Monday, April 27, 2009

Al Andalus Day 5: Carmona to Ecija

Fase 1 - Carmona - Fuentes de Andalucia - 31.92 km
Fase 2 - Fuentes de Andalucia - Ecija - 30.40 km
TOTAL: 62.32 km

A new perspective today: I rode with head veterinarian Dr Francisco "Paco" Castejon and his veterinarian wife, Dr Cristina Riber Perez. They are from Andalucia and have been vetting this ride since it started four years ago. Dr Castejon is a specialist in metabolics in horses, and he also has a new research lab, and teaches at the veterinary school at Universidad de Cordoba. He is doing a study of proteins and hydration in cells of endurance horses in the ride; Cristina draws blood from the equine volunteers after they complete their ride for the day.

While we were waiting for the 11:00 AM start, we had time to walk to a cafe for coffee with all the veterinarians. Oh, this would be lovely, a cappuchino to start my morning instead of the weak coffee we got at the hotel breakfast buffets!

I ordered a cappuchino, and got a cup of hot water with the cappuchino packet poured in and not quite stirred! Oh well. Andalucia may be well known for its wines and sherries and olive oil and delectable Jamon... but it is not yet known for its cappuchinos.

We had time to linger over our coffees and then drive to the old Roman gate where the 39 horses in today's ride were being led on a controlled start out of Carmona. They headed down into the Carmona valley, crossing over an old Roman bridge. The day was about perfect, about 12*C, a bit of haze in the valley, but not a cloud in the blue Andalucian sky over the old city walls.

Dr Castejon drove us to the first assistance point, a lovely private residence and farm surrounded by wheat fields up to my waist. We caught the first 20 or so riders coming through - Inigo Del Solar LLanso on his Anglo Arabian Zafia leading the way, then drove to the second assistance point. So far in the ride, Dr Castejon was very pleased with how the horses looked overall. Some of them had little problems, but nothing big so far.

The vet gate was in the small white village of Fuentes de Andalucia. The horses came clattering into the center of town on the paved streets, with policemen again directing the traffic of cars, motorbikes, and tractors. A small crowd of locals gathered to watch the horses trotting out, being cooled down, fed, rested, then resaddled for Fase 2.

For the 30 kilometer second Fase to the finish at Ecija, Ines de Albert arranged for me to ride on the trail in the jeep with Antonio Castano. Excellent! Antonio promised to drive slowly and safely, and in fact, he asked several times if he was going too fast. He wasn't, because I wasn't gripping the handholds in terror! Accompanying us were Angela from the press for Al Andalus, and another guy whose name I didn't get. We were bundled up against the cool breeze in the buggy, but it felt good to be out there.

The dirt road the horses travelled passed over slight rolling hills, through more rich wheat fields and young olive groves, past an old private estancia where the owners were standing outside with hoses and full water buckets. We stopped at a beautiful scenic spot and I caught a group of riders coming through, including Eduardo Sanchez and Hermes, trotting steadily along with Carlos Escavias on his little chestnut stallion Yaman V, and Salvador Garrido on Shakyra.

As a photographer, when you don't know the trails, you don't know which are the best places to stay and take pictures... and other people can't pick those out for you. The spot we were at was pretty terrific for photos, so, should I stay and wait for the rest of the riders (and make the others sit and wait on me), or, should I risk moving on and not coming to another good spot? I said we could go onward and... consequently left the best picture spot of the day. Well, a variety of different photos is good anyway, right?

The final few kilometers for the riders were down a paved road into Ecija, and through the outskirts of town to the finish in a roomy field with a huge indoor sand arena. Ecija sits in a bowl surrounded by hills, and on this day it was a pleasant view and temperature. However, in the summer, it is known as "La Sarten de Andalucia" (the Frying-Pan of Andalucia). "Avoid visiting Ecija in the middle of summer. It once registered an alarming 52 degrees centigrade (125*F!) on the thermometer," says one tourist site. That's bordering on Death Valley hot - two places I won't be in the summer.

Ecija was a Phoenician, then a Roman town, and it contains a number of of beautiful baroque churches, from the 15th through 18th centuries, the towers of which we could see from the hill as we followed some of the riders down.

The Al Andalus truck/stage, the Kaliber and Cruzcampo beer stand, and the stables were already set up and attracting a crowd, and half the riders had already come in by the time we arrived.

Nathalie Michel had ridden fast again on Raimon, averaging 16.8 km/h, and had arrived first at the finish, but it was a vet gate finish, and her horse was actually the fourth one to pulse down. Lise Chambost's horse Damas El Derkouch pulsed down first for the day's win in Equipos. Inigo Del Solar and Zafia finished second, putting his team (along with his 14-year-old niece Teresa and her horse Cardhu) in first place in Equipos by 3 minutes over Daniel and Paulette Maldera.

Finishing first today in Binomios was Salvador Garrido Cabral and Shakyra. Eduardo Sanchez and Hidalgo finished second, and Carlos Escavias third. Overall, Eduardo and Hermes were now leading the Binomios by 55 minutes over Otto Velez and Pal Partenon.

Salvador and Shakyra - Team Andalusi - had been travelling steadily, and moving up a little every day (except for day 2) - 9th, 13th, 8th, 4th, and today, first. This steady pace over the five days had moved them up to third place overall in Binomios. His crew were his friends, a friendly and happy father and son, who I'd spoken a little Spanish with here and there over the last few days. They were quite prepared for the afternoon today - they had a picnic set up in the parking lot with tables full of food. Perhaps I had hesitated just a wee bit as I walked by, giving them the Famished Eye, because they called me over. Who am I to turn down homemade food and hospitality?

