[ blog » 2023 » 09_South-West ]d23: Pico del Veleta (by Philipp Gesang, location: Villa de Otura)

C’est Lob Nor qui t’espère, l’Inlandsis qui t’appelle

La Sierra Nevada qui la nuit crie ton nom

Pico del Veleta

It took 23 days in the saddle to get here, the climb of all climbs, Europe’s culminating point as far as road cycling is concerned, a climb that long and difficult it’s never been raced to the full altitude. The Pico del Veleta, the third highest point of the Sierra Nevada and of continental Spain.

Its most memorable characteristic is how insanely long the climb is. In fact the 31 km from Guejar Sierra I rode today are one of the shorter ascents, mainly due to the fact that the lower part is far steeper than the alternatives. It starts out with ramps of 10-14 % average with some 22 % sections sprinkled in to spice things up until the route joins the main road around 1500 m altitude. From then on the gradients are more humane, I never got in a situation where I had to resort to the granny gear like on Angliru.

It is thanks to those low gradients that the Veleta is such an enormous grind. It just goes on seemingly forever, comparable to the Galibier regarding distance and altitude gain. At around 1800 m altitude effects slowly but steadily become a challenge of its own; today it wasn’t so much dizziness as a feeling of an impending headache that accompanied me until almost the summit. The kind of sense of looming cortex shutdown that makes you want to gorge yourself on aspirin. And from 1800 m it was still more than 1500 meters to climb.

I met quite a few road cyclists on those slopes and got dropped by most of them; they tended to be French and Dutch, while the Germans lived up to the stereotype and took the car. (Strangely enough almost all German license plates were from places close to Stuttgart with one weirdo subcluster of a handful of Heilbronn people. I wonder what that was about.) Thankfully the section above 2500 m is off limits to motorized vehicles and one only encounters the occasional astronomer on four wheels. Understandable, as cycle commuting up to the IRAM telescope every day is probably a bit too much.

A fierce wind was blowing from the south but much of the ascent is shielded from it due to its location on the northwest flank of the Sierra Nevada. Only after about 2500 does the wind become a major factor and it was more the freezing temperature that it spread than the additional resistance. Temperatures stayed around 16 degrees throughout the ascent and dropped even lower near the top, adding to the challenge; this last day of summer has been quite chilly since the morning hours and even at lower altitude completely lacked the heat of the past weeks.

Apparently the jury that awarded the Veleta the title of highest paved road of Europe wasn’t too rigorous about the "paved" part. The final kilometers of that road often only gave a faint hint at a paved surface that existed at some point. For hundreds of meters that road surface had disintegrated long ago and nowadays is indistinguishable from rough gravel. The final kilometer or so which goes past the upper terminal of a ski lift is a dirt track that was never surfaced to begin with but still made for a much smoother ride than the "road" below thanks to heavily eroded schist that makes up the Veleta summit. Then the final meters to the pillar that marks the highest point consist of actual rocks and make carrying the bike the only option.

Finally, after four hours of some of the most strenuous effort there’s suddenly nothing left of the climb, the horizon has been lowered wherever one looks and the eyes meet only blue sky in all directions. It is done. 3394 m above sea level. The Pico del Veleta has been conquered.


At the booth at 2500 m I exchanged stories with two guys from Belgium who had participated in multi-day gravel race through Andalucía. Their setup was much lighter than mine and I envied the 50 mm tires which would have made yesterday morning so much easier for me. But then I had no more gravel to deal with today anyways.

The downhill to Granada is even longer than the ascent, about 40 km in total, and without technical bits like switchbacks. Just a long, mostly straight road that ends right in the center. When I entered the Alhambra, the part that is reachable from the road, I was turned away by some guy in uniform who insisted that I park the bike outside; fair enough, it was getting dark anyways by that time and after the exhausting Veleta experience I wasn’t overly excited for extended sightseeing anymore so after a short tour of the town I headed for the hotel.

A rather short day of only 103 km but with that monolith of a 2700 m ascent in the middle.

gps tracks

[view GPS data in mapbox]


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