I didn’t really expect to be riding my bike again in France, but when Andrew (our tour leader from 2017) emailed me an invitation to join the 2019 trip to France and Spain, I jumped at it.
It was just 4 days after the passing of my wife Merryl, and I knew I’d need a goal to work towards in the future months to help get me through the difficult time that was follow.
So, after quite a few months of training, I’m ready to leave for France on 12th July.
Apologies to my blog followers for not keeping you up to date. Yes I’m back home after my riding adventure. Still suffering from what I’m calling the Spanish flu – some sort of upper respiratory complaint anyway. However I did manage to get back on the bike in the last 3 days in Girona, doing shorter rides (35 to 45 klms) at a more leisurely pace with a few of the group who were not looking to do the longer rides. I’ll be honest and say that I didn’t enjoy the riding in Spain quite as much as in France, but that’s just a personal preference. The trip has been very enjoyable and my riding mates have been great company both on and off the bike. I still find it hard to believe just how fortunate I’ve been to have experienced riding many of the classic climbs of the Tour de France and the Spanish Vuelta. Thanks to my blog followers for your interest and support. On some days these have numbered over a hundred. I hope you’ve enjoyed following my travels and the photos and videos. I’ve attached just a few final photos of Girona to finish up with.
On Monday we packed up our bikes and headed further east to the city of Girona in the north-eastern region of Catalonia. Girona is steeped in history with some of its architecture dating back to medieval times and its walled old city to Roman periods. It has a population of about 100 thousand people and interestingly, is home to over 150 professional cyclists.
After arriving, I made a beeline to the doctor to try to get some relief from the virus I’ve been suffering from. Her orders were no bike riding for a few days so I could build up my strength again. So this first post from Girona covers my first day of sightseeing as a tourist and my second day when I took myself on a 50 minute bus ride to the beach. Hopefully I’ll be back on the bike before the end of the week, but in the meantime I’m enjoying chilling out in a very warm and lovely place.
After a day off the bike due to rainy weather, the group was keen to get out and climb as many metres as they could. There are so many climbs into the mountains from Andorra la Vella that you would need to spend a couple of weeks here to ride them all. Many have featured in the Vuelta (the Spanish equivalent of the Tour de France) which takes place in September and we have been passed by many pro team riders who have been training on the mountains. The first climb of the day (and my only one) was to the ski station of Arcalis which is 2,229 mtrs above sea level. This climb featured in the 2016 Tour de France and has also been in the Vuelta 5 times. It was upwards pretty much from our hotel for 18 klms at an average of 6.2% gradient, but early on in the climb it was over 8%. My Garmin bike computer said I climbed 1,114 metres and I rode 43.2 klms at an average of 15.3 kph. My average heart rate has been 109 for the last couple of rides which is low for me and is probably an indication of the upper respiratory virus I’ve had over that time. When I got to the 7.5 klm marker, I really thought I’d have trouble getting to the top today but the gradient flattened out towards the top, which helped me get there in time to see the rest of the group head off for their second climb of the day. I was happy just to sit in the sun (it was very cold up there) and enjoy a coffee before descending the mountain to our hotel.
On our second ride in Andorra, the local tourist office provided us with a guide for our ride. Inka was a lovely Spanish girl who spoke good English and was a pretty mean bike rider. She took us up the 2,302 mtrs high Port de Cabus – for us a climb of 1,141 metres over 18 klms averaging 6.2% but with stretches up to double that gradient. I found it the toughest ride of our trip so far. In all, I rode 42 klms in 2 hours 50 minutes for an average of 15 kph. Although the scenery was not quite as spectacular as the day before, we rode to the Spanish border at the top of the climb.
Andorra la Vella is located high in the east Pyrenees mountains between France and Spain. It is the capital of the small independent country of Andorra which has a history dating back to the 11th century. It’s main industry is tourism and it is know as a duty-free retail hub. It also earns considerable foreign income from being a tax haven with only a 4% tax. The country has about 70,000 inhabitants but in the winter hosts up to 6 million visitors. It is one of Europe’s most popular ski resorts. We stayed in a small hotel of 40 rooms named Arbella, located in the upper suburb of Ordino.
It’s therefore not surprising that our first ride was to the Col d’Ordino, because the road when right past our hotel. The Col is 1,980 metres above sea level but from our hotel it was a climb of 690 metres over 9.9 klms. It was a steady ride averaging about 7% gradient and I rode 20.5 klms in all over an hour and 35 minutes. The ride featured in the 2015 Vuelta (Spain’s version of the Tour de France) but I doubt that the riders had time to look at the amazing views along the way.
