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Big Ride Velefique: A fistful of bar tape

James Spender
30 Aug 2017

The 2017 Vuelta takes on the Alto de Velefique and Calar Alto today, but Cyclist has already been there...

Photography: Juan Trujillo Andrades

Although you might not think it, chances are you’ve seen this place before; most likely on a lazy, sofa-bound Sunday flicking through the TV channels, or during a late-night slot when you know you really should be in bed but you can’t help staying up to watch a film you’ve seen a dozen times before.

This is the Tabernas Desert which, at 40° in the shade and with as little as 20cm of rain per year, provided the backdrop for a host of classic Man-With-No-Name movies that put Clint Eastwood and director Sergio Leone on the map, and gave rise to the term Spaghetti Westerns.

It’s not exactly the first place you’d think of turning up to in Lycra.

Many a true word

It’s become a bit of a running joke now, but the editor of Cyclist is no stranger to doling out punishment when it comes to Big Rides.

Nor does he try to hide the fact. After a series of exchanges between the ed and Mark Lyford, who runs cycling tour company Bici-Almeria, I’m copied into the email fray just in time to read the words, ‘Please liaise with James about any details regarding the trip, and feel free to work him like a dog on the climbs.’

I want to believe this is just a bit of digital banter, but no sooner have I taken up communications than I’m presented with a map showing a snaking blue line: a 140km loop taking in 3,400m of ascent divided between just two climbs.

With numbers like those the only dog I’ll be working like is the kind that comes stumbling through town in the midday sun, whimpering and foaming at the mouth.

After the initial shock Mark tries to allay my fears, promising sunshine but not exceptional temperatures.

When I descend the aeroplane steps onto the scorched Murcia airport asphalt, however, it feels like I’m walking into a giant hairdryer. As I study the parched landscape
so close to the sea (Murcia airport’s runway could almost launch amphibious aircraft), I’m already getting a sweat on. At least I’ll be slightly lighter for the climbs.

The following morning I find myself at a deserted truck stop with photographer Juan, waiting to meet Mark, who is going to host our ride today.

Mark arrives, we do the introductions and make ready to depart – but I’ve been sipping on electrolytes in the car on the way here, more for the psychological benefits than anything else, and I’m now desperate to relieve myself before we set off.

‘You can go in there,’ Mark calls after me as I wander in search of a suitable spot, pointing to a restaurant that looks like it’s been closed for some time.

Hesitantly I change course. Mark’s right, I can go in there. But dressed in my finest cycling attire I get some uneasy looks from the locals propping up the bar, and for a moment I’m in my own modern-day Western…

As the stranger enters, the room goes quiet. The camera pans to a grizzled visage of three-day old stubble with a smouldering cigarette clenched between teeth. The only sound is that of spurs clinking as I walk (or is that cleats on tiles?). Cue tumbleweed.

I manage to avoid a pistol shoot-out, return to the car park, and we set off. Mark explains he’s a schoolteacher by day and moonlights out here as a bike guide during the holidays, more as a hobby than anything else.

‘I just want to show off the area, really,’ he tells me as we spin easily along the deserted ALP-405 road. ‘It’s such a fantastic place to ride, and this first climb will blow you away. Forget Alpe d’Huez.’

Looming in a 180° sweep in the distance are the saw-toothed mountains that give the Sierra Nevada its name, and while another geographer might argue that where we’re really heading is the Alpujarra mountains, I’m just glad we’ve got a long, easy run-in to get ourselves warmed up.

At this relatively low altitude of 400m, olive and almond trees line the edges of the road, with only the odd ramshackle house set back among the groves.

It’s all very Spanish, but as we near the base of our first ascent – a tiny town called Velefique – the flora changes noticeably, and with it the climate.

Prickly pear plants jut out between clumps of spiky grass like cacti on a Tina Turner wig farm, and despite the intense sun, the air begins to take on a chillier crispness.

Like lots of little towns in this region, Velefique has a tumbling, sleepy quality, as if someone has painted dozens of Monopoly houses white and lazily tossed them down a hill.

