For my second ride of the week, and a non-car assisted one at that, I wanted to check out a road I had heard about and seen from above on a previous trip whilst walking! The closest mountain to my home in Sorbas is the Puerto de la Virgen. Usually tackled from Uleila del Campo and is a favourite of mine, and also many previous guests. However on a recent trip Lisa and I walked from the ‘puerto’ to the summit and the Ermita perched precariously on top. Taking in the stunning 360˚ views I couldn’t help but notice a narrow strip of tarmac snaking its way up towards us from the village of Benizalon in the next valley. I, of course, made a mental note to give it a bash at some stage before April 2015.
This meant that for my ride I had to head from Sorbas north to Uleila then, rather than scale the Puerto de la Virgen, head back south to the base of the climb up into the Sierra de las Filabres to the village of Benizalon. This climb has been missing from our itinerary since 2013 as we found the road surface had gotten too broken and rough (please remember that this in the context of Almeria roads!) However since our last visit in March 2013 the Diputacion de Almeria (local government) had been out with one of their fantastic road building teams and the result is yet another super smooth strip of new tarmac winding its way sinuously up the mountain side. The climb up to Benizalon is quite a tough one in itself, just under 8km from the junction to the summit – the first 2 km are flattish – then it ramps up from 659m to 1020m in 5km (7%). In the 26˚ midday October sun it was pretty tough going even with a silky smooth road under my wheels.
A quick downhill blast brought me into Benizalon, and I nipped into the always busy, Bar Leonora y Jaca for a coke. Even by their standards it was particularly busy today! Then navigating a maze of tiny streets I found the narrow road out of the village towards the Ermita Virgen de la Cabeza, a distant white precipice atop a towering peak looking out over the whole locale. The track, tarmacked beautifully of course, is primarily used for an annual Easter procession, on foot, from Benizalon to the Ermita, carrying a statue of the lady Virgen herself. It is however a great road for us cyclists, After giving up trying to work out where ahead of me it went next, I just carried on climbing, suddenly rounding a bend and finding myself crossing a ridge on the southern edge of the sierra, a sharp drop down to my right but with stunning views over Uleila and extending to Sorbas and even the coast in the heat-hazed distance. The road suddenly darted back round the northern side of the ridge and there was the white pinnacle, the Ermita, ahead once more. I was reminded of Ventoux and how the tower their seems so near and yet so far, seemingly moving with each bend in the road, disappearing from view then suddenly there like some mystical genie of the mountains! A series of hairpins followed and the gradient leapt into double-digit figures maxing out at 14% for a short while! Then under the literal nose of Ermita itself, about 1km from the summit, a travesty! The sudden end of the glorious smooth tarmac, replaced by loose shale-like gravel. Despite my best efforts it was virtually impossible to get any real traction on a road bike, certainly it would be ridiculously difficult to safely descend back down. So, slightly dejected, I turned and headed back down to Benizalon, skimming round the hairpins and then hurtled down the sensational, ribbon-like descent down the mountain, no cars passed me on the way up, I don’t think any came towards me on the way down. Then back to Uleila and home to Sorbas.
Such a shame that the tarmac ends preventing road bikes reaching the white Ermita itself, leaving the rider stranded almost within touching distance of what hundreds of Easter pilgrims reach on foot each spring! Still, like most climbs in Almeria, it is worth it all the same.