Are you a cyclist or do you just ride a bike? Is there a difference? Who cares?
I suppose there are as many reasons to go out on the bike as people who do…. go out on the bike I mean….for some it’s for fitness, competition, part of a club, or just for fun. When I was 10 I had a bike. I went everywhere on it all the time but in my teens the bike was left behind. I didn’t pick up the bug again until 9 years ago. My daughter had started training with a triathlon club. Word went round about a competition for the parents, just for fun nothing serious. Hmmm, I don’t have a bike, I can’t swim and I like a jog every now and then; yes I’ll do it!
So, I found myself a bike and started riding again and I was instantly hooked. The freedom, the wind in your face and if you can escape the traffic, the quietness. I did some sailing in my youth and remember a similar sensation on a yacht in full sail. Exploring the countryside near my home, a coffee and cake somewhere new, motivated me to get out whenever I could. Armed with my Garmin Edge 1000 and a High 5 gel I set off to explore the world. I have tried to stay true to this ethos ever since. I can ride further now but I still get a kick from the beauty of the world as seen from the saddle.
One of my favourite routes begins in Caleta de Velez at the edge of Torre del Mar on the Costa del Sol. The coast here is less busy than the western Costa del Sol and without the traffic volume that you will find on the Malaga to Marbella roads. The Axarquia region, inland from Torre del Mar, is blessed with aquifers and springs which irrigate the farm land and soaring peaks to challenge the legs and is cycle heaven for all bike enthusiasts who live here or have been lucky enough to visit. The mountain sides are protected as part of the Sierra de Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama Natural Park, with flora and fauna unique in some cases to this region. The mountains mark the border between the provinces of Malaga and Granada.
From the coast at Malaga there is an ancient trade route north to Granada which passes through the mountains at the Boquette de Zafarraya a “gap” in the mountain range worn by water and which is visible from almost the whole of Malaga. From Caleta it’s a short hop into Velez Malaga and the A7205 takes us upwards, slowly at first, rolling on towards the mountain pass. After Velez Malaga, a more modern, fast highway takes the impatient traffic by an alternative route, leaving our road clear for other cyclists, sparse local traffic and the occasional goat. The road hugs the side of the valley giving views across the verdant orchards of Chirimoya. The fruit has a rich creamy texture tasting of banana and pineapple, which is why it is also known as the Custard Apple. If you pick one to eat, leave the seeds; they are poisonous. There are also avocado and mango plantations in abundance. Passing white painted rustic cortijos and crossing ravines on ancient stone bridges we gradually ascend towards Lake Viñuela. If you look left and up you will see a Buddhist stupa which is always a surprise and a wonder for visitors. The Kharma Guen retreat was founded in 1987 and offers refuge for practitioners of the Diamond Way Buddhist school. After 19 kilometres we reach the outskirts of the village of La Viñuela and find a stunning view of the lake and the landscape beyond flanked by the mountainside of the Sierra de Tejeda. We take a break and sip some water as we admire the view. The highest peak is known locally as La Maroma and the name translates as “The Rope” referring to the method they used to climb to the ice house at the summit in the old days. At over 2000 meters La Maroma is higher than Snowdon and Helvellyn combined. If you need refreshments there are a couple of bars in the village, just a short detour from the road and there is also an ATM. I do enjoy a coffee stop when I am out on the bike, but today we have to move on.
As we turn towards the north the open mountain scenery is a dramatic change from the river valley we have now left behind. Olives and almond trees are all around us and the road fades into the distance. I have lost count of the days I have spent on this road but its beauty strikes me on every visit. A short descent allows us to rest the legs a little before we take the fork in the road towards Ventas de Zafarraya. The climb now is constant and we trace the edge of the hillside of the Castle of Zalia with a series of bends to break the rhythm. We can see the village of Alcaucin across the valley and the farms and houses below. The first time I came here was to watch the Vuelta a Espana and Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky. The peloton passed us at 40 kph! Today I am working hard to maintain double figures. I should have had that coffee. This route is a must do on the local circuit so the chances are we will find a few soloist aficionados and gangs in matching kit joining us. The distinctive sound of carbon wheels fore tells the fearless riders passing us on their way down. We reach the summit at the pass and find a landmark beacon together with the border sign post “Provincia de Granada”. Make sure to stop for a photo at 920 meters above sea level. Now I really do need that coffee so we stop in the village at Bar Gloria, tucked away in Calle Estacion off the A402. We park the bikes and shuffle inside. I don’t think they see a lot of cyclists in here, but we receive a warm welcome. I order a toasted bread roll with olive oil and tomato “tostada con tomate y aceite” and a large black coffee and we also can choose from salty ham, cheese, bacon or Spanish omelette “jamon, queso,bacon o tortilla” from a chalk board of daily specials. I like to think of this as my second breakfast. The portions are substantial so I am careful not to over order. I don’t want to spoil my lunch.
