14 August 2013

Pico de Veleta - Highest Road in Europe!

Positivistas Juliane and David had done the team research and selected the Sierra Nevada because of its reputation for quiet, smooth roads and plenty of climbing (by bicycle) opportunities.  The queen stage of our week was to be the ascent of the Pico de Veleta, a climb of more than 40 kilometers and 2500 meters elevation gain, which takes us up Europe's highest road, topping out at 3384 meters (11,000 feet) elevation, as reported in this article from earlier in the year.

We wanted to get an early start so we would be above the summer heat and reach the cool of the mountain air before early afternoon, so we planned to rise at daybreak.  But rest day had taken its toll on some team members, and we ended up heading out just before 12PM for the 2-hour drive down and around the base of the mountains.  We parked in Pinos Genil, just up the road from Granada, and started climbing around 2PM, in the heat of the day, from 750 meters elevation.

The others gave me a head start, since I was the slowest climber in the group this week, and I had my bike ready first.  As with elsewhere during our trip, we were pleased with the low traffic volumes, both on the climb along the "old road" (SE-39?) from Pinos Genil to Route A-395, and from there all the way to the top.

I climbed slowly but steadily through the heat of the lower slopes, gradually gaining elevation and, with it, the feeling of being "up there" above the distant plains.  After about 45 minutes, Juliane "the gazelle" zoomed past with some encouraging words.
Looking down at Guejar Sierra from the visitor center
I stopped at a visitor center around 1600 meters elevation to see if I could refill my one empty bottle. I asked the man at the reception desk about "aqua" while gesturing to my bottle, and he pointed me toward the rest rooms in the back.  The tap I found bore a clear "not potable" diagram -- a big red "X" over a water bottle.  Back at the front desk, I asked him "aqua potable?"  He shrugged his shoulders, so I left without refilling my bottle.  At least the air was noticeably cooler now that I had reached the higher slopes.

At around 2000 meters altitude, I stopped at the sign for a photo and rest, and MOB and DJ arrived.  After MOB also posed for a photo, they gradually moved ahead of me.  MOB's training week in the Alps, and recent rest, had brought him back into strong climbing shape.

I caught up with the others a little further, at a turn off before the entrance to Prado Llano, the ski village, and again at around 2650 meters where they had made a wrong turn and needed to back-track.  I was still with MOB at 2750 meters where there was another altitude sign, and an opportunity for more photos.  (We eagerly await MOB's trip report and official team photo).
Climbing past Prado Llano
The "real" highway ended above 2500 meters, and from there we passed an open gate and were on an old road, much less well-maintained.  It had been paved once, but at places was now deteriorating into potholes and a rubble of broken concrete.  We needed to get off to walk from time to time.  The others on the climb were all hikers and a few mountain bikers.  We saw only 2 road cyclists on the entire last 1000 meters of vertical climb, younger guys already on the descent.
We are going up there.
We came from way down there.
I should have stopped for more water at the temporary cafe in the parking lot just before the gate, but was eager to catch up with the others, and still had more than a half liter left.  And hadn't we all been skeptical we would be able to go far once the road deteriorated?  So surely I would be back at the cafe before long.  Not.  

The winding road.  A gradual climb ... but one starts to feel the altitude.
At least DJ had an extra bottle of water with him, and I could beg 300 mls or so to add to my supply.
Still climbing next to the ski lifts.
One of many areas where we needed to dismount and walk.
After the others completed their detour across the ski slope and again surged ahead of me, I climbed more slowly yet, the altitude and exertion starting to have an impact, until I needed to dismount at a long gravel patch around 2950 meters elevation.  The others were already back on their bikes and I could see two yellow jerseys disappearing into the distance.   I had eaten my last snack.  I had only a few reserve sips of water left.
We are nearing the top of the world.  Not paved right here ... but passable.

The road loops around to the right and approaches the summit from the non-cliff side!
So when the gravel ended, I kept walking, no strength to try to continue the climb by bike.  And I walked, and walked further.  After about 45 minutes, and at least 4 kilometers, I was up, above the turn-off of the road that went around the mountain (and down past our team HQ in Capileira), onto the top of the Veleta.  I could look down onto Capileira, Bubion and Pampeneira in the valley to the South.  It felt like I was on top of the world.
Left fork - to summit; right fork - around the mountain toward the South.

Looking over the top, and down to Capileira, Bubion and Pampileira.
Closer up view of the villages.

With a mountain bike, I think we probably could have kept on going over the South side, along the dirt/gravel path, and been back at our lodgings after a spectacular descent.  Indeed, as we instead started the descent retracing our path down the North side, we saw a few mountain bikers on the climb, as the time approached 7PM, who were likely doing this.
Positivo Espresso-Approved!
On top of Europe
On the descent, we stopped at the parking lot cafe at 2500 meters, drank liquids, ate, refilled our bottles, and then continued.  We managed the rough road to the top and back without a single flat tire/tube.  From the cafe, we enjoyed a very fast and non-technical descent, along quiet, smooth and wide roads, covering the remaining 30+ km distance to the car in under 45 minutes.

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