James O'Callaghan took a spin down to the Sierra Nevada to take on Europe's highest paved road in extreme heat. To put you in the mood ahead of the Marmotte, have a read!


Pushed to the “Limite” in Southern Spain

James O'Callaghan

After a taste of cycling abroad in last year’s Marmotte I started to scour the internet for the next challenge. Like half the Irish population I usually end up in Spain and decided to see if any events there aligned with the family holiday. When pressed I could only name the main Alpine and Classic based events. A quick search soon filled the gap. While the French tend to name events after little fluffy animals the Spanish pull no punches. Some of events that came up were the Quebrahantos (the Bonecrusher) and La Sufrida (don’t think you need that one translated). The event that caught my eye was the Sierra Nevada Limite. From my understanding “Limite” means boundary/limit and it would definitely push me to the limit. It was due to start the same weekend as the school holidays and was in Granada which is a two hours drive from the in-laws apartment. Following a bit of negotiating I managed to secure the pass and the planning started in earnest. The event has a number of options. It has a 90k & 180k option on the Saturday with a 40km climb of the Veleta on the Sunday. It was a climb I had always wanted to try. For anybody who has a copy of "Mountain High – the list of Europe’s best climbs", you know the Veleta is the highest paved road and the only climb above 3000m you can do on a road bike in Europe. There are a myriad of options up from Granada and it is rated as one of the toughest climbs in the world based on length and altitude. At the finishing elevation of 3300m you only have access to 67% of the oxygen lower down.

I had initially only intended doing the Veleta but having signed up for the Raid Pyrenees later in the year and been in training mode the last few weeks I decided I’d never have a better chance to give the 180km + Veleta (aka The Titanium) a go. I decided to go it alone and not utilize a tour group based on having been to Granada/Sierra Nevada area several times before and what proved to be a false sense of confidence in my basic bike maintenance skills.

Day 1 – Sierra Nevada Limite - 180km

I had arrived into Granada on Friday evening to prepare for the 7.30am start. Prior to the event I had been more worried about the Veleta climb due to altitude and the cumulative effects of two days climbing. As the week progressed a new more severe challenge appeared in the form of a heatwave across southern Spain. As I watched the BBC news weather in the hotel it indicated temps of 39°C for Madrid and plus 40°C in southern Spain. I was beginning to wonder what I was getting in for as I had only really pushed myself in mid thirty temps before. The event started in a benign 16°C temp from the ski station at Pradallano. Following a brief climb it was into a 20km descent. Pretty soon on the descent it became clear something was wrong with my bike. It was twitchy and really unstable which wasn’t good given the high speed descent. Following investigation I found the headset was loose and managed to tighten it up as best I could. This was probably self-inflicted as I had loosened it slightly for packing and must not have retorqued it correctly. Back on the bike, but the peloton had long since gone and I was left on a lonely chase.

By the time we started the first real climb of the day I had managed to make contact with the back end of the peloton. The first climb El Purche is a real brute. It is 6km long at 9-10% with ramps up to 14% and is a regular on the Vuelta. It was still early morning so temps were mid 30’s. I made good progress and was climbing well. Towards the top I got the next mech issue as I lost my lowest climbing gear and near the top I was starting to have trouble with the second last gear jumping into the lower sprocket. At the feedstop at the top started to load up on fluids. One minute there was 30 people at the stop and as I filled my bottle and turned around they were all gone. This was unfortunately to become a familiar theme for the day. It was back on the bike and chasing but headset was a still a bit iffy and I didn't have any confidence descending so lost contact. Just after Pinos Genil the route splits for the 90 & 180km. At this stage it was edging into the high 30s and I was thinking maybe the 90 would be a better option given that I was on my own. In for a penny in for a pound and I turned onto the 180 km.

Trying to smile climbing El Purche

From route map review the next 20km was to be a 3% climb. In reality it was far from that. There were extended periods of 7-8% gradient with a few short descents. Still managed to catch up with a few riders which was great for the sanity. A mini peloton formed and the last few km to the rest stop at Alto Blancares passed quickly. The scenery in this section was beautiful. It was a forested area with a bit of shade, wildflowers were all in bloom and there were some dammed turquoise lakes. Things were looking up. At the rest stop my mechanical salvation appeared. There was a mechanic station provided as part of the event. I had to get in queue but he was able to get all my gears working. Without me telling him he was also able to detect my headset issues and proceeded to adjust. I think he must have thought where did this eejit come from.

