Sunday, May 3, 2009

Al Andalus Day 7: Cordoba to Montoro

2009 Al Andalus: Day 7

Fase 1 - Cordoba - VILLAFRANCA CORDOBA - 32.74 km
Fase 2 - Villafranca Cordoba - Montoro - 33.09 km
TOTAL: 65.84 km

Things were a bit more tense, a bit more... crazy today, what with the 37 horses riding in Al-Andalus, and the dozen or so horses in the 2* national competition, and especially with everybody having to collect at the stables in the middle of the crowded old city of Cordoba, and drive in a caravan to the start a half hour out of town.

I almost got left behind at the hotel (I think Javier and Alberto almost forgot me!), and we got a late start and had to race through traffic to get to the head of the miles-long caravan of horse trailers. My camera in my backpack tumbled once to the car floor, my computer almost did, I gripped the strap of my seatbelt tightly strapped around me.

Things calmed down momentarily once we got to the starting line. The 2* riders were warming up their horses, including Jose Antonio on Campanera, and the Al Andalus riders - who were to start a half hour later - were saddling up.

Then continued a day which I can only describe as another One of Those Days.

Before the horses started on the trail, we raced off ahead of them in the car, bouncing roughly over the uneven trail, stopping once to put out a ribbon to emphasize a turn, then almost turning to drive straight up a hill before deciding cleverly to take the road. We sped along to a dirt road that led up into the mountains, driving up a long steady climb for the horses, then after we passed through a gate, suddenly we slowed to a crawl.

Javier and Alberto were deep in conversation, maybe forgetting we were leading a horse race, because suddenly two horses come up behind us and almost ran into the back of the car. We raced on again then again slowed down. It was foggy but scenic - there were glimpses of lakes down there - but we didn't stop anywhere for photos.

This driving pattern continued - speeding then poking along - and at the next scenic spot I asked if we could stop for photos. It was a lovely spot in an open area high in an oak forest. The light was nice, and I caught about a dozen horses going by. We seemed to be in a hurry though, so we didn't linger there.

We bumped along this rough, narrow old logging road, winding down off the mountain, coming to a steep drop off of this mountain trail which Alberto had to jump out to guide Javier down after studying it for a minute. A couple of horses passes us as we eased down it.

That put us onto a wider real dirt road alongside a lake, over a long bridge over the lake, past an assistance point, then down a paved road a few kilometers until we turned onto what must have been a private dirt road with restricted access. I think only a few Al Andalus cars were allowed on it with the horses.

And from here, things turned chaotic. We finally caught up to a group of about a dozen riders, but there were 3 other cars in front of us, and Ines on her motorbike, and a jeep full of people, and all of a sudden the vehicle race became the focus and excitement of the day, lots of yelling and honking and gesturing, radio calls, phone calls, more honking, trying to overtake each other, horses almost getting bumped, riders yelling at us, what was going on!?

In the midst of this we passed one of the most beautiful places of the entire ride, a serene wide green meadow angling down to a small lake in back, just disappearing into fog, the angle of light just right... but with the group of horses cantering in front of and around us and this mysterious bedlam with the cars along this part of the road - no chance to stop here.

We finally passed out a gate onto a bigger dirt road, and whatever that chaos was all about ended, and we caught up with the dozen horses again, and we followed behind them the rest of the way to the vet gate at 32 kilometers at the village of Villafranca de Cordoba. I had lots of shots of horse butts today.

We'd arrived at the vet gate somewhere near the middle of the pack. Though the weather was pleasantly cool and overcast, the trail through the mountains, with a total increase of 251 meters (858 feet) in climbing, had probably affected the eliminations at lunch today: 8 horses were pulled, 3 of them for metabolics.

After a number of horses had already left on Fase 2, we left the vet gate, heading down the paved road on which the horses were travelling. The horses turned off onto a trail; we turned off onto a dirt road which became... a parking lot where the road ended.

Or did it? It was definitely a parking lot. Directly ahead of us was a steep 45* hill 300 meters upward, into the face of which was roughly gouged a... not road, but more like a log slide, where logged trees are slid down from the top of the hill. Ooops, wrong way, I thought; but Javier cast his eyes forward and upward. I'm thinking no way, we took a wrong turn - and up we went! My eyes were big as dinner plates in the back seat.

We hardly made it up about 100 meters with the wheels slipping - and finally they spun to a stop. Javier gunned the engine, and the wheels kept spinning, and the car started to slowly slip sideways.

I didn't think, I just leaped out of the car. Just call me chicken! Another car or two, and a buggy or two, were paused at the bottom watching us. Everybody was debating how the cars would get up this. This chicken's obvious choice was to back down and find another way!

