Cycling in Spain: Sierra de la Pandera
One of the Vuelta's less used climbs today is the Sierra de la Pandera. Perhaps not the easiest venue for accompanying team cars and camera crews, it's nevertheless an intriguing and mystical climb, typical of the rugged Spanish South:
Difficult to climb and even more difficult to locate, the Spanish press have referred to the Sierra de la Pandera as the ‘Angliru of the South’. While this is something of an overstatement given Angliru’s incessantly agonizing upper slopes, the Pandera nevertheless has its own share of misery; particularly the 15 per cent gradients that drift along its denuded ridge for over four torturous kilometres. But the mountain holds a wonderful sense of fascination as well.
Only 21 kilometres apart, the Andalucía towns of Los Villares and Valdepeñas de Jaén are the gateways to la Pandera. More or less half way between them, along the wide and sweeping A-6060, is a rather inconspicuous rusty green gate that lies half-hidden by trees off what you’d assume is a driveway rather than another road. But it’s a road all right, the virtually abandoned A-1104, which like a flight of lighthouse stairs wends its way slowly up towards the military radar station at the summit. From this point the road is closed to motorized vehicles save for bulldozers and trucks that frequent the dust-ridden quarry just metres from the road’s edge. In essence, this is really where the true climb begins, a 7.6 per cent average gradient along a four-metre-wide strip of rough asphalt that ironically merges into sections of loose gravel the higher it travels.
Moving slowly along in magnificent isolation - albeit beneath thin veils of white quarry dust - it was difficult to imagine the procession of motor vehicles, television cameras and spectators that would have accompanied the cyclists on the four occasions that the Vuelta a España has finished on la Pandera’s summit. It fact, the now iconic mountain wasn’t even considered for a stage in the Spanish Grand Tour until 2002, in what was the 57th edition of the race. Fittingly, it was a Spaniard, Roberto Heras who became the first cyclist to reach the top. The mountain has been visited on no less than three occasions since, in 2003, 2006 and most recently, 2009, when Italian cyclist Damiano Cunego won the 144 kilometre stage from Granada to the summit of the Pandera.
Other than the road and the intermittent yellow signs warning cyclists of the next 15 per cent gradient, I had little in common with Cunego’s day on the mountain. Keeping his competitors at bay he would have had little time, nor inclination to absorb the views on offer. But there are plenty to be had and they are spectacular, whether the Sierra Nevada, almost one hundred kilometres to the southeast or the 13th century Castillo de Santa Catalina which, like a sentinel, watches over the white-walled town of Valdepeñas de Jaén from high above.