Bike was finally back in tip top shape (or so I thought). Everyone had since left so I was back on my own again. 10km of descending until we reached the La Peza. I personally renamed it Waterloo because from here on in it was my Waterloo. The temperature just ratcheted up into the plus 40s and the landscape went from a nice shaded forest to near desert. There were a series of what looked like little shark teeth on the profile but these turned out to be a series of 1-2km climbs at 10% which were cruel. On the second tooth I went to change the front mech to the lower ring and it gave this horrible grinding noise and the chain nearly jammed. That was end of my front mech - at least it stuck in the low ring but it meant everyone was disappearing from me on the flats. The next 25-30km could only be described as torture and my worst 90 minutes on a bike as I plodded along in 43-45°C degree temps with my bike groaning as if to say why are you doing this to me. I passed one of the many damned lakes and really considered throwing the bike in and sending my Orwell membership back. I was like a castaway in the desert and questioning why I was putting myself through this. I was getting a first-hand experience of how the Irish team felt in Orlando when they played Mexico in USA 94 and why there should be no world cup in Qatar in summer.

The only thought that kept me going was that I would be heading back into the forest section again so it should be a bit cooler and I promised I would stop for a Coke beforehand in La Peza. Got back to the village but couldn't find a shop so continued on reluctantly with my brain and body beginning to fry. Suddenly I saw a dilapidated petrol station that looked open. I needed to get out of the sun and take a minutes to restore sanity. It was like one of the old Irish pubs/café/shop/petrol station combo. It was a bit like walking into a wild west with a long saloon bar. As I walked in the place stopped and everyone turned around to look at the “Pale rider” – a lonely Paddy decked out in Orwell kit. It was if I had turned up for a gunfight armed only with gels & power bars. Undeterred I went up and ordered two cans of coke and went outside to drink and pull myself together. As I sat drinking some of the Movistar team passed doing motor paced intervals. Looking at their pace and ease just added to the malaise. Back onto the bike. I knew I had 10km of climbing before I would reach the mechanic again but at least in the climbing gears there was no groaning from the drivetrain. With the caffeine hit and temp dropping to a mild 40°C, I made it back to the rest stop comfortably. My mechanic friend was just packing up but thankfully the tools came back out and after 15mins the front mech was back in order. At this stage I was near the end of the field and the minute I got my water bottle filled the feed station closed up and a broom wagon passed and already had several victims. For the first time I started to wonder about the time limit.

With the bike back in working order the next 25km passed uneventfully and I made it back to Pinos Genil and started the climb to El Guejar. This 6km climb was torturous. It was a consistent 6-7% and temperatures were back up. My bike comp said it was 44°C. Around 3km in my body shut down and I had to stop and sit under a tree for 10 mins. I tried to drink a gel but it was too hot too stomach. I tried to pour water down my back to cool down but it felt like a hot shower. My legs were fine but it was if the engine had overheated and the drive had been automatically disabled. I was also feeling a bit nauseous and knew this was one of the first signs of heat exhaustion. I got back going and went for another 2km before I took a brief stop and then made it the final km to the rest stop at El Guejar.

The rest stop was at a fountain in the shaded main square and there was a bunch of cyclists unceremoniously dumping their head into it. There were 15-20 cyclists there. As I sat there I got the sense from those around me the game was up as no one was moving. A broom wagon came along and a number of bikes were loaded up. The organisers were going around talking to the rest of the cyclists and one by one they started to pack theirs bikes up. They came over to me but none of them spoke English. An English speaker was found and explained the situation. I was behind the time limits and unless I upped the pace I wouldn't make next timepoint and there was no guarantee of water or support if I continued on. From a quick review of the route and instructions on my phone it became clear that I was in time trouble and wouldn't make it to the next checkpoint due to all the mechanicals & sanity stops.

I could have gone on solo but after a few minutes contemplation I had to accept that I wouldn't get to finish. Given the suffering on the last climb and likelihood of approx. 40°C temps on a continuous climb for the next 15k with no guarantee of water it was the only sane decision. My average moving speed was still healthy but all the mechanicals had cost at least 40 mins which is a lot given that you have effectively 10hours to complete 180km & 5000m of climbing. I had soldiered on valiantly – nearly 160km and 4000m climbing in extreme temps but ultimately no cigar. Initially I was disappointed as I was loaded into the third broom wagon I had seen but that soon disappeared based on the carnage I witnessed on the drive back up to the ski station. There were cyclists just walking and others bent over by the side of the road. We picked up one 30year old who had collapsed by the side of the road with the paramedics. Scary stuff and sometimes you are happy to get home safely.

I hate not to finish but I think the organisers were superb given the conditions. I have never seen such a support crew of police, army, civil guard and numerous ambulances to ensure participants safety. There was a continuous stream of support vehicles going up and down the road all day checking on participant’s well-being and it was definitely the most organized event I have participated in. Getting back to the hotel I was still not in great shape. Felt really drained and was struggling to eat dinner. Sat there and googled heat recovery strategies which led to more electrolyte drink consumption and two cold baths. Got phone calls from my wife, parents etc. to check if I was still alive and also to say I was mad to be going out in those temperatures and listing all the risks. Going to bed I still wasn't feeling great and was wondering what the next day had in store.

