Exploring Spain’s vast ‘Sea of Olives’ 

In a new regular feature, European editor Andrew Hood dives into the history and culture of cycling’s biggest races.

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This week’s Jaén Paraíso Interior — the new one-day gravel-inspired race where Tadej Pogačar made his season debut Monday with winning panache — rides deep into the heart of one of Spain’s most iconic regions.

The backdrop for the race is called the “mar de olivos” — the sea of olives — a vast area in the Jaén region of Spain’s Andalucía that produces some of Europe’s most prized olive oil. If you’re a fan of olive oil, this is the equivalent of visiting La Rioja for wine aficionados.

The numbers are staggering. The region produces more than 600,000 tons of the “liquid gold” that equals roughly 65 million liters. Spanish olive oil, anchored by its famed “extra virgin,” accounts for 20 percent of all olive oil sales worldwide. Orchards date back to the Roman era, and some trees can be centuries old.

There are an estimated 70 million olive trees in the rolling hills around Jaén, the regional capital. The province is a frequent stop for the Vuelta a España, the Ruta de Sol, and other road, mountain bike, and gravel races.

Spain’s ‘sea of olives’ is a massive expanse of olive trees across Andalucía. (Photo: Andrew Hood)

Far from the tourist-packed beaches, the interior region in and around Jaén serves up a rich cultural, historical, and gastronomical offering that’s well worth a visit. Towering above Jaén is the Castillo Santa Catalina set on ridge dating from the 10th century. Its five-star “parador” is one of one Spain’s most spectacular hotels.

Jaén offers an interesting mix of cycling options. Roads can be heavily trafficked, but there is good riding in the mountains above Jaén, and in the even more remote Cazorla region, as well as near Úbeda. The Sierra de la Pandera, a finish in the 2022 Vuelta, is one of the more challenging climbs in the area. Valdepeñas de Jaén, a village lost in the middle of the “sea of olives,” is another popular stage finish in the Spanish grand tour.

Road racers lament that after a rain the roads turn treacherous with a mix of dust, vehicle gunk, and even olive oil that splashes onto the asphalt. Good thing it doesn’t rain very much.

Better still is to head off-road. Monday’s Jaén Paraíso Interior race featured more than 40km of gravel and dirt roads that lace the area around Úbeda and Baeza. There are more marked trails and pathways, and there are thousands of kilometers of off-road gravel opportunities in the region.

There are several off-road trail networks that offer endless bike-packing and touring options. One easy route is the Vía Verde del Aceite that runs 128km along an old railway from Jaén to Puente Genil. For the more adventurous, the Trans-Andalus is a 2000km, multi-stage loop that encompasses all the provinces in Andalucía entirely off-road. 

Olive oil is bought by the gallon at dispensaries across the region. (Photo: Andrew Hood)

Saudi Tour: Winning the hotel lottery

A few lucky riders won the race hotel lottery earlier this month at the Saudi Tour when they drew straws to land in the opulent Banyan Tree resort.

Tucked inside a windswept canyon, a string of private villas are perched along towering sandstone formations with a few stray camels wandering through. The off-the-rack price? Starting at $2,500 a night.

Riders from Team DSM were even luckier, and stayed in opulent mansions that house the Saudi royal family or the occasional Hollywood celebrity.

With several bedrooms and a private pool, the top-end villas recently played host to Jonny Depp the week before the peloton arrived. Andrea Bocelli who also stayed in one of the luxurious villas before a concert in the nearby Maraya facility, claimed to be the world’s largest mirrored structure.

“The hotels here are quite impressive, I must say. It’s certainly better than what we see a lot of the times in Europe,” said Cofidis rider Max Walscheid. “It is part of the whole experience of being here. It’s very unique here, and the racing is pretty good compared to some of the other Middle Eastern races I’ve been to.”

The Banyan Tree Resort, with the Maraya building in the distance. (Photo: Andrew Hood)

Riders at the Banyan Tree and nearby Habitas complex gushed the hotels were some of the best they’ve ever seen.

And that’s saying something for travel-weary riders in the peloton who’ve stayed in castles, chateaux, and lush resorts across Europe and beyond.

Not everyone enjoyed the five-star glam. Other teams stayed in more retail hotels and apartments in Al-Ula city, while others were housed in a new housing complex built especially for Hollywood film crews that are discovering the surrounding deserts make ideal backdrops for big-budget productions.

The hotel lottery is the same at just about every race. A team might be in a five-star chateau one night, and the next day find themselves in a Campanile chain hotel along the highway. Riders seem to take it all stride. All they want is a good night’s rest.

Sunrise at the Hegra archeological site near AlUla. (Photo: Charly Lopez/ASO)

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