Roadtripping Sierra Nevada

Words by Szymonbike | Photos by Marek Ogien | Video by Ola Zwan

 

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What’s your cycling daydream? Perhaps it goes something like this: you and your best mates surrounded by beautiful nature. Maybe add a couple of big mountains,  and then endless unknown twisting roads waiting to be discovered. Subtract the crowds, cars and the city clamour. Sounds like the recipe for a perfect day, doesn’t it?

 

What’s your cycling daydream? Perhaps it goes something like this: you and your best mates surrounded by beautiful nature. Maybe add a couple of big mountains,  and then endless unknown twisting roads waiting to be discovered. Subtract the crowds, cars and the city clamour. Sounds like the recipe for a perfect day, doesn’t it?

We’ve decided to make our dreams come true, and have found ourselves in the snowy Spanish mountain range of Sierra Nevada. Stretching for 80km as a ridge through Andalusia, Sierra Nevada features the highest road in Europe — the Pico de Veleta. Despite the fact that we are in the middle of winter, the road is accessible to cyclists because down in the valley there is no winter. We have our bikes ready to be put to good use. We are lucky — we get to go to heaven without dying.

This time there are four of us: me – Szymon; Karol, who can always be relied on to take part in such adventures; Cormac, who organises riding camps in the area with Cycle Sierra Nevada; and Bart, who is new to Roadtripping. Cormac has covered countless kilometres in the mountains this year, I am only getting started, Karol has been participating in cross country races, and Bart has been breezing through the Californian hills on a fixie.

Four friends, all completely different. But it doesn’t matter — each of us has a bike, two legs and a craving for adventure. We are here to have a great time riding our bicycles, enjoy the mountains and experience beautiful moments that will last a lifetime. This is our simple plan.

The sun slowly pours itself into a distant valley, caressing the hills with warm golden light. It’s going to be a lovely sunrise. We are so fortunate.

With a 4am alarm, it’s no normal day for us as we stagger half-asleep and without breakfast to the car, already loaded with our bikes and essentials. We have mountains to climb.

Our plan is to welcome the sunrise from the top of the hill leading to the forgotten shepherd village of Cañar. It’s still dark and freezing, and in the moment, even to us, this plan seems a touch ridiculous. Every now and then a puzzled Spaniard passes us, seemingly wondering what we’re up to. But patiently we wait. The sun slowly pours itself into a distant valley, caressing the hills with warm golden light. It’s going to be a lovely sunrise. We are so fortunate.

Instantly we forget how sleepy we are and how cold it is, and soon find ourselves carving up and around the sinuous hairpins. The road running to this small forsaken village consists of numerous bends, most of which are switchbacks, with hardly any traffic to spoil it. We all know the legendary turns of the Italian and French Alps — the Stelvio, Alpe d’Huez. The climb we ride here is known to very few, but is on par with these famous climbs which are currently resting under a snowy blanket. As we enter the sun, the road is completely ours and we make the most of it.

The twisting road to Cañar is just one of many reasons to shout in delight, let emotions take control and lose ourselves in the moment. These mountains and the roads through them seem to have no end.

The usually sun-drenched hills on the southern flank of the Sierra Nevada are called Los Alpujarras, that is, “grassy land” — mild mountains spotted with white towns built by medieval Moors in the region’s turbulent and often bloody past. The present is far more tranquil, and shepherds with goats or hippies with dreadlocks are far more common here than rich men in luxury cars. The origin of the twisting road network traced across these mountains is uncertain; perhaps they were just beaten paths used by shepherds to lead their flocks between settlements. That’s anyone’s guess.

We’re going to use these roads to shepherd our bikes. We easily find the switchbacks on the map and head towards them. The days in the saddle are long and the locations never disappoint. Cormac’s facial expression says it all. He thought that he knew every bit of the area until an old man gave us directions that took us along a twisted, steep tarmac road leading to such forlorn villages as Cástaras and Nieles. Our excitement is radiant. This is what it’s all about.