I’m starting to wonder what all this ‘better than the 21 bends’ business is about when we cruise past a large sign with a detailed profile of the Velefique climb.

And it doesn’t look nearly as quaint as the town. Outlined gradients dip in and out of double figures, while the bottom axis denotes a hefty 13km ascent and a brief summary outlines a gain in altitude of 1,040m.

With Alpe d’Huez’s stats being pretty similar, I’m beginning to get the picture. Then, as we round the first tight hairpin with an audience of one bemused pensioner and his cat, the first twinges in my legs really make the point. Alto de Velefique has credentials.

Fear of abandonment

If ever the pedigree of a climb needs confirmation, one need look no further than an inclusion in one of the Grand Tours, and the Velefique doesn’t fall short.

In 2009 this first category ascent made its way into Stage 12 of the Vuelta not once but twice, seeing off four riders in the process, including a returning Alexandre Vinokourov (his first Grand Tour since serving a two-year doping suspension).

Poor old Vino succumbed to fatigue on the second Velefique ascent and abandoned.

That day Ryder Hesjedal triumphed on the mountaintop finish, but as Mark now points out, not many armchair fans will have seen it.

Mist enshrouded the summit, much to the consternation of the organisers and those who had worked to bring the Vuelta to this climb.

Perhaps this is the reason why the Vuelta’s not been back since, but given the amount of graffiti on the road you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

My apprehension has begun to loosen into a more fluid rhythm, and as we leave Velefique behind the surface of the road is suddenly awash with writing.

Among dozens of others the names Valverde, Alberto, Javi and even a speculative Indurain (who I’m not sure was still riding in 2009, but I could be wrong) are writ large.

Some of it looks so fresh it could have been painted yesterday, so either the pensioner and his cat are operating some kind of post-Vuelta conservation programme, or there’s not a huge amount of traffic – or rain – that passes this way.

We’re making a comfortable pace and Mark takes the opportunity to explain the admirable condition of the Spanish roads.

‘Bar a few sections today you’ll notice the road surface round here is really pretty good. I know what you’re thinking – Spanish workmen might not be renowned as being the most diligent,
but when it comes to roads they’re actually rather excellent.’

The key, apparently, is that while many other nations busily dig up and patch roads like it’s going out of fashion, the Spanish authorities give a six-month warning to the facilities companies that a given road is to be resurfaced – then it’s up those companies to submit plans for anything that needs doing beneath the tarmac crust.

When the roadworks begin, all interested parties come along at once, lay cables or replace pipes, then the surface is relaid and no more major work can be undertaken until the next time.

Perhaps it’s idealistic to think this process could be adopted in the UK, but it still seems like a pretty logical way to go about things.

Thus far the going has been hard but steady and I’ve mentally ticked off five or six hairpins already. Perhaps this region isn’t so tough after all…

But when I crane my neck in the direction Mark is pointing I can finally see the uniformly coiled beginnings of the real meat of this climb, a string-like road draped left to right across the mountainside.

For a while I’m sure it seems to end about two-thirds of the way up in some trees, but by straining my eyes I can just make out a white dot before the sky starts, which
must be our support car.

We’re worryingly far away, even as the vulture flies.

Familiarity breeds contempt

Once you’ve described one hairpin you’ve described them all, so imagine these next sentences repeated 17 times: Here comes a hairpin.

My head drops. I look up only to check for cars. Occasionally I feel like Quintana and hit the apex full gas. Then my glasses steam up and I slow down again, riding out in a wide arc so as to avoid as much steepness as possible.

I wonder how little Nairo can see half the time. What magical venting system do his sunnies have? Here comes another hairpin.

That’s pretty much how it goes to the top, the agonising pinning of colours to wall every few hundred metres, broken up by the occasional flatter section or slight assist from the wind.

It’s hardly poetry in motion, but by the time I skirt the last bend I’m far too exhausted to care. Without meaning to I’ve dropped Mark a few turns back, but then again, as he told me at the start, he’s never raced and he doesn’t intend to start here.

