A winter tale in Montañas Vacías
With several great expeditions under his belt, in November 2021 Roberto García Lema began his MV adventure in extremely harsh winter conditions. I was really privileged to meet him at the end and chat about the possibilities of this area as a destination for this kind of extreme weather adventures. With his evocative story and impressive images, Roberto shares his experience in company of his inseparable Kelpa. Take a seat and enjoy the journey.
Text and photos by Roberto García Lema
Pedal projects abroad are exciting but often hang in the balance. Their nature is complex due to the number of factors involved.
Although it sounds like science fiction, it could happen for example that a virus appears overnight, ready to disrupt the world and leave it for a while spinning adrift like a drunken dervish. That way, the trip you had planned two years ago to the distant and resplendent abode of the snows, to «Jimaalaia», would go to hell in just a few weeks.
These things happen, believe me. Today our world is so small that you no longer know where you stand.
By those tricks of fate I always have a few aces up my sleeve. A handful of local trips around my country, in Spain, kept inside an emergency box while waiting for their moment to come, their opportunity to go for a run.
This is how the idea of riding the route of the Montañas Vacías was taking patina for years, sleeping along with other plans B.
Montañas Vacías, even more. Emptier than ever. In winter conditions.
It will be a 700 kilometers circular route accompanied by my young dog Kelpa, riding above 1,500 meters most of the time and through some of the least populated places in Europe.
In some areas the population density is so low that you can hardly find half a human being per square kilometer.
I had decided to start the route in Teruel at the end of November and then the magic happened.
Those days a powerful squall was sowing snow and sub-zero temperatures in the five mountain ranges through which the route passes: Albarracín, Serranía de Cuenca, Montes Universales, Javalambre and Sierra de Gúdar.
I contacted the commanders of the Fire and Rescue Service of the Provincial Council of Teruel to ask them about the possibility of leaving my van parked in the facilities of the Teruel fire station while I was on the trip.
The answer was affirmative and immediate.
We firefighters are a great brotherhood. A network whose long arms stretch around the world and that always lends a helping hand to one of its own.
We are welcomed by and as comrades at any fire station around the globe we turn to.
I am sure that if one day I could explore outer space with my Chumba and arrive on a distant and unknown planet with fire department, those green guys with big ears and retractable tentacles would invite me to spend the night with them.
We would tell each other telepathically stories about fires and rescues while eating frogs’ legs and drinking barrels of toasted beer and then we would rest in weightless capsules listening to Carmina Burana.
November 26th was beginning to dawn when I said goodbye to my colleagues, who at that time were changing guard. I had informed them about the route I was going to ride until December 10th and we´ll keep in touch for any difficulties thay may arise.
Then I took the first pedal strokes and we began to wander to find the route that escaped through the outskirts of the city.
We crossed the bridge over the Turia River cowering under the traffic and the cold. Wisps of white smoke writhed in the chimneys of the houses like cuddly cats as the city awoke to the rhythm of the honking delivery vans. The young day uncorked the first shivering lights.
Kelpa trotted beside me, sleek and electrified, attentive to direction and speed cues, up and down the sidewalk, dodging lampposts, the newspaper boy, the blind lottery vendor. A flock of plump, blessed and red-cheeked pigeons let her pass, flapping their white veils and crucifixes.
After a road trip of more than eight hours from Galicia, on the other side of Spain, Kelpa insistently sought to make eye contact with me to find the order that would let her run free.
She needed to reach open spaces and there to explode her inexhaustible energy, a small nuclear reactor barely contained in the athletic body of 14 kilos and eleven months old.
Shortly after crossing the river, we left the asphalt and began to climb the ravine of San Abdón and Senent. The vegetal wall filtered the sounds and noises of the city and the landscape almost suddenly shed its asphalt suit, brick and concrete tattoos.
The door to the courtyard had just opened to go out for recess.
Kelpa received the command he had been waiting for – «Dale !! – and took off up the hill going like a bat out of hell. A huskies team tied up in a nearby house was howling and pulling violently on their chains envious of her freedom.
We rode the first tens of kilometers over very soft terrain and long stretches of mud as we crossed a minimalist , agricultural landscape and clear skies. The plowed fields looked like small inland seas, dotted with islands of scrub and low trees where wildlife took refuge and where the wind was tangled.
The 29×3-inch tires of the Ursa Major accumulated a large amount of clayey mud until it overflowed through the massive wheel arches inherited from its fatbike geometry and usually fell under its own weight. There were few occasions when I had to hand-clear mud from the fork, but I never found myself needing to do so on the rear chainstays.
The trailer however was a very different matter. It was also equipped for this trip with 3 inch tire but their wheel arch is not wide enough to evacuate that kind of mud, or snow at times, and they continually accumulated to the point of blocking the wheel every few feet.
I pushed counting my steps and then stopped and cleared the wheel. I pushed while counting my steps and stopped. I cleared the wheel of mud. I pushed while counting my steps again and stopped again. I cleared the wheel again…… again and again. I never counted more than 13 steps in a row. I forgot the number of times I cleared the wheel.
After a few hours the mud on the trail became sporadic or there was enough vegetation on the sides of the track to ride on.
In any case, that first day was a preview of what the next two weeks would be like: I would have to earn every meter of the route, often measuring progress in centimeters.
We all know that the chain is only as weak as the weakest of its links. Today, if I were to start the journey in the same conditions, I would leave that one wheeled link at home.
The flocks of cranes marched in formation above our heads, drawing perfect black V’s across the idling sky. Their strict discipline of flight contrasted with their outrageous growling. They sang loudly to life. They sang so as not to get lost and they sang to encourage each other on their long journey to the warmth of the south.
That afternoon we crossed Pinares del rodeno.
It is a paradise of sandstone that has been shaped by the chisel of the weather for centuries and is carpeted by the resin pine, a tree capable of growing in impossible places. Red and green colors.
The golden eagle screeches overhead and its echo reverberates through the labyrinth of crystal ravines. Since prehistoric times, humans have found in this place a temple to express their need to understand, to express and to transcend through the stone.
