Gravelisto

Posted by Megan Owen on

On the terrace of our 11th floor rental apartment in Calpe I prepare my gravel bike for adventure. The view is absolutely stunning as slow waves roll on the ocean under a gentle February southern sky. The iconic Peñon d'Ifach stands majestic in the bay, making every photo into a postcard.

Excited about my coming adventure I mount my bags on the bike and line up my gear. It feels good to pack the gear, as every item has its own little designated space. I step back and enjoy the view. Not the ocean, but the bike! I must admit that I love the sight of a bike set up for a bikepacking trip. It´s like the cover of an enjoyable book you haven't yet started; you just want to throw yourself at it and start the adventure.

I leave the apartment, heading for the elevator in the hallway and behind me my sceptic roadie friend stands in the doorway, with a presumptuous smile on his face. A few minutes earlier, on the terrace, his lean road bike stood in sharp contrast to my loaded gravel bike. In my eyes my bike is a beautiful vehicle destined for memorable experiences – I´m pretty sure that in his mind it was something much less flattering.

We were situated in Calpe with the mission of photographing aspects of road cycling; a pro team on training camp, photos for a feature story and creating opportunities to get GripGrab. In our tight plan I had sneaked in a few days for myself in the mountains.

So, when we were out shooting road cycling, I began to scout for gravel roads to plan my escape route. After some research I located a mountain bike route that could bring me across the Sierra Bernia to Xalo on gravel roads, and my plan was ready to roll.

Concrete switchback

It turns out that the ascending track I had set my sight on was made from rocks the size of lemons, which makes it both a fun and challenging ride. Going slow with loaded frame bag, bar bag and saddle bag and having your front wheel knocked to the side when hitting a rock proves to be a test in balance and maneuvering.

But I have plenty of time and the view only gets better and better as I climb the mountain pedal stroke by pedal stroke. I get to a viewpoint with a concrete deck, a fence and a few benches. Not a soul in sight. Calpe is covered in the morning mist, but the iconic rock stands out and is clearly visible.

A stretch of concrete road, intimidatingly steep, upward. I hydrate with water, grab a snack and begin the climb. After a few sweet switchbacks and a mere few hundred meters of climbing, the concrete road abruptly ends at a plateau and turns into a dirt track. What functionality does an isolated stretch of concrete road have up here? Was it leftover material from building the deck? Well, I prefer the dirt track, so I´m all smiles and leave the concrete behind.

A small sign on a wooden pole indicates that I am on the mtb track, so under the warm Spanish February sun, I clip in and pedal onwards. So far so good – I am on my way. 

It´s a sweet feeling being in the mountains. I follow the dirt track and pass a few fincas. Beside from a few dogs barking, there´s silence and tranquility in the air. The busy asphalt stretches with roadies fighting for KOMs seem on a different planet, as I navigate my knobby tires around rocks and holes.


  

I descend a loose gravel road and enter a rural community. Two Dutch women are out running, and I ask for directions as I haven´t seen the mtb signs for a while. They´ve just arrived for a vacation and have no idea where any roads lead to. I salute their adventurous approach and ride on! I dive into a valley and decide to take a left onto a steep path as I´m afraid of otherwise eventually ending up on the asphalt road. The path ascends in the right direction, and for a while I feel confident that I´m on the right track.  

Soon I find myself pushing the bike up a trail with rocks the size of full ripe oranges. There´s no way I can ride this without falling over, so I scramble ahead and notice how warm it is. God damn it feels good to be lost in Spain in February! Back in Denmark the weather is most likely grey, humid and only useful for feeling utterly miserable.

For some reason – maybe it´s my slow progression – I realise that I haven´t given my bike a name… I´m not even sure what gender it is… Before I get a chance to continue my stream of random thoughts, two mountain bikers fly around a corner and pass me with rocks flying around my feet. I manage to squeeze out a Hola! before they´re gone. Wow! Cool! Where did they come from? Now assured that I´m no longer lost, I continue with loads of motivation and have forgotten all about naming my bike.

Blending in with the pros
The rocks and dirt have been left behind. I´m on the asphalt road leading to Xalo. I have made the journey across the Bernia range, or more accurately, have made it to the top of the range. I enjoy the views and cruise down through almond orchards.

In Xalo I divert from the road and once again find pleasure in navigating a mixture of backroads and hiking trails. In the village of Parcent I park my bike next to a bunch of slick road bikes and enter a restaurant to buy water. I have no intention of staying, so I fill my water bottles and start what is known as the Coll de Rates climb - A few K´s of good climbing used by amateurs and pro´s to knock off their intervals. With a slow and steady pace, I work my way upwards, and find a good and sustainable rhythm in my lowest gear.

Once on the top I abdicate from the personal celebration of reaching the ´finish´ – which normally would require a complete stop, a leaning over the handlebars, catching one's breath and trying to smile – Instead I venture up a steep dirt track. From my research on Google Maps I know that this track will end at a finca further in, but my plan is to find a camp spot somewhere between here and the finca.

