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BLOGS Coordinated by SIMON HUNTER
CYCLING IN SPAIN COLUMNA i

The cycling paradise I found in Madrid

Since moving to Spain, British journalist Charles Graham-Dixon has been pleasantly surprised by the region’s routes, which are frequented by amateurs and professionals alike

The author at the summit of Puerto de la Morcuera, in the Sierra Guadarrama mountains.
The author at the summit of Puerto de la Morcuera, in the Sierra Guadarrama mountains.

Road cyclists from colder Northern European countries have long traveled to Spain to experience warm-weather riding on the beautiful roads and testing mountains dotted around this vast land. During the wettest, grayest parts of the UK year, British amateurs and professional squads flock to the islands of Mallorca and Tenerife or the rolling roads and hills of Girona and Calpe. But perhaps lesser known are the routes in the Madrid region. North of Spain’s capital lies the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range and some wonderful climbs that are regularly tackled by both amateurs and the professionals who race La Vuelta a Espana. South of the city are what seem like endless rolling roads bordered by fields, olive groves and vineyards.

North of Madrid lies the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range and some wonderful climbs that are regularly tackled by both amateurs and professionals

Despite occasionally racing in the UK, I am no pro-cyclist, but I love riding fast, training and staying fit. Having brought my racing bike with me to Spain, I now ride with rapid groups, often including celebrated former professional riders, on the roads and mountains surrounding Madrid. Coming from the UK, London specifically, riding could be a real headache due to poor roads, bad weather and angry drivers. Spain, on the other hand, is a cycling paradise.

Before moving to Madrid I had no sense of what the region offered cyclists. I knew Casa de Campo – Madrid’s huge, 1,750-hectare park – was suitable for the occasional inner-city training session, but knew nothing of roads outside the capital. Then I met a cyclist in Casa de Campo who showed me routes out of the city, from the north and south, via a network of segregated cycle paths. From there, my cycling horizons in Spain expanded.

An ascent on one of the Madrid region’s roads with the Ciclismo en Cadena club.
An ascent on one of the Madrid region’s roads with the Ciclismo en Cadena club.

Leaving Madrid from the south along the Madrid Río park, and through the barrio of Villaverde, you quickly find yourself outside the city in huge expanses of open countryside. Despite seeing the occasional factory and gas station, you have definitely left the urban center. Unlike in London, where reaching Essex, Surrey or Kent involves death-risking, unpleasant rides through congested traffic, reaching Madrid’s countryside is a breeze. This is largely due to the cycle paths. They mostly run parallel to main roads, segregated by concrete barriers, ensuring no contact with cars. Wide and with two lanes, they cater for all cyclists, whether families on a Sunday outing, mountain bike expeditions or fast-moving road racers.

London could be a real headache due to poor roads, bad weather and angry drivers

Once the bike path ends near the town of San Martín de la Vega, the roads are quiet and plentiful. Rides of 50 to 100 kilometers or more without seeing much traffic are easily achievable. There are hills, flat roads and ubiquitous olive groves as you speed along and, if you need refreshment, coffees and tostadas are readily available in the cafés of towns such as Chinchón, Colmenar de Oreja and Aranjuez.

North of Madrid, the scenery gets more spectacular still as mountains loom in the distance. Though they are not quite as accessible as roads in the south, it is still possible to ride an almost continuous straight line all the way along the Paseo del Prado and beyond to reach another network of bike paths taking you to the foot of the Sierra. Riding along these undulating paths, all separate from traffic, dramatic rock formations and fields surround you and it seems unreal to have been in a bustling city only half-an-hour previously. Approaching the mountains, passing through towns such as Colmenar Viejo and reaching Miraflores de la Sierra, you get the sensation of being swallowed by these towering puertos, or mountain routes.

Whether you are a keen road cyclist or a casual explorer, Madrid’s simple but invaluable infrastructure makes cycling heaven easily reachable

As someones who loves riding uphill, Madrid’s puertos are my favorite place to ride. There are many popular cycling climbs in the Sierra de Guadarrama – such as Navecerrada and Cotos – but Puerto de la Morcuera is surely the most celebrated. Ridden by thousands every year, Morcuera, from the Miraflores side, is a grueling nine-kilometer road full of switchbacks and hairpins, averaging a 6.1% gradient. The reward for reaching the 1796-meter summit are some truly breathtaking views, which, on a clear day, seem to go on forever.

Whether you are a keen road cyclist or a casual explorer, Madrid’s simple but invaluable infrastructure makes cycling heaven easily reachable. The countryside outside London, while not in Madrid’s league, can be excellent for cycling, but a lack of simple, effective infrastructure – such as segregated bike paths – can make reaching it by bike a daunting and unpleasant experience. Having experienced the roads of Spain, the thought of returning to the potholes, aggression and congestion of UK roads seems unthinkable.

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