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Vuelta a Espana Classic Climb: Alto de Velefique

17 Aug 2021

It has the length, the height and the hairpins, yet this climb in southern Spain remains wonderfully off the beaten track

Words James Spender; Photography Juan Trujillo Andrades

Unless you have a horse with no name, you’ll be driving through the Tabernas Desert to reach the start of this climb. This arid southeastern knuckle of Spain is so quintessential in its desertness it became the home of cowboy movies in the 1960s and as such there is pretty much nothing and no one for miles.

It would take many gruelling hours to cycle here from anywhere you would wish to base yourself in the vicinity. But there are roads, and what roads.

The sun beats down the door to the Tabernas year-round. The nights are cold whatever the time of year – candy-striped snow poles line the highest roads – but even in late October it’s still in the 30s during the day.

This consistent dry warmth coupled with the near-total lack of motor traffic means the tarmac tends to stay in fine fettle, unfurling like black linoleum across the desert sand. And of those roads there is none so heartachingly beautiful to a cyclist as Alto de Velefique.

Ask any local rider and the word ‘Velefique’ is met with the reverential pronouncement, ‘Ah, the Alpe d’Huez of the desert,’ and they’d not be wrong. Both climbs top out at a similar height, reached over a similar distance, and Velefique has 20 perfect hairpins, just one shy of the infamous Alpe.

The two climbs even look similar on a map, running south to north like film spooling off a reel. But in terms of feel the two couldn’t be more different, not least because riders on Alpe d’Huez probably outnumber those on the Velefique 1,000-to-1. And if I had to save one from a fire…

Sign language

The technical term here is ‘semi-arid’, which means there’s slightly more precipitation than a full-blown ‘arid’ desert, but not much. It’s like the difference between a leak and a drip. It’s more pleasant to stay on the east coast, where bustling towns abound an hour’s drive away. Try Mojácar, a not too touristy playa by summer and a pretty hilltop village full of locals year round.

As you might have guessed, the climb proper gets underway on the outskirts of an old mining town called Velefique, population 247 in 2017, although five people had left as of the 2019 census. It’s that kind of place. Picturesque, diminutive, slow-paced and sadly receding.

The road is called the AL–3102 but you needn’t worry, it’s basically the only road here running north and on the approach to the climb there are plenty of signs. First up is one for cyclists, a full course profile plus stats.

It’s in brown, the colour of municipal signs made by people with humanities degrees and so, one might think, is to be trusted, yet it declares numbers you will disagree with by the top.

According to the sign’s writers the Velefique crests at 1,860m, with an average gradient of 7.95% and a maximum gradient of 11%. But by the third hairpin you’ll have seen your bike computer whizz past 11%, and by the summit you’ll be sitting on your top tube at a shade under 1,800m.

It’s the same phenomenon that led France’s Col de la Bonnette to declare itself ‘2,802m above sea level, the highest road in Europe’, when in fact that award belongs to another Spanish queen, the 3,398m Pico de Veleta in the Sierra Nevada.

Still, the sign is useful as it does describe the climb’s character well: long and steady, with the steepest bits coming nearer the bottom. For whom it may concern, the ‘official’ (Strava) start to the climb is actually at a sign 400m further on that reads ‘Bienvenidos a Velefique’.

All signs dispatched, a cluster of whitewashed houses springs into view and with it the first hairpin, which whisks you out of the prickly pears that flank the roadside and into a spray of colour. Velefique’s inhabitants are clearly into their ornamental flowers. It’s an enormously steep sweep, then another, and by the fourth the town exists only over your right shoulder.

Flash in the pan

Rhythm is easy to find, so too evidence that you are not the first rider to have realised this is a magnificent climb. Faded Albertos, Valverdes and Javis crisscross the road, graffitied relics of Vueltas past – although in Grand Tour terms Alto de Velefique is a long way short of being ‘the Alpe d’Huez of the Vuelta a España’. The race has only visited twice.

The caravan first came to town in 2009 for Stage 12, a gruelling 191km from Almería in the south and packing 3,550m of climbing.

Then two more firsts followed: the first Grand Tour win for ex-mountain biking Canadian Ryder Hesjedal and the first Vuelta stage win for Canada itself.

Along with Hesjedal, Velefique was heralded a breakthrough star, climbed mid-stage then again last thing as the route looped around for a summit finish. However it clearly did not impress enough (or perhaps the region couldn’t afford the race organiser’s tariffs), as the Vuelta didn’t return until 2017.

That was a more muted affair for Alto de Velefique, climbed en route to its bigger sister and the highest climb in the region, the Calar Alto Observatory at 2,168m.

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A climb to the observatory is a worthy addendum to a ride here, and is easily executed via a sinuous descent to the town of Bacares. But let’s not forget the small matter of reaching the top of the Velefique first.

On a clear day the view over the desert is far-reaching but by its very nature rather featureless. The middle-distance is yellow and grey, sandy earth and sunburnt scrub intertwined with rock, while the horizon has the quality of reddish, wrinkled cloth.

It’s all very desolate and is the reason the Tabernas Desert became such a favourite for cinema. More recently leviathans such as Game Of Thrones have been shot in these parts, but back in the 1960s and 1970s European production companies built vast sets – whole towns complete with courts, bars and cathouses – in which to film Spaghetti Westerns, so–called because they were typically directed by Italians, the most famous being Sergio Leone.

At least three of the more major movie sets survive and have been made into tourist attractions, so it’s still possible to tread where Clint Eastwood toted his guns in Leone’s Dollars Trilogy.

However when the landscape takes a marked turn as the hairpins tick by, you will have to imagine you can see the swinging gallows from your bike saddle.

Get up, look down

From the beginning of the climb you’d have never known it, but in the racetrack coils of hairpins that finally elevate you to the summit there are suddenly huge swathes of conifers, and with them huge blasts of chill air.

Rolling through in just a lightweight jersey you would shiver on some of these upper slopes were it not for the steepened pitches between the hairpins’ straighter sections, which are enough to have you adding to the sweat patches.

These sections are plentifully long, and between the copses provide the perfect galleries from which to take in the road below. It is a truly magnificent sight, yet one totally eclipsed by that which greets you at the top.

At first you’ll wonder where the grandeur has gone – the summit sees the road appear to dilute flatly into the sky – but seek out another brown sign, which spuriously declares you’re at 1,860m, then turn right along a gravel track.

You’ll soon be ditching the bike and wondering how good a grip your cleats have got, but keep the faith and follow this well–trodden track to an outcrop of rock. Now look over – careful now – and witness from whence you’ve come in all its glory. Then take a moment to be thankful this incredible climb remains hidden in the desert.