Into gravel territory

Andalucia gravel

Andalucia in January. Escaping the cold and rainy weather in Scandinavia for a few days. Go and explore those endless gravel roads and vast landscape in southern Spain. See the small white house villages clung to mountainsides. Sounds like a recipe to cure a winter depression? I think so.

But your imagination and reality isn’t always the same thing.

Day 1: “If you are out riding in bad weather….”

I had been looking forward to a three day training and exploring adventure in wonderful Andalucia. Weather forecasts had been promising for a while, and the dry and mountainous landscape felt like the epitome of a true gravel adventure. Normally I would bring my own bike, but sometimes it’s just a hassle to travel with your bike – especially on planes. So this time – bearing the short time in mind – I had decided to rent a gravel bike in Málaga. It was a brand new Felt bike with wide 47 mm tires. Perfect for exploration.

But arriving in Málaga the sky looked far from that sunny and soothing “escape Scandinavian winter”-treat I had been looking forward to. Actually it was just like Scandinavian winter. Plus a lot of rain.

But remembering the always true Velominati rule 9 – “If you are out riding in bad weather, it means you are a badass” – there was no way out of it.

So there we were me and my travel companion, Anders, on our gravel bikes in pouring rain on our way out of Ronda – our base for this 3-day adventure. We had decided to skip the gravel part on this first dystopian “bad weather”-day and take a ride around the Embalse Zahara-el Gastor lake and up the mountains. It somehow felt like a better idea than getting lost in a mudslide off-road.

But as it always is when you’re out riding in foul weather: You just adapt and dig in. As long as you’re feeling somewhat warm it feels like a rite of passage you just have to get through… and suddenly… what at first appears to be an unstoppable opponent becomes – if not friend – then manageable companion.

After tens of kilometers of getting into the rainy-riding-mode and a quick stop at a lonely gas station to get our energy stores re-filled, we started the round around the reclaimed lake. Beautiful scenery unfolded and we had the roads almost to ourselves. Colors of green, blue and grey mixed and made shimmering reflections on the wet tarmac.

We had pointed out the picturesque village of Zahara De La Sierra as our turning point, and we knew it would involve some serious climbing. But when you’re out exploring new territories you never know what to expect from a climb. What on a route profile can seem like a walk in the park might feel like a knee breaker when you approach it in real life. Part of the fun and challenge. The Las Palomas climb after leaving Zahara was like that. A steep and winding road zig-zagged it’s way to the top. It got pretty cold and on the top we were freezing too much to stop for a classic summit selfie. Instead we rushed down the descent. I couldn’t feel my fingers and were shivering from cold as the rainfall turned up the intensity more than a notch.

There’s only one way out of being cold, wet and miserable on the bike. Turn up the watts. It keeps you warmer and makes you focus on the speedwork. It was full throttle through backroad and orchard country with small villages hiding in the haze.

We didn’t really notice the cobblestone approach to Ronda. We were in need of a warm shelter, a hot shower and a clean bike. With great confidence we could tick off the Velominati rule #9 for the first day of Andalucian adventure.

Day 2: Endless gravel

Day 2 was perfect. Blue skies and approximately 10 degrees celsius. We were ready for gravel adventure. Just after leaving Ronda we were immediately on gravel roads and saw more than a few MTB aficionados heading in the same direction. Promising. Many gravel roads are private property though and they don’t want intruders on their premises. So what can look like accessible roads on a map are often fenced farmland guarded by ferocious watchdogs. But when you know where to go – and we did after local tips and research – Andalucia offers some gravel roads second to none.

Descending on gravel is a technical bike skill. It’s not as crazy as downhill MTB, but you have to be rather good at handling the bike and be prepared for a serious bumpy ride. I love it and we had more than one fast rollercoaster experience while descending into the more lush farmland.

