Located deep within the Sierra Nevada mountain range in southern Spain is the towering summit of Veleta (Pico de Veleta). Veleta is the highest point to be reached by road in Europe (3392m) and the cycling experience is challenging, unrelenting, rewarding, and for some, life changing!
This climb has everything that the hardened cycling aficionado might want: a 40km continuous climb, an altitude gain of approximately 2650m and an average grade of 6.5%. No wonder this unique cycling ascent is known as ‘The Everest of European Mountain Passes’. This travel log account summarises a ride I shared with a Spanish cycling club and 9 dedicated members who were hellbent in conquering Veleta as their end of 2010 season cycling special! The age of the cycling group ranged between 45 and 70 years and the determination and effort produced was nothing short of outstanding!
Rising from the valley floor is probably a strange way to describe it when you are already at 800m altitude but the ride does in fact begin on the floor of the valley. Before setting off we decide to bypass the modern highway and its ‘comfortable’ 6% gradient and head for one of the mountain back roads. As we arrive at the base of the climb we quickly realise that the most daunting and difficult part of the climb is at the beginning, well before the silhouette of Veleta and its vertical wall even enters our line of vision. The first 3km, the hardest of the ascent, include seven spectacular switchbacks with an average grade of around 11% and sections in some curves above the 15%. After about 7km the road eases slightly and continues on at a more realistic angle climbing up along the ridge at 5-6%.
It is not long though and after 12km of climbing the road presents us with a new feast of switchbacks; a total of twelve in the next 6km to be precise taking us to 2000m altitude. It is during this second section of endless switchbacks that we catch our first glimpse of the beautiful green-blue vertical wall which defines the Pico de Veleta and which afford magnificent views as we continue gaining height. We are snapped out of our reverie by the realisation that only half the job has been done and we are still far from the Veleta peak. By comparison, even in the Pyrenees or anywhere else, the effort so far would have been enough to reach the top of any famous mountain pass. Here though one must be patient if one is to climb the 1300m of further elevation gain to reach the summit.
Waiting to regroup at the 2500m altitude signpost and our last group member rides in as the clock ticks over 3 hr. We refill our water bottles and pack our warm-weather clothing and hear that the temperature down at Granada is nearing 35 degrees. At the top of Veleta there couldn’t be a bigger contrast – there the temperature is likely to be 10-15 degrees and wind-chill could see the temperature plummet exponentially. A couple of portable oxygen cans are also packed away should the 65% of normal oxygen levels create altitude sickness.
A drawcard for climbing Veleta is that the final section of road is guarded by a military barrier that prohibits the passage of civilian vehicles. As you gaze into the distance and towards the sheer vertical rock wall which characterises Pico de Veleta you cannot help but marvel at the engineering feat that enabled you to tackle this ultimate cycling challenge. This is now a mountain road in every sense. Only 12kmand 850m of further altitude gain separates you from cycling heaven!
From the military barrier the hairpins continue at an alarming rate and the slope hovers at 7 – 8%. In some places, too, the road twists tightly and rises into double digits. These steep pinches, whilst short in length, inflict considerable damage as the continuous effort and the lower oxygen levels at these altitudes take their toll. At this point the 2750m altitude signpost is reached and received with joy and great emotion. Its sandblasted shape is testimony to the severe mountain conditions that batter this area. It is here you take the opportunity to take stock of your achievement to date. The elevation of famous mountain passes such as the Gavia or the Gailibier are long in our wake and we now share company with some of the authentic myths of our cycling sport, such as, the Stelvio, the Agnello, the Iseran or the Bonette. We pay our respect to these climbs but appreciate that with over 600m of elevation gain still awaiting us the challenges is still tantalisingly in front of us but in reach!
Adding to this challenge is the vagaries that snowfalls can present to the aspiring rider. Depending on the season it is not uncommon to find fields of ice strewn across the road. As we pass the magical figure of 3000m altitude we pass a ravine and still during late July we uncover walls of snow up to 3m high in places. On this occasion we are lucky indeed as we follow alongside the ice walls for a few hundred metres with no sign of snow. The air is crisp through this section, the summer sun hidden behind towering peaks and a chill enters the numbing body.
From 3100m altitude we swing around a hairpin to the right and as our eyes lift from the road we come across the completely vertical wall of Veleta: “We still have to rise more? But how much more? It seems to be further away than before!” The asphalt has now become weathered through years of ice action and as we enter the last hairpin it disappears and the final authentic wall is all that remains. As we scale the final metres our eyes fix onto the survey column which defines 3392m altitude and more importantly for us the finish line! Resting at the survey column our exhaustion disappears and a sense of exhilaration takes hold as it dawns on us that we have conquered the beast of a mountain. We find ourselves in the highest point than can be reached by bicycle on the European continent. The effort was definitely worth it!!!