Cave paintings tell of hunting scenes, rituals, the domestication of the first animals and the beginnings of agriculture. Bouldering attracts hundreds of climbers every season from all over the world.
A family of wild boars runs away, causing small earthquakes when they are caught behind a group of unruly oaks.
The first snow appears on the near horizon.
The town of Albarracín is a palette of warm colors forgotten in a meander of the Guadalaviar river. Ochres, browns, reds and yellows. The green of the poplars overflows the riverbank under the naked gray of the mountain.
The streets wind narrow and disorderly and die at the foot of the the walls that protect the town to the northeast.
A woman feeds a group of 30 or 40 cats and calling each one by name: Michu, Negrita, Rayo, Elvis, Kira… When Kelpa, who had been delayed playing with another dog, catches up with me running, the feline armageddon breaks out. Kelpa lives at home with three cats and love to play with them but neither Michu, nor Negrita, nor Rayo, nor Elvis, nor Kira nor any of their comrades know it and they go off like buckshot in all directions. The woman looks at me as she wants to slit my throat.
After passing Torre del Andador and the antennas of the village, the wind begins to blow and the first snowflakes arrive from the north with the size of grains of rice.
I set up our camp hunched against the wind. The blizzard whitewashes the night and shakes the orange tarp trying to tear it out of place. My veteran gasoline stove roars inside the tarp like the turbine of a jetfighter and the smell of mashed potatoes and chicken soup turns the inside of that piece of canvas into a comfortable home.
Dozens of meters above us the cranes continue to sing.
Kelpa spends the night outside, discovering this fantastic and icy world that is new for her, although from time to time she comes close to touch me with her wet truffle on my face.
The tarp flogs as I drift off to sleep.
Our routine begins the same way every day, with the alarm clock screaming at 7am. It’s not even dawn yet.
I don’t feel the need to eat anything until mid-morning so I don’t waste time eating breakfast and the protocol of packing up and dismantling the camp is quite fast. In barely an hour we get going so I can ride the most of the few hours of the winter daylight. Picking up the bulky sleeping bag and the inflatable mat is the task I like least.
We move swiftly forward over the fresh layer of snow that dusts the doubletrack. We move forward raising white whirlwinds that swirl behind the passage of my last wheel, like the «Snowpiercer» does, the train of 1,001 wagons that travels around an icy and apocalyptic world without ever being able to stop.
Every day we ride from 08 am to 05 pm although we only ride 45-50 kilometers on average each day.
Riding a bike with your dog is a great experience that comes naturally to both of us. I imagine that both species unconsciously remember the old days when we rode side by side in pursuit of prey, day after day, cooperating to get food, to warm ourselves by the fire or to protect ourselves when darkness fell and other beasts bigger than us came out to hunt.
Basically, that first relationship remains the same, but we humans invented the wheel to be able to ride bicycles and with them we modified the balance point. Now we can ride faster and tougher, we can ride hundreds of kilometers in a day, but they can’t, and we have to take that into account.
Kelpa was 11 months old when we rode this trip. She rode an average of 42 or 45 kilometers a day during two weeks without any problems, but for that you have to dedicate care and give up one of the great pleasures of cycling: to descent riding the wind with no brakes.
These are some considerations to enjoy long trips with your dog:
Not all animals have the same aptitudes. Those that are light and long legged can cover long distances for many days with less effort and less wear and tear.
The animal must be healthy and have an active life.
A quality feed suitable for the level of physical demand required is essential for its performance. Moreover, high energy feed will weigh less than a medium or low range feed because you will need to carry less quantity. Kelpa consumed 6 kilos of high energy feed in 14 days.
Take care of its pads and joints, checking them every night, moving them to anticipate any discomfort, palpate its toes and the spaces between them. Apply healing, moisturizing and soothing ointments or balms, even several times a day depending on the conditions of the track and the terrain.
The animal must be well-balanced, to know how to behave right wherever it goes and to know several commands in addition to the usual ones. For example: start, right, left, stop, wait, faster, slow down, half turn, jump, pass in front, by, and of course it cannot cause any damage to local wildlife, wild or domestic. Otherwise you should tie it up.
But if you want to destroy its pads and make it suffer from joint problems in a few years, do not forget to let them run on asphalt, especially downhilling at the maximum speed that gravity will attract you and give it only bones and rice to eat.
Animal life is exuberant and runs or flies around us: griffon vultures, roe deer, fallow deer, wild cat…, the encounters are continuous and we have moments impossible to forget.
A red fox with a huge tail and Kelpa chase each other alternately at the bottom of the small watercourse. The fog hides the tops of the pines and silence embraces everything when I hold my breath. They are two red and fire brushstrokes dancing in ringlets over the snow.
I crouch down to hide me behind the bike to observe a herd of deer browsing in the middle of a forest clearing. It’s a large group, with several females and young bucks from the latest litter. Kelpa, forced to remain seated next to me, nudging me with her paw and whining in protest. The herd cannot smell us downwind but they know we are there and stretch their slender necks pointing their eleven pairs of radar/ears towards us. Any signal that sounds like danger will send them running. The blizzard arrives and visibility is reduced to a few meters in a few minutes.
Rising to my feet like an old man with legs numb from minutes of immobility, I begin to push the bike into the wind, head tucked between my shoulders. Small flakes of snow collide with sharp impacts against the anorak and Kelpa clings to my heels for cover.
I locate an orange spot on the gps and direct my steps towards it, practically blind, with no other reference than the one provided by the small screen. In a few minutes I come face to face with a cattle cabin that offers us shelter in the middle of the pandemonium.
The deer moved away like ghosts of smoke. Their silhouettes veiled by white gauze seek shelter in the nearby forest.
I was cold and it took me several minutes to bundle up and get warm.
The days in the Sierra de Albarracín are as beautiful as they are hard.