Our route selection may be unconventional, but as the day wears on the weather also takes a turn out of the ordinary. Rain here is about as common as a flat road, but the clouds are hanging heavily in the sky. But even though this somewhat mars the view and — when the skies open — complicates the descent, we still enjoy climbing the mountains in the showers and looking at the steaming hills. However, true magic awaits us the next day. When it was raining in the valleys, it was snowing up high in the Sierra Nevada, with the snow-covered hillsides providing beautiful scenery to reward us for the hardships of the previous day. It is true that there are two sides to everything.

But still we want more; we want to ride until our bodies fall apart. This time we hit the narrow streets of Salobrena — one of those white Moorish towns — and a perfectly flat road in Los Guajares, at the top of which we find the ruins of an old palace and a crumbling Moorish castle. Accidentally, we get onto an insanely steep gravel road to Sorvilán which turns into a wide street with no cars — perhaps drivers get discouraged by its unfriendly beginning. These roads, carved through the mountains, are empty and seem to have no use, but for a cyclist they are a dream come true.

This is a land with an eventful past, forged by soldiers and shepherds alike, and it’s thanks to them that we are blessed with these well-prepared roads today. Our needs are simple — we just get on our bikes and ride until the sun sets.

We could continue riding like that with no end but there is one place here that I keep thinking about — the antennas at the top of Sierra de Lujar. I haven’t spotted a road leading to them, so we haven’t yet made an approach. I ask locals how to get to them but they’re not sure if it is possible at all by car, let alone by bike. It seems that nobody goes there, but surely there must at least be an access path leading to them. Eventually we find an old, narrow road full of holes. Looks like an adventure, and a challenging one at that.

The summit isn’t very far as the crow flies, but we are not going to take any shortcuts — you don’t produce memorable moments by taking the easy way. First, we want to ride up an unbelievably steep hill and reach a huge distant dam located eastwards, then we plan to go down to the sea and attempt to get to the antennas from there. An audacious, if not silly, idea. We don’t bother to keep track of time or elevation gain. It is not a training session, but a reward for our hard work. We just go with the flow.

We eat a big breakfast and drink huge amounts of coffee, with our minds already fixed on the trip. But right at the start of our journey we run into a serious obstacle — Guardia Civil stopping cars and redirecting them to Órgiva, a hippie town way off our original route. “Don’t look at them, don’t slow down!” We somehow slip by. No one is shooting or chasing us. We made it! The road is ours alone. A fifteen kilometre ascent with the real challenge at its end. In Torvizcón we have our water bottles refilled by a kind bartender and with a slightly false sense of confidence we set off for the first serious climb of the day.

This steep and twisted road is usually ridden from the top, and has a reputation as a crazy descent that’s claimed its fair share of skin. But we decide to go in the opposite direction. I am not sure if giving our legs such a hard time with the whole day ahead of us is a good idea, but there is no turning back now.

The tarmac probably makes no difference to the local farmers in their off-road cars but it makes a whole lot of difference to us. There isn’t anybody here at the moment. Splendid! One of the things I love about cycling is the fact that when you are fighting with a steep hill, with your head down either due to tiredness or concentration, the scenery changes with each time you look up. That’s exactly what’s happening here. The spaces expand, the mountains multiply. We start swearing in excitement. It’s on!

Sometimes you can’t help but stop and enjoy the moment. Some days seem to consist only of these pauses. However, today we have a long way to go and not much time for breaks. With the pace on, the differences between our preparation levels become apparent; Bart is left behind, with Karol disappearing in front of us. That’s okay — we will meet at the top. Cormac is a descender, Karol has stronger legs and Bart never gives up on the riskiest of ideas. In fact, given the right circumstances, each of us is capable of leaving the rest behind, but we know this is not the point.