The excessive amount of rainfall, which also had resulted in floodings in Málaga further south, meant that some parts of the gravel roads had giant pools of water. Riding through such a thing is always an adventure. You never know how deep or muddy it is. Just cross your fingers and go full speed. Great fun.

Travelling in January to Andalucia backcountry means very few people on the road and vast arid landscapes mixed with oases of lush farmland. It feels just right and like the cornerstone of gravel riding. But travelling in the winter also means dusk comes early, so we had to cut the stages shorter than we imagined. But even though we got fewer hours on the bike than we would have in summer, the light from the sun coming down on the mountains before sundown, is just special at this time of year.

Day 3: Gradients

Last day on the bike was an early start. We wanted as much time on the bike as possible and we wanted gradients. And we sure got it.

After only 2 kilometers of riding we were onto the first climb. Not steep but a long tarmac climb leading to the start of a bespoke trekking route in the Parque Nacional Sierra de las Nieves. Fresh start to the day.

After the climb we had a short – but high speed – descent into the sleepy mountain village of Parauta: Our gate to gravel road adventure. A gravel road which offered a first 3-4 kilometers of fierce descending with gradients between 15-25%. One of those descents where you put all your body weight to the back of the bike, squeeze the brake levers and hope it will withstand the pressure. The descent suddenly came to an end as it was crossed by a genuine river. We jumped off the bikes for a team discussion on how to cross it. My knuckles were completely white from all the braking, so a small break was indeed welcome.

We did reconnaissance of the river bank and water temperature, but after discussing pros and cons we decided it would be too risky to cross it. A return was the only way out. We had to take a very deep breath, swiftly get our cleats into the pedals and start hammering watts at the lightest gear possible. If it was hard getting down, getting up again was a true test of manhood. I think I could taste breakfast again and I was sure my heart was coming out of my chest on the way up. Pew! That was a hard one… but that’s how adventure is. Just as we like it.

After our second involuntary visit to Parauta we decided to head for the town of Juzcar some 15 kilometers of mountain climbing away. It was a great and stunning climb with breathtaking natural scenery, but all the epic riding and scenic impressions was immediately replaced by laughter and wonder as we entered Juzcar. All the houses were painted in the same light blue color. As in ALL the houses. Strange since almost all villages around here are immaculate white. As we turned around a corner we understood why. A giant Smurf statue greeded us and we suddenly noticed a bus full of tourists being unloaded. What we found out was that this town is known as Smurf village. A brilliant strategy to attract tourists to a sleepy backcountry Andalucian village. A strategy which has increased visits by a staggering amount. But we were not here to engage with Smurfs, so we continued after a quick lunch.

We hadn’t decided beforehand that day 3 should be our King stage, but that’s how it turned out. Climb followed climb and we got to see great isolated landscape with a perfect Andalucian flavour.

Legs were smashed when returning back to Ronda after some serious altitude, and even though it can sound weird for the uninitiated, that’s a feeling you crave as a bike rider.

Andalucia is a dream come true for bike riding and has all the ingredients for epic adventures. Even if you should experience some rare rainfall in these parts of Spain.

More adventures

Tour de Climate

Oslo to Stockholm

It was quite an adventure we were about to embark when we set off from Oslo on a regular Thursday in the beginning of December. We were heading towards Stockholm through the Scandinavian winter landscape on our bikes – all equipped with studded tires, fenders and generous frame clearance – ready to withstand the rough weather and road conditions.

We were five cyclists from four different nationalities: Jonas and Kjetil from Norway, Erno from Finland, Aaron from England and me from Denmark.

Jonas, a winning pro-rider from Norway, had been challenged by the Nordic Council of Ministers to gather a team of riders to do the trip to inspire others to think in more environmental friendly means of transport. Our finish line would be the Nordic Climate Action Week conference at Norrsken House in Stockholm just 54 hours later.

So off we went into the Norwegian dusk towards the Swedish capital.

