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Cyclist Big Rides: Europe

Big Ride: Into thin air on the Pico del Veleta

Peter Stuart
13 Apr 2017

In the mountains of southern Spain, the Pico del Veleta lays claim to being Europe’s highest paved road. That sounds like a challenge

A road that finishes at the summit of a mountain is a climb to nowhere – a fruitless task.

While a great mountain pass is a journey into new lands as reward for the effort, a summit road is nothing but a dead end – a one-way journey to suffering. Perhaps of all the activities that we relish in, this might be the most perplexing to a non-cyclist. 

A mountaintop finish, though, boils cycling down to one of its most basic historic core principles – a battle with a climb.

Nowhere in Europe is there a better road with which to wage that battle than on the Pico del Veleta in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the southern Spanish region of Andalucia.

At 3,354m high, with a mighty 2,600m of elevation gain, this is Europe’s highest and longest road bike ascent.

We’re sitting in a cafe in the small town of Cenes de la Vega, drinking cappuccinos in the shadow of a giant. Waiting ahead of us is the Veleta mountain.

It promises us a 36km uphill slog into a rocky wilderness. What the Veleta gains in ascent exceeds the total height of all but Europe’s very highest passes.

The last 10km is a mix of heavily cracked tarmac and gravel, and most consider it harder than the total 26km that precedes it. From where we’re sitting, it seems like an awfully long way. For now, though, we just enjoy our coffee.

With me are Gary of cycling tour company Vamos, his Spanish riding chum Ramon, and our photographer Juan. We’re currently in a state of indecision.

Veleta translates literally as weather vane, and today that seems apt – clouds are crowding ominously around the peak of the Veleta, strangely at odds with the sun we’re currently enjoying in the valley.

We can’t decide whether we should wait and see if the mountain clears before departing, or get going now and hope for the best. It’s anyone’s guess as to what the weather on the mountain will do in the next few hours.

The highest road

It was Gary who first talked me into attempting the Pico de Veleta, and it was an easy sell.

The mountain is the second-highest of the Sierra Nevada range and is a skiing hotspot throughout the winter. The road we will climb today rises to 10m below the true summit.

Predating the national park status of the Sierra Nevada, it has historically provided access to the observatory at Veleta’s peak, as well as an access road to the ski slopes and for national park staff. For cyclists it’s a temperamental route to the highest paved climb in Europe.

Veleta plays host to the El Limite sportive, where on the second day of the event there’s a timed ascent to the summit.

‘Where it finishes depends on how much snow is still there, and the wind,’ Gary tells me. The winds on the mountain are famous in themselves.

‘Some years the ride goes to 10km above the barrier, which is pretty much as far as you can go. Some years only 2km or 3km.’

Today, then, we’ll be similarly tossing a coin on how far up the climb we’ll get. But there’s more to this mountainside than just the top.

Despite the tranquillity of the region we are in, it has a fairly turbulent past. Today’s ride passes some of the key spots of the Reconquista in the late 15th century – the reclamation of the Moor territories by Catholics.

Five hundred years later it witnessed similar brutality in the Spanish Civil War. The poet Federico García Lorca was executed here early in the war by Nationalist soldiers, on account of his vocal socialist views.

As we set off from Cenes de la Vega, it’s hard to imagine any unrest on these beautiful slopes. Clouds still shroud the summit, but we’ve waited long enough, and within 3km the road tilts into a slight false flat before tipping more aggressively into a fully Alpine incline of 8%.

The record for the ascent is two hours at a very impressive 18kmh, but I don’t think we’ll be challenging those figures today.

A fast start

Ramon seems to be struggling with the early intensity, but judging from his tree trunk quads and spindly Spanish torso, I’d be foolish to underestimate his climbing ability.

These early slopes are steep but stunning. Out of the tiny town of Penos Genil we hit back-to-back 15% ramps, although a gentle cloudy haze covering the direct sun means we’re treated to a cool breeze and the effort is an enjoyable one.