The top is a false one, and after climbing another hill we reach a road. We don’t take any pictures with the sign at the top — no such rubbish. The magic mountains seem to stretch endlessly. By no means is that a reason for complaint. We get to Contraviesy, a magnificent road leading to the Alpujarras mountain ridge composed of several small hills and gentle bends. We are riding at 40 km/h with the snowy mountain tops of Sierra Nevada on the left, and the blue sea stretching into the distance on our right. Pure cycling bliss.

We have to continue climbing a little longer, as there are a couple more steep hills ahead of us. Here, roads are different than in the Alps or Dolomites. They are unevenly ridged, which drains your energy to the very last drop. Finally, we reach the beginning of the longest, or shall I say, the only proper descent for the day. It will be a 10 kilometre drop featuring almost 50 hairpin turns. It is going to be fun. I can’t imagine a better reward for someone who loves cycling as much as we do. Down we go. The manner in which the bends are cambered renders our brakes almost unnecessary.

A car has just passed us by and so, based on past experience, we can expect the next such encounter will take place in an hour or so. Cormac sets the pace as he is the expert descender. Intoxicated by adrenaline, focused like fighter pilots, we completely give in to this cycling ecstasy.

Let this moment live forever.

Our racing hearts are the reason we chose the longer road. We can see the excitement in each others’ eyes. There is no need for words. Food, on the other hand, is more than welcome. Thankfully, we have already reached the seaside where there are plenty of opportunities to grab a bite. The cafeterias are familiar with the particular needs of the cyclist. A friendly bartender refills our water bottles with a smile, while we order loads of food. Cafe con leche, cafe cortado, cafe solo, Coke, tostada with an omelette, local jamon or churros — cheap fuel. All of this just disappears into our stomachs, but our bodies demand more and the hardest part is still ahead of us. We are currently at zero altitude, with our target two kilometres above us.

The feeling when you begin to see the mountain tops you are trying to reach in the distance is like seeing your beloved one after a long separation. We have already covered 140 kilometres in the mountains but the real pain is about to begin. Maybe we are the first ones to attempt to climb this mountain from sea level. We could have turned earlier and chosen a slightly easier way but we didn’t want to miss all those delicious switchbacks along the road through Polopos. The ascent going through the magical Sorvilán, with its hairpin turns and the blue sea in the background, may be even more difficult but we don’t want to risk a flat tyre as it is getting late. Our opponents today are not human — we are racing with the sun and the mountains.

This climb is a monster. I am exhausted, but my curiosity about what waits for me at the top draws me onward. I keep checking if my brakes are rubbing against my rims, or if I’ve got another gear in reserve, but no luck. I used to ask myself in such moments if it is worth the effort, but today I am well aware the answer is “hell, yes”. This is how a real roadtrip should be and this is how you get genuine satisfaction. Actually, I am not dwelling too much on it because the glorious mountains, countless switchbacks and the sea in the distance draw all of my attention. Fatigue and hunger are nothing compared to the beauty of the moment. This was our daydream. We don’t even have to say anything to express how happy we are on this perfect day — our smiles say more than a thousand words.

The antennas are still shimmering spires in the distance. Haza del Lino is the halfway point. For many, this is the highest point of the Alpujarras, where all twisting roads meet and where every cyclist stops at the café before a triumphant ride back down to the valleys.

Cormac is the first one to reach this spot. He quickly buys three cans of cold Coke and delivers them to us to help us reach the checkpoint. It means a lot to us. Such gestures are the reason why I love this kind of cycling — you don’t need to beat an opponent to feel like a winner.

At the cafeteria we greedily pounce on the free tapas knowing that it is our final encounter with civilisation during today’s ride. We check the time and take a look at our swollen legs. The steep hills have taken their toll. We don’t have much time left — let’s get what we came for.

An inconspicuous gravel path quickly turns into a tarmac road full of holes. It is wide enough for just one car, and has no railing or any other signs of recent human activity. It’s more beautiful than we could ever have imagined. This forgotten, isolated and unbelievably pretty road is what I have been waiting for all day long. We are completely drained as we cross the thin line that most sportspeople don’t. I am duelling with the mountain and talking to myself in my head as I finally enter a trance-like state.