The daily snowfalls, although not large, continue to thicken the blanket, slowing down the progress and forcing me to push or carry the bike and trailer for hours. In those moments I feel as if I were driving «Gertrudis», Pepa Pig’s grandfather’s two-wagon train that wobbles along the tracks at a sluggish pace while the world spins dizzily around us.
Arriving at the village of Bronchales it snows heavily. Snowplows scan the atmosphere with haggard yellow lights, amid puffs of dirty, tired smoke. They resemble old dystopian automatons working in a world where there are no longer human beings, programmed to make the roads leading to and from the village passable for other machines.
With more than half a meter of virgin snow and with sunset just around the corner, the path that leads to Griegos, going up through the Portera refuge, exceeds my possibilities. I decide to turn around and head back to the inmaculately white although less snowy local road that links the two small towns. Some fallen trees crossed the road from one side to the other; their hot bodies still trembled black on white.
As the sky begins to turn golden I find a place to camp in the bowels of the forest. Kelpa huddles next to the pine where I support my bike, covering her nose with her tail as I raise the tarp and turn on the stove.
The temperature drops in minutes. Jack Frost nestles in my beard and the conversations with Kelpa are frozen in the great silence, trapped in the blue hour.
My body asks for heat and rest. I spread out the sleeping bag. The miso soup steams deliciously as I put on my wool socks and feathered ankle boots. A pair of wet gloves hangs halfway near the stove. The half kilo of honey that I carry during the day in the frame bag is so thick that I have to heat it inside my parka, close to my body, to be able to transfer it from its container to my stomach, at a rate of a couple of tablespoons every day.
At 7 p.m. the mercury is eight degrees below zero.
I look at my Chumba leaning against the tree on the port side, white and frozen, unloaded, with the straps dangling and the bags empty for the night. Then historical photographs of the Endurance and the Fram come to mind… . Ships with soul at the service of humans that remain in the books in their own right.
In the village of Griegos Kelpa plays with the local dogs and I catch butterflies perched on the walls with my camera. I stop at the fountain in the square to refill the water bottles and from there I see a woman standing in front of the door of the bar. When I look back again she has disappeared into thin air. The bar is closed and there are more dogs than people. In the first 350 kilometers of the trip I will not see more than four human beings, a bit elusive…
Sometimes I pedal through the forest covered in a silence so deep that it becomes claustrophobic and I feel uneasy listening to my own blood circulating warmly through my veins. Kelp stalks the mice under the thick blanket of snow. It turns its large ears from side to side to locate them precisely. Then, with a springy jump, he drops from above and plunges into the snow.
At other times I cross small plains where I can see clearly Yuri and Lara crossing the frozen wasteland aboard their wooden sledge, on their way to their shelter in «Varikimo». The poet Yuri and the beautiful Lara… while Kelpa plays the valalaika in the ice palace.
The village of Chequilla overlooks the horizon perched above the Cabrillas River, next to junipers, pine forests and rocky forts carved by the hand of nature in large sandstone masses. The echo of the cawing of a crow bounces off them like the metal ball between the bumpers and the slingshots of a pinball machine.
Near the spectacular bullring I meet a person, one of its 17 inhabitants according to the last census. An old man chopping wood next to the church in shirt sleeves.
The narrow streets smell of winter and smoke billows out of the chimney of the neighboring house.
Without stopping dancing with the ax so as not to get cold, he warns me that the road to Peralejos de las Truchas is impassable because of the ice, that I won’t be able to get there.
I have found myself so many times in situations like this, although they are well-intentioned advice, I give them a relative credibility, orientative, sometimes anecdota value.
While I was documenting myself to write this article and looking for information about the number of inhabitants of Chequilla, I found a curious report on the census of the town in the mid-eighteenth century. At that time it was inhabited by a total of 32 souls distributed as follows:
- Neighbors: 4 nobles and 23 pecheros.
- Solemnly poor: 1 pechero.
- Widows: 3 pecheros and 1 poor woman.
The pecheros, also called villains or commoners, were obliged to pay taxes to the king or the lord as opposed to the nobles, clerics or rich men, who were exempt.
Chequilla’s neighbor was right when he said that a good part of the 13 kilometers that in winter separate the two small towns is a ramp polished like glass.
Kelpa climbs with his standard crampons, but I have to return to the tactic of relays because I am not able to transmit the necessary strength to push «Gertrudis» without slipping. I unhook the wagon and first climb the bike for about 100 meters. Then I go down to get the trailer and climb two hundred meters. I go down to get the bicycle and climb another two hundred meters …., digging small steps in the ice with the tip of my boots to be able to push hard.
So on and on, dozens of times, until I don’t have to do it anymore.
In those conditions my bike shines and the reason for its design comes to light.
Its steep top tube with its low insertion at the rear, is the perfect geometry for tackling deep snow or uneven rocky terrain without the risk of hurting my testicles when I put my foot down. Also when pushing, I have a perfect contact point just a few centimeters behind my top tube bag to unload my own body weight and push the bike forward with less effort or even allowing me to rest.
The side effect of this design is that the size and capacity of the frame bag is limited but still, in my experience, you can store enough groceries for more than a week’s worth of autonomy.
Another design feature is the generously sized triangle that projects forward from the seat tube into the top tube. This is not only a structural reinforcement but also has an important ergonomic function.
Years ago, in prototypes before the model that finally went into production, this triangle was a bit smaller and the tube section was circular.
Talking Chumba I asked them to make it a little bigger so it can be used as handle to lift, drag, manipulate the bike, even with winter gloves on.
When they sent me the final frame, I was pleased to see that my words had been echoed and that it had also been redesigned with a nice oval section to make it more comfortable to hold when the bike is heavily loaded.
I think there are few pleasures in life more enjoyable than riding this bike.
That night my toes hurt from kicking the ice so much, and I also realize how little I’ve had to drink all day. Packets of cramps go up and down my legs and hands at the slightest movement.
Dinner bubbles in the little titanium pot: three-cheese pasta with mashed potatoes. Outside, the wind plays whistling between the spokes of my bicycle wheels.
