4 Perfect Passes

Updated: Nov 2

Cycling in El Comtat is all about the hills. To my knowledge there is only one genuinely flat road in the entire valley, and that’s a one-kilometre stretch between Beniarres and Llorxa. All the rest is up and down, and not just ‘undulating’ but properly lumpy. Therefore, at the end of our rides we tend to look more at the vertical height gained rather than at the distance covered (for Velominati fans, see Rule #68), and over time we have found that, on average, for every kilometre covered horizontally we climb 20 metres vertically. So, typically, you’d climb 1000m on a 50km ride and 2000m on a 100km ride which, I’m sure you’ll agree, is pretty significant.

Anyway, here for your delectation are 4 of the very best cycle climbs in the Comtat valley. None of them is a desperate test-piece – we’re not talking about the Stelvio or Mortirolo here – but each is an absolute gem in its own right and most of them have been ridden on one edition of La Vuelta a España or another. In each case the data provided refers to the climb out of our valley, but of course they all have a far side as well. They are also close enough to each other to be combined into a single ride if you’re feeling strong enough! And the descents? Well, they’re pure, unadulterated bliss.

#1 Beniarres Pass Dist 4.71km Climb 192m Av Grad 4.1% Category 3

No question, this one’s my favourite. From the town of Cocentaina, where we live, there’s a very pleasant 13km warm-up along the undulating road that leads through Muro d’Alcoy and Gaianes to the serene village of Beniarres with its distinctive white church and multiple fonts. The railway from Alcoy to Denia used to run through here, and it’s now a popular Via Verde that you can follow through a tunnel underneath the cemetery and onwards to Llorxa and thence along the stunning gorge created by the River Serpis all the way to Villalonga (gravel and/or mountain bikes only).

Our way is different: we curl around the bottom edge of the buildings on the CV 705, noting the very handy watering-point on the left, ignoring the fork to Llorxa on the right and exiting the town with a sense of anticipation and maybe even a few nerves. Not to worry though, the climb is gentle at first, leading smoothly into the barranc of a Serpis tributary and making a few pleasant sweeping bends before the real work begins.

I always admire the ingenuity of the engineers in building these roads, and this one is no exception. As guileless as an artist’s brush-stroke, the uptilting road curls completely back on itself, crosses the re-entrant, does a couple of jinks and then hairpins back again so that you can see where you were a few minutes before just down to the left. It’s such a clever and pretty arrangement – like a giant’s discarded skipping rope – that the rising tide of leg-pain can almost be ignored. Almost.

A sharpish left-hander (watch this on the descent, it tightens!), a steeper section and a few hundred metres of relative respite take you back over the stream again on a lovely open bridge-cum-culvert and now we’re into the meat of it as we briefly admire the sanctuary of the Holy Christ of the Afflicted below and the broad sweep of the reservoir beyond, turn away from the valley once again and begin the day’s toil. It’s only 5% or so here but the gradient is unrelenting and the passage increasingly atmospheric with a rugged hillside ahead and the imposing bulk of Benicadell spearing upwards in a dramatic double dinosaur spine on the left.

I’d love to pretend you’re nearly there at this point, but you’re not. Moreover, this pass has none of those helpful signs at each kilometre to give you a feel for progress made and degree of challenge ahead. But keep going (it’s “only” Cat 3), find that rhythm, go to your happy place and enjoy the burn: it means you’re alive. Soon there’s a sharp right-hander (back over the barranc again), two little bends and then a very short but welcome respite as you traverse diagonally across on the final few straights.

But what’s this? Another bend, a tantalising glimpse of what must surely be the puerto, and then a cruel ramping-up just when your legs were already screaming. Here there’s nothing for it but to get out of the saddle, max out the heartrate and fixate on that final rightwards curve up ahead. One pedal stroke at a time, you got this! Round the last corner and the top comes quickly now, offering up a broad landing and a welcome resting place for usually more than a few panted greetings to fellow sufferers and a stunning view down to Salem (gotta love that name) and Castell de Rugat on the other side.

Needless to say, the descent back into Beniarres is fast, technical, picturesque, and absolutely wicked. Before turning back, though, resolve to tackle the north side (I call it the dark side, you’ll find out why) someday soon. The climb from Rugat is quite different in character, length, angle and atmosphere, but is equally challenging and rewarding. Thankfully, there’s always another day.

#2 Confrides Pass Dist 5.34km Climb 252.5m Av Grad 4.7% Category 3

For us there are cycling days, and there are Confrides days. Cycling days are always special, but we look forward to Confrides days with a particular sense of anticipation. Although at 970m it’s slightly lower than Tudons or Benifallim, the climb up to it from Cocentaina involves 19km of more or less continuous uphill work for a net ascent of over 500m.

A couple of years ago the Vuelta a España came up and over this pass from Guadalest on the other side, the pros making it all look rather easy and then disappearing in a puff of smoke towards Alcoy. While the road was still closed to cars a gang of us followed in their wake, hooning down through Benasau before turning right to Gorga and Millena, where we met them again as they looped back towards the coast on the rollercoaster road through Quatretondeta.

