We’d earned this, languishing in an Andalucian ice cream parlour, shovelling down a well-earned litre of exotic flavours. Only 5 hours earlier we’d been sitting on top of the highest peak in Spain. Four hours earlier we’d started a descent of 3.1 vertical km – the most we’d ever done in one go. Not a bad day.
But what a week. Sunday and Monday, heaven. On Wednesday I was hallucinating to take my mind off the pain. By Thursday morning I could have sold my soul for a few metres of tarmac. It was the altitude what done it – the very reason we’d pedalled high into the Sierra Nevada. Down in the valley it was an unseasonably cool 36°C; up with the clouds it was a glorious 25°C and no wind to speak of. Oxygen didn’t get much of a mention either: at 3,000m the available oxygen is reduced by a third and you can experience abnormal fatigue, emotional upset, faulty coordination and poor judgment. It’s supposed to take two weeks for cyclists to adapt to altitude and here were the four of us with the imprint of Stelios’s upholstery still fresh on our backsides.
The plan was otherwise faultless. Warm up in the valley with a couple of early mornings on singletrack then up to the Refugio del Poqueira to overnight at 2,500m. Next day we’d cycle up Veleta, the second highest peak in Spain at 3,396 m (11,257 ft). After another night at the refuge it would be up Mulhacén, at 3,479 m (11,533 ft) as near the sky as you can get with a warm paella, then that massive descent back to base in Orgiva.
I’d like to say I cycled all the way up but I’d be fibbing. Martin and Bryon were brimming with enthusiasm but those first two days had tired me out so I cadged a lift to Capileira with host and guide, David Isaacs from Biking Andalucia. I try to be a puritan about these things but I needed to save that 1,000 m of climbing for later.
Carbos and Capileira
Capileira is one of those picturesque villages characteristic of the Alpujarra. Clusters of white houses with pepper pot chimneys perched high on the steep valley side, their people have mostly left the remote terraces to cater for tourists. Between the wars these places were so remote that they were almost entirely self-sufficient and the people led a feudal lifestyle. Then roads opened up access to the punters and the rest is history. Still, let’s not get maudlin about it – the villages are unspoilt and now you can get a sticky pastry and a cold cerveza. So that’s what we did.
With legs fuelled by this intensive carb-loading, we set about the climb to the refuge in the sweltering midday sun. Sinuous tarmac gave way to the wide dusty track that would eventually dwindle to scattered rock as it carried us all the way to the top. We paused to take on water and grab a bite as the rolling mists brewed up in the afternoon sun. With the peak of Prado Llano unseen to our left, the gradient at last began to level off and we took a much-needed breather above the village of Trevélez. It was on this col in April that two hikers died in some of the worst conditions seen this year. Cocooned in the mist and wearing only shirts and baggies, it was too easy to forget we were standing on an exposed plateau at 2,700 m.
Shrugging off the morbid thoughts we began the loose descent to the refuge. The drop back into the sun was deceptively fast. I hit the brakes at around 30 mph, the rear of my Giant NRS skittering all over, but Martin and his Enduro glided over the rocks like Torville and Dean on an oil slick. Was it the five inches of travel? Those fat Kenda tyres? Or was he just better than me? I think we all know the answer. Bryon and David found another obvious truth – you need a full-susser – as they inched their hardtails down.
The Refugio del Poqueira denies its guests even a whiff of hardship. True, some of your bedfellows are hairier than you would wish, but you can have a three-course dinner, wine and beer, and a large breakfast. It’s set at the head of the valley, under a 3,000 m ridge curving for 12 km west from Mulhacén. Hard to believe that these mountains, formed 60 million years ago, are part of the same geological formation as the Pyrenees. From the sun-baked terrace, we squandered the last of the daylight basking in the view south to the bulk of Sierra Lugar and the coast.
When the going gets tough…
Our summit attempt on Veleta began in earnest a few metres from the refuge – the payback for yesterday’s joyous descent was a murderous climb to the track 200m above. Nowhere technical, the route to Veleta steadily traverses the western flank of Mulhacén before crossing the weather-shredded ridge. But to brand this ascent easy would be an injustice. The sheer effort of pedalling at this altitude is a feat of endurance and concentration. It’s a relief when the track deteriorates into rock-strewn chaos because picking a line takes your mind off the pain. When the gradient eased we would suddenly find the energy for a big gear and, as we hurtled through the boulder fields, revived our spirits before the next climb.
The scenery was dramatically bleak. Cloud was building over Veleta as the wind hit the ridge and shot upwards. Narrow serrated pinnacles fell away to our left to form jagged buttresses, and chamois and ibex watched us from the narrow ledges above. Snow still clung to the sheltered slopes, even in July, broken by the dark grey of scree and exposed rock. The monochrome was flecked by small patches of green where streams etched their paths down the valley.