Stage 1: Oslo to Arvika (147 km)

Coming out of Oslo was a mix of rather winding cycle paths, trafficked and – coming from flatland Denmark – rather hilly roads. It was cold but above freezing. The Oslo region had just come out of a number of days with snow and seriously cold days, so the roads were slippery and icy.

I was very happy about my new studded tires. It was my first time with these kind of tires, which feels like riding with your brakes on. It means lower speed and more power needed on the pedals. The other guys on the team were used to this kind of bicycle winter equipment, all coming from countries where real winter cycling is just something you do. Very inspiring.

After some 65 kilometers it went pitch black and we turned off onto gravel roads… or rather… beneath the thick layer of ice there would be gravel! You could easily see who on the team were the most daring. On top of that it was a pretty long and hilly stretch of icy road we had to overcome.

It’s those kind of rides which makes you a better cyclist, gives you courage and turns epic.

Halfway through this badass piece of cycling challenge, we crossed the border into Sweden. Time for a group photo to certify the achievement.

After what seemed like an eternity, we came back onto tarmac roads – and even though still roaring dark – it was a mental relief after the strenuos ice-cycling.

We were in high spirit as we entered the small town of Arvika: The destination of our first day on the bikes.

Stage 2: Arvika to Örebro (227 km)

Me and my new Finnish friend Erno Kainulainen had to get up earlier on day two, as we had to be interviewed before breakfast and takeoff for the documentary being made about the trip. The theme was differences in cycling culture. It was fun to discuss and reflect on how Danish cycling culture differs from Finnish, and put it into context of what we were experiencing, while on the road in Norway and Sweden.

This was the longest stage of the trip, so we started off with good speed to get some kilometers covered before it would turn dark and the forecasted rain and sleet would catch up on us.

We did many kilometers of main road tarmac and it is easy to see that cycling isn’t a focus point when designing roads: The shoulder was extremely narrow (if it even existed) at places. It’s not very comforting to ride with cars that close. So when we turned off to b-roads we had more time to talk and ride side-by-side while pushing the pedals.

Today’s challenge came at the end of the stage: A long, very hilly gravel section with loose sand. In the dark. With studded tires and perhaps too high tire pressure I think I had the highest pulse on the entire trip. The speed uphill was at some points just above walking speed.

This section drained all of us, so the dinner buffet at the hotel in Örebro was a welcoming sight. Everyone needed to re-fill their energy stores, so most of us were seen at the buffet more than twice that evening.

Stage 3: Örebro to Stockholm (218 km)

Final stage was a great ride through lovely, smaller roads and rain which were so light that it almost only felt as moist in the air. The temperatures were dropping to freezing though, so hands and feet were getting increasingly cold.

After 155 km we made a stop for lunch at a very cosy barn-like café where we – as a courtesy of the owner – were served the local x-mas special pepparkakkor with camembert and cloudberry jam.

Now the weather was getting real winter-like: Cold sleet, freezing and darkness. Your senses are on alert when riding close together in pitch black darkness and the sleet hammering onto your face feels like needles.

Jonas, our road captain, had arranged with Stockholm based Ryskaposten Racing Team to meet us 37 km from our destination in the city of Södertalje to guide us towards – and through – Stockholm. It was cold, really cold, and some of the guys on the Swedish lead team were shivering from cold.

Entering a capital in darkness and sleet on a Saturday night in December can be challenging – no driver expect you to be there, so again we had to manoeuvre our ways around cars, busses and trams. It was a real treat to have locals to guide us through the mayhem.

We arrived at Norrsken House as a finale to the Saturday programme of Nordic Climate Action Week. We were filmed, cheered and applauded entering the stage with our dirty bikes and clothes as a very visual proof that it can be done. Cycling in winter.

And we were smiling and happy.

So even though it’s cold and dark, our feet and hands are almost numb and snow, sleet and rain are hammering our faces, we feel alive and free. It’s difficult to explain unless you’ve tried it, but there’s just nothing like getting out there and feel, smell and breathe the landscape and weather while you transcend it by the power of your own body. On your bike.

