Jason Miles headed to Valencia for a multi-day stage race armed with his race shoes, a positive attitude and, well, that was about it, actually.
Words jason miles Photography T Pascual (unless credited)
“You know about those bearings, yes?” I said to the young lad in the bicycle hire shop as I wobbled the rear wheel of the rental bike side to side. There was quite a lot of wobble, as it happens.
I was a bit surprised to be paying a visit to a cycle rental shop in Valencia. When I was first asked if I could pop over to Spain to cover a three-day stage race, the organisers offered to provide a bike for the race. How convenient! No lugging a bike bag across airport terminals and nervous waits for the damn thing at the other end. I had to fly out of Edinburgh but fly back into Glasgow, so from a logistical standpoint the option of a shiny race steed, delivered to my hotel, sounded brilliant.
Fair enough it wouldn’t be my bike, but bearing in mind this is going to be 300 kilometres of mountains, it wouldn’t be rubbish, would it?
Well, yes. It would be rubbish, actually.
I’m not going into a full spec here, but some highlights for you (apart from the half-disintegrated rear hub bearings): RST fork with added ‘it doesn’t move up or down’ upgrade. A triple chainset, with square taper bottom bracket (I liked this bit though. Triples are cool and taper BBs rock. It had one of those ugly plastic guards to keep oil off your trousers though). And 680mm ‘wide’ riser bars. A cutting-edge thing of beauty.
At least the headset wasn’t shot to bits and the front tyre was pretty good. The whole package weighed a ton though. Up in smoke went my dreams of a glorious stage win…
Nobody really knew what was happening with photos before the event either – as it turned out that was well taken care of, but I took a nice camera and a large rucksack just to make sure. If I was going to pedal an oil tanker up some mountains in the heat of eastern Spain I might as well have a big, fully loaded backpack too…
Race ready. Right?
After a night in a posh hotel in downtown Valencia and a tour of the city, I lined up with everyone else on the start line next to the fantastically designed Valencia Science Museum.
Taking full advantage of the road closures and police outriders, the 150-strong peloton rumbled through the centre of Valencia and on towards the orange plantations and hills to the west. Ten minutes into the race and nothing had fallen off and/or seized up on the bike, so I chalked that down as a good start.
Quite soon we had (carefully) ridden clear of the piles of fly-tipped rubbish and building rubble that blights most cities and we hit the hot, dusty rural lanes and gravel tracks beyond. Acres and acres of orange plantations and small farmhouses shimmered in the heat haze and in the far distance, hills. Big hills. Possibly mountains.
It was going to take a long time to get to them though. I knew the first stage ended at the top of a hill somewhere so I tried to conserve energy and kept reminding myself why I was here. Don’t be silly and blow a gasket on day one, I thought. Ride casual. Take more photos, remember why I’m here.
But I did start to wonder what I was doing here in blistering heat, carrying too much stuff, riding a dog of a bike. “You’ll get some good fitness gains to kick-start your summer,” I chanted to myself. “A good story to tell the grandkids.”
The complete lack of arrows or signs to tell anyone which way to go was my immediate concern. My preoccupation with getting photos had left me at the back of the race – so far back in fact that I couldn’t see anyone else. The vague direction signs (which were mainly small pieces of course tape occasionally attached to trees) were easy to miss and mostly I was navigating by following tyre marks in the dust.
Then I rode through the swarm of bees.
I thought I’d got away with it. But then a bee became trapped in between my glasses and my eyebrow, so I got stung about three millimetres above my left eye. Then for good measure another one of the little buggers flew into my jersey and had a good old jab at my chest.
Looking like I’d been punched in the head, I arrived at the next feed station where other riders were gathered. Many of them had also been stung by bees, so that was a good icebreaker. Not that we could communicate, other than pointing at our lumps and sore bumps while repeatedly uttering the word mierda.
Off everyone went again. Soon I felt quite alone.
“What is your location please?”
“My location is where the final feed station was.”
“What is your location please?”
“At the final feed.”
“No, No, No, I need your location!”
“I JUST TOLD YOU WHERE I AM, MATE!” A bit of panic creeping into my tone now. “YOU MUST KNOW WHERE IT IS, IT’S YOUR BLEEDING FEED STOP.”
Unfortunately, he didn’t seem to know where his aid stations were and was apparently unable to do anything unless I had a specific app installed on my phone. I was a bit confused and a bit worried as it was starting to go dark.
I rang the wife and had a ‘How was your day?’ sort of chat. “Not bad actually, I’ve been stung, baked in the sun, and now I’m hopelessly lost in a foreign country. How are the kids?”
Eventually and several phone conversations later (where I unwittingly did that annoying British thing of speaking louder and more slowly when failing to communicate with someone from another country), Apolo the organiser turned up. It was almost midnight and I was shivering.
Like before, but with more fish.
Day 2 was 120 kilometres of more wide gravel tracks, ‘plenty of singletrack’ (I was told), and almost three times more climbing than yesterday. In spite of the heat and the weight of my bike, I figured that I’d probably find it easier to take photos and catch up to the tail-end riders because of the amount of uphill grovelling that would be going on.
I was right. The signage was still really vague (or non-existent), but as I was realising, this was A Local Race For Local People and, as such, plenty of riders seemed to know which way to go. Mainly gravel roads again – though there was the occasional barely rideable section of singletrack which caused my total waste-of-time suspension fork to leak fluid from the upper seals and splash my legs with grey sludge.
