A Bikepacking Traverse Connecting the Highest Peaks of the Iberian Peninsula

During a month-long tour, Sònia Colomo and Eloi Miquel trace singletrack and rough roads en route to summiting the highest peaks in the Iberian Peninsula. Come along for the ride through the backcountry of Spain!

A journey through Latin America set high standards for the start of a new adventure on two wheels. Eager to explore, we took a closer look at Spain and we knew from the very beginning that the destination we had chosen would not disappoint us. The land where we were born and raised called us and we couldn’t resist the temptation to go out and discover its secrets. Our initial goal was to climb the highest peak of the Iberian Peninsula, but we wanted this feat to be accompanied by a five-star mountain bike route. We craved a line that would link Catalonia to Andalusia in a way that would provide us with an unforgettable experience. We soon realized that sometimes you don’t have to go far to find everything you’re looking for.

But let’s start from the beginning. It was the first time we left our home pedaling and we were flooded with a mixture of excitement and nostalgia. We hadn’t seen our friends and family for the last fourteen months and we wanted to catch up on everything in a few days. We wanted time to stand still in order to have some more minutes to spare. Simultaneously, we were already looking forward to the thought of living on two wheels. After preparing the bikes again, we said goodbye and set out to experience a known land in a new-to-us way.

Pedaling through Catalonia brought us back onto paths we had ridden many other times, but now we were seeing them from a completely different perspective. It’s one thing is to go for a ride and return home with all its known comforts; it’s quite another to keep pedaling day after day, planning water stops, food resupply, and camping arrangements on the way. An issue that concerned us before starting this journey through Spain was the doubt of whether we would be able to camp as we had done in Latin America. The countless bivouacs we spent under starry skies cleared our doubts and we have to admit that we were lucky enough to find perfect tucked-away places to rest almost every day.

The uncertainty of tracing our route on a map, and not knowing what that line would reveal in real time, made our trip through the Valencian community the most entertaining. These mountains are known for being rocky and rightfully so. If something characterized this part of the route, it is the number of hours that we spent pushing the bikes over rough trails. But we were ready to face any obstacle with a smile, even if our scratched legs didn’t like the idea.

The unknown landscapes of Spain were unfolding in front of us like works of art, and the plains of Castilla La Mancha gradually brought us closer to Andalusia. Of this Spanish region, I only remembered the heat of summer, the white houses of my grandmother’s village, the fresh-picked figs from the trees, the Virgin figurines on all the bedside tables, and the occasional reaction to mosquito bites when I was little and spent the summer holidays with my parents there. But Andalusia is obviously much more than that and exceeded all our expectations.

The province of Jaén gifted us with a paradise of tranquility while we toured through the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura and Villas Natural Park. The expanses of olive groves and desert lands of Granada gave way to the long-awaited Gorafe desert, one of the most spectacular deserts in Europe and a mandatory stop for any cyclist. There, among mountains carved by water, with impressive shapes and colors, we lived an unforgettable night, gaping under a blanket of starts. But what really amazed us were the snowy peaks of the mountains resting in the background and dominating a horizon that was everyday growing closer. We were approaching Sierra Nevada and a wave of excitement flowed through our veins.

Mulhacén, the king of the Iberian Peninsula with its intimidating height of 3,479 meters (11,414 feet), rose in front of us. A path that followed a perfect ridge to the top made our eyes shine with delight. The yearn to ride it remained a sad longing due to the current restrictions of the National Park. But we didn’t back down, found an alternative and ascended to the Caldera Refuge where we lightened the load of our bikes to get ready for the summit. Among the curious gaze of wild goats, always alert to human carelessness that could provide an exquisite meal, we loaded the bikes on our shoulders to face a steep slope that would leave us at the desired peak. It was tough, but the almost bird’s-eye views of Sierra Nevada made up for it. We were alone, only the wind could be heard. What more could we need?

