3 countries, 2 days.

11 08 2009

On Friday afternoon I decided to go for a weekend ride. So I spent a little while looking at google map, and thought riding to Andorra would be possible. Then I went out to watch the magic / dancing fountain in the city and failed to pack to leave. So instead I worked all day Saturday.

It is not all bad news, because I took Monday off instead. I still had two days, and I thought I would need them – the route I had drawn went up into Andorra, and was more than 200km long. Ambitious, maybe, but I figured if it all fell apart I could take another day without any drama. I also noticed that my route would go past a tiny village called Urtx, and this rang a bell, because I remembered I had met someone who lived there many years ago. I actually noticed this about 10pm Saturday, and fired of an email in the hopes that they might get it before I got to Urtx.

We are men, men in tights

We are men, men in tights

So I caught the train to Ripoll, to skip some of the bits between the coast and the mountains. Normally not so exciting, except due to railway construction, the departure station had changed, but once I worked out that it wasn’t a big deal. I had my bike after all. I met three local cyclists on the train, Nico, Josep-Maria and … (my memory sucks). They were off for a vuelta in the mountains as well, maybe a bit shorter though. They told me there could be rain. I hadn’t bothered to check, because: 1. It is the mountains, you can get anything, anytime; 2. it has been beautiful and warm in Barcelona for months; 3. I was going anyway. Rain, pah! You don’t scare me 😉

After coffee (obligatory), and a photo, we headed north, together for a few km. Then I was alone, and charged up the first pass. I love the feeling of flying up a hill. Sure it takes effort, but it feels great (I also like it on the motorbike, much much less effort, but it still feels great). On the bike 25-30km/h is flying. This pass was only at 1800m (I started at 800m), so (Adelaide alert) kind of like climbing lofty. In the Pyrenees, with mountains all around. Ok, nothing like anything in Australia, but it was 1000m up. It had already started raining, but it stopped and started and wasn’t too bad.

I then raced down in to the valley, and stopped into Urtx. The village is lovely! (as are many of them in northern Catalonia). My friend hadn’t rung or texted. No matter, filled my water bottles at the village water tap (there’s an essay on that alone), and headed off to Puigcerda. Right on the border with France. Crossed into France. Now that the borders are effectively uncontrolled, the excitement of changing countries has diminished. The most obvious difference is the number plates on the cars, and the language if you try to talk (difficult while riding uphill 🙂 ). So I had some lunch, found a sign pointing at Andorra, and started off. I knew there was a bit of hill coming, so was a bit nervous when the massive clouds and thunderstorm around, and occasionally overhead.

Why do that?Trundelling up the hill. Crunch, crunch, bang. Something behind me. I turn around to see a car rather gently settle onto it’s roof. Somehow this guy had (going uphill) run off the road and hit a massive rock. Kind of like driving into a brick wall, only there is no give in the rock. Only 30m behind me. (that’s the second time this has happened to me; please, please don’t fall off the road any closer!) So, I and others had to get the bodies out. Luckily the bodies could get themselves out after we got the door open. Amazingly there was only a sore head and a cut foot. Considering the amount of stuff spread around the inside of the car, including heavy stuff like tools, I think they were extremely lucky. Although this probably wont be one of their favourite holiday memories.

So, while I was waiting an eternity (43m according to my bike computer…)  for the circus that is the police, fire and ambulance to arrive at any crash scene, my friend from Urtx rang and texted. Only I was 30m from my bike and didn’t hear a thing. Bugger (found out at 10:30 at night). Also frustrating was the light was fading (due to the clouds from the storm), the approaching sunset and the mountains around. I thought there was no chance of making Andorra, and neither did the very friendly English speaking French policeman (one never thinks those four words would go together, but they do – in this case). But I can try, right?

