-Trail Tapas with Singletrack Safari –
Last night we returned from our first mountain biking trip to Spain, guided by Martin Hills, founder of Singletrack Safari. In that week, I’ve cycled higher than I ever thought I was capable of, been followed by eagles, encircled by vultures, developed a wary attitude towards caterpillars and been treated to a close encounter with a family of wild boar as they thundered across the singletrack I was descending. In other words, it was a bloody brilliant holiday.
Martin has spent two years getting to know the areas that he guides in, walking alone up trails that scale heights above 1000m, with views over opal green lakes, gorges and olive groves and picking out the best singletrack descents, with accessible climbs on double track. The “Tapas” title accurately describes a week that provides you with the opportunity to sample a huge variety of riding terrain: rocky gorges; technical descents; Roman viaducts; fast flowing dusty singletrack, with rooty sections for added interest; flower filled meadows and (my personal favourite) a descent down the steps of a medieval town, Italian Job stylie. Each ride concludes with a stop in a superb restaurant, where Martin’s love of the country and command of the language has earned him and his clients a warm welcome and a cold cerveza, with delicious tapas.
The holiday began when Martin picked us up at Malaga airport in what I can only describe as a Pimp- Your-Ride-dream-come-true. His long wheelbase black VW transporter is emblazoned with pictures of Martin and other mountain bikers silhouetted against Alpine and Spanish lake views, just to wet your whistle. Inside, there are three rows of seats and a flip down video screen and superb sound system to entertain you as he drives you North to the first stop in Cabra, near Cordoba, where he swiftly rebuilds your bike and points out any tweaks that might be required to ensure that you enjoy your riding to the max. The hotels have been carefully researched so that you have a comfortable place to relax at the end of each day’s riding, with Martin expertly guiding you through the Spanish menus, providing his own recommendations and teaching you enough of the language that you can make your own choices on the evenings when you venture out on your own.
One of the funniest moments on the trip was when we were pulled over by the Civil Guard for a routine stop and search on the motorway outside Cordoba. As we slowed to a stop, I noticed the “shiny kit” gleam in the policeman’s eye. Martin leaned across with an impish grin: “Te gustas?” “Si me gusto”, laughed the policeman. After a quick admiration of the van and contents, we were back on our way.
As a mountain biker with two decades’ experience, Martin knows exactly what makes his clients tick. So he started the week with a 782m ascent of a mountain track up to a monastery, followed by a rocky step descent to the road then a ride across flower filled meadows with vultures circling high above us. This led to a gorge populated by huge caves on either side, with the rock walls forming a window onto the beautiful town of Zuheros, with its fort perched on a rock outcrop.
After negotiating a rocky descent with switch backs we made a sweaty climb back up to the church, where we were rewarded with the best lunch of the week at Los Palancos: a restaurant so popular, that professional footballers are helicoptered in to visit it. As a climber, I was intrigued to see that the locals had bolted handholds to the overhanging rock below the fort. They would certainly make a raid more entertaining.
After lunch, Martin led us back to the hotel via a disused railway track, passing the old station converted into a cafe and stopping on the viaduct to point out the monastery that had marked the highest point of our circular route. After a 44km ride in 350C heat, we were glad to be able to have a hot shower and take a dip in the hotel pool before venturing out for our evening meal.
The next day was a shorter route in Cordoba, starting with a steady climb up to woodland and a fast flowing descent on dusty tracks, which my husband dubbed his favourite ride. Throughout the rides, Martin fills you in on the information that you need for the next section: “this bit is quite technical, there’s a boulder about the size of a car bonnet in the path after you pass a cave on your right, so hold down your speed before the corner.” He seems to have a photographic memory of the trails and knows exactly where to stop to brief you on the tricky sections, which is why I have returned with even fewer scrapes and bruises than I do after my local rides.
One of Martin’s ambitions was to be a cameraman and he puts that to good use during the trip, taking photos at strategic spots so that he captures the essence of each trail. This is really an excellent service, as it’s often hard to capture the best parts of each route without impeding the flow of your riding. He spends hours editing videos of his clients’ epic descents so that they have a memento of the trails, as well as providing feedback on body positioning so that clients can improve their technique where necessary.
