By Nicolas Roche
I’m staring out at the crystal blue sea at San Pedro de Alcantara. I can see Morocco at a distance to my left. Gibraltar is either not visible or hidden behind some trees. It’s now officially Spring (for some reason Ireland is a bit different and calls 1st February the first day of Spring, though for most places that is deep winter). Last year we were here on St. Patrick’s Day, it was raining and the roads were slick. This year the sky is clear. It was cold when we left Casares and it’s still fresquito, but it’s only 9 so still plenty of time to heat up. It’s D’s first race of the season.
As you may have guessed, the unread cycling books on my shelf were not bought by me. I thought it might be about time I read one.
Cycling for me, as a child, was just a matter of getting from A to B. Occasionally we might cycle to Ardgillan and back, for no other reason than doing it, but it was usually a matter of getting somewhere faster than walking (and numerous trips to the library in Balbriggan). Somewhere along the way I stopped using my bike very much until one day I was getting my train home from college and bumped into my cousin. What was she doing getting this train? ‘Oh, I need a bike and your Mam said there was one at your house that wasn’t being used.’
Apart from occasionally renting a bike on holiday, that was the extent of my cycling. Then I met my future husband and since then, well, I wouldn’t say I got back on my bike, but let’s say I’ve had to develop an interest in cycling. I do have my own bike again, though for me I find the hills around Casares too difficult for a leisurely cycle. I can have a lovely 15 minutes cycle downhill and then it is pure torture. I know, I need to try harder!
Everybody in Ireland was a cycling fan in 1987, when Stephen Roche won the Tour de France, but as there was no successor to the crown in the 90s the interest waned and then of course the focus on the sport only involved drugs. In the last few years the sport does seem to be making something of a comeback at home. I can’t really comment on the drugs issue, the train of thought seems to vary between ‘sure they’re all on drugs’ to ‘maybe the sport is at its cleanest in years to ‘ah, they’re always one step ahead of the testers’.
Ok, some brave souls have just gone for a swim. I’m sure a lot of people in Ireland think that it must always be a nice day for a dip down here, I did anyway, but even for me it’s still too early. I’m going to start swimming after Easter and that would be way too early for most. La noche de San Juan, the 23rd of June, is usually the official start of the season. I have done the Christmas swim in Skerries for years, but I’m not like my mother: I couldn’t go swimming in the Irish sea in all seasons. In fact, I’ll have to get used to swimming in the Irish Sea in summer again.
Anyway, last summer we decided to drive to France for our summer holidays and as it happened to be Tour de France season we made a detour to Bagneres de Bigorre in the Pyrenees. We just wanted to see a stage, catch the atmosphere. Little did we know that we would witness the first Irish victory in over 20 years by Daniel Martin, the nephew of Stephen Roche. I was so annoyed that we hadn’t had an Irish flag to wave. The atmosphere was amazing and doping was the last thing we were thinking about.
2 months later the Vuelta a España was passing through Andalucia. Originally it was supposed to pass Casares but the route was changed. I think the road was supposed to be repaired but wasn’t up to scratch. Most of our visitors would agree. The end was the same though, the climb from Estepona up to the Peñas Blancas, one of D’s usual routes.
This time I packed up the flag and all the bunting that my mother had sent for that St. Patrick’s Day. The road up had been closed a few hours before but we took the back road past Genalguacil, the one that isn’t paved, so we made it on time. We watched as Nicolas Roche came in 3rd, which put him in the 1st place overall and gave him the red jersey, the first time an Irish cyclist had a leader’s jersey at a grand tour in 25 years. Do you see a pattern?
As I write this, I’m beginning to think that I don’t have any excuse not to go to watch the Giro d’Italia in May as it takes a bit of a sidetrip to Ireland and passes through Balbriggan, where my house is and Skerries, my hometown. Unfortunately it’s the worst timing for me; I have to see if I can work it out.
Even today, in this amateur race there is talk. The winners last year, a team from Cordoba, have not turned up this year. Apparently the leader is involved in a doping ring. It does cast a shadow.
And a few weeks on we’re in Montemayor. One of the things that I like about this cyclist’s wife gig is that I get to go to some random places which are well off the main tourist radar. Last autumn D had a race in Cabra (Cordoba, not North Dublin) and we stayed in a cute little village called Zuheros in the Subbetica. That time I left him to go off on a walk and I had a walk into the Rio Bailon Gorge.
