendly Hotel

What kind if a challenge is this!?  Two nights in a lovely country house hotel!

Well it must be rather difficult because, apart from 'proper holidays', Liz and I haven't had a two-night stay in a nice hotel since 2009.

There's always something else to do or we use the campervan.  So staying at a posh hotel would be a challenge for all our wee family.

I've stayed in the Could House Hotel several times when filming The Strathpuffer mountain bike race for The Adventure Show.  It is - by far - the best hotel we ever use.  Luxurious yet friendly, not at all stuffy, and with fabulous food.

Plus it's dog-friendly.  Eat in the bar, and your canine companion can lie at your feet.  Just like Maggie in the photo above.

Best of all, staying here allowed me to tackle yet another personal challenge, of riding the course of the Strathpuffer.  That didn't quite turn out as I'd hoped, as you'll see Monday.

February Challenge #1 - Ride a Winter Lap of the Isle of Mull

This has long been on my tick-list yet for some reason I never got around to it.

If I'm honest, it's because it looked rather tough.

I wasn't certain I could complete it in a respectable time.

Yet that's what these challenges are partly about.  Not exactly a bucket list, more like motivation to tidy up some loose ends.  Things I've always meant to do but didn't get around to.

I'm doing at least one a month in this my 60th year on the planet.

Loads of people have ridden a full circuit of the Isle of Mull.  Indeed, this is the route of the Mull sportive.  But most folk wait until the cafes are open, the days are longer, and CalMac switches to its summer timetable with more sailings.

January Challenge #2 - Cure My Sinky Swim Legs

Sinking legs are the curse of many triathletes who didn't start swimming at an early age.

We rely on the buoyancy of our wetsuits to lift our legs.  Training in the pool we can't wait to put the pull-buoy between our legs and get extra lift.

My legs just sink.  Seriously, it's like towing a truck through the water.

Since I'm taking on challenges during this, my 60th year, I decided that 'curing' this affliction was one I had to tackle.

This will not happen quickly.  Some of my challenges, such as my first, will have instant results - success or failure.  This is quite different.