What happened to a cyclist who thinks 10% gradient is ‘comfortably flat’?
a) She’s gone stark raven mad.
b) She’s been cycling in Spain.
c) All of the above.
If this climb had just been the Puerto de Navacerrada in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Spain’s capital, I’d say: Don’t bother! Save your time and money! It’s not worth the effort.
The M604 from Navacerrada seems to be the main arterial road over the mountain pass to Segovia. The traffic was annoying. The pine forest got monotonous after a while and covered any views that might have otherwise distracted. With 7.7km and an average gradient of 5.5%, it’s neither a very long nor very challenging climb. Maybe the Segovia side is prettier?
But La Bola del Mundo, the 3.1 km climb from Puerto de Navacerrada to the TV antennas at the summit, was really our destination. Until 2009 this had been a hiking trial only. Who the hell thought it would be a good idea to pave this thing and include it in the Vuelta a Espana?
We first missed the turn and continued along the road towards Rascafria. This was a beautiful flat stretch at altitude, around the mountain, with views down to the wide, flat landscape of Castillo y Leon. Only when we asked some Spanish cyclists at a chalet for directions, we realised that we had ridden too far.
Bola del Mundo starts right there, at the Puerto de Navacerrada car park next to the toilet block. The sign is tiny and easily missed, just like the road, which isn’t exactly a road. One of the Spanish cyclists had warned us that we would have to jump a barrier and that it was a tough climb. Right! That was exactly the reason why we were there. Or better, that was the reason AMR was there. I was there to witness!
Or was I? I had come all this way, why sit in the car park for half an hour? Maybe I could at least try a little bit? No, no, no – I wasn’t committed to ride all the way. I told Alberto to turn around at the top and collect me on his descent. Mortirolo was still fresh on my mind! Do not wait for me!
It started with a standing start behind the barrier. The road was so steep and gravelly that I couldn’t take off without Alberto’s help. Straight away it shot through my head: What an impossible climb! but once on my way I couldn’t stop because – well – it had been nice of Alberto to get me on my way before taking off himself. I owed him a few hundred meters, at least.
And then my quads started burning. ‘Out of the saddle’ helped for a moment but there was gravel, and potholes in the concrete. The wheels started slipping. As if 18% gradient wasn’t challenging enough! I sat down but there it was again, the burn in the legs. 5 km/h! 40 rpm in my 34/27. And I had ridden 500 m so far.
No way I could continue all the way!
I started hearing voices – above me. Shit, the path was right underneath the ski lift. All ski lifts in Italy and France had been closed but this stupid thing was operating and carrying people up to where I wanted to go. No, I didn’t want to go there. I wanted this burning to stop! Clearly, they were watching me, very excited about me cycling up Bola del Mundo, and shouting encouragement from up there. One more turn of the pedal. Another! Why is this ski lift moving these people so bloody slowly out of sight?
Gone! Great! I unclipped.
I’ll just wait here until Alberto returns.
Legs feel better now. Maybe I could go a little further, just another 100m or so. It’s not actually looking quite as steep here. I can probably clip in and take off without help.
I heard the ski lift people cheer a couple of switchbacks above me. They cheered for Alberto and I smiled and wondered if he was also close to giving up. Probably not!
The next couple of hundred meters were not so bad. 8-10% gradient felt almost flat. But then it popped up again, the burn. A look at the Garmin confirmed that we were back at 20-30%, back to 5 km/h, back to lactic acid overload. I was hurting.
Then I made the biggest mistake. I looked up. I unclipped.
Damn head! Why, oh why, did I look up?
More than half way! Maybe I can ride a bit further, just until Alberto comes back down. He must be at the top already and should be back soon.
The next 500 m were tough, exactly 16.3% tough, and by now the legs weren’t recovering as quickly as after the first rest stop. It felt like a third set on the leg press, muscles all wobbly and weak – baby giraffe legs. And again I looked up and all I saw was another switchback and even steeper road.
The TV antennas looked far away, further than they should have. I had ridden for over 20 minutes. People came walking down. You are an animal! an English girl shouted. Not as charming as the French Bon courage! but somehow it suited this climb with it’s white concrete slaps, the gravel and potholes, the impossible gradient.
This is it. I’m done! Nice view from here. I’ll just take a few photos until Alberto comes back and I’ll roll down with him. I had a good go and know what Bola del Mundo is all about! Who cares if I made it all the way.
A minute went pass, and then another. After three minutes I got bored and climbed back on my bike. Around the switchback was a flattish stretch. My legs coped well. I felt stupid for stopping. If I had known, I would have kept going. The TV antennas were now in straight view ahead of me. I spotted Alberto rolling down towards me. I wanted to climb all the way now, all the way to the TV antennas at the top.
Alberto was very proud to see me there. I could hear it in his voice. I felt very proud to be there, too. The last 300 m, the road kicked up again. My legs burnt. My muscles felt weak. But there was no stopping anymore, with Alberto right at my wheel talking me through it.
There were a few minutes of catching my breath and allowing my heart rate to drop. Then this amazing feeling of having done it exploded in me!
The magnificent views were enhanced by adrenalin. The descent was as nerve wracking as the ascent.
And then I wanted to do this climb again, without stopping… amazed by the speed the brain forgets pain!
A week later, the Pros made it look very easy!