It has been quite some time since we arrived at the chique coastal city of Biarritz after nine enduring days on the road, and it took me almost a month to really want to get back on my trusty racebike again. The scenery we have seen while crossing different regions of France and Spain, the challenging ascents – and sometimes descents – we have overcome were unforgettably epic and a never ending source of and adrenaline, endorphine, and lactic acid cocktail, but at the same time, both my body and mind got so saturated with the never-ending influx of various impulses on the bike, that I didn’t even miss thinking about cycling for a long time, right until a few days ago. But now that the European Championship in football is just about to culminate in its final, and the Tour de France is finally taking over the TV screens of sports pubs, seeing the same cols that we have ridden being conquered by the pros really gives a strong kick to that area of my brain that creates the urge to get out on the road and turn the crans around over and over again.
For me cycling is not about defeating the other cyclists. Let’s be honest, I don’t have the engine for that. The purpose I seek in cycling is defeating myself day by day in a fight for total control; it is a self-punishing quest for satisfaction. Every time I leave for a ride, I try to make sure that I arrive back to our garage door having achieved something. Is it an epic solo ride to a world-famous cobbled street somewhere in the middle of the Flemish countryside, only used by local farmers, other than another kind of real Flandriens, or rather just a good sprint effort to the top of a local hill, almost flying up as your wheels are cutting through the air accompanied by the rhythmic sound the wind makes rushing around the rims, it does not matter as long as it gives the intoxicating sense of accomplishment. Then, there – outside on the road – I am in control of the bike, thus I am in control of everything…
We planned the route, booked hotels for every night already months ago to make our self-supported journey at least a bit more comfortable, and made several careful revisions to the kit we had to take with us, cutting it down to the bare minimum, so by the time of our departure we were fully prepared. We knew that the challenge standing in front of us was big, since none of us had done anything similar before, especially with no rest days planned, but we were convinced that if everything goes well, we should be able to make it to the Atlantic coast without major issues. There was no question about our physical form since we had trained well during the previous months, but rather a healthy amount of fear of unexpected mechanical failures. We had tools and parts with us to fix the most common problems, but a broken spoke or a faulty electronic part in our Di2 systems could have made finishing any stage very difficult. That is a risk you have to take when you do not have the luxury of support vehicles. We encountered some challenges, but nothing critical, and – most importantly – our friendship stayed intact all the way through the mountains. I can imagine that Willem snoring through the night could have made things far less manageable.
When we left Leuven with the car on the morning of the 3rd of June, the sky was grey, and the weather forecast had nothing good to say about the conditions for our drive. Thanks to all the rain of the previous days (or maybe weeks), the region between Paris and Orleans would have been better suited to a submarine, but even a submerged highway could no stop us from reaching the sunny Toulouse by dinner time, although we have learned that we should not try to be more clever than Google Maps or Waze in the future. (This occured when we drove into a tiny village to realise that the road we had taken, slightly disregarding both the traffic signs and the kind advice of the aforementioned navigation applications, was actually the only escape route connecting the otherwise surrounded and partly submerged village to the outside world.) In any case, even a few U-turns could not put a dent in our morale, which was definitely boosted by the songs on Willem’s thematic playlist. After a quick dinner in a pizzeria that I knew from a conference two years back, we went to sleep early. We were not yet sure how exactly we would make it to the start of our first stage in Narbonne the next morning, since the French railways were on strike, and despite Willem’s charming smile and best French, we could not get any useful information from the SNCF, but we were optimistic that we would get there somehow anyway.
Prologue: 6.7 km | 22 m+
The next morning our alarms went off before sunrise (not a recurring theme of our ride, luckily), which caught us later during the prologue, while we were crossing the Pont des Catalans over the Garonne towards the train station. We left the car filled with everything unnecessary back at the hotel. Toulouse was barely awake while we were nervously waiting for the only train running towards the Mediterranean coast that morning, wondering about our chances of finding enough space for our bikes on board. At the end all our (or rather, mainly my) worries were for nothing, as there were surprisingly few people brave enough to still attempt travelling by train, and concerning cyclists, nobody except for a couple with a worn tandem, that had clearly seen half the world already. As soon as we passed the only stop between Toulouse and Narbonne (where the conductor could have still kicked us off for not having the right ticket for the bikes), we could finally let all the stress go, and start enjoying our time.
Stage 1: 91.8 km | 631 m+
The first stage flew by fast. We both knew that the real deal would only start the next day, so we took it as easy as possible. The weather – both the sunshine and the nearly thirty degrees Celsius – was the sharp opposite of what we had left behind in Belgium, thus the first thing we did after getting of the train was applying a good amount of sunscreen. We were happy as the forecast looked great for at least the coming week (and whatever would came later, that was not trustworthy enough to care about anyway at that point).
