Sunday, April 26, 2009

2009 Al Andalus: Day 4 - Dos Hermanas to Carmona

MONDAY MARCH 30 2009 - DAY 4
Fase 1 - Dos Hermanas - Alcala Gra - 30.19 km
Fase 2 - Alcala Gra - Carmona - 26.40 km
TOTAL: 56.59 km

Cool and sunny at 9:30 when we arrived at the Dos Hermanas stables - nice! It was much hotter last year for Al Andalus. People think it's cold now, but I love it. Cool weather in the spring in Andalucia seems... criminal to the natives, but I do a little happy dance in my jacket.

Crews and riders were getting ready for the day's ride: walking their horses, saddling, brushing, painting and picking feet, packing trailers, planning driving strategies. A few horses had overnight bandages or mud on, but not many - I expect this will become more of a practice as the ride goes on. Vet inspections were being held for the Equipos horses that were not ridden yesterday.

At 10:35 AM, Javier's car led the 38 horses off the grounds in a controlled start. (Five horses did not go on the trail today.) Rather, I should say, 38 horses and one dog started on the trail. Somebody has 2 Jack Russells that run around at the vet gates. They are usually strapped together, and always in a pulling match because one wants to go this way, and the other wants to go that way. On Day 2, one of the Jack Russells ran 32 km along the beach (possibly the whole ride), and today he was following the horses along the controlled start. Rather, I should say, he was leading the 38 horses to the start. Completely voluntary. (I think the owner couldn't catch him.) I think he actually has a pair of wings, but he hasn't had the need to use them.

A few of the riders were raring to go, horse noses almost on our back windshield, while others spent the few kilometers walking, or walking on foot. Everybody gathered in a field on the outskirts of town and waited for the whole field to arrive. The horses grazed, the smiling riders visited. Then we led the field off on yet another controlled route, along some paved roads with a bit of traffic, with another police escort, until we arrived at a trail along a canal.

It had rained in Carmona (today's destination) last night, so Javier said he hoped the trail was good for cars - yeah, me too! I was getting a little nervous - recalling last year's crazy and sometimes scary driving - especially when we started out on the trail, and some of the men of the organization hollered to Javier, "Cuidado!" (Careful!) Oh dear!

My worries were for naught about the driving (well... today anyway...), as the trails were quite passable and dry. Equipos rider Nathalie Michel was cruising at a fast canter today on Raimon, a fresh horse. She'd ridden her other horse Petra de Sommant on the first 3 days, finishing 12th, 10th, and 10th. Today on Raimon, she was right on the bumper of our car, and in fact when we got to a creek crossing, she passed us, and we didn't see her again till she left for the second loop. She averaged 20 km/h on the first 30 km loop.

Following about 15 minutes behind her were the three French Equipos riders, Pierre Chambost, Jean Luc Chambost, and Paulette Maldera. They were only trotting, but they were coming steadily on.

Following the trail along the paved roads of a little town where people came out to watch the clatter, then zig-zagging between rich fields of wheat, and a few olive groves, we came to the vet gate near a castle, the rocky road lined with hedges and walls of prickly pear. I got pictures of a few horses coming in here, though by noon, the light is too harsh for anything spectacular.

I'd had a bit of bad luck in the daily lunch department - one day I didn't see any sandwiches (I'd just overlooked them) so I went without; another day I didn't take the time to get one so I went hungry; so today I took the time to grab a sandwich and two cold drinks from the boxes set aside for the participants. Unfortunately Javier had locked his car, and I didn't want to waste the time to find him and fetch the key and return it to him, so I set the bag with the sandwich and drinks in an obvious spot, by the back door on the driver's side, where I'd been climbing in and out.

I went back out to wait for incoming riders with Belgian Carol Gatelier, who was waiting for Leonard Liesens to come in. Leo was consistently finishing in the mid-to-back of the Binomios riders, as his borrowed horse CC Blanco was only a 6-year-old. They were averaging between 12 and 14 km/h every day.

