During my first two weeks at la Vuelta, I have noticed a number of people chewing away on what looks like birdseed. They crunch away thoughtfully, before, rather unceremoniously, spitting the remains all over the road. You can see small piles of theses discarded shells everywhere in Spain - it seems to be right up there, along with the siesta (and seeking out free stuff), as a national pastime. A more nutritious version of chewing tobacco I guess.
Keen to find out what all the fuss was about, I headed to a local supermarket ahead of stage 18 to peruse the frutos secos aisle. I soon found what I was looking for - a packet of Facundo Pipas, which is basically sunflower seeds left unshelled. It was birdseed after all!
I bought a packet for the very reasonable price of 1.60 euro, and started to experiment in private. Crunching away, I discovered it was quite an art to extract the seed without breaking the shell into splinters and needing to spit it all out. After half a packet, I had the technique down.
There was something enthralling about breaking each shell open carefully, to collect a small reward. In a way, these pipas were a lot like cycling photography - you needed to put the work in to get anything out of it. All of that planning, map reading, speedy driving, waiting, traffic and walking - for a couple of photos.
Today we returned to our three-stop strategy, choosing to walk up the final climb instead of taking the bus. Our first stop for stage 18 was the coastline of the Cantábrica Sea. This meant we had visited all three coastlines in Spain, ticking off another item on our ‘La Vuelta Bingo’ card.
It reminded me of the beautiful Australian coastline, with golden sand and some nice waves rolling through. However, as usual, there was no time to sit back and smell the salt spray. A very effective 14-minute diversion later and we were back on course in time for a brief lunch break and a nice shot of the riders passing a church. I climbed up a stone wall while all three inhabitants of the town looked on in confusion.
The next diversion wasn't quite as smooth (or short). I was thrown around like a ragdoll while Don Àlvaro piloted the Škoda from corner to corner at an alarming speed.
It wasn’t long ago that this road was the only direct route from Cantabria to Castilla. It was just wide enough for two cars to pass and I could only imagine how congested it must have been before the highway was built.
We arrived in enough time to catch the publicity caravan. The Don, being a red-blooded Spaniard, proceeded to lose his mind, lusting for freebies. He managed quite the haul, adding Carrefour hats, Movistar key rings and a whole heap of other useless crap to the pile of bidons rolling around in the back of the car.
Friends with benefits
Walking up the final ascent, I discovered my planned spot for the climb just wasn’t up to scratch. There were barriers everywhere, and the road was simply too wide to get what I was after. So I changed my plan and made a rare appearance at the finish line. This proved to be the right decision as the steep climb yielded another exciting finish.
As has become another La Vuelta tradition, we had to contend with another monster transfer to our accommodation. We would be stuck in the car for over two hours, however, first, we needed to walk back down the hill. Thankfully, Don Àlvaro was able to wave down a red commissaire car driven by one of his many friends at the race and organise a lift for us back down to the car.
The transfer drive was, without doubt, the most scenic road I have experienced in Spain. It was also a rollercoaster of twisting bends and hairpins. The Don was doing his best to make me car sick as I tried to edit photos, throwing the Škoda into the turns with gusto.
We arrived at the town we were staying in just before dark. It was like nowhere I’d been before, tucked between the mountains deep in Asturias. The road was hardly wider than a footpath with sections that were as steep as the Los Machucos climb. I was sure the car was going to get jammed between buildings as we navigated our way to the accommodation. Thankfully our hosts had a bottle of Asturian Sidra waiting for us when we arrived.