The Vuelta a Espana: My Ten Most Difficult Climbs: No. 4 - Calar Alto

The observatory at the summit of the Calar Alto.
Region: Andalucia, southern Spain

Departure: Aulago

Length: 29.7 km

Altitude: 2,161 metres

Height Gain:  1,3777 metres

Average Gradient: 4.6%

Maximum gradient: 10.0%

Category: Hors Categorie


A more intended climb and well worth experiencing was the Calar Alto, located approximately 30 kilometres from Instincion. Requiring a considerable detour, one I'd pay for much later in the day, it's located in the north-western edge of the Desierto de Tabernas, the only true semi-desert on the European continent.

The Calar Alto has been climbed in the Vuelta on three occasions, in 2004, 2006 and 2009, each time from Gergal and on each occasion finishing at the the white-domed astronomical observatory on its summit. But supposedly more  encapsulating is the mountain's western route, via the white-walled village of Aulago. A 30 kilometre climb to a height above 2,100 metres, the attraction of this side is the changing landscape-should you be patient enough to persist over its 4.6% gradient-and its sheer isolation. A world away from the crowded slopes and summits of the likes of Mont Ventoux and Passo dello Stelvio, there's more chance of meeting an observatory employee on top of the Calar Alto than another cyclist.

Steadily uphill, with just the rare short ramp to look forward to along the way, it's not the gradient that makes this climb so difficult but the searing heat (often in excess of 35 degrees) and the absence of any shade whatsoever until you're almost halfway.

Following the fatigue of almost two hours of climbing, the final seven kilometres to the summit offers some reprieve at last.  The depressingly uninterrupted views of the steepness ahead eventually give rise to more gentle twists and turns in the road, thinly lined with low pines. With the benefit of some shade and the white-domed observatory making ever-closer appearances the nearer you get to the top, you might even finally begin to feel justified that it was worth the indulgence after all.

Next:  My 3rd Most Difficult Spanish Climb - Lagos de Covadonga

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