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Andalusia: Big Ride

Peter Stuart
7 Jan 2016

In the south of Spain, Cyclist discovers a land of rugged coastlines, deserts and mountains. The perfect place for an epic ride.

It’s blowing hard in Andalusia. The whitewashed fishing town of Agua Amarga is being battered by coastal winds. The azure blue sea is roaring violently and palm trees threaten to rip clear of their roots. Anywhere else in the world I might be tempted to spend the day beneath a solid roof, but these roads are too alluring, and this landscape too stunning to pass up.

This region isn’t the first that comes to mind when you put cycling and Spain together. The Vuelta a Espana has rarely, if ever, come here. It lacks the high peaks of the nearby Sierra Nevada or the green forests of the country’s more northerly provinces. A geological history of volcanic activity has given the region a jagged and undulating rocky terrain, both beautiful and menacing. Being at the very southern tip of Spain, the area boasts a climate that sees 320 days of sun and temperatures in the high 30s even in early spring. Added to that, the roads remain clear of any kind of traffic. They should be a magnet for cyclists, yet there are none to be seen. 

Spain climbing

Our ride begins just outside the coastal town of Agua Amarga, whose name means ‘bitter water’. We head into town, aiming for the sea, and with the blistering winds blowing us along I’m certain that I see 60kmh flash up on my bike computer despite the road being slightly uphill. While it’s good to have all this free speed, a feeling of dread creeps into my mind with the knowledge that there will be payback later on in the form of savage headwinds on our return leg. 

With me on today’s ride is José, owner of a local bike shop and our guide for the day, and fellow English rider Therese. José has promised us a stunning coastal route up to Mojácar, then a climb into the sandy inlands of Almeria. He has all the finishing of a typical wily ex-pro: mahogany skin, incredibly toned muscles for a man a few decades past his racing prime, and a riding position that I could probably maintain for about five minutes if I first did six months of daily yoga. His bike has an impressive palmarès of its own, as it used to belong to French Tour de France stage-winner David Moncutié.

Because it’s a coastal area we were expecting a fairly flat profile, but of course all roads from the coast go in only one direction: up. Two peaks sit in the middle of today’s route, one named Bedar Hill at 600m, and a subsequent unnamed peak on the A1011 road at 700m. Those figures might seem paltry compared to the altitudes of the Alps or Dolomites, but they don’t do justice to just how mountainous the area is. Even the roads that skirt the coast are far from flat.

Spain coastal road

The wind screeches through the gaps between the white houses as we skirt past Agua Amarga, and we try to stay in the shelter of the big boulders that line the coast. Before we even leave town, the stunning curves of the road ahead come into view, and we start our first proper ascent. It climbs a mere 90m, but it’s enough to open the lungs. 

The road snakes along the rugged coastline, winding back and forth from the sea. We roll in and out of corridors of steep rock, with the gradient hovering at an agreeable 5%. Then, when we emerge at the top, the view back towards Agua Amarga, sitting against the pastel blue sea, makes me feel as though we could be 1,000m high.

Ahead of us sits the Faro de Mesa Roldán, a half-eroded crater of a dormant volcano that once rose up from beneath the sea. Atop it is a lighthouse and watchtower. The closer we get the more it dominates the landscape, looking strangely out of place against the vast flats that sit to our left. Behind, shielded from view, is the curiously named Playa de los Muertos (beach of the dead), named apparently for a turbulent history of pirate shipwrecks. It’s possibly for the best that it is hidden from sight, as it’s considered one of Spain’s finest naturist beaches.

Moor history

Spain corner

About 10km into our ride we arrive in the town of Carboneras, and I begin to worry that the heat is affecting my mind. All around me I see Moors and Christians in full medieval attire marching around the town. History is being played out in full detail, as we have arrived in the middle of the Moros y Cristianos festival.

The festival commemorates the battles between the Christians and the Moors who once dominated this region. It’s a strangely jovial affair, given the barbaric bloodshed those battles involved. In 1435 the entire Moor population of Mojácar was put to death after a successful Christian siege. There are plenty of remnants of the Moors’ time in Almeria still, and numerous films have used the region’s Muslim architecture to feign a Middle Eastern setting – Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade to name one.

We leave town quickly, wary of retribution for our Christian ancestry and eager to keep air flowing over us as a sign displaying the temperature outside a shop has just flashed up 37°C. 