As I take the time to soak up the view of the road below having finally made it to the top, I know why.

I decide to unclip and scramble up to where Juan is positioned with his zoom lens. Teetering precariously on the edge of a sandstone outcrop, camera held aloft like a Spanish Rafiki holding up baby Simba, I can already hear what our trusty photographer is about to say.

‘Can you do that again? The shots from up here are bloody fantastic!’ I groan, but he’s right. Below our 1,860m elevation lies a scorched green basin encircled by a haze of tawny mountains, which looks for all the world like God’s just drained the sea and turned a massive lamp on the coral.

By now Mark’s joined us, and between glugs from his bidon he explains that on a good day you can see Africa from here.

I’m not sure what I’m more amazed by: the thought of seeing one continent from another or that Mark clearly thinks there are even better days to be up here than now.

Before we can get too settled into the search for more similes, Juan gives us our pedalling orders and we’re forced to go over the last few hairpins again.

Mark takes it with excellent humour, but I’m decidedly reluctant until I get to experience the thrill of riding back down.

Apparently skateboarders and other similarly radical individuals make an annual pilgrimage here to hold the Rayne’s International Freeride downhill race.

At the speed this road permits, with no discernible brakes and virtually no barriers… sooner them than me.

The descent to Bacares (a town that’s population veritably doubles when we arrive) is one of those gloriously long roads that you could ride down for hours without getting bored.

Well, almost. Despite the sun kicking out alarmingly high levels of heat for two pasty Brits on their road bikes, it’s not long before my hands are freezing.

Even with the prospect of Spanish sun I’d taken the precautionary measure of bringing a gilet and armwarmers but, in a fit of gung-ho, left my mitts behind.

Just audible above the wind as we descend at pace, Mark shouts to ask what he already knows: are my hands cold? I nod and he signals to follow him to a stop at the side of the road.

It seems that on this side of the mountain the local Armco reps are having better luck with sales, which allows Mark to show me his top tip for the day. Got cold hands? Grab the metal Armco barriers, which have been steadily warming up in the sunshine.

It works well and I quickly feel that almost pleasurable pins and needles sensation as my hands return from frozen claws back to nimble digits.

It’s another ideal moment to savour the view, and to point out some local peculiarities – like what’s that wooden door over there wedged 30 feet up into the side of that mountain?

Mark explains that dotted around these hillsides and beyond are hundreds of caves, many of which are remnants from the Moors’ invasion in the eighth century (apparently it was quite the thing to live in a cave in those days).

You can still buy caves in Spain, and they’re not too expensive. Plus, if you run out of space for your bikes you can always dig another room.

At Bacares we stop for a coffee. And then, since it’s so good, we have a second. As the sweat slowly dries in topographical circles around my bibshorts, the sat-down-for-too-long malaise kicks in and I begin to dream of fresh showers and cold beers.

But equally I’m still keen to see what other panoramic treats lie in store, so we dutifully grab our bikes. Mark graciously thanks our host in polished Spanish, while my tired brain fails to drum up any meaningful contribution and I chime in with ‘hola!’. Smooth.

Ill-timed attack

Our next and last climb of the day up to Calar Alto is another savage-sounding beast, which like the Velefique enjoys both Vuelta and first category status.

However, unlike the Velefique, which presented a more kindly zigzag of road, our way to the top is a much straighter affair, which Mark warns me offers little respite save for a tantilising plateau just over halfway up.

‘This is where we sometimes get clippy-cloppers,’ Mark says cheerfully, referring to some members of his guided tours that end up clacking their way up sections in their cleats.

That remark seems to stir something in me that I’d thought had been left behind at the coffee stop, so with renewed vigour I attack the foot of the climb and power through the first 10% section. Not the best idea I’ve ever had.

Minutes later I’m overheating, slowing drastically and gulping at an energy gel, and it’s not long before I’m rejoined by Mark.

Of course he’s seen it all before, so with gentlemanly decency refrains from any told-you-sos and lets me settle into a pace next to him that he knows we’ll more realistically sustain.

