By Chris Mehlman
When I decided to take a year off between high school and college to focus on racing, I knew that I wanted to try to spend some time in a warmer climate to train over the winter. After a lot of time researching places to go, I realized that, surprisingly, the US wasn’t necessarily the cheapest or easiest option for a 2-month trip. Thanks to some friends, I was able to get connected with a group of American and Canadian road racers who go to Malaga in the south of Spain every winter. Being able to explore a new culture on my bike and get the necessary winter training in before a big season of racing was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I booked a plane ticket, packed my bikes, and headed off on an adventure!
Spanish culture took some getting used to, but once I settled in, I did not want to leave. I’m usually an early-to-bed, relatively early-to-rise type of person, but the Spanish lifestyle shifts everything later. Restaurants often don’t open until 8:30 or 9 PM, and things don’t really get going in the morning until 10AM. For a relatively high-strung, regimented person like me, this schedule helped make Spanish culture feel much more laid back and less rushed than the American lifestyle. It was a much need change in pace.
I was able to use my bike to explore and further interact with the culture in a way that I could not have on a tour bus or in a car. Beyond the city limits lay miles of empty paved roads winding their way into the mountains, and endless dirt tracks. Within a 15 minute ride from our apartment in the city center, I was on dirt heading up (and up and up) into the Montés de Malaga Natural Park. Most of the trails were wide, but there was a section of the park filled with technical singletrack descents and populated by guys in full face helmets riding 160mm travel bikes. The park itself, as the name suggests, was very hilly. From the base to the top some 3000 feet above the city was about an hour long climb when riding hard, and there was little flat riding to be found anywhere in the park. The trails felt like they were hundreds of miles from the city, even though there were areas of the park which almost looked directly down on the maze of streets below. Despite not feeling the same adrenaline and flow that one gets riding singletrack like the kind found in the US, spending my long rides exploring new dirt paths, seeing abandoned farm houses and goat pastures and fountains just made me want to ride my bike more and more. Even though my hard workouts were very challenging, having a amazing view waiting at the top or doing my efforts on a new sections of road or trail made it all worth it and helped keep me motivated. The abundance of pastry shops also helped on those days!
One of the most exciting parts of the trip was exploring the bike culture in Spain. Mountain biking there is not exactly the same as what we consider it to be here. At least in the Malaga area, people seem to either be lycra-clad XC riders or racers on light hardtails or full suspension bikes, or they seem to be full-on enduro-loving riders who happily take a fire road to the top to ride or race down technical singletrack. The XC riding could almost be classified as what we would now call “gravel” (albeit a tiny bit more technical). There were few trail bikes and the terrain and trails didn’t really suit that style of riding. Another thing I had to adjust to was the number of e-bikes on the trails. While they are a controversial topic here in the US, they seem to be more widely accepted in Spain, and with the amount of climbing involved in every ride, riders use them to help access the fun descents or just hang with their XC-racing friends. The road riding scene is also much bigger there than here. On every ride I went on, regardless of the day of week, I was constantly passing large groups of cyclists. Just as café stops are a thing among roadies, they are even more important in Spain, and with the number of cafés that dot the roadside near the Montés de Malaga park, I also often found groups of mountain bikers congregated for a snack or a hearty lunch. Since these establishments were accustomed to cyclists, they were great places to fill up bottles mid-ride. I often topped off my bottles at the cafés or one of the seemingly infinite supply of eateries in the city for lunch in the sun after my ride. Drivers were also used to encountering many cyclists, and usually respected bikes much more than here in the US.
I found that the easiest way to immerse myself in the bike culture was to spend time at the local shop (Recyclo Bike Shop and Café). Through them, I was able to find a local MTB race, get a ride from one of the organizers at another local shop, and experience just how special the riding community is in Malaga. The race was held in a small village outside Malaga, and while races are often more of a nuisance for locals in the US, the entire village came out to this race. It was a major event for such a small town, with over 400 racers. I went into it not knowing what to expect, and discovered the hard way that races are run very differently there than in the US. You haven’t suffered on the bike until you’ve ridden a 30 minute climb in the middle of a 1 lap XC race. The few hours after the race were a massive party, complete with a delicious stew made with a myriad of animals parts I was not accustomed to. Everyone in town was very welcoming of the race. Through this experience, I became good friends with a local racer and shop mechanic, and we ended up riding together and are still in touch.
I would never have made any of these connections or discovered the secret gems I did without my bike. While Malaga is a popular place for tourists and cruise ship passengers, I felt incredibly lucky to have the freedom to ride my bike, explore, and not be tied down to the traditional tourist circus. Wherever you travel to next, consider making riding a part of your trip. Whether is is just taking a rental bike for a spin or doing a full on bike-packing trip, you won’t regret it.