Sign up for our newsletter

Spanish flyers: Gran Fondo Costa Almeria sportive review

In-depth
3 Feb 2020
Advertisement

Words Henry Catchpole Photography David Wren

After about 30 of the intended total of 185km, I’m feeling a little confused. Admittedly it doesn’t take much. A cryptic crossword; trimming a derailleur; the music of Kanye West; a fat bike – all are capable of briefly befuddling my brain one way or another. However, I have been trying to solve this particular little conundrum for about 20 minutes now and no obvious answer has presented itself. I am looking for a car.

You see, I have been sticking to the correct side of the road (in this case the right, as we are in Spain) but I’m not actually sure if I need to.

Certainly so far there has been liberal use of the left-hand side of the white line by many of my fellow riders and I can’t say I’ve noticed any oncoming traffic. Is this, I wonder, a closed-road event?

Rather than wrestling with this question internally for another 150km or simply taking a chance round every blind corner, I decide to voice my query to the person pedalling next to me. ‘No,’ I’m told, ‘the roads aren’t closed. It’s just always this quiet here.’

 

‘Here’ is the Costa Almeria, which lies in the southeast corner of Spain. Almeria, by the way, is pronounced ‘Al-maria’, rather than rhyming with Algeria as I initially thought.

And while Costas Blanca, Brava and del Sol (not to mention the ones on every UK high street) are well known, Costa Almeria remains relatively undiscovered.

Under starter’s orders

Early this morning I cycled along the beachfront in Mojácar Playa with the fiery orange light of a perfect dawn gradually bleeding into the dark waters of the Med. With the odd palm tree silhouetted against the sky it was certainly the most beautiful ride to the start of any sportive I’ve ridden.

Admittedly, this is only the third sportive I have ever done, the others being Ride London and Liège-Bastogne-Liège, neither of which is particularly picturesque, but nonetheless…

 

The 2019 Gran Fondo Costa Almeria is the third edition, and despite growing every year it is still pleasantly uncrowded. About 250 riders are lined up at the start this morning and among a healthy smattering of Brits (and of course plenty of Spaniards) is a large contingent of Belgians. This is not because the course is riddled with pavé, but because the company that organises the event is from Deinze in the heart of Flanders.

The peloton sets off beneath a temporary arch at 8am to the strains of some inspirational Queen (Freddie, not Elizabeth). The first 15km back along the seafront and then inland are neutralised behind an official car and the flag conveniently drops at the start of the first climb up through the town of Bedar.

Those up at the front, including last year’s winner, Briton Daniel Kogan, quickly disappear up the hill, while the rest of us settle into a more sustainable pace.

At just under 10km long and with an average gradient of 5%, the first climb is a fitting introduction to what the day will involve. It isn’t a difficult climb, but equally it’s no easy spin either.

The road is very well surfaced (a lack of traffic helps keep it in good order) and on a clear day it’s possible to look back towards the coastline where the ride began. And if you’re too busy staring at your stem with legs that have yet to wake up, don’t worry – this part of the route also features on the return leg, so you can look forward to cycling it in its easier direction later and admiring the views on the way down.

 

At the top there is a regrouping, and I find myself among a group of about half a dozen other Brits, all of them here with Velo Hols, a British company that organises cycling trips, and most seemingly part of a group of friends from the New Forest.

In fact, it turns out that several of them know Cyclist’s deputy editor, Stu Bowers, and I spend an enjoyable but sadly fruitless few kilometres trying to extract any embarrassing stories about him. At which point my confusion about the lack of cars sets in.

The second climb of the day, El Chieve, is on a much narrower side road and the sunny weather has yet to burn the mist from its upper slopes, making for pleasantly cool conditions.

If anything, the white duvet of cloud that hangs over the landscape seems to intensify the silence and reinforce the impression that the event must be shut to the public (even though I now know it isn’t). Only the changing of gears and some laboured breathing disrupts the tranquility.

 

After a short descent comes a rather nasty surprise. I have a route planner stuck to my top tube with all the climbs and feed stations marked on it, and as far as I’m concerned there shouldn’t be any more serious uphill for over 30km.

However, my Wahoo says I’m on a 15% gradient and my legs are certainly not disagreeing. What’s more, the road surface has deteriorated significantly from the smooth Spanish asphalt that has so far been the norm today.

This stretch only lasts for just over a kilometre but it’s a bit of a tester, as is the narrow descent on the far side, although someone has helpfully been busy with a spray can to highlight the handful of potholes (this would be a full-time job for a team of 10 on most UK sportives).

Once the unexpected uphill spike is dealt with, it’s a nice long run south to the second feed station of the day. There’s plenty of the usual fare laid out on the tables beneath gazebos, including, to my delight, waffles – you can tell Belgians have organised this event. There is also a bar next door so an executive decision is taken by half a dozen of us that a coffee stop is in order.

 

Sipping from a thimble of thick, dark, tar-like espresso I decide that I like this more relaxed approach to sportiving. European gran fondos often feel more like a race than British sportives, and I’m sure Kogan is having a merry time out front, but life feels pretty good sitting in the sunshine with a selection of nice bikes to look at.

Eventually we drag ourselves out of our plastic chairs, grab one last waffle from the feed station and set off again. The next stretch is essentially a false flat to Uleila del Campo where the Gran and Medio routes part ways. And if you’re feeling up to it then the extra loop of the longer route is definitely worth the effort as it’s here that you head into the Filabres mountain range.

