Wednesday 21 November 2012

Vamos! Road cycling holiday in Las Alpujarras, Southern Spain

A Great Cycling Holiday in Southern Spain

Having recently returned from a fantastic week long cycling holiday in the south of Spain, I thought I'd write a bit about it as part of the inevitable post holiday withdrawal process.  My cycling club mate Mike and I, who both ride with the Ribble Valley Cycling and Racing Club (, spent seven great days with Vamos! Cycling Holidays Spain.

Vamos! Cycling is situated in a road cycling paradise in Las Alpujarras, the heart of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Southern Spain, within the Andalusia autonomous community. Gary and Sarah Williams run very flexible cycling holidays from their beautifully renovated town house in a small town called Cádiar in the province of Granada, Spain.
I read a bit about them beforehand on the Vamos! web site (  That talked about providing a comfortable, relaxed, bike-friendly base for road cycling holidays, with plenty of fabulous food!  And after experiencing the offering, I’d say this was a pretty accurate description.

I’ve personally cycled in Spain a few times now, so I knew what to expect as far as the quiet roads and (generally) better tolerance of cyclist from the local motorists.  Previously I’ve dragged the bike along on family holidays and fit in riding around the other holiday activities.  I’ve also been fortunate enough to drive through Spain a couple of times with the bike in the back of the car, taking it out for a spin when the mood grabbed me.  However, this is the first time I’ve taken a completely bike oriented holiday and I can certainly say that it is worth doing.

The area around Cádiar is truly stunning.  Cádiar is positioned on the south side of the Sierra Nevada mountains and itself is relatively high up.  I reckon it’s somewhere in the region of 900 metres above sea level, but don’t quote me on that!  Gary and Sarah said that they chose Cádiar – in the heart of the Alpujarras – with cyclists in mind because of the choice of varied routes that leave the town.  There are challenging climbs, awesome descents and the odd bit of flat stuff if you travel towards the coast.

A view of Cádiar from Gary's and Sarah's town house

We spent the days cycling with our host Gary, who is very handy on the bike, and the evenings relaxing around the house always fitting in a long and hearty dinner.  The meals were prepared by Gary’s wife Sarah.  These were excellent, varied and really couldn’t be faulted on their quality or quantity.  I often sat in awe as my cycling buddy Mike polished of four of five helpings of the main course. And I thought I could eat a bit!!

The group of hungry cyclist dining with Sarah and Gary

Mike and I spent the week in the company of the Williams as well as several other guest from around the world.  Sarah collected us from the airport at Malaga and at that point we met up with Amanda and Robin.  Amanda is from America and is currently visiting Europe whilst doing more than her fair share of Triathlon training.  You can read all about them on her blog (  On the journey to the accommodation we also picked up Amanda’s American Triathlon training buddy, Katie.  The final member of the group (Paul) was picked up by Gary later on in the evening on the day of our arrival.  As we were all weary from the travelling, so turned in early, we didn’t get to meet him until the following morning for breakfast.  Not something that’s particularly in the Williams’ control, but fortunately the group mixed well both on and of the bike.  Riding, meal times and relaxing were always full of much good humoured banter.

A picture of me enjoying the cycling.  The arm-warmers etc. were just for the high parts. 

All in all, a “TOTALLY AWESOME” (…will perhaps explain this in a later post) experience that I would recommend to any cyclist looking for some challenging, traffic free riding on good quality road surfaces.  All this and the dry warm climate that makes you remember why you enjoy cycling.  Now I’ve to work out how the heck I can motivate myself to carry on riding in the bleakness of the Winter (and to be fair, most of the Summer) in the North West of England, where the motorist don’t think twice about running down the likes of Bradley Wiggins let alone mere cycling mortals such as me!

Monday 12 November 2012

Vamos! Cycling Holiday Day 2

Cherín, Adra, La Rábita, Albondón

The second day of our cycling holiday based in Cádiar (located in the province of Granada), Spain was going to be a little more difficult than the first day.  Our host, guide and ride leader at Vamos! (Gary Williams) was always pretty forthcoming with information about the ride and what it was going to entail.  We got a bit of an informal briefing about where we were heading before we set of and plenty of pointers about what we were going to face along the way.  Today, we were heading to the coast.  Back at home (for Mike, my holiday companion and I) that would generally mean an easy run, dependant on the group and the wind strength or direction, towards Blackpool or Southport.  As the base for our Spanish cycling holiday was already relatively high up in Las Alpujarras and run down to the coast was going to be a different prospect altogether.  A case of 'what goes down, must come up' this time.

The day started with the usual routine.  Not too early a start, as in that part of Spain during November the Sun wasn't rising that early.  There was little point of getting up to get around in the dark.  We ate a hearty breakfast between about nine o'clock and ten o'clock, followed it up with a few routine bike checks, such as the tyre pressures.  After that we normally rolled out at about 10 am.  It was quite a cool day, reasonably over cast at whilst there was a threat of rain, it didn't look like it would actually materialise.

