Viva Velo’s Dyll Davies and Guy Apter traveled to Andora with La Vuelta in search of a climber’s Nirvana. The road to cycling heaven is bumpy . . . but well worth it.
Andorra is a country of contrasts and contradictions and Viva Velo’s visit, courtesy of the national tourist board, bore witness to many of them. Blessed with towering peaks and quiet well-surfaced roads that ascend them it also boasts – if that is the right word - the urban sprawl that is Andorra La Vella. The bustling traffic-filled streets of ‘the city’, as locals call it, seem strangely at odds with the surrounding mountains. The largely car-less climbs of the country are often accessed initially by the busy main roads that spiral out from the city