Great Cycling Climbs of Andalucia - Sierra de la Pandera
Total Ascent: 3,684m
The urge to get another peak under my belt, and do some new route finding was getting stronger. I'd not bagged a peak since the Angliru and was aware that summer was drawing to a close, and the days getting shorter.
The chances of getting this climb done this year were dwindling. And so it was that we set off for Ubeda. Lucas and the Land Rover ever in support.
Ubeda is a great small city, a UNESCO World Heritage site for its renaissance architecture and urban design, its historic quarter is steeped in history and once stately homes (now hotels). Its sits atop a high bluff over looking the vast expanses of Olives that stretch from horizon to horizon. The pungent aroma of fermenting olives pervades the air, plumes of white vapour pockmark the landscape, rising from the green ocean like venting whales. Andalucia provides about 30% of the worlds supply of Olive Oil, over 300 million trees planted in 5 million acres of groves, and Ubeda is right in the middle of all that fecundity. And yet theres rarely a soul to be seen.
Setting off from Ubeda to Jodar is a delight, a broad open road, quiet save for the odd distant buzz of some bloke with a chain saw pruning the trees, or an over laden moped, some wizened old farmer piloting a precarious stack of empty crates to who knows where. The road descends for over 10k, where it crosses the small river that drains this massive basin, and then ascends steadily for another 10k to the agro-town of Jodar. A typical small agro-town, densely packed urban centre with warehouses and scruffy, littered, industrial units on its outskirts. Its clear this is a working town. The GR7 passes through Jodar, a great Mountain Biking route that leads past the front door of Los Tolmos and on to Turkey!
From Jodar the route sweeps around the eastern rim of the Sierra Magina The landscape becoming rugged and the ocean of green olives interrupted now by Limestone ridges and steeped scrub as the road curves and winds its way to Huelma
The road climbs from here, a prolonged ascent, nothing too exerting, but the metres of ascent keep incrementing, and the terrain has changed from olive to wheat and terraces of Walnut and Almond. To the north the ridge of the Sierra Magina funnels you toward the Cambil pass like a venturi. The day was becoming hot now, the sun high and the shadows short, and electrolytes were starting to be quaffed. From the pass the road sweeps toward the gap at Cambil; the Granada-Jaen motorway rushing through the gap in the ridge like a violent river, noisy, engines reverberating off the high walls, jarring and unsettling after the peace of the journey so far.
The old road follows the motorway for a short distance, its rumble ever present, and makes it way to Jaen via less travelled highways, these roads deserted now as the pace of life dictates that everyone must be somewhere very quickly and opts to travel via the artery rather than the more sedentary capillary. The climb to, and through, Jaen is tougher than expected. The sun is at its zenith, the heat oppressive, and the climb out of Jaen longer and steeper than I remember. Stopping at the top of this teaser was not wanted, but unavoidable. The visions of fresh Oranges, cold water, and a crust of ham and cheese were driving me crazy. Pulling over at the crest, Lucas opened the freezer box of delight and those demons of desire were sated. The fast sweeping descent that clings to walls of the gorge to Los Villares marks the last respite before the looming mountain ridge that dominates the horizon.
The climb to the summit of the Pandera starts immediately you cross the river at Los Villares, ahead lies 1,200m of climbing in 23k. Sure theres a short flat section, but this is a climb to match any alpine peak.
Los Villares seems a pleasant wealthy suburb of Jaen. Leafy and clean with gated villas surrounded by Cypress trees and faux Roman statuettes, the villas clinging to the steep sided valley, looking very susceptible to a perfect storm of rain and gravity. The road is narrow and twisting, lined with lush greenery and flowering shrubbery, the noise of the tumbling river below a constant companion. The first 10k is relentless, not out of the saddle torture, but hard sustained, focused effort that drains you. The height gained in turn surprises and frightens, each twist ramps you up another 50m, and the town shrinks ever smaller and the vistas grow ever broader. Reaching the flat is a blessed relief, perspiration floods forth as the stop for more water goes on a little too long, and starts looking like a rest, which is cheating..right?
The flat is actually a broad veranda that trends downhill, the fast breeze evaporating the sweat and cooling the core temperature to something less than a furnace, alas, not for long. The second leg starts from an innocuous looking gate, rusting and disused in years; shrouded by overgrown scrub. The road looks abandoned and forgotten, and its little wonder that this climb has so little notoriety. Its a climb that needs to be sought out and discovered, a climb that you have to go out of your way for.
From the gate, the climb enters a different world of effort. Theres little time in the saddle. This is all out effort, and theres another 8k to go yet. Theres an immediate ramp of 18% for a short distance, just to get your furnace fired up again, a stretch of gentle 8% riding while the magnitude of the task ahead starts to sink in, and then its relentless double digits all the way. There are no broad switchbacks and wide turns to rest, no easing of the gradient, just climbing. The Pandera has been called Andalucia’s “Angliru” but it feels much more like the Ventoux. The abrupt separation of lush greenery from barren limestone scrubs, the constant long ramps with no respite, the stunning open vistas across rolling lowlands. The feeling of isolation and hostility, as if you really shouldnt be up here.
The road pitches at different amplitudes, and signs warning you to get off and walk are spread along its length, the 1.8km at 15% almost made me cry: by this point the lactic has almost burned through your pedals and to be reminded that you´ll not see a lowly 10% for another 2k is demoralising. Determination and getting into a hypnotic rhythm of pulling on the bars, concentrating on the pull and push of the pedal stroke, helped with the mental fortitude to carry on. Traversing the narrow road to take the sting out of the climb was too much effort; the road was narrow meaning each turn required some gymnastic manoeuvring to regain balance and line before another turn needed to be executed. It was simpler to just head up, with head down, and endure.
The road breaches the ridge line and crosses over to the northern face of the mountain, granting panoramic views over the vast expanses beyond Jaen. From here the climb finally relents to a moderate single digit incline, after the last 8km it feels almost flat. Recovering to modest level of exhaustion lets you absorb the peace and tranquility of the mountain, devoid of any growth, and meaningful life, just a warm breeze and worshipful silence. Another rusted gate, fastened shut with bailing string marks the summit....at least thats what it looks like! Its a false hope. The gate is just below a small cluster of ariels, perched atop a rough hewn outcrop...however, beyond the gate, the asphalt continues; it had to be explored. Rounding the corner, the road dips a good 100m, and there, in the distance is the true summit, a larger cluster of ariels and military barracks, perched atop a rough hewn outcrop..only higher. Bugger!
It would be wrong to quit here, and so the last 1km is moral sapping descent followed by a short steep out-of-saddle sprint to the end of the road. Lucas was waiting with crusty bread and slices of ham and cheese, washed down with fresh oranges and lashings of Coke.
Hanging around, taking in the view was like a post-coital embrace, the agony and the ecstasy of the climb dissipating into an endorphic euphoria.
Sierra de la Pandera is worth seeking out, a Spanish climb that deserves more attention, and hopefully a re-appearance on the Vuelta may give it the kudos in the cycling media it richly deserves.
The Veloviewer stats for the actual climb are here.