Day four was billed as the biggest ride of the week and the stats don’t lie: nearly 3,000m of climbing in just 125km – and 1,600m of that packed into a single 33km climb which saw us start with the temperature at 20c and finish with snowflakes in the air.
That foot of that climb, Tetica, started 55km from our base in Bedar so we took the ‘easy’ option and loaded the bikes into the van and drove to the town of Tabernas. Chapeau to the six Norwood Paragon riders who rode the 180km out-and-back route on the previous week’s training camp.
The Tabernas Desert – one of the only semi-deserts in Europe – is a dry, desolate place, most famous as the shooting location for many Spaghetti Westerns, including The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The only shoot out today would be between us and the mountains that lined the horizon as we rolled out of Tabernas.
Still, we leave the town bright-eyed and bushy-tailed having enjoyed a well-earned rest day, with the Wheels in Wheels van and motorbike for company. The road rises from the first pedal stroke but the climb was split into three distinct sections: a 15km drag to the village of Velefique, the main 14km ascent of the Alto de Velefique to 1,860m, and the final four kilometre slog to the summit of Tetica at 2,100m.
The opening section to Velefique rises gently through the bone-dry desert landscape and serves to get the legs moving ahead of the main climb. We ride as one to the foot of the ascent, stop for the obligatory photo of the sign which outlines the challenge to come – and then set off, man against mountain.
The lower slopes of the Alto de Velefique take no prisoners, with an unrelenting average gradient of 11 per cent over the opening four kilometres leaving no place to hide. Luckily I have a willing companion, the super-light Canyon Ultimate CF SL, on a ride which is as good a test as any for its impressive climbing ability and pin-sharp handling.
The trouble with such a difficult start to a climb is that it preys on the mind (the standard double 53-39t chainrings on the Canyon meant I soon shifted into the 28t sprocket on the cassette) and can crack a rider knowing they have a long, long way to ride – and a lot of suffering to endure – before reaching the summit. However, the gradient eases after that baptism of fire and while the fifth kilometre after leaving the village still averages seven per cent, it offers welcome relief. The gradient remains constant from there but, having been riding uphill for over an hour by now, the climb still gives little back. The tarmac winds its way up the mountainside, uncoiling on the steep slopes above you. Look up and you can pick out the road and its countless hairpins on the peak.
By now, James, our ride guide, and I have left the rest of the group and as we continue to ascend the temperature begins to drop sharply. A stiff breeze is blowing from the nearby Sierra Nevada mountain range, where there’s still plenty of snow on which to ski, and, in only shorts and a jersey (with a gilet and arm warmers stuffed into the pockets), the cooling effect is both refreshing and, well, cooling. James radios back to the van further down the mountain and ask that it meet us at the summit. The beauty of an organised camp like this – and the ‘ride like a pro’ experience it offers – is that there’s always a following vehicle with food and drinks, spare wheels and room to jump in if the mountain wins. Today we each also have a bag of kit in the back in preparation for the summit and descent.
The temperature on my Garmin 810 continues to tumble well in to single figures and has dipped down to four degrees by the time James and I reach the summit of the Alto de Velefique at 1,860m. With Tetica still in the distance and the van back down the road with the rest of the group, James pulls on my gilet and I don the arm warmers, and we decide to press on for the final four kilometres.
The road initially follows a ridge on the Alto de Velefique and the false flat gives me a chance to spin the legs and neck a Science in Sport energy gel ahead of the steep grind to Tetica. Small patches of snow remain in the shade of the trees that line the road and as we fork onto the singletrack to the summit, snow poles line the tarmac to remind us that by now we’re very high. There are few places in Europe that you can comfortably ride to 2,100m at this time of year but this is one of them.
The final three kilometre haul to Tetica averages eight per cent but there are several hairpins that are significantly steeper, punishing the legs at the tail-end of a long climb that riders from the UK will find completely alien. The radio mast which sits on the top of the mountain is, by now, tantilisingly close but continues to remain out of reach until a final brutal 20 per cent ramp to the summit. After two hours and ten minutes of climbing we are there. Snowflakes begin to fall sporadically but it’s not the two-degree temperature which takes our breathe away but the jaw-dropping 360 degree panoramic view. This is as high as I have been on a bike and each of the peaks which at the foot of the climb towered above us, are now belittled by our position on the top of Tetica.
Ten minutes later and the van arrives and James and I pull on every item of kit we’ve brought with us. For me that means oversocks, leg warmers, a long sleeve jersey, jacket, cap and gloves, and we wait as each of our group conquers the summit.
It’s time to descend and the hairpins which had earlier slung-shot us up the mountain now provide a rollercoaster descent back to the village of Velefique, where we regrouped and ride as one back to Tabernas for a cafe stop and a well-earned bite to eat.
By now it’s late in the afternoon and we have the 60km ride back to the villa in Bedar to come so, refueled, ready to ride and back in shorts, a jersey and arm warmers with the warm sun once again on our backs, we set off. James I and set the pace on the front of the group and what follows is 25km of some of the most perfect riding I’ve enjoyed, feeling strong after the climb with a light tailwind on fast, flowing and billiard table-smooth rolling roads where it feels almost effortless to stay on top of the gear, before eventually rising up a small climb ahead of an incredible grin-inducing descent to Lubrin.
The final four kilometre climb ensures there’s little left in the legs by the time we arrive back at Bedar at 7pm, eight hours after we left and after five-and-a-quarter hours in the saddle. There’s time for a quick shower and – as we have every night – we eat like kings.
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