I remember the first time I ever visited my friend Simon in Spain. We rolled into Malaga airport, with bikes, at about nine in the evening. Strolled out into a wall of fresh, evening heat, stashed the bikes on a trailer and drove off into the night. Chugged off might be more accurate - back then, Si was driving a knackered old Mk3 Polo diesel - the passenger window was jammed open, the door was jammed shut and the whole thing was fragrant with the delicate scent of diesel.
About three hours later, we arrived. Somewhere back in time. White rounded walls, stepped alley ways and a total absence of light. Medieval. Bikes in bags dragged slowly through narrow passages and, finally, into the cool, low innards of a traditional Spanish house. Bird sounds. A lizard in the shower. And next morning, a view down to the sea that made you want to cry.
The plan was to stay for a week with Si, who'd just set up Freeride Spain, then take off for a week touring southern Spain - Sevilla, Ronda, Granada... Except that somehow the blend of hot, dusty, technical riding. Laid-back Spanish living. Bonkers strong coffee in the sun. And the best company. All those things made it almost impossible to leave.
And when, finally, we tore ourselves away, we virtually had to force Simon to take our money. The daft sod.
Since that first visit, ten years ago, I've lost count of the number of times I've been out to Spain. Through good times and bad - there was the epic week when I'd been climbing near Alicante and drove over to find Simon with a broken leg, near bankrupted by a cantankerous Oldmobile people carrier, and shivering in near freezing temperatures - riding old trails and new. Always happy to be here, always welcome.
I've watched Freeride Spain grow from random beginnings, to a small, happy, family business. Seen Simon and Emma marry. Met Maxi. And the bump to come. Got hammered hopelessly on gin and tonics. Crashed myself senseless. Laughed. Cried. Sometimes simultaneously.
And here I am again in the sun. Alternating road and trail. Missing my road bike. Loving my mountain bike. Drinking Spanish coffee in familiar bars. Stirring tea in a familiar fishy mug - the last survivor, I think, from a bulk buy of Orgiva crockery.
Feeling mellow and slightly sad for reasons I don't quite understand. And happy too. Coffee. Tapas. Groomed tarmac with drivers who treat cyclists with patience and consideration. Empty, fast, dusty technical trails. Climbs that throw you into the sky and dare you to look back. Road rides above the bluest of seas. Good friends and cold beers. A little oasis of comfortable familiarity.
I'm not sure I want to go home.