Great Rides: Pico de Veleta, Spain

A young man sits at the summit of a mountain with his bicycle next to him.
At the summit, 3,398m above sea level
On holiday in Spain, Zak Viney realised he was close to the Pico de Veleta and the highest paved road in Europe. He couldn’t resist

Because it’s there. George Mallory’s reply, when asked why he’d attempt to climb Mount Everest, has passed into legend. He would go on to die on his mountain. Spoiler: I didn’t on mine, the Pico de Veleta.

It was meant to be that ‘no cycling allowed’ holiday, one to get swept up in a place, its food, and its people. Granada is a fascinating city with Moorish architecture, winding streets, and flamenco echoing from hundreds of tapas bars. Surely my compulsion to sit on a saddle could lie dormant for a mere week?

I tried to scratch the itch by hiking, exploring the beautiful Sierra Nevada National Park. First a lazy wander beside the crystal clear waterfalls in Monachil, then a tougher hike from Cogollos to the Peñón de la Mata. But when I looked up I could see the Pico de Veleta, one of the Sierra Nevada’s highest peaks (3,398m) and home to the highest paved road in Europe…

Green-topped stone buildings stand at the side of the road, a mountainous vista in the background

Start: no gear, all idea

I didn’t have a bike but I did have a phone. Google informed me that Bicicletas la Estación could supply me with an aluminium road bike with a compact chainset and a cassette with a 32-tooth sprocket. It was fitted with flat pedals (no bike shoes with me), two bottle cages, and a phone mount.

I filled my small bidon to the brim, topped up my Camelbak, and donned my rented bike helmet. I was ready to take on the climb.

I headed south-east out of Granada, remembering to cycle on the right hand side. As the road rose and rolled gently, the vista opened up. Farmers were busy across the valley of the Monachil River. Buildings were replaced by fig trees lining the edges of the road. Green olive trees gave way to arid foothills.

The road began to rise further. So did the temperature. At 11am it had already passed 30ºC. I’d begun my ascent of the Veleta. Ahead lay 38km and another 2,700m of climbing. El Purche, climbing out of Monachil, was the hottest and hardest part the whole ascent: six kilometres with an average gradient of 9%. I cycled alongside a Spanish climber, encouraging one another as we exchanged positions between the steeper ramps.

In the absence of a refreshing breeze, the views to the south provided inspiration to keep pushing on. Then there was a rolling descent to Carretera de la Sierra, where I joined the smooth tarmac of the A-395. Looking north from the A-395, the magnitude of the Sierra Nevada was imposing.

A reservoir in the centre of a valley

Middle: climbing to 2,000m

At 1,500m, the Genil River dominated the landscape. Its deep blue waters were reminiscent of the glacial lakes of Canada. Not knowing what to expect ahead, I stopped to top up on fluids. “Aqua, por favor,” I asked in broken Spanish at a restaurant. A delightfully kind lady obliged.

At El Dornajo visitor centre, I turned left up the hairpins of Carretera de Las Sabinas. This section was tree covered, the shade giving some respite from the sun. An estate car in the blue-white livery of the BikeExchange pro cycling team passed me, followed shortly after by Grand Tour winner Simon Yates.

It was a reminder that, unlike football fans who will never play at Wembley, cyclists can ride on the same roads as our heroes, experiencing the same spectacular scenery and suffering. The climb to Hoya de la Mora was a key summit finish at the Vuelta a España in 2017 and was again decisive in 2022.

Leaving behind the twists and turns of the hairpins, the climb then opened up onto a long drag overlooking Pradollano ski station. For most of the year, these peaks are snow covered; the Veleta summit is only accessible in the summer months.

Having passed 2,000m, the air began to get cooler and thinner. My breathing rate increased. Spotting some food vendors in a parking area near a military refuge, I refuelled with a burger, patatas fritas, and a coke.

A pretty mountainous landscape covered in snow

End: on to the summit

As I climbed further, up above the surrounding peaks and the cable cars from the ski station below, the views became even more impressive. The road twisted like spaghetti above and below me. I spotted another landmark: the Sierra Nevada Observatory, its radio telescope a beacon in a desolate landscape.

The road was no longer smooth asphalt but gritty and rougher. Shale and gravel from cliff faces littered parts of the road. I tried to stayed focused. I didn’t want to puncture up here.

And then, at 2,800m, my speed dropped off completely. My heart rate had climbed to a steady 180bpm. The thin air was taking its toll. Nervousness seeped in: the summit was still 500m higher up.

I rolled along gently in the lowest gear, pausing now and again to acclimatise and take in the scenery. With 2km to go, the road disintegrated into a rocky gravel trail. At first, I steered my bike through tarmac lines amongst the rubble. Then the road ended and became a trail. I looked up. The top was close. I could see a small pastel-coloured mountain hut alongside the obelisk marking the summit. Around me, ibex were loitering.

I hiked the bike up the final few rocks, placed my bike by the summit monument, and stopped. There were tears in my eyes. A sense of achievement? The otherworldly vista? Or a deoxygenated brain exaggerating fundamental emotions? Who knows?

I wasn’t alone at the top. A family spanning three generations smiled and hugged each other. Three jovial hikers asked me to photograph them as they posed at the summit. I asked them the same, then took a video for my family.

Then I put on my gilet and set off downhill.

Getting there

Bringing your own bike? Bagged bicycles travel free on Spain’s high-speed trains, so long as the dimensions are no more than 120×90×40cm and you include the ‘bicycle add-on’ when you buy your ticket. (Those dimensions will be good for TGV services through France too, but until Eurostar starts taking bikes again an all-rail journey isn’t feasible.) Granada is thus easily reachable by rail from Malaga, Madrid or Barcelona. You can take a fully assembled, unbagged bike on mid-distance Spanish trains but you have to book (free or €3) and spaces are typically limited to three per train.

Fact file: Pico Veleta

Start/finish: Bicicletas la Estación, Granada

Route: Out and back from Granada via Huétor Vega, with the climb starting in earnest at Monachil. I took the A-395, then the A-4025 to Hoya de la Mora. The final section is a testy, winding gravel path to the summit.

Distance: 92km

Conditions: In mid - July it was roasting hot at the base and cooler further up. From 2,000m, the air was noticeably thin.

Bike used: Hired road bike with a 50- 34 chainset and 11-32 cassette.

Navigation: Smartphone attached to rented phone holder. Komoot Premium for mapping.

I’m glad I had: Camelbak for water and a gilet for the descent!

Next time I would: Use a gravel bike: lower gears and fatter tyres to handle the final, rocky 2km before the summit would increase pleasure and comfort.