The Calar Alto rises from the earth in an ungainly fashion with no forest, mountainside hamlet or farm to disguise its sheer desolation.
The climb can be approached from two southerly locations, either from the tiny village of Aulago or the bustling town of Gérgal. Both ascents have their own unique character, but the most popular is the 29km-long climb from Aulago, a formidable road that tops out at an impressive 2151m. The climb averages 5% and never encroaches on nasty double figure gradients, but a testy section of 8% from the 5km to 10km marker will certainly separate the wheat from the chaff. The ascent from Gérgal is a little less scenic and only 21km in length, climbing at a relatively constant 6% gradient to the summit.
Both approaches finish at the Calar Alto Observatory that sits atop the moonscape-like summit, a fitting location for one of the world’s most important astronomical observatories. The climb has featured three times at the Vuelta a España, with the observatory at the summit twice hosting a gruelling, mountaintop finish. In 2004, Roberto Heras etched his name into the Vuelta history books by crushing Floyd Landis – the race leader at the time – on the climb’s ramps, taking a solo stage win on the way to what would eventually be his third overall race win. Two years later, a young Basque climber called Igor Antón – who retired at the end of the 2018 season – surged away from the leading group to claim his first ever Vuelta stage win and with it one of the most fiercely loyal fan clubs in cycling history.
Almería serves as a fantastic base if you’re planning to tick the barren slopes of the Calar Alto off your cycling bucket list. The coastal city is also well positioned for assaults on the other intimidating climbs that dominate the skyline around southern Spain and Andalusia.