But as I mentioned before, Andalucians do not seem to have a reverse gear, it is all forward forward, and let's take on the challenge! The video guy riding on the 4-wheeler jumped off while the smiling fearless 4-wheeler man gunned his quad up the steep hill to where we were; and when you made it that far, you had an even steeper 200 meters of hill to go. Slipping and sliding, wheels spinning, dirt and rocks shooting up in the air from the wheels, he somehow made it up. Obviously now, everybody had to come up because it was a one-way hill!

Then Alexis tried it in his buggy, the passengers having disembarked. He made it to just above Javier's car, and lost his impetus, and his wheels started to spin. He was not going to make it - he'd never get his momentum up because the buggy was too light. He started letting it roll backwards and backed onto a little side path - and there the buggy started listing towards the downhill, and I could watch no more! I turned my back and instead looked for horses on the trail in the forest. These guys are fearless I tell you!

I much preferred my own two feet, so I turned uphill and hiked up the mountain. I hadn't had a good workout in a while anyway. I was too chicken to even watch everybody try it, so once up top, I only peeked over to monitor their progress now and then (the camera man, and then Alberto hiked up too), enjoyed the view, looked out for horses, and noticed some cars gathered on the next hill over, where the horses trotted past - right off a paved road - there was another easier way! Oh, these crazy Andalucian adventurers.

Javier tried again - he must have not had the car in low low gear the first time, and while I was afraid to watch the whole thing, somehow the car made it up top. Slowly vehicles appeared on top, another buggy, another car... they were up there a good thirty minutes waiting, while I just walked on to where the horses were coming up a very steep trail, huffing and puffing hard. Some riders were on foot leading their horses and panting just as hard. It was a warm climb for them, no breeze reaching the folds of these canyons or the thick forest they emerged from.

Eventually the adventurous drivers came along, and Javier picked me up, and we continued on down the real logging road. We putted along, then suddenly we'd race along again. I had no idea where we were, where the horses were - there were none in sight, how much further we had to go till the finish. We started along a horse trail, but then turned back around and instead raced along the little highway till we got to an Assistance point. Some lady came to the car window a bit frantic saying something to Javier and Alberto about a rider getting lost somewhere. It was in Spanish, and when people speak very fast I can't follow much of it. (My most-used Spanish word was "despacio" - "slowly!")

Jose Antonio was at this assistance point; Campanera had been pulled at lunch for lameness. He said later, "It's not my year!" He'd gone to a ride in Portugal and finished but didn't complete because the horse's heartrate didn't come down; he'd hurt his leg in a ride at El Rocio; then he'd lost part of a finger which had prevented him from training Campanera for this year's Al Andalus; he had wanted to ride in the Spanish championships in May but that wasn't going to happen either. He does have other horses that he rides in other events, but Campanera is his only endurance horse and, he said with a big smile, "Campanera is my love."

We watched a couple of horses come through and then we raced along the road again, and caught up with a few horses. We followed them along a very rocky and rough dirt track, into a terraced olive orchard, and then the horses slipped down onto a lower road, and suddenly we couldn't get there - even Javier wouldn't try the leap over the little cliff. I pointed out a road behind us, so he turned and drove between the trees to get onto it, and as we bumped along this 'road' on this terrace layer on the hillside, it became clear that nobody had actually driven on this 'road' in maybe a hundred years, and it wasn't made for cars, and finally it narrowed so much that the car wouldn't fit. Oh no!

Well, you already know that these Andalucians don't turn around (and we really couldn't have backed out anyway), so there was only one thing for Javier to do: keep going! And there was only one thing for me, the Chicken, to do: leap out!

As the driver's side (and my side!) wheels started to slip off the edge of the terrace, Alberto jumped out of the car into the bank, where had to scramble up. As if electrocuted, I bolted up off the listing seat, forced the opposite door open, shoved myself out and shot up the bank. And I walked away; I was afraid to watch. A bit later Javier had made it through, (hooray!) so we climbed back in and on we bumped, heading for the village of Montoro and the finish.

The 'road' improved to a real dirt road, but I still don't think a regular car had driven it in a hundred years, because we had some very narrow corridors to squeeeeeeeze through, and because some of the locals were so wide-eyed as if they'd never seen a car come this way before! Alberto and Javier had to both fold the outside mirrors in, and we all had to suck in our breaths as Javier inched along, both their heads out the windows to see if we could leave the paint on the car.

We managed to squeeze unscathed onto the real streets of Montoro, a nice old white city perched on the side of a hill over the Guadalquivir river. Declared a National Historic and Artistic Interest Site in 1969, it was called Epora in Roman times, and later became an important Moorish fortress before finally coming under the rule of Fernando III in 1240 AD. It still houses the church of San Bartolome and a bridge over the Guadalquivir from the 15th century.