It’s in this bright but cloudy setting that the scenery here is most affecting. The mountain ridges seem to acquire new depth against a light cloud, while the colours and contrast of forest and sun-scorched desert become all the clearer when they’re not under the intense glare of a brutal Spanish sun.

I share my reflections with Ramon, who smiles while nodding emphatically. Ramon doesn’t speak English.

Of the eight or nine Spanish words I know, only about two could have any conceivable relevance to our ride. He’s a great ride partner, though – courteous and perceptive to my effort, never half-wheeling nor falling behind.

It’s a surprisingly subtle craft on a climb this long as we oscillate between shallow and brutally steep gradients.

After the lower slopes, we arrive at a large intersection of roads heading in every direction. A ramp takes us onto a wide highway, which will carry us over the next 4km. It’s a wide road with three lanes, but there’s barely a car on it.

We only get passed by a single vehicle, which happens to be a monolithic HGV, the engine of which we hear from about 2km away. Once it's out of sight, we enjoy only the blissful sounds of our own tyres against the tarmac. 

The road narrows quickly as we reach a sign for the Sierra Nevada national park. Despite having climbed in stunning Andalucian scenery for 4 minutes, it’s only here that the Sierra Nevada truly begins.

We’re 11km and 500 metres of ascent into our skyward journey, and just as we enter the Sierra Nevada the climb begins to sink its teeth into my legs. 

Hairpins aplenty

Ramon’s face is pouring sweat onto his top tube but he doesn’t seem to be in too much discomfort. The road winds into a maze of hairpins, lined with a forest of conifer trees that occasionally parts to reveal a view of the Sierra Nevada mountains sitting in front of the desert flats of the Jaen province to the north.

It’s a gigantic lump on the horizon, and the road that cuts across it seems so small and feeble against the grand rocky landscape. 

Interrupting the scene, two zebra-painted cars covered in plastic and tape shoot by, head to tail. The region is a popular testing spot for car manufacturers, who traditionally disguise test vehicles to make them trickier to photograph.

By the time we’ve topped 1,000m of ascent we’ve enjoyed a little over an hour of climbing, barely a third of today’s menu of metres to climb.

As the road climbs up at 7% we both begin to settle into a comfortable rhythm, with the gradient providing enough resistance to feel as though we’re winching up our altitude consistently, but shallow enough to keep on top of the gear.

That said, I’m a little apprehensive of my 39/26 smallest ratio, as when the road spikes to above 10% it makes for gruelling work.

Ramon keeps me motivated with (what I assume is) a long narrative on how far we have to go, to which I respond with a selection of the Spanish words with which I’m familiar – fuerza (strong) and cerveza (beer) among them.

The hairpins give way to a long straight road that tracks around the mountainside. The wind is picking up and we are touched by the occasional stray droplet of rain. The temperature is dropping. If I were a cow, I’d lie down. 

The subtle drip of effort into the climb starts to sting. Every 100m of ascent turns my feeling of exertion to a feeling of exhaustion. Lactic burn is replaced with the palpable tearing of muscle, and my lungs heave more with every breath as I try to keep a bearable cadence. 

As we climb through 2,300m of altitude, Ramon points to a complex of buildings sitting just down the hillside. He tells me in a mixture of Spanish and pidgin English that it’s an altitude training centre.

On a good day we might see Alberto Contador or Alejandro Valverde on a recovery ride on these roads after a session in the centre. Footballers, swimmers and all variety of Olympic athletes frequent the facility.

It’s an apt reminder of the height we’re currently at, as the air begins to feel a little thinner and my efforts seem to cut deeper but deliver less. 

We begin to make out the peak of Veleta intermittently shrouded in mist. According to Gary, despite 25km of climbing in our legs, we have barely begun the real ascent. 

The great barrier

After just shy of 31km of riding we arrive at the metal barrier between normal road and summit road, at an altitude of 2,550m. The space surrounding the transition between the two surfaces is cluttered with a visitor’s centre, car park and a set of kiosks that are buzzing on sunnier days.

Today it’s deserted and the weather is really beginning to turn on us, with droplets turning to drizzle and the temperature dropping below 10°C.

