Saturday, 5 December 2009

Cycling in the Sierra

At our prompting, Kate's brother Jez booked himself on a flight over here for a week; knowing Jez to be particularly fond of outdoor pursuits, I immediately got on the case hiring a couple of mountain bikes for his visit. I haven't been cycling for years and I'm terribly unfit, whereas Jez has cycled from Land's End to John O'Groats, but as surfing and sailing weren't an option I felt I would try my best! Besides with the Sierra de Guadarrama surrounding Madrid we're spoilt for choice over potential routes to explore, so having secured two bikes for a reasonable price from Bike Spain I picked a route out near the Palace/Monastery complex of El Escorial for Friday's ride. This was for three reasons: 1) Having walked the route before I was pretty sure we wouldn't get lost or die, as it was pretty easy and mostly downhill 2) I figured that we could go and get cultured up by checking out El Escorial afterwards which 3) would help to persuade Kate to come along as well and drive the 'support vehicle'.

My plan was duly executed, and after a reasonably straightforward drive out from Madrid we found the starting point, la Silla de Philipe II, a beautiful picnic and viewing area with stunning views of both the surrounding snow-capped Mountains and El Escorial. It was here that the full beauty of my plan was realised, for la Silla was the highest point on our ride and by persuading Kate to come with us and drive we'd be able to skip out the biggest uphill and have her meet us at the bottom. Result! It was a beautiful, clear sunny day, the leaves still on the trees in their autumn colours and as it was a Friday there was hardly anyone else around.

We got kitted out, which in Jez's case involved a complete change of clothes, in my case just putting on my helmet. Hmmmm, something told me my lack of fitness was quickly going to become apparent. I was even more pleased with the wisdom behind my choice of route - as it was mostly downhill I could get gravity to work for me. This turned out to be basically the case, although I did dismount and push on a couple of the uphills and one of the (extremely steep and rocky) downhills - hey, I'm not ashamed! Everything went pretty much to plan, with the ride being lots of fun and the trails deserted (great, as it meant nobody witnessed my total lack of balls and over-use of the brakes). As we neared the end of the trail there was a particularly fun, long downhill where we really cut loose and got some speed up. As I pulled up to stop at the gate I noticed that the quick-release catch on my front wheel was about to fall off. The nut holding it on at the other end had come off at some point and I had been one over-confident jump away from loosing my front wheel entirely and face-planting onto the rocky path. How relieved did I feel!! The support car was duly summoned and the last little stretch (along the road to El Escorial) was abandoned as we put the bikes in the back of Delilah and drove up to the monastery.

The huge, sprawling and slightly-forbidding building that is now part college and part museum, was originally built by Philip II as a monastery and summer Royal Residence; it contains in its crypt the tombs of much of Spain's royal family since Philip's time. The tour ranged from a fascinating collection of architectural tools and models in the cellars, to a large collection of art by Dutch and Spanish masters, a cathedral sized basilica, plus the sumptuous private royal apartments with stunning carved doors and incredible maps. Taking photos wasn't allowed, so I literally had to shoot from the hip, keeping our little digital camera in my pocket and surreptitiously snapping away, to get a few shots.

We piled back into Delilah and, while Jez and Kate took their siestas, I managed to get lost going back to Madrid. Typical.

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