The climb to the south side of Confrides Pass officially begins outside Benasau, just beyond the CV-770 turning to Alcoleja. Cyclists based down on the coast love the challenge of getting here via the Tudons Pass, then tackling Confrides before heading back down through Guadalest and La Nucia for a strenuous but hugely rewarding day out. Our route to this point is easier but even so we’re well warmed up by the time we exit Benasau and savour the easy introductory kilometre.

Soon enough we pass the tiny little aldea of Ares del Bosc on the right, round a corner and find ourselves looking up the Barranc d’Ares to the rocky mountains ahead. The gradient is still gentle at this point but at the 2km mark the road curves left and suddenly kicks up to over for 150m before disappearing into a side barranc with a couple of sharp turns. There are quite a few little ramps like this all the way up: the gradient is not consistent like Beniarres, so you’ll need to save something for those short, sharp, out-of-the-saddle efforts.

By now the right-hand side of the road is lined with those distinctive white concrete blocks, which would do little to keep you on the road in the event of a crash but seem to provide a handy canvas for graffiti of every type from the simple “S loves M” to the conspiracy theorising “Stop Chemtrails” by way of a random assortment of political messages. Trying to decipher the Spanish (Valenciano actually) is a helpful distraction at first, but soon the red mist descends and the climbing blinkers come on.

Even the rugged beauty of the mountains above and to the left is forgotten as we tackle the next little kicker just beyond the 3km point. Some of the other Veloviewer profiles I’ve seen are pretty misleading about the gradients at this point, but don’t be put off by the graphics, in reality it’s not that hard and there’s a stretch of welcome respite just around the next corner.

At this stage the road runs out of contouring space, so it starts doubling back and forth in a series of rather lovely looping hairpins that have you jumping on the pedals, rapidly gaining 50m of height before resuming its former course parallel to the barranc. Coming down through these bends later is great sport but watch out: they tighten at the exits and it’s easy to get caught out.

Halfway along the next stretch you pass an old roadside building on the left – with a rather cruel mini-ramp just past it – and now there’s less than a kilometre to go. Conjure your personal Flamme Rouge and watch for the solar-powered communications mast on the left, whose appearance means that you’re nearly there.

The top of the pass is hidden from view until the very last moment and the last two corners are some of the steepest, but now it´s a matter of metres only and finally it’s done. There’s nowhere safe to rest here so keep going (if you can) to the next track junction on the right, or continue down the delightful descent on the other side past Marmalade Corner (which I always think is crying out to be a café and probably once was), speed towards the village of Confrides itself and find a well-deserved café stop at the entrance to the pueblo on the left.

#3 Tudons Pass Dist 7.7km Climb 336m Av Grad 4.3% Category 3

There are two ways up to the Puerto de Tudons from the valley of El Comtat, and the climb described here is the lesser-known route. We prefer going up this way because the surface, although not broken or potholed, is rather poorly laid and makes for a very uncomfortable descent, whereas the better-known route through Alcoleja is smooth and well maintained, ideal for a fast and technically interesting return to the valley, with a handy café at the bottom. Unlike the other passes, this one is therefore great as part of a circular route without retracing your path or leaving the valley.

In contrast to Beniarres and Confrides, this is not a steady climb with an easy first section and a gradient rising gently as you reach the top. Instead, this one kicks up as soon as you exit the village of Penáguila, and the effort is sustained throughout, bar a short period of respite not far beyond the site of its eponymous castle. it’s probably the most fun route to ride too, featuring some lovely hairpin turns which may disturb your climbing rhythm and perhaps get you out of the saddle as well.

The first 3km of the climb from Penáguila on the CV-785 are probably the most interesting, as the road claws its way steeply up the escarpment past a sweet little hermitage on the left and lays down a series of long coils across the hillside like a discarded climbing rope. You can sense the wildness of the terrain immediately (we once saw a patrolling fox here, apparently unfazed by the presence of cyclists) and the village is very soon lost in the pine forests behind and below.

As you come to the last bend of this series, just beyond the 3km point, there’s a footpath going off to the right just before a house called El Coyao. This path leads around the top of an exposed cliff to Penáguila Castle, a fortification that was built by the Muslims on top of another from Roman times, but which has now almost completely disappeared. Beyond and below is the spectacular natural arch of Arco de Santa Lucia, which can be reached either from here or via a very steep climb from the village.

Now the gradient eases a touch as the road passes the 900m contour and follows along the steep bank of a deep barranco down to the right. As you pass it’s worth noting the junction on the right at 4.3km, which contours cleverly all the way around to a point just below the top of the Benifallim pass. This road could be a handy option for a circular ride but the surface is very broken so it’s really for gravel and mountain bikes only.

Staying on the main road then, at the 5km point you pass between farm buildings and break out into a rather serene area of pasture land, with minor roads heading off to the left and right towards the olive groves. This is a good place to take a breather or wait for your mates to catch up, because the gradient soon picks up again through the next winding and wooded 1.5km section.