From sunrise to sunset, we got out of our comfort zones. We tackled the elements and every time got to know ourselves a little better. It builds confidence and stamina. And great experiences. And to do it as a team builds great friendships and epic stories.

Photos by: Me, Ketil Wendelbo Aanensen and Joakim Birkeland

The final video

UPDATE: After I wrote the story about this adventure the “Tour de Climate” film premiered in January 2020. Enjoy it here.

More adventures

Gravel bike adventure
Into the wilderness
Exploring the remote parts of Jutland

Thy National Park

During the winter many cyclists tuck away on their home trainers, get their adrenaline fix spinning in the fitness centre or just stove their two wheeled friend in the shed waiting for spring to come. Other people have discovered the fun of riding away from the tarmac on gravel roads. And for a reason. The cold, windy and wet conditions during the winter usually doesn’t encourage getting out on a road bike for several hours. There is a high risk of getting flats, freezing and having a very dirty bike to clean afterwards. Riding on a bike meant for getting dirty with comfortable wide and low pressure tires – combined with the often less windy conditions in forests – is just far better. The weapon of choice is usually more durable bikes like mountain bikes, gravel or cross bikes.

November in Denmark is usually the epitome of dark, cold and wet weather. Perfect conditions for an adventure. So I decided to take my gravel bike (well technically it’s a cross bike) for a trip to Denmark’s largest wildernes areas: Thy National Park. A place where the wind coming in from the North Sea blows the sand up in high dunes. Behind the dunes is a landscape with vast heath, lakes and impassable dark forest. It’s a relative deserted area – especially at this time of year. On top of that a few roaming wolves is said to inhabit the park. Adventure country.

Me and my bike embarked the train very early morning in Copenhagen for a five hour train ride to the city of Holstebro in West Jutland. A bit sleepy I got off the train for a light drizzle, 5 degrees celsius and a looming dark sky. In order to keep warm I just had to push those pedals a bit harder.

I soon left the city and got out into the countryside, where I had planned a route that would take me as far away from main roads as possible and into Klosterheden – a large forest and heath area on the way to Thy.

For at least 20 kilometers I could just ride straight out to the crackling sound of gravel beneath the tires, silence and seemingly endless rows of conifer trees. Then – after a short intermezzo on a rather busy tarmac road through the town of Lemvig – I entered the isthmus between the town of Harboøre and Thyborøn. That was one windy ride with a fierce headwind coming directly from the North Sea leaving no shelter from trees or dunes. The 15 kilometer stretch was done with an average speed below 20 kilometers per hour, but pushing out some 300 watts into the pedals!

Entering the target for this days ride, the fishing town of Thyborøn, felt like the end of a Tour de France stage.

A good nights sleep and I was ready for next days adventure into Thy National Park. It started out with a short ferry ride across the channel to Agger, where I had arranged to meet with a local gravel rider to join me on the trip.

Besides from a light drizzle to start with the weather wasn’t as harsh as the weather forecast had predicted. The landscape opened up with stunning views and good gravel roads.

The record breaking amounts of rain, we’ve had for the last couple of months, had flooded some of the trails though, so thick layers of mud and water had to be challenged. That means wet socks. All sorts of terrain are present: Sand, gravel, occasional tarmac, dirt, mud and water.

So if you’re into technically challenging training – this is definitely a great area.

The rough terrain meant that speed wasn’t as high as expected, and when the twilight where coming closer, I had to catch one of the last ferries across the channel. It was full power riding for the last 10 kilometers towards the ferry in order to make it in time. Good for the legs.

Day three was riding back towards Holstebro, but this time I made a trip down the West Coast as close to the beach as possible. It was pouring down from the sky, but it’s a beautiful rough area where the harsh weather conditions has great impact on the landscape.

When the surroundings are as pleasing and stunning as here, you forget that you are wet and cold. You just ride through it.

You harden up.

More adventures