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Sunday, 30 October 2011

Mountain Bike Training in Marbella

At the end of September my daughter Shayne and I walked for five days north starting from Sevilla towards Santiago de Compostela on the Via de la Plata route. It was a fantastic experience and we'll be back on the trail in 2012 in the spring. We aim to do another 10 stages but this time on bikes. After the summer we'll start walking again.It was with two wheels in mind that I emailed Marbella Rent a Bike to ask about off road mountain bike training classes. I wanted to get some expert advice on what bike to buy and get some classes under my belt before setting off next year. It took no time at all to get the first session set up with trainer Hugo Gomez of Marbella Rent a Bike.

Mountain Bike Training One: Hugo and I met at Los Pinos de Aloha Golf just opposite Aloha Golf and went over the bike that he had brought me, gears, brakes and so on. That's Hugo on the right in case you were wondering. We set off, just the two of us. I've driven through the Los Naranjos and La Quinta area hundreds of times but never really noticed all the hills until that first mountain bike ride. Hugo was very encouraging and the hour and a half session starting first on asphalt ended with a Tour de France Pyrenees type climb on a dirt road before plunging back down to Aloha Golf.
Mountain Bike Training T
wo: This was high tech. Hugo sorted me out with a chest heart monitor belt linked to a Garmin orienteering device on my handlebars and we set off. I've walked all the hills and mountains you can see around Marbella but on this ride when I did manage to lift my head I found us on the west side of the Istan lake on a track I had never seen before. Hugo is a master at getting his students out of their comfort zones and in no time at all I found myself back at Aloha Golf. That evening he sent me a
readout of our 14km route through the hills.
Extra conditioning: I went our with Hugo for an afternoon run along the Paseo Maritimo from Victor's Beach all the way to Princess Playa at the other end. Normally I would walk for a good section but there was no stopping until our turn around and we finished with a sprint over the last hundred metres. I was well pleased with my performance and discovered some new leg muscles.
Mountain Bike Training T
hree: Waterbottle filled with an electrolytic drink, we set off on our bikes earlier this week. My use of the 18 gears is getting better and I'm better at selecting the right gear sometime before I need it. Again our route took off uphill and I'm aiming now to find a comfortable pedalling rythmn.

It'll take me a while to build up strength in my legs and cardiovascular capacity but I'm getting into it. This class was just under 19kms in two hours but I have to say most of it was uphill. Some way along the track I topped up my water bottle from clear mountain stream. Careering downhill I experimented with braking, two fingers on the back brake and one on the front. (These are hydraulic brakes...) Hugo is pushing me to use no brakes at all on some stretches but I still have memories of sensational crashes as a a teenager. Maybe next time. Anytime now expect to see me in lycra cycling pants. My Christmas wish list is growing.

Mountain Bike Training Four: I met Hugo at Manola Santana's Raquet's Club on the Istán road. Yesterday's session was on the road, all the way to Istán . In a car, you don't really notice the hills. On a bike you are constantly shifting gears. With Hugo do all rides start by going uphill straightaway? Sign up for a mountain or road bike training course and find out for yourself! I enjoyed the road bike, it reminded me of cycling 10kms to school. Each time expert bike trainer Hugo Gomes sets new goals. On this bike ride I couldn't use the granny plate (the lowest front plate gear). I managed without it. My condition is building. I was able to drink going uphill instead of waiting for a level stretch of road. For me this is progress. I couldn't have done this ride without having put in the previous three bike rides. I was impressed with the distance that overtaking cars left us on the winding road. On the way down we built up speed. I felt like Miguel Indurain on the Tour de España. In front I could see Hugo legs pumping as we hit the downhill straights and acted on the urge to catch him. (I didn't, but was pleased with myself for having the energy and desire to try.) After each route Hugo emails me my
Garmin print out. I send it on to my daughter and brother. We'll all be riding together next year. Next mountain and road bike training session we are off to Benahavis.