We left Narbonne on a busier road, but soon turned South and left most of the traffic behind. After one of the first small climbs we descended though a narrow canyon, that reminded us that as long as we were going downstream the coming days, we should be fine. When you turn agains the flow of a mountain stream, that is when the dirty business starts. Now this day only brought a few small hills, here-and-there steep enough to test how we would feel in the heart of the Pyrenees with our oversized saddle bags later on, but also short enough to not put much pressure on our legs. The one and only categorised (Cat 4) climb, the Col de Feuilla (passing at an altitude of 250 m), or more precisely, a secondary shorter but steeper section right afterwards led us to a lookout point – situated in scenery reminiscent of the rocky and not too densely vegetated landscapes of Mallorca except for the few additional wind turbines present here – that gave us a glimpse onto the Mediterranean sea. From there we descended effortlessly following the winding road to Opoul-Périllos, to pick up some lunch; a good baguette filled with local cheese and tomatoes, while enjoying the sunshine around tables placed along the edge of a quiet, narrow street. Being early afternoon, the village was very still; except for the owner of the bar and a group of local cyclists, nearing or in their retirement, enjoying their clubride, there was nobody around.
We got on our bikes again after an hour, since there were some thunderstorms towering towards Perpignan. To be honest the last part of the day was pretty boring. Crossing the flatlands to the Northeast of the city we did a few pulls to make sure that we avoid any potential downpours moving into the area. We had a pretty confortable room for the night waiting for us in an aparthotel. After check in we executed our post-ride ritual, that we would repeat in each of the coming days, for the first time: systematically unpacking our saddle packs, uploading the daily ride to Strava, posting some pictures to Instagram, taking a shower, and washing our cycling kit. This was followed by a mostly uncalled for empty-stomach-propelled impulse-shopping for chocolate, cookies, and chips, that resulted in a ridiculous amount of leftovers. It did not take long until we also found a nice place for a proper dinner.
A well-prepared Carbonara for me, and goat-cheese salad accompanied by red wine for Willem. None of us were too interested in the friendly football game on TV that evening, we were mostly busy looking at our phones, studying the profile for the coming day, and nibbling the food we had bought in the supermarket earlier, until we were tired enough to fall asleep.
Stage 2: 121.2 km | 1879 m+
Starting from Sunday, we always got up at eight with the aim of leaving maximum an hour later. Willem had problems in the first days since he kept waking up way too early all the time, but I had no issues with sleeping until my phone started ringing. Yes, I am a lazy bastard when I am not on the bike. For breakfast we just finished the leftover cookies from the day before; we still had so much that I even left some chocolate in the fridge for the cleaning lady. The morning was pretty quiet, with not many people on the streets. We left the city following a nice cycling path, and almost immediately we got our first view to the here-and-there still snow-covered peaks towards the inner part of the Pyrenees.
We were excited, enjoying the view, the amazing, cristal-clear, sunny weather, and the slight tailwind that helped us during the firt kilometres. The job for the day was very simple: keep riding towards the Southwest, and cross the mountains into Spain. After leaving the bike path we rode low-traffic roads through grassy fields and small towns, in general always a bit uphill, but on undulating terrain. Then after 20 kilometres the road got steeper and curvier as it started to climb through the forest. This was again only a 4th category climb, being only 6 km long and having a very moderate gradient, reaching the Coll de Llauro at an altitude of 380 metres. From there the descent was very pleasant, with good visibility in the curves, and not too steep – except for maybe the last section – so we could just let the brakes go. In no time we were down in the heat of the valley again, where we turned West on the road that we would follow all the way into Spain for the coming more than forty kilometres.
While it is a relatively large road, the traffic was mostly in the opposite direction. The slopes around the road were covered with forests, only now and then punctured by grey and yellowish rock faces rising high above the surrounding vegetation. The further we rode the wilder the stream became below us, and occasionally we had to push through shorter unexpectedly steep sections too, breaking the slight monotony of our pedalling. We stopped for a short lunch in Prats-de-Mollo-la-Preste. Here the gradual slope comes to an end, an the real steep climb begins towards the French-Spanish border. We refilled our bottles and got some muesli bars and a banana at a small shop in the centre of the village before setting off for our first 1st category climb.
Given our altitude, the shade of the forest and the clouds moving in, the ascent was not overly warm, and as we climbed higher and higher the drop in temperature was clearly noticeable. This was basically the last time that I managed to stay with Willem all the way till the top, later on we would pick the speed that was most comfortable for us, and he would wait for me at the col sign. Our climbing style is quite different; Willem stands out of the saddle much more often and has a lower cadence, while I keep seated and try to spin until I run out of gears. The average gradient of around 6% was still well suited for me here, but as soon as things got steeper, I had to reach for my easiest gear (36/28) way too quickly. This was also the climb where we got a good lesson about average gradients: they lie, and they lie big time.
