WITH its diverse environment, the Sierra Nevada is the perfect destination for cycle tourism. Formed of ancient glacial valleys and terraces, it has a vast network of interconnecting tracks, originally intended for mules but now perfect for cyclists on day rides or endurance trails.
This beautiful area attracted Michael Saunders of Switchbacks to create his company back in 2001.Previously a history teacher, he was inspired to move and start his business without ever having visited Spain before.
At that time, he explains, there “wasn’t any mountain biking in the Sierra Nevada”. His company launched with a 100km route from Pico de Veleta to Castell del Ferro that could be done all in a single day. This was the longest descent in Europe, involved a beach visit, and remains one of the company’s most popular routes today.
Switchbacks quickly became successful. Micheal initially ran the company while living in a tent above the village of Pitres, using a Nokia phone. He says: “There was biblical rain that winter, but it didn’t stop me growing my business.”
Switchbacks worked with the ‘Medio Ambiente’ to clarify what could legally be ridden in the Sierra Nevada Natural Park. Michael established that the altitude of 1,800m is the limit for riding on single track – above is illegal.
Previously, the authorities considered the bicycle to be “a vehicle” – just like a car or lorry. He lobbied to have bikes recognised differently and persuaded the local town halls to support his company, as cyclists bring economic benefits to the area.
In 2001, many of the trails were almost permanently lost through lack of use and the weathering of time. However, Michael was able to rediscover them using 1940s military maps and began slowly clearing them. Since then, he and Marco from another cycling company, Cilco Montana, have helped to keep these trails open all year round.
He says: “Trails were found everywhere, as they had been used for centuries by the shepherds and villagers, but they had tragically fallen into disrepair as the local economy gradually shifted from a trading/subsistence existence to today’s vibrant tourism.”
“Although some people dislike cycle tourism, and want just ‘a walking track’, cyclists have helped keep the tracks open for everybody. If they aren’t maintained, nature soon reclaims them.”
A legal ride
Micheal emphasises the importance of using a legal cycle tourism operator. It must be registered in Spain, have public liability insurance, use qualified guides, and respect the national park laws.
Meeting all legal requirements, Switchbacks runs weekend or weeklong holidays of 4-7 nights. Guests are collected from Malaga and accommodated in a village house in Bubion. Although the holidays are self-catering, breakfast can be delivered for a small charge.
The day consists of riding from 9.30 to 4.30pm with a quick lunch. The cyclists are shuttled to 1,800m in a van and then are expertly guided through the beauty of La Alpujarra.
The group size is usually two sets of seven cyclists, with separate routes, vehicles, and guides. Switchbacks can cater for intermediate to advanced riders and “can teach years of experience in a few days”. Most people bring their own bikes, but the company has some for hire. A support vehicle is always on standby.
In the summer, Switchbacks is based in Bubion because of the cooler mountain temperatures. In the winter, it moves to Mijas Pueblo, in Malaga region, which is “a stunning place for bike routes”.
Says Micheal: “The sierras of Malaga provide largely an undiscovered and unexpected escape from the Costa del Sol. It’s one of the best places in Europe to ride a mountain bike and yet few people have heard of it. From our base in Mijas, guests can also explore stunning locations such as the famous Caminito del Rey and the Montes de Malaga.”
Five top tips for mountain biking on the Sierra Nevada
- Never take your feet out of your pedals.
- Always look where you want to be, not where you are.
- Use one-finger braking.
- If you get scared, put your weight backwards on the bicycle frame.
- Your arms and legs are best suspension, so relax.
To book a mountain biking holiday, visit Switch-backs.com or call +34 660623305.
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