So off to the next pass, after passing the campground that the aforementioned policeman suggested I stay at. Afterward I realised that this was the last campground for quite some time. In the rain. Occasional hail. A few flakes of snow (no idea what they were doing, it was far too warm for that – maybe they were hail that wanted to be snow). This pass was only 1900m, but steeper than the first, and from the crash site only took 50min. I felt like now would be a great time to find a campsite. And just on the other side of the pass I felt this even stronger, as I rode into the cloud. Somehow it was still raining. So I started looking around for a campsite (this was 7pm, in the mountains in the dying light). Well, there were none. So on I go. I didn’t realise there was another pass of over 2400m coming up. So with no-where to camp I rode past the line of traffic entering France from Andorra, no doubt full of duty free stuff. I got some startled looks and a few words of encouragement. I must have looked a little odd.

the top

The only way is down!

They let me into Andorra. No controls at all (there are controls going out). I guess they figure to get here you have to come from France or Spain, and you will return to France or Spain, so why should they care? Still nowhere to camp. From my dim memory of my last trip, I remembered the town at the border wasn’t far from the pass before going down, down, down. And it isn’t – by motorcycle. The only good news is I was heading East, and so after getting over the top managed to gain a few more minutes of light. It was cold, cloudy, raining (I was pretty well soaked by now). I wanted to stop, but experience tells me that to get over the top and as far down as possible is a good idea (camping on top of anything in a thunderstorm is a good recipe for a bad night). Oh, have I mentioned often enough the massive thunderstorm I had raging around me? I was still having fun.

And then the down… I couldn’t fully enjoy it because of the water on the road, but going down 900m on pretty good road, fast, was fun. It also meant I was getting close to a place to sleep. And my brakes were wearing out. When I saw a sign for campsite I pulled them both on, brake levers hit the handlebars and I slowly sailed past the turn off. I stopped eventually, but it was, err, exciting from then on (I continued to the next campsite, the first was up a side road and I was still looking for a quiet place by the road to camp, which is foolish in Andorra, it is completely impossible). It is impossible to camp outside a campground, because, for the most part Andorra is about 50m wide. A cliff, a river, a road, a house and another cliff. Plenty of the landscape is flat – but also inconveniently vertical.

This is getting slightly longer than I planned.

I found a campsite. Dripped my way into the shower. Finally stopped shivering. Slept like a log. I’d only managed 120km, but had to do 2500m climbing.

This is why I do it!The return trip was more enjoyable. Downhill nearly all day, with an unreliable tailwind. The morning was clear, beautiful blue sky, so I got to see some of Andorra. The afternoon in the mountains (from what I could see) looked like a repeat performance of yesterday. I was a bit surprised to get so much bad weather in August. But it is the mountains.

I had promised myself a downhill day, and for the most part the road delivered. Until I turned left toward Solsona. The map showed this was the shortest way, but the signs to Barcelona all pointed down the road toward Lleida. A short-cut! I should have been immediately suspitious. It has been some time since I’ve got off to push a bike up a hill. Even in the Andes on terrible roads I managed to ride nearly everywhere, but I had to here. Luckily the range wasn’t so high. Also, in my defense I was babying my bike, I managed to snap a spoke coming down from Andorra. On the rear wheel of course, on the driving side. I didn’t have the tools to change it so just rode on. I wonder what it is with me and spokes. Other people ride thousands of km and never have any trouble – in my years of racing MTB, I snapped one. But get me on a touring bike, and PING, there goes another one. I’d better just always carry the right tools.

That’s it really. Pleasant ride in the searing heat (Spain in August = Hot) back toward Barcelona. I was going to ride all the way, but couldn’t find a way out of Manresa that didn’t involve a motorway. Found the train station before a road going the right way. After discussing the traffic intensity between Manresa and Barcelona with the (train) Station Master, decided the train was a good option. And I was buggered (shhh, don’t tell anyone).

2 days: 275km. Moving time 12:25. Elevation gain: 3390m.

Bad tan linesNext weekend: Sleep. Lay on the beach. Do something about my cyclist tan lines.


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