Good Times in the Badlands

Transiberica’s newest race, Badlands, captured the imagination of experienced and first-time ultra-distance racers alike and was shaping up to be one of the most anticipated early-season events of 2020. Alongside the pull of tapas and the ‘no worries’ Spanish lifestyle, the 700km gravel challenge promised to introduce riders to a less well-known side of Spain and its living natural heritage on a visually arresting tour of some of Spain’s most diverse terrain.
Amongst the first-timers unable to resist the pull of the challenge was Meg Davies. Little did she know at the time, but the recce of some of the route she undertook while cycling in Andalusia just before lockdown would be the closest anyone would get to actually racing the event in May (Badlands has been rescheduled for 6 September 2020). Here, Meg reflects on her trip and explores what riders can expect from the inaugural Badlands later this year.

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Mountain landscape with a gravel path

 

Having lived in Spain and played the native for over a year, it’s a country that will always be close to my heart. The Spain in my memories is an endless Mediterranean coastline and scattered mountain ranges; Transiberica’s Badlands, however, promises to expose Spain’s “underground” landscapes. Vast arid deserts, submarine volcanoes and unspoken nature that seems to exist beyond the known and ordinary.

The Badlands route will steer riders through three deserts, encompassing some of the most remote and diverse landscapes in Spain. From the bustle of busy cities to volcanic beaches, the adventure will take riders to abstract places where the geology more closely resembles that of Mars than Earth. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to immerse myself in this less familiar side of my former home and found myself signing up to race – my first ultra race and an exciting new challenge.

A trip to Andalusia early in the year gave me the opportunity to recce some of the route and help prepare myself for the challenge to come. Little did I know that shortly after returning from my trip, the world would go into lockdown and Badlands would be postponed until September. While both the race and my recce focus on seeking adventure, September will see fresh challenges as my mindset moves from ‘explore’ to ‘race’ and sees me riding with purpose and determination.

landscape of a mountain range: Sierra Nevada

Just as Badlands starts and finishes in Granada, so did my recce: departing the crowds and heading off East, exploring Spain’s Moorish and Christian history and hugging the Sierra Nevada foothills.

Snow-capped peaks form the backdrop of a hillside scattered with Andalusian ‘White Towns’, with their characteristic whitewashed walls and red tiled roofs. The climbing starts quickly and phone signal is scarce, instantly freeing you from the 24/7 interconnectedness of modern life.

Passing under the shadow of Veleta, I imagined myself traversing the rocky pass, as we would in the race on the return to Granada. You can see the mountain from the city, its’ fearsome 3,400m peak ever-present on the horizon. The peak is capped in snow now, but I pictured myself persevering across rough gravel towards a deserted refuge in just a couple of months’ time, legs heavy from the never-ending ascent and the final checkpoint in sight. It’s a cruel last challenge for Badlands competitors, both physically and mentally, with the finish line visible but still so far out of reach.

Instead, I continued riding East towards Hoya de Gaudix; the area known as the ‘badlands’ by locals and from which the race draws its name. The land is bare and there is every opportunity for solitude. Refuelling at the right points before this vast emptiness was never far from my mind, alongside thoughts on how to deal with the loneliness when it hit. At the same time, I knew the solitude would make bumping into a fellow rider across this barren setting or stargazing from the bivvy all the more rewarding.

A person cycling through a gravel path in a forest

Meg Davies Standing standing next to her bike with a full Apidura bikepacking kit

Having followed the route so far, it was time to go my own way and head up and over the Sierra. Reaching Puerto de la Ragua at 2,041m, there was snow at the top and my mind flashed back again to Veleta and the likely conditions 1,000m higher. The sunlight reflecting off the white peaks seemed far away at first, but in no time at all, my wheels were crunching through the powder and leaving tracks. It was a strange sensation but a new and satisfying one. All heaviness in my legs faded away and I wondered whether it was a symptom of the numbing chill in the air, or the release of muscle tension built up during the ascent.

The summit brought a sense of calm and with the Mediterranean Sea sparkling in the distance, I felt on top of the world. So early in the season, the air was icy and I found myself breathing as if trying to store some for later. My saddle pack emptied as I hurriedly pulled on all the clothes I had with me, including two pairs of shoe covers, before pushing off. I let my bike take the fall line for a tree-lined descent, revelling in that sensation we cyclists all love – freewheeling and recharging my batteries on the long descent. Reaching the bottom, I couldn’t feel my hands and my legs were trembling, but I felt more alive than ever.

Crossing into Almeria, the smooth tarmac and deserted gravel tracks headed off in all directions twisting their way into the distance and cutting into the edge of the mountainside. Spoilt for choice, I made the most of diverting off, enjoying the freedom that the fixed Badlands route won’t allow. It felt good to be spontaneous and take a chance on the unknown, forcing myself out of my comfort zone and glimpsing snapshots of beauty easily missed by sticking religiously to the plan. There is no escaping the climbs, which explains the race’s 15,000m elevation profile. But not knowing how far it is until the next descent, tricked by the hidden switchbacks, the ride turned into more of an adventure.

Olives hanging on a tree

By contrast, and in just a few wheel revolutions, the land begins to take after its Arabic name (“Sierra of pastures”) – with green fields covered in olive, pomegranate and persimmon trees. Towns are scattered and life moves slowly in between each expanse.  I took the opportunity to mirror the pace, counterbalancing my future non-stop dash for the finish line in advance.

It’s easy to find the local bar and social centre of Spanish towns, where you can head to immerse yourself in rural Spanish life. On a few occasions, I joined the elderly men munching on their morning tostada. My Spanish was a bit rusty at first but there I find similarities to riding my bike. Fitness and fluency might deteriorate over time with lack of use, but you never completely forget a physical skill thanks to the programmed muscle memory. After countless solo hours in the saddle, I am sure to be craving some similar pit stops during the race but doubt I will have time to leisurely sip on coffee with my new-found friends.

Meg Davies Shadow on a Road

Meg Davies Shadow on a Road

The last two days of my trip, an oppressive fog shrouds the mountains I am traversing – the Sierra Contraviesa. Hail bites my hands, rain obscures my vision and gales physically knock me sideways – a gentle reminder that changeable mountain conditions might catch out the unprepared. My first bikepacking experience in an official weather warning pushed me once more out of my comfort zone but I relished the challenge and found myself laughing at the extreme yet invigorating situation I found myself in.

Upon returning to Granada, having experienced a snapshot of the Badlands route and soaked in some local culture, I took a few days to reflect on the start of my ultra-racing journey. Next time I’m in Granada, although there will be a fresh set of opportunities and challenges, the backdrop will remain the same. Seeking adventure will still be my top priority, but it will be an adventure that explores my physical limits and pushes my boundaries. My other priorities will remain the same too, albeit in a different order; the need to make decisions about food, rest and hours in the saddle becoming more important when pushing for constant forward progress.

What I might miss by keeping my head down in the non-stop pursuit of kilometres will be offset by the challenge and novelty of experiencing the momentum of a race. Badlands competitors can certainly expect to unlock some of the secrets of this magical region of Spain and, although passing through on a more focused journey, will be rewarded with an ‘off-the-beaten-track’ route devised by those who know the setting best. I just hope that getting fixated on the destination will not blind me to the beauty and culture that Badlands has to offer. After all, I don’t think I will always be able to resist that tostada at a local bar while savouring the glow of a rising sun behind the Sierra Nevada.

 

 

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