Suddenly it was time to leave the vet gate - Nathalie was on her way onto Fase 2, off at a canter, and Javier was honking for me. I ran and jumped into the car, and we took off in hot pursuit. Ah - now time for my lunch! I looked on the back seat, and under my jacket, and on the floorboard. Not there. Javier must have chucked it in back. I reached back to find... nothing. Oh no! I leaned forward and peered hopefully over the front seat - no bag!. I was sad. Very sad. That bag of goodies was still laying in the grass right where I'd left it. I was hungry. Verrrrry sad. Well, another day without lunch. One must go on.

It was quite a rutted dirt road we sped along, but Nathalie kept at it at a canter, and once we passed her, we kept speeding along. We stopped at a road crossing to put out some new flags and make a little detour for the horses. I wasn't quite clear why; Javier said something about the police didn't want the horses going through town after all - town was too busy, or shut down, or something - and things had to change at the last minute. Javier made sure to thank all the policemen graciously for their help at each road crossing.

We dropped off Alberto at the little change in trail to finish putting out ribbons. He'd get picked up by somebody else. Then, we RACED on after Nathalie, who had passed us. When we caught her, we raced by and in front of her again - somewhat reminiscent of last year's racing up to and past the riders - and then we C-R-A-W-L-E-D, all the way into Carmona. Twice we stopped to put out extra ribbons. In fact, we drove so slowly, I couldn't even jump out of the car in time to get Nathalie as she cantered across the finish line. I'd become a Trail Ribboner again.

Nathalie had arrived at the finish, right in the middle of the old part of Carmona, at 2:30 PM; some stewards were there to take the horse's pulse (it was a vet gate finish, and he pulsed down in 8 1/2 min - there was a bit of a little climb up into the town) - but the vets hadn't arrived yet. So the groom just walked the horse around till they showed up.

Paulette Maldera finished 2nd, and Pierre Chambost 3rd in Equipos. Pierre Chambost, partners with Jean Pierre Lerisset (yesterday's winner) is back for the third year at Al Andalus. He's riding the same horse as he did last year, Mourad del Sol, and already he's decided he'll come back next year with the same horse. He comes here - like most people I've asked - for the ambience; and because it's the best, most unique way to see the countryside: it's not so touristic. Pierre has finished Florac 3 times, and he completed the Tevis Cup in 1980. I asked him why he's riding Equipos, and not Binomios. "I'm too old!" He sure doesn't look it, or ride like it!

Eduardo Sanchez won the Binomios again on Hermes. They averaged 17.31 km/h. The whole family - especially father Eduardo - were beaming afterwards. He was followed closely by Andres Velez on Pirata, and father Otto Velez was 10 minutes behind them in 7th.

It was very pleasant, 20*C, with a few clouds offering shade. I took a few photos under the finish line, and I tested the Cruzcampo beer. Either it was strong, or I needed to eat. Oh yea - probably the latter, having forgotten my sandwich today : ( . Angela saved me just then by giving me some french fries - which then made it possible to have another Cruzcampo beer. Really, the beer was so cool and refreshing. Later I discovered the beer boys had a box sandwiches left, so I grabbed one of them and devoured it.

After some more finishers passed under the line I went out on wobbly legs a few blocks into town to the Alcazar (Fortress) de la Puerta de Sevilla and took some pictures there as the horses passed. After a mostly flat ride all day, at the end riders had a stiff climb up the hill into Carmona. The first thing that greeted them was one of the fortress gates.

People have lived around Carmona for "millions of years" (says a brochure of the city); circular cabins dug out of rock in the higher areas date back to 4000 BC. Being in a strategic position controlling communication routes through the ages, the same higher defensive positions on a hill kept the town flourishing, especially around the 7th century BC. The town successively became an important Carthaginian, then Roman enclave. The Romans added three more gates to the defensive walls, several of which can still be seen. Behind the gates, you can still follow the winding narrow streets of the old city.

