Transibérica Ultracycling Race 2019 | Part 2

I had never visited Spain and Portugal. So I decided to ride the Transibérica Ultracycling Race!

It’s been nearly two years since my race experience in the Iberian peninsula. What an amazing journey! It’s still one of the clearest memories I have of a bikepacking race. I wrote this story in Italian, my mother tongue, during the lockdown in 2020. I finally felt like translating it and give new light to these nice memories. If you missed the first part of the journey go here and start from the beginning. This is the second half of my Transibérica Ultracycling Race…enjoy it!



CP4: Pico Veleta (province of Granada, Sierra Nevada, Spain)


Soundtrack:

Russian Circles - Geneva

Gojira - The Way of All Flesh


I passed through the outskirts of Almería, crossing the folkloristic inhabited neighborhoods that soon gave space again to the natural scenery of the Tabernas and the nearby Sierra Nevada.

Already in the morning the idea was to reach Guadix, a city in the province of Granada that would be a strategic point to continue to the next checkpoint. I then skirted the northern part of the Sierra Nevada climbing a road that was nothing short of incredible, it was now late afternoon and the golden light that filtered through the trees made the ascent even more pleasant. I arrived in the city late in the evening and after a pizza I took advantage of a hotel h24 not far from the wonderful Catedral de la Encarnación de Guadix.

It was still dark when I started pedaling again, I didn’t really know what to expect at the next checkpoint as it was about climbing a legendary destination: the Pico del Veleta.

Pico Veleta with its 3398 meters of altitude is the second highest mountain in the Sierra Nevada. The road that leads to the top, however, is the highest in Europe, the feeling is that of pedaling on top of the world. The approach of almost 40 kilometers was the starter of an equally long climb with an elevation gain that in total exceeded 3400 in about 80 kilometers. It is literally a monster against which patience and strong nerves are needed. With bags and psycho-physical fatigue it took me almost 4 hours to complete the ascent. I smiled at the sight of the altimetric signs: “altitud 1750 m” … as high as Monte Grappa, “altitud 2000 m” … the Manghen pass, “2500 m” … almost Gavia!

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After 2500 it is difficult to joke, above 3000 it also begins to be difficult to breathe. I did the last few meters with the bike on my shoulder since it was the only possible way to get there and finally reached the moon, or at least that was what it seemed since the surrounding area was made up of gray and black gravel. I went down almost immediately enjoying every inch of that very long descent that took me to Granada, where I stopped to savor the historic center for a few minutes.


CP5: Ronda (province of Malaga, Andalusia, Spain)


Soundtrack:

Trentemoller - The Last Resort

Slipknot - Vol. 3


I had escaped the danger of finding bad weather in the Sierra Nevada, as the weather forecasts were not very promising, but I was caught by the storm as I crossed the countryside extending west of Granada on my way to Antequera, in the province of Malaga.

I remember the light that reflected the rain on the asphalt and the clayey soil that often, from the edge of the road, dripped in an ocher-colored groan on the roadway. It was on an “S” curve, between the narrow streets of Villanueva de Mesía, that I slipped to the ground as if I were pedaling on ice. Two middle-aged gentlemen and a girl saw the scene and immediately stopped talking and walked over to help me compose myself. “Do you need an ambulance?” asked the worried girl. I denied it and seeing that it was just a big slip but asked to use the bathroom to clean and rinse the wound on my knee.

Although a bit bruised, I left almost immediately. I switched off my brain and since it was almost evening I started pedaling with the conviction of reaching the city of Ronda, checkpoint number 4, by night.

I only remember a particular stop in the center of a very typical village called Campillos where I ate something on the fly at a bar that offered typical dishes. My attention was captured by a couple of Paduan people who were talking while sipping wine, seated at the next table. A few jokes about the crazy enterprise I was trying my hand at and a café just before leaving.

I pedaled in the middle of the night with strong gusts of wind in my face. A broken road cost me a slight detour at a small construction site. I will never forget the trivial but very painful climb of Puerto El Saltillo, with a side and front wind so strong that it was moving my bike left and right. Finally, around 3 am I arrived in Ronda where a room booked in a picturesque hotel was waiting for me. The owner, a man of few words, was waiting for me rather impatiently.

I allowed myself a few hours of rest and left around 7 in the morning to travel one of the most beautiful stretches of this Iberian adventure. From the center of Ronda I went down a rural road that was partly paved with pebbles and sometimes dirt, from there you could admire the Puente Nuevo de Ronda.

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I pedaled as if immersed in a fairy tale between country roads and hills that reminded me a lot of the areas around Siena. I faced the climb towards Grazalema, “one of the pueblos más bonitos de España” in the province of Cadíz, a place characterized by its houses painted in pure white. After a stop in the city center and a binge of ice lollies and chocolate cakes, I found the energy to start again by completing the climb to Puerto de Las Palomas. The descent towards Zahara was spectacular, the landscape that seemed drawn in watercolor kept as a vanishing point the enormous blue spot of the Zahara el-Gastor basin where the winding road arrived, so perfect that it seemed drawn with curvilinear. At the crossroads, the direction to follow was towards Seville.

