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Travel report: Malaga, Spain

We had a pleasure to ride a few days in Malaga, Spain on June 5-9, 2013.

Arrival at Malaga late at night
We initially planned a long weekend in Malaga for mid-May but for several reasons had to postpone it until early-June. There is of course nothing wrong with this new timing, other than that that we had another trip booked for the following week of June. It is always nicer to have more that just two or three days in between the trips to sort out bikes and other gear.

There are several well established organisers of guided MTB riding in Malaga. This time we sough single track and all-mountain style of riding, rather than pure DH or XC. We contacted Alan at Sierra Cycling around one and a half months before our trip and booked four days of riding with accommodation at Sierra Cycling's house near the beach in Fuengirola on the Costa del Sol in the province of Malaga.

Our flight landed at Malaga international airport late Wednesday on June 5 at around midnight. As soon as we got our gear out from the arrivals hall we headed to the Terminal 3 departure hall where we liaised with Sierra Cycling's representative who greeted us happily despite our less than convenient arrival time. After loading bags to Sierra’s van we headed to Sierra's house that was very conveniently located no more than some quarter of an hour from the airport. Alan welcomed us, showed the facilities, guided us to our room in the third floor and advised us that the breakfast will be served from half past eight in the morning. We were alone in the house, with other guests still enjoying Malaga by night. We had no difficulties catching sleep despite thoughts already in the coming day.

Day 1
We finished mounting our bikes just in time for the real English breakfast which, buy the way, was included in Sierra Cycling's 70 euros / day package. Included in the daily fee are naturally also accommodation, guiding and van transportats to trails, and even free beer, wine and non-alcoholic drinks at the house. Not bad at all.

After packing bikes into two mini-buses we headed to the Mijas mountain for the first time. The mountain is located just a few kilometres from the beach with peaks (in Malaga area at least) reaching about 1000m above the sea level.

The transport to the mountain top to the place where tele masts are located took us through a narrow and twisty road with some beautiful views to the white hillside town of Mijas and Fuengirola, where Sierra Cycling’s beach house is located. It was about the time for the first descent if the day.

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Photo: The front patio in the first morning just after we had finished mounting our bike. On the left is one of the bikes that Sierra rents to clients who don't fancy bringing their own rides. Based on comments by our fellow riders we would recommend bringing your own bike if possible.

First uplift: Telecom Tower

Our first descent in Malaga started just below the telecom towers at an altitude of 915m. The first part of the descent was 3.3km and led us to 555m above the sea level. This part was quite rocky with lot of loose stones and many switchbacks. It took a while to get accustomed to these conditions that were so different from what we typically encounter back home in Scandinavia. It undoubtedly was a challenge for several riders in the group if some bleeding faces of our fellow riders at our first stop serve as any guide.

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Photo: Our first stop at 555m above the sea. Telecom towers can be seen up on the left. City of Fuengirola is in the middle of the picture down by the sea.

After some necessary first aid we continued our ride with a minor climb on an asphalt road back to an altitude of 600m. From there we continued descending on the second part of the route. It took us to 390m with a distance of 3km of this second leg. Looking at happy faces everybody were now more relaxed and really enjoying, and so were we. Up until this point, our group of around ten bikes had already suffered two flat tires, indicating how sharp edged rocks the Mijas mountain had in offer. From here on it was a smooth and easy descending to 120m before cruising back to the beach house on asphalt roads.

When back at the house, we had recorded a total riding distance of 19km of which the last 7km was on the asphalt.

Second uplift
After a simple lunch on a beach restaurant it was time for the second uplift of the day. With some riders willing to chill out the afternoon, we packed only one minibus and headed back to the Mijas mountain, this time to an altitude of 465m. This second descent was 8km of undulating single track to 35m above the sea and thereafter cruising back to the house where we arrived at 2pm. Total distance of the second ride was 17km including the asphalt section.

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Photo: Ready for the second descent of the day.

Back at the house it was time to share experiences and feelings with other riders with a cold beer or two. While everybody were happy with the riding day, some less experienced riders told that they found the first descent (telecom tower) from the mountain top within their limits but just with a very narrow margin. Actually, those staying with Sierra Cycling for the whole week usually arrive on Saturdays. Our guide told us that the telecom tower descent is saved for the mid week (we did it on Thursday) to give riders time to get accustomed to the conditions which for most riders tend to be quite different from what they usually experience back home.

In total, our first day of riding yielded following stats:

Distance 36km
Ascent 290m
Descent 1655m

Note: All route statistics are based on measurements done with Suunto Ambit and refer to ascent and descent on the saddle.

Day 2
It was again wonderful to smell the breakfast and fresh brewed coffee when we woke up at 8am. During the breakfast we heard that a big group of guys who had been riding with us yesterday had decided to take a day off from biking following their in-depth research of local pubs and clubs last night. It meant that we were only three riders, including our guide, heading to mountains at 10am.

We disembarked our minibus at 430m above the sea, thereafter first pedalling and finally pushing our bikes on a steep hill for a total distance of some 1.5km in order to begin today's descent at 600m above the sea. From there, the first stage totalled 5km to 315m and was a really enjoyable single track in the forest with great views down to the valley.