It’s a steep ramp up to the closed barrier, and it’s on this slope that we get the clearest view of the day, when the clouds engulfing us part for a moment.

It seems as if the furthest point of the horizon must be hundreds of miles off, with the jagged stormy mountains of the Sierra Nevada at stark odds with the flat rural lands basking in intense sunshine behind them.

We confer with Gary and Juan for a few minutes on whether to carry on into the misty mystery road ahead, and decide with resolution to proceed.

We’re immediately plunged into a very different world. Rather than tracking a ledge on the mountainside, we’re rolling over barren rocky fields, as if we’ve shot from the deepest Wild West to the surface of Mars. The higher we go from the barrier the more spartan the signs of life become – the altitude proves too much for the Spanish flora and fauna, which are replaced by dry rock and sand.

As soon as the terrain becomes rougher the incline takes its toll and the smooth rhythm I was enjoying turns to a staccato, sharp and stinging discordant mess. Two hours of climbing in one blast is more than my body is built for. 

There’s a musing by Jane Austen I once read: ‘What are men to rocks and mountains?’ It pops to mind as I wind my way up the gravelly surface of the Pico del Veleta. While we wrestle over broken surfaces on inclines over 10%, I doubt that the mountain is that impressed.

Ramon has become very quiet as we use all our concentration to navigate giant craters of rubble littering the road. 

The ascent becomes increasingly surreal as we begin to climb into a white nothing. Where the mountain was once vaguely visible, now the views – such as there are – of the roadside ahead are thick with mist and it feels as though we’re striding into the unknown.

Soon we’re in a full white-out, like riders ascending into a dream sequence from Space Odyssey. Juan, our photographer, catches up to us on a borrowed bike (cars are not allowed beyond the barrier), and tells us he’s giving up on shooting the summit.

He invites me to continue if I want, but pictures of mist won’t be much use. I’m keen to see if the mist clears on the slopes above and ask Ramon if he wants to carry on with me. He returns a look of confusion and horror, before shooting down the incline in pursuit of Juan.

That leaves me alone. All that’s facing me is a wall of fog. I’m in a strange white isolation, with even the wind fading away and leaving just silence and the bitter cold. 

I climb up a little further, between craters in the pockmarked gravel, in the hope of the mist clearing. I’m as high as any of the great passes in the Alps and the hardest is definitely still to come, with 8km from here to the summit, including 600m of ascent and spikes of 20%.

My Garmin informs me it’s 2°C. Not being able to tell the cliff edge from the road, and conscious that my exploits will only be as good as my ability to not be dead while telling them, I resign myself to defeat.

A slippery slope

When I find my way back to Juan and Gary at the barrier, it’s pouring with rain and I find Ramon shivering violently and, I suspect, gently weeping.

I don’t blame him, but I make the most of the opportunity to showcase my weather-hardened British disposition and avoid any signs of discomfort. In truth, I’m in a fragile quasi-hypothermic state and struggling to maintain my composure.

Ramon jumps in the car, and I descend a little way alone. It’s treacherous work, though. Spanish roads have a tendency to gather oil and grease that spring into life on the rare occasions that rain hits the tarmac.

The downpour is only getting harder, with views of the valley being replaced with a drab grey bleakness. Gary tells me that there’s a restaurant that’s open throughout the season not too far away, run by Ramon’s cousin, where we may find refuge. I take little convincing.

When I make sight of the Restaurant El Mirador de Güejar Sierra, I’m filled with a deep sense of happiness. Inside I bask in the warmth and sit down to a paella. I have never in my life seen a human being as happy as Ramon is right now.

He’s pouring warm cappuccino and a few kilos of paella into his frosty frame. Gary tells me quietly that he hasn’t got the heart to inform Ramon that, at some point when the rain abates, we have to get on the road again to finish the ride.

It’s more than an hour before the rain clears to a point that we’d deem vaguely safe and adequately photogenic.

Lifting myself from my chair mixes the ache of two and a half hours of climbing with the unpleasant sensation of disturbing a damp set of bibshorts. Ramon is literally dragged from his paella and back onto the bike. 

