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Way down south: Big Ride Cadiz

In-depth
25 Oct 2018
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This article first appeared in Issue 75 of Cyclist Magazine

Words Henry Catchpole Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

Tucked away in the storerooms of W Medcalf’s premises in Sussex is a shelf with hammers on it. Mr Medcalf specialises in restoring vintage Bentleys built between 1922 and 1932, so these are not just any old hammers. They’re copper hammers for knocking off big winged wheel nuts.

Some of these tools are shiny and new, full of the pinkish lustre of pristine copper, with wooden handles that are light in colour and unsullied by dirt.

Next to these are hammers that are identical in weight and construction but have spent a lot of time down in the workshops in the hands of the men restoring and repairing the cars.

These hammers have taken on a darker hue, and look beaten and battered from years of use. In other words, they are much cooler hammers.

The reason I mention this is that these tools are brought to my mind as I look from my legs to those of Gary from Vamos Cycling.

My scrawny limbs haven’t seen anything more than a tepid Midlands sun for several months and have spent the last few weeks wrapped almost entirely in warming, fleece-lined Lycra.

As a result, the skin exposed betwixt calf and hamstring is pale enough for them to pass as a couple of yards of milk.

Gary’s legs, on the other hand, have the deep, dark tone of well polished mahogany table legs. His arms are colour-matched to the very pantone.

Despite feeling distinctly un-pro, I am nevertheless looking forward to the day ahead. It’s just after 9am and we’re in El Bosque in the Sierra de Grazalema Natural Park, an area in the middle of Andalusia, directly above Gibraltar.

More pertinently for today’s ride, we are in the familial stomping ground of our photographer, Juan, whose family all largely still live in nearby Cadiz.

As we prepare to set off, Juan can’t help but reminisce about his youth in the area.

‘The last time I visited this town I was 15 years old,’ he says wistfully. ‘I got very, very drunk. I think I danced on that bridge over there.’

Much as we’d like to hear more tales of inebriated gaiety, we’ve got the best part of 100km to tick off, so we pedal through the quiet town looking out for (but not noticing) any commemorative plaques to legendary performances of La Macarena as we cross the aforementioned bridge.

Then, with legs barely awake, we hit the first climb of the day.

Puerto del Boyar is a 14.7km ascent with an average gradient of 5.4%, albeit with a slight dip near the start that makes it sound slightly easier than it is.

The weather is shaping up to be beautiful. It is also remarkably still. Not so much as a sparrow’s hiccup is rustling the leaves and the silence is almost eerie.

I find myself avoiding changing gear just so that the buzz of a Di2 motor doesn’t break the spell.

Fortunately these early slopes are relatively tame and it feels easy to maintain a high cadence, legs spinning as we leave the town behind and enter the mountains.

Gary chats about the new training regime he’s trying ahead of various multi-day mountain bike races, and I realise the kilometres are slipping by easily.

We’re in no great hurry, so we won’t be troubling the Strava leaderboard for the climb today, although I expect that would be the case even if I attacked it with everything I had.

The segment is dominated by a long list of pros who tackled this climb on 23rd February 2014 during Stage 4 of the Ruta del Sol, won overall by Alejandro Valverde.

The pros also followed this road during Stage 3 of the Vuelta à España that year, although they were heading in the other, more gravity-assisted direction.

It was the stage that was memorable for starting, slightly ridiculously, on an aircraft carrier.

The Vuelta also passed not far from here the following year and Gary recalls seeing Chris Horner hammering up the climbs with jersey zipped up and mouth closed. We don’t say any more on that matter.

Half an hour or so later the climb is nearing its end and the traffic has begun to pick up.

It seems odd that there should be a steady flow of rental Fiat 500s and even the occasional coach all the way out here, but they are heading for the same town we are – Grazalema.

We stop at the top and admire the view behind us, with the hills marching layer upon fading layer into the hazy distance.

Spain, especially this far south, can often look a little arid, but there is a lot of greenery around here, and Gary explains this is actually the wettest place in Spain.

It seems slightly absurd when there isn’t a cloud in the sky, but it has something to do with this being the first high ground hit by the humid air coming in off the Atlantic.

Apparently the rain in Spain does not fall mainly on the plain.

We hunker onto the drops and pick up speed on the descent towards Grazalema. When we reach the outskirts of town I’m glad of my sunglasses as it is one of the region’s famous pueblos blancos, where the walls of the buildings are painted almost exclusively bright white.