After a coffee break and sandwitches in the sun, it was time for something different. After a few kilometers on an asphalt, the rest of the day was dedicated to pure XC riding. Let us emphasise that our guide was very good at listening to our preferences as regards to riding. It was our unanimous choice to ride XC for the rest of this day.

All in all, we found today's riding immensely satisfying both in terms of variation and views. Our small riding group meant that everything went very smoothly. We recorded following statistics for this day’s riding:

Distance 33km
Ascent 650m
Descent 1100m

Day 3
After yesterday's small group, minibuses were again fully loaded this morning with at least 15 guys joining for today's ride. Riding in a small group can really make a big difference. A large group most likely brings substantial differences in riding skills, resulting in more stops and waiting, partly due to more flat tires but also because of different skill levels of riders. But hey, this is a holiday and not a competition and therefore it shouldn't be too big of an issue, especially when the sun and beautiful landscape make any waiting less disturbing.

Montes de Malaga natural park
We packed our vans and left the house at 10am as usual, this time heading to Montes de Malaga natural park. The park is located north from Malaga, around a 45 minutes transfer from Sierra’s beach house. The park's altitude varies between 91 and 1030 metres above the sea. Our starting point was at 840m and offered some great views to Malaga, the capital of the Costa del Sol.

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Photo: Getting ready for today's first descent at 840 meters above the sea in Montes de Malaga.

Unfortunately, the first 5km section of the descent to an altitude of 470m was on gravel roads, presumably due to lack of any off-road options. However, after a climb to 610m the really fun part started with a 5km single track descent to 140m. There, minibuses were waiting for us for the second uplift of the day.

The second descent started at a quite low altitude of 290m. The straight forward single track down to 100m was short but still great fun, again with some great views to the valley. We would have liked to continue this descend forever. Too bad that this trail was only 2km. Once again, we packed our bikes to a minibus and now headed for a lunch, which we enjoyed in a nice local restaurant with great views from the patio.

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Photo: Ready to occupy the front patio for a lunch.

After the tasty lunch, we were transferred to the start of the third descent at an altitude of 530m. It was a 5.5km long trail and took us down to 90m. This descent was again a bit more twisty and reading from riders' faces it was great fun. On our way towards the valley floor we encountered some animals.

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Photo: Proceeding through a herd of animals.

That was it for the riding in Montes de Malaga natural park. We liked it a lot and it was once again something different compared to what we had experienced in Mijas during the previous two days.

From here, half of our group took a van back to the beach house but we preferred to go on for the last descent of the day in Mijas. Half an hour transfer took us to an altitude of 450m. From there, it was a 12km descending route consisting of single track, gravel roads and the final stretch on an asphalt back to the beach.

Statistics for the third riding day:

Distance 33km
Ascend 300m
Descent 2070m

Day 4
This was the day many regular visitors to Sierra Cycling had been talking about. Today, we were set to head to Desfiladero de los Gaitanes, an area known for its natural beauty. With this being our last day of riding in Spain, needless to say that we were really excited about the opportunity of exploring it. This was set to be a long day considering that our flight back to Scandinavia was scheduled to departure some time after midnight. At the same time, the late flight meant that we could enjoy a full day of riding without having to stress about risking missing the flight.

Desfiladero de los Gaitanes
We arrived at Desfiladero de los Gaitanes natural area after about an hour's transfer with minibuses. We parked our vehicles at a place that appeared to be not particularly high up in the mountains considering that this was supposed to be another shuttle assisted day of riding. Indeed, according to our Suunto Ambit, it was no more than some 400m above the sea level. However, the scenery looked very satisfying already here.

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Photo: We were greeted by a beautiful scenery after unloading our bikes from minibuses.

After pushing our bikes through a difficult rocky terrain for a while, it was time for today's first single track descent. It was a relatively short (3km) trail that took us to an altitude of 260m. Ready for pedalling some uphill on this last riding day, we volunteered for a quite steep asphalt road to the next descent that started at 470m. It was a really hot day and we asked ourselves whether pedalling in these conditions indeed was a wise decision when the ascent just seemed to continue forever after each blind turn. After all, w were still quite happy that we did it.

The next descent was again no more than 2km long from 470m to an altitude of 260m. Despite being short, its profile made it very satisfying indeed. We decided to ride it again, but this opting for an uplift with our minibus.

The next one was the big thing of the day. A 4km ride on an asphalt road took us to El Chorro, a small village at an altitude of just above 200m, some 15km from a larger town of Alora. Located at the heart of magnificent and infamous El Camino del Rey, El Chorro is a popular destination for climbers, hikers, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiast alike.

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El Camino del Rey - The walk of death
El Camino del Rey (The King's little pathway in English) is a 3km long and 1m wide walkway built on a mountain wall around 100m above the ground level. Located between villages Alora and Ardales, the path was built between 1901 and 1905 to provide workers of two hydroelectric plants, Chorro Falls and Gaitanejo Falls, with means of crossing between them, and transporting material and equipment. Camino del Rey received its name when King Alfonso XIII walked the path as he inaugurating the power stations in 1921. Nowadays, the pathway has collapsed in many places. Deemed to be too dangerous, authorities closed access to it in 2011 after several fatal accidents that gave it its nickname "The walk of death". However, it is still accessible for climbers. With the Spanish government planning to restore the pathway by 2015, Camino del Rey is attracting a lot of enthusiasts who want to experience it in its current, dangerous form.

