This is probably one of the most amazing rides I have ever completed. This is the hardest and tallest climb to do in Spain. A little reading online revealed that some people rank this climb in the top 20 of the hardest cycling climbs in the world (but where it falls in the list depends on your source).
The ride starts down in the outskirts of Granada. It is quite warm at the base and we all had the seemingly endless debate of what to wear during the climb. Again, nerves were a little on edge in anticipation of the ride. The first section of the climb started out at a moderate grade (something like ~8%?) winding up out of town. One of the other guys, Andy, and I had an unofficial race to the top and we pushed each other up through this section in a slow motion race. We both understood we had a long way to go so neither of us were ready to pick up the pace too much.
At some point during these early switchbacks, I turned a corner and realized there was a bull sitting 20 ft away in a field. The bull was hanging out smelling the flowers. Has anyone read the children's book Ferdinand the Bull? That that was one of my favorite books when I was a kid. Anyway, the bull reminded me very much of Ferdinand, who just wanted to sit and smell the flowers! I would have been more excited if I wasn't slightly terrified that the bull would realize I was moving at a snail's pace a short distance away! However that is the nice thing about switchbacks! I made it up and around the corner without an issue. At this point I was pouring sweat -- it was hot!! I couldn't wait to get to higher elevation. A short way up the road we hit the pine forests and some welcome shade. Surprisingly we started to see bits of ice along the road in the shady spots.
After the first 10K, we hit the Quarry - a short but gruelingly steep climb. I was told this section was approaching ~23% gradient. My legs were already screaming, but I could see the top of the quarry and at this point Andy started to fall behind me -- so I forged ahead.
I got up over the top of the climb and kind of wanted to throw up. One of the other trip leaders, Sean, had parked at the top of the hill and was cheering us on! As I passed he called, "don't forget to take in some calories now." He was right, as we hit a short downhill, one of maybe only 2 sections, where we could catch our breath. It was an amazing relief on my legs to spin and I managed to choke down a gel. I immediately started to feel better as we hit the next section of uphill.
At this point Andy and I were riding side by side and we pulled up next to my mom who had left a bit ahead of us. I rode with her for a bit and then Andy began pulling ahead again. My mom looked over and said - "go get him!" I smiled and pulled away. I did indeed "get him." Over the course of the next couple of kilometers, Andy was nowhere to be seen behind me. I couldn't even really see him as I looked down on the switchbacks below.
Honestly the rest of this is a bit of a blur. We hit the snow line and although it was cooler, I really started to feel the thin air. Within the last 5K of the climb, I had maintained my lead on Andy, but then I ran into an intersection. I wavered and waffled about each direction. I headed up one road, but it seemed wrong so I went back to the intersection to try the other road. This one started with a short downhill, which made me nervous, so I turned around again and headed back to the intersection. I really didn't want to go the wrong way after climbing up so far! I decided to swallow my pride and wait at the intersection for Andy to show up. This was his third (or fourth?) year at Strong Like Bull, so he has done this climb previously and I assumed he should know the route. He laughed when he saw me waiting for him at the intersection.
We climbed the last section of the ride together - riding up through the ski resort to the top of of a ski lift. I wasn't really sure where the top of the route was and I was starting to panic as my energy faded and I struggled to get enough air. Andy started to pull away at the very end, but I let him go, I had already proved my point earlier in the ride with a considerable lead (before I got lost!) and at this point I wasn't really in it to sprint. Besides, it made him super happy to finish in front of me :-). I'm up for a rematch now that I know the course!
We finished the ride in around 2 hrs 20 min. I was told that the total distance for the day was 33 Km with just under 7,000 ft of elevation. It was amazing. It was inspiring. Days like these are why I ride. I still can't quite believe I made it to the top.