We leave Bar Gloria and return to the main road. We turn left, back to the roundabout on the A402 and turn right on to the Camino de Loja. As we leave Zafarraya the landscape changes again. We are now looking across open farm land. Vegetables and salad are grown here and distributed across Europe. The people working in the fields are dressed like extras from a Star wars movie. Wide brimmed hats shade faces wrapped in scarf like material. Arms and legs are covered too. The sun is strong here, even in the winter, and there is very little shade as they tend the crops. After we leave the farms behind I am struck with the sight of the Sierra Nevada mountains and the snow capped peak Mulhacen as we ride through olive groves set amongst limestone boulders and flocks of goats grazing the wild flowers and herbs. We could be in Greece. It is very quiet here. I don’t see a car or another cyclist until we reach Alhama de Granada after 15 kilometers of rolling countryside. This is the life.
The modern town of Alhama sits in a natural bowl in the landscape. We have fun racing down the road out of the countryside and find ourselves negotiating the double roundabouts and parked tractors before leaving towards the north side of town. Almost wherever there is a hot water spring there will be a Roman story. Alhama is no exception but the name is Arabic in origin. Rivines surround the baths where the springs have cut their path through the rocks over time and for every down hill free wheeling there is an uphill change down to a higher gear. It has been known for passing cyclists to take a refreshing dip in the spring waters, especially on a hot summers day. But not us, not today. As we pedal past you can sense the history of the place and I wonder whether it has changed much, if at all. We leave towards Bermejales on the A338. More rolling hills, more olive tress, and more sunshine. It is amazing. So much open road and every now and then and eagle soaring or a song bird following us.
The lake at Bermejales is like a mirror when we arrive. We stop for photos at the monumental landmark which is almost like a picture frame, waiting for the poseurs to stage their snapshots. We carry on, circumnavigating the glossy water, past the camping ground and through the pine forest. If you need to take a break there is a café and bar at the camp site and you could sit for a while admiring the view across the lake. We touch on the village of Fornes before we reach Arenas del Rey. As we pass through I feel like the village is an imposter in this landscape. In the centre is a pretty square with fountain and a grand municipal building. An information board tells how the town was completely destroyed in an earthquake in 1884 causing large loss of life. A nationwide appeal for donations led by the King funded the rebuilding and the town planners clearly had a lot of pesetas to spend. The streets and avenues are on a grid pattern in the style of New York. If you find the information board you will see a public fountain across the road to fill up your bottles. After a refreshing gulp of cold water we are on our way again towards Jatar.
The road ahead sits on the north side of the Sierra Tejeda mountains and has been planted with vines since Roman times. Each small village seems to have a shop or bar selling local wines and other produce, especially herbs. This area was known for foragers who would comb the hillsides and gather wild plants to sell to travellers. As we pass through the pine forests the smell of eucalyptus trees adds to the mountain atmosphere. We climb through a rocky gorge where the rocks are a striking colour with a combination of ochre and sand in layers. We are now on the return route towards Alhama and its time for lunch.
We pause at the Hostal El Ventorro. This substantial building houses a very popular restaurant and bar and has a wide open terrace perfect for stacking the bikes. They claim to have served travellers on this site for 300 years in one form or another. They specialise in hearty mountain meals and fresh water fish caught in the local rivers. There is a window with counter which opens on to the bar so you can order from outside if you don’t want to sit at a table. The menu is extensive and being Granada appears expensive compared to Malaga, but the portions are for sharing between at least 2 people. If you don’t want that much then ask for a half portion media racion. We sit on the wall in the shaded terrace and are amazed by how busy it is compared to the peaceful countryside we have been cycling through. Be aware, they only open for breakfast from 10am to 1.30pm and straight in to lunch until 4pm and close all day Monday. I fill up on a large plate of potatoes roasted in olive oil with onions and peppers, served with crusty rustic bread and a bowl of local olives. Plenty of carbs to fuel the 2nd half of the day.
As we leave the jolly hostal we are following the Rio Alhama as it finds its way back towards to town but we now have to pay the price for all the downhill free riding as we turn left back onto the A402 and begin to climb. With the mountains to our left its time for some work and the road meanders across the hillside following the edge of the river valley. We are rewarded as we crest the climb at just over 1100 meters with a fabulous down hill run through the forest in to the next valley and a straight road back to Ventas de Zafarraya. After all the climbing we have done today we seem to be flying along here. At Zafarraya we stop at the petrol station next to the gap to top up on coca cola and mars bars then cross the border back into Malaga province. Its 30 kilometers back to the coast and from here you can see all the way down to the sea. Following the same route to return may seem a waste but it looks and feels very different when descending. We follow an Audi which overtakes us at the top and at times I need to feather my brakes to keep off its rear end. I think in these mountains bike beats motor any day.
Distance 141.74km Elevation gain 2,346 meters Moving time 6:19:09 Calories 3,730
920m above sea level