Mountain Bike Training Five: Road bike to Benahavis. We met at 4.30pm at Los Pinos in front of Aloha Golf and hit the back roads past La Quinta golf course. Five hundred metres up the Ronda road just past the motorway we turned off to Benahavis. There are two killing hills along this leg. Dropping down to the Benahavis river was exhilarating if not scary. Hugo was in a pushing mode, stay above 10km/h, no granny plate. We rode up into the centre of Benahavis, turned around and coasted back down to the river. On the long straight to the A7 coast road we attacked a lone cyclist, sweeping past him only to be overtaken again when my legs wouldn't go as fast as my heart. Hugo explained the advantages of staying in his wind shadow. Great, if you can just keep up with him... On the A7 highway I tucked in behind him, we pushed past Guadalmina, San Pedro and detoured through Puerto Banus. My calves were just starting to sieze up. A swig of electrolyte drink and I was off again. The steep climb up from Aloha College to the top of the rise was a challenge after 34kms. I just managed it using the granny plate and my last reserves of energy. A good ride. Bring it on next week Hugo!

Mountain Bike Training Six Big mistake of mine telling Hugo last week to bring it on because today he did. Using his best carrot and stick technique he told me even before we mounted up that he had done our mountain bike route earlier in the day with a younger girl. Of course I was going to push for it after that.

We started off by going straight uphill, my concentration at first was erratic and I muffed gear changes on the first uphill stretches sometimes finding myself sideways on the road having lifted the front wheel off the ground or the rear wheel spurting gravel and not going anywhere. Hugo showed me how to hang back low over the saddle (more weight on the rear wheel) and lean forward over the front wheel (keeping it down). Yes, the road was that steep and rough. We climbed and climbed. I sucked on an energy gel supplement. I remember seeing a helicopter landing pad next to the track. I was back in the groove with the gears.

Without stopping we turned for the descent. Flying down the gravel road I found myself spending less time on the brakes. If I could just stay on the bike I would be back at the van without much more strain. Suddenly Hugo turned right. This wasn't the way home! Now we were on a track used by goats and washed out by the rain. More rocks than track and it was a steeper descent than I had ever done. On my own I would have walked down holding the bike for balance. Now I was flying downhill over rocks and gullies desperately looking for the route ahead. I found it was more manageable to go fast than slowly. We were heading straight for the river. Did I say two fingers on the hydraulic brakes in an earlier mountain bike session? This time I was pulling with five fingers trying to stay in control. Suddenly I found myself in a shady treed tunnel next to the river below El Madroñal. Hugo was carrying his bike ahead through the knee high water. I followed him through. After my long uphill strain followed by a headlong descent losing all my hard earned height in minutes and then finding myself in a strongly flowing river I had definitely moved out of my comfort zone. One more wade through a tributary of the dam in the river and we were back on the asphalt heading through La Quinta back to our starting point at Los Pinos de Aloha.

My next aim said Hugo is to get well up out of the saddle going downhill almost standing up to lessen strain on the knees. I was pleased to learn that overall, despite the wobbly start to the ride I was making progress. If you zoom in on the
Garmin route you'll see the track descending towards the river, losing lots of height very quickly. Hugo if this is a "moderate" route according to the GPS, please spare me the "difficult"route until next year. Next week I´ll be adding some video here of today's mountain bike training session.

Road Bike Training Seven Today's session started out from Manolo Santana's Raquets Club. We were on road bikes. It was another warm sunny December mid afternoon. "No Granny plate up the climb up under the motorway" said Hugo "and keep the speed above 10km/h." It's a tough way to start out, one km on the level, hardly time to warm up and then a steep curving climb but I did it. Perhaps I did dip under 10km/h but after that it was a pleasure. I could remember a lot of the route from before.

It helps a lot to know when to expect the top of a climb and conserve energy or when to put the pedal down. I enjoyed the climb to Istan. This time instead of stopping short of the village we rode through and climbed up towards the polideportivo. The challenge was to keep the pedals turning up a very steep clime but I muffed a gear change and had to stop mid climb. It was a relief to turn back and push towards the coast. I found myself pedalling where I would have coasted before and enjoyed the downhill rush of wind and the pace.

Here's Hugo's comment emailed after the lesson together with today's route: "This was your best lesson so far, I felt like you were fighting to keep up, that brought you good results, your condition is improving a lot too. You had a overall time of 1.19h which is about 20 min quicker than last time." I must be getting stronger!

Mountain Bike Training Eight I knew today was going to be different, I had got an email from Hugo the day before: "Good morning Mike, today's route is short but challenging, we're going to train your speed and endurance as well as your mind!" He added some advice about what to eat before our ride.