It takes a good couple of clicks before my legs grudgingly come to terms with the severity of the gradient, and by taking tactical turns in the shade of the roadside trees, my body eventually returns to some more medically acceptable temperature.

I can see the pain on Mark’s face too, which is encouraging in a schadenfreude kind of way, and we climb in the gritty silence that is the preserve of cyclists and those who have accidentally offended a mother-in-law.

As the road flattens and even descends for a stretch, we get a chance to regain some conversational composure, and Mark points out the peaks from whence we have come.

‘See those?’ he says, motioning to two distant humps with the pin points of radio masts on top. ‘That’s the tetas where we were this morning, not bad hey?’

I agree, then tentatively ask what tetas are. Mark smirks. ‘It’s Spanish for tits, James.’ Good to see the highbrow humour of teachers is still alive.

The distance between us and the tits seems quite unbelievable – it looks like it would take weeks to walk there – and I’m reminded of one of those gloriously spurious facts that gets bandied around in bicycle circles: that if a cyclist could stomach petrol, he or she could do nearly 1,000 miles to the gallon.

In the words of Mark Twain, ‘Learn to ride. You will not regret it if you live.'

Reaching the high point

Luckily, with absolutely no traffic to even begin to threaten our pedalling existence, we’re quite happily clinging on to life. Which is more than can be said for the Spanish fir trees.

At this altitude they’ve relinquished their hold on the soil and left a rocky landscape that glistens like someone coloured in the moon with a 6B pencil.

Then, just in case any more allusions to space were needed, we round a corner to see the two sparkling domes of the Calar Alto observatories.

We’re at the highest point on the route at 2,168m, and it couldn’t have come soon enough.

From the crest beside the observatories it’s a sizeable downhill followed by a long drag back to the start.

After toiling at such an arduous, trudging pace I’m excited to get up some decent speed, so after stopping for a few poorly taken iPhone snaps and the quick donning of every piece of clothing I’ve got stuffed in my jersey pockets, I tell Mark we’ll see each other at the bottom and make off into the valley below.

At an average of 5% over 30km, the descent towards Aulago is a rare road of smooth tarmac, hemmed in by rushing stone cliffs on one side and sheer drops on the other.

Over this side of the Seirra de Los Filabres mountains the yellow hues seem brighter and the greys more muted, so the route is harder to discern.

Luckily my Mio computer is doing a sterling job of mapping out the road so, with confidence buoyed by my newfound ability to predict each corner before it comes, I’m soon throwing the bike around in a manner to make Nibali weep.

Well, that’s the delusion I permit myself. Later I’ll look back at the GoPro footage and realise my granny banks harder on her mobility scooter, but for a while it’s just me against the voice of Sean Kelly in my head, as I try to ride hard enough to elicit more than just his soft Tipperary tones.

‘Come on Sean, I’m doing it, I’m a real cyclist, I’m riding like you!’ I say internally. ‘Aye, well, ya see; I suppose you’re going hard. You’re going hard and you’re all right,’ says my inner Sean. ‘Just keep a watch out for those goats.’

Goats! As good as the Mio’s GPS is at depicting the road, it’s yet to fully come to terms with tracking these little bearded mountain hooligans.

Fortunately, though, this particular menace and his chum have chosen to bound out across a section of road that has followed the briefest of troughs, so although the corner they emerge from is blind, I’m going slowly enough to switch to the left-hand side of the road in time.

In any other country, on any other road I’d say it was lucky a car wasn’t coming in the opposite direction, but today I can count the number of vehicles I’ve seen on one hand, and still have a finger left to flip those goats the bird.

This is one deserted desert, but the riding is abundant. 

Once at the bottom the last few kilometres play out in true Spaghetti Western style. Our shadows rapidly lengthening to the setting sun, we fix ourselves for home, where the untold adulation of our womenfolk and unfathomable quantities of liquor await.

We’re just specks on the amber horizon now. And then… we’re gone.

Perhaps if they ever shoot Westerns here again, the gunslingers will all ride bikes. After all, have you ever tried feeding petrol to a horse?