After leaving Argeles Gazost, we drove partly across and partly under (via a very long tunnel) the Pyrenees to the Spanish town of Jaca where we planned to stay 2 nights on our way west to Andorra and Girona. Jaca’s history dates back to the 11th century but it was most famous as a 16th century military stronghold against a possible French invasion. The city is a combination of old and new, with narrow streets lined with modern shops and outdoor restaurants and a population of about 13 thousand people. Our first night there was very hot and when the air-conditioning turned off at midnight we sweltered. In the morning we headed out on a 54 klm ride into the lower parts of the Pena Oroel, a mountain overlooking Jaca, 1,769 mtrs above sea level. The ride up wasn’t too severe at a average of about 6%. I rode for 2 and a half hours at an average of 21.5 kph, ascending 833 metres. Unfortunately on the downhill, Glenn, one of our very good riders, crashed off the road and broke his collar bone and a couple of ribs. Unbelievably, he rode back to the hotel before being taken to hospital. That night we returned to same restaurant as the night before to sample some different delicacies on the 16 euro 3 course menu. On the following morning some of the group headed out for another ride before we packed our bikes into the van. I chose to ride the short but steep ride up to the old fortress above the city and was rewarded with spectacular views of the city and surrounding countryside. Then it was off on a 5 hour drive further west to Andorra.
Sunday was our last day in Argeles Gazost and to mark the occasion the town celebrated with a monster market night, (my take anyway). We’ve been to a few markets in Argeles but this was by far the best. I hope I’ve captured some of the atmosphere in the photos and video. It was sad saying goodbye to Kiwin and Deloris (Monsieur and Madame Taik-Colpi) our hosts at the Hotel Beau Site on the following morning, as we packed our bikes in the van and headed across the Pyrenees to Jaca in Spain.
Today we tackled one of the more difficult climbs in the area – to the Ski terminus of Hautacam. the climb is about 13 klms, although we added another klm by riding up to the cafe at La Tramassel on the top of the mountain. It’s 1,520 mtrs above sea level and we ascended !,390 klms from where we started at the base of the climb in the Pau valley. Although it averages 7.5% gradient, there are some quite long stretches of 9 and 10 and even 14%. In all I rode 49 klms in just over 3 hours for an average speed of nearly 16 kms p/hr. My average heart rate was 116 – getting lower which I think indicates I’m getting fitter. The scenery along the way was spectacular as usual, although when I reached the top it was covered in cloud, so I couldn’t see much. After a quick coffee, the ride down was exciting, although I was a little restrained only hitting 62 klm/hr. (think I’m being a bit more cautious, remembering what happened last time I was over here). On our way home, we took a little diversion to do a bit more climbing up to the small town of Saint-Savin before heading home to Argeles Gazost to watch the finish of the Tour de France stage for the day.
Today we travelled by car to Pau to experience the Tour de France individual time trial first hand. This was preceded by the women’s race around the 27 klm course. The time trial is a specialist discipline with the riders wearing aero-dynamic gear and bikes to try to shave seconds off their time around the course. The stage was won by the current Tour GC leader and “maillot jaune” (yellow jersey) wearer, Alaphilippe. For me, a highlight of the day was meeting up with my mate Trevor Rickard and partner Anne, who had been walking on the Camino Trail.
On Day 5 we decided to tackle one of the Tour classics – the Col d’Aspin, and because the Tour would be finishing reasonably close-by at Bagneres de-Bigorre, we thought we could take in some of the Tour hype on our ride. To get to Bagneres de-Bigorre, we first rode down the bike path to Lourdes for 8 klms and then over the Col de la Croix Blanche for 13 klms. We stopped off at
Sainte-Marie de-Campan for lunch and then headed up the road towards Col d’Aspin. However we’d left our run too late, as the gendames had closed the road with 8 kms to go, because of the Tour. We headed back along the 20 klms of beautiful fast road to Bagneres de-Bigorre which the Tour riders would be doing in another 4 hours and managed to check out the team buses etc at the finishing line, before heading for home. I managed to take a wrong turn on the way, which gave me another 10 klms of secret training, but I still managed to get back to Argeles Gazost to see the Tour finish on TV at the pub. It was a big day. I rode 114 klms in 5 and a quarter hours, ascended 1,433 mtrs and burned 2,044 calories, some of which I replaced in the pub afterwards.