After 21 days of effort pedaling non-stop, what we needed was probably a good rest, but we weren’t done yet. I, at least, had a pending matter to attend to.

In 2020, I took part in the ultra-cycling event Badlands, and although I won, I have never been completely pleased. The section of the race that went through the Veleta area put me through one of the hardest experiences of my life. A high-altitude storm slowed my riding pace, the wind pushed me backwards and I wasn’t able to shake the cold from my body, even though I was wearing all the layers of clothing I had. The night fell on me before the Carihuela Pass, the GPS devices that I was using to orient myself hadn’t received signal for hours due to the cloud in which I was immersed, and I thought more than once that I wouldn’t get out of there. Tears of frustration and fear ran down my cheeks while I pulled out the last bit of strength I had left to survive and leave the storm behind. I remember during the descent how the cold froze my eyelashes and my body just wanted to fall asleep. That day, a part of me remained in Sierra Nevada. I knew I had to go back there to thank the mountains that decided to let me go. I had to go back to see the imposing Veleta in daylight.

From the Caldera Refuge another epic day began, surrounded by the grandeur of the mountains and under a sky that threatened to put an end to the window of good conditions that had accompanied us until then. The accumulation of snow from the last snowfall hindered our progress and some sections had to be tackled with care. With wet and frozen feet from walking, we slowly made our way through the snow slopes that covered the northern faces. The fourth highest mountain in Spain loomed majestically above us, and with the arrival at the Veleta summit we had reached the last great peak of the journey through the southern Iberian Peninsula. The happiness of having achieved it was intertwined with a mixture of fatigue and relief, and after a vertiginous descent, we proudly made it to La Zubia where a well-deserved rest awaited before facing the last kilometers to Tarifa.

Everything was running smoothly; riding through the mountains of the province of Málaga, the undulating terrain of the Serranía de Ronda and the lonely gravel roads captivated us more than any other terrain of the trip. But suddenly, a treacherous trail sent me flying over the handlebars. That a single badly placed branch on the ground destroyed my culotte is bad luck; but the unlucky part of my body of this unexpected accident was my left hand that little by little turned into an inflamed rigid ball engulfed by a pain that wouldn’t let me close my eyes.

The sleepless night tossing and turning, unable to know where to put my hand to minimize the pain, was nothing compared to a week ahead of pedaling with a cast that hurt my fingers because it was too long to even move them. I wanted trails but my tears were running down on every technical section. I wanted to ride a route that I couldn’t even enjoy at that moment. We were finally forced to accept a change of plans and look for less aggressive alternatives.

This certainly wasn’t the first time that plans hadn’t gone as we would like and I know that adapting is just part of the game. Pedaling with a broken hand was no fun at all and the only way to make it more enjoyable was to find stretches of quiet roads and gravel paths to recover from the misery of the previous days where I crawled like a worm on technical trails. My pride as a mountain biker was hurt, but in the end I kept pedaling and I was happy because at least the asphalt didn’t hurt me anymore and the roads were spectacular.

But rest assured that the trip didn’t end on a sour note. I would wager to assume that if there is one thing that all cyclists have in common it is that we eat like there is no tomorrow; and, for me, pasta with tomato is one of those hard-to-beat delicacies after a long day of pedaling. And I would also wager that the dream of every hungry cyclist is to find someone who is willing to cook for them. For us, when an offer came from one of the Spain’s best chefs, Benito Gómez, we didn’t know if we had just won the lottery that day without playing or if we were only dreaming. It wasn’t a dream.

During this trip, we fell in love with Andalusia and we can now confirm what we already suspected: Spain is an ideal place to cycle, travel, and enjoy nature—as long as you’re willing to improvise! After 31 days, 1,886 kilometers and 37,100 accumulated meters of climbing, we arrived in Tarifa. We could see Africa on the other side of the sea and we were already scheming our next adventure: to climb the highest mountain in Morocco while looking for a five-star mountain route on our way there.