Neko Mulally chainless 2014 Hafjell world champs 4º
A few months back, in the dark reaches of the European winter, Polish riders Szymon Kotowski, Karol Michalski and Wojtek Kwiatek went to Calpe, Spain in search of warmer climates and memorable rides. What followed was three days of discovering Calpe's hidden gems and relentless climbs. In this Roadtripping piece Szymon shares the story of that trip, with photos from Piotr Trybalski.
by Szymon Kotowski | Photography by Piotr Trybalski
Winter has come. The sky is shrouded in heavy clouds and the wind has become painfully cold. Europe’s legendary mountain passes are covered with snow and all our favourite roads are frozen. It’s time to pack our bikes and gear and fly off to warmer climates, as the birds do.
Cycling is an exceptionally traditional sport with a specific culture surrounding it. One of many traditions is the winter training camp in mild locations. And this is where we are heading in order to gather first-hand experience of the atmosphere of such an event. We might not be pros, but as it would turn out, we’re better off this way.
We have landed in Calpe. A small Spanish town which at this time appears to be completely deserted. But only seemingly. In reality it has been invaded by cyclists whose clean shaven legs can be spotted at all local hotels. There are plenty of service cars and buses carrying the pro teams who have also fled the European winter.
During the day, the world’s best cyclists are riding the roads, whereas at night their maintenance staff keep their bikes clean and ready for action. This is the spectacle we have found ourselves in.
Calpe and its iconic rock, the Peñón de Ifach — the symbol of the whole Costa Blanca and the main motif of all postcards — is also a kind of magnet that attracts cyclists from the most distant areas of Europe. Calpe is biking heaven. The professionals are happy to train in ideal conditions, whereas amateurs have a chance to not only enjoy these conditions but also play the role like their cycling idols for a short while.
Everybody, without exception, falls into a regime of ride, eat, sleep, repeat. The purpose of which is to use each day of the camp to prepare for the upcoming season. With all eyes fixed on training plans, heart rate monitors and power meters, the professional cyclists are doing whatever is necessary to later reap the rewards of their hard work in the off-season.
Such a routine has a certain charm but it also entails limitations. Thankfully, we are not at a team camp. We can do whatever we like, which is good because we are too impatient to postpone the pleasure of winning until a few months later. We want to experience something amazing here and now.
It’s evening. We are sitting on the balcony with views over the Mediterranean Sea, drinking local beer and looking forward to discovering the nearby roads, without the necessity to train, do repeats, and everything that the cyclists around us are doing.
“A MAGNET THAT ATTRACTS CYCLISTS FROM THE MOST DISTANT AREAS OF EUROPE. CALPE IS CYCLING HEAVEN.”
We’re lost and the road has become worryingly narrow. It doesn’t seem to lead anywhere. It is also getting steeper and steeper. I am trying to switch to a smaller gear but nothing happens. I give it all I have but still my cadence is embarrassingly slow. In fact, I am barely moving forward.
I can’t even tell if we’ve done half the climb or only the beginning. Never mind. Don’t think about it. I am still moving despite the clear resistance of my body. And it’s not my legs that hurt. The road is so steep that my arms, my back and all my body has started to ache. We keep riding to find out what’s at the top. It has to be stunning, I keep telling myself. Turning around is not an option.
Getting lost in Calpe is a blessing. Hidden inclines are the gems of this place. You can go to the most popular roads but if you get lost, you’ll most certainly find yourself on a climb over an empty road for half an hour and reach a mountain top that feels like nobody else has ever been to it. It’s always enough to make sure you look forward to getting lost again. In fact, the worst thing to do here is ride up the same hills again and again. What a waste.
We made the quick decision to discover as many unknown inclines as often as possible because we soon learned that all roads are most beautiful when seen for the first time. Why not treat ourselves to this every time we go somewhere? Actually, it is fairly easy to do here in Calpe. You take one of the well-known roads and turn into any little side road you see, where you usually find an incline only few are aware of.
This is how we found the road to Fort Bernia which finished with nothing more than a small car park. Several kilometres of asphalt have been laid here so that hikers don’t have to start their walk at the foot of the mountain but can drive to this point. Who knew?
The road to Fort Bernia is our first discovery of such beauty. An inconspicuous path turns out to be a six-kilometre incline that takes us from just above sea level to 700 meters. The road is so narrow, twisting and steep that keeping the front wheel on the ground is nearly as challenging as keeping the pedals going around.
After half an hour of an insanely steep, yet conquerable incline we experience the relief of getting off the bikes and sitting by the road. We earned this. We don’t feel the need to begin descending immediately. Instead, we just sit and admire the view.
From Fort Bernia we can see Benidorm – one of the biggest towns on the coast where people living nearby derogatorily call Hurghada – a tourist sprawl . The town owes its nickname to the multiple skyscrapers built there. Funnily enough, the biggest one remains completely empty because its designers forgot about elevators.