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CP6: Albufeira (Faro district, Algarve, Portugal)


Soundtrack:

Converge - Jane Doe

The Strokes - Is This it


The fields and hills, predominantly yellow, stood out as far as the eye could see.
When I arrived in Seville, I stopped at Plaza de España and rested on a blue majolica bench in the adjacent Parque de María Luisa. It was almost sunset when I started pedaling again. Crossing the suburbs, I remember the euphoria of a “gitano” family who cheered me on as soon as I popped out on the pedals in front of their house. I was relatively close to the border with Portugal and therefore I planned the night stop in Huelva in order to take in the early morning the first ferry boat that crosses the Guadiana river, the border between the two states. I stopped in Almonte for a coffee, an ice cream and a few words exchanged with the boys from the village bar.

I reached Huelva around midnight hoping to find some peace, unexpectedly the city center was crowded with people due to an event and the few hotels 24/7 were already all full. I just had to improvise my overnight stop by continuing towards the outskirts and finding shelter inside one of the wooden exhibition houses of the Leroy Merlin in Corrales. The following day I arrived in Ayamonte early in the morning, in order to take the first ferry to Portugal. A few handfuls of kilometers in Portuguese land were enough to make me understand the substantial differences with Spain. First of all, the coffee is excellent and is served exactly like in Italy, the same cannot be said of the streets, which are often narrow and ruined. Motorists are not very good and are not at all used to dealing with cyclists on the road. On the other hand, the territory is incredible and the quantity of typical things that characterize the villages make everything quite unique. I found myself grinding difficult kilometers on quite remote secondary roads and often exacerbated by steep climbs, by the heat and by the almost non-existent refreshment points. I feasted on figs, borrowed from a couple of trees facing the road, and then headed straight for Albufeira beach, the sixth checkpoint of the race.

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I pedaled west bypassing Faro and reached the town around 2 pm. Albufeira is very touristy, and the bustle of people was certainly accentuated by the fact that that day was Sunday. However, it is that pleasant buzz of relaxed people who spend a day in a holiday atmosphere, this part of the route was certainly the least significant but at least it gave me a little taste of “urban life” before catapulting me into one of the most remote areas of Portugal: the Alentejo.


CP7: Monte Farinha (Mondim de Basto, Vila Real district, Portugal)


Soundtrack:

Dir En Gray - Uroboros

Arctic Monkeys - Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not


I pedaled until dusk and went further on, trying to pass this section and arrived by 1am at the only structure I found on my route, a resort with a swimming pool from € 75 per night. I allowed myself a few hours of well-deserved rest and left only after a nice shower and a hearty breakfast. I tried to carry on with the daily stage but after less than a couple of hours on the pedals the unexpected happened: a dog, quite pissed off, came out of the fence of a country house and stood in front of me. My experience in that type of situation made me face the unexpected too lightly, so it was that the dog, probably more frightened than me, saw me calmly advance and bit me just below the knee. I screamed in pain, and the dog broke away quickly, returning to his territory in no time at all. Despite the injury, the adrenaline allowed me to get back in the saddle immediately and continue. Still pedaling, I cleaned the lacerations with water from the bottle and began to think of a solution. I was about 15 kilometers from Montemor-o-Novo, the nearest town, so all I had to do was pedal until a car pulled up beside me. He was a cycling enthusiast who was following us from the race website, and since I was near his village, he came up to me to cheer. I stopped to ask him if in the next town I would be able to find a pharmacy or a clinic to get medicated. Sebastião (who only spoke Portuguese) made me understand that he was a nurse from the Montemor hospital and that he would lead me to the facility. After disinfecting me with the material he kept in his car in his box, he then escorted me to the hospital. Arriving there I found myself faced with only one option: to do rabies prophylaxis since it was not possible to establish whether the dog in question was healthy or not. I was transferred to Évora, the main hospital in the area, and there they gave me the vaccine. Sebastião took me back to Montemor offering me lunch at his home, where I met his family before going to the hospital where I had previously left my bike and luggage. Doctor and nurse, now fond of my story, greeted me with great enthusiasm, giving me some of the energy necessary to continue.

I left late in the afternoon with vaccine and antibiotics in my body, it was at that point that fatigue but above all the lack of lucidity made itself felt overwhelmingly. I pedaled to the bitter end, barely able to realize what was around me. Traveled about 135 kilometers, arriving at a town called Tomar located in the district of Santarém. I arrived before midnight and since the hotel I booked was in the center I made a wide circle to admire the square. It was probably a graduation period and in front of the church of San Giovanni Battista the students were celebrating dressed in black cassocks that were very reminiscent of the Masonic ones of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

The next day I tried to reach Coimbra by lunchtime. I made a detour to the pharmacy to dress the wound and as I was there I took a little tour of the city center. I arrived in the upper part of Coimbra, where I could admire the seat of the largest Portuguese university.
I completely lost track of time, in fact I only continued after at least 40 minutes of “tourism”.