It doesn´t take long before I locate a tiny path leading to the summit of the mountain. I carry the bike up the path and soon find a nice spot, that will do as my hotel for the night. It consists of a pile of rocks and a little pine tree – and some splendid views in all directions.

The being of places. Each place has its being. It´s here, there, everywhere. It's easy to get a little philosophical when travelling solo, and it's not easy to put into words what exactly is on my mind with this ´being of places´. I'll give it try: When I stop, the silence is overwhelming, and I feel slightly alienated. Like I have just landed. I stumble over rocks, look for an even spot to put my mini tent and need to come up with a solution to fix the gas container with the burner. But after having been at the location for a few minutes, I begin to feel comfortable - at home. The mini tent has found its spot. The gas container is securely fixed between some big rocks and I have put on my favourite hat. It's my place now. My mind and body are slowly settling about not moving and accepting a new base - The Gravelisto's home for the night. I'm one with the being of this place.

Cave paintings

The next morning, I climb up to the summit and welcome the sun as it gradually intensifies the colours all around me. Back at the camp I enjoy my freeze-dried porridge feast and can't wait to get back on the bike.  My plan is to find the ´secret´ road to Vall d'Ebo, and then head back towards Calpe via Sagra, Orba and Alcalalí.

It´s not really a secret road. It's right there on Google Maps. But from a blog post on the internet it's described as a gravel road, which caught my attention. I find the road a few kilometers outside of Castell de Castells. There's no sign indicating it´s the road to Vall d'Ebo, instead there's a big sign showing that there's ancient cave paintings ahead! Awesome!

I pedal along a dry riverbed on perfect black asphalt and soon notice dark caves depressed in the rock face. I hide the bike behind a tree and go investigate the cave paintings. They are well protected behind a solid fence, and not easy to spot. Info boards with reconstructed drawings give a clear impression of the paintings, and I can't help thinking that a few of them would make for a cool tattoo.

 

Back on the bike I understand that the perfect asphalt had the sole purpose of providing visitors with a smooth surface. A hundred meters into the valley the asphalt stops and is exchanged with a rough concrete surface, that resembles gravel. So, this is the secret road, or maybe more accurately: the forgotten road.

It continues in the valley along the dry riverbed for several kilometers with mountains on both sides. I check my smartphone and there's no signal. That's cool. I don´t really need it. I keep riding on the miserable concrete and eventually leave the riverbed behind and start a gradual ascend that brings me to a plateau with magnificent views. I have the road to myself and it feels like I'm deep in the mountains.

A few steep dives indicate a change in the landscape, and all sudden I descend right into the pueblo of Vall d'Ebo. I cruise the narrow streets and politely greet the local people out for a stroll in the sun. At a junction I park the bike and sit down on a bench. The sun is warm and gentle. I can't believe its February! And what a great tiny town this is. It marks my furthest away point from Calpe. My next pedal strokes will gradually bring me back towards the buzzing city by the Costa Blanca.

Notes of a potential adventure

What are the chances! Sitting comfortably on the bench with a snack in one hand and my drinking bottle in the other, legs spread out and my face aimed at the sun, I spot a rider coming up from the east. What the f… It's my freaking roommate! I did mention this village in my plans, and now he has taken the asphalt ride here! He looks a million dollars in his outfit; pure white socks matching his pearl white cycling shoes. ´This kit is only for the true summer days´ he says without further comments about this being an exquisite sunny day in February, far from actual summer according to the calendar! We agree on finding a restaurant to enjoy some coffee and cool drinks.


We share our adventures on the road, and as he is heading west (and eventually southeast towards Calpe) I warn him about the condition of the ´secret road´. On the other hand, he announces that I'm in for a great treat along the 712 with some stunning views.  

 We depart in opposite directions, and with my roommate being a roadie, his departing comment is naturally a ´last one home serves cold beer on the terrace´.  I don't have a chance. I stop to take photos every 5 k…I bid farewell and ´hasta luego´ to Vall d'Ebo and soon realize that he's right. This is a stunning route. At one point I notice a gravel road leading deep in to a gorge and feel the urge to explore. But it's not the right time – I will need to leave that for a later adventure. There´s a plan I need to stick to – and a beer on the terrace.

 A Gravelisto is something I made up. It has a good ring to it. A dedicated gravel gentleman. In Spanish it holds a meaning (almost anyway): Grave Listo means something like ´seriously ready´ which is not quite a legitimate description for an adventure seeking gravel grinder taking it pedal stroke by pedal stroke. But maybe it's not so bad. I'd like to pretend I'm seriously ready to go on any adventure…

I'm the first the hit the 11th floor in Calpe. My micro adventure has come to an end. Short, intense and simply GREAT! I park the bike on the terrace and once again admire the setup. Now it's time to wait for my beer.

 

Martin Paldan -

Follow Martin's adventures: @yellowhatphoto