Today I’m on cheering duty but last night we stayed among the olive groves in Hacienda La Vereda near Montilla. It was a very relaxed setting. You had to switch off your timetable really but that suited us just fine. We tried the local vino fino and enjoyed it; much softer and palatable than the more famous sherry. We forgot to buy any this morning but already I’ve seen signs for ‘centro de interpretacion de vino’ so I might pay a trip there when the race is done. Last year D came here on his own, getting up at 5.30 in the morning to drive over and race in 3°C. Today it’s more like 23°. The morning fogs have lifted and I’m sitting near the castle and looking out beyond the rooftops at the impressively linear hills.
One race just set off and the bulk of the people have walked down. I’m a bit confused, is the next race not setting off from here? Or is it just that all the supporters were following this race?
So in the end I missed the start of D’s race and at the second of the two laps he pulled out. It was an exhausting route and he had fallen back from the lead group and did not see the point in finishing. I got him a coke, and then we walked up to the castle to wait for the end.
Before meeting D I would really have thought of cycling races as simply ‘he who cycles fastest wins’. I did not realise how much tactics were involved.
When he saw that I was reading Roche’s book he commented that it was not too interesting to him as it had just stitched together previously published diaries from the Irish Independent. That’s not quite true and even if it were it wouldn’t really bother me as I only properly started reading his columns last year.
I found it very interesting and insightful. Only when I got to reading about the 2010 Vuelta did I start recognising that I’d read some of the diary extracts before. I hadn’t read the initial entry about the time trial in Sevilla. I remember how hot it was that weekend. We had to rush back to our hotel room and spend a few hours on the bed with the air conditioning switched on to full. No wonder they couldn’t have the race any earlier than 10pm. Everybody thought we were crazy to visit Seville in August, but that’s when it was on. It was my first time at a big race and it was exciting.
I liked reading about his constant attempts at the Irish championships as I recognise lots of names from conversations with my husband. Though as D said when we were talking about Roche: ‘I only met him once, at the Irish Championships. I came 14th and was delighted. He came 4th and was pissed off. That tells you all you need to know about the difference between him and me’.
And yet, I think no matter what level there are certain points all cyclists have in common.
‘Cyclists out training are a bit like old women. We love to have a chat’. D always says this too, the amount of things you can gossip about while out on the bike, which is why it is frustrating that our Spanish never got to the level of comfortable chatter. He seems to have got on ok with his gang and while my Castellano might be somewhat stronger D is more fluent in Andalu(z). it also helps that our neighbour and fellow cyclist was born in England.
Pasta, pasta, pasta and no nutella. Cyclists can get through a huge amount of food and man do they eat pasta! (I, on the other hand, went 10 years without eating pasta until the hotel I was working at in Germany served it to me and I couldn’t exactly say no). But they can eat so much and still be thin. Fat cyclists are like normal thin people. For me the problem with living with a cyclist is that while I probably eat healthier overall than I would on my own I just end up eating far too much. Cyclists always slag each other off about how chubby they are, even if to the normal eye they are nothing of the kind.
‘When I see an Irish flag it gives me chills, because there is no other Irish racer in the face, I know it’s for me and it really motivates me to do well!’
Well at Peñas Blancas I didn’t see any other Irish flags apart from ours. I can understand how much of an impact a single Irish flag can make when over 250km of cycling you’re not likely to see too many. Each one on its own (if seen) can have the effect of a stadium full.
Sidenote on Guadix, where Roche comments that he felt he was waking up to ‘Once upon a Time in the West’, or at least the landscape. I guess you knew that all of those spaghetti westerns were made in that region? When we went to Almeria I insisted on visiting the Mini Hollywood park at Tabernas and watching the shootout recreations. Cheesy but fun!
The cyclist motto ‘never stand up when you can sit down, never sit down when you can lie down’, yeah I have heard that one too. Unfortunately for D he’s not a professional cyclist so he doesn’t get to abide by it as much as he’d like!
I vaguely remember D talking about Wouter Weylandt, the Belgian cyclist who died in a stage of the Giro 2011, something Roche discusses in the book, leading on to a general discussion of the danger of the sport. Of course there are dangers and especially during professional races at the speeds they do. Or anybody who just is crazy, like the Brazilian cyclists in the video D just showed me, cycling 124kph in a lorry’s draft.
But in general this can happen to anyone and D has had his fair share of incidents. Since he’s been with me the two worst were 2 years ago, a few months apart. The first one was the day after my birthday. I went out on my new bike, my birthday present, and the first bike I’d owned in 15 years. I struggled a little but enjoyed it, got back to the house and waited. And waited until I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach, then a voice I barely recognised was calling from the bottom of the steps and blood was streaming from his mouth. Straight after that people joked ‘Oh you won’t let him out on the mountainbike again before the wedding, will you?’
