Old Testament Thrills

In the Sierra Nevadas is a scene of a certain Biblical beauty

On The Town | Christian Cummins | June 2010

Our steep track had been created over decades, if not centuries, by the gaunt olive-skinned shepherds who roam the arid rocky mountain passes of Las Alpujarras in southern Spain. You’d often hear them before you could see them. There’d be a gentle clanking of the small bells of the white sheep and then the flock would emerge from over a nearby fold of these infinitely ridged hills, led by the sort of boy who gives Philistine giants the heebee-jeebees.

The backdrop of sparse vegetation, all folds and curves of yellows and browns after a long dry season, certainly looks like a meagre feast for the animals, but it gives the scene a certain Biblical beauty. And these Old Testament heroes climb high, treading-in their winding routes up to heights of the Sierra Nevada mountains and creating a precious gift for a much more modern breed – the single-trail addicted mountain biker.

I’d vainly hoped that the fat thighs of rabbit in the stew I had eaten the previous night might have bestowed me with magically strong legs, but I’d certainly huffed and puffed through the thin air to get to this point where the single-trail began.

The view at the top, however, was well worth the strain, stretching over the Mediterranean sea as far as the north coast of Africa. I love the cluttered peak-forests of the Dolomites, but this wide open airy mountain landscape of southern Spain gives you an incredible sensation of space, air and freedom.

I was a guest of Tim and Jenny of the group Pure Mountains who have built an eco-lodge powered by the sun and watered by a local spring. They use it as a base for exploiting the vast mountain bike opportunities of the Alpujarras. The cortija is perched at 1700 metres and only reachable via a bumpy rough track from the white-washed Adalucian village of Bérchules.

Unfailingly optimistic and understated, they’d encouraged me to have a second helping of porridge and mentioning smilingly that there was a "bit of a climb" this morning.

Three hours later, it certainly didn’t seem crowded at the top. The tracks of this part of the Sierra Nevada are largely unmarked and unmapped and we relied totally on the local knowledge of our guides, who were accompanied wherever they went by two giant, black floppy-eared Münsterländer dogs who made the climbs look easy. In three days in the Alpujarras, the only humans I saw outside our group of 4 riders were two red-faced hikers and a tomato planter.

We’d climbed up a rough mule track but it got narrower for the last few zig-zagged metres to the summit and got increasingly technical. I’d spent the past three years learning to deal with slippery mud and roots, but this arid bald mountain-top was lined with shards of sharp flint rock. The rare pieces that didn’t look like daggers or axe-heads still looked like the sort of thing that Sherlock Holmes might find at a crime scene. Knowing that I had the best part of 1,500 metres of down-hilling ahead of me, these rocks were a terrifying sight.

The joy and challenge of the sport of mountain biking is that it can seem like a different sport in a different region. But Tim (who hadn’t lied to me yet) said that the technique remained the same. You keep your eyes on the track a few metres ahead of you to plan your line. Your weight should be well back to keep the rear wheel stable and your arms must stay relaxed but with still a firm grip to ensure the front wheel behaves itself. And you need to maintain enough momentum to make your bike pop over the wheels – too slow and your wheel might stop dead. It’s also advisable to keep a bit more air in the tires than usual to avoid getting a "pinch" puncture when the tires are compressed by the sharp rocks.

With that lesson absorbed, I set off in some trepidation over the rocks which made a clip-clop sound as they shifted under my wheels. But then I was overtaken by the pure joy of descending in the bright Spanish sun behind a line of friends down a cowboy film landscape. I ceased to grimace and started to smile, no longer fearing the rocky drop-offs but relishing them.

After a few technical switch-back corners, the path soon flattened out. With the euphoric feeling of having already tackled the hardest section, we could start to embrace the gravity instead of fighting it.

Still following the shepherds’ path downwards, we sped out of the exposed wind-swept hill ridge and into a resinous-smelling pine forest. Here the round cones had collected in the path and you felt you were riding on marbles.

One of the dogs was running ahead of me, barking with enthusiasm. His hind legs were splayed out in a sprint and his long tongue was hanging sideways and back like the scarf of the early aviators – a scene from Belle and Sebastian but with tighter fitting clothes!

The last few hundred metres to the farm had been fenced off from the grazing sheep and goats and we cruised through grass that had grown long and yellow like barley. After the climb of nearly the hours our watches showed that we’d biked back down in a matter of minutes. But time doesn’t seem linear in these moments and such rides are destined to be played out on loop somewhere precious in your conscience.

As I hopped off my bike at the bottom, I felt quite drunk on endorphins. The wind eroded hills on the other side of the valley opposite seemed to be smiling at me with the sun-blackened wrinkled grin of an Andalucían farmer. I grabbed a beer from the solar powered fridge, sat down in the yellow grass and grinned inanely back at the hills.

I chewed on a piece of long golden grass, soaked up the sun and congratulated myself on getting away from the fog and mud of central Europe in one of the wettest springs on record. When the weather doesn’t cooperate, you just have to follow the sun!

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