On paper, the Pico de Veleta boasts the kind of stats that should be enough to put it among the most famous climbs in the world. Its length and elevation should mean it is talked about in the same breath as any celebrated Alpine col or Pyrenean peak.
Its location in Spain’s Sierra Nevada mountain range should mean it has decades of pro history; there should be numerous accounts of athletic heroism unfolding on its slopes. It should be a Vuelta a España mainstay, the jewel in the crown of many a Queen stage’s route profile.
Its status as the highest paved road in Europe should mean amateurs flock to its slopes to test their mettle, just as they do on climbs such as Alpe d’Huez.
In reality, though, the Pico de Veleta ascent has none of that. When weighing up the world’s iconic climbs, the Veleta will be passed over in conversations about what Spain can bring to the table in favour of ascents such as the Lagos de Covadonga or Alto d’Angliru in the north of the country.
No notable battles between the world’s best riders have played out on the climb, for the Vuelta has made only the occasional sortie to the Pico de Veleta and even then, the race has only taken on part of it. There’s an annual amateur sportive called El Limite that comes here, but it’s relatively small in scale and local in scope, so its appeal to weekend warriors remains niche.
All this begs the question: why? Why does the Veleta get overlooked by amateurs and spurned by pro events, when so many other lesser climbs have been glorified by the same riders and occasions? It’s because while those climbs are all hard, the Pico de Veleta is too hard. It’s too long. It goes too high.
Its difficulty excludes it from the recognition it deserves but equally grants a level of exclusivity to the few that conquer it. There are classic climbs and there are classic climbs. The Pico de Veleta is definitely one of the latter.
False sense of security
The climbing begins innocuously enough out of Cenes de la Vega, a sprawling town to the east of Granada. Before long it tilts upward to a gradient more representative of the climb’s 7% average, but the main road is wide and open in a way that makes the effort seem manageable.
The traffic soon thins as the other roads that criss-cross the lower part of the Veleta siphon cars off towards the settlements that encircle the edge of the mountain range. Before long it is one of the only roads forging a route roughly eastward into the mountains, as historically it provided an access route to the observatory near the Veleta’s peak as well as the ski resort near Hoya de la Mora.
The bulk of the climb tends to be open to cyclists from March to October, but apart from a short spell in high summer there is no guarantee the top will be accessible.
Veleta translates as ‘weather vane’. The climb’s sheer size can create its own microclimate, and conditions at the summit can flip as quickly as one of those vanes do in swirling winds.
Even in peak season it’s never overly busy with riders – you might find more consistent companions in prototype cars from brands such as Mercedes-Benz, because the ascent’s length and relative desertion makes it popular with car manufacturers for testing unreleased models.
Somewhat conspicuous by their attempt at inconspicuousness, the blacked-out vehicles roar past every so often, so the smart cyclist ducks off the A-395 onto the A-4025 just past the Osborne bull – a huge, black billboard in the shape of a bull that sits on a ridge just off the main road – to take in a quieter alternative section.
It rejoins the main road just as the peak of the Veleta is properly revealed, which is both heartening and crushing. The end is in sight but is still more than 15km away.
Just getting started
An hour in, two hours in and the Veleta still seems like a manageable task. Its gradient rarely strays from the overall average and the huge distance it covers horizontally as well as vertically means there are few true hairpins. The road just continues its meandering journey inexorably upwards.
The landscape unfolds very gradually, the trees lining the road thin out and you can see back down towards the flatter landscape to the northwest. Except that it isn’t really all that flat, you’re just so high and so far away from it that other mountains in the range are beginning to pale in comparison.
Civilisation down to the right of the road signals that you’re approaching the business end of the climb. You’ll pass the hotels of the ski resort and a sporting facility that several pro cyclists have been known to base themselves at when on altitude training camps.
Reportedly Dan Martin once rode laps of the running track with his brakes on to simulate the climb when the weather was too bad to ride the real thing. It sounds like madness but it’s arguably less crazy than attempting what comes after the barrier banning vehicular traffic just up the road.
That red bar set across the road is a literal and figurative threshold. Just as it separates the regular road from the summit road, it separates normal climbs from the Veleta. At 10km in length and hovering around 8% in average gradient, the summit road is a decent climb in itself, but when you consider it starts at 2,600m altitude and you’ve already done 30km of ascent to get to it, it becomes a wholly different beast.
The road surface doesn’t help either, because it immediately degrades into broken tarmac, pockmarked by piste bashers and the bitter, icy conditions of winter. The surroundings have degraded too. The flora and fauna that flourish lower down the mountain are unable to hack the harsh conditions up here, so trees and grasses have given way to colourless scree.
Even the road feeds into the sense of desolation, for it now has no barrier separating it from the mountainside and it seems like more of a vague suggestion of where you need to go than a clear path.
It gets harder and harder to catch your breath just at the point where the road requires more and more effort to navigate. Stretches of gravel are interspersed with craters that require a degree of bike-handling skill when it’s a challenge just to keep the pedals turning.
Getting to the very top of the Pico de Veleta is never guaranteed, even in summer, and snow 1km from the top prevents Cyclist from going any further.Juan Trujillo Andrades / Cyclist
Get lucky and reach this point on a clear day and the sky will seem impossibly large and a much deeper shade of blue. There’s the similar sense of being above everything that you get on Mont Ventoux, but the Veleta is twice the height of that molehill. As beautiful as it is, when you near the snow-capped top of the climb there’s a distinct sense of exposure, which feels somewhat intimidating.
Against the imposing majesty of the Veleta a cyclist feels impossibly small and vulnerable. Despite that, try to savour the moment when you make it to the top (or as close to it as the mountain will let you get). Not many cyclists know what the Pico de Veleta has to offer, but the few who ride it will never forget.
Tags: Best Bike Rides