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Wheel Adventures: A middle-aged Victorian tries cycling in Andalucia

At any point during the West Coast winter, when all there is cold rain, and darkness, and the Trump administration south of the border, the notion of cycling across Andalucía seems like a pretty good idea. It’s an easy sell.
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Tour guide Genci, caught in a rare moment actually guiding the tour.

At any point during the West Coast winter, when all there is cold rain, and darkness, and the Trump administration south of the border, the notion of cycling across Andalucía seems like a pretty good idea.

It’s an easy sell. Your brain — possibly stupid from breathing winter mould spores growing in the bathroom — is vaguely aware that southern Spain is sunny.

Never mind that sun means sunburn and heat exhaustion and severe crotch rashes. Also, your brain knows that cycling is exercise, which it remembers from its youth as something healthy that justifies beer afterwards.

Never mind the knee pain and risk of heart attack and guaranteed sore bum.

With sunshine and exercise in mind, your brain is all-in, which means you’re booking flights and finding a tour company.

There are many good companies that organize safe and fun overseas cycle tours. We chose Australia’s Intrepid Travel, mostly because a few years ago, my dad and I rode through Costa Rica and Panama on chicken buses with Intrepid, and neither of us died. Also, I only need to do nine more expensive international excursions before I get a free loyalty reward trip. Sweeeeeeet deal!

Sun and exercise aside, there are good reasons for middle-age cycle adventures. My wife and I discuss them from time to time, usually during winter wind storms, when the subject of replacing the aging cedar roof seems most pressing.

Or when, you know, one of us takes a look around and makes an accurate-but-depressing list that includes items such as carpets (dingy, threadbare); kitchen linoleum (cracking, peeling, gross); kitchen countertops (crappy, not long for the world) and bathrooms (leaky, mouldy, super gross). It’s a long and expensive list.

However, the long, expensive list itself turns out to be the best reason for ignoring the long, expensive list in favour of spending your time and money on adventure.

What I mean is this: There will always be a long, expensive list. But there will not always be an opportunity for overseas cycle adventures. Here’s a helpful Mark Twain quote to justify my position: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

If you don’t like Mark Twain, pretend it’s from Shania Twain, or Gene Simmons, or Don Cherry, or somebody you do like.

My point is, if not now, when? Neither of us is getting younger, stronger, or smarter. The road calls, and I am concerned that if we don’t answer the call, we never will. Next year may be too late. And while I will never regret spending all my money to travel the world with my love, I suspect a deep disappointment would accompany dying in a house with bright new carpets and lovely granite kitchen countertops, but no travel memories.

Can I really do this?

Getting to Spain is no big deal, if you are willing to fly in an airplane. After dealing with the middle-age sleep deprivation that comes with binge-watching downloaded Netflix shows while crossing too many time zones, the only thing to worry about is worry. That is to say, the 50-plus-year-old brain is wont to consider the possibility that you will not be coming home after this cycle trip.

After reaching a certain age (and girth), one begins to view climbing big hills with diminishing enthusiasm. I no longer look at a steep incline and ask myself, “What would Lance Armstrong do?” Partly this is because we all know that Lance Armstrong would take performance enhancing drugs and then lie to Oprah about it, and partly because the hill is enough. That is to say, I no longer need to conquer the hill, I just need the hill not to conquer me.

Yes, it is much, much easier to travel the countryside by car than by bicycle. I’m not about to make an argument against car trips, which are fine so long as you have a car, but I do want to suggest that cycling has much to offer. For example, the smells of a new place are best experienced on a bike.

For every road apple (note: NOT real apples!) there is a grove of sweet orange trees in blossom. Whereas in the car, you get the artificial smell of pine scent air freshener or, if you are particularly unlucky, terrible close-quarter draughts of Uncle Mark’s irritable bowel syndrome.

Another clear advantage of cycling over driving is that you can pretty much eat anything you want without getting any fatter. And when I say eat, I mean drink. Most days on cycle tours I drink beer by 10 a.m., like a proper European concerned with his electrolyte balance. I need not remind you that this approach is frowned upon when driving.