I caught some of the horses approaching the Meta with, in the background, the picturesque white city hanging over the river.

Paulette Maldera finished first in Equipos, followed by Jean Pierre Lerisset then Maria Capdevila. Inigo Del Solar's 5th place finish today still left him and Teresa in first place overall, with Maria and Emma's in second place behind them now by only 1 hour and 7 minutes. The girls had a chance tomorrow to capture first place if anything happened to Inigo and Zafia... or they had a chance to fall out of second place if anything happened to Emma and Al-Jatib!

Carlos Escavias and Yaman V again won Bionomios, by 6 minutes over Eduardo Sanchez and Hermes, with Otto Velez third. This left Eduardo and Hermes in the lead overall of the Binomios by 1 hour 30 minutes; if he passed today's vet check (he did), and just completed tomorrow's ride at a steady pace, he would be the overall Binomios winner. But... another 77 kilometers and 530 meters, or 1750 feet of climbing wasn't just a stroll in the park.

If Hermes faltered, it would likely be Otto Velez and Pal Partenon sneaking up from second overall to take first place. You might call Otto one of the Al Andalus 'Old-Timers.' He's ridden in every edition. He rode the same horse, Pal Partenon, last year in Binomios, finishing 6th. Otto feels that Tierras de Al-Andalus is "the best endurance event in the world." Not only for the challenge of the long distance they cover, but for the challenge of getting a horse through the entire ride. He enjoys the fellowship of the riders, which is like one big family. He believes that "to finish is to win", especially in this particular ride. He also had a great time competing with his son this year, as evidenced by the laughing racing finish they had on day 2 (Father won). Otto's 8-year-old gelding Pal Partenon is a homebred Arabian, and this horse just looked terrific every day - eager, calm, forward moving - enjoying this ride as much as his rider.

At the finish in the meadow below Montoro, the waiters were busy serving another big meal under the big tent (jamon, tapas, a big plate of stew, and ice cream). Even though all the riders had finished by now, it would still be a few more hours before I'd get a ride home to the hotel (across the river and high on the hill) from any officials, so... I decided to walk, and hitch a ride with whomever might pick me up. Maybe I'd even get to the hotel in time to do some work!

I geared up for a long hike, but not a hundred yards out of the stable area, a car with an Assistance number on it passed me. I waved after it at the same time the driver turned for a double take. It was Maximillian Portes of, who was one of the sponsors of Al Andalus, with his exquisite Iberican ham!

He stopped, and I asked, "Vas a hotel?" "Si!" I climbed in, and they took me with them to our hotel. (I discovered that it would have taken a long time it I'd walked the whole way!) Maxi and his riding partner Ulla Huschke had retired from the competition after Day 6. Ulla's mare had hurt her tendon on Day 5 ("She wanted to go faster than I wanted her to go over rough ground!"), and Maxi's warmblood had vetted out on metabolics on Day 6. With yesterday's rest day he might have been able to ride today, but, seeing as the horse really wasn't an endurance horse anyway - Maxi had wanted to participate in the ride - he'd done well, but "he's had enough".

Now comfortably ensconced at the nice Mirador hotel - with another great view, overlooking the Guadalquivir river, the village on the hill, and the stable area - I had time for a shower, a cappuchino downstairs (while working!), and a few pictures and a talk with Jose Manuel Soto.

Jose said today's eliminations were "the worst ever! We lost 8 horses to lameness at the lunch vet gate, and 6 more at the finish. Some people go too fast!" He considered that perhaps since the trail was so flat, people were tempted to ride too fast. Mountains earlier in the ride would have slowed them down.

The ride meeting was at "8 PM" in the lobby downstairs. As usual, it was more of a great opportunity to visit with everybody rather than an opportunity to gather information!

I saw Heike; her horse Lenny was now at the clinic in Cordoba, and was a little better. The vets thought he had a fracture, but Heike didn't think so - he still acts as if he's tied up, though his bloodwork still doesn't indicate that. She's been in touch with her vets in Germany, who have been talking to these vets; she's going to transport him to Germany on Sunday, and will tranquilize him or give him pain-killers, enough to get him home.

Tonight's ride meeting was noisy as ever... There were 3 rides tomorrow, a 1* and a 2* national rides, and the final day of Al Andalus; everybody would leave at 7:30 AM from the stables to the start, 10 km away. The rides would have staggered starts. And the final day would be a tough one: 77 kilometers, and a total gain in altitude of 543 meters (1800 feet), the last 7 kilometers having a 382 meter (1260 feet) climb to the foot of the Santuario de la Virgen de la Cabeza on a cliff - a dramatic ending to the final day of 2009 Tierras de Al-Andalus.


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