To visualise our mountain bike training course, imagine a whip. The lash forms three loops back towards the handle. The loops are all uphill and the handle is an all too short roller coaster downhill ride on a gravelled surface. One circuit is 2.5kms and you do it again and again and again and ...... Hugo is the guy holding the whip. On the first untimed recognition lap, I could see where the mind training came in. How many times was I going to go around? I didn't like to ask.

I learned a lot, getting up out of the saddle and pedalling on rocky rises and gradients which I would have pushed my bike over a month ago. I cycled round curves rather than coasted round them. The gear changes came easily. I went wide on curves then cut in. On the downhills I put my faith in the knobbly mountain bike tyre treads and hit 44 km/h as a top speed by staying off the brakes. Hugo was in front of me, behind me, waiting round bends and laying down obstacles for me to navigate and respond to. He was cracking the whip and encouraging me in equal measures. I saw the AP7 motorway far below me, then the Istan lake, then the motorway. One minute's rest between laps. Once I was given two minutes. Filling up at the gas station on the way home I found myself unsteady on my feet. By the time I had got back, I had my route and lap times waiting on my computer. Lap 1, 8:58, Lap 2, 9:23 Lap 3 10:48, Lap 4: 9:29, Lap 5, 9:42, Lap 6: 9:15. Here's a video of my last lap. Please remember I had been around 7 times before... Overall training time 57:37. I'm very pleased with my progress.

Mountain Bike Training Nine Agility. I thought I had nothing left to learn about staying on my bike but Hugo had me back up in the hills riding over log bridges, washed out rocky stream crossing, keeping my balance on paths with deep gullies on either side. I practised braking techniques, riding at speed downhill on gravelled roads then braking sharply, maintaining a straight line and also sliding the back wheel. I did this lesson at the end of January after getting back from 6 days trekking in Patagonia.  Since then  I've bought my bike, from Hugo of course. It's a Scott Aspect 20 if you are interested.

Lesson 10 The last  50 km mountain and road ride with Hugo is coming up soon.  Since I started my bike lessons back in October, I've been trekking in Patagonia and have been preparing to ride the Camino de Santiago with my brother starting from Sant Jean Pied de Port in France starting on 28th April. It's about 850kms. Then I'm back on the  road on the Via de Plata with my daughter Shayne doing another 5 days on bikes, starting from where we left off in Monasterio. Hugo, I'll be back for Lesson Ten, hopefully a lot fitter than when we first started! Thanks for everything so far!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Road Trip to the Algarve

Mike online and very happy to introduce Natalia as a contributor to the Spain Now and Then blog. You will also find Natalia across on the Gomarbella Facebook page. Over to Natalia after her trip to Portugal.

Day One

Our initial plan was to leave my place at 5.30pm, however in true Spanish fashion we ended up leaving at 6.40pm. We took the A7, direction Estepona/Algeciras all the way to Los Barrios. Watch out for a radar in San Roque just before reaching Los Barrios. Then we took the A-381 to Jerez (theres another radar just before arriving to Jerez, after the last tunnel). Once in Jerez we took the AP-4 towards Sevilla, a two hour drive so far. From Sevilla we traveled on the A-49 to Huelva, continuing a stretch up to Ayamonte and then made our way down to Isla Cristina.

We arrived tired but happy at Hotel Plata Isla Cristina at 9:40pm. The hotel is two stars, clean, very comfy with a home away from home vibe. All the staff are incredibly friendly and accommodating. Having stashed our luggage away and admired our pretty blue room we went down to reception and asked for directions to a good seafood restaurant. Following Jose, the receptionists advice we walked down the road and onto the paseo maritimo (path along the beach) to the Sol y Mar restaurant. The food was divine. We had coquinas which are small clams and some incredibly fresh and tasty prawns. Fed and watered we walked back to our hotel and enjoyed a nightcap in the lounge. We were soon joined by a charming couple from Sevilla and Alicia our bartender/receptionist for the night, it was a lovely relaxing evening in Isla Cristina which is where we booked our hotel for the first night.

