That just about sums up how I feel these days. The worst thing has happened and nothing else can touch me. So today was a bit inconvenient; that’s all. And in fact, that inconvenience led to experiences that I would otherwise not have got to enjoy; being driven in a taxi to the city of Zaragoza, in search of a bike shop and sharing the return journey with a quite charming elderly couple who I’d never have met had it not been for the problems that I experienced today on my ride; but more of that later.
I suppose I should start at the beginning of the day and at the Hotel Condes de Visconti, in Tarazona. I enjoyed a lovely breakfast and then received a request from the equally lovely Maria, the hotel manager, that we have our photograph taken together before I left. “You send picture in email to me,” she said, “and come back soon. Tell your friends how wonderful we are in Tarazona.” It was hugs all round and then out through the front door I went, along with my bike, which had also spent the night in my hotel room. The narrow street directly outside the hotel was shaded by the tall buildings on either side; sides barely 10 feet apart. I lazily rolled the bike down the shallow hill, and across the cobbles, until I reached the main road through Tarazona, and once there, the full force of today’s heat hit me. I had looked at the weather forecast over breakfast and the nearest weather station - Zaragoza airport - was indicating a maximum temperature of 37 degrees (that’s Celsius) and a minimum of 20; so I knew it wasn't going to be a cold one. But even my forewarning from the BBC didn’t prepare me for just how hot I would feel throughout the day.
My route out of Tarazona followed the N-122 in the direction of Zaragoza. As soon as first, the residential properties of the city, and then the commercial properties, were behind me, the landscape became typical of the last couple of days; mountains to left and right, with a mixture of barren land and agricultural land, between me and the road, and the foot of the mountains. There were olive groves; there were vineyards; there were potato crops (I think); there were ploughed fields left fallow; and there were fields just left. Oh, and there were wind turbines; Julie’s beloved wind turbines.
The punctures that have affected my ride on several days have all occurred whenever my navigation system – Garmin bike sat nav, coupled with Google maps – have guided me off road. And despite yesterday’s good fortune in finding the disused railway and a flat and quiet ‘home run’ into the centre of Tarazona, I decided last night to try and plot routes from now on, that wherever possible, stick to roads. So today, my plan was to follow the N-122 out of Tarazona, as far as the small town of Borja, where I would turn onto the A1303. The heat, coupled with a steeper than expected climb out of Tarzona, made the first hour of the ride along the N122 quite difficult: You can tell you're in trouble when you’re cycling, as soon as you see a third lane added to the road ahead; put there to allow overtaking of slow and/or heavy vehicles. I eventually reached Borja, was soon passing through the even smaller town (is it a village?) of Ainzon, and tiny Bureta. As I left the latter, there was a sign indicating that the next town, Epila, was some 33 kilometres away. “No problem”, I thought, “I’ll stop there for a picnic or lunch in a cafe if there is one, and I’ll top up my water bottles.” The road between Bureta and Epila turned out to be deserted; and almost desert like. I knew that it isn’t officially a desert because Julie and I visited the only officially designated desert in Europe, in the Cabo de Gata natural park, on the southern coast of Spain. But let’s say that the surroundings were “very desert-like”: dusty, red, dry, and extremely hot. I trundled along, despite the heat, on the relatively flat terrain, admiring the mountains to both sides, and the constant presence of wind turbines, and then ‘bang’: My bike wobbled beneath me and I just managed to maintain control before managing to stop. When I looked down, I saw that my back tyre was flat; and upon closer inspection, that there was a rip in the tyre. I can only imagine that all the off-road sections of the ride that my bike has had forced upon it, and the rocky boulders that have lain strewn across those sections, had caused the rip in the tyre and, in turn, caused the inner tub to burst.
Three cars passed by while I was replacing the inner tube, and the driver of each stopped to check that I was ok. I was, except for the fact that my water supply was running very low. I carry one and a half litres at the beginning of my ride and top the bottles up as I go along: I was down to the last dregs of the second bottle, but none of the drivers was carrying water in their car. The damage to the tyre meant that I was risking another inner tube bursting if I didn’t take some remedial action; and so I had to attempt a temporary repair to the tyre, by fixing an inner tube patch to the inside of the tyre to cover the rip, and one on the outside. I then wrapped this part of the tyre in black electrical tape, just for good measure. The temporary repair would turn out to be very temporary!