Day 2. – The Veleta

Day 2 was a later start of 9.00am so I had a bit of a lie in until seven. Felt a bit better but was still struggling to down breakfast. In the end I decided to start but based on the challenge ahead, the toll from yesterday’s effort in the heat and all the warnings I had to change strategy. My goal was to get to the top regardless of time so I decided to keep my effort sub threshold. My max heart rate is around 180 so I decided to keep heart rate around 140 and spin it up. I had also decided what conditions to abandon in as in hindsight yesterday was just too extreme for an un-acclimatised Paddy.

I arrived at the start line in the nick of time after difficulties in finding parking. As a result I didn't have too much time to contemplate the climb ahead which is probably a good thing.

The Veleta despite being the biggest climb in Europe doesn't have the kudos of its Alpine and Pyrneenan cousins. The most apt description I have seen is that is the “Camilla” compared to the “Diana” climbs of Galibier, Stelvio etc. Its height and the risk of altitude sickness has prevented it from developing the grand tour kudos of the others and also in the final 10km the road surface deteriorates considerably. The only blessing from the heatwave was that the climb to the top was fully open. The last few years it has been hit or miss whether the finish has been at 3300m or the lower ski lift.

The climb is 40km at a relatively consistent 7% gradient. The best analogy I could come up with is that is a 3-4 hour Andy Kenny King of the mountain class with the oxygen gradually sucked out of the room and the aircon turned off – not a pleasant thought. As part of the Raid training I did some of Andy's KOM classes and would highly recommend them as prep for any mountainous sportives as they really get you used to the intensity on long climbs.

At 9.00 we were let loose. I deliberately stayed at the back and found a group that were going at a steady pace I was comfortable at. After 2km of flat the climb began. Even at this stage it was edging into the low thirties and it stayed at a consistent 32-33°C up until 2750m. The first few km were nice and shaded until we joined the main A-395 road up to Sierra Nevada. I stuck to the group I was in and kept the legs spinning in my 32ring at a good heart rate of 140 and a relatively modest but consistent power output of 210W which is well below my threshold. The group I was in was going a bit slow but I kept telling myself to stick to the plan. I started to get a good rhythm and comfortably arrived at the first rest stop after 17km.

I took my time there and made sure I got plenty of fluids in. I had also made a change of food strategy. All the gels etc. were inedible in the heat and the food stop choice was not too my taste so I went for standard food. I got some carrot cake in the local bakery and it was divine (nearly as good as the Orwell Randonée variety). As was becoming the norm I seemed to be taking longer at stops and most of the group had headed on but this time it wasn't long until I caught back up and passed most of them. The next 11 km is probably the most scenic part of the climb as you rise up over the Sierra Nevada. There are altitude markers every 250m and I continued to steadily knock them down, 2000, 2250, 2500 before I arrived at the next stop at Hoya de la Moya 29km in. I was feeling really comfortable and strategy was going well. Had a Nutrigain bar and some Power shots, a bit of fluid. For once I was fastest at the stop and happily kept rolling on.

The Veleta peak looming in the horizon

I passed the barrier for the road to the Veleta which is normally closed. The road surface immediately deteriorates and the best comparison I can give is comparing it to Sorrell hill with sections of road missing. There were marshals on the bad sections but I came across a section where I was cycling though rubble and lost control/traction. Luckily got unclipped and disaster averted. I started to count the kilometres down and had made a mental note on 6km from the finish to stop have a drink and gel shots. At this stage the temperature was beginning to drop and finally a bit of breeze. With the cooling temperatures the body started to feel better and I was surprisingly not feeling the effects of altitude as heart rate was still at 140-145 and power holding steady. In the last three km there were increasing ramps and a worsening surface. On two sections they actually had pushers. One overzealous guy gave me a push but I hit a rock and again luckily clipped out to avoid near disaster. In the last km I was feeling really good and enjoying myself as I passed suffering bodies. Turned the final corner and powered up to the finish line.

Finishing line - End of the road literally

Going over the line I was elated and felt a great sense of achievement. After the lows of yesterdays it was great to come back, finish strong and feel redemption. Could definitely have climbed it faster but given the conditions and yesterday’s events implementing a conservative pacing strategy had paid dividends and actually made the whole day more enjoyable.

After a few minutes savouring the moment it was time to head back down. Didn’t fancy the descent on rubble so took the organisers recommended option of ski lift and gondola back to Pradallano. After an enjoyable descent back to the hotel in Granada it was time to pack up and head back to Marbella. At the hotel it was like a furnace. It was 42oC and made me actually wonder how I got so far yesterday as I was struggling to even pack the car.

All in all it was a great experience. I was definitely pushed to my limit. It is a real challenge with great route options, scenery and was really well run. The weather was a huge factor but that is always outside your control. Not having Spanish is a bit of an issue as there is only so far google translate will go but in ways it adds to the experience. I won’t throw the bike away just yet!!!