As we round the next corner, we’re greeted by the sight of a vast and ugly structure, attached to the hillside and flowing down to the sea. It’s an enormous and eerily empty utilitarian hotel that stands like some sort of post-apocalyptic relic. It is the Hotel Algarrobico, or rather the hotel that never was, José tells me. It has stood here for nine years, surrounded by cranes but never completed or demolished. I assume it’s some physical embodiment of the economic downturn in Spain, but José informs me that it was environmental and ecological protests that brought the construction to a halt due to its location on the Cabo di Gata Nature reserve, a Unesco protected site. It is an unfortunate blemish on one of Europe’s most stunning coastlines. Last year, Greenpeace protested the white elephant by painstakingly painting the entire front of the hotel with the words ‘Hotel Ilegal [sic]’ on its facade.

Spain mountains

It isn’t long before the slightly jarring architecture is pushed far out of our minds, as one of Europe’s most handsome roads creeps into view, and with it our first testing climb of the day. 

The combination of ancient volcanic activity and centuries of wind erosion has created some strange and magnificent formations, and the road snakes back and forth like a ribbon between the rocky dunes. In the distance, the upper slopes of the road are draped over a mountain ridge, giving us a clear view of what is still to come. Despite delivering only 200m of vertical ascent it looks plenty intimidating. As we climb, though, it’s not the exertion of the gradient that dominates conversation, but rather the rarity of a road like this, with perfectly set hairpins overlooking a twinkling blue sea. When we reach the upper slopes, we’re rewarded with a view right down the coast, with Carboneras gleaming white in the strong midday sun.

With the wind on our backs once again, we set off downhill. Despite our relatively low elevation, the descent lasts the best part of 4km, all of which is on wide roads that allow us to keep the speed well above 70kmh. I’m doing my best to keep in sight of José. He has the type of descending skills that can only be honed from three decades of competitive racing. He flies down the mountainside like a bullet, and I follow with my heart pumping.

We roll into the town of Mojácar Playa, which is the seaside outpost of the region’s biggest town. It makes for a pleasant seaside cruise, and marks our last bout of level riding for the day.

Into the hills

Spain plain

As we turn away from the coast it feels as though we’ve stumbled into a different country. We ride along a gentle uphill gradient. Orange trees line the road as José and I sit side by side, each trying to look like we’re not troubled by the high pace. Therese wisely sits in the slipstream, a little more conscious of the 80km that lies ahead.

There are 15km of false flats before the climb to the town of Bedar begins. It isn’t one that will get pinned in my scrapbook of most painful climbs, but it dishes out a few ramps of 10% or 15%. I’m grateful that the wind is still in our favour, as I suspect these inclines would be a serious chore with a strong headwind.

The landscape has become reminiscent of the Wild West, with the occasional stone ruin interrupting a sandy, cactus-filled landscape. A few of the buildings carry the Muslim architecture held over from the occupation by the Moors, and make the setting all the more otherworldly. It’s a major road, but during the 30-minute climb we’re passed by fewer than a dozen cars. 

Spain riders

After the long straight out of Mojácar the road snakes into tight hairpins on the approach to Bedar. We’re high enough now that we can glimpse the sea again in the distance, and I have to resist the temptation to stop at every corner to take photographs. It’s climbs like these that I’d happily do every day – hard enough to squeeze the finest watts out of you, but never truly painful.

Reaching the town of Bedar we’re the best part of 60km into the ride, so decide to pull up for a spot of lunch. Bedar is small but pleasantly buzzing, and we settle into the Bar Restaurant El Cortijo for tapas-style fish dishes and a round of coffees. I wonder whether a meal of octopus, squid and trout with fried potatoes is taking a bit of a risk with so much riding still to do, but the food is so fresh that it’s impossible to resist.

At a table opposite, a western couple takes note of our bikes and wanders over. A grey-haired Englishman introduces himself as Frank Clements. He was once Under-18 National Champion, won a handful of stages at the Tour of Britain and raced against legendary Grand Tour winner Fausto Coppi. He even shows us his autobiography, endearingly named A Bike Ride Through My Life. I’m glad that he’s not on his bike today as I have a niggling suspicion that he could show us all up.

Spain viaduct

Having filled up to the point of feeling mildly queasy, we set off again. The town of Bedar isn’t at the summit of the climb, so we haul our stomachs up a 5% incline. Once we reach the top, we tip over into a new landscape and say goodbye to our views of the sea. Now we’re staring at a desert mountainscape, marked only with the occasional dark shadow of cloud above us. A long descent is laid out in front of us, and I can’t help worrying slightly about the sharp drops on either side, but it doesn’t stop José plunging swiftly and skillfully down the incline. It’s a quick descent, with steep sections of 20% in places, making me glad that I have José ahead demonstrating the perfect line. At this speed it’s only a matter of minutes before we reach the bottom and begin to climb again.

The next peak is the highest of the day and throws a 20% ramp at us just before the summit, which pushes everyone out of the saddle as we wrench our bikes from side to side. Over the top we pass through a corridor of tall rocks before beginning a winding descent. Judging by the gradients we should be flying, but instead we are brought to a near halt by a billowing headwind. 

