By Lee Grantham
Sierra Nevada Limite is a cycle weekend that tops the bucket list of many an avid cyclist.
Set in the Sierra Nevada mountains on the edge of Granada, Southern Spain, the event held each June is a weekend of three long distance, mountainous cycle races which start on the Saturday with options of 92km and 180km and then Sunday, a constant climb of 40km with an average gradient of 6% which finishes on the peak of Spain’s 4th highest mountain, Mount Veleta, 3398m high!
I was told that if the heat didn’t get me, the altitude certainly would but my sense of adventure had me signing up for the 180km with 4500m of altitude gain without a second thought.
When I looked at the profile below, although the up’s looked daunting, I figured that at least half of the ride would be flat or rolling down hill. I could handle 90km of hard work. With hindsight this was my first bout of beautiful nativity!
Starting The Race
The race started at 7am from a ski village called Pradollano at 2200m.
The mass start would be controlled by a safety car for the first 30km as we used the motorway to connect to the first major climb. The race features four considerable climbs but the first (“El Purche”) and last (“El Duque”) in particular are famous category 1 and 2 climbs from La Vuelta Espana.
As we neared the first climb, El Purche which is 7km at 9% average gradient I could sense fear in the group. The record time for this climb is held by Dutch rider Laurens ten Dam who rides for pro-team Giant-Alpecin but myself and those around although ready, were not after breaking any records today, we knew the climb and we knew this was only the start of a long day.
Conserving energy and not going “all out” was sensible. However, somebody forgot to tell the leaders that as they disappeared into what had been an impressive sunrise! We climbed bit by bit with switchbacks hitting 15-20%. As with all the killer climbs in the Tour de France or Vuelta, the ascent has the generosity of showing you it’s summit almost from the start, which never seems to get closer.
Two quick lessons I learn’t early on which certainly helped me get through the day was:
1) Don’t look up at the peak, you’ll get there eventually
2) Don’t look at your GPS/speedometer, it’s painful to see your speed at 6/8kph when you’re working so hard!
As with any endurance event lasting longer than an hour, pacing is important. To keep your energy levels consistent, eating, drinking and replacing lost electrolytes through sweat is key so I set an alarm on my garmin to buzz every 40 minutes to take a gel and later energy bars.
Eventually we made the summit and the first drinks station, I refilled my only bottle, another beginners mistake as it’s well worth having two bottles. The race is self supported but offered drinks stations at the check points along the course.
I calculated that I’d be fine with one bottle but as the race progresses, becoming dehydrated in the heat is a real threat. We refilled and off we went, rewarded with a long, fast downhill, a route I knew well and was able to gain time on those around me knowing the next hard section wasn’t far off.
A long slog towards a town called La Peza and then onto Guadix was what awaited, from the profile it looks like a straight forward “up and over” and then return but in reality it’s a hard drive up at gradients ranging from 3-8% and an array of false flats that “zap the zip” from your legs.
It’s easy in these situations to work hard and hang onto a group, knowing you’re all sharing some of the workload but with such a mountainous profile I decided to ride my own race, with just finishing in one piece the goal.
As we ventured out and back, the hard work was still to come, a climb steeper than the first but with 160km in our legs was going to today’s major test. We turned left into the small town by a river, named Pinos Genil and then left again up towards the town of Güéjar Sierra, home to one of the most stunning lakes in Spain.
Even during the focus of this race it’s hard not to look around and appreciate the surroundings. Its typical Andalusian countryside, perfect road surfaces, lakes, rivers, forest and serious mountains!
There’s 23 peaks above 3000m (10,000ft) in the Sierra Nevada’s!
I’d been neck and neck with a rider wearing a Team Sky kit for most of the way and as we pulled next to each other I said “nice shirt”, wondering if he was English. The Spanish are legally bind to wear only shirts worn by the top Spanish riders, namely Movistar and Tinkoff! We shared a few words and he warned me that “it was all up hill from here, watch out for that El Duque climb”. He couldn’t have been more right…
Although I was excited seeing the 150km point come and go, nothing could have prepared me for hitting the El Duque wall at 160km.
The arrival is mischievous, it’s a short, sharp downhill from Güéjar Sierra, over a pretty river bridge that looks out directly into a beautiful turquoise lake and then BANG, you hit 15% gradient right from the bottom. It hit me hard and I promised myself it evened out after a mile or so, but that mile seemed to last forever. The temperature was now above 40 degrees.
As I stood and pulled hard on the pedals, my quads started to cramp so I sat down and pushed forcefully on the pedals which made my hamstrings cramp! I was laughing to myself thinking what a state I was in, 20km from the finish and rotating standing and sitting, just to try to finish.
The climb is 7km in total, averaging 10% but the switchbacks are between 18 and 22%, which are actually marked with signs to add to the torture! Nobody was passing me so I took satisfaction in the fact that others were hurting just as much!
At the half way point on the climb there’s a natural water fountain. I stopped, took off my helmet and put my head into the water, filled up my bottle several times and ate 2 energy bars. 15km to go I told myself and only 3km this steep. As I was trying to get going again (not easy on that gradient), a rider passed me, teeth fully gritted, not enough energy left for a smile. It felt wonderful to be putting myself through this for no good reason other than to answer the question, “Can I do this?”
Reaching El Duque
We hit the top of El Duque and again we were rewarded with a drink station, stocked with fruit. With 12km to go I replaced all the gel wrappers and filled my jersey pockets with bananas.
Soon I caught up to another rider, it was his 3rd time doing the race and he explained the final part in detail to me. “If we can hold on, we’re on for a good time”. I hadn’t even considered time up to that point but if we pushed each other we could dip under 7 hours which was apparently a good mark for the test. The cramps had disappeared and we helped each other reach the goal. I finished in 6 hours 55 minutes and 56th place. I’d never felt so happy to see a finish line and I had nothing left.
As with all Spanish races, the finish is not the finish. Next comes the “Fiesta” (party), a great feast of typical Andalusian paella, local fruits and even ice cream which mixed in nicely with my oats & whey bar!
1: Carry the essentials: 1 or 2 spare inner tubes and tools to change a flat tyre including pump.
2: Carry more than enough food to last you the race plus an hour or two buffer in case things don’t go to plan. Energy gels and energy bars are the most convenient form of energy for the least weight.
3: Two bottles and cages is the smartest choice. Carry your tools/inner tubes in a back pocket or saddle bag and start with two full bottles.
4: Go at your own pace. It’s a race and it’s easy to get caught up in the initial excitement but in sportives lasting many hours, seconds here and there don’t matter so much and are eclipsed in the final miles, especially in the mountains.
5: Enjoy it and take in the surroundings! The more enjoyment you take from these events, the more you’ll do and the better you will become. Especially if you’ve travelled overseas or to a place you’ve never been before, take time to appreciate what’s around you.