The lost world

On the approach to the Puerto de la Virgin climb I fall into conversation and occasional drafting duties with a father and son. Luke (the son, obviously – although I never ascertained if his father ever aspired to be Darth Vader) is rocking an ambitious Zipp 808 rear wheel. I admire that sort of dedication to aero gains, but there’s no doubt that it’s weighing him down somewhat on the ascents.

His father and I stop halfway up the climb to wait, and as we stand there we’re once again struck by how remote it all feels. There’s a sense that governments could have collapsed, war could have been declared or Taylor Swift could have released a new album and yet we would be none the wiser. It’s a blissful state of affairs.

The climb itself is undoubtedly the queen climb on the route because, although its stats – 10km at 5% – are the same as the first of the day, it isn’t interrupted by a town and the views are even more far-reaching.

 

There’s another feed station at the top and at 1,078m this marks the highest point of the whole route and roughly the halfway point of the ride.

The landscape in this hot and dry part of southern Spain is typically quite uniform in its colour – specifically a khaki sort of uniform. But dotted amongst the browns and dull greens are pueblos blancos or white towns.

Often perched precariously high or nestled cosily in folds of the countryside, these distinctive settlements have a rather magical air about them. The bright white walls and terracotta roofs are always packed closely as though huddling together for warmth, or out of fear that stray buildings might be picked off by predators.

Initially as we descend from the feed station I think that I can see one of these minty-fresh habitations on a steep hillside ahead. Further inspection proves otherwise.

There are indeed lots of large white cubes, but it’s like an impressionistic sculpture of one of the towns – perhaps a Rachel Whiteread installation that I haven’t heard about. As if for comparison, the town of Cóbdar then appears down in the valley below. It turns out the white facsimile of it in the hillside above is in fact a marble quarry.

 

The climbing begins again and with the heat of the day now squarely on our shoulders I’m glad I have a couple of full bidons. I fall into cadence with a chap called Martin and, when the gradient allows or we’re not being bowled over by another view, we spend a bit of time chatting about the difference between new and old S-Works Tarmacs (I’m on an SL5, he’s on an SL6). I think we conclude firmly that the bikes, regardless of age, are much better than their respective current riders.

A small dollop of white houses going by the name of Benizalón is our unspoken target as we chat away, in the full awareness that a big right-hand corner around 1.5km afterwards signals the end of most of the climbing for the day. It is also the start of arguably the best of a very good collection of downhill sections on the route.

So far I feel like I’ve been descending with all the commitment and grace of a skier who’s lost a ski – it’s just one of those days – but faced with a tempting 7km stretch of wide, well-surfaced and well-sighted road back to Uleila del Campo I get my head down and drop like the proverbial stone.

It’s utter bliss and even better for the fact that at the bottom there is no junction or final speed-scrubbing hairpin, which means I can hold my speed onto the flat.

 

Martin and I agree that the climb back over Bedar is a slightly annoying blemish with 30km remaining, as it has a couple of kilometres at over 8% but otherwise it is, thankfully, a relatively easy run-in.

The wind even gives a helping hand back along the beachfront, the sea to our right now an inviting turquoise with a single fresh white sail picked out on the horizon.

At the finish line Freddie Mercury is still belting out encouragement and there is a fitting, some might say perfect, Spanish/Belgian gastronomic pairing of paella and Kwaremont beer on offer.

Looks are deceiving

Analysing the bare numbers of the Gran Fondo before I cycled it, I was tempted to suggest that it wasn’t going to be that hard. After all, none of the climbs have the sort of numbers to strike fear into the heart. But standing here with empty legs after around 3,700m of climbing over 185km, I decide that it was much harder than it appeared.

It was even harder if you’re Dan Kogan: last year’s winner arrives at the finish about a minute behind me, having taken a wrong turn which added another 60km loop onto his ride. I’m about to ask him if he’s familiar with Aesop’s fable about a tortoise and a hare, but then a small voice in my head says that now might not be the time.

To be honest, if you were going to pick a place to do an extra 60km then I can think of few more picturesque than the Costa Almeria. It surely can’t be long before more people discover this eerily quiet corner of Spain, so I recommend you visit while it’s still unspoilt.

In fact perhaps the only hope of it staying undiscovered is if people keep assuming that when someone says Mojácar they mean Mallorca. It was enough to confuse me initially.

 

The details

Go fetch your gran

What: Gran Fondo Costa Almeria
Where: Mojácar Playa, Spain
How far: 185km with 3,700m of ascent
Next one: 9th May 2020
Price: €65 (£56) or €110 (£95) with jersey
More info: gfca.es

 

Do it yourself

Travel

In terms of distance, Mojácar Playa is situated slap bang between Almeria airport and Murcia airport. However, in terms of transfer time, Almeria airport is closer. There are several options for coach/minibus transfers from the airport to a range of hotels in Mojácar Playa.

Accommodation

Cyclist stayed at the four-star Hotel Marina Playa, which is just a few minutes’ pleasant ride from the start and is also the location for all the sign-on and organisation. A large buffet supplies ample carb loading and there is secure bike storage in the basement. Mechanics and tools are on hand too.

Thanks

Many thanks to Ben Jeffreys for all his help in sorting out our trip. Our thanks also go to Jan Almeye and Yannic Demeyer from Kortweg Cycling travel (kortweg.be), who organise the Gran Fondo Costa Almeria and were almost certainly responsible for the mid-race waffles.

• Get the latest from the world of road cycling every month directly to your door. Subscribe to Cyclist magazine today and try 3 issues for JUST £5 (saving 84% on RRP) and get a FREE Ass Saver as a welcome gift.