Indurain and me - How to avoid a mother-in-law - CycleBlaze

Indurain and me

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"Todo el mundo?"

I'd asked where all the people were. The man who served me breakfast said there wasn't any mundo. Well, a couple, maybe, but on fiesta days, he said, the hotel didn't encourage visitors. It wasn't that they were unwelcome, of course.

"Si, si... we are a hotel. We need people to come. But fiesta is different. When you had lunch, the boss gave you another key, si?"

I said that, si, he had. A key to the street door.

"Normally, we keep that door open. On fiesta days, no. It is closed. We close it after lunch, before the bulls. You come after lunch, you find us closed. Everybody is too drunk. They drink too much and then they come into the hotel and they are a nuisance. So, no, todo el mundo? No."

It seemed an odd effect on a hotel, this big day of the year when you'd think it would be full. But I didn't have the Spanish to discuss it any further and I assumed that financial wounds were treated by the very obvious high income from lunch in the restaurant that day. Todo el mundo had certainly turned out to eat. What they made of a red-eyed, saggy-faced knackered cyclist from France and two flamboyantly dressed cyclists from Belgium, they were kind enough to keep to themselves.

It wasn't a Belgian cyclist I was after today, though. It was Indurain. Miguel Indurain was a tall Spaniard who always won the Tour de France by dominating the long time trial. Hardly a man to thrill the soul, it was said of him once that the only interesting thing about him was that there was nothing interesting to say about him. Except that he was the first man to win five Tours consecutively, which I suppose says plenty enough.

Indurain was a little village about half an hour away. If I needed a route to take on my amble across to Pamplona then to go via Indurain was plenty incentive enough. I didn't ride even a metre of main road from the hotel. Instead, the former road started at the hotel's gates, passed through a wooded area and then emerged on the country lane that I needed. And quiet it was. As I was to discover, main roads in Spain are busy and frequently fast, but the byways - often surprisingly well surfaced - can see a car an hour. I saw more tractors in fields than anything else.

The road rolled up and down and had a quiet if uneventful charm to it. And then I saw it: the sign for Indurain. Childish, I know, but impossible to miss the chance of a photo, both of the sign and of me standing in front of it looking suitable heroic if un-Indurain-like.

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Pamplona has all the usual high-speed roadways of all Spanish cities. Not a lot of fun to ride into but lovely once you're there. The architecture wasn't quite French, nor quite Italian, but distinctly Mediterranean. Just Spanish, I suppose. A pleasant place to wander about in, with pleasant squares, narrow shopping streets and a general feel of prosperity and well-being.

Only one way out, though, and that was the main road heading south. It runs alongside a motorway, which lifts the traffic a bit, and a wide shoulder made it not unreasonable riding provided all you wanted to do was do as many kilometres as you could in a brief time. And that was helped by a strong tailwind, giving a ride broken only by a stop for more water and for coffee and a cake and by making as much as I could of a dubbed interview of Keith Richards on the café television.

"Los Rolling Stones", Keith was saying, his lips speaking English but his voice reaching me in Spanish. "Soy ingles... mucho... esta... en Mick..." I can't say I even got the drift of what he was on about but it was fun. Like the day on a school trip to Spain when I bought a Spanish version of a Cliff Richard record that announced he was playing "con los Shadows". At 13 years old, it was the most exciting thing ever.

Pamplona: nice place, but mind the bulls
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The camp site at Olite was about fit for the town, which smells of the factories that dominate it. It has a splendid castle-like place used as a parador but that only made the rest seem worse by comparison. Even the signpost for the camp site proved wrong. Not only did it lure me into the town centre but it directed me down a side road that led to nothing but housing and a football field.

"Oh, it's wrong", a woman told me in Spanish and then, when it was clear I hadn't understood a thing, once more in perfect French. She said she had spent several sessions working with elderly people in the Agen area, near where I live. I remember a story about a British and a Russian zoologist who got stuck in a lift together without a word in common except the names of their animals in Latin. One would say "monkeys" and the other would lift up so many fingers, then say "hippos" and the other would answer. The conversation went on until their Latin, or maybe their animals, gave out.

The Spanish woman and I could talk happily in French but neither could resist naming villages we knew in the hope that the other knew them. When we tired of that, which was fairly quickly, she pointed me back out of town and down a minor main road to the left, drawing a map on scrap paper from her briefcase to help.

The site matched the town. It wasn't that it was for caravans and mobile homes; it was that so many people evidently lived there for months at a time, or perhaps all year, that it had the air of a gypsy site. Some of the mobile homes were open but others were being worked on by men wielding brazing torches or cutting sheets of plastic to form protective panels for their investments.

The people turned out friendly enough, though, and waved as they walked by.

"Esta a bici", they were probably saying, or whatever the Spanish is for "He's come by bike."

And then my neighbours turned up, the only other campers, a couple I took to be mother and daughter. They were from Deux Sèvres in France and heading south. I bequeathed them most of my washing-up liquid, having decanted all that I needed into a small plastic bottle. This generosity was greeted with somewhat more surprise than gratitude, I couldn't help noticing.

This turned out the second site I left without paying, another virtue of arriving after office hours and departing before them. I rode back into town and sat on a low wall close to the parador to eat baguette and jam. And then I rode first across an unremarkable valley before starting a long and steady climb to first San Martin de Unx and then the medieval hilltop village of Ujué.

The village was a collection of quaint streets and steps beneath an imposing church with a huge crane poised above it. A metal crane, that is, not a bird. The church itself was dark and bleak, which seems the way with Spanish churches, but the streets were pleasant and the few other tourists were French. It must be heaving in season, though, because it seems to feature in all the guide books and, as evidenced by a splendid old scarlet sports car driven by two women dressed in tweeds as though they were out of the 1920s, also on rally routes for classic cars. They were leaving just as I arrived. I couldn't help looking to see if either of them was smoking a pipe.

Ujue, a hilltop village I was determined to see but which turned out to be less impressive than many back home in France
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The road dropped and dropped after Ujué, repayment for the climbing of the morning and the less perceptible rises of the previous day. I had

Ups and downs around Ujue: the landscape is getting dryer.
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lunch in a restaurant in a village centre and pressed on content enough along a right-angle of roads which would take me to Tudela. It was on this section that I had my serious doubts about the rest of the trip.

The problem with the interior of Spain is that it is very dull and very arid. It is striking where the land rises, as at Ujué, but other than that I was riding through fields of cropped wheat or through the sort of countryside redolent of spaghetti westerns. After a couple of hours there was nothing to the ride but clipping off another dozen kilometres and then another dozen until the day's total was reached. And this frame of mind wasn't helped when I left Navarra to ride through the edge of a province which had left the road to crumble and rut. I was reduced to my smallest ring merely to keep the bike going.

Tudela came as a relief and the outskirts were nowhere as ugly as the guide book suggested. I decided on a hotel, to wash, rest and plan. The man behind the check-in counter talked to me in French - "when I was at school it was what we all learned, but now they all learn English" - and remarked that we were born in the same year, although he at the younger end. He also remarked that I was retired whereas he had another eight years to go. I sympathised and promised him it would be a good life when he got there.

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