The desert

As the land flattens out, we stick in tight formation against the relentless wind. All around us only a few orange trees break up the sparse landscape. It’s beautiful, but it’s gruelling work. I feel like Lawrence of Arabia, trekking wearily through the heavy sands of the Nafud desert. When I mention it to José he laughs, pointing out that it’s not far from here where Peter O’Toole rode across sandy plains when filming the 1962 epic. 

Spain winding road

In Lawrence Of Arabia and dozens of Western gunslingers, the semi-deserts of Almeria were mocked up to look like the Wild West or the Middle East. In fact, the controversial Hotel Algarrobico obscures what would otherwise have remained a perfect image of the disputed coastal fort of Aqaba in the iconic movie, minus the film-set town. It’s a slightly surreal feeling to realise scenes that I once thought to be the most exotic places on earth are only a two-hour flight from home, and far away from the shores of Jordan.

I wonder how far we are from the next spot of civilisation, and double check the amount of liquid splashing around in my water bottle. It’s often said that only people who live in green and leafy places can find beauty in the desert, whereas for locals, as Omar Sharif once proclaimed, ‘There is nothing in the desert, and no man needs nothing.’ But then Omar Sharif was never much of a cyclist.

We skirt past some tall rock stacks, and the flat terrain is increasingly interrupted by sandstone formations that would be a geologist’s dream. Just as I’m enjoying the scenery José sprints off ahead, taking advantage of the brief shadow from the wind offered by the rocky landscape. He’s clearly still very much a racer at heart. I set off in hot pursuit, and the three of us race each other down the empty roads until we find ourselves struggling against the wind again, and Therese and I take shelter behind José’s vast quads. 

Pinarello F8

My Garmin tells me we’re 100km into the ride and so I can only guess that the finish must come into sight soon. Then José signals for us to turn left onto an unmarked gravel road. It’s a beautiful and desolate path, and given the headwind pushing our speed below 20kmh, we’ve plenty of time to enjoy it. 

I decide now is a good opportunity to get my own back on José, and I empty my tank completely into the wind, with José chasing (while chuckling) behind me. Sprinting into a headwind is a dangerous game, and I nearly come to a grinding halt from the effort. Fortunately, just before José and Therese bridge the gap, I turn onto the main road and suddenly the wind is at my back again. It feels good to know we’ll get a push all the way back to Agua Amarga. 

With seemingly little effort we roll along at 50kmh. Around us the gale-lashed trees continue their desperate grip on the ground, while we try to avoid being blown clean off the road. It’s a little scary, but thrilling. Even on a windless day this would be a fast approach to the sea, and our final destination. We’ve climbed more than 2,500m in 120km, despite tracking the coast for a big portion of the ride, and while the wind made for easy sailing at the beginning and end of the ride, my legs are devastated from the toll of kilometre after kilometre against it. But we’ve crossed the desert, and the sight of the gleaming blue sea on the other side is ample reward.

Do it yourself

Travel

The nearest airport to Agua Amarga is Almeria, which can be reached from London, Birmingham and Manchester airports. We flew to Alicante, as flights were cheaper and more frequent (available from £90 return). The best way to get to Agua Amarga from there is to drive, so we rented a car large enough for two bike boxes for around €200 for five days.

Accommodation

We stayed at the incredible Real Agua Amarga La Joya. Just outside of Agua Amarga, La Joya has hosted the Spanish Royal family, boasts a Spanish MasterChef winner in the kitchen and offers stunning views and a jacuzzi in every room. Cyclists are well catered for – a private patio in each room offers ample bike-cleaning space, the hotel has topographical route maps and the swimming pool and spa offer exceptional opportunity for R&R. Managers Isabel and Lennart are generally on hand and eager to help. Prices start at €180 per night for a double room, but the owners are offering a 10% discount for Cyclist readers (for direct bookings of over three days), as well as a 20% discount on massages.

The hotel also has a set of villas in the town of Agua Amarga for larger groups at a slightly lower rate. But the La Joya hotel is really too good to be missed.

Thanks

A huge thank you to José Cano Aguero, owner of the Doltcini bike shop in Mojácar, for organising our route and guiding us on the day. Doltcini offers bike rental and José also provides guided tours and multi-day camps. He knows the roads and culinary merits of the area extremely well, and could challenge even the bravest to a tough sprint. Visit doltcini.es or email doltcini.Mojácar@hotmail.com for more details. Thanks also to Mark Lyford of Bici Almeria (bici-almeria.com) for some great advice on rides in the region, and Jane Hansom for putting us in touch with The Real Agua Amarga.

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