It sits nestled in a valley with the houses crammed so tightly together that it’s hard to see the gaps between the terracotta roofs.

We’ll return to this town later in the day as our ride is a figure of eight with Grazalema at the centre, but we feel the need to top up with caffeine so it seems like a good time to stop in the main square.

Lard and fast rules

In the cafe, Juan says to me, ‘You must try one of these,’ pointing towards something that looks like a tiny Martello tower wrapped in greaseproof paper.

As it’s sharing shelf space with some doughnuts and cookies I decide to give it a whirl and take it outside to our table in the sun.

Gary gives me a worried look. ‘Is that, you know, one of those biscuit things made from pig lard?’ he says as I take a second bite.

I’ll admit to a small gag reflex taking hold on initially hearing the recipe laid bare, but seeing as mine is filled with chocolate I try to turn the gag into a shrug and soldier on for fear of upsetting Juan.

After a restorative espresso we undertake a quick exploration of the pretty cobbled streets before continuing on our way.

There are courtyards filled with flowers and running water, which is apparently part of the long-standing Arabic influence on the area.

Just out of town we turn left and briefly find ourselves climbing again before the descent continues all the way to a more main road.

Strangely this feels quieter than the narrower climb, but the wind has also picked up a bit and is inevitably blowing in our faces.

I know from prior inspection of a map that we should be heading around a reservoir about now, but there’s not a lot of water about – just a few petrified tree trunks poking from what looks like a dried lake bed.

Looking up, I catch sight of the our next pueblo blanco. At this distance, set high on a ridge, Zahara looks like a fairytale elves’ settlement out of Lord Of The Rings.

It also seems to be the fairytale kingdom that never gets closer. Every time that I think we must be about to start our ascent to it round the next corner I’m mistaken.

Meanwhile, some water has appeared in the bottom of the reservoir and what there is of it is a beautiful turquoise.

There is still the odd ghostly tree sticking out of it, making it look like the time I tried to keep a pot plant alive by dousing it in blue Powerade.

Eventually the climb to Zahara begins and the initial ramps through a couple of switchbacks are a bit of a shock to the legs.

We reach the town surprisingly quickly and then leave it behind as we push on for the Puerto de las Palomas, our second and more difficult climb of the day.

At 12.4km long it’s slightly shorter than the Boyar, but with an average of 7% it tips past that point of being a comfortable climb to being much more of a test.

Alongside the hardship comes beauty. The climb to Puerto de las Palomas is one of the most picturesque ascents I’ve ever made.

And unlike a lot of climbs, it’s beautiful not just in retrospect as you gaze back down on its twists and turns, but also as you’re climbing it and looking up at what’s to come.

Seeing the road snaking across the mountain ahead and being able to pick out the ever-tightening switchbacks as they pile up towards the end is hypnotic.

The climb actually reminds me of another ascent in a very different part of Spain. The famous Sa Calobra in Mallorca might be slightly shorter but it also averages 7% and also has the hairpins backloaded towards the end.

As I haul myself up the final couple of steep switchbacks I’m aware that the heat is starting to take its toll along with the gradient.

High above us a couple of dark shapes are cruising the thermals just in case I decide to keel over. Spain is apparently home to half of the European population of Egyptian vultures.

I’m not sure whether it’s the sight of the summit or just a desire to prove to those above that I’m not quite carrion yet, but I enjoy a last little kick in the final kilometre of the climb.

Getting up out of the saddle I engage in a sort of slow-motion sprint for some imaginary KoM points.

Heading for home

The descent from the lookout point at Puerto de las Palomas is fast. The road isn’t wide and the surface is far from pristine, but there are good sight lines so I can carry speed the whole way.

I’m feeling confident so attack with a certain amount of pace and it’s immensely enjoyable. It’s just a shame it’s not a bit longer, because we seem to be back in Grazalema in no time at all.

While a 4km plummet would feel like heaven in the UK, out here it feels like a poor exchange rate of up to down after 12km of climbing.

We don’t stop in the town this time but instead push on for home, although in the valley below we’re forced to pause anyway as there’s some much-needed road resurfacing work going on.

There is also a chap, standing staring out over the landscape, who could have stepped straight off the pages of National Geographic.

We engage him in stilted conversation and he turns out to be a shepherd called Fernando.