Hotel Contact details:
Hotel Plata Isla Cristina
Avenida de la Playa, 1
Isla Cristina, 21410

Tel: +34 959331800 E-mail:

Day Two

We woke up early and had a simple yet tasty breakfast and bid goodbye to the friendly staff at Hotel Plata Isla Cristina. Heeding their advice we made sure to visit Las Salinas before continuing onto Portugal. Las Salinas is where salt is extracted from sea water, theirs so much that they use tractors to make little salty hills! While exploring Ayamonte and admiring the town we saw that we could take a ferry which would cross the border and take us into Portugal. It took us all of 12 minutes and cost us roughly 5 Euros including the car, to cross Rio Guadiana, dropping us off in Villa Real de S. Antonio. From there we followed the signs to Tavira and then onto Faro where we stopped for lunch and then continued on the A22 - E1 to Albufeira. We woke up early and had a simple yet tasty breakfast and bid goodbye to the friendly staff at Hotel Plata Isla Cristina.

Once in Albufeira it was really easy to find the Monica Isabel Resort, which is where we would be staying for two nights, it cost (with breakfast included) 88 Euros. The resort is like one big urbanisation as well as its hotel it has several blocks made up into small apartments, come cafes a mini supermarket and some small shops. I imagine its perfect for families with young children as you have everything there on your doorstep with the added bonus of being a stones throw away from beach.

Venturing outside the resort and after a quick change of clothes we decided to go and check out the port of Albufeira. The port is easy to find just follow the signs marked marina and when you see a block of buildings painted in all different kinds of pastel colours, you know your in the right place! We headed directly to the information office to check out the info on boat rides. We had been told that this was something we should definitely do, so we booked a 6 hour trip for the next day and then headed into the centre of town.

The centre of town is full to the brim with lively bars and restaurants , and although the narrow streets and old buildings are charming the center was a bit too touristy for my liking. Nevertheless we enjoyed a scrumptious dinner at a seafood restaurant called La taberna do Pescador a.k.a The Fisherman's Tavern. We ordered catalplana which is a seafood dish featuring clams, crab, and prawns seasoned with herbs and spices and steamed in what looks like two metal plates put together to a make a sort of clam like pot. I highly recommend you try this typical Algarve dish!

Fun fact: Cataplana was introduced to Southern Portugal by the Moors during their occupation.

Hotel and Restaurant Contact details:

Monica Isabel Beach Club
Forte S. Joao, Areias De S. Joao,

Tel: +35 1289599200

Restaurant A Taberna do Pescador
Travessa Cais Herculano,
8200 Albufeira

Tel: +35 0289589196

Day Three

We were told to be at the Albufeira port by 9.30am to catch our ride on the Amorita, we'd be setting sail at 10am and expected to be back by 4pm.

What a trip! We had a brilliant time, the weather co-operated, the sailors were fun and talkative and the beach which they took us to was breathtaking. We spent roughly two hours on the secluded beach and enjoyed a BBQ lunch, set up and cooked by our three sailors. We made a trip to the caves by dingy and then spent the rest of the time swimming and playing in the waves. I had expected the Atlantic to be much colder than in Marbella but luckily it wasn't, there was an undercurrent of the Mediterranean coming in, warming the water to around 21 degrees Celsius. The whole trip was fantastic and also very affordable as it only cost us 35 Euro's each. You can take a four hour trip which costs 28 Euros or a two hour trip which costs 17 Euro's.

As well as these "mini cruises" you can go dolphin watching or go big game fishing, something which my boyfriend Dani is keen to try out the next time we go!

Once back at port we spent the rest of the evening enjoying some drinks with a group of friends we made on the boat, it was a perfect day!

Mini cruise contact details:

Tel: +35 289 302 984



Day Four

Time to pack up and head back to Marbella :( but before leaving we went to visit Lagos which used to be the capital of the Algarve back in 1576 until 1755 when an earthquake destroyed it. We went to see the port, which is much bigger than the Albufeira port and busier. I had been told that the beaches in Lagos are even more beautiful and wild than those in Albufeira so we made a point of stopping by several. On our way to take a quick dip in the Atlantic before heading back we saw people snorkeling and spied a couple of people on kayaks...what a great idea! We quickly found a place where we could hire our own for two hours at 25 Euros.

Storing our valuables in a water tight container, we put on our life vests and headed out. Don't worry if you've never done this kind of activity before it's easy to pick up and a great work our for your arm and back muscles. Going by kayak we were able to actually go into some of the caves and enjoy the rock formations and grotto's at a much closer angle. This was possibly the most fun thing to do on the whole trip!

You can find kayaks to rent on most of the beaches. Unfortunately there were no public showers nearby to wash off the sea water so salty yet happy we climbed back in our car and headed back home.

NOTE: We didn't see any radars throughout the highways in Portugal!