At the next major junction we’re going to turn left, but if you’re feeling strong you can continue straight on past the rather unlikely site of the Aitana Safari Park along a road that follows the 1000m contour around, crests the next pass and then cuts back to join the Tudons Pass road on the other side at about 840m above sea level. This road is very handy for adding an extra loop to the ride but - be warned – the south side of the pass is a significantly harder proposition.

Anyway, the left turn we took earlier brings us pleasantly and fairly easily around to the top of the pass at 1025m, although the final 30m or so up to the junction itself can be a bit of a stinger on tired legs. Just opposite as you arrive is the entrance to the Aitana military base: the road beyond the barrier winds for 6 km all the way up to the radar station at the Alto de Aitana, another 500m higher up the mountain. This road is usually closed to the public, but the Alto has often been the venue for hilltop finishes in La Vuelta (e.g., Stage 9 in 2004, Stage 8 in 2009 and Stage 20 in 2016). Tudons Pass is also a regular venue for the Tour of Valencia, and it’s a massively popular destination for cyclists coming up from the coast and continuing around to Confrides and Gualdalest. Beware of motorcyclists too: they tend to swarm around here, especially on weekends.

For now though, the mere mortals amongst us are going to turn left here and fly back down the fast, smooth and technical descent back to the compact village of Alcoleja and the aptly named Stop Café just beyond. From here it’s pretty much all downhill back to Cocentaina, so why not treat yourself to a tostada as well?

#4 Benifallim Pass Dist 4.7km Climb 268m Av Grad 5.7% Category 3

The last of our 4 passes starts (as you might expect) at the village of Benifallim, which nestles below the Rentonar mountain at 800m above sea level under the watchful eye of its ancient castle.

Benifallim is famous for its olive oil from the Blanqueta, Alfafarenca and Mançanella varieties, but it’s the beauty of the almond blossom that really stands out for us. The entire hillside is terraced almost all the way up to the top, and in January and February it explodes into white blossom, almost as though it were covered in snow. Indeed, the sweet almond tree is sometimes known as the “Winter Princess”, after the charming legend of the Nordic Princess Gilda, who missed the snows of her homeland and only found happiness in the Algarve when the almond trees bloomed. Here and there you’ll see pink blossom as well, signalling a tree that produces the bitter variety of almonds.

There are 3 ways to get to Benifallim from the valley. The longest and least frequented is via Benasau and Penáguila to the north east. The easiest is via Alcoy to the west, involving a traverse of the city and a long but relatively steady climb under the motorway, past Venta Sant Jordi, up the CV 785 and then in and out of the barrancs just below the 800m contour, with some spectacular views across the valley to La Serreta and Benicadell. The hardest route, though, starts at the crossroads just west of Benilloba and takes a direct line up to our start point via a couple of vicious 20% ramps early on, followed by a steadier meander up the left bank of the Barranco de los Huertos de Marra. If you come this way the total climb is 11.4 km with almost 500m of height gain, and very little respite along the way.

Just west of the village of Benifallim is the turning to the pass, clearly signposted to Torremanzanas, aka La Torre de les Maçanes, or just “La Torre” for short. The climbing starts immediately, which always comes as a bit of the shock: this is nothing like the gentle starts of Beniarres or Confrides and the bigger cogs quickly come into play. The engineering is pretty old school too: the early bends are tightly stacked all the way to the 2km point, with brutal concrete blocks lining the way onwards and upwards.

From this point the road straightens and opens so that you can see the next kilometre of tarmac ahead, a daunting sight relieved only by the beauty of the Sierra del Plans opposite and the sweep of forested hillside on its flanks, with tantalising hints of the excellent mountain biking and walking trails that criss-cross the whole area. Another time, perhaps?

The gradients and remaining distances are helpfully advertised all the way up to the pass, but the kilometre signs come achingly slowly until a tight hairpin 2.6 km, when the road swerves left to bypass the Serra del Rentonar and relents by a degree or two as it traverses round to the next barranc. The road surface is better here too, and you start feeling like a bit of a hero as you drop a cog or two and gather pace over the last couple of kilometres.

Soon you arrive at a big open crossroads, which marks the start of the high road across to the Puerto de Tudons away to the left, but don’t be deceived: the true summit lies a few hundred metres further on, just around the next corner, only then can you rest.

From here the descent to Torremanzanas is fast and furious on a superb surface with lovely wide-radius curves and open sight-lines, and in what seems like no time at all you’re slowing for the speed bumps in the town. Here there are 2 possibilities for circular routes: either turn left on the CV 782, continue to Relleu via the Port el Collau and climb the south side of Port de Tudons (2 sub-options, both very challenging), or continue straight on to Xixona, turn right at the roundabout and climb back over the famous Port de la Carrasqueta (also challenging, with stunning views of Alicante). Either way, your legs will let you know it’s been a good day out.

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