The whole family was there and friends too - I met about 10 people, remembered the names of about half, three of which were Maria. : ) The son who's crewing, John, was able to interpret my Spanglish for everybody. John's father who's crewing is henceforth known as Not-John, because I could not remember his name. (sorry!) One of the Marias owned a restaurant, so this was Good-Homecookin'-Restaurant food, and they kept filling my plate and bowl, with some kind of roasted green peppers, bread, and the best salmorejo I'd ever had. And we were coming to the heart of salmorejo country. It's a bit like gazpacho for the uninitiated (which I was until I had it), and it originated in Cordoba - tomorrow's destination. It's a soup made of tomatoes, bread, olive oil, garlic, and vinegar, similar to gazpacho but smoother and thicker because of the bread ingredient. It's also served cold, and is usually sprinkled with hard-boiled egg bits and some form of Spanish Jamon. It's a little different everywhere you have it, but everywhere it is delicious and refreshing.

Maria would not let my bowl empty before she filled it again (and again, and again.) I had to reluctantly peel myself away eventually! Those guys know how to have a PICNIC. In between bowls of salmorejo, Team Andalusi and Jose Manuel Soto were posing for photos with the German groups for the video cameras.

A total of five horses did not start today; and 5 were lame at the first vet gate, and 3 were lame at the finish. Many riders and crews were busy working on horse legs today at the finish. Mud, cold-water hosing, standing in buckets of ice, mud on legs, or heel wraps with arnica. Still only a handful of horses had standing bandages on, though by now, since the horses stayed in stalls all night every night, there must have been some stocked up legs in the mornings.

Argentinian rider Miguel Pavlovsky's borrowed horse was lame at the final trot-out; they immediately got a pack of ice and started icing his legs. His Belgian friend Leonard had not ridden his borrowed horse CC Blanco today because of a sensitive spot from the saddle, (he started and turned back after a kilometer, thereby receiving less of a time penalty than if he had not started at all), but perhaps he'd be able to ride tomorrow. Joelle Suavage (owner of those two horses) was still steadily riding her horse Mandchour Du Barthas; she was now in fourth place overall in Binomios.

Now is when strategy of Al Andalus really came into play. If you are in Al Andalus to win, or to come in at a top placing overall, what's your plan? Do you push your horse, especially if you're in Equipos, (with two horses to ride), knowing one will get a rest day while the other works? Or do you keep moving steadily along at the same pace, waiting for others in front of you to make a mistake, and get time penalties? If any riders ahead of you missed a day, or even a stage, a time penalty could knock them to a placing behind you, without you having moved your horse out of his trot. Would you try to win every day? Would you try to win a day once or twice to bump you up in the overall standings? Would you risk a lameness for a higher placing?

Then there was the fact to consider that we had one more day to ride, then a rest day, then the final 2 days, which would be much more difficult with some mountain climbing. Would the day of rest help, or hurt horses? Sure, you can walk them at the stables several times a day (no place to ride, really), but, would they stiffen up too much? Would you just go for it in tomorrow's ride, ride as fast as you could, knowing your horse would get a breather for a day (or two days, if you were riding Equipos)... or would you just keep steady, at the same pace?

Many riders were just here to ride and complete every day and enjoy the scenery. On the other hand, first place in each category would receive 3000 Euros (and probably all the olive oil you and your family and friends could use for life). If you had a chance... why not? Already 3 groups had dropped out of the competition, one Equipos team and 2 Binomos.

Turns out my hotel today was a good 30-minute drive away. There were apparently 3 hotels in Ecija (or so the story went), and they were all booked. Most people were lucky enough to get a room in town in a hotel just down the street from where the awards and dinner would be held. I got a ride to my hotel from Pedro, got in about an hour of work on my photos before it was time to return to town with Pedro for the reception. It started at "10 PM"... uh oh, it was going to be another late one.

The meeting itself was once again in a room too tiny for everybody, and it was too loud and noisy to hear everything, although this time for most of the meeting, Christine Pourquier translated all the Spanish to French, and some of it made it into English, interpreted by Ines. Important points were: tomorrow's trail would be similar to today's (flat); a big dinner and tomorrow's awards would be held on Thursday night, not Wednesday; tomorrow's start was at 11 AM; and, most importantly, Thursday was a REST DAY IN CORDOBA!! (So it didn't really matter how late we were up tonight, because in 36 hours we'd have a little chance to catch up on sleep, right?)

Dinner was downstairs, though we had to mysteriously wait a while (nobody quite knew why), before we were allowed to know where it was (downstairs). It was another HUGE, loud, energetic, enjoyable catered affair for over 150 people, seamlessly tended to by extraordinarily efficient waiters (and, I'm sure, many cooks that we never saw). I can't remember all the courses that were brought out, though they were the usual Spanish tapas... the lovely Jamon, the fried cheese things that don't ever have cheese in them (I kept hoping), fried calamari, more and more goodies. Then i think we were served a pork steak and potatoes. Really - the amount of food was mind-boggling, as was the swift and easy way it was served. Somewhere in there the day's awards were given out to many cheers.

Much later, fully 20 pounds heavier, I caught a ride back to the hotel with my roomy Maaite, and what with taking wrong turns in town, and not being able to find our way out (our GPS was so confused she refused to talk), we wasted a while getting back. I didn't dare look at my clock to see how late I went to bed.

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