How Cycling Spain’s Andalusia Region Made Me Rethink My Approach to TravelBy Robert Annis
Moments after cresting the challenging Los Blancares mountain just outside of Granada, Spain, I heard the unmistakable whirl of expensive bicycles coming up fast behind me. Romain Bardet and the French professional AG2R cycling team were honing their time-trial skills on this popular Vuelta a España (the Spanish version of the Tour de France) climb.
I’d been riding through Spain for the last several days with my own teammates of a sort, several friends together on an REI Travel trip. I treated every ride as if it were the final kilometers of a huge stage race, always wanting to cross the finish line first.
After my obligatory mountaintop selfie, I waited a respectful time, then leapt on my borrowed Trek hybrid; I didn’t want to catch the team — OK, maybe I did, a little — but I did want to test my descending ability against theirs using Strava, a mobile app that allows cyclists to compete against each other’s times on routes around the world.
I flew down the mountain’s narrow pavement, touching 40 mph and leaning so far into the paved turns I could almost feel the asphalt graze my beard. I was confident my name would soon be etched into the digital record book next to a two-time podium finisher of the Tour de France.
That’s when I saw the impossibly turquoise waters of the Embalse de Quéntar (Quéntar Reservoir) in front of me, surrounded on three sides by gorgeous granite cliffs covered in trees.
We’ve all had moments when scenery has literally stopped us in our tracks, and now I was confronted with a split-second decision — should I continue to bomb down the mountain or actually stop, take a possibly once-in-a-lifetime photo and actually soak in the moment?
As a former amateur racer, I constantly fight the urge to speed through rides focused on my speedometer rather than on the gorgeous scenery around me. But not this day.
I rolled to a halt, got out my camera and waited for my compatriots to catch up so we could take in the view together. That epiphany would be a turning point for me and the way I travel.
There really isn’t a better way to discover a new destination than from the saddle of a bicycle. Instead of rushing through the entirety of Spain over the course of a week in a car or on a train, why not take your time in Andalusia, arguably the country’s most beautiful region, burning the landscape deep into your memories? (And your calves; it can be pretty hilly!)
On this getaway, my trip mates and I would pedal through famous pueblos blancos (whitewashed villages) like Grazalema and Medina Sidonia, past vast olive groves and vineyards, and over leg-crushing mountains.
In a car, you’re trapped in a climate-controlled steel and glass bubble, separated from the surrounding environment. But on a bike, you’re hyperaware of the world around you. As you pedal, you feel the heat and wind on your skin. When you stop, touching the cork trees or drinking from an alleged healing fountain gives you much more of a tactile sense of the land and the history of its people.
Although we rode over several famous Vuelta climbs, this trip would almost be the exact opposite of a grueling grand tour. In fact, at points the rides became secondary to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites we visited during the day and the tapas we greedily devoured every night.
On that day on Los Blancares, I decided to be more deliberate with my travel. It’s all too easy to see many of a place’s highlights but not truly experience any of them. Even if you’re not pedaling a bike, try to find other ways to slow down. Avoid overscheduling trips; bake in time to explore and let the day’s events unfold naturally.
Don’t feel the need to stop whatever fun activity you’re doing or end the conversation you’re having in order to make it to your dinner reservation on time. The best memories will always be those unique to you, not just the scenic viewpoint you’ve seen on Instagram a dozen times.
Warp speed may be a great way to travel on “Star Trek’s” USS Enterprise, but here on planet Earth, we should endeavor to take our time, to savor each experience on our travels like we would an amazing glass of wine or piece of gourmet chocolate.
Instead of blowing by someone while racing my bicycle to the next stop, I find myself reaching out, being friendlier. A casual hello on the trail has led to actual conversations, which in turn allowed me to discover a unique bit of local history or an incredible brewpub.
In all likelihood, I never would have caught up to Romain Bardet or even come close to his time. Even if I had, I might have ridden that ego-fueled adrenaline rush for a couple of weeks. But I also would never have that memory of my friends rolling in one by one and taking in that gorgeous lake view together, something that we still talk about today, years later. That’s a memory I’ll have for a lifetime.