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Help me, Ronda: A cyclist's quest for shade in Andalucia

Today is the day I wonder about dying. To be clear, while catching my breath on the side of the road, I consider how death might be preferable to the shaking in my hands and legs, the out-of-control sweating and the nausea.
David Sovka

Today is the day I wonder about dying. To be clear, while catching my breath on the side of the road, I consider how death might be preferable to the shaking in my hands and legs, the out-of-control sweating and the nausea. I’m three-quarters of the way up a seven-kilometre-long hill, hunkered down in the meagre shade of some tall brambles.

They are covered in itchy burrs, and so I am also covered in itchy burrs. The sun is bright and hot and won’t go away. The next patch of shade is another 200 metres or so up the hill and I don’t know if I can cycle that far.

At six-foot-two and 250 pounds, I am too big to be out in this heat. Technically speaking, I am too big to be out at room temperature.

It is an issue of simple physics; specifically, one of surface area to volume ratio, and thermodynamics.

That is to say, my size (XL) and shape (pear) rapidly overheat in these conditions, and my body starts shutting down non-essential systems, like my brain.

One minute, I was cycling in front of the pack, the next I am on the side of the road and incapable of clear thought. The rest of our group catches up.

“Are you OK?”

“Super good,” I inaccurately assess my situation.

They pass on. The safety van with the water catches up.

“Are you OK?”

“Clem fandango wa wa,” I say. The safety van passes on.

My wife — God bless her — remains with me and frowns. I know it is out of concern, not pique, because I now resemble a huge, groggy beet.

Yes, of course I drank a lot of water today! Had I not filled my bottle at every opportunity I would be really, actually, dead by now, rather than just wondering about it.

Nevertheless, it turns out that water is not enough.

Pro tip: when cycling in the heat, drink a lot of water with some kind of added electrolyte. This explains why the rest of the group, older and wiser than me, have been powdering-up each morning from a barrel of white concentrate. I just assumed they were fiendishly cavalier cocaine addicts.

With my wife riding alongside to scare away curious vultures, eventually I make it up the hill and into a happy surprise: a forest of cork oak.

I say happy surprise because a) shade! and b) forest of cork oak! Every seven years, the first six or so feet of bark from this species of oak (Quercus suber) is harvested to make wine-bottle corks, cork flooring, bulletin boards, etc.

The naked trees and scraps of ultra-light bark are fascinating, but did I also mention the shade?

The rest of the ride is mostly downhill, which means a blessed-if-ersatz wind to help stay cool. With that and the promise of electrolyte-rich beer at the end of the day’s ride, I am content and no longer wonder about dying.

And then we arrive in Ronda.

There is an ironic problem common to sites of military importance, places that, because of geological quirks, are naturally defensible.

A good example is the small Andalucían city of Ronda (“round” or “surrounded” in Spanish), which sits on top of a massive, steep pile projecting high above the surrounding plateau.

The problem is that the specific features that appeal to the military minds of one culture also appeal to the military minds of other cultures.

That is to say, a good defensible site is destined to become somebody else’s precisely because it is a good defensible site. Irony is never far from military history.

Ronda was settled in the sixth century B.C. by the early Celts, who recognized its military importance.

Then came the Phoenicians, who recognized its military importance. Then came the Romans, who recognized its military importance.

Wait, there’s more.

In the fifth century A.D., Ronda was conquered by the Suebi (a large group of tribes who lived in Germania in the time of the Roman Empire), and was reconquered in the following century by the Eastern Roman Empire.

Later, the Visigoth king Leovigild captured the city and Ronda was part of Visigoth territory until 713, when it fell to the Berbers.

The Islamic domination of Ronda ended in 1485, when it was conquered by the Marquis of Cádiz. In the early 19th century, the Napoleonic invasion and the subsequent Peninsular War reduced the population from 15,600 to 5,000, and Ronda became a base of guerrilla warriors and bandits.

On the plus side, all those years of carnage in pursuit of a good defensible site also introduced new art and architecture with each subsequent conquering culture.

The place is lousy with it. You can’t swing a dead cat in Ronda without hitting something ancient and spectacular.

For example, the new bridge, Puente Neubo, into ancient Ronda is a magnificent arched stone structure 120 metres (390 feet!) above the Tajo gorge.

“New bridge” is chronologically accurate, but a bit of a misnomer in that it was built more than 150 years before Canada existed as a country.

The old bridge, Puente Viejo, was built in 1616 with the kind of precision engineering that would make a German municipal planner hang his head in shame.

It is supposed to be for pedestrians only, but as the sun sets, I watch a car sneak across it with no problems at all.

It will hold our bikes. I feel fine. In a good, defensible site like this, I no longer wonder about dying.

We meet little traffic, coming or going along the asphalt. In between the walled, white-washed towns that cling to Andalucía’s thigh-busting hills, there is just hot, tired you and your hope that the warm water swishing around the bottom of the bike bottle is enough to get you a little farther along the road.

Oh, and the score of vultures making lazy half-circles high up in the cloudless blue sky.

Their silent presence up there suggests another quick assessment of the volume of water in the bottle, and then you cycle on.

Three-hundred-year-old olive trees make a regular pattern of dark green dots on the hills that roll off into the horizon.

The occasional dart of motion and tiny dust cloud under the trees means the rabbits are busy doing whatever it is that rabbits do in such dry country. Probably making more rabbits.

It’s obvious to me this hot, dry land favours olive trees and rabbits over middle-aged cyclists. Lots and lots and lots of olive trees and rabbits.

Our spectacularly uncommunicative guide, Genci, surprises us by telling us that there are an estimated 287 million olive trees in the country, and while I want to disbelieve him on general principals — he keeps saying that our next stop is just over the hill — Genci also told me that the origin of “Spain,” Hispania, is in the Phoenician language, and means “land of rabbits.”

I looked that up, and he is right. Lots and lots and lots of olive trees and rabbits.

At some point during a snack — OK, OK, beer — break, I notice that somewhere along the route, I have picked up a wee hitchhiker. A tiny snail has glommed onto the rim of my bicycle tire.

The gastropod biologist in me is flummoxed (unsurprising, as I am not in any way a gastropod biologist): How did this happen? Can snails survive in this dry heat? Why me?

The presence of the tiny snail is a source of mild hilarity in our group, and generates pointed comments about the speed at which I am travelling.

Next week: The world’s most dangerous walkway.