Valencia is known for its architecture, its broad sandy beaches, its oranges and its paella. The unsung marvel of the Mediterranean city though, lies in the hills just 20km north of its walls…
The Sierra Calderona Natural Park. Here, you will discover some of the most beautiful and varied road cycling found anywhere in Europe. The coastline of Southern Spain has been a favourite training camp destination with professional riders for as long as most remember; its temperate climate in the early part of the year has made it a go-to get away from the northern winter—a place for early season miles in short sleeves and sunscreen.
The typical format of such an active holiday is to stay in a non-descript all-inclusive hotel; eating repeat buffet menus and remaining distinctly isolated from the true offering of the Iberian Peninsula. Valencia offers something different. Something unique. Boutique hotels and a cultural hub that you cannot help but become captivated by on your evening strolls through the old stone walls, as well as a true haven for food lovers and hungry cyclists.
We travelled to Valencia for an experience, a chance to embrace both the incredible riding on offer in the mountains just north of the city, but also a chance to immerse ourselves in the fantastic après-ride atmosphere found in the city itself.
Exploring Valencia's secret mountains: The ride
After a breakfast of Valencia orange juice, horchata de chufa (tiger nut milk) and fartons (a sweet spongy pastry), we roll out of the city heading north west towards the peaks that punctuate the horizon.
Broad empty bike paths act as safe and fast arteries to take you from the bustle of the city out into the natural parks that surround it. The first feeling that we have entered the mountains comes at the small village of Gatova; we pause by the bumbling village fountain and take a moment to sip espressos on the quiet cobbled street.
The thrum of the city seems a distant memory as we gaze up at the mountains and azure blue sky.
The Pico del Aguila is the first upwards ramp—a fourth category climb to awaken the legs. The road weaves along the mountain side, bordered on one side by a cliff dotted with sunbathing lizards and the other by a stunning panoramic view.
Summit. Descent. We sweep down the hairpins on the other side of climb, feeling the warmth of the spring sunshine on our legs.
After a quick passage through the town of Segorbe, we move into our second natural park—the Sierra de Espadan. Here we find something truly special…
At the start of the Collado de Ibola the road narrows from two carriageways down to a small single-track ribbon of tarmac. The surface is a little broken and suggests that this is a little used passageway—a secret road into the mountains.
What evolves is a climb of dreams. The tiny strip of tarmac bends and weaves up the mountain, sitting precariously on the edge of a cliff that looks down on the lush green valley below. Even the double-digit gradients are not enough to wipe the broad smiles from our faces. We pass no one on the entire climb—a private staircase to heaven.
Passing through the rock gorge at the summit, the descent is equally mesmerising and deserted. We plummet through the unlit tunnels and sweep through twisting tarmac bends. At the base of the mountain we rejoin the main carriageway and see our first car in over an hour. A secret road. A magic memory.
Pausing for lunch in the town of Eslida, we shelter from the midday sun and enjoy fresh bocadillos in a local bar. Only when we head inside at the end of the meal do we discover that this cafe is often frequented by professionals who come to train on these dreamlike roads; the walls are dotted with photos of Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana. We thought the sandwiches tasted good.
After resting the legs, it is straight into the third peak of the day—the Puerto de Eslida. The gradient is thankfully kind on the lower slopes, and our legs feel buoyed by the espresso and Arnadi we sampled as dessert. Then, as the route climbs skywards the view once again opens out revealing a vibrant valley of orange groves and cork trees. Greens contrast with the dark red of the earth and the pastel blue of the crystal clear sky.
It is safe to say that neither my riding partner nor I have ever smiled this much on a bike ride before. It is as if every turn reveals another highlight, and every climb another vista. We struggle not to pause too much as we begin the lengthy descent as each turn is another opportunity for a photo.
It is late afternoon before we begin the final climb of the day—the Port de l'Oronet. This peak was made famous by the Vuelta a Espana, and the battles that have been fought on its slopes. Fortunately, we are climbing the more sedate side of the pass and the gradients are not too strenuous as we pass over the one 100km mark and tick over 2000m of vertical. A bag of strawberry flavoured churros sweets rekindles the engine at the summit—sugar for the legs.
From the final peak it is a long blissful descent back down to Valencia: 40km of fast bike paths headed for the beach. This is the perfect fast and triumphant finish to a spectacular day in the hills.
There is only one thing on our minds as we roll onto the Platja del Cabanyal… a cold drink, and ice cream.
We sit looking out over the white sands and feel the soft wind of the Mediterranean as the sun sets in the sky. This has been a ride we will remember—a ride of discovery and natural beauty.
There is still so much to explore here though—so many climbs, and the vibrant culture to embrace and absorb. We cool our muscles in the ocean waves, then head off in search of paella—the perfect recovery for tired legs.
Tomorrow we will ride again.
Regular flights are available from most European airports direct to Valencia International. A secondary airport is Alicante, but this requires a two-hour transfer by bus, taxi or train.
Time of year
Valencia experiences pleasant weather all year round, but for active sports travellers the mid-summer months are too hot. Spring and autumn are two of the best times to visit—thanks to the blossoming orange groves, wildflowers, and amazing wildlife present in the region at these times.
Valencia offers plentiful accommodation in all kinds of venues: from boutique hotels to self-catering rental villas.
Food and drink
You have so much choice when it comes to restaurants in Valencia. Within the old city walls there are hundreds of great tapas places; with it being quite typical to sit down at one restaurant and enjoy up to six courses of tapas, rather than jumping between venues.
The most famous dish is paella, which originates from just south of Valencia. This rice based one-pot typically contains seafood, but it may also be made with meat such as rabbit or chicken, or beans and artichoke for a vegetarian/vegan option.