It was a delight to hear that my 2015 XPD team mate Ahmed was keen to race again, and Raid Gallaecia fit the schedule – we were off to Spain! (where on earth is Gallaecia anyway?!). Thanks to Extreme Sports Kuwait and Pro Vision.
Locked in was my China team mate Christine Perry, and behind the scenes are often-possible dramas of injuries and other hiccups which saw us cycle through a few 4th team members. Ahmed found a Dutchman Marijn, as a last minute member whilst scrambling to complete the team 3 weeks before kick off.
With the team was locked in, now to think logistics like; how do we get there? (Some quick searching pre-commitment seemed simple with an affordable flight to Madrid then scoot up from there).
More drama unfolded once we got serious… How to get there went something like: China Southern? No! But they are cheap, still no.. OK next is, Qantas. Great! Frequent flyer points. But wait it’s codeshare? With Emirates?… No way Emirates baggage allowance is deplorable! Who’s next. Oh, unless we pay another $2k, there is no one else! So be it. Qantas/Emirates… Can we take a bike box, and gear in 30kg and 1 piece of luggage? No, we have to buy, how much to buy.. Right, $160/kg & minimum 5 kg. Really!? So between Christine and myself we needed some 15kg extra.. So let’s buy another seat! Wait a sec… I have a girlfriend that will come I’m sure of it! Nudge/wink. Okay we are sorted, carry on baggage only for her..!!
What about a connecting flight. Impossible, time, cost, hotel, weight with bike box. Right, a car! OK! A car, no van! 2 bike boxes and a team to fit in hmm.. (desperate researching of van storage capacities ensues..). Hire sites say “or similar” what a risk! Bugger it, let’s chance whatever we get..!
So now with this skinny weight plan to get to Spain, enter me weighing everything I come in contact with and cutting labels and ancillary bits off all my gear. (Didn’t get as desperate as shortening shoelaces though (joking..)).
A successful arrival in Madrid and a win with the hire car “or similar”, meant we were happily surprised with a great little VW Touran hire car. (We snuck a night in at Segovia en-route, and recommend it if you are in the area).
Driving in Spain was great; the speed limit is a guide (160kms/hr in pouring rain A-OK), and people pull back in really quickly after overtaking which is nice, and the quality roads are great!
Arriving at race town As Pontes De Garcia “As Pontes” the place is framed by multiple picturesque hilltops of wind turbines (foreshadowing, and a hint we didn’t get.. Just like I overlooked the fact it was torrential rain for the last 100kms of the drive), and below the hills sits the town.
I didn’t get a photo but just imagine the opening scene of The Simpsons and 2 giant nuclear power station cooling towers in a town that hasn’t seen development since 1970 (including wifi at maybe 2 places). Impressively clean and tidy – we were to learn this region isn’t about new and fancy, it’s about old charm and aggressively competing for a ‘tidy town’ award.
The crew together at last, Marjin had booked an Airbnb which was a winner – a full house to unpack, and the owner let us leave our things there during the race. It looked like the family had left that morning but that was perfectly fine.
With some last minute purchases including matching team bike gloves, we signed in at HQ. An impressively run event, everyone was always nice, friendly, and it was all very clear. We were also clear on the only quirk – “Spanish Time” where everything is perhaps a few minutes behind the schedule (including the race start a few mins late).
Here you see strict enforcement of the 90cm long x 30cm high x 30cm wide kayak bag rule including one very agricultural hessian bag we assume was ‘borrowed’ from a local farmer!…
In a rare moment of blistering heat we decided to ride the bikes some 14kms to the first bike TA/drop off which was a terrible idea when we have a car but with that done, let’s bring on the race!
The start was set for a very Spanish and leisurely 9am, and 15 minutes prior the first 4 maps were handed out (of 8 total). It was an easy marking up session and then we were ready to go. Bang!
(Day 1/Leg 1 Trek: 11kms) Everyone took off – literally – we went straight to second last place still running a 5/min km. The benefit of that was that some teams went a longer way instead of a bridge and we ended up mixing in mid-pack as we started the first climb. Soon after it turned out that Marjin’s shin splints noted a few weeks before would catch up with him. Up over some wind farm hills we dropped down a road on the other side to the kayak leg that came upon us very quickly.
(Day 1/Leg 2 Kayak: 48kms) This part was fantastic. Now we got to understand how you can only scratch the surface of what looks like some industrial town when blasting through as a car-bound tourist. Quite easily As Pontes could be an adventure capital. The kayak leg involved ‘mini rapids’ (not quite enough to throw you out but enough to have a roaring good time), mixed in with some hike-a-boat around dams and levy banks.