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An afternoon spent traveling along the Estrada Nacional n.º1, a sunset among the most hidden hills of the province of Porto and a night spent struggling to reach the hostel booked in Mondim de Basto, a village at the foot of the seventh checkpoint, Mount Farinha. I woke up rested, had breakfast quickly and without hesitation began the climb to the sacred mountain where, after 12 kilometers and 730 meters in altitude, I would have reached the Santuário de Nossa Senhora da Graça. When I got to the top I entered the sanctuary, pleasantly struck by the energy emanating from that historic place of worship.


CP8: Caín de Valdeón (Picos de Europa, Province of León, Spain)


Soundtrack:

Children of Bodom - Hate Crew Deathroll

Mastodon - Leviathan


I got off taking an alternative route, perhaps penalizing but with a great landscape impact as it crossed small rural villages and peasant roads. I was slowed down by a stretch of pavement similar to our mule tracks where I found a shepherd with a flock of goats, but as soon as I was outside I began to push on the pedals again to make up for lost time. I reached the Spanish border in the early afternoon, breathing a sigh of relief at having returned to pedaling in areas with more support points, or so it was what I thought. I found myself after sunset on a straight and remote road, which crossed a plateau in the province of Zamora. I was forced to improvise again: with my fingers so frozen that I could no longer change gear, I stopped at a petrol station where I bought work gloves to protect myself from the cold due to the temperature range. A few kilometers further on, overwhelmed by fatigue, I took advantage of the Banco Santander Office in Mombuey to find shelter from the cold and rest for a few hours. At the restart it was imperative for me to set my sights on reaching the last checkpoint by evening, the Caín de Valdeón, a canyon located in the Picos de Europa National Park. I pedaled all morning without stopping, also because the area crossed did not offer anything special. I managed to reach the national park area in the early afternoon, from there to the checkpoint which I reached at 7pm was one wonder after another. I followed the Río Esla until I reached the Embalse de Riaño, a large basin, which is crossed thanks to a long viaduct. From there I climbed until I reached Posada de Valdeón, which is the highest viewpoint in Caín. The descent towards the checkpoint was very rapid due to the dizzying slopes, gradients that I would then have to climb to continue towards the last 200 kilometers of the race. At that moment I was the second competitor to complete the stage. The first, Ulrich had already reached the finish line after a very tense race while the third, Sami, I passed him just as I was climbing. It was now dark and the wet cold of the stream penetrated my bones as well as my brain. I was freezing but sweating as I railed and pushed the bike on those damn 20%. When I arrived in the first town, I entered the restaurant dressed in everything I had and sat down in front of the bewildered faces of the diners (in short sleeves). There was nothing to do, I was in a deadly sleep.
I ate something and then, in the bathroom, I locked the door and set the alarm after 15 minutes before throwing myself on the floor and sleeping. The alarm clock was like an electric shock. After leaving, I realized I had a fatigue wall in front of me: it was midnight, the temperature was very low and I had to climb two hills. The two mountains were comparable to Sella and Pordoi climbs, with the only difference that there, I was in the midst of a splendid and chilling nothing.

I staggered for hours but in the end around 3:30 at night finally, having crossed yet another pass, I began a long descent that had all the flavor of conquest. The fatigue made itself felt so much that on a couple of occasions, despite the speed, I found myself grazing the guardrail due to a fall asleep. I stopped three quarters of the way down, in Potes, found a Liberbank counter and got in with my bike and all. I curled up frozen with the canteen as a pillow. It was 5:00 and I stayed there until 7:40. I left for Bilbao after a hearty breakfast made at the village bakery. It was a day spent grinding miles with your head down. I crossed the Cantabrian hills on my way to Torrelavega and unleashed all my energy on the little stretches between the outskirts of Santander and Alto de la Cruz. From home, those who followed me were meanwhile doing any kind of mathematical equation as well as the most varied voodoo rites to understand who would arrive second in Bilbao, since Sami after the checkpoint was traveling a road parallel to mine but a few tens of kilometers away. Very soon after the arrival I began to recognize the streets of Bilbao, this made me increase the pace. A traffic light, the traffic at 7pm, the work in progress climbed over with the bike on the shoulder, yet another flyover, the bus that jerked towards the avenues of the center and finally the last few meters, before enjoying the applause made by a handful of people, as it should be. I shook hands with Sami, who arrived only 3 minutes before me. We sat on the ground uncorking a beer while the last lights that filtered between the buildings drew long shadows across the square of the Guggenheim Museum. I was still, but my mind was still traveling. Even now, almost 2 years later, this journey steeped in everything you could wish for from an adventure, still vividly manages to make me travel the Pyrenean heights, the arid Aragonese lands, the Andalusian roads and the Portuguese tiles of the Algarve, remembering what was there and dreaming of what will be, always riding my bicycle.

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