Could this really be my last day? A little over a week ago, I was staring down the face of riding 9 stages and nearly 1500km over the same La Vuelta route as the pros. Somehow this overwhelming task had worn away, with only 200km left to conquer for Stage 9.
The leading Vuelta rider may wear the malliot rojo, but in the spirit of final-day celebration I decided to award myself the malliot naranja (orange jersey). While not listed as an official 2018 Vuelta a Espana jersey, those in the know recognise it as signifying the rider with the most magnificent beard in the peloton, aerodynamics be damned. (My Grand Tour Project teammates said it is more ‘peach’ than orange, but I suspect they are just jealous).
This was going to be the hardest of the 9 stages. With 4 mountain passes to traverse, there was no way we’d be beating the pros to the line, so it was going to be a late finish tonight. Resplendent as a sunrise in my orange glory, I was ready for it.
Shut up legs
My dodgy knee however, was not. Even with the steady pace we rolled out at, it started nagging immediately. In the timeless Jens Voigt tradition I muttered ‘shut up legs’ and did my best to ignore it.
Luckily the gentle morning light provided a wonderful visual distraction, illuminating a landscape of rolling hills and a real life castle (you don’t see many of those Down Under).
Steadily making our way up a series of climbs totalling 2500m, my stomach was already grumbling, breakfast Tostadas a distant memory. Uri mysteriously disappeared, arriving back with a bag of Magdalenas, still warm from the oven. What a guy! We all powered towards the top, motivated by the promise of a second.
I was determined not to stop again until we reached the summit proper, that way we would have knocked off half the Stage before the midday heat. The alpine high country was completely different to anything we’d seen so far, with a brisk mountain breeze helping keep us cool.
The 2000m cumbre signalled a well deserved coffee and Tortilla de Patatas. The chalet was buzzing with tourists and paragliders hoping for a birds eye view of the racers, but I wasn’t sure how this would go down when the media helicopters arrived.
The colour of champions
We descended for almost 15km into the familiar high 30’s temperatures and hot dry winds that had characterized most of the Vuelta so far – something I wouldn’t miss about riding in Spain.
I was happy to take a few minutes rest from pushing into the wind to admire a freshly restored orange Citroen that matched my malliot naranja nicely. The owner – clearly a man of impeccable taste - had just finished it and this was the maiden voyage.
Today was always a matter of when, not if, the pro peloton would catch us. Sure enough, the publicity caravan caught us by Guijuelo – which, famous for its quality Jamon, we could smell before we could see. We were now on the hunt for the perfect (preferably shady) spot to bed down and watch the race pass by. I didn’t want to be stuck on the exposed side of the road in 38 degree heat!
For the next 15km we kept our eyes peeled for a lunch spot, nervously expecting to see the flashing lights of Garda Civil coming up behind us to close the road. Then, like an oasis in the desert, we found a small park with real, green grass in Ledrada. Real grass is harder to find in the South of Spain than you’d think – I’ve been tricked before with plastic turf, and even green-painted cement.
I took the opportunity to lie down and get comfy, like one of yesterday’s pigs in a perfect patch of mud. After a big lunch, I was feeling ready for a snooze. That was until the townsfolk decided to crank up the emergency PA and hold the radio next to it. This technical abomination resulted in a crackly, top volume blasting of the Spanish Top 40 tunes town-wide. I stuffed some napkins in my ears in sheer self defence, but there was definitely no snoozing going to be happening.
Friendly locals drifted over to check out our bikes. One particularly personable guy turned out to be ex pro Pablo Llorente, who raced in the same team as Oscar Freire in the 1990s. Pablo let me browse through the old news clippings on his orange phone – clearly the colour of champions.
I don’t know whether it was the rest on the grass, the handshake of a local cycling legend, or the pain pills I’d taken at lunch, but my knee pain magically dissipated from acute to almost non-existent. We had 40km to go, 25km of them uphill, and I was ready to push hard all the way to the finish.
But first we had to navigate the cobbled chaos of Candelario. The race had long gone, and there were celebrating crowds everywhere, plus hay bales scattered at random. People cheered ‘Vega vamos’ as we clattered through the narrow streets, squeezing between the cars single file.
As Sylvan passed a bar, a drunken patron stepped out to cheer him…directly in front of me. I yelled and he stumbled back, his beer splashing everywhere to a roar of laughter from inside.
That wasn’t the last test. As we tried to ride up the mountain, the entire race convoy, press, officials, team buses, motos and spectators were coming down. Just what you want to be navigating at 12% gradient. The positive was the support from the queued vehicles, spurring us on. Even with almost 200km in my legs, the atmosphere swept me up and for the first time in days I was finishing strong all the way to the summit.
As I rolled across the finish line after over 9 hours on the bike, I felt such a sense of achievement (although it was mixed with an unexpected pang of regret that I wouldn’t be riding another stage tomorrow). As each of our ‘team members’ finished we all shared hi-fives and congratulations, stoked to have finally made it.
A huge gracias to the Grand Tour Project for having me along for the journey, with special mentions to the Joses’ support crew and my riding wingman Uri for keeping me going when I really wanted to throw in the towel.
Despite points when I would have gladly swapped my beard for it to be over, now that I’ve actually made it through 9 stages of La Vuelta, I feel ready to tackle anything. So get ready to join me and the Don behind the wheel of our SKODA, as I take on the rest of the Vuelta!
Beardy McBeard (Team Amateur)
Total Distance: 209km
Active Time: 9:17:58
Paused Time: 3:33:11
Average Speed: 22.47 km/hr
Cooked Meter Reading: Vino de naranja - orange wine (forget ‘cooked’ – I’m legless!)
“As I rolled across the finish line after over 9 hours on the bike, I felt such a sense of achievement.”
Ben King (Team Dimension Data)
Total Distance: 200.8 km
Active Time: 5:30:38
Paused Time: 0:00:00
Average Speed: 36.44 km/hr
“I’ve never suffered so much in my career…I laid it out there on the downhill section on some of those corners to try and extend my lead and hoped for some disorganisation behind….It’s rolling the dice, and taking a chance and believing that it’s possible.”
Beardy’s Big Adventure: Overall Vuelta Stats
1465 kilometres ridden
23677 metres climbed
58 hours ridden
25.6 km/hr average speed
80.6 km/hr maximum speed – yewwwww!
76 bottles of water consumed
43 degrees maximum temperature
9 different kits worn
1 fabulous beard