Time for a Break and a Proper Look Around

A View of  Embalse de Benínar and Our Route Their
We initially head out Westward towards a little town named Cherín, but didn't stop there. We instead made a route directly South towards of lunch stop destination of Adra. On our journey to the coast the road was pretty undulating, but ultimately it was downhill all the way. This meant that we'd have to climb back to our initial altitude, at least, to get back to the accommodation. We took the ALP-603 down through Darrícal and headed towards the Embalse de Benínar (a lake or reservoir). We had a brief stop at the South end of the lake to allow a few natural breaks, a bit of landscape admiration and a general regrouping. Everybody on the holiday was used to cycling, but we were all at slightly different levels, so on the ascents or descents the group did split up a bit. A short rest for the faster ones and generally it was all back together.

Mike Admires the View and Contemplates His Next Photo

A Time for Everybody to Get a Photo

The Riders Regroup Near Embalse de Benínar

View Across Embalse de Benínar
A break also offered an opportunity to take a few snapshots for the photo albums, scrapbooks and blogs.  There was certainly plenty of picturesque scenery all around.  As it was getting into Winter, some of the high peaks could be seen sporting a snowy cap.  After viewing the lake, we continued Southward and picked up another road (the ALP-461) which took us closer to Adra.  We met a junction near Berja (to the West of San Roque), but didn't get that far East.  Instead, we picked up the ALP-103 that would take us the rest of the way to the coast, over and along the valley of the Rio Grande.  The roads we now pretty flat and we passed a lot of agriculture and many giant greenhouses that are common in the area.  As we passed near La Alquería we followed the course of the Rio Adra, which was lined with tall large grasses, like bamboo.

At Our Own Pace on the ALP-461 on the Way to Adra

Three of the Group Climb the ALP-461 Together

One of the Guests (Robin) Give Gary Our Guide Some Tips!
When we arrived at Adra, the weather hadn't improved any.  It wasn't quite as cold, but it was still very overcast and it looked like it had been raining a bit.  We traversed the Calle Natalio Rivas a couple of times until we chose a suitable lunch venue.  I don't think the establishment we took lunch at was Gary's or his local friend Ramon's first choice, but at least it was somewhere to get refreshments.  It was nothing too heavy, we'd eaten well the night before and there was also plenty to go around at breakfast, so there was no point in further loading up ahead of the climb back to the start point.  After a reasonable break, which gave us enough time to consume some toast etc. and a few coffees, we were back out cycling again.

A Lunch Stop in Adra on the Coast
A Quick Stop in Adra for Coffees and Toast
After lunch we head Westwards along the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.  This area was very familiar to me, as I had stayed further West along the coast a couple of years before and had driven on the AP7, which also followed the coastline.  We eventually arrived at a place called La Rábita and this is where the long climb homewards began.  Gary was classing the run up along the A345 as part of the day's main climb, but it was pretty much uphill all the way from the coast.  It was just a very gradual drag for what felt like quite a few miles, but was only actually about one, up along this road.  We had a stop at the top of a long straight at a Repsol fuel station to grab a few supplies.  This mainly consisted of water for our drinking bottles.  

After this, the road looped around a place call Albuñol and continued to gradually climb. Our guide reckoned that the main climb of the day was about 16 Kilometres (roughly 10 miles) continually up and this didn't take into consideration these early slopes.  Oh my Lord!!  This climb was going to be a killer.  We arrived at a large roundabout on the outskirts of Albuñol (the North side) and Gary was prepared to accept that this was the start of the climb proper.  Looking at the ride on Strava later, this climb was marked as the Puerto de Albondón.  It wasn't the steepest of climbs, but it was relentless.  It's marked on the Strava web site ( as a HC climb, which means in racing cycling parlance that it is so big that it's beyond categorisation.  The HC actually stands for Hors Catégorie, which is a French term used in cycle races (most notably, the Tour de France) to designate a climb that is incredibly tough. 

A Roadside Garden on the Puerto de Albondón

We probably weren't to far into the main climb and I was doing OK, there was quite a way to go though.  I'd done the cycling club's hill climb recently, exactly a week before, but that was only a five or six minute effort.  This ascent was going to take over an hour.  I just wasn't used to riding uphill for that length of time.  In the UK, even on hilly day, you are usually able to recover on false flats or downhill sections before the next climb.  Here, I was just not going to be afforded that luxury.  On the middle section of the climb some of the stronger riders began to pull away.  I wasn't feeling to great at this point, but I just kept grinding out a rhythm as nest I could.  I often felt like I could do with a few more gears, which wasn't good, as I was riding a bike with a compact chainset.

I Abandon my Bike for a Few Minutes on the Approach to Albondón
I got to a point around the town of Albondón where I just needed a bit of a breather.  Fortunately, there was a bit of a garden or viewing area at the side of the road.  I took the opportunity to dismount and give my legs a rest under the pretence of taking a few pictures.  I don't really like stopping on a climb, but this one wasn't going well and I just needed a breather.  I really wasn't stopped too long.  It could only have been a couple of minutes and then I was back on the bike and trying to further progress up the climb.  I have a few thoughts about taking a layer off, or maybe the arm warmers, but whilst we were warm from the effort the temperature around us was falling as the road arose up to the clouds.

