Spain: Marathon to Mountains (Seville to Malaga 26/02/22-04/03/23)

I did three significant things at almost the same time this February: 

First, I left home and stopped paying rent, packing up my life in the process. Second, I ran my first ever marathon in Seville. Third, I quit my job.

My feet have been itchy for some time, and now I finally had the opportunity to get a longer cycle in. After almost 4 years holding down a day job at Apidura, I fancied a break from working life in London and a new challenge. I can’t afford to rent a bedroom in this extortionate city without a job (at least not for very long), so for a short while I’ll be homeless again. I’m very lucky that I have a few people around that will (hopefully) patiently put me up while I’m floating about. 

And as for the marathon? Well, that’s been a long time coming. Last summer my girlfriend Bella and her brother signed up to run the Seville marathon while we were on holiday together. I’ve always liked the idea of running one (despite never having run further than 10km), but couldn’t bear the thought of travelling that far only to be a spectator, so signed up – out of fear from missing out rather than anything else. 

To reduce the number of flights, it made sense to start pedalling from Seville. I could run the marathon, do my final working week remote from Seville while recovering from the run, Bella could kindly take my laptop & running shoes home and I could set off on my bike. Coordinating all these significant life events proved to be unbelievably stressful in hindsight, but everything worked out in the end (as it always does), including the part I was most worried about – running 42km without dying.

I’m aware that you are probably here for the cycling-content, rather than musings on long distance running (perhaps that can be a future spin-off!) so I’ll keep the marathon chat to a minimum. I’ve always heard people say that sub-4 is an impressive time, and I liked the sound of finishing in an ‘impressive time’ – so I set that as my arbitrary target before I even began training. Training itself was haphazard and probably insufficient, but by the time I finally bought some fancy new running shoes 6 weeks before the marathon, I felt comfortable knocking out 15-20km distance runs (of which I had done a couple in early 2022). I definitely hadn’t trained enough, and my taper had been both long and indulgent, but I felt confident that I could at least limp the final third. 

The night before the big day I indulged in a pint, and then a glass of wine with dinner. I’d planned on a booze-free evening but succumbed to temptation, declaring that ‘I’d rather have a drink tonight and finish 1 minute over 4 hours, than stick to just water and finish sub-4’. How that haunted me the next day.

I dropped the 4 hour pacemakers early on in the marathon. I didn’t get carried away, but the pace felt comfortable for the first half. By that point the day was really starting to warm up, many of Seville’s long straight boulevards had no shade cover, and the roadside thermometers were reading 23C. By 30km I was in pain and starting to slow down. About 5km from the finish the 4 hour pacemakers overtook me, and I had to dig incredibly deep to keep up with them. I don’t think I’ve ever needed to find a headspace like that on a bike ride… but I finally reached the finish line and completed the run in less than 2 mins under the 4 hour mark. 

My legs were ruined. It took a few days until I could walk normally – luckily, I was just working from our Airbnb and only having to limp a short distance to the nearest tapas bars. By the time I was due to get on my bike, 6 days after the marathon, the legs were pretty much back to normal.

My initial plan had been to ride down to Algeciras, catch a ferry over to Morocco and then continue south. The realisation that the ferries haven’t been running since October was a slight spanner in the works. Initially they stopped when Morocco closed its borders while tackling an autumn surge in covid-cases, but when flights resumed in early February the land & sea border crossings remained closed due to political issues. So instead I booked the first flight from Malaga to Tangier, and plotted a few days across the mountains of Andalucía to get there.

I began the ride pedalling out along the river, down the same road I’d sat on a curb just a few days ago, shattered having just finished the marathon. As I reached the edge of town, I noticed my front brake pads scratching. I ignored the problem for a while, hoping that it would sort itself out, but suddenly it became clear that something was very wrong. I flipped the bike over to have a closer look, and saw that the pads were completely loose. The split pin was completely missing. I’d had the bike serviced before I left – time was tight so I was lazy and outsourced jobs I could do myself, but the bloody bike shop hadn’t even put the pin back in after swapping out pads. A rookie error, and now I had a problem because I hadn’t packed a spare. 

I’d barely made it 10 miles out of town and now I might have to turn around. It was Saturday, so plenty of the local bike shops were already closing and wouldn’t reopen until Monday. I rode with one brake for a few miles to the next town, Dos Hermanas, where it looked like there was a shop I could reach before closing time. The owner gave me a few pins, I pushed one in, secured my pads and breathed a sigh of relief. Time to crack on.

The first day of riding wasn’t particularly glamorous. I found some nice dirt roads to follow, but the scenery was mostly flat. The roadside cactus was exotic, but otherwise the views weren’t much to write home about. I pitched up in some woods near Villamartin, pleased to have finally found some hills, and relieved that my legs seemed to be working OK. 