We had pre-purchased a kayak trolley off the organisers so we thought it would be the ticket to do the job. Except we couldn’t get it to work – eventually realising the legs sticking up were not to go around the outside, but through the drain holes in the sit-top kayaks…. Except they didn’t fit (well). Bouncing between river and road down beside the power plant, we popped over to the lake.
Here we curiously looked under the bottom of our 2 vertical-stacked boats after the last portage, to see that the ill-fitting legs had broken through the hull inside the drain tube, due to the leveraged weight of the trolley legs not being all the way in. The boat would have sunk in an instant. A friendly guy with the organisers sacrificed his sandwich metal foil wrapping to use as a plug at each drain hole end, with a promise to arrange another boat for our return back from the CP the other side of the lake.
This flat long section was uneventful, except for concerns over Christine and Marjns boat, and Marjin’s arms (struggling). On return to the launch point we collected the new boat which was required – more rapids ahead! Gees, it was really good fun, there was some shallow bits and pushing,etc. but on the whole it was very good. Then a long winding river paddle continued for what seemed like forever until we reached the end of the kayak in fading light. Finishing the kayak we were relieved and Marjin announced jubilantly it was 8 times longer than he had paddled in his life! (Ahmed and I had towed them for the last 10kms).
(Day 1/Leg 3 Trek: 35kms) Using a personal bag system by the race organisers we had our own things ready shortly with Marjin now on nav we started an immediate hike. The first CP was a lovely viewpoint over the meandering river we had spent the last 5 hours on, and at this point we had the taste of Gallaecia’s wind the hilltop wind farms had foreshadowed..
The last light started our first night at 8:30/9pm, and the trek continued along old paths and watermill waterways. Feeling like you were literally in the middle of nowhere you have a strange appreciation of the many stone buildings and overgrown stone fences that were surely done at a huge manual labour cost many years ago.
Features of the trek included getting lost, the sudden impact of the temp dropping, and difficult navigation. Eventually first light arrived as we stumbled along to the last 3 checkpoints before making our way to the day prior’s bike drop point. For a good portion of the last half of the leg we tag-teamed with what was to be the winning (/only surviving full course) pair team comprising 2x 2 male teams working together. From the Canary Islands, they couldn’t speak any English which was cool.
(Day 2/Leg 4 Bike: 58kms) Somewhat refreshed we started our climb back the way we came on roads through small villages. A feature of the landscape is large grey boulders, so it was funny to see a giant boulder with a ladder and plaque on the side of the road turned into a monument as a glorifying homage to cruel nature.
Overnight Marjins hire bike tyres had gone flat, and some 10kms into the ride the tubeless system gave up and we stripped it out for a tube, and then another. After which I took a wrong turn. Later, another wrong turn. Feeling fuzzy in frustration with myself over all these ~3km extra bits I was forcing on the team, Marjin asked if I wanted him to nav and I happily handed the map over. As a bike courier he turned out to have the skills to ride well uninhabited by the map, so that was his new role in the team and it was decided mine shall be the foot/kayak nav.
It’s funny you read about top team reports saying “it was a new team / new member so..” and from our obtuse example I know exactly what they mean: Teams should ideally train together, get to know each other, rather than spending days sorting out strengths and weaknesses.
Remember the hilltop foreshadowing? The hills were epic! Hike your bike was a common theme, along with many farm roads and spiced with rain. At one point seeing the Canary boys ahead we somewhat teamed up, plowing through a field down hill towards the intersection some distant hills.. With a dark sky and dramatic landscape it was a great AR moment racing at full pelt on the MTB. Regrettably it was the wrong way, but a nice moment. And soon we were going what definitely felt the wrong way, carrying the bikes down a steep embankment to a serene valley below – it was the right way though!
Back chasing down the Canaries at sunset; which turn!? We assumed the duo males went out of bounds to get the hell out of this mess of ‘possible turns’ along a steep road. We pressed on to find the right track, eventually late night coming into Ortigueira town as the rain bucketed down as heavy as ever. Having not slept for 2 days I was cycling like a drunk micro-sleeping, wobbling down the street towards the TA which loomed ahead just visible through the rain, in the form of a large basketball stadium.
Cheery faces and clapping hands of the organisers greeted us ~10pm as we found shelter and warmth. Teams lined up in the bleachers in sleeping bags after hanging up wet clothes and scoffing a hot microwaved meal provided by the organisers. It was an oasis umbrella from the torrential rain heard on the roof.
