SIERRA ESPUNA

Chris Davies

A few people were discussing that they'd heard that the legendary Steve Wade, one of the founders of Orange bikes, hung out in these parts too. Nothing verified but it seemed like local folklore. An hour later and I'd organised some bikes and the trip was taking shape. I never could resist an opportunity to ride!

 

Let's get something clear, I'm not very good in the heat, I never have been. It's probably why even having travelling all over the world I still live in the England where it rains a lot. Don't get me wrong, I love the sun and it seems to love me. I don't need to sun bathe and with just a glancing dash of sun my skin turns the colour of a Colombian blend espresso. But in spite of an Italian heritage I'm more at home in -18 on an Austrian ski slope than I am by a pool in +35 degrees temperatures. I'm also known amongst friends as someone who doesn't sit still. I'm always going somewhere, doing something, taking photos or riding bikes.

Regardless of this, I find myself boarding a scheduled flight to Murcia on the Costa Blanca in Spain for a weeks rest and recuperation. It's been a busy year since going self employed and it's time for a proper break.

The apartment we're being loaned for the week is on a golf course. I'm not into golf, nor did I intend to learn in 40 degree heat so before we left I decided to spend an evening researching the local area to see what we could do when not sitting by the pool reading a book or whatever else you're supposed to do when relaxing. First click was Google Maps to see what the surrounding area looked like. Much to my delight the satellite view showed that dotted around the area where we were staying were forest covered peaks. Closer investigation showed up National Parks well worth exploring.

After doing my best to decipher Spanish local tourism sites I eventually came across a page talking about the Sierra de Espuña. It was described as a mountainous region covered in forest with features such as 'pozos de la nieve' (snow holes used to store ice) and monasteries worthy of a visit. Hiking seemed to be the main activity recommended but there was a suggestion that mountain biking would be good. I also stumbled across a post on a mountain bike forum talking about the area. A few people were discussing that they'd heard that the legendary Steve Wade, one of the founders of Orange bikes, hung out in these parts too. Nothing verified but it seemed like local folklore. An hour later and I'd organised some bikes and the trip was taking shape. I never could resist an opportunity to ride!

Murcia is an area in the South East of Spain just below Alicante and Benidorm. All along the coast are settlements of identically styled town houses, sharing small pools and never far from a golf course. They're mostly owned by British and Norwegians who built on the land previously used by fruit farmers. Despite some famous seaside resorts which attract huge numbers of tourists, the inland Murcia region is relatively unknown and has maintained most of its original Spanish heritage. Whilst Murcia airport is at San Javier on the coast, the city of Murcia is about 45 minutes inland. It hosts a wealth of historic architecture along a winding river and I'm told is the best place in Spain to enjoy Tapas.

Tom shows us to our bikes. A pair of aluminium horses which looked like they'd seen some action...

 

We start out early to drive to the park. Passing by the city of Murcia people are waking up, coffee shops are opening their shutters and putting tables outside. On the roads the little vans loaded high with water melons, artichokes and corn make their way to market. The sun is already climbing into the sky and the thermometer in the car reads 25 degrees. It's only a 90 minute drive out to the Sierra de Espuna, most of it on a motorway which ascends high over one mountain range then through a valley lined with steep hills for the rest. As we progress inland the colour changes from lush fertile greens to dry, dusty yellows. The route leaves the motorway at Alhama de Murcia and for the last ten kilometres follows the windy C-3315 road through sleepy villages and lemon groves climbing higher up into the hills towards the town of Gebas.

Finally we arrive at the Hotel where we are hiring the bikes. It's high up on a hill side with only a few other buildings around it, a stunning location. Wandering into the courtyard we're we can hear the chatter of guests enjoying breakfast on the patio whilst looking out onto the plains below and down to the blue lagoons in the distance.

We're met by Tom, son of the owner, who is attending to the overnight guests. Tom has hair to rival any of the Jackson Five, a huge afro surrounds his welcoming smile. It's still early so Tom pulls me a rich smooth coffee and gives us some guides whilst he finishes the breakfast service. Despite not being a biker and never ridden the area he enthusiastically tells us of all the amazing trails up in the park and what the area has to offer off the bike. There's a milky blue lake nearby for swimming and canoeing, dusty tracks for quad biking or more sedate pleasures in just hiking the hills.

Tom shows us to our bikes. A pair of aluminium horses which looked like they'd seen some action. They needed the usual tweaks, adjusting the saddle heights, making sure there was enough surface left on the brakes, checking the spare tubes and then we set off.

We planned a route that would see us spend the morning travelling deep into the park, mostly climbing and stopping for lunch during the hottest part of the day. Then we'd continue on a little further to the foot of the 1583m Morron de Totana mountain before turning back.

We started off on roads which wound their way through small settlements. An old garage which serviced its last car a long time ago provided some shelter whilst we took on fluids as the temperature increased. The exposed roads gave very little cover from the sun as it shone down. On the road into the park we were overtaken by a very professional outfit of pro cyclists all in team kit out getting miles into their legs. Another rider passing in the opposite direction was tucked into the slipstream of the Vespa of his coach who was bleating instructions at him.

Eventually the heat got too much and we took a break in El Berro, a small hamlet with one or two locals wandering round. Given the temperature and the time of day they looked surprised to see a couple of foreigners but were happy to direct us to the water fountain in the square. We were as parched as the landscape we'd been riding through. The cashier of the local shop was relaxing outside smoking but was only too pleased to serve us a couple of cold ice creams, we were probably her only customers of the day.

We rode through dry, arid pastures. Remnants of worn out farming tools lay along the tracks. We didn't see anyone in the fields. Eventually we made it back to the road, the final jaunt into our lunch stop. Green pine trees now lined the route which had turned rather steeply towards the peak. Hairpin bends with chalk scribbled on them suggested a road race had recently been through. Regular signs pointed out the risk of fires. We rounded a huge derelict building which looked like a run down asylum but would make the most wonderful hotel.

Trekking around Monte Fitz Roy

After an ice cold beer and an hour chatting with the rest of the family who run the hotel it was time to head back to the apartment. I might have needed the rest and recuperation of a week away but there's nothing better than wearing yourself out on a bike, in the mountains to put a huge smile on your face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chris Davies

Chris hired bikes and got route advice from Mark and Tom from Hotel la Mariposa near Gebas (www.hotellamariposa.com). The Sierra de Espuña National Park can be accessed quite easily by car and is only an hour from Murcia and 90 minutes from the Costa Blanca coastline.

From a base in Worcestershire, UK, Chris specialises in Travel and Adventure Sports Photography. A keen mountain biker and skier Chris never turns down the opportunity to explore somewhere new.

You can see more of Chris' portfolio at www.chrisdaviesphotography.com or follow his adventures on twitter @cmjdavies or through Facebook www.facebook.com/chrisdaviesphoto For commissions or to discuss outdoor product shoots cmjdavies@gmail.com

Finally, hot, tired and hungry, we arrived at the restaurant. It was a wonder it was open as we'd not seen anyone about all morning but the owner was only too keen to serve us a delightful lunch of grilled meats and salad washed down with fresh cloudy lemonade. Sitting outside with the bikes leant up against the wall we looked down over the plains we had ridden through. Down below we could see dust being kicked up by heavy lorries ferrying gravel from a quarry. Birds swooped overhead but everything else was still, not even a cloud sky. We could see the blue lagoon near to where we had started and all that lay between us was miles of forest and dusty track. All downhill!

By now it was about 4pm and we'd sheltered from the hottest part of the day. Fully recharged and hydrated it was time for the bit we'd worked so hard for. The bikes were checked, bags packed tight and hydration packs filled to the brim. A click of the helmets and we set off. One final kilometre on the road then we turned into the forest. Instantly adrenaline coursed through my veins. I'd stopped focusing on the monotony of tarmac and looked ahead at the tree roots reaching out at my wheels as if trying to pull me over. Rocks skipped out from under my tyres, dust rose into the air, the chain began to bounce off the stays.

The first descent was reasonably steep with tight hairpins and cheeky drop-offs. The forest wasn't exactly dense but bushes, sharp like wire brushes, prevented you from taking any but the most obvious lines. The occasional rock made for a good ramp to jump off. This long technical trail was just what we needed after the hours spent climbing in the morning. We soon got our rhythm and were dancing down the mountain. Zipping in and out of the trees, through the ruined buildings, across the empty picnic sites. The rocky, lunar landscape was a blast. It was almost a shame there was no one around to see us having such fun but in the hours we'd been out riding we hardly saw anyone.

We continued for an hour or so relentlessly tearing down singletrack towards where we set off from. We passed through the farms we'd seen in the morning, the trail took us along the dusty quarry roads and along empty stream beds. Never far from the road we occasionally paused at the viewpoints to take in the vista and rehydrate. Mopping the sweat off my brow and cleaning the filth off the sunglasses it was hard to believe we were in Spain, the view looked like something I would expect of Mexico or the Nevada desert. You can see why an international mountain bike manufacturer might test its bikes out here.

In all we probably only covered 30 kilometres during the day. The morning was tough with the heat and the climbing but the afternoon off-road descent more than made up for it. The last section was back on the road to an agreed meeting point just up from the town of Alhama. It was a gentle roll down a terrifyingly twisty road. At the bottom, Mark, the hotel owner, came and picked us up to save us the rather steep road climb back to the hotel. It was early evening and still the sweat was pouring out of me. Mixed with the dust from the trails that was covering everything I must've looked a right state. “We've had four days rain in the last twelve months” Mark told us. That probably explains the condition of the trails then.

After an ice cold beer and an hour chatting with the rest of the family who run the hotel it was time to head back to the apartment. I might have needed the rest and recuperation of a week away but there's nothing better than wearing yourself out on a bike, in the mountains to put a huge smile on your face.

Part of me feels bad for writing this article as I'm exposing an area where the isolation is part of its splendour and the fact that it's still not on the mountain bike radar yet means you really can enjoy the trails all to yourself. I've also found out how you can find adventure only an hour from a very typical British tourist destination whilst on a very typically British holiday. But as for whether we found out anything about Steve Wade... well... not telling!

 

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