I keep the camera batteries and the gps batteries that are not being recharged in the powerbank in the inside pockets of the down jacket, as I do every night to protect them from the cold.
Moreover I rub Kelpa’s paws with moisturizing and healing balm. I check her toes and mobilize her paw joints. Everything is in order.
Dried fruits and dehydrated sweet figs. The adductors and the biceps femoris in my legs tighten and twist like dry ropes.
Sometimes I can send some video or message home, to my kids and wife, so they can sleep peacefully.
I read fantastic stories about mountain treks for a while.
I have prepared a mixture with water, some salt and honey in one of my bottles to drink it in small sips and recover my balance during the night.
Zipping up the sleeping bag, my thumbs take on a life of their own, contracting until my hands turn into claws. I smile as I visualize myself from above, sleeping hunched over like a crippled, dehydrated gargoyle.
Late at night, Kelp wakes me up by nuzzling my cheek and starts sticking his head into the sleeping bag like a badger entering its den.
Her head is followed by her front legs, chest, ribs, belly…, she continues crawling centimeter by centimeter until the space inside the bag is insufficient and she gets stuck. With her ass against my face.
I feel her shivering from the cold so, although we are a bit tight, I let her «settle in» and without realizing it, we both fall back into the arms of the sleepiness and soon after we fall asleep.
I must say that despite how uncomfortable the situation might seem, it was a placid night, restorative and with no flatulence, but the problem came when the alarm clock rang at seven in the morning.
She didn’t want to get up early but I knew we had to get up and we were fitted together like two pieces of a puzzle inside a straitjacket.
I couldn’t get my arms out and she wouldn’t obey the order to move backwards, so using my feet as propellers, squirming like a larva, I advanced towards the light at the end of the tunnel while a shower of glass fell over us when we hit the icy walls of the tarp during the struggle. By the time I managed to get my torso out, she had already slipped to the bottom of the sack… If it were up to her, she would have let me sleep out in the open. Lazy dog…
The «Padre Tajo» wielding a sword, with a long beard and crowned by a ice star observes his own birth next to the sculptures that represent the three provinces that give him life: Teruel, Cuenca and Guadalajara.
They form together a sculptural allegory aesthetically reminiscent of characters from the Nordic sagas and that serves as a tribute to this river, the longest in the peninsula.
It was born as a meltwater stream in the Montes Universales and after running for more than 1,000 kilometers through the old Iberian Peninsula, it pours its waters into the Atlantic Ocean in Lisbon, in the bay that the portuguese call «Mar de palha» due to the amount of vegetable waste that itself drags.
I pedal through the Parque Natural del Alto Tajo. Tens of kilometers up and down the roller coaster that runs along the water course. Sickles and canyons, gorges, juniper groves and oceans of chlorophyll.
The river sings «allegro» in the narrowest stretches when the mountain squeezes it tightly between its fingers, while in the backwaters, due to the effect of low temperatures, a veil of «arctic smoke» floats heavy on its green, crystalline waters.
These waters are the habitat of the European otter, the trout, the barbel or a native crab in danger of extinction and until a few decades ago they were the scene of a hard and dangerous trade, that of the «Gancheros».
These were groups of men, up to three thousand, who from late winter until well into the summer were responsible for driving downstream the timber, the logs cut in the upper reaches of the river and guided to the cities of Aranjuez or Toledo.
«El río que nos lleva» is the novel that José Luís Sampedro dedicated as tribute to these men and that was taken to the big screen by José Luís Garci and Antonio del Real.
The barking of the roe deer in the forest warns its small inhabitants of our presence. They are all here even if we don’t see them: the marten, badger, ferrets, hedgehogs, Pyrenean desman… .
«You are like children, you look but you don’t see» – Dersú Uzalá may tell me.
Griffon vultures ride over the thermals listening to Janis Joplin.
First camp in the Serranía de Cuenca, a few kilometers after Cerro Navajo. That was that kind of crystal clear night when you seem to be looking out into the universe. A long dark night that joins us through the cosmic void with millions of planets and stars. After it comes a slow dawn, when our world is isolated, separated from its sisters and brothers and has to fend for itself. It begins to set in motion like a golden carousel at a fairground.
The races of the deer across the frozen pastures echoed in my head and I imagined a middleweight fight between broken glass.
I squinted at the rising sun. They breathed pulses. The mist that wrap their silhouettes against the light turned these beings into apparitions, into spirits that stripped of the coverings of muscle and skin, come to see how this man behaves. That scares me and sometimes I think I’m not up to it.
On the long climbs my mind was entangled in its own conversations while my legs, heart, lungs, arms… continued to work as a whole to move the bike and trailer forward.
Sometimes I jumped to future trips, to the next year´s or to the following year´s . Or I back home flying on a juniper leaf to continue working in the construction of the big chicken coop. In others I planned adventures with my kids and had breakfast with my wife in the kitchen and almost always find myself talking to them out loud. With them and with other characters, who appeared and disappeared, without being able to specify the time that passes in this state of grace until a bark of Kelpa or a photo knocking on the door brought me back to these so empty mountains.
Sleet falls for a couple of hours and conditions become miserable.
Life in the camp is full of rituals and routines that are repeated every evening.
They are lively, agile routines that can change on each trip due to its characteristics. Cogs of a Swiss watch that find their reason, their place and their moment as the days go by for building a quality rest. My chaos is extremely organized.
They are necessary to achieve order and comfort under the pyramidal tarp that makes sense when filled with air, just as a ship’s sails do when hoisted and trimmed.
The first thing I do, after mounting the tarp and distributing the camping gear inside (mats, sleeping bag, kitchen, water bottles, electronics…) is review and if necessary the maintenance of the equipment, including the bike. They are very fast and intuitive actions.
I walk around the camp to stretch my legs and hang out with Kelpa as I mentioned before.
Then it’s my turn to clean up, «put on my lounging clothes», dry the socks and the feather boots.
By this time it will be dark so I turn on the small red bike light that I use as a reading and ambient light.