A View Back Towards the Coast from Albondón

A View of Albondón from the Roadside Gardens

At the end of the day, whilst the slow pace I was capable of climbing this hill wasn't great, I have to accept that my body just wasn't used to this kind of effort.  Eventually I was over the hardest part of the climb and hit a section of flat road.  I had a stop to put my raincoat on ready for the later descent back to Cadiar.  This was somewhere around the junction of the A-345 that we we riding on an the adjoining GR-5202.  After that, there was a little bit more climbing, but then I was on the homeward stretch.  As it was cold, and we all knew the way back to the accommodation, there was little point hanging around for the other rider and getting a chill, so everybody carried on at their own pace.  It was fantastic, to be finally heading back for the warmth, a shower and some sustenance.

Looking back at the ride from the Garming GPS data, it was obviously a very hard day.  We'd done almost seventy miles, and whilst that wasn't by any means an unfamiliar distance, it was very unusual to be doing so much climbing, so it felt like we'd ridden an awful lot further.  The ride was uploaded to Strava, to be presented with the message “There are no achievements on this ride.”  There were no surprises there.  It had taken me about an hour and a half to the the ten mile measure section (Strava segment) of the climb and that meant I'd been travelling at an average speed of a might 6.6 mph.  Oh well, I got there in the end.  It was an achievement, but the latter half of the ride could not be described in any way as enjoyable.

To date, the Puerto de Albondón is the longest single climb I've ever done. It was about 3,250 feet of climbing taking us to an altitude of four thousand meters. I have previously done other rides in Spain, and pre me having a Garmin, so it's possible I have done a longer climb before. I just don't have any way of measuring it. I'm sure that I have climbed to higher altitudes before, but possibly it was split up into a few smaller climbs. Whilst I didn't enjoy this one on the day, I'd love to go back a knock a few tens of minutes off my time on a warmer day. Maybe next year?

Sunday 11 November 2012

Vamos! Cycling Holiday Day 1

Vamos! Cycling Holiday Day 1

Cherín, Laroles, Mecina Bombarón

We arrived a Vamos! on Saturday 10th November 2012 and got settled in.  We set up the bikes and unpacked etc.  There was probably enough time in the afternoon to get a short ride in, but with a full week of riding in the mountains immanent, it didn't seem like it was necessary (or even a good idea).  We'd been up since about 4.30am to travel to the airport, so chilling was the best idea.  Our hosts ensured that we were suitably watered and feed ahead of our first day.

A cyclist lives here (...or something like that!)

The following morning we arose for a our breakfast at 8.30am (nothing to outlandish there).  the first meal of the day was generally at 9 and it was all taken at a leisurely pace ahead of the day's riding.  We'd normally take an hour to get through the meal and that would leave about 30 minutes for the final prep before getting on the bikes.

Day one was really about finding our feet, so it was a relatively short ride.  Thinking back, of all the rides this is the one I remember least about.  We followed an approximately circular route out from our base in  Cádiar.  Along the way we visited the towns/villages of Cherín, Laroles, Mecina Bombarón.  The ride recorded on my Garmin 200 and uploaded to Strava can be seen below.

It was relatively cool, but considering we were pretty high up in the hills on the edge of the mountains it was much warmer than England at this time of year.

Having previously said that it was an easy day, there was several thousand feet of climbing involved and the climb up to the cafe stop at Laroles was over 6 miles.  I personally set off too quick, trying to follow the ride leader's (Gary's) local friend Ramon up the climb.  I was soon passed by the others on the ascent and after that, plus missing the cafe, I was the last one up.  I had a nice tour of the village though!

At the Cafe in Laroles with my new cycling buddies Katie & Amanda

We enjoyed the warmth of the cafe with a few of the local's and, other than one person, we just had a hot drink for the ride back to the house.  After the ride I had a bit of a wander around the local vicinity to get a feel for the place just before dusk.

Vamos' town house - a welcome site after a ride

Cádiar is a mountainous village that has preserved it´s Morisco feel and character. It was formed from three neighbourhoods (Cádiar, Narila and Yátor), and is situated between Sierra Nevada and Sierra de la Contraviesa. In the village centre there are various monuments worth visiting, including las ermitas de San Blas, San Sebastián and Santa Rita. The iglesias parroquiales are also worth seeing, built at the turn of the 16th century.

Local crafts are of great importance in Cádiar. Specialties include ceramics, items made from esparto grass and forged products, and there are many shops where you can purchase these.

You are here! A local tourist map near where the rides began

The day was finished off with a very large and tasty meal to help the riders fuel up for the next day.  Meals were prepared by Sarah in the Vanos! town house.  After that the group discussed the ride, got to know each other a little better and chilled out before bed.

A view of Cádiar from the main road (A-348)