Increasingly, the snow forced us to get off and carry the bikes, and with every return to the saddle the effort seemed greater. We climbed through a narrow gap in the ridge and for the first time gazed at the northern flanks of the Sierra Nevada over a vast basin plunging 1,200 m below us. The track ahead clung to Veleta’s underbelly, cut through by scree and snow. Pedals dangled uselessly as we turned the last hairpin to see a near-vertical snowfield blocking the route. Lower down walkers had cut a ladder to the head of the track; we backtracked and warily shouldered the bikes up the makeshift staircase.
And all of a sudden we were at the Veleta pass, some 170m below the summit, confronted by tarmac: The A-395, to be precise, which will take you to Granada via the ski resort of Pradollano. Completed in 1935 to bring in the tourists, it does at least allow nature the last few metres to the summit. Peaks stretched away to the west in true wilderness style and there was a sheer 300m drop before us (though the mist spared our blushes). And here, right on the top, was a disused bunker with lightning conductors and assorted ironmongery sticking out of it. Was it a refuge? An observatory? No-one knew, but it was a handy place to prop the bikes up while we had some scran.
Next day I had no legs for that brutal climb up to the ridge and I settled for a steady spin that would get me there later rather than sooner. The weather for our ascent of Mulhacén was warmer; the wind had shifted and the sky was pristine blue. But it was up more or less all the way, climbing 800m over about 10 km of increasingly dishevelled track. Picking a line between the rocks was no longer amusing. With each rest it took only minutes for my legs to recover but when I started pedalling again the muscles melted away. I took up my usual position at the rear of the peloton.
Eventually we paused beneath a snowfield and reccied ahead. David, our guide, had never been further than this with a bike but today we were lucky, with only 50m of snow blocking the path before its final approach to the summit. Our way shrank to singletrack through a desert of rock and shale and became increasingly difficult to ride. The boulders were bad enough, each one a micro North Shore, but I didn’t have the strength to keep the front wheel on line. Soon we admitted defeat, preparing to abandon the bikes some 500m short of the summit and leg it the rest of the way. Somehow, though, we had to get a bike up there and Martin was duly volunteered. He shouldered his Enduro and plodded on – but not for long, because he was determined to ride the damn thing if he could. We could only look on in awe and wonder as he got within 20m of the top astride the bike.
Unlike Veleta, Mulhacén has a proper summit. There may be a shrine, a trig-point and a semi-domesticated ibex, but it’s otherwise free of human interference. And there’s no doubt where the top is because huge polygons of rock pile up to a refreshingly sharp point. The views all around are staggering, making it a worthy picnic spot. We were equally amazed to be surrounded by hundreds of butterflies. What they were doing up there we couldn’t guess because there was no water or flowers – the closest thing to nectar was the contents of Martin’s Camelbak.
What goes up…
Soon we were back at the bikes and preparing for the descent. Destination: Orgiva, 3.1 vertical km below us and 19 km distant as the crow flies. We began steadily enough because the surface was too loose and rocky for speed but Martin was off again as soon as he spied daylight between the boulders. As the track snaked away I began to appreciate what my legs had gone through that morning: this was steep and confidence in my overheated Hope Minis was waning fast. Martin cut off a hairpin as he spied a sheep path and I followed his line. There was no time to look left or right; all my attention was on the five metres in front of me. Even here rocks littered the path, dinging off the bikes as the wheels spat them out. All too soon we plateaued out at the ridge above the refuge, weary muscles drinking in the oxygen-rich air and the agonies of the morning forgotten in the exhilaration.
We regrouped and found our way to some contour-hugging double-track below the refuge. Descending almost imperceptibly, the way narrowed again and we powered off on big gears, weaving between the rocks and jumping streams and potholes. For a brief moment I slowed as doubt crossed my mind – if I come off at this speed I’m in trouble – but the trail soon whipped my mind back to the urgent business ahead. I guess we were making 20 – 25 mph; that 5km track lasted 10 minutes at most but it seemed to go on forever as every pull on the bars, every touch of the brakes, every stamp on the pedals played out in my mind.
We wheeled into Capileira like returning heroes. Nobody took a blind bit of notice but, unabashed, we celebrated with beer and tapas. And another one. Then, just as we got up to leave, the patron came out with a complementary round and forced us to stay a bit longer. Somehow, all this beer did not go to anyone’s legs and we set off for the last descent. The heat was building rapidly as the steep track wriggled away into the valley below until, 10 sweaty, dusty, skiddy minutes later, we hit the baking road back to Orgiva and siren’s call of the ice cream parlour.
So, sitting there with a face lathered with mango-flavoured stickiness, this occurred to me: There had been something of everything on this high altitude trip: magnificent cross-country, quality singletrack and downhill, lots of downhill. We’d pedalled up Spain’s two highest mountains on consecutive days and, unlike some epic rides we read about but will never manage, any keen pedaller can do it all and get real satisfaction from the achievement. (Just for comparison, Ben Nevis is 1,344 m.) Hard work, true, but think about those picnic spots.