I recharge the batteries that need it and when they are full I put them in pockets close to my body, to protect them from the cold.
I check the route and the weather forecast for the next few days while I prepare the hot food for the day and I imagine a plan B in case a snowfall leaves me caught on the mountain.
The dragon’s breath warms our shelter and from the pot comes the delicious smell of Parmesan that spurs my hunger and makes me salivate like a Pavlov’s dog.
I feed the beast; full belly, happy heart. Then ginger infusion with a spoonful of honey.
I finish the day reading for a couple of hours or until sleep snatches the book from my hands.
I turn off the little red firefly and the cold begins to creep in at ground level, crawling over her damp belly. Kelpa sleeps curled in a ball next to me as we are crushed by the darkness.
I listen as the whole forest is rocked by the wind, music of air and wood. Snowflakes cover our shelter as my eyes close.
We cross Laguna del Marquesado in the early afternoon. The strong headwind shoots us with silver bullets. On the way out of the town there is a dilapidated laundry next to a stream of singing waters that runs through the meadow and although there are still almost three hours of daylight left, I decide to stop for rest and wash the gear.
The grass crouches submissively and the tarp, stretched out to dry on it, fights furiously to tear off the stakes that hold it and escape freely into the exosphere.
At the beginning of the century Carlos Mengibar, Ramón Larramendi and me crossed the indlandsis of Greenland from south to north.
We traveled in a large sled on which a tent was always mounted and which was pulled by the force of the wind. Very much in keeping with Inuit mythology.
We had several kites of different sizes and we used one or the other depending on the strength of the wind. I remember that the small kite would have a little more surface area than my orange tarp and was able to effortlessly pull the sled loaded with almost a ton of material and ourselves.
Kelpa frolics belly up in a puddle of sunshine.
Freshly washed socks and a pair of underpants swing frantically clinging to the bike’s Persuader handlebar.
I write leaning with my back against the whitewashed leeward wall.
That night I had a crazy dream.
An international competition was held to find the best “tortilla de patata” in the world during a Rosendo Mercado´s concert.
We were a multitude of participants who competed in a huge kitchen to the rhythm of the genius of Carabanchel and «Flojos de pantalón» sounded captivating through the speakers, like a hymn.
The organization provided us with everything we needed. Dozens and dozens of eggs, hundreds of kilos of potatoes, onions, barrels of olive oil that arrived in gigantic electric pickups.
With the passing of the afternoon, the less tough rivals had to be transferred to the medical centers of nearby towns, defeated by the pressure and heat stroke.
Hour after hour I climbed the rankings until, inevitably, I reached the final and won it.
The crowd was screaming wildly, throwing patent leather confetti and colored balloons. Some fired into the air.
I had been crowned world champion of tortillas and the runner-up was…..
Enthusiastic about the music and completely overwhelmed by my culinary arts, she was very happy and we left the place hand in hand, officially dating.
Rosendo was cutting my tortilla on the stage, chopping it with his Fender Stratocaster and throwing the pieces to the audience, as if he was feeding the wild beasts.
At that time I woke up with an unbearable hunger and itchy eyes due to the onion.
A griffon vulture is feeding on carrion around a bend in the road no more than 5 or 6 meters from where I stop. It is magnificent. Neither of us expected this sudden encounter.
He begins to flee in fright, getting of the ground as his wings fan the air heavily to generate lift.
I reach for my camera but if this had been a duel in the sun, I would have bitten the dust.
Both my camera gear and my style of carrying it on the bike are almost useless for wildlife photography.
I prefer fixed lenses. Because of their reduced weight, their small volume and their greater resistance to mistreatment when traveling on poor and rocky tracks.
Specifically the so-called «The Three Amigos» from Pentax: the 77mm, the 43mm and the 31mm. Classic, very bright, metallic, excellent construction and small if we think that they are lenses for a 35mm camera.
The only drawback is that they are not sealed like other brand lenses.
Among them my right hand is the 43mm. My favorite with just 160 grams. He is the only one who accompanies me on this trip because although he is not the best at anything, he is very good at almost everything.
I feel in my element with that focal length and I love to use my feet and head for framing but it’s not good for taking a photo of a wild boar at 20 meters.
My camera travels in a waist bag that when it´s raining or snowing or when the track are so wet that the rear wheel spits water and mud against my back, it is covered in turn by a waterproof case that gives it extra protection. It is my own body that absorbs and dampens the bumps and vibrations of the road and even in case of a fall, I learned to roll like a cat so its not easy my cam was broken.
It’s fantastic and since I adopted this system for traveling by bike seven years ago, I have never had any problems or breakdowns in either of the two cameras, an old APS-C that my son uses from years and a less old Full frame, which work as the first day.
But every coin has two sides so when I come across a beautiful griffon vulture feeding on the side of the track and instinctively I reach into my waist bag to grab the camera, turn the bag around, take out the waterproof case, unzip it and finally have the Pentax in my hand ready to shoot, the bird will have already flown to the French border and will be smoking a cigarette sitting on a rock.
Three fierce mastiffs that were guarding the sheep before reaching Huerta del Marquesado chase us at 25 kilometers per hour for more than a kilometer. They are so big and they don’t seem to get tired.
They are not able to catch up with us but I am not able to leave them behind either, despite riding on asphalt and fortunately downhilling.
Kelpa irritates them by barking aggressively from the safety of the trailer.
There is a memorial at the entrance to the village to an airplane crash that occurred in the area in 1959 .
A Douglas DC-3 aircraft of the Iberia company covering the Barcelona-Tenerife route with a stopover in Madrid, crashed in the mountains between the villages of Valdemeca and Huerta del Marquesado, killing its 28 occupants, including the spanish gymnast Joaquín Blume, which gave the event a great repercussion in the international press.
According to the official version, it was a powerful thunderstorm that deprived the aircraft of its navigation systems. This, together with the terrible visibility conditions and the technical limitations of the time, led to the tragedy and the aircraft crashed into the so-called «Pico del telégrafo»
The pilot was only 50 meters short of the summit. If he could have lifted the nose just a few seconds before…
I keep going through the mountain towns, dilapidated, inhabited by ghosts and memories. Dragged by the north wind, by oblivion and by the current economic model.