Such moments are the essence of what we do. It is a mix of excitement and focus, spiced with amazement at all the beauty surrounding us. I want to share my delight with my companions but I am so tired that I find it very hard to find even the energy to point my finger at another breathtaking scene. I’m spent. My legs are dead, sweat is dripping from my fatigued face, my helmet is tilted and my handlebar tape is dirty. But all this is irrelevant. We are not competing because each of us will be a winner once we’re at the top.

We are happily dying on our bikes when Karol, who is ahead, starts to shout in ecstasy. This is why we have been doing it. The scenery becomes more and more beautiful. We let our emotions take control. There is no person in the world that could remain unmoved by what we are experiencing.

The day is slowly coming to an end. It is getting dark, with our road back running along the shaded slope. A herd of goats not expecting our presence runs across the road. The race with the sun is on. We come out of another turn and find it is still shining from above the mountains on the final metres of our road. The Sierra Nevada’s white summits behind our backs, the blue sea in front of us and an endless expanse around filled with the setting sun’s red light. All this just for us — the happiest cyclists in the world — to enjoy.

We high-five, raise a beer and celebrate our accomplishment. The word ‘epic’ has been coined for such moments — for the adventure we’ve had, for the roads we’ve ridden and for nature’s amazing show.

Video by Ola Zwan

Thanks to Cycle Sierra Nevada for making this article possible.

  • Alex

    Great article, Roadtripping is consistently my favourite thing about Cycling Tips

    • Detlef Jumpertz

      Totally agree – another stunning set of visuals with accompanying write-up

    • David9482

      me too, and one of my favourite (if not my overall favourite) things on the internet!

  • OMG

  • Cycle Sierra Nevada

    It’s been a long time in the making. Everything was shot in April 2016 but there was some issues post production with the video and it took way longer than expected to be finished. An incredible amount of work was put into capturing the right light for the photos/video with very early mornings and long days. Riding a bike ten times along the same stretch of a climb for the “right shot” was an emotional challenge at times, much easier just riding a bike. We hope the effort was worth it and we’re so glad for this to finally see the light day. Cormac & Friends

    • David9482

      Great stuff and thanks for all of your efforts to get the right shots! They definitely were worth all the hill repeats.

      • Cycle Sierra Nevada

        Hi @David9482:disqus , thanks! It’s really nice to hear some positive feedback.

        • David9482

          my pleasure, what you guys and wade and crew put together for these roadtripping and similar bits is the most interesting reading there is on the web. it really helps the rest of us who are stuck in offices!

  • Wow. Just wow. I now have a bucket list location to travel to!

  • Alek

    I think this activity on Strava requires a push of a button “Elevation (?)”
    :)

    • Pawe? Koniarski

      It’s been recorded by Strava iPhone app so the elevation is already calculated by Strava.

      • Jason de Puit

        The Strava iPhone app is renowned for having inaccurate elevation recording, most often granting more elevation than reality.

        If the “Elevation (?)” button is available on an activity this means that the recorded elevation is currently attributed to the activity, as opposed to the elevation having been checked and then updated to match an elevation database:

        “I don’t see an option to correct my elevation.

        This means that your activity has already been corrected by cross-referencing your GPS data to an elevation database.”

        See here: https://support.strava.com/hc/en-us/articles/216919447-Elevation-for-Your-Activity

        • Tomas Vavro

          Just looking at the elevation profile it’s clearly non-sense to claim 7.500 vm. If you take that route in Strava as a base for new route and check the elevation Strava is giving approx. 4.600 vm which is in my opinion still slightly exaggerated but much closer to reality then the figure mentioned at the end of article. It’s surprising for me that such rider as Szymon is using these figures publicly.
          Anyway nice pictures and story etc.

          • Lizzy

            I live in Orgiva and have done most of the routes claimed here, including from Orgiva to the summit of Lujar (where they finished). The elevation gain claimed is ludicrous. The most you could hope for over that entire route would be about 3,500m; less than half that claimed.

          • David9482

            They had to do some climbs multiple multiple times to get the right shots… that’s potentially explains the higher elevation gain figures

            • Tomas Vavro

              nope. at least the elevation profile in Strava logo doesn’t confirm that

              • David9482

                Honestly, who cares what strava says about this ride…. focus on the writing and pictures… and the epic day these friends had together

          • Cycle Sierra Nevada

            @jasondepuit:disqus’s description of the situation of the elevation and the Strava iPhone app are 100% accurate here. No one’s Garmin lasted the distance and so this was the only record that we completed the ride (we omitted the ride home from the top of the Lujar)

            @tomasvavro:disqus TBH I don’t think Szymon is one of these people that is a slave to Strava or numbers… he just likes to ride his bike and take the occasional photo! :-)

            • Tomas Vavro

              Hi Jason, yeah for me it’s also like you mentioned – I don’t expect from rider like Szymon to be addict of non-sense Strava elevation data. But after I went through the nice article and amazing photos I was pleased with the elevation figure so wanted to check that are as my potential target for next cycle vacation. And at the very first sight it’s obvious that these figures are far from reality (but still nice). Therefore I’m surprised that author didn’t notice that when rewriting elevation from Strava to the article. I believe that such rider knows pretty well the difference between 7500 and e.g. 3000 vm.
              Just my curiosity – am I the only one with very old and quite heavily used Garmin 510 that has always better battery life than any smartphone with running Strava or any other GPS logging app? I mean like about double of the time – old Garmin vs. brand new phone to be precise.

              • David9482

                Szymon never mentioned the elevation gain in the article… and as he also mentioned, he didn’t care at all about the figures for this ride… so clearly he never noticed the figure might be too high.

                • p.tra

                  the distance and elevation was originally mentioned in the ´check out roadtripping sierra nevada on strava´ button.
                  some of us just got wondering why an evidently incorrect information was released and made a few notes about it.

                  now, finally, the button is amended.
                  everything´s fine, we can go and ride our bikes.

                  peace.

                  • You’re right. I put the elevation data in the Strava button but removed it when it was clear it wasn’t correct. Still an impressive ride nonetheless!

              • Cycle Sierra Nevada

                Hi @tomas_vavro:disqus, Szymon can’t change the data once it’s been calculated by the Strava app. Including the ride back to Velez from the top of the Lujar it was closer to 4,900metres in elev. gain. Check Karol’s ride data

                https://www.strava.com/activities/555723129

                • Tomas Vavro

                  Hi, maybe it’s my lame english but I didn’t try to accuse anyone of manipulating data etc.
                  As I was thinking that Szymon wrote that article and manually rewrite elevation from Strava to the text it was surprising to me that the elevation figure stay the same.
                  Anyway it’s possible to use Strava function called “Correct elevation”. It’s not bomber precise but I assume that in this case it could make sense.
                  Karol’s elevation data are definitely closer to reality.

                  • Cycle Sierra Nevada

                    Hi @tomas_vavro:disqus, I think Jason, in the above thread, has already broached this.

  • David9482

    Great stuff as always, thanks a lot for posting this.

  • Lizzy

    I live in Orgiva and have done most of the routes claimed here, including from Orgiva to the summit of Lujar (where they finished). The elevation gain claimed is ludicrous. The most you could hope for over that entire route would be about 3,500m (4,000m at a push); less than half that claimed.

    • Cycle Sierra Nevada

      Hi Lizzy, I think your estimates are closer to reality than the figure that the Strava app on Szymon’s phone recorded for this activity. My Garmin died after a couple of hours and so that’s the only data we have for the ride unfortunately.

      All the best,

      • Lizzy

        Thanks for the reply. My reaction to the Strava data was a bit of a case of act in haste; repent at leisure. The article is actually pretty damned good and it does highlight the superb road riding we have here, and enjoy.

        • Cycle Sierra Nevada

          Thank you, @disqus_zkF8UD9n4C:disqus!

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