We would look at our elevation profiles on the morning to see doable values for the upcoming climbs, then say bad things about the ancestors of the average gradient while struggling through sections with percentages well over the average value over and over, day by day, hoping that the following climb would be different. The Col d’Ares at an altitude of 1513 metres was high enough to be over the the tree line, but not so much that it would have cut through a rocky landscape. We had taken the must-have picture with the col sign (hiding any sign of tiredness from our faces), then put on our gilet, and started our descent into Catalonia. The first minutes were pretty chilly in the 12 degrees, but things improved fast as we lost some altitude. The road was wide, deserted, with broad, relaxed curves twisting towards Ripoll. The open grassy fields were soon left behind as we dropped back into the forest.
We would continue to descend for almost 40 kilometres, but as the remaining distance grew smaller, the gradient got also more and more moderate, so from time to time we had to start pedalling again. The valley became broader as its walls pulled back to give space for fields, grass covered pastures feeding groups of lazy cows, and other agricultural areas. The architecture also changed considerably. As we grazed by Ripoll the road turned uphill again, and we started to feel that we had been on the road for a while by then – it was maybe the first time we felt tired, maybe to some extent as a result of not having a real lunch-break earlier. In any case we pushed through the last kilometres and arrived in Campdevanol to our hotel for the night – Hotel La Sèquia Molinar – in the middle of the afternoon.
Normally I would not mention the name of the hotel where we stayed, but here we had such a positive experience, that they deserve a bit of advertisement. After a quick check-in assisted by an extremely friendly and caring lady (probably the owner), we executed our post-ride rituals (cleaning, uploading, charging, etc.), and took off for a quick food-hunt. Given the size of the village and the time of the day (not too late afternoon), we did not find anything that was open, so we walk back to the hotel with empty stomachs. Of course the kitchen was also closed, but the lady at the reception somehow still managed to get us a salad and a pizza (along with probably a half litre of cola). We were pretty impressed, because first of all everything was delicious (my pizza was really freshly-made, not something out of the freezer), but also because they tried their best to get Willem something that he is allowed to eat (nota bene, Willem is a vegetarian, and to make this trans Pyrenees ride a bit more of a challenge, also gluten- and lactose-intolerant). Since dinner started only at quarter to nine, this was a life-saver for both of us. Speaking of dinner, that was also great, the food was very nicely prepared (I had rabbit with some kind of a red fruit sauce) and it was also presented with style. To help you understand how hungry we were by dinner-time, I have to tell you that Willem took a few pieces from the appetiser – slices of something that he was totally not supposed to eat – to make it until the main dish. I do not think we had issues falling asleep that evening.
Stage 3: 111.5 km | 2140 m+
Monday, the 6th of June started with a chilly morning – which was far from surprising at an altitude of 730 metres -, but by the time we checked out and rolled over to the main square of the town the temperature was up to 16 degrees, as the Sun was already strong and high enough on the sky to shine into the valley. We got breakfast from the supermarket, some baked pastries filled with chocolate and pudding (substituted by chocolate-coated rice cakes for Willem), a banana, orange juice, a few bottles of sport drinks to fill our bidons, and a few things for the road ahead. We took our time eating on a bench in the shade of the trees around a strange modern sculpture, while small groups of the elderly local folk were doing their social rounds of shopping and gossiping.
This stage was very tricky: officially only three categorised climbs over 110 km, each with laughable average gradients around 3%, but looking at the profile and the expected total ascent of nearly two kilometres, we knew that it was not going to be a joke. These average gradients were hiding numerous sections of more than 8% slopes, and to be extra annoying, even downhill sections in between, so you could never be sure that all the hard climbing would not be nullified by another small intermittent descent.
Truth be told, the first climb was easy. We set off to the West, and followed a beautiful, empty road that was twisting along the Northern slope of the valley. At the beginning it provided great views ahead and to the South, but as we climbed higher we entered the forest. At the same time, the road turned into a constant succession of left and right bends, warping around the ridges – occasionally moderately tall white and grey walls of rocks – coming down from the main mountain range at our right. I have never seen a road like that before, it was like a never-ending a horizontal roller-coaster. These bends took us over the 3rd category Coll de Merolla at 1090 metres, and they kept coming on the other side too for a while, before the road stretched out again.
Upon reaching the outskirts of Guardiola de Bergueda we turned South onto a seemingly busier road towards Berga, but the road was so broad, so immaculate, and the infrastructure at the crossroads so extensive (and uncalled for), that Willem first thought bikes were not even allowed there. We barely got time to get used to the fresh asphalt when after a small bite and bidon-refill at a petrol station we turned West again, and immediately started climbing towards Macaners. This section was much steeper than the average gradient foreseen for the following 28 km, so I was quickly left behind. I did not mind, I enjoyed the view of the scenery with the crystal-clear mountain river deep below us to the right, and the view of the more and more rugged mountain ranges ahead, ruled by the massive, emblematic figure of Pedraforca.
