Early October I was lucky enough to travel to the Sierra Nevada mountains with a group of cycling friends from the Ilkley Cycling Club. On the many pre trip pub planning meetings we plotted various routes that would suit all the differing types of riders on the trip. Then I read an article about an unsuccessful attempt to cycle something called Pico de Veleta. I confess, I had never heard of it save a passing comment by Simon Foy years ago saying the biggest climb in Europe was in Southern Spain. What’s not to love, so I immediately suggested this to the group as one of our potential routes. The response was mixed.
Further investigation into the climb showed us it started on the outskirts of Granada, just a hours drive from where we were staying. It also warned that the top section of the 43km uphill section was somewhat 'broken' terrain not passable by road bikes. The final piece of info of note was that the peak tipped out at nearly 3800m, with a reference to strong winds and low visibility forcing many to turn back.
Fortunately, two of the group seemed nearly as keen as I to have a run at this fun sounding lump. Early on the Sunday morning an hour before sun up, Ged, Jonathan and I set off in Ged’s Range Rover from which he had removed the back seats to allow for more touring luggage space! This farsighted thinking allowed three of us and three bikes to squeeze in. An hour later and we were on the edge of Granada in rush hour trying to find somewhere to park up. Lo and behold an old bloke in a little hut on the edge of some wasteland was offering all day, monitored parking for €1 per car. We were so pleased we each gave him a euro!
Bikes wheels back on and we swung out into traffic heading east into the rising sun with gradient to match. I was glad to have Ged and Jonathan along as, unlike me, they both have many years of cycling experience. As such Ged set a manageable pace from the off, something that I would be most thankful for a few hours later.
The first 30 odd kilometres of the climb are on classic Alpine feeling roads with a smooth surface cutting through trees and gullies at a pleasant 5-6% average. It is here we discovered, many car manufacturers test drive new models. Camouflaged cars of all shapes zoomed about up and down the road. Apparently the road is so quiet it is the ideal testing ground to avoid the publics eye. Other than the usual banter and speeding test driver the only incident of note as a large deer. This startled animal launched itself across the road a yard from Geds front wheel, causing him to poop his pants slightly! It was a few minutes before he had recovered his composure and we’d stopped laughing.
We finally reached the Sierra Nevada ski resort and swerved up and past the deserted buildings coming eventually to the end of the road. The smooth one anyway. At the only food sellers we had seen we stopped to refuel with chocolate crepes. Ged informed us he hadn’t bought any food, expecting there to be eateries around every corner and had plannned a relaxing buffet-like climb. Fortunately Jonathan had enough energy bars and gels for a peloton. Fully coloured energy drink, crepe and coffee later we were advised by the owner we had 11km to go to the top but we wouldn’t get there on road bikes. What did he know, being born and raised in the area and working on the mountain summer and winter? He wished us luck and off we went through the barrier and onto the broken piste basher scarred service road. Now the gradient cracked up a bit and averaged over 8% from here to the top.
From here we rode our own pace and soon the two started to leave me in their wake. Dodging holes, cracks and shale we each made our own way upwards until with about 1km to go the road kind of disappeared. It was still a route of sorts but not much of it was rideable unless of course you were Jonathan with his excellent CX skills (he had completed the 3 Peaks race only a week or two earlier). Riding, teetering, pushing and carrying I finally rounded the last turn to see them both scrambling up the last rock face to the monument sitting atop the mountain. Cleats on smooth rock of a certain gradient ain’t easy to manage, but we did and finally we sat next to the monument, took in the incredible view and listened to Ged effing and jeffing at the scary sheer drop off the other side of the Pico de Veletta! Next thing we know a mountain biker arrives and met the sight of our three Ilkley CC jerseys with 'Hello, I was born in Ilkley!'. It would appear the world is as small as they say!
We had been lucky with the conditions. Luckier than we knew. As we started to steel ourselves for the hour long descent the wind picked up and the cloud rolled in and engulfed the top of the peak. This drastically cut visibility and it wasn't until we had traversed the broken track and were back on something resembling road that we could see a great deal. Looking up to the grey mass of swirling cloud where the top had once been I was reminded just how changeable mountains can be - even in Southern Spain at the end of summer. It was 30 degrees a few miles down the road in Granada and about three degrees at the summit!
We noted that in this part of Spain we were either spinning in the little ring or hanging on to brake levers with little in between. This was the time to get sore hands rather than tired legs. A couple of interesting incidents happened on our way down. First was my turn to poop my pants. Contrary to the way up, the way down I managed to pull away and avoiding the urge to stop and snap pictures soon opened up a gap. As I squealed around a hairpin I was confronted by a huge ibex stood right in my path. Luckily this beast was more at home in the mountains and managed to make the necessary manoeuvre to avoid a collision. The quick thinking animal simply launched itself off the side of the cliff. I never caught sight of it again but heard the skittering of stone and shale as it descended quicker than Froome ever could.
The other amusing moment was as Jonathan and I regrouped and passed three British mountain bikers. Before they became aware of us they were arguing, using colourful language and bemoaning their decision to follow the lead rider up this stupid road. As they passed they we all smiles and how d’dos only to lapse back into their violent bickering when they thought themselves back out of ear shot!
Towards the end of our descent and now back in warmer climes we finally found an open restaurant. Well earned beer and carbs with pals was the perfect finish to one of my most enjoyable and challenging days both in and out the saddle.