Every day after the ride, I was always on the lookout to find a ride to my hotel. The sooner I got a ride, the more work I could get done... but I somehow always had plenty of time to keep testing the Cruzcampo while I waited. Sometimes I went in one car, my computer was in another, and my suitcase in yet another. Today I caught a ride with Emilio, a Spanish photographer, and his writing partner. We left before a lot of the staff of Al Andalus, but there were so many one-way streets, and we weren't quite sure where we were going, so we ended up at the hotel after most everybody else.

And what a lovely hotel was the 4-star Hotel Alcazar de la Reina! One of those places you really wish you could stay a while. Emilio and I were starving, so we walked through the town looking for a place to eat. Tonight's ride meeting and hors d'ouevres were not till "8:30", and that late sandwich had disappeared long ago, and, moreover, I hadn't found Javier to get my computer out of his car, so, I couldn't do any work anyway.

We found a place that served pizza - the lady wasn't quite open yet, but Emilio charmed her into making us a pie anyway. Between my Spanish and Emilio's English, we had a decent conversation. He was new to covering the endurance scene, but he was enjoying it.

Back at the hotel, around 8:30 (you know, when the ride meeting was supposed to start) a group of us were heading out the door to walk to the old building where it would take place. Someone had just arrived who was looking for me, Paula da Silva, a photographer from Italy whose work I'd admired from afar. We hit it off right away, and in fact, she talked me into blowing off work after the meeting, and we went out after 11 PM, roaming the streets of Carmona, armed with our cameras, experimenting with night shots of the old city.

But meanwhile, the Al Andalus group slowly grew into its boisterous large crowd for the ride meeting in the outdoor patio. The beer and wine were flowing, and everybody was having a great time, talking, visiting, drinking, laughing, telling stories.

I met Stefano Chidichimo the enthusiastic, bubbling Italian, who was enjoying the beejeesus out of Al Andalus. He had visited America many years ago, and had loved everything about it, "especially Bryce Canyon." I mentioned there was a 5-day ride in Bryce Canyon, and the light that exploded in his eyes could have lit a thousand flamenco dance floors. That would be his dream ride! He almost lost his gift of enthusiastic speech momentarily just thinking about it.

Frenchwoman Marie-Christine Charlandre has returned to Al Andalus for the second time, with one of the same horses she rode last year. Like many of the riders here, she's at a bit of a disadvantage this year because it was such an unusually harsh winter in Europe that she couldn't train much. When she did, it wasnt much more than at a walk. But still she came. Why did she return? "I love the multidays, the scenery, the..." she gestured with her hands, "ambience." The most important thing a horse needed to do Al Andalus: "Strong feet. Maybe you don't have to have the best conditioned horse to do this, but the horse must have good feet." Her mare had a little puffy leg this morning, so she didn't ride today. If she does Al Andalus again, she'd like to try it as Binomios (on one horse), for the challenge.

Frenchwoman Christine Pourquier is not riding this year, but her husband Jean Pierre is, partnering with family friend Aurelie Le Gall, who rode Binomios last year, as did Christine. Aurelie is riding Lazou, the same horse she rode last year, one of the "oh, a hundred or so" endurance horses at the Pourquier's La Perigouse, a bed and breakfast, horse trekking, endurance training and breeding farm near Florac - one of the most scenic areas of France, and rich with a history of endurance, being in "Persik Land." The Pourquiers had Sirocco Sky, who, back in the days of Persik, was one of the leading sires of endurance horses, being the father of Mobrouka, the best endurance maternal blood-line in Europe.

The long distance riding is in the blood of the Pourquiers - Jean Pierre once rode the south of France to the north of Spain. "We love it," Christine said. "We'd love to ride across the US, from east to west."

With all of this enthusiastic talking and visiting going on, it turned out that at least half of us missed the ride meeting - it had happened in one of the rooms and we didn't know! Well, my main goal every night was to get the precious printed results, (I did snag a set of them), find out tomorrow's start time (11 AM), and arrange my ride with Javier in the morning (done). So, back to the visiting!

Eventually some of us headed back to the hotel. I was craving sleep (and had gotten zero work done), but who could pass up a foray into an ancient town with an excellent photographer to practice some night shots? Who really needed that much sleep anyway? There would be time to sleep after Al Andalus.

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