I was really looking forward to the feed stop at the top of a 30km climb. I’d been thinking about the delightful local produce, chilled water and juicy Valencian oranges for the past two hours. It was going to be amazing. It would cost me lots of time and I’d probably eat so much that I’d feel sick.
Unfortunately, the feed station was not like any other feed station I’ve been to before. There was this big fella with a chef’s jacket on, brandishing a sharp kitchen knife. With his other hand he was passing riders large lumps of scaly fish. Liquid refreshment was alcohol-free mojito. I took my chances with the green drink (there was nothing else), but anyone who knows me will attest to the fact that I’d rather starve than eat stinky fish with scales and beady eyes.
Not really knowing what all that was about, I made my excuses and left. Maybe there would be a proper, actual, feed station around the corner. (There wasn’t.)
I eventually caught and rode with a few of the local riders I’d met over breakfast. When I say ‘met’, I mean a few local riders who possessed enough English vocabulary to take the piss out of the stupid English journalist who got lost and had to be rescued from the middle of an orange plantation the evening before.
The high point of Stage 2 was the ascent of Javalambre – at 2,020m high it’s about the same height as two Snowdons, and according to the race briefing there was snow on top.
In fact, there was tons of snow. So, rather than riding some nice grippy powder, climbing the final few kilometres to the summit meant a long hikeabike, though even that was a million times more enjoyable than the previous day’s ‘riding’ now that I had some mates to share the experience with.
Javier, his brother Miguel, Oscar and I wobbled, scrambled, fell over and giggled our way to the top of the mountain, where we then stopped for a silly amount of time to admire the view. I’d never really ‘done’ the social side of a bike race before but I was starting to question why the hell you’d ride to a place like this and not stop for a bloody good look around and a few photographs. Perhaps I’d think differently if I had the legs and the bike to be able to compete, but for now this was an almost-perfect moment.
A race official on an e-bike wanted to eliminate us all from the race as we were taking far too long, but a big shouty argument broke out and eventually we were allowed to continue. The e-bike marshal even shepherded us down a shortcut and before long we’d arrived in the small mountain village of Manzanera. I was handed a beer at the finish line, as well as a few lines of witty ‘banter’. Yesterday’s mishaps just wouldn’t go away…
I’d stayed in posher caravans. This one would have been OK had the floor been attached to something solid and the windows weren’t boarded up with sheet metal. The shower was good, if you like showering in black, muddy water. It wasn’t too bad though, and there was a freezing cold communal shower that did the trick.
After an incredibly noisy dinner of spag bol with 200 shouty Spaniards, each one engaged in a bellowing conversation with someone at the opposite side of the room, I didn’t care what the caravan looked like. I retreated to my bed thinking about tomorrow and the fact I’d be riding (the hard way, admittedly) back to Valencia where I’d have a posh hotel room, chocolates on the pillow and a taxi ride to the airport…
Ready to shiver?
Day 3 started with some heavy-duty shivering. In the night, a mechanic working for one of the race teams had spotted my sorry old mountain bike, given it a once-over and taped an inner tube to the seatpost. A nice message wishing me luck was taped to the handlebars and suddenly I didn’t feel like a foreigner any more.
Manzanera is quite high up in the mountains so I put a gilet on. The Spanish guys looked like they were wearing their entire wardrobes of winter cycling kit as well as several knitted jumpers.
Today was supposed to be 120km, but the measuring guy must have been having an off day because it was more like 150. There was masses of climbing too, which for a stage that was supposed to be riding away from the mountains and back to the coastal city of Valencia takes some doing.
Day 3 was by far the most photogenic day, so I lost touch with the rest of the race very early on. By now though I’d entered the 21st century and I had the route on my phone, which was needed because the route signing was, quite comically non-existent.
None of the feed stations were serving fish, which for me was the main thing. Just lovely oranges, more oranges, sweeties, Coke and even more oranges. I dream of those oranges.
Glorious finale on the beach.
Once again I caught Oscar, Javier and Miguel (and another guy whose name I can’t remember but who was fascinated by how shit my bike was) and eventually the Valencian skyline came into view on the horizon. Through the orange plantations, the ubiquitous gravel roads led us over hills that decreased in size and severity as we approached the city, but as we headed east the temperature rose, causing some Spaniards to remove one, maybe three layers of clothing.
And then we were back in Valencia (and through the fly-tipping minefield), to find the finish line fiendishly placed on the beach. I say fiendish because it’s the only finish line I’ve ever ridden across that was unrideable. Deep, soft sand no doubt entered the by-now destroyed wheel bearings of my amazing Focus Mares – hopefully killing them off permanently. And, in a final, pathetic and symbolic gesture, the rear tyre punctured about halfway across the beach.
I dumped the bike at the side of the finish line and was handed a plastic medal and a lump of fish.
As well as losing some body fat and gaining some much-needed endurance, an unexpected side effect of the Mitic Bike Race (and the need to keep stopping to take photos) was that I gained some new friends (or nuevos amigos) and proved categorically that language barriers don’t matter so much when everyone’s riding bikes in the mountains.
The Mitic Bike Race takes place in April every year and starts and finishes in Valencia. The organisers want to extend the appeal to a more international crowd and have promised to improve the signage…
Here’s where you sign up: miticbike.com
The fact that it starts in Valencia is enough to make me consider another crack at it. The city is one of the most architecturally stunning, friendly, safe and clean places that I’ve visited, and somewhere I’ll return to with my family in the future.