We had however, missed the next trek cutoff a few hours earlier which meant no abseil (looked good, too!) and no wetsuit canyoning (reportedly horrible!). Other teams who beat the cut off still opted not to do the abseil-canyon loop just because the conditions were so horrible. So we had friends to sleep the night with and wait out the rain. We were definitely looking forward to our first sleep given how the rain was lashing the building outside.
Day 3/Leg 6 (5 skipped) Bike: 28km) Waking up the next morning accidently an hour later than planned proved a blessing, as earlier teams started in the rain, whilst for our departure it was dry outside. We left with some full course teams who looked slick in fitness and kit!
A hot climb soon started as the sun drenching contrasted to the day prior. An endless very steep climb even meant walking sometimes despite it being a sealed road, to end at a nice hilltop outlook CP – once again reminding why AR is so rewarding.
Heading bush and bombing downhill we popped out to the next quaint town Cariño (they are all quaint!) where where we left the bikes, grabbed an amazing ham-cheese pastry they offered, ready for the next trek which was a quick out-back loop.
(Day 3/Leg 7 Trek: 15km) On exit, we grabbed more amazing food in the form of an apple pastry for the go, and this short trek loop took us to some nice vantage points roughly along a nature walk of the coastal peninsula. Bypassing great tracts of raped earth where trees had been stripped in km patches, the rain did its thing to go from light-heavy-light. The best option seemed to be hooking my jacket over my pack and securing the hood on my head to allow heat to escape and prepare for the inevitable tap to be turned off a short time later. This was a picturesque trek and we saw the tireless effort of photographers who would go to great efforts to run ahead of teams for the best shots. This was one gem:
Short-cutting over a hill was a win, and overshooting a CP a loss, but otherwise it was just a pleasant walk eventually back to the bikes a few hours later. The clear understanding of the maps on this leg was that a vague 4×4 track and major roads were all represented on the map as the same style and size despite their real life variation (similarly with small creeks and large streams).
(Day 3/Leg 8 Bike: 70km) Back the way we came via pastries, we exited for more hills! Passing a big quarry over Ortigueira and into the fog. The sun was all but gone, replaced with cold, wind and clouds. The clouds were so thick and the cross wind so unbelievably strong! Suddenly the chill contrasted to the blistering sun at the start of the day..
The hilltop CP in an ancient stone building provided some relief from the elements, as the wind howling was barely matched by windfarm turbine blades swooping around. Flying back downhill we entered the town of San Andrés de Teixido. Now this place was something special, it was emphasised by being quiet, lacking tourists, and by a dramatic grey sky and big storm brewing out to sea.
Pinching ourselves in a small graveyard, Ahmed attempted to take a photo (wrong button!):
It was this leg rain spits turned to rain, then to spits again – and repeat. Some of the MTB hike-a-bike was the stuff of legends.
At one point late during the dark night we looked up and far in the sky were little red blips. We exclaimed to each other and pleaded to Marjin that the map did not say we had to go where another team was, appearing to be somewhere in the sky 45 degrees and at least a kilometre above us on a very slippery muddy slope. Alas.
Dropping off was some rewarding albeit dangerous downhill along 4×4 track where one wrong move would have you in the wheel rut and flying over the handlebars. Safely into a town ~11:45pm the now torrential rain and cold was getting to us and we sought shelter under the small lip of a shop front to get more clothes on. Mid-process we spot bikes against a wall and light, warmth! emanating from down the street. Food! Salvation! For Spain and all it’s siestas and late starts, Galleacia ‘retirement village of the north’ shares less similarities with elsewhere and shuts shop very early in the evening. This one watering hole had a Spanish team leaving, which helped translate that in their hand was the last bocadillo but the bar were serving hot drinks despite wanting to close. My shout! Coffees and hot chocolate ordered we turned our attention to a foiled figure propped up in a booth – South African team Cyanosis was having an AR struggle moment.
Through the rain and hill exhaustion of the night, we focussed on the next TA coming up; the headland orienteering where we planned to rest and have a quiet bite to eat. Well, rolling into the Vila Da Praia TA our heart sank. It was ~3am rain and there was howling wind.. And no TA area. It was a highly exposed shade sale on the side of a building, for which the TA official recommended we go around the side of the building for shelter. It was hardly shelter.. So cold and tired and defeated after the hype of this stop, we ate and changed with shaking hands just prepared to get out and do the orienteering and hold out until day break.