Don Felipe is the fifth person I meet in the first 8 days of my trip, in almost 400 kilometers.
He’s a 90-year-old man who still has Lee Van Cleef’s hunting eyes and bushy white Santa-style eyebrows.
He sits on the porch of his house in Zafrilla, scanning the horizon.
He wears a thick brown jacket under which the worn collar of a faded plaid shirt peeks out and is covered with a twisted knit cap advertising a brand of cigarettes.
His five sheep graze a few meters away and no one, neither they nor he, nor a small “carea” taking a “siesta” together with his boots are surprised by our arrival.
After a while of conversation he says to me:
«There is no one left here, we are the last ones, – referring to the few neighbors who still live in the village – the young people have long since left for the capitals».
Kelpa plays for a while with Don Felipe’s little dog and the sheep look at us uncomfortably.
The tracks for crossing the valleys, where the snow is scarce or has disappeared below 900 meters, are still heavy, with a fantastic surface for Kelpa’s paws on which his footprints are marked, but slow and laborious for me who have to work hard on the pedals to move the weight of the trailer-bicycle set. I miss riding my light and naked bike.
After leaving behind the village of Alobras and its centenary elm tree, both the small towns and the mountain ranges have begun to change subtly.
The first ones are gaining extension and inhabitants and in the second one, in the mountain ranges that has been domesticated, it is seen less wild life.
The Arab legacy to what is now Spain can be seen throughout the trip in architecture, gastronomy, in toponymy. Ceramics, bricks, horseshoe arches, saffron, guirlaches, almojábanas, trenza mudejar…, Albarracín, Beamud, Guadalaviar, Beteta, Gúdar…
I buy provisions inTorrebaja to fill the frame bag and after that I begin to ascend the 40-kilometer that leads to the summit of Javalambre, the «Yabal Ahmar«, the red mountain that rises 2,019 meters above sea level.
The track writhes like a snake whose tail has been stepped on. Sometimes it aggressively wriggles, trying to dislodge you from its back of earth and stone. At other times it descends limply until it catches its breath.
The snow reappears little by little, in spots forgotten by the cold from 1,400 meters of altitude and I stock up on water in a well dedicated to the supply of forest firefighters.
I consulted the weather forecast for the next days and more snow accompanied by strong winds is on the way for tomorrow at 12:00 am. .
I decide to force the pace to spend the night in the mountain refuge of Collado del buey and I do not stop for the rest of the afternoon except to recover from some falls due to the ice.
I arrive at the modest refuge shortly after 05:23 pm. The light paints its stone walls golden, announcing the sunset.
After arranging the equipment inside, I go for a walk.
The snow turns red.
We are at the upper limit of the forest and the last trees are becoming shadows behind me until they are swallowed by the darkness. The silence of the mountain is immense and trance-inducing.
It is the first time on this trip that we sleep in a cabin and Kelpa settles down next to the entrance. Her nervous little eyes and big ears read what lies beyond the space created by my small light.
The night is placid, not too cold and passes quickly.
The stars are still shining when we get back on track. The crunch of Minions rolling on hardened snow echoes up the slope. Our breaths hang at regular intervals along the way like smoke signals in single file, like the ellipses that guide the reader to the denouement. The dice roll to reach the top before the storm reaches us.
The landscape is wild, lonely, with a wide horizon, snow and ice. Magnificent.
By mid-morning the first bursts of ice begin to arrive, biting my face and hands. According to the weather forecast the wind will reach 80-90 kilometers per hour. The temperature drops and the sky, crystal clear like a jewel at night, folds under a leaden curtain that filters the light.
After the detour that leads to the astrophysical observatory (OAJ), progress becomes slower and slower. There is a lot of snow that forces me to carry the bike and the trailer in sections. In the most exposed areas to the wind, 10 or 15 meters long icetracks with a considerable lateral slope, make advance even more difficult.
Every time I cross one of them and a gust of wind catches the trailer and drags it down the slope, I lack the time to take the bike down, nail the left pedal and the edges of the Vibran soles on the ice and thus stop the fall down the «slide».
Kelpa digs in the nails of his natural crampons and seeks aerodynamics by folding his ears and shrinking his small body.
This is the no return point. From here on the climb is a race against the clock to avoid being trapped by the imminent snowfall. If it were to happen then, I would find myself unable to advance but also unable to retreat because of the amount of snow that would accumulate on top of the snow already present on the mountain.
Although we have enough food to stay here for as long as necessary, the idea of making our way through more than half a meter of virgin snow with a loaded bicycle and a trailer was not particularly appealing to me.
At 12:07 m. we reached the summit of Javalambre. At 12:05 m. it has started to snow.
The pain in my hands is terrible and I barely manage to clumsily operate the camera controls when I want to take a picture. With my back to the strong wind, I feel so helpless that I wrap the strap around my neck using my thumbs for fear that the camera will fly out of my fingers like a piece of tissue paper.
The wind whips us around, pushing us around like a violent neighborhood bully. I seek shelter in the lee of the geodesic apex and huddle next to the bike. Kelpa squeezes in next to me.
Patiently and with the help of my teeth I put on a second pair of gloves and in a few minutes the mountain disappears around us. With wild fury it is devoured by the demons of the wind. It was a magnificent climb, a legendary finish, I’m happy.
I eat something for the first time in the day at 14:00 pm, already in the middle of the descent and sheltered from the snow among the ruins of a farmhouse. I wonder about the people who once lived there and walking through its half-ruined rooms I imagine what their lives must have been like, their childhoods, their first loves, their old age when they could no longer live here. I can feel the warmth of the hearth always lit in winter, the smell of garlic soups and the smell of the animals in the adjoining barn.
I suck from the honey bottle as it was a breast, greedily. I don’t eat breakfast and early in the morning when I’m on the track.