As I said earlier, nothing phases me any more: “What’s the worst that can happen? It’s happened”. But I was feeling very dehydrated and there was no sign of Epila up ahead. Then I saw a sign for somewhere called Lumpiaque. I hadn’t seen this place on the map and hadn’t seen any signs for it up until this point; so I didn’t expect the place to be very big or to have cafes. Initially, my expectations were confirmed but as I reached the far end of what was effectively one of only two main streets in the place, I saw a cafeteria. It looked shut but I stopped and tried the door; and to my surprise, and relief, it was open. Inside, there was a group of men playing cards, a couple sat at the bar drinking beer, and a relatively young man also sitting at the bar, sipping a coffee. I quickly supped two sparkling mineral waters and a cup of coffee and then went to pay my bill. The man serving behind the bar (let’s be American and call him the bartender) said that he had noticed the website on the back of my vest – juliemounford.org - and visited the charity’s website while I was sitting, enjoying my drinks. “I very sorry for you wife”, he said, before asking me a few more details about me ride. The man drinking coffee at the bar had also been looking at the website with Mr. Bartender and he shook my hand and wished me well. In the circumstances, I had to take a photo of the three of us; it would have been rude not to. But anyway; back to the tyre saga …
I took out cycle breakdown insurance a couple of months ago with the Environmental Transport Association. I knew that even if my patched up tyre got me to the town of La Muela today, and specifically, the ‘La Estancia’ hotel, it was highly unlikely to survive tomorrow, without causing another ‘blow out’. So my survival instincts kicked in while I was sitting in the café in Lumpiaque, and I made a call to the ETA. I wondered whether Googling ‘ETA’ in a small Spanish town was a wise move, but no one seemed to notice, and I was soon dialling the appropriate number and speaking to some call centre or other in the UK. I knew that it would be possible, under the terms of the breakdown cover, for me to be picked up from the Lumpiaque café and transported to a bike shop or the hotel. But what I wanted to know was whether it might be possible instead, for the breakdown service to bring a new tyre to me at La Estancia, or at the very least, pick me up from La Estancia and take me to a bike shop where I could buy a tyre. I was, after all, trying to avoid a ‘call out’ by fixing the tyre temporarily and attempting to limp through to La Muela. The UK call centre took my details in, it has to be said, a very officious and pretty unhelpful manner; “We’ll get in touch with our European partners and they will contact you in due course”, read the operative, Katie, from a script on her screen, and I was left waiting for a call.
Refreshed, and slightly less concerned than I had been before encountering the (now, in my view) most wonderful café in Spain, I headed back out onto the road and eventually, past the town of Epila. Then the road just wasn’t a road any more. According to my sat nav it was a road. According to Google maps it was a road fit for cars. But according to me – and I was there - it was not a road. It was a dirt track at best, full of rocks and boulders, and it went on for mile after mile after mile. I was feeling completely exhausted by now; I was red hot; I was becoming dehydrated again and running out of water; and my skin was burring. And then the phone rang. It was ‘the European partner’ in the form of a very helpful woman from a Spanish breakdown service. I explained my predicament and what it was I was seeking. “I don’t see a problem with taking you to find a bicycle shop” was the welcome response. “I shall arrange for a taxi to pick you up at your hotel in La Muella at 6pm and we will hopefully have your bike fixed by this evening”. I was about 3 miles from the hotel at the time and it was 5.15pm. “Could you make it 6.30pm?” I asked. “I’m on a very rough path and having to ride very slowly; I’m not certain that I will be at the hotel for 6pm”. “No problem; 6.30pm it is”. I ended the call, got back on my bike, rode about 20 yards, and my inner tube burst again. I decided that I could ill-afford to use up all of my inner tubes and so I decided to ride the last two miles with a burst tyre, and with the sound of my wheel rim clattering along the road.
