Climbing the Unknown: Coll de Rates

Bike racks at Velosol Cycling Bar

I don’t have a bucket list, but my bike list is a mile long — Anon.

(By Tom Carter)

I should have done my homework. That thought sprang from my head as profusely as the perspiration ran down my face. After twenty or so minutes of my unrelenting battle with gravity, I realized that all I really knew about Coll de Rates was its mythic reputation. On the lists of Spain’s iconic cycling climbs, it tends to rank highest in the Marina Alta, our division of the Alicante province. This despite the fact that the steeper Cumbre del Sol climb is a Category One to the Coll’s Cat Two.

View of Montgó from the Coll de Rates summit

When people here learn that I’m a cyclist, they invariably ask about the hills. If they ride casually or not at all they question how I get home after a ride, since there is no way around the 120 meter ascent from sea level to our house near the cliff side Cabo de la Nau lighthouse. But if they are cyclists, they ask about Coll de Rates. 

On each of my many rides in the Jalon Valley, the mountain loomed over me. But I wanted to wait until the right time to tackle it. Fear of humiliation made me reluctant to ride with someone who had done it before, and I didn’t want to subject other neophytes to an unknown level of suffering. So one day when Karen was meeting friends in the next valley over from Jalon, I decided to give it a shot. 

Reaching the town of Jalon takes about 75 minutes, about 25 of which involve a sustained but not particularly steep warm-up climb over the ridge that borders the valley. Jalon’s Velosol Cycling Bar is a mecca in this area: an essential stop for amateurs and pros owned by a Belgian family. The courtyard is devoted to tables and bike racks; the walls are plastered with mural-sized blow ups of classic black and white race photos, and the owners regale the patrons with tales of recent visits by heroes like Julian Alaphilippe, Remco Evenepoel, and Mark Cavendish. The coffee is good, and the beer is great. 

Beer + Bikes = Belgium

So, like an Everest climber paying homage to the Tibetan gods, I stopped off for a Velosol cafe con leche and half of my sandwich before my assault on the Coll. As tempting as it was, I reasoned that ordering a quad beer at this point would not be prudent. Fortified by the caffeine and calories, I headed up the valley. It is only a few kilometers along the river to Parcent, where I turned left into the wall. The early kilometers featured switchbacks and zero cars. One tall young Spaniard in a matching orange bike and kit passed me effortlessly in this section. My ego was further battered by the ability to see him zigzagging further and further ahead with each sharp turn. 

Then the road straightens out and simply ascends along the face of the mountain, the road perched on an engineered wall. To the left The villages of Parcent and Alcalali, shrinking with each pedal stroked, tracked my progress back east down the valley. Above I could see that there was a lot more mountain. That’s when it hit me that I didn’t really know how long this climb was, in terms of either kilometers or minutes. Did the road go to the actual summit or skirt around near the top? If it went all the top, I had an awful lot more climbing ahead me. 

Parcent from above

The grades were rarely steep enough to draw me out of the saddle, but they were unrelenting. There was never a moment to spin easy, much less coast or take a breath. Far ahead I could see where the road reached the east end of the ridge and turned to the right. That would take me from the side of the ridge to the crest of the ridge but still far from the summit. I glanced periodically at my watch: 20 minutes, 24 minutes, 27 minutes. When I reached the switchback to the crest I had a clear view of how much farther and higher it was to the peak. Mercifully I could soon see mirador and restaurant where the road starts back down on the south side of the ridge. 

The Mediterranean at Denia

My intention at that point had been to descend on the other side, down to Tarbena, back up the ridge, and then, finally, down into the Jalon Valley at Castell de Castells. But I met a friendly Spaniard on a BMW motorcycle AT THE TOP (One of the things I love about this sport), who asked me three questions: how much time do I have? how much food do I have? and how much strength do I have left in my legs? The answer to all three was “not enough.” So I scuttled my original ambitions and turned back to Parcent, bombing down in five minutes what had taken me half an hour to ascend. No cars had passed me on the climb, and I knew that none would now, as I could take the turns must faster. Only the orange-clad cyclist buzzed by me, clearly familiar with each twist in the road. He must have had a quick lunch in the restaurant at the top. 

Fin Ruta Ciclista: end of the descent

When I reached Parcent I had time to continue up the valley a bit to Benigembla. There I turned to the opposite ridge and started my climb back out the valley. Normally that climb is mild, but I was feeling it this time. My water now depleted, I stopped near the ridge at the lovely town square of Murla. The nearby tables were filled with garrulous men speaking Valencian, identifiable not by my ability to discern any words but by its similarity to French. Three euros got me another cafe con leche, this time on ice, and a bottle of cold water large enough to fill both my bottles and fill a glass to help me wash down my trail mix and the rest of my sandwich. 

Downtown Merla

After a bit more climbing I enjoyed the descent into Orba and the Girona Valley. From here my ride to Pedregeur to meet Karen was through rolling orange groves. Just as I was about the relax and enjoy the hoopoes and falcons flying above the orchards, I got hit with a headwind coming off the warm sea, a common summer afternoon occurrence here. My visions of an easy cruise to the finish were dashed. But I had ridden these roads enough to know each twist and turn and to track my progress. The next time I climb Coll de Rates I’ll have that same store of knowledge and confidence in my pocket. 

Don’t buy upgrades, ride up grades — Eddy Merckx

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