He doesn’t reveal what the small hatchet tucked into his belt is for, but then he doesn’t ask me about the blue tyre levers protruding from my jersey pocket, so I suppose we both have our secrets.

We’re waved through the road works and continue on our way. With the two big climbs behind us, it feels like we’re on the home stretch but we still have about a third of the ride to do.

The profile suggests it’s predominantly downhill back to El Bosque, but on closer inspection there are enough little lumps to make it far from an easy ride in.

Although my pale legs are feeling pretty heavy after Palomas, this is the sort of territory I enjoy, so I settle onto the drops and relish the sensation of turning the big ring on the flat.

The small climbs we do encounter feel oddly draining, but there are a couple of memorable descents too. One runs straight down through a spectacular, high-sided valley.

The other is on a stretch that feels like a motorway simply because it has a white line down the middle of the road, in contrast to most of the tarmac we’ve been riding.

On this descent both Gary and I run out of gears, so we concentrate on drafting and getting as aero as possible.

I do a bit of top tube sitting because I rather enjoy it and my Cannondale SuperSix Evo’s more traditional geometry means it doesn’t feel as extreme as on some other bikes.

And then we’re back at the beginning. A big bit of me wants to do it all again the next day (partly to continue cultivating the faint but razor sharp tan lines I’ve acquired, even if I’ve still a way to go to match Gary).

For me, it has been exactly the sort of little-known route that makes cycling so special.

The names of the climbs won’t have ears pricking up when you mention them in the Thursday night chaingang, but personally I find that rather appealing.

Because as fun as it can be to feel like you’re following in famous tyre tracks, it’s also refreshing to feel like you’re pedalling in a wonderland, far from the madding crowds.

Figure of eights

Follow Cyclist’s route through the province of Cadiz

To download this route go to cyclist.co.uk/75cadiz. From El Bosque, head to the A-372 towards Grazalema. Follow this over the climb and down the other side to a T-junction where you turn right through the centre of Grazalema.

Take a left towards Algodonales on the CA-9123 to a T-junction and turn left over the bridge, heading for Algodonales and Zahara on the A-2300.

A little over 10km later, turn left on the CA-9104, which will lead past Zahara to the second climb of the day. Head back through Grazalema and go straight on to the A-372/A-374.

After 23km go past Benaocaz to a T-junction near Ubrique. Turn right on the A-373 back to El Bosque, or take the slip road to the CA-524 after about 8.5km for a slightly more pleasant route back.

 

The rider’s ride

Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod Disc Team, £8,499

The Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod Disc Team has possibly the longest name of any bike I have ever ridden.

But as you would expect from a bike that has ‘Team’ in its name, no expense has been spared on the build, with carbon FSA K-Force components, Mavic Cosmic Pro Carbon SL wheels and Shimano Dura-Ace Di2 9170 dripping from the frame.

This might sound odd, but the best way to describe the experience of pedalling the CSSEHMDT is that it’s a very friendly bike.

It’s not so stiff as to fight you, but stiff enough to feel like it’s helping you up the climbs. In particular it’s an absolute joy to descend on.

Some of this will be down to the disc brakes and the confidence they bring, but it can mostly be attributed to the frame and resultant handling.

The patchy road surface on the ride meant there was frequently a need to adjust my line, but the SuperSix never left me feeling flustered or panicked.

 

How we did it

Travel: Cyclist flew to Malaga from Gatwick with British Airways. It was then about a two-hour drive (up the spectacular Ronda road) to El Bosque.

Accommodation: We stayed in Hotel Rural Las Truchas (part of the Tugasa chain) on the outskirts of El Bosque. There’s ample parking, rooms are a generous size and the old building is very attractive.

There’s a swimming pool that’s open in the summer months – perfect for a post-ride dip. It is a short walk up into the old town where there is a selection of restaurants. We’d recommend Meson El Tabanco. Get details at tugasa.com.

Thanks: Firstly, thanks must go to Gary and Sarah Williams of Vamos Cycling – Gary for keeping me company on the ride with excellent chat about everything from MotoGP to Spanish politics, and Sarah for ferrying our photographer, Juan, around all day.

Check out vamoscycling.com if you fancy a cycling holiday or training camp in the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains.

Thanks also to Amparo Ortega Parra and Manuel de la Varga at the local tourist board, Patronato Provincial de Turismo (cadizturismo.com). Finally, thanks to Skoda for the loan of a Kodiaq support car.