(Day 4/Leg 9 Trek:8kms) At this stage I was pretty tired and fell asleep walking, to then open my eyes at the ground and scream “a crab!”… Sleep monsters playing tricks on me with a puddle on the ground that had nicely formed into a crustacean in my mind. Alas, entertainment for the team. We trudged on in grumbling spirits from lighthouse to cool turret bunker and back to the TA with a few mishaps in between to get the ordering right, as the sun rose somewhere beneath grey clouds. I had to take my shoe off to get a blister at one point as the pain had just become unbearable, and seeing the condition of my feet for the first time it seemed the effects of the constant soaking had destroyed them.
(Day 4/Leg 10 Bike: 37kms) Setting off from the TA ~7am it was now a sun out normal morning, and we made it about 1-2kms before the exhaustion demanded a sleep in any protected place that would offer us a stone pillow. The towns old well did the trick for a sneaky 30mins that we had so longed for at 2/3am when arriving at the previous TA.
There was a bit of tricky nav in the next part but with enough thought we made it up and over the rocky hills (hike-hike-hike) eventually finding a paved road and rolling into Ferrol town to the Dolce Vita Shopping Centre TA.
It was a clever and unique TA in a shopping centre; teams enter through an obscure entry down a fake grass carpet in the middle of a major shopping centre passing daytime shoppers to a white picket fence TA with tracking TV’s, announcers, bike racks, and food for the weary. Time for a sleep in a closed shop shell where our bags awaited with bed supplies.
(Day 5/Leg 33 Trek: 33kms) Rested from the sleep we walked out of town in the thirsty heat, finding our way up more hills across some farms, to zigzag down to a waterfall CP.
At this point feet and body were still really sore from steep inclines, toe jamming and aching hikes.. But pushing on as you do. Tracking the river the sun eventually set with more climbs up whilst the temperature dropped.
Coming down a mountain we spot the husband/wife team having rest protected from the elements in a bus shelter – shortly later we found one of our own to put on everything! So cold. Not that it needed mentioning, but of course – wind and rain featured prominently and was on/off all throughout this trek.
Winding our way down and along a river road we hit the TA to start the next leg.
(Day 5/Leg 12 Kayak: 25kms) The night paddle starting at some terrible hour 12PM took motivation(1 hour eek!) to get ready (wetsuit a great idea!), and eventually we hit the water after being told to shortcourse and skip a CP due to the weather/water conditions. Teaming up with the husband/wife couple we met earlier, for safety more than navigation.
With Christine and Marjin in tow for a bit until it became too difficult, it was very dark and the winding river eventually opened up to a harbour where we had to line ourselves up to cross under some distant bridges to find the mouth. At one point a port official boat found us and ensured kayaks and fishing vessels didn’t meet! Once out past the mouth and bridges, the sea chop and wind kept us paddling like madmen to stay warm, Chrisine/Marjin struggling behind, and the rolling waves unfortunately not conducive to towing.
With our target harbour in sight we pulled in during the last minutes of dark; the maritime harbour and office providing a warm TA with hot(!!) showers. Suffice to say, this was also a slow (1 hour eeek!) transition.. (Marinara seafood pasta provided).
(Day 5/Leg 13 Trek: 23kms) The breaking day put a spring in our step as we knew this was our last trek of the race. It also framed the quaint harbour of Aries which is really beautiful and distracting from immediately sore feet. After a good beach stumble and another beautiful Praza Crisanto Peña – such a unique little place – I had an ill feeling for some time that started getting worse. I wondered how long the seafood pasta had been sitting at the last TA.
Making our way off the coast and through dirt lanes through hills we sought out a few more CPs before coming across team Salomon; a very unwell team member dehydrated and out of it, with them and other teams around also discussing a certain pasta meal!
Soon back in our favourite shopping centre TA, we changed and were ready for the last bike. This was it!
(Day 5/Leg 14 Bike: 47kms) Familiar territory as we came through similar tracks from day 2 on our way back the finish in As Pontes. A local Spanish team traded places with us for a bit as each of us made different route choices. Ahmed pipes up with joy in his voice “Hey guys!” he yells.. “when you think it’s the end, it’s not the end”.. Quickly flipping through his wife’s present of inspirational quote cards he keeps it light and humoured.
Eventually through some great MTB tracks we gradually dropped down to the day 1 lake, cycling around to the streets towards the HQ/Finish.
Coming in at ~11pm there was still a decent crowd milling around and we were greeted by many happy faces, photographers and happily for me, my girlfriend there to watch us roll over. What an achievement!
It had been a race of many struggles, but for all the things that made it hard it was such an experience in a foreign country in a pleasant countryside, having felt so removed, it was unique.. And the leg lengths were good that just as you were beginning to hurt and hate, the TA was in sight.
All in all we were all pleased to cross the line as one happy bunch without having and major hiccups along the way, thanks team.