What with everything that is going on around us at the moment there is a certain disconnect from the not so old ways that we once took for granted. Lock down has meant local rides along well warn tracks for us all.
For a cyclist it means that the open road is not so open now, that new rides & adventures are temporarily postponed, and that old favourite routes which are closer to home, are for now still too far to far away.
Here in Andalucá we have had restrictions which have changed every couple of weeks. Sometimes it’s possible to go a little further afield, and get in a decent day’s ride, however, we have often been restricted to staying within our municipal boundaries. I have been relatively lucky, all-in-all, as where I live the municipal boundaries are quite wide and within them there is a lot of countryside to be had.
So the watch word has been to get creative with the rides.
I have been trying to get creative with these local rides by joining up the dots. By placing waypoints between the roads, lanes and tracks, which are all very familiar to me, I have tried to keep a new-eye open for all the things that I have missed before. Like many cyclists I was always in a rush to get further and to get further-faster, which is great fun, but now that everything is battened down a new attitude is needed, at least for the time being.
Riding west and southwards there are more opportunities.
Riding out west and southwards from where I live there are more opportunities as there are more open miles to explore.
The boundary to the west is marked by the río Guadalquivir, (the river´s name comes from its Arabic name, Wad al-Kabir, meaning río Grande). Here at this juncture this old river begins to widen out as it courses its way south. The Guadalquivir has already flowed for almost 600 kms when its waters pass here, and only a little further on south it opens out into it´s estuary and then the Atlantic. On this river have sailed up-stream the Pheonicians & Greeks, Carthaginians & Romans, Muslims & Vikings, and in the 17thC, even a diplomatic embarcation sent from Japan.
It must also be noted that the expedition that became the first global circumnavigation set sail down-stream on this river in 1519, and did finally return up-stream in 1522, a tad depleted, but ultimately successful in its effort.
However, for me and for now, this watery channel just marks the limitation of possible adventures. Until reaching the Guadalquivir there are a reasonable amount of miles that can be ridden, across the open flatlands of the river plain.
This low lying area is fertile agricultural land where fruit, grain, olives and cotton are grown side by side. I have even seen aloe vera plantations here. A little further south, just over the other side of that invisible municipal boundary, there are miles and miles of great rice paddies. Shepherds can still be seen roaming the fallow land and olive groves with their flocks of sheep or goats.
This area is criss-crossed by old byways and drove roads which used to join the hamlets and cortijos (home farms). Many of these tracks are now largely forgotten to the locals apart from farmers and cyclists. When I ride these tracks it puts me in mind of how great even very short distances were for the people who used to live here. Many families and tiny communities would have lived in complete isolation and these country lanes would have been used for transactions further afield, for away days from the homestead or farm, for market days, for fairs, or local pilgrimages. The many working families which dotted these lands would have looked askance at our concept of these lanes, as places of leisure activity.
The earth here is either a deep clay red, or contrarily, a blond wispy sand. It makes cycling fun. If it has rained recently you´ll find your wheels bogged down in low-gear semi-submerged clay tracks which stick fast, especially to your cleats if you have to put a foot down. In the long summer months you have to ride in a snake´ish manner, winding through uncertain terrain, constantly aware that, without care, you’ll lose your balance, your back wheel spinning in the sand. Like most cyclists I have a healthy, rational respect for free roaming country dogs, but on these tracks, on hot summer days, it’s the occasional slithering snake that you have to keep an eye out for (and I personally have no greater fear). The other week I stopped to take some photos of some fighting bulls in a nearby field, only separated by a fence that I deemed to be far too flimsy all things considered. They suddenly took curious notice of me and I in turn noticed my own fluorescent yellow winter jacket. I got back on my bike.
Whilst on these rides on this side of the river, I’ll come across the occasional tall mediterianan pine tree. In this area and on this side of the river it has always been more heavily farmed and populated. The natural coastal mediterian pine forests, which were once very dense, disappeared from here a long time ago. All that remains are the occasional pine tree, or stand of trees. They are ancient and tall and those that remain often hug the sides of the tracks and lanes that I ride along. Again, these trees are a reminder of the age of these tracks.
Thinking back to all those ancient seafarers who sailed up and down this river, they would have been accompanied by these pine forests, on both sides of the banks, from the estuary until they almost reached Sevilla.
Writing about these pine woods, Doñana and the river, it puts me in mind of a couple of old cycling yarns.
…. and now for a couple of stories …
So I´ll let you into a secret. Years ago I was once reliably informed (maybe), by one of my best-est ever cycling buddies, Abel, that therein Doñana, hidden, very very well hidden from view, is the sunken city of Atlantis. Abel is generally-quite-oftenly-sometimesly well informed. He is also a great cyclist, so I always listen with interest to what he has to tell me whilst we turn the cranks. I was informed that within the marshlands of Doñana there are signs (maybe) that that great city-port has been here all the time, at this the western end of the Mediterianan. Doñana does after all lie not far from the Pillars of Hercules. However, should you have any doubts as to the veracity of all this story about sunken cities, well you can always go-consult Google satellite, and you´ll surely see what it is that you want to see.
There is a track which accompanies the east bank of the river, which is 100kms long, from Sevilla to the coast. At the moment I can only ride very short stretches of this track. These 100kms spoken off are without respite as there is nothing, but nothing which marks civilization until you reach the village of Bonanza on the estuary. The first time I rode this track in its entirety, in one sitting, I chose wisely to ride it at night. I left Sevilla at about 11 pm, on midsummers night, with three other adventurous fools I had persuaded to come along. We arrived at the coast at about 7am. We slept-rode parts of the night, with no light apart from our headlights and the stars above. We repaired two punctures in the blackness, we were attacked by mosquitoes for long stretches. We cycled past a small rave in the middle of nowhere, the ravers shouting “the cyclists !, the cyclists !”. I remember an commercial ship slowly sailing upstream in the dark of the night, all decked out in many lights, it seemed quite beautiful in the darkness, very cinematic. When we did arrive at the Bonanza, I fell asleep over my coffee.
I have ridden this track many times since, but never at night.
, and now it’s time to turn around
However the end of the trail is nearer to home for now. Having reached the river’s edge it is time now to about-turn, turning my back on Doñana to the west and the Guadaquivir itself. I can now see the east. I can see blue shadows on the horizon that are the Cordilleras Béticas and the Sierra de Grazalema. There, there are seriously good climbs, perfectly able to burst even the strongest of lungs, but during lock down they too remain on the distant horizon. In this neck of the woods there are no opportunities to enjoy long climbs riding out of the saddle, the road twisting and turning back on itself, much less the possibility of long freewheeling descents, but then you take-what’s-youz-get when you can.
Time to ride back home.
Spring is beginning to show its shoots, the days are marginally longer now and it is now a year into this pandemic. Maybe we can permit ourselves to feel that in the not so distant future we’ll turn a corner and the road and trails will open out again before us.