• Looking for inspiration for your own summer cycling adventure? Cyclist Tours has hundreds of trips for you to choose from

 

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

Saddle up and move out with Cyclist’s southern ride

To download this route, go to cyclist.co.uk/23velefique. We started out from the Las Malvinas Café-bar on the A-349 out of Tabernas, which opens early and is free to leave your car. Riding north on the A-349, take a left onto the ALP-405, signposted Velefique/Bacares.

After that it’s plain sailing (the Velefique climb aside) for 42km until Bacares. Continue through Bacares centre and out on the ALP-405, taking the turning onto the ALP-9017.

After around 6km turn onto the A-339, signposted Gergal/Almeria. Stick with the A-339 for 9km before heading west onto the AL-871 to complete the Calar Alto climb.

Ride the down the other side towards Aulago, where the AL-871 becomes the ALP-704. Head south over the A-92, then join the AL-324, which continues south before swinging east to Gador. Out of Gador, cross the bridge over the Rio Andarax on the AL-P-111.

Follow the AL-P-111 as it heads through a tunnel under the A-92, then take a left at the T-junction immediately after to the intersecting N-340a. Continue for 22km until the N-340a forks off through Tabernas then rejoins the A-349 back to Las Malvinas.

 

The rider’s ride

Spin Spitfire III, frameset £1,495, build approx £5,000 (July 2014 prices)

Back when Spin (or Spin Industries Co as it’s officially known – got to find a way to separate itself from static-bike disco-fests somehow) emerged a few years ago, setting up a brand to deal solely in titanium was a pretty bold move.

The rusty backside seemed ready to drop out of the high-end metal market, yet Spin founder Drew Gill had other ideas.

He generated some race credentials for the bikes by putting them under team Spin-Rotor in last year’s Tour Series, and so I was keen to see how well the bike fared on a long, hilly day out.

I started by swapping out the 50mm deep wheels that came on the Spitfire for a more climbing and crosswind-friendly pair of Deda Elementi 30mm carbon clinchers.

At a shade over 7.2kg for this tweaked build, including Rotor’s Power Cranks, I was expecting a nimble little climbing machine ready to measure every ounce of my efforts.

And after a bit of faffing trying to pair the cranks to my Mio, that’s pretty much what I got.

Given the excellent but steep state of the Spanish roads, I would have traded the extra rear-end compliance of the custom 3Al/2.5V tubeset for a little extra stiffness, but for the most part the Spitfire felt planted and accurate on the descents (I doubt if Enve’s 2.0 fork needs any more plaudits, but its stable cornering efforts were very much appreciated), and tackled climbs without complaint.

Which is more than can be said for my legs.

 

How we got there

Travel Getting to Almeria couldn’t be easier, and if you go at the tail end of October, where the low season starts and the temperature is far more palatable, the flights are considerably cheaper. We flew to Murcia, where a return starts from around £70 with the budget operators. However Almeria airport is also close by, with flights at around £100. Car hire is all but essential, not least as there are plenty of little coastal stop-offs that warrant a visit, including the picturesque hillside town of Mojacar and accompanying beach – perfect for a little post-ride R’n’R.

Hotel Although sparsely populated, Almeria is far from a backwater of a region, so the usual types of hotels and B&Bs are available. Nevertheless, we found it more profitable – and more fun – to rent a whole apartment from one of the dozens of ex-pats who keep holiday homes in Spain, but only use them during the summer months. Try homeaway.co.uk.

Food and drink Dotted along the roads inland are small tavernas serving all manner of barbequed meats at very reasonable prices. Nearer the coast quality, fresh-landed fish is abundant in restaurants and supermarkets, and everywhere else are tapas bars and pizzerias. Beers are cheap (but titchy), so the ex-pat community has ensured most places serve pints – just ask.

Thanks Huge thanks to Mark Lyford of Bici-Almeria (bici-almeria.com), and his very patient other half (and support car driver) Lisa. Mark runs regular trips and training camps in the region so knows the place inside out, while Lisa is probably only a few licences away from being able to compete at World Rally level. Superb car-handling skills!

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