The following day I headed into the mountains, joining’s Altravesur route (which itself follows a few of the GR hiking routes through Andalucia). It was nice to be on some proper rough stuff again. I camped in La Sierra de Grazalema national park, a far chillier night up at around 800m in the mountains.

Ronda was a particularly beautiful little town, picture perfect over hanging a steep gorge. In fact, all the villages were incredibly charming, with white walls that almost glistened against the rocky mountains behind them. The weather couldn’t have been nicer, low 20s in the daytime even in mid-February. The nights were still quite long, but I camped every night because accommodation wasn’t cheap.

From Ronda I followed the GR243 heading east. It started as a nice rideable doubletrack, slowly climbing up past farmland before dropping down into a steep valley. Suddenly the route became a rock-strewn hiking trail – not quite the descent I’d been hoping for. After a couple of minutes, the trail disintegrated further – a landslide had wiped out a section completely. People had clearly still been walking the path (a new track was etched out), but it was sketchy riding. I stopped to take a photo, so that I could remember how gnarly the section was.

As it happened, I wouldn’t need a photo to jog my memory – that descent isn’t one I’ll forget anytime soon. Just as I was manoeuvring the pile of rocks, I suddenly lost balance, over-compensated and found myself falling over to my right. Unfortunately for me, this was the side of the steep drop. It all happened very quickly, but the next thing I knew I was tumbling down the side of the mountain. Rolling over as gravity took control of my fall. I completely flipped over and over as I tried to slow my fall, unable to catch on to anything.

The good news is that I did stop after losing a few meters, the bike was tumbling down onto me but I managed to stop its fall. I paused to compose myself. I was hurt, but it didn’t feel like I’d broken anything. My jacket was ripped, and I’d drawn some blood, but the bike looked OK (which I was more concerned about). I’d hit my head pretty hard on a rock, so I thanked my helmet and decided to sit still for a few minutes – just to be sure I hadn’t suffered any concussion. I’d dodged a bullet. There was no phone signal, and it wasn’t likely another hiker would come this way today. I made a mental note to get some travel insurance for Morocco. 

Getting the bike back up onto the trail proved to be a mission in itself. The loose rocks from the landslide were very loose, and although I could scramble back on to the path I couldn’t get the bike up. Every time I found some solid footing and tried to pull the bike, the ground would give way and I’d slip further down. In the end it took a good half hour to drag the bike back up and collect the items that had flown out of pockets and landed further down. I was all good, just a little shaken up.

It was a slow descent, now made even slower as each bump hurt. As the adrenalin wore off, the pain worsened, but I was certain I’d done no major damage and the holes on my bikepacking bags could be patched up with tape. I stopped early that evening, to recompose and get some proper rest. Aside from the wild boar that came sniffing around my tent (and ran off squealing when I shocked it by shaking my tent poles), it was a good sleep and I was back on the move the following morning.

I made a couple of changes to the Marin Pine Mountain that I’ve been riding on a handful of trips over the last 3 years. I swapped out the front suspension fork for a rigid steel fork and changed the tyres to Schwalbe G-one Allrounds with less tread. Perhaps I was still finding my balance with the new fork, but I figured that I was less likely to need suspension in Morocco and I wanted the extra fork-pack capacity. I don’t regret the changes, but the sus fork might have saved me a crash. One day I’ll finally get a dropper post, and then there’ll be no more slow-motion falls off steep-sided single-track.

The rest of the route was more straightforward, but still challenging – with plenty of hike-a-bike both up and down. I was glad to be in my walking boots…

I spent my final night on the road camped in an abandoned barn near Valle de Abdalajis. Not a particularly exciting final camp in Spain. In the mountains wild camping had been fairly straightforward, but now I was on rolling hills and the land was farmed on all sides of the gravel road. Beggars can’t be choosers, and I pitched up my tent to let it dry out properly from the previous night’s dew. 

From there, it was a gentle ride down to Malaga where I’d given myself a full day and a half to source a bike box for the flight to Tangier. By 4pm I had a bike box in my hotel room, and a cold beer in my hand. Delightfully simple, for once. 

Malaga wasn’t really what I had expected, although what I had expected (a single party strip with drunk British teenagers stumbling up and down 24 hours a day) was probably naïve of me. Malaga is a big city, with plenty of charm. I made up for my laziness in Seville by visiting the main sights, checking out the Cathedral and walking up to the castle ‘Royal Alcázars of Seville’. It didn’t quite match Seville’s urban beauty, but I could see the appeal of having both mountains and ocean either side of town.

Spain had been a proper re-introduction to the ups & downs of off-road touring.

Next stop, Morocco!

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