Benidorm doesn’t fit in with the surrounding area at all which makes it an intriguing place. We decided to have a look at it from above. We quickly found a magnificent road winding up a hill next to the town. We could see the city of skyscrapers on the one side of the vista and the sea on the other.
We checked off another amazing road and when we were about to come back we got lost, unintentionally this time, and found a short power climb in the middle of the forest. It literally looked like a wall leading to nowhere and resembled the roads one can find in Scandinavia. It was another one of those beautiful and accidental discoveries. That’s just the way things are here.
We decide to spend one more day searching for such places, which proved to be a good idea. We went deeper into the mountains, further away from Calpe and the sea. This is how we found the nearly “perfect climb”. A hidden road that most cyclist dreams of. Narrow, steep and twisting with road turning back on itself, one after another.
As we were riding the switchbacks we all had it in our imaginations we were racing the Vuelta a Espana. A road closed to traffic, or simply a road with no traffic due to the fact that it doesn’t go anywhere. We discovered what we called “little Angliru”. And although the real Angliru must be more impressive, we found this incline ourselves and that’s what gave us so much satisfaction.
Purito Rodriguez would certainly feel pretty comfortable on this terrain but none of us are close to his stature. We don’t have anyone to blame but ourselves for getting on to this insanely steep road. Nevertheless, after some time we finally reach the top from where we can enjoy the panoramic view of the surrounding mountains that look like crumpled paper. However, little do we know that the most beautiful ascent is still ahead of us. We will find it at the end of the next day’s trip.
We found that searching for new climbs became addictive. But after all of the climbs we come across here, no matter how beautiful, all have one common disadvantage – they lead to nowhere, which forces you to return the same way you went up. It’s not what cyclists dream about; we love loops. Therefore, we decide to link up one huge loop – a ride that we will remember for a long time.
The plan is simple – cover all legendary inclines in the area within one day. The climbs that all cyclists who come to train here want to tick off, one each day. But we are impatient and slightly crazy – we want them all at once.
There is nothing to discuss. We just take one last glimpse at the map, stuff ourselves with oatmeal and oranges, take the last sip of our morning coffee and set off. Our big day has started.
The ride doesn’t start in any spectacular way. We make the decision to go up the longest and highest climb in the area. To get there, first we have to take the seaside road to Benidorm that, although undeniably beautiful, is completely jammed with cars. It’s a typical thing of this area – all roads linking the tourist towns are always full of cars but, fortunately, all you need to do to make them disappear is to turn off the main road.
So we turned. As soon as we passed through the first big town, Finestrat, the whole road became ours and ours only until the end of the day. Just us, the road and the mountains. Now, a hill up to the sky.
“WE ENTER A CYCLING AMUSEMENT PARK CONSISTING OF COUNTLESS TWISTING DECLINES”
Port de Tudons mountain pass is like a gate between the sea and the mountains. We started our ride from the beach and found ourselves more than 1,000 meters above sea level, and descended to the other side, into the real mountains. This is where the Vuelta a Espana came through in 2009 when Damiano Cunego was the first to the finish in Aitana .
However, we are not going to get there today since it is a military area. Access denied. We still have other places to go. We are not racing but our speed is solid. We are joking, talking and enjoying the ride. Our excitement is almost tangible. The first kilometre of altitude gain passes in the blink of an eye.
We enter what can be described as a cycling amusement park consisting of countless twisting descents. We decide to get off the main road and take a narrow lane leading to more or less the same place with no cars. We can relax a little, safely cut corners and take the racing line. This is pure pleasure that we earned after a series of long and tiring uphills which, unlike the descents, seem to go on forever.
Puerto Confrides is next. It is a beautiful climb, with many hairpins going through almond gardens that have just begun to blossom all in pink, with a road suspended on the hillside. All this is complemented by a gorgeous view of the valley and the mountains that we have made our way over.
Six kilometres of steep climbs is nothing for the Spanish – they don’t even bother to put any signs at the top. But that’s not the point. This mountain pass is the beginning of another roller coaster that is 30 kilometres long and goes down the entire way.
At first it leads through a wide gully where approaching cars can be spotted from far away. But cars never appear. We just grab the drops, release the brakes and let the speed build. The further down the road we go, the more turns we encounter, and get narrower every time. We just jerk the bikes from left to right, right to left for 30 kilometres.
Four hours have gone by and the road starts to go up again. Our next target is the Bixauca Pass. Each of us is going through our own small crisis but what keeps us going is the fact that we are going to have a break in Tarbena, near the top. It is a little village where we are bound to find a nice local café. But first we have to reach it but going up. The climb is long but we stick together and finally get to Tarbena. We find a café and sit at a table in the sun. This is what we wanted!
