Great Cycling Climbs of Andalucia - The Pico de Veleta
The Pico de Veleta sits at the very western tip of the Sierra Nevada, looming over the citadel of Granada. The Veleta rarely gets any credit, its the "Camilla" of mountain climbs.
Avg. Grade: 6%
The cycling masses preferring the iconic "Diana" look of the French or Italian Alps, this despite it hosting Europe's highest road pass at 3,400 metres, and in the top ten of Europe´s highest mountains. Its height is its downfall, like the gangly tall bird at the school prom, it lacks the traditional "allure" of its more glamorous siblings to the north-east. Grateful for any attention, it gives its lower slopes away, offering little resistance, letting you climb its flanks with relative ease. Until...
The Veleta first caught my eye when it appeared in one of those cycling bucket lists. I'd always avoided the Sierra Nevada's. They are well over hyped. They are pretty ugly, limiting in route options, and much better riding is available in the Cazorla national park to the north. But the A395 and I had a history. I first tried to get over it in a Land Rover many years ago, from the south, only to find after an hours driving up precipitous switchbacks that the guide books omit to tell you that the road is chained off and guarded by national park agents. And its a bloody long way back down the mountain! I started road cycling not long after, and always sought out big mountain climbs, brings the two passions together, mountains and cycling. When I read a report on the Veleta in a cycling mag recently it re-kindled my interest, especially in a Marmotte year. A long relentless climb was ideal training for the Galibier I thought. And so it got on to my training schedule, and despite my lack of interest in the Sierra Nevada's, I could couple it with a ride back through the Cazorla national park and up my favourite climb...Hornos. And so the Veleta was about to appear on my palmares.
After downing a coffee at my start point (Las Titas..really..Titas..best loo´s in Granada!) the climb starts pretty much immediately. The A395 kicks up a steady gradient, but never that steep you start to worry. I was able to keep it in the 23 the majority of the time. The road is wide and smooth and the curves broad giving you plenty of time to catch your wind. There seemed to be a constant stream of riders coming down, and I seemed to be the only one going up. Maybe the locals knew something I didn't!? I kept the pace high, after all this was a training run for the Galibier, I could hardly take it easy. The sign telling you that you´d reached a 1000m above sea level was a bit disheartening. It felt like a lot more! The road gave great views over the valley and as you pass through little hamlets offering ski´s for rent, you are reminded that the Veleta is much more comfortable in its winter plumage than its summer. The Pines give way to scrub and tundra as you approach the ski village of "Sol y Nieve". A drab deserted collection of modern hotels with little character, probably best seen when they´re covered in snow, not like this, naked and barren. The village was empty, with the occasional plastic bag being tossed by the increasingly stronger winds.
Climbing above the resort you head for the collection of kiosks and shacks that cluster around the car park at the "top" of the climb. 2,500m a.s.l this was the realm of the walkers and hikers that set off to add to their own "been there, done that" tick list. However, the road carries on... Passing the barrier that stops the coach trippers and "domingeros" from getting themselves into trouble, the smooth asphalt abruptly turns into a frost shattered surface of gravel and you have to start picking your line. The mood of the climb has suddenly changed. The Veleta no longer gives herself away, now you have to earn the right to go the distance.
The weather changed as abruptly as the cracked tarmac. The wind turned viscous, it was like riding in a river, the eddying currents buffeting your chest, while under currents tugged at your wheels, forcing a grimace like Scott of the Antarctic. The terrain became dark and moody, out crops of rubble and glacial debris littered the slopes. The deserted pylons of the ski lifts made the mountain look like an abandoned mine, I half expected Poldark to come wandering over the ridge line. At 2,800m I passed the first snow bank, considering it was 30 deg down in Granada, and it was the end of June, it showed a certain defiant tenacity to cling to the mountain, which is exactly what I was doing. At one point, as I rounded a banked corner into the wind, the road was pretty broken, so to minimise the risk of getting a puncture I climbed off to walk the 5 metres to smoother surface. The wind snapped at the bike, making it wave like a flag in the breeze, it took quite some handling to bring the wheels back in contact with the ground.
The last few kilometres were deteriorating, this road is not tarmac anymore, just shattered and broken rusty shale, compacted by footfall, and therefore just about passable on the road bike. The last ski lift station is passed and you start to glimpse the southern flanks through the jagged arete as you near the summit. The "road" continues on over the ridge and starts to descend the broader gentler slopes of the southern face. It's mostly shale, and a few sporadic walkers were making their way up the trail.
The last 10 metres of vertical ascent to the actual summit are not rideable, the peak is a rocky precipitous mess. Not to be outdone, I lifted the bike on the shoulders to yomp the last few meters. I quickly found out this is not the place for rigid soled cycling shoes! I carried the bike to the concrete pillar that marks the summit and sat down to take in the view. It was remarkable. A reward for battling the last 1000m to bag the highest "pass" in Europe.
Someone had posted a "missing" poster of a hiker, lost on the summit only a few weeks before. A stark and harsh reminder that this summit needs to be respected, and it deserves that respect.