In early September 2020, Marcus Nicolson from Glasgow, Scotland, took part in the inaugural Badlands self-supported gravel bikepacking race around the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Southern Spain. Approximately 85% of the 720 km (447 m) set-route was off-road, and included over 15,000 m (49,000 ft) of elevation gain, including the highest paved mountain pass in Europe, Pico del Veleta.
A few big names in ultra-endurance cycling were on the starting list, including Lachlan Morton and James Hayden, among others. Lachlan would go on to complete the course in a mind-blowing 43 hours, and a Rapha film of his ride is promised.
As this was my first ultra-cycling race, I was a bit nervous about how I would fare against such experienced riders. Also, coming from Scotland, the prospects of real mountain climbs, desert heat and cactus thorns were a little daunting to say the least!
Getting kitted out
While I had not yet participated in a race of this length and elevation, I was quite familiar with riding long distances off-road on my Pelago Sibbo adventure bike. Earlier in 2020 I’d covered Scottish routes including Wild About Argyll, the Badger Divide and sections of the GB Divide. I stuck with my 700c x 40mm tyre choice, although upgrading to the new Pirelli Cinturato tyres, set-up tubeless. I didn’t have a dynamo, so instead carried an external battery pack with several Exposure headlights for night riding.
Some riders opted for mountain bikes with a suspension fork or even full-sus builds. It’s always going to be a compromise when choosing a bike for a ride like this, as there were some lumpy and loose rocky sections on the route where a mountain bike would have been more comfortable, but overall I think a gravel bike was a solid choice.
Out of Granada
The night before the race started I was filled with nervous excitement which meant that I slept for only two hours before making it to the start line. The neutralised start involved a steep climb out of Granada, leading to a series of technical trails which quickly dispersed the 80 riders in the race.
In the first 80 km, there was over 2,000 metres of climbing, before a series of arid desert sections. I was struggling to push through the afternoon heat and wasn’t sure if I could keep down the calamari that I had scoffed at a roadside café around midday.
The first pack of riders reached the village of Gorafe in the early evening, the most northerly point of the route. The desert Badlands loop just north of the village was one of the most scenic locations of the race, where I completed the section just as the sun set.
Another rider, Raul from Bilbao, caught up with me and we chatted in Spanish about the course so far, his custom steel bike and his plan to keep riding until the next evening before sleeping! In the village of Gor I had a late night meal before ending the day on top of the gravel climb leading out of the village. I slept for five hours, longer than I had planned to, but necessary given my sleep-deprived state! I was surprised at how many riders passed me in the middle of the night as I bivvied next to the gravel track.
A mission to the coast
On the second day I set out to reach the coast. A series of gravel tracks and roads led up to the Calar Alto observatory, after which a very steep descent took riders through an extended gravel section leading to the village of Gergal. Here, I enjoyed a quick tostada con tomate with several other riders.
The next section through the Tabernas Desert included many sandy sections and extended lengths of hike-a-bike, again in the sweltering afternoon heat. I struggled to ride through the loose sandy sections, so there was lots of hopping on and off the bike. This was followed by a prolonged river bed section in to Tabernas that seemed never-ending. On reaching the town it was obvious that siesta hours were in full swing and so finding something to eat was not as easy as I’d thought.
A tough climb and descent above the ‘Sea of Plastic’ provided the first views of the sea, and I knew I was on track to reach the coast by the end of the day. I managed to find a roadside café later in the evening, where grumpy waiters served average tortilla sandwiches that were well-received after a long day of riding. Ordering a tortilla sandwich to go was now a mandatory request with every order by this point!
I got chatting with another rider, Josep from Andorra, who told me that he’d once run from Manchester to Glasgow. We rode side by side for a few kilometres until the rain started and Josep retired under a tree for the night. I eventually reached the coast at around 1 am and slept for three hours under a palm tree. During the night I was having a recurring nightmare about the inclusivity of ultra-cycling!