The Sun was strong, and there was not much wind, so I was climbing with an open jersey in the heat. The rock formatins became more yellow around us, and pines started to dominate in the forest, while some of the steeper slopes on the other side of the valley were only suitable for bushes. Starting with the village of Macaners, sitting somewhat off the top of the first unnamed but col-worthy peak at 1277 metres (after 11.5 km of climbing at 5%), towns became these typical, compact settlements slightly off the main road below, built on a higher, well-defendable point overlooking the surrounding areas. Riding at the feet of their walls felt like jumping back in time a few hundreds of years. I knew Willem would not wait here, since we had agreed that we would only wait at the named cols, so I zipped in my jersey and started the short descent that followed. The effortless downhill coasting lasted until the viaduct over the Riu de Saldes (the same river that we have already seen at the beginning of this walley), where the road turned into ascent again. Soon I passed a sign claiming that the Coll de la Trapa was 2 km ahead (at 7%), so I thought that would be the second named col from our elevation profile (since I was convinced that I had found and marked all named cols while preparing the daily stages). The pass was visible from far away, cutting through a narrow ridge of brown and orange rocks up ahead. That is where I expected Willem to be waiting for me, but when I reached the col sign at 1321 metres, he was nowhere to be found.
I became a bit nervous, immediately thinking that he must have crashed on the descent before, and I passed him without noticing. Typical. So I tried to call Willem, but he did not pick up for more than ten minutes, and each unanswered call made me more and more nervous. I was so sure he would wait at a named col, that I really could only think that something bad must have happened. It took almost twenty minutes until he finally called me back, just to tell me that he was already in the next village, since we were not yet at the col marked on our profile. He was right, that col was still ten kilometres further… I was happy that Willem was alive, but not so happy knowing that now I had to descend again and this was not even the actual col.
These pretend-peaks (or wannabe-cols) just kept coming that day. Anyway, I went after Willem. The 2500 metre tall peaks of Pedraforca were busy producing dark storm-clouds to my right, so I even got a few drops of rain on my way up-and-down before escaping to the sunny village of Gósol, where my partner in crime was working hard on his tan-lines leaning against the fence on the side of the road. We had a bite and filled up our bidons again at the local cafe, but we did not sit down to take a break, because we knew the next day would be very heavy, and we would have preferred getting to the finish line early to have enough time to rest. In no time we were back at 7%, which lasted for three kilometers before reaching the Coll de Josa at an altitude of 1620 metres.
Officially, this – together with the two previous unnamed or omitted-from-the-profile cols – was a very long 2nd category climb at an average of not much more than 3%, but as I already said it, average gradients do not tell half of the story… It was a warm day, even that high it was still 21 degrees. After taking the must-have col-photos, we started a long, fast descent through the pine forest. First down to the valley of the Riu de Cerneres, then following the stream past the villages of Josa del Cadi and Tuixent, whose houses were sitting in tight concentric clusters on top of small peaks above to road. Then we had to leave the main road towards the North, which meant climbing again.
Steep and less steep sections followed each other once more, the first 5 km came at 5% up to Cornellana, then following a bit of a mild downhill we got almost 1 km at 12% right past Fórnols del Cadí. Finally after another rolling section we got to tackle the final 2.5 km at 6% which led up to the 3rd categrory Coll de la Trava to an altitude of 1480 metres. The rest of the stage was a long downhill to La Seu d’Urgell, that provided a quick glimpse of the snow-capped mountains towards the heart of the Pyrenees, but also the only crappy road-surface of the whole tour, which made a large section of the descent pretty annoying. We arrived to the finish in 30 degrees Celsius, with unmistakable signs suggesting that thunderstorms were on the menu for later that day.
Our hotel was perfectly fine again, so far we had no complaints about the accommodation anywhere. After our afternoon rituals, we first went to the local supermarket to get some snacks and drinks for the evening and the next stage. Our best find was a pot of fresh guacamole sauce that we ate with a bag of tortilla chips on our balcony while watching the rain we had just escaped by running from balcony to balcony (a very useful Spanish architectural trend in that regio), and enjoying the fresh, cool breeze. The pizza bread was also nice – we had no issues with the post-ride calorie intake. Later that night we also made it to a proper restaurant, where I had a nice plate of salmon in a vegetable sauce, followed by watermelon ice cream that contained some alcohol too. Willem probably took some goat cheese salad with fries and red wine, like every other day…
To be continued…