I practice fasting in my day to day and I am used to it, but right now I am really hungry.
Snow continues to fall as we cross Puebla de Valverde. The wind also continues to pick up, now headwind, such is the cyclist’s luck.
I fill the bottles with water and take refuge in the first place I find a few kilometers after the village to spend the night without complications.
It is a sheep shed on the side of the track. Without tenants, spacious, diaphanous, with almost a one hand span of feces covering the floor and the fat of their fur greasing the stone walls up to a meter high.
But I am tired and it looks like a palace to me.
A few flakes are coming through a small opening in the wall, like stray bullets. Miso soup bubbles on the fire.
The morning of the next day passes through monotonous, simple paths, without complications or great joys. The remains of empty houses of the same clayey color as the earth dot the route, abandoned in the open like decrepit old men.
These are the transition kilometers to the next important port, the climbing to Valdelinares and Pico Peñarroya.
I stop to get rid of the garbage accumulated in the last two days in the small town of Mora de Rubielos. Growing up next to the national road, its main street is a parade of multicolored jackets, trendy music, extravagant wool hats, sunglasses, sleds, loud conversations, selfies, snowboards and heavy traffic due to the proximity of the two ski resorts.
My inner peace shatters in the air and I pedal a little sadly the kilometers that separate us from the next mountain. All over asphalt, rolling along the shoulder of the road and holding tightly to the handlebars because of the wind that whips me like a doll. Kelpa walks tied next to me, also reluctantly, head down, as if I was leading her to the slaughterhouse.
After 10 kilometers the route leaves the asphalt and returns to the forest. My mood is improving and Kelpa is running around chasing trails that I find exciting. I hear the crow cawing again.
I get off the bike and continue the climb walking alongside her for the long two hours we have left to set up the next camp.
The woodpeckers play the drums and my heart overflows with gratitude and admiration for this beautiful, simple and efficient machine.
In any of its forms, urban, fat, 29+, cargobike, flat handlebar, road, track… once it has paid its karmic carbon footprint a bicycle is a metal angel for humans because the benefits it brings, for the path it leads, for the school of thought it demands of them. Ride bikes not tanks. Make trips not war. Burn fat not oil.
The rear hub purrs happily beside me as we ride on.
At the end of the day we find a shelter near the fountain called the Hortalano. I pushed the heavy wooden door and it creaks on its hinges protesting reluctantly as it opens.
A couple of cold, gray and empty rooms appear and in the background a hungry fireplace screaming for firewood.
As I search the woods for something to put in his mouth, an orange and crimson sunset falls upon us and then spills through the trees like a cup of Pu-erth on the white tablecloth of the Sunday table.
«Red Mountain» glows almost against the light and looks like a cat’s eye moonstone on the horizon.
At night the fire crackles happily two meters from the sleeping bag. Kelpa is a sphinx lying at my feet watching the flames dance as her kind have been doing for generations, ever since they became independent of the wolf. With a mixture of admiration and respect. I treat myself to a couple of hours of reading until the firewood runs out.
The next morning I ride a lightning bolt down the winding road to Linares de Mora. It’s the first time in the whole trip that I can ride without gloves. The Chumba rocks obediently between my legs and we thread one curve to the next in impeccable style, flesh and metal in sync. I am a Celtic cyborg and Kelpa the dystopian dog who came from the water.
After stopping to drink at the village fountain and to eat the last of the nuts, we begin the long climb to Pico Peñarroya that will last until late morning of the next day.
The snow forecast for the next hour contrasts with the blue sky at noon.
The first ramps along the track after leaving the road are a preview of what awaits for me. Push, push, push, push….., hour after hour. Sometimes I think I’ll get old pushing.
Where is the poetics of the speed of just a few hours ago, where has the «flow» got stuck?
They are still there, but at a different pace. Experience has taught me to value and enjoy the effort and today, as I write these lines, I deeply miss those hardships.
We ascend measuring our progress in a few meters and when we reach a certain height the mud gives way to virgin snow, thicker and thicker until it reaches my knees. The sky, now gray, has fallen within arm’s reach and the tops of the trees are shaken violently.
I overcome the slopes advancing centimeter by centimeter. On the icy sections, as on other times on this trip, I have to unhook the trailer and raise the locomotive and the wagon separately. First one, then the other; First one, then the other; First one, then the other…
The predicted snowfall is coming.
I lower the pressure of all three tires to the minimum and the Ursa Major shines again. It barely sinks 5 to 7 centimeters. Its big wheels, now converted into snowshoes, give it enough lift to be able to push it for the last three kilometers before camping.
When I finish mounting the tarp and settling in, the first flakes begin to fall. In addition to thoroughly treading the inner surface, that empty space that in turn gives it the reason to be, I have built a small snow wall on the perimeter to protect me from the pushes that come from the sky. After a few minutes the blizzard crashes against it, dulling the roar of the gasoline stove that prepares dinner at full power.
That night the temperature plummets down and at midnight Kelpa sneaks back into the sleeping bag, shivering again.
Dawn finds us advancing at a good pace over the hardened snow a few kilometers from the Aramón Valdelinares ski resort.
The bad weather continues and the swirls of snow cross the forest clearings to fade away when they reach the tree line.
At night, the wind chill has dropped below -26º C and all the equipment is frozen.
The transmission and the hydraulic brakes do not work. The waxed cotton bags are stiff and fold up like aluminum. However, the ones from Wanderlust Bikepacking Gear that are made of Polyant XPAC fabric stoically withstand the cold temperatures. The nylon webbing, especially the black ones, have lost some of their elasticity and shrink like an old woman’s arthritic fingers.
We arrive at the ski resort when it has just opened its doors to the public. We have suddenly jumped from the icy solitude of the forest to the maremagnum of strident colors shaken by the hurricane of urgency and haste.
We have gone from pedaling inside a winter canvas painted by Jacob Ruisdael to finding ourselves parading on the catwalk at Madrid fashion week.