I got to the hotel at 6.20pm and was greeted by Felix, and his taxi. He had been waiting for 20 minutes. Because I have not been on the traditional tourist routes this past week, most of the people I have met in Spain, have not spoken English. I have enjoyed this and the fact that I’ve had to try and speak some Spanish in order to muddle through, even if I have had to cheat and turn to ‘Google translate’ at times. But I have to say that I was very glad that Felix spoke relatively good English. He drove me to a Decathlon megastore on the outskirts of Zaragoza and once there, was able to explain to Manuel, in the bike servicing department, precisely what had happened and what I required. He was also able to explain about my charity ride, and Manuel very kindly gave me a discount on the new tyre and 4 inner tubes that I purchased. And he didn’t charge me for checking that the wheel itself wasn’t damaged after the rough ride I had given it into La Muela.
And so we return to where I began today’s blog … Felix was due to pick up an
elderly couple in Zaragoza, and transport them to La Almunia, where he lives and they have a ‘second home’. He was running late and asked if I would be happy to travel with him into the centre of Zaragoza and pick up the couple; he would then drop me off in La Muela on the way back to La Almunia. Of course, I said, and so I got to experience a sneaky peek of Zaragoza and some fantastic architecture that Julie would have adored; early 18th century if I have managed to learn anything from her about dating such buildings. I also got to meet a wonderful couple whose names I could not understand and who could not speak a word of English. Felix told them about my bike ride and I did my best to recount the day’s events, doing a fantastic impression (even if I do say it myself) of a tyre bursting and explaining, with the help of Google translate, that “Mi moto tiene muchos pinchazos hoy” (“My bike had many punctures today”). The man, who was having to use sticks to help his mobility, and who Felix had told me has a serious health condition, laughed out loud and for at least half of the journey back to La Muela, periodically mimicked my impression of the tyre bursting. “Psss” would come the sound from the back seat, every few minutes, and I would turn around and laugh. And I was genuinely laughing because it was genuinely funny, with the bizarreness of the situation not lost on me. “Julie, you would love this,” I said to myself. And she would. She loved all people, respected cultures, and embraced all new experiences, good or bad. And she would have loved that I have learned to let apparent ‘problems’ wash over me and see them for what they really are; opportunities to learn, to grow, and to live.
Felix duly dropped me and my back wheel off at La Estancia, took a note of our charity’s website, and said that he would read about Julie when he got home. I gave him a hug and thanked him profusely before saying ‘adios’ to the wonderful couple with no name. I showered and rode to a local restaurant, as the sun set beyond the wind turbines on my right. It was Friday and the restaurant was buzzing with Spanish families eating al fresco or whatever the Spanish is for eating. I was the only person seated at a ‘table for one’. It was dark as I rode home and the red lights on top of the wind turbines - the ones that you get on all tall structures, presumably as a warning to aircraft – were twinkling in the dark. There were hundreds of them – like red stars but closer to the ground than normal stars. It was an image created by humans and technology but no less impressive for that fact and it was an image that Julie would have loved.
I got back to the hotel, took out my computer to begin writing this blog. and saw an email. It was from Felix, and in the subject box were the words “taxi driver’. The message read, in English: “Hello Keith, I was visiting your page. I can't understand everything that I read but I like very much your job and the pictures with your wife Julie. I wish you very luck with the foundation and with your trip. You can look for me in Facebook writing : Felix Alba Cubillo. And my Mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
You just don’t know what will come of a burst tyre these days, do you?
Julie and I used to always have a 'song of the day' whenever we were on our travels, and that is a tradition that I have decided to continue. Song of the day for today - day 14 of my bike ride back to Julie's beach - is Facing West by The Staves. Julie and I were in Bath for a few days in April 2013 and saw that The Staves were playing at The Komedia venue on 22nd of that month. Julie loved wonderful singing and especially gorgeous harmonies. She loved the gig. I had the Radcliffe & Maconie 6Music show on this morning on the BBC iPlayer - a show broadcast a couple of days ago. They played this and I was back in the Komedia, less than two years before Julie died. K xx