Thus are the worries of the grey matter hushed. It is time to drink life to the lees!

Meeting our fellow cyclists

It’s been many years since first-day-of-school butterflies. But that’s what the anticipation of meeting our cycle tour group feels like. How many? Where from? How big are their thighs?

One by one they arrive. We make small talk, sitting around the quiet lobby of Hotel Don Carlo in downtown Seville, under the gaze of yet-another portrait of Mary sporting gigantic-but-unlikely golden headgear. She looks more like a wealthy and vengeful Hindu deity. A lawyer from Chicago. Two New Zealanders, a couple from Kelowna, and us. And our guide.

Our guide looks like a great deal like Popeye, only with normal-sized forearms. He squints and juts out his lower jaw at random moments, and makes complicated explosive noises of displeasure or delight, according to whatever is happening under that cycling helmet. Mostly he is very difficult to understand, a feat he manages in both Spanish and English.

He introduces himself to our little group as something unpronounceable, but then tells us to call him Genci ( “HEN-thee”), which most of our little group cannot or will not do. In our defence, it can be difficult for English speakers to properly emulate the Castilian “lisp,” where you make a kind of sibilant “th” sound in place of certain letters like “c.” For example, “andalu-THEE-a” instead of “anadlu-SEE-a.” More to the point: the lisp sounds goofy, and we just don’t do it.

You may have heard the persistent urban legend which claims that the Castilian “lisp” can be traced back to a Spanish king who spoke with an actual lisp. It is a credible explanation, because our species does tend to placate men in power (and why I’ll never be surprised to see White House staffers sporting wispy corn comb-overs and Cheetos-coloured pancake makeup). The myth has been discredited by scholars for lack of evidence, but it remains because evidence-based thinking is not something our species is very good at.

Despite – or maybe because of – being 51 years old, Genci is a very fit and experienced cyclist, as evidenced by his pipe-cleaner legs, aerodynamic sunglasses, and sweat-wicking cycling jersey. By contrast, every day I wear an old pair of shorts, Teva sandals, and a cotton T-shirt that says, “Ask me about my explosive diarrhea,” or something similar.

My wife has strong opinions about this shirt, in particular, and in proper cycling attire in general. But so do I: when on a cycling tour, wear what feels comfortable. If you’re comfortable in $250 cycling shorts with super-dooper buttocks padding, wear that every day. Also, for obvious reasons on the hot, sunny Iberian Peninsula, wash that every day.

I like Genci very much, but he will prove to be a terrible tour guide. My estimation of his performance relies on the internationally accepted standard for tour guides, which is that the tour guide should know something – anything – about the place being toured. It’s like it was Genci’s first time in Spain, or certainly his first time talking to other people.

A brief example: outside the pub near Hotel Don Carlo, one of our group asks Genci how old the pub is. “[complicated explosive sound] I do not know. I used to know, but now I do not know. [complicated explosive sound] Perhaps almost one hundred years?” As he speaks we notice the date, clearly marked at eye level on the side of the building: 1760.

At some point in every travel adventure you clue in to the fact that in addition to speaking a different language, the locals do not actually use the same words to describe place names. Okay, Hollywood is Hollywood, but Rome is actually Roma. Seville is Sevilla. In linguistics, this is called an exonym – what we call a place – versus an endonym, what the people who live there actually call it.

This may sound facile, but it’s an important truth that underscores why travel is so important: the way you do things back home is just a way of doing things. Not the way.

Next week: Don’t tell anyone, but he went to a bullfight.


Way, waaaaay past his prime, David Sovka is a Victoria-based writer who loves to explore the forgotten corners of the map, and to be left the hell alone.

Alas, his wife and best friend insists that he do so in sensible shoes and a crash helmet.

This winter, Sovka is writing about cycle tours to sunny, exotic places by average, middle-aged Victorians — to be precise, himself and his wife, Roseanne Sovka.
In the first five weeks, he will take us to Andalucía, Spain. His trip there will be followed by Cuba, and then Central America — Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama.