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.