My wife and I had taken our kids on a six-week ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe. As part of our trip, I’d booked a mountain bike ride in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Andalusia in southern Spain. It was a 2,700 metre descent down Sierra de Hoy, a major peak and ski-village just outside Granada. The plan was simple. We would be driven to the summit and then a guide would take us back down the 2,700m to our starting point at the small village of Monachil.
My son Gus was about to turn 15. He’s a skilled soccer player, very fit and becoming a young man. Over the last 12 months he’d really got into mountain biking. I’d recently turned 55. I’d spent my life being active. I still taught martial arts and yoga. I still surfed and skated. I felt in good nick for my age.
After dragging the kids through the museums, galleries and ‘old buildings’ of Paris, London and Barcelona the ride would be a substantive outdoor, physical adventure. Secretly, I saw the ride as a great father and son activity. I’d been careful to choose a ride that was a descent but with some technical options for Gus if he wanted more difficulty. Apart from Gus, none of us were mountain biker fit.
We found our way to Monachil on the outskirts of Granada. Our guides were a father and his 18-year-old son, two thirds of a family outfit from Scotland. They’d been living in Granada for 16 years. They were friendly and helpful. There were two other riders with us another father and son duo but from Ireland. I was the oldest on the ride.
We checked out our bikes, loaded up the van and made our way up the winding road to the summit. The views were stunning, my son’s excitement palpable. So far, so good. We wandered about enjoying the crisp air and took some photos. Our breath laboured a little with the altitude. The lead guide (the father) gave us a briefing about the area and the ride plan. We would split into two groups.
‘Where we are now is not actually the summit. It’s up there at that crucifix,’ he said, pointing. I could make it out way off in the distance, glinting in the sun.
‘To warm up, we’ll start with an ascent. It’s not far, only a couple of hundred metres.’
My wife and I looked at each other.
We started. My daughter is into gymnastics and fit but lacked some confidence with the bike. She was nervously struggling with the gears and seat mechanisms so I hung back with her. We lagged behind. I was quietly shocked at my shortness of breath. My legs were already burning. The lead guide rode down to us.
‘Not far now, its just around this bend.’
We made the kilometre or so up to the large crucifix marking the summit. I caught my breath. The Sierra Nevada was spread out before us in a sweeping panorama. We could see Monachil and Granada off in the distance. The blue sky arched above us. We split into our groups. The ride leader’s son would guide our group while my wife stayed with our daughter and the ride leader.
The first descent was a hoot, fast and loose down a section of wintertime ski run. We whipped and slid through the scree and steep sections. We were into the ski village in no time.
‘That was cool,’ said Gus.
‘I thought we’d do some technical trail riding. This next stage was part of the World Cup course a few years ago,’ said our guide, pointing out various sections of the mountain.
‘Its pretty much downhill with only about 100m or so of ascent.’
I could feel my body had acclimatised a little after the initial shock of the ascent but my legs felt weak. My wife and I agreed I’d ride on with Gus while she went by road with our daughter. We’d meet at a café further down.
Our trail wound through spruce and pine forest then into a set of steep and narrow technical tracks. It was absorbing and challenging. There were five of us in the group. My son was up front while I brought up the rear. I was keeping up but could feel my old injuries niggling. The group was waiting for me at the bottom.
‘That was fun,’ I said scanning ahead for the road to the café. The young guide was a skilled rider and very patient. He looked at me.
‘So this is about the half way mark, this will take us back up in a loop to where we started. We’ll then ride down to the others. Its not far,’ he said.
‘This is great,’ said my son. ‘You okay Dad?’
I looked up at the steep track we had just ridden. It wound back through the trees and rocks.
Yep, no worries,’ I said.
The ascent was gruelling. The muscles in my legs burned. Old injuries in my knee and my abdomen gave out. My hip hurt. I prided myself on my fitness and stamina. I was confused by my inability to push through. I walked the last sections. Up ahead, my son was riding strongly. I glimpsed him looking down at me as he flitted amongst the trees. I made it back to the road. The rest of the group were again waiting for me.
‘Sorry fellas,’ I said.
We rode down the bitumen to the café. It was simple, beautiful and a much needed respite. Over coffee there was discussion about the final section.
‘You go on ahead with them Gus. I’m done, I’m just holding you all up.’ I said.
‘Okay’ he said a little uncertain. He hovered around on his bike. Our eyes met.
‘Go on, go for it and have fun,’ I said.
I’ll meet you down at the village.’
I watched them ride off and disappear from view down the steep narrow path and into the rough forest. I lingered at the track entrance.
My wife and I finished our coffees and followed our guide. The final section was easy, all downhill on winding back roads. My daughter rode confidently, happily shouting into the wind. There was time to take in the landscape and ponder its long history. The views were breathtaking. We reached the village in no time.
‘Let’s head to the pub and we’ll meet the others there,’ said our guide
The local bar was busy. We managed to find a table out the front. We drank Estrella and ate tapas while we waited for the other group. We got to know our guides. We laughed, chatted and exchanged stories. They were lovely people. During our final descent there’d been an electrical storm, hail and rain. We’d managed to shelter at a local inn. My son would have been caught right in the middle of it.
‘I hope Gus is alright,’ said my wife.
His group were running late. There was some surreptitious glancing at watches by our hosts. A couple of hours later my son pulled in breathless and dirty. His sentences tumbled out, one over the other.
‘We got caught in a thunderstorm,’
‘It hailed and all my tyres were covered in thick clay,’
‘I was sliding everywhere,’
‘We had to stop and scrape it off, I’m covered in it,’
‘We rode along the edge of a mountain and down a cliff. I would have died if I’d fallen off, it was so steep my wheels were hardly on the track,’
‘That’s the fastest I’ve ever been on a bike,’
‘I was getting air, I rode really well I kept up with the guide,’
‘I’m really thirsty, can I have a drink Dad?’ His eyes gleamed with excitement. His face held a giant smile.
‘Your son is really fit,’ said the guide.
‘Yes he is,’ I said.
The conversation moved on and Gus put his arm around me. We stood together in silence as the crowd jostled and laughed, and the late afternoon sun bathed us in the last of its golden light.