A few months later, recovered except for a scar, he went out with some friends and I went for a short walk in the same area with the girlfriends. We saw them pass, then again, then we were waiting in the carpark and the other two came by and stopped for a chat. The pit of my stomach told me something was wrong but they were smiling and laughing so I reasoned that everything was ok. Just after they had headed off, D came walking up the trail with an elbow looking not how an elbow should look. There was less blood that time but it took much longer to get fixed.
People weren’t joking this time when they said ‘you’re not letting him out on the bike before the wedding, right?’
But at the end of the day he wants to do it and it’s part of who he is and while it may scare me sometimes I wouldn’t want to change that. I know when he’s out and when I don’t hear from him for ages that’s normal. My internal clock does remind me at certain times ‘hey, shouldn’t he be back by now?’, and I’ll only get worried if he’s not back within an hour or so after that. I have to trust that he wants to avoid getting himself injured even more than I do.
I do occasionally get irritated if I want us to do something together and he sees it as getting in the way of the bike. I don’t know how professional cyclists’ girlfriends/wives manage. Does their life simply have to take second place (assuming they are not fantastic cyclists themselves)? Roche mentions ‘on my days off I don’t go walking around shopping centres with my girlfriend’. Ok I never want to go walking around shopping centres with my husband but I enjoy walking in la naturaleza in this beautiful country, or around cities and funnily enough, sometimes I like to do it with my husband, so I have to say: ‘tough, you’re not a professional cyclist, let’s do this!’
Speak of the devil, I suggest coffee and a cake at el rincon de Cristina in the centre of Casares and he’s on his bike. Cake seems to be Spanish cyclist’s vice of choice, the forbidden fruit: ‘I really shouldn’t be having this, but then again, I’ve been out on the bike for 6 hours today, so….’
Or they’ll stop mid-morning for their coffee + tostada at a Venta in the middle of nowhere, pile the bikes together and sit outside. If only the Irish weather could accommodate this tradition.
It’s interesting to read Roche’s views on Contador at the beginning of the 2011 Tour. I’d like to think that he, (Nicolas Roche), is clean, he mentions it quite a bit, (but then again, don’t they all?) and it’s interesting that just 2 years later he’s cycling on the same team as Contador. I guess at this stage it’s impossible to cycle on a team that is completely untainted by scandal, but this just seems like a complete turnaround. And yes, I’ve read David Walsh’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ so I’m aware that Roche Sr is not untainted either. As I said before, being a fan is complicated.
One last race before Easter at Cartama. Cartama itself does not seem to be the most beautiful of places, a working suburb of Malaga. D has commented that the town reminds him of Balbriggan. We’re in Estacion de Cartama, it seems that when the Spanish built their railways they were never in the towns themselves so separate towns grew up around the stations nearby. Maybe the original is a quaint pretty place, but we are not going to see it.
I am not feeling great this morning, but have asked D to take me to the top of the mountain once the race is over. I’ve seen signs for Ermita las tres Cruces and I think it might be a place a coworker mentioned a few years ago. She was talking about how it would be the perfect place for a wedding and she and her husband had seriously considered getting married there, but they hadn’t been baptised Catholic and felt it would be hypocritical to convert for the sake of a pretty church.
Ok so after a few delays D is on his way. I’ve plodded to the edge of town and am watching the rest of the cyclists as they pass, one by one. The town is not particularly pretty, but seems like a nice place to live if you work in Malaga and want some space for a family. The hills around do not look particularly steep, though I’m sure I’m going to hear about how difficult it was. 007 has just passed, does that mean the last ones are out?
All day planes pass over on their descent to Malaga airport. That makes me doubly sure that this ermita was the church my colleague was talking about. I remember her pointing it to me from the Swiss plane after our trip to Zurich. I couldn’t see it but nodded anyway. I’ll have to look out for this place next time we fly over. Two days later I was engaged, but while I tried to google where she was talking about, we never seriously considered it. We were more than happy with the church in Casares.
So, it was a windy and precarious road up. I can only imagine the reactions of various relatives if we had chosen that. The Casares road is smooth running in comparison. It is a fantastic view and the tiny church or ‘Ermita’, might be perfect for an intimate destination wedding if anybody is looking. Preferably if none of the guests have vertigo!
Well one way or another, a meeting has been rescheduled and my calendar in May has freed up. I’m going to ask my boss tomorrow about the possibility of going home that weekend for the Giro. Wish me luck.