Apart from the fact that they are car-free, these Spanish mountain villages have a great advantage that doesn’t seem to be so obvious at first sight: it’s impossible to find a shop or a gas station. As a result, you don’t stop to get a can of coke or a chocolate bar whenever you run out of energy, but instead you drop in at a local restaurant, sit down and order something to eat — e.g. tostada or bocadillo — and relax at a table without any rush. Spanish people don’t have a word for “rush”. Even we feel it would be rude to quickly drink the coffee, eat the tostada and just go. We decide to go the local way and we take our time in Tarbena.
It isn’t easy to start climbing again after such a lengthy break. We are not riding properly because our minds are preoccupied with the area we have found ourselves in. Bixauca is located quite far away from the sea which, nevertheless, is still visible from the top which leads to a moonlike plateau on the opposite side of it.
The complete wilderness juxtaposed to seaside resorts and crowded beaches is striking. We choose the wilderness and get ourselves on the plateau featuring many short but very steep climbs that exhaust our bodies and make us soon forget about our last stop.
We start making simple mistakes. It is not a good time for lapses because what awaits us is a difficult descent; a steep wall with many tight hairpins. It would be great fun to face it if we were fresh, but we are not. Karol misses one of the turns but he miraculously manages to keep his balance on the roadside. It is not a good time for taking risks. We managed to make it down safely to Castell by taking it easy.
“SOME PEOPLE CALL IT FIGHTING WITH YOUR OWN LIMITS BUT TO ME IT’S MEDITATION.”
We’ve been riding for almost six hours and the most mysterious stretch of road is still ahead – a little path which will take us to the next valley. We have been told that it it impossible to pass. Not true. We challenged it and the gravel path quickly changed into a twisting asphalt road going through a canyon. It’s the middle of nowhere with a piece of road that gets us to Vall d’Ebo, a mountain village whose name also describes the ‘not-so-difficult-but-very-beautiful’ incline leading to it.
We were fortunate to find a road from which we can see orange gardens stretched out to the horizon as well as the sea in the distance. The road is separated from the precipice with distinct little white walls that run for 10 kilometres. It would have been much easier to put some metal barriers instead but the Spanish decided to use stones, concrete and white paint to construct something that not only protects the road users but also constitutes a part of this unforgettable picture that is so typical for Spanish mountain roads.
We have done almost all the famous inclines in the area. There’s only one to go, the most famous: Coll de Rates . This is a road that gets pretty crowded during the peak time of training camps. Thankfully, it was getting late so we didn’t expect anybody there.
Single cyclists that we pass greet us, nobody sucks our wheels without asking, and no-one wants to race. Impeccable cycling etiquette. After riding for seven hours, we really don’t have the energy to play such games. A couple of power climbs remaining to drain us completely and we’re home.
Temporary breakdowns are normal given how much effort our bodies have endured. But as long as we keep strong mentally, everything usually turns out fine. We refill our sugars and set off to get what we came for. Each of us knows what the final incline means. Nobody is talking. We are just going ahead. “See you at the top, fellas!”
Actually, I am the first one to fall behind. I’m moving at the pace of a snail. The higher I go, the more of the ocean I can see. And again I’m reminded of the funny contrast between our three-person group conquering mountains on our bikes and the masses of tourists sipping expensive drinks on crowded beaches. They all seem to be happy, but I don’t envy them a bit. Although I am close to collapsing on this climb, I know that the satisfaction at the top will be much bigger!
Some people call it fighting with your own limits but to me it’s a type of meditation. I am completely separated from the surrounding world when I get to this stage. My legs have taken control of the pedals, and my mind is focused on the road. I can’t stop because if I do, I won’t be able to start again.
We are at Coll de Rates 2.1 – the definition of a hidden incline. Hundreds of cyclists pass this place everyday but none of them knows that this little gravel path leads to the most magical uphill around. It’s only 2.6km long but the average grade is 11%. It’s an asphalt road with yellow stripes painted in the middle, whose purpose baffles us – the road is so narrow that only one car could fit here.
Again, the Spanish created something beautiful for us cyclists. The road is full of narrow turns at the beginning. Then, it transforms into a set of long straight-aways running to the sky. The unguarded precipice somehow magnifies this impressive view.
At the bottom of the valley we can see a wrecked car whose driver must have found the road simply too difficult. It is a virtual wall which we needed to zigzag from side to side just in order to keep moving. We cross the final hairpins and the final wall thanks to the strength of our minds rather than bodies.
The sun slowly sets behind the mountains and colours their tops red. The wind subsides and the day is drawing to a close. Three exhausted pals are sitting on a mountaintop raising a victorious toast for the adventure just completed.
Nothing on earth can match the taste of the beers we’ve earned today. We don’t have to talk; each of us has the same amazing feeling deep inside. Life is worth living for such days.