In the winter season one of the ski tracks occupies part of the MV route so I’m afraid I’ll have to detour to avoid it.
In any case I head towards a uniformed guy who, hunched against the wind behind huge yellow blizzard goggles, is greeting customers in one of the resort’s ample parking lots.
I inform him of what I’m doing and what I want to do, ride a stretch on one of his tracks to continue my route to La Puebla de Valverde.
He, pointing with his gloved hand towards a pine forest that runs parallel to the ski slope, tells me to try to cross the forest diagonally and that this way I will reach the lower part of the resort located on the other side.
That is enough for me as a «passport» so I ask no more, although I know that with the amount of snow accumulated in that area it would take me a lot of time and effort to cross it.
I climb up to the head of the ski slope trying to escape from people equipped with 50MP and 4K cameras, ignoring the proposals of the colorful groupies for taking pictures with us. As soon as I put my front wheel on the forest I get trapped immediately.
I didn’t want to go through , making my way through more than half a meter of snow, consuming energy in a useless way. I have to be a bad boy.
It’s still early and there aren’t many skiers on the slope. I give Kelpa the command «junto» so that she runs next to me and we hurtle down the fabulous toboggan run at more than 25 kilometers per hour. The views down into the valley are magnificent.
The Minions roll effortlessly down the compacted slope and the soft damping provided by the large tires at very low pressures makes the fast descent even more pleasant.
In a few minutes we leave the ski slope and head back onto virgin tracks to ascend to Pico Peñarroya which is the highest point of the entire route at 2,028 meters.
After a little more than an hour we climb the ice-covered steps that reach the geodesic vertex located on the summit.
The rest of the day was a succession of descents, shaken not stirred, as the strong and gusty wind made the transitions dangerous. Enough to give them my full attention while downhilling.
When the snow disappears I stop to drink and to raise the tire pressure for downhilling the dirt and stone tracks without fear of damaging a tire. Later, when I reach the road that flows to the beautiful village of Alcalá de la Selva, I stop again to increase the tire pressure even more and try to keep the aggressive Minions from sticking to the asphalt.
On the busy road Kelpa rides the trailer playing urban surfing like a teenager on the roof of the van and at every turn she leans inward to compensate for the centrifugal force. The speed makes the tips of her ears flap and her half-open eyes look like stabs in a dark brown cardboard.
When we arrive to Alcalá de la Selva the cold wind cuts like a facon, but it gets disoriented and ends up lost inside the labyrinth of the town’s cobblestone streets. The large wooden eaves of the roofs give shelter to villagers and travelers alike, just as a hen does with her chicks.
I leave the bicycle leaning against a wall and Kelpa lies down under the high bottom bracket covering her muzzle with her tail, ready to wait as long as it takes.
In the small village store accessed by a steep, narrow interior staircase I buy a few groceries, nuts and fig bread. A gas stove keeps the room warm and after paying I linger for a while talking to the owners, a middle-aged couple who dispatch in aprons and slippers.
«In the last few years many cyclists come here» – the man tells me – «especially in spring and autumn, but also in summer, but nobody does it in winter…».
The woman cleans the sausage slicer with less and less desire to chitchat and looks at me out of the corner of her eye, more and more listless.
When I finally leave, there is a line of people on the stairs that stretches all the way to the street, waiting in silence, spaced every four or five steps like dumb dominoes set vertically. Because of the pandemic, seating is limited and no one could enter until I left …., no wonder she was so sparing with words.
I store the shopping in the frame bag and continue on my way while it hails and rains and sleets and hails again and by mid-afternoon I set up camp after leaving behind the village of Cabra de Mora, in some unploughed fields next to the Valbona river, under the shelter of a low stone wall.
That night I didn’t know it yet but it was the last night of the biking trip that I would spend camped along the route of the even emptier mountains.
The next day I will try to ride really slow. I would try to stretch the next day out getting up late, pedaling like a one-legged snail, stopping every few minutes, seeing photos where there were none, and thus camping one last time before arriving in Teruel.
But that slow pace was too forced, unnatural and the kilometers flew by in spite of the «cierzo».
Such was the natural course of the trip and everything already tasted like the end: my clothes, the landscape, the light, the sound of the bike rolling along the tamed gravel roads.
The powerful argument to tilt the balance was not particularly poetic. It was the Kelpa’s proposal for a one kilo and half steak dinner. We looked to each other’s eyes, we could almost smell them and both began to salivate…..
We pressed the pace and at 04:00 pm we were sat at the terrace of a cafe in the «Plaza del Torico» while watching the crowd strolling, shopping, returning from work… After 14 days over the mountains we had returned to Teruel.
I asked the waiter for a second coffee, called home, and after that rode to the Fire Station to get the van, load it, take a shower, and say goodbye to my colleagues.
Then I drove to a central RV park and for a few days we just lazed around the city on foot.
I also had the opportunity to meet the friendly Ernesto Pastor, alma mater of the route and who honoring his last name (Pastor means shepherd), is dedicated to inform and to guide any cyclist around the world on the best way to ride MV.
Late in the afternoon we went shopping at a nearby supermarket. Faced with such an abundance of all kinds of products, I felt somewhat disoriented.
On our way back to our house on wheels, we passed in front of a dog park where Kelpa wanted to mark territory and smell a few assholes of obese and anxious congeners. She also felt a bit disoriented. Then we retired to the van, parked in the front gardens.
The Ursa Major was waiting half-naked chained to the bars of the rear bike rack and the trailer, strapped belly-up on the roof rack.
Inside the small bathroom, the bags, the tarp, the mats, all the gear from the trip that a few hours ago were the center of my day to day life, took up a good part of the space piled halfway up and I was happy to be wearing clean clothes.
The warm ambient light over the golden kitchen bathed the wooden interior of the van. It smelled of sandal and olive oil.
I tuned in some jazz on the radio. Prepared a shaken not stirred Dry Martini and set about cooking the meat while I told my next plans to Kelpa, who was dozing with one eye open lying in the long seat.
Roberto García Lema