Beaches to mountains
After an early start, I was happy to find a big breakfast and two strong coffees in the coastal town of San Jose. The route followed some stunning gravel tracks around the coast before long sandy beach sections leading in to Almeria. Again, there were many sectors where the sand was just slightly too deep to ride through.
On this third day, I moved up in the race standings from 19th position to 11th, although I didn’t see any other racers all day. I stopped briefly to resupply food and water in Almeria before a massive gravel climb that rose out above the city, and began my journey west towards the Pico de Veleta mountain pass.
Riding through Almeria, I noticed I was finding it hard to control my emotions as I navigated the city traffic. I’d read about this in Emily Chappell’s book (highly recommended). Fatigue and multiple days of sleep deprivation were making it harder to make basic decisions about stopping, eating and riding. While I had anticipated these effects, it was quite something to be experiencing these first hand, and I appreciated the messages from friends and family urging me on.
There was a lot of climbing during the third day, 4,602 metres to be precise! Throughout the day, I noticed that my brakes were not performing as they should (i.e. stopping) and I had to run down some of the steeper off-road descents as I zig-zagged my way up the mountain. I ate some falafel in the town of Berja, again taking one wrap away with me for later, which would later explode in my handlebar bag. Turns out garlic sauce takes quite a bit of washing out…
The route continued up through a series of small villages on the way up to the Veleta Pass as the gradients got steadily steeper. After the village of Cadiar I bivvied by the side of the road for four hours with stunning views of the stars and temperatures low enough to make use of my down trousers!
To the finish
As I was waking up by the side of the road, some mountain police stopped to ask if I was ok and told me to take care on the steep road ahead. The road section up to Trevelez is at a really hard gradient, sometimes reaching a 20% incline. I rode this section very early in the morning and got a bit of a shock when some free-ranging dogs chased me through one of the villages. I rolled in to Trevelez about 7 am and wasted a bit of time asking locals where I could find food. The only activity in the village at this time in the morning seemed to be the dozens of lorries taking jamon back down the mountain!
Eventually I found a cafe and got a full resupply and yet another bocata de tortilla to take away. From here it was a really long gravel climb to the top of Veleta, at around 3,300 metres high. The altitude starts to take its toll at the top, and I could feel a shortness of breath when traversing the hiker’s pass that skirts the top of the mountain. I was glad to be doing this in daylight hours, but a bit anxious about my dodgy brakes as I started down one of the biggest road descents in Europe, but luckily they held out. The route turned off the road to another hard gravel section before reaching the finish at Granada.
The final gravel descent was really ‘washboarded’ from cars braking on the way down. The vibrations caused one of my handlebar bags to fall on to the front wheel and get a bit of a grinding, along with the leftover falafel I’d left in my bag from the previous night! I didn’t see the finish flag on the way down the shaky descent, but kept on pushing through to the finish in Granada.
It has now been a month since the race began and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on my time in the Sierra Nevada. Overall, I’m very happy with how I rode in my first endurance race, finishing in well under the four days that I’d set as a target. In the first few days I was more concerned with keeping moving than in my overall position in the race, and I found the heat especially hard, but was surprised by my ability to push through it.
In a race like this, it is always necessary to take risks, whether those are related to taking less equipment, bike choice or sleeping strategy. Ultimately, you need to ride and race for yourself. The only way to improve in these kind of events is through experience and testing things out.
I really enjoyed taking the time to meet and speak with the other riders after the race itself had finished. If anyone else is considering taking part in an ultra-event, I’d really encourage you to leave some time after the event to recover and catch up with fellow racers.
Many thanks to the organisers of Badlands, Carlos and David, who did such a good job of hosting the event in the current climate. I’m also very thankful to the photographers who have agreed for me to use their photographs; Juanan Barros and Peter of the Spoon.
Last modified: 9th October 2020
well done Marcus! Sounds like a challenging adventure alright !
Agreed, impressive stuff for a first ultra especially!
well done Marcus, was watching you along the way and noticing the contour lines hitting some ridiculous highs, also notice you move your way up through the ranks!
We are proud of you Marcus. Well done!