Monday, April 14, 2008

Al-Andalus Day 6: In Concert - to Antequera

Thursday April 3 2008

2 Fases:
1 - Serrato - Cortijo Montero, 31.5 km
2 - Cortijo Montero - Antequera, 24.6 km

Today's start was at the foot of the little white village of Serrato, where the townspeople came out at dawn and set up a table of hot coffee and pastries for our procession. Before the ride, when the routes are planned out, the Al Andalus organization comes and talks with the town councils, and gets them involved with the ride if they are interested in participating. It was another chilly morning, with many of the horses warming up with butt blankets.

Refreshed with a whole 7 hours of sleep, I was ready for another day on the trail, riding with driver Luis, and Antonio, a representative of Kaliber beer, seeing Al-Andalus for the first time.

Steph and I had left our bags behind in the hotel, being told somebody would pick them up. Well, they'd made it to every stop so far, and I carried with me my cameras, computer, extra clothes, passport, and Raven, so I was good if my suitcase didn't make it. No worries.

Steph (with that same rapturous Al-Andalus beam on her face) and Arenal were one of 19 starters this morning, on a trail that had a minimum of climbing throughout the day, mostly dirt tracks running along gentle rolling hills of wheat fields and olive groves. We passed men plowing their fields with small motorized hand plows, people harvesting olives, and one farmer stockpiling onions by the road - leaving a delicious aroma in the car long after we passed.

Luis sped along the dirt roads, sometimes cutting through the olive orchards, dodging trees (wheee!), to pass horses and stay right behind Alexis on his donut-spinning quad, and Inés, hell on her motorcycle wheels. Really, some of these people should compete in off-road constests! Maybe José Soto can put on a sister ride, an Off-Road Al-Andalus for his employees.

I took many scenics shots on the fly out the window - never knowing when to yell for Luis to stop. Do I stop here, where it's not bad, or do I take my chances and go on, hoping for a better spot, but just not knowing if there would be. When we did pull over, it was at one obviously beautiful spot, catching the horses coming up out of a wide green valley saturated with rich wheat fields. (We learned that wheat fields are also good for passing horses in vehicles).

Along one of the roads, we stopped to say Hola to a group of people at a house who had voluntarily set out water buckets and water hoses for the horses that would be passing by their farm, and we stopped at an assistance point where Luis helped with the horses. Neither he nor Inés nor Gabriel nor any of the officials I talked with rode horses more than a rare pleasure ride, but they all seemed to enjoy helping cool down the horses and interacting with them during Al-Andalus.

Lunch, the first vet gate at 31.5 km, was in a private little pine forest park of the next-door hacienda. Sandwiches and cold drinks were, as always, available, and Inés and Luis reminded everybody to pick up all garbage - no pieces of hay, no little pieces of paper, nothing could be left behind.

After a few of the horses left the vet gate on the last fase, Luis and Antonio and I jumped in the car in pursuit, aiming to reach the finish by about the same time as the winners today. We caught up with a group of 3 who had been together since lunch - Ivet Masnou on her appy Puso, Estelle Joaquim on Indienne des Colline, and Josep Aguilar on my favorite horse of the ride, the handsome Croat-Cost -thinking they were the leaders. We passed them, stopped to help out for a while at another assistance point with José Soto (remember, part of the fun is letting the horses get ahead, then having to pass them again!), then chased after them again, short-cutting through the edge of the olive groves again. And then we came to... the wall. A near-vertical piece of road (so it looked to me), short, but very steep.

"No no!" cried the American in the back seat, even though my perspectives on driving had changed for the radical over the last 6 days. "Uh - no!" said Antonio, a northern Spaniard. Even Luis hesitated at the bottom, considering his strategy. "No-no-no!" I said again, looking for a way to crawl from the backseat out the front window. Luis was pretty sure Up was the way to go, and that we'd make it, but he gave in to my near-panic (backseat driving). He attempted to go up and around, where we found a road, which petered out, and we ended up doing some almost-as-scary cross-countrying to get back down to the main 'road' - which was not much of a road anymore, just a scary track. Best thing to do - just look out the side window!

When we safely made it back onto the highway crossing, Gabriel on the quad and a policeman told us that everybody else had made it up the steep road. Well - everybody else with MM not in the car! Anyway, it was back onto the trail and over a really rough rocky hill. Again with my dimmed perspective today I was pretty sure the car wouldn't make it through this, but with an Andalucían at the wheel, of course it did, and it wasn't at a 90 degree angle, so I wasn't demasciado miedo - too afraid.

We had now squirmed our way in front of the 3 riders, and, thinking we would beat them to the finish line, we raced down this disintegrated, once-upon-a-time two track, getting to the finish below the old restored La Madgalena convent before they came in. I jumped out to catch the winners racing across the line, only to realize two had already finished, and these 3 didn't race anyway, they trotted down the road to the finish line together, and to the vetting area. Like many of the days, this was a vet gate finish - you got your horse's pulse down to 56 before entering the vet gate; so racing in, then having to rush to get your horse's pulse down, was detrimental.

"Tomorrow, we will get you to the finish first!" promised Luis.

Francisco Calle and Espia had come first 8 minutes ahead of Nathaleen Hewitt on Yaman V. Estelle, Ivet, and Josep had finished next. Seventh across the finish, and first in Binomios, was Aurélie Le Gall on Lazou, coming in with Cristina Pourquier on Hairette de Sky (9th overall). Third in Binomios again was José Baquerizo on Campanera (11th overall).

It was a pretty sight for a finish, underneath this 1560 convent, overlooking a narrow valley of olive trees. The portable stables were conveniently set up right next to it. Awaiting the humans inside the church, a concert cellist played, the beautiful classical music filling the nave and echoing throughout, a fine aural backdrop for another great meal of elaborate tapas, shrimp, beer, wine, and cold drinks. What a great idea, and what a treat. I sat closely on the old marble steps to listen.

Afterwards, we were shuttled by Inés the 5 minutes to our 4-star Hotel Antequera Golf, where we quickly cleaned up and got what work we could get done before the party. This was a special dinner at the golf club proper, and even the Raven dressed up and made an appearance.

After a quick rider briefing, we were served a fabulous 4-course and 3-glass dinner for over 200 guests: tapas, salmon mousse, divine duck (don't know I've ever had it, but it's one of the best things I've had) and melt-in-your-mouth potatoes and peas and zucchini, with creme something for dessert. (If it says 'creme' in the name, you know it will automatically be exceptional.) Each course was served so smoothly and efficiently, and the glasses kept filled, you didn't notice there must have been dozens of waiters and waitresses working the room.

José Soto stepped to our table and toasted to the Americans, Germans, Kiwis and Spanish sitting together, and then led a toast to the entire room of Al-Andalus friends. We responded with a standing toast and ovation, a salute in concert to the endurance ride that brought all of us, old and new friends from around the world, together here in Andalucía. It was a perfect follow-up after yesterday's chaos.

Full day's results at:

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