We’re taking a different route on the descent to the one we climbed up, which turns the out-and-back climb into something of a circuit. We’ll take quieter, narrower and steeper roads along the valley of the Genil river, which comes to an end at the Canales reservoir.

Once we’re back on the road, the damp chill clears quickly and gives way to a warm sunlight piercing through the cloud. As we descend further it gets brighter and warmer, and the stormy dread of the summit seems like a distant memory. 

We take a series of severely steep hairpins down toward the waters of the Canales reservoir on perfectly smooth (albeit damp) roads. Even in these conditions we easily swoop up to speeds in excess of 70kmh. This is a truly beautiful descent, set against the Canales reservoir and the valley that surrounds it. 

A steep drop takes us across the river Genil, on the other side of which is an equally savage 15% climb to up the town of Güejar Sierra. It’s a cruel ramp on decimated legs. Ramon exerts a head-down spine-twisting effort and reaches the town before me. 

After Güejar Sierra, the road heads downwards again, and our spirits return as the air gets warmer and the tarmac gets drier. We carve through corners, pushing the limits of our tyres and nerves. It’s an exhilarating descent.

When we are within a few kilometres of our start point in Cenes de la Vega, my legs seem to fill with energy and I hammer away at the undulating and winding road at a happy 45kmh.

Ramon and I sprint under a blazing sun. Behind us, the mountain of Veleta stands indifferent, still shrouded in violent black cloud. Eventually the storm will clear, though, and one day I’ll take on its slopes again.

Europe's highest: follow our route up the Veleta

To download the route visit cyclist.co.uk/59veleta. Head east from Cenes de la Vega on the A-4026 and go through Pinos Genil to a large intersection, then take the A-395 into the Sierra Nevada.

When you reach a large turning on a hairpin, take the A-4025 signposted for Güejar Sierra until the road forks, forming into the A-395 again.

Take the left to the barrier and beyond on the single-track road. Once at the top, retrace your ascent to the bottom of the hairpin section of the A-4025 and turn right onto a track signposted Seminario Sierra Nevada.

Descend back to Güejar Sierra and follow the reservoir back to Cenes de la Vega.

The rider's ride

Fuji Altamira SL, £5,100, evanscycles.com

The Fuji Altamira, the predecessor to the current super-lightweight Fuji SL, has a long history in climbing. Juan José Cobo won the Vuelta a Espana aboard a Fuji Altamira in 2011, and it was championed by the NetApp-Endura (now Bora-Hansgrohe)

team. At a weight of just 6.5kg in this spec, it was an extremely capable partner on these slopes. 

The Ultegra wheelset isn’t the normal spec, but a downgrade from the Oval carbon tubulars the Altamira comes with. Tubulars seemed a little risky for this trip, so I opted for these more workmanlike clinchers, and I was impressed.

And despite the bike’s racing pedigree I was surprised by its level of comfort, especially given the Fuji’s rigid response to my pedalling efforts. The compliance could be something to do with its skinny seatstays.

Either way, I found it absorbed road buzz without sapping its spriteliness, and was every bit as accurate and predictable on the descent as I could have wished for.

How we got there


Travel

The nearest airport is Malaga, a 90-minute drive from Granada. Vamos Cycling (vamoscycling.com) can organise transfers for guests. We rented a car, although buses do also serve the route to Granada. 

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed on the coast at the incredible Real Agua Amarga La Joya, a hotel that’s hosted the Spanish royal family, and has a Spanish MasterChef winner in its kitchen, plus stunning views and a Jacuzzi in every room.

Cyclists are well catered for, with a private patio boasting ample bike cleaning space, and its spa is the perfect place to recover. Prices start at €180 (£153) per night for a double room. The hotel also has a set of villas in the town of Agua Amarga for larger groups at a slightly lower rate. Visit realaguaamarga.com.

Thanks

Many thanks to Gary and Sarah from Vamos Cycling for suggesting our route and providing vital ride support. Vamos offers tours from March to November including full ride support and accommodation starting at £425.

Thanks also to Ramon for his company on the ride, and moral support in our rainiest moments.

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