An important snippet of information Martin imparted, as we took a rest stop and munched chocolate doughnuts, was that Andelucian pine trees play host to a species of caterpillar that build a cobwebby nest in the branches and then at the appointed time in gestation, march nose to tail across the paths. If they are ridden over, or landed on, their blood is necrotising: “I saw a dog with half a jaw that had eaten one of these caterpillars” said Martin. Point taken.
Day 3 and Martin’s itinerary skills came to the fore. We packed up and left the Cabra hotel and travelled to Grenada, en route to our next hotel stop in Fatima on the outskirts of Castril. Granada offered up an absolutely stunning trail, that started in the town, took in a winding ascent up red dusty single track, with tantalising views of the snow capped Sierra Nevada. Towards the top we crossed two Roman aquaducts and saw a hole in the trail with brick work inside, reminiscent of school trips to Vindolanda fort on Hadrian’s wall. After a lunch stop at the top we were treated to the best singletrack I have ever ridden, snaking round the back of the mountain, with a huge monastery across the valley, the Alahambra fort just ahead and the hill side sloping away to our right covered in meadow flowers.
Round the back of Alahambra is a paved street which gave a fun descent down the steps and then a climb back up to the old Moorish town on the opposite side of the valley, where we could take in the full glory of Alahambra and the Sierra Nevada while tucking into ice cream. Another staircase descent led to a leafy street, where the best beer and tapas of the week was served up while we had a competition to take the most “arty” shots of our bikes through the beer glasses. Then it was back down to the Pimpmobile for the short drive to our next hotel and a welcome rest day, spent walking above the Castril gorge on a cantilevered boardwalk.
Castril, recognisable by the statue of Jesus on the pinnacle above the gorge, is surrounded by mountains. Martin led us up two on our final days of the trip, both covering around 35km with climbs above 1,000m. My favourite took in a long ascent through a gorgeous wooded valley, offering shade and pine scents and topping out at meadow filled with purple flowers, followed by a technical but very enjoyable descent through rocky singletrack with views of the opal green reservoir, which my husband again dubbed his favourite ride of the week. http://www.singletracksafari.com/photo-gallery/spanish-trail-tapas/on-the-trails
Our final day took in another mountain above Castril, with an hour long descent with 21 switch backs, which my husband also dubbed his favourite ride of the week. As I turned out of one of the bends I was treated to the sight of a family of wild boar hurtling down across the path into the undergrowth. They are hunted by Andelucians so they are naturally timid and it’s rare to get a glimpse of them in the wild. As I was told by Richard at Cyclewise as he battled to teach me how to ride berms, “mountain biking is just skiing on a bike.” Martin Hills has put together routes that admirably prove that point.
All too soon, it was time to fold our clothes and pack the bikes back into their boxes. Martin gives a step by step guide to doing this safely, not to say lovingly on his website: http://www.singletracksafari.com/video-gallery . After a final café con leche and a hug and kiss from the super friendly hotelier, it was time to trek back to catch our flight to Malaga – a journey made much more pleasurable by the Pimpmobile and sound system.
Six hours later as we pushed against a stack of mail to open our front door, we were pleased to see that the latest issue of MBR had arrived. After a hastily prepared supper, we sat down to read it and were delighted to see that Singletrack Safari has been reviewed on page 28. It’s a great piece of coverage, but doesn’t do Martin’s carefully prepared itinerary justice. Over the course of 5 rides we were guided around 103 miles of trails, 3 miles of which were spent cycling uphill, all for under £500 each, including 7 nights’ accommodation and hotel transfers. If you want to get away from the crowds while still staying in good hotels; improve your riding style and stamina; get a lesson in Spanish language, geology and history; eat the best tapas of your life and ride in parts of Andelucia, Cordoba and Granada that even the locals don’t see very often, then I can’t recommend SingleTrack Safari highly enough.
Update: you can read Martin’s side of the story here http://www.singletracksafari.com/2010-06/our-spring-in-spain-draws-to-a-close#more-1376