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Before continuing our riding, we had a lunch in a local restaurant with some good food and magnificent views down to mountain walls on the opposite side of the water pod. We were seriously impressed by the breathtaking beauty of this area and can warmly recommend paying a visit to El Chorro.

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After the lunch, we loaded our bikes to the vans for an uplift to an altitude of 600m, presumably the highest point attainable in this are with a car. Here we had the last two descents of the day waiting for us. Both descents started at the same point but trails were partly different. We witnessed some minor crashes in certain rocky sections of these descents, but nothing more dramatic. Our riding day ended with a cold beer or two in a primitive bar at the El Chorro's small railway station. Then it was time to drive back to Sierra's Fuengirola base again.

With late flight back home, we had plenty of time to pack our bikes and joint the rest of the riding crew for a dinner before we were transported to the airport at just before the midnight.

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Photo: Malaga airport at midnight.

Statistics for the fourth riding day (measured by Suunto Ambit):

Distance 22km
Ascend 400m
Descent 1480m

Sierra Cycling
Sierra Cycling has been in this business for over 20 years. Prior to our booking, Sierra answered promptly to all our question that we emailed to them. Sierra's base is located in Fuengirola, about 20 minutes from the Malaga airport. Airport transfers were included in the price of the Sierra's holiday package and they worked perfectly both upon our arrival and the departure. Inconvenient transfer times at around midnight were no problem at all for Sierra to arrange.

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Photo: Sierra Cycling's house on the right. View towards the beach.

In Fuengirola, Sierra occupies two houses some 200 meters from the beach. The beach boulevard has good selection of restaurants. Quality of Sierra's house we stayed at was decent. No luxurious but ok. We have to admit that we are relatively picky when it comes to accommodations. Yes, we can happily spend nights in tents or in a primitive shelter when, for example, in a wilderness or other remote areas. However, when in western European cities, we expect a certain standard, especially in terms of cleanliness. Sierra's house was not free from marks and stains, but decent enough. Our beds though were not too comfortable and they were also too short for anybody longer than 185cm. Rooms were air-conditioned. According to Scandinavian standards, we would give our accommodation three stars. Quite substantial breakfast was included in the price. Beer, wine, soft drinks and juice were also freely available. Overall, the standard of living will not stop us from visiting Sierra again in the future.

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Photo: Inner yard of Sierra's house. There was a pool shared by surrounding houses and closed from outsiders.

We were also happy with our guides who were nice, knowledgeable, helpful and familiar with the trails we rode. Uplifts with minibuses worked as well, even though we would have preferred a dedicated trailer for bikes. Now bikes were packed to the back of vans with blankets protecting frames from scratching each other and pedals from scratching frames. This method of transporting bikes was not really an issue for us, but it may be for riders concerned of a risk of even minor scratches.

For those wondering what bike to bring for a holiday with Sierra Cycling, we saw everything from XC hard tails and from full suspension 100mm 29ers to all-mountain rigs with 160mm of suspension. For other than pure XC riding we would suggest a 140-160mm full suspension bike with dual ply tires. Worth noticing is that during our stay there were some XC riders in a separate group guided by another Sierra Cycling's guide.

Final thoughts
We were overall satisfied with our four days of riding in Malaga. Flight schedules from Scandinavia made it possible to spend a long weekend with four full days of riding by taking only two days, Thursday and Friday, off the work. It was a small price to pay for somewhat exhausted feeling we had when heading back to work early on Monday morning after having spent the night on a plane.

When it comes to riding itself, we felt that four days was quite optimal for our purposes. There are, of course, much more trails to discover even with Sierra than what we could explore during our short stay. In that sense, we only scratched the surface of what riding in Malaga has to offer. Having said that, for a full week of riding we would prefer to look for destinations that are practically impossible to visit within a long weekend, either because of much longer airport transfers or due to bad flight schedules or simply because the flight itself is too time consuming.

Regarding trails, the highest altitude where we started our descent was no more than 915m (at the Telecom Tower) above the sea. We regard vertical descent available in Malaga as decent but not great, especially since other trails started at a lower altitudes. Also, almost none of the trails continued all the way down to the sea level. A typical trail had around 300-400 meters of vertical descent. Some trails had slightly more, some clearly less. Each descent was followed by a van assisted uplift. Altogether, riding in Malaga certainly doesn't compare to lift assisted riding in a bike park or otherwise in high mountains. It is different. Not necessarily better or worse. It really depends on what you like and what you are looking for.

All in all, we can recommend Malaga as a destination for those looking for a few days of nice riding in a beautiful landscape, and Sierra Cycling for those looking for a reliable organiser of all-mountain riding in Malaga. Holiday packages from Sierra Cycling are available throughout the year except in July and August when they are close due to the very warm weather.