Friday 8 July
Simon had promised us a big finale to the week's riding for our last day - a real epic, he said. With that in mind we had to get an earlier start than usual. At 8.30 Andy and I were in the van along with Ian and Jack, who'd come out for a long weekend and would be joining us for the ride today. After a brief stop in Granada to get Ian a replacement bottom bracket, the van started the climb into the Sierra Nevada from where we would start our ride. Up and up Simon coaxed the truck, grateful that the cool morning air would keep the engine from overheating.
Eventually we got to the ski village at 2100m and unloaded the bikes, spending a few minutes in a cafe while we waited for the others to catch up in the other vehicle. The ride proper was due to start at the top of the Pico de Veleta, so it was time to make a decision: who would ride up and who would take the ski lift?
Andy, Owain and I chose the masochistic option and decided to ride. Simon gave us a lift up to the top of the ski resort at 2500m and we started pedalling. There is a tarmac road almost all the way to the top, but Andy launched himself into every little off-road shortcut he could find and made rapid progress. Owain and I stuck to the tarmac switchbacks, conserving our energy in the thinning air as we steadily spun our way up. Periodically we'd all stop and regroup, which oddly was when we really felt the effects of the altitude: our limbs felt as heavy as lead once we broke the rhythm of pedalling.
We wound our way onwards through the treeless lunar landscape punctuated surreally by ski lifts and piste signs. Eventually the tarmac ran out at 3280m, leaving a short section of loose stony track to negotiate to the summit at 3400m. We'd made it! A quick exchange of text messages with Simon revealed that we were a long way ahead of the rest of the group, who were still eating sandwiches in the cafe. We'd made the climb in about an hour and a half instead of the expected two hours! It was clearly time for a rest, so we put on our windproofs and huddled in the lee of the summit building to eat our lunch and admire the view.
An hour or so later we were joined by the rest of the group who told tales of bikes hung precariously from chairlifts on the way up. That meant it was time to begin the descent. Starting at 3400m means there's a lot of descending to do!
The first few kilometres were fast. Really fast. A broad stony track curved gently southwards down the mountain side. The track's broken-up surface had the occasional chunk missing where it had slipped down the mountain, and every now and again an enormous boulder had crashed down from the cliffs above, forcing us to sketch our way round it. We clung on for dear life, senses working overtime to pick a line as we hurtled along at speeds in excess of 35mph, scattering small rocks out of the way. Of course, the odd snakebite puncture was inevitable: I got three, and Andy managed to puncture both tyres simultaneously at one point!
After descending several hundred metres in height the landscape started to change: we'd left the grey moonscape and rocky ridges behind for the sandy ground and dense forests of the Alpujarras, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. The nature of the trail changed with it, giving us loose, sandy singletrack to play on as we zigzagged through the forest. Every now and again we'd come across a wider, straighter section of track where the confidence on loose surfaces we'd gained in the last few days came in useful. We were able to flow with the terrain, no longer fighting the ruts but allowing them to guide us as we drifted smoothly round the bends.
Eventually we got to a fire road climb which brought us round into the Poqueira gorge, the site of the classic Alpujarran scenery to be found in every guide book. Starting to feel tired, I was amazed to discover that the time was nearly 6 o'clock: the hours had just flown by on the downhill, and the puncture delays had clearly added up! We were all starting to run out of riding snacks, too - this was becoming the promised epic. A section of singletrack climb showed up the fatigue. We all felt like we were riding like hippos, clouting our pedals on every rock.
The riding was far from over, though, and fortunately most of it was downhill! Simon led us on to a fantastic narrow rocky path which snaked its way down the valley. We threw ourselves round switchback after switchback, tentatively at first but then faster and faster as we got into the rhythm of the terrain. Eventually we got to Capileira, the highest of the chain of three famous Alpujarran villages. Here the ride took a surreal turn, as from here on we found ourselves alternating between rural singletrack and the tiny, precipitous village streets squeezed between whitewashed houses.
We were delighted to find that in the next village down, Bubión, there was a supermarket where we could stock up on energy food, and sat in the sun for a while scoffing cakes and chocolate much to the amusement of passers-by. Even better, we followed Simon down and down through the village to a spring where we refilled with cool water. The spring was at the head of the Camino de Pampaneira, an ancient and narrow path plunging down the gorge, sometimes dusty, sometimes covered with giant, lumpy cobbles, but always needing us to keep our weight well back as we bounded down it.
Soon we were threading our way through the streets of Pampaneira under washing lines and past shop doorways. The other side of the village was the road and the final part of the ride.
Andy, Owain, Ian and Jack elected to take in an extra tough bit of singletrack climb and descent. The rest of us, conscious of our tired limbs, followed Ryan along the road for a couple of kilometres to the top of a path which would lead us down the valley towards Orgiva through the villages of Carataunas and Bayacas. We were delighted to find that it continued the pattern of the Poqueira gorge: loose, tricky singletrack hairpins punctuated by village streets. Sometimes it seemed like we'd never get to Orgiva, the town barely visible through the haze below. At one point we came upon a flock of sheep being herded up the narrow concrete track we were heading down. As they and we scattered, we were even more surprised to see an ostrich in a nearby enclosure which was clearly upset by the whole scene, stamping and flapping around!
The final section of the descent was parallel to the river bed into Orgiva on an entertaining surface like talcum powder. It covered us all with dust and let the bikes slide and skitter around on the limits of control as we sped down it. Before long we were entering the shanty-like suburbs of the town and slowed a little to negotiate the rusting cars, abandoned fridges and barking dogs.
High on adrenaline from the descent it was time to start the 8km road climb back up to Lanjarón. Inevitably the faster group became an impromptu road race, the rest of us settling for a gentle spin and getting competitive only when we saw the sign for Lanjarón, sprinting and jostling along the high street for all we were worth. We barely had the energy left to climb the steps to the villa to enjoy a late dinner - it was nearly 9 o'clock! An epic indeed, and a fitting end to an excellent week's riding.
Thanks are due to our hosts, Simon, Emma and Ryan from Freeride Spain, for doing such a great job of guiding and accommodating us.
Owain and Andy starting the climb up to the Pico de Veleta
The team on top of the Pico de Veleta: left to right, Owain, Chris, Jack, Ryan, Andy, Ian, Jon, Tom and Howard
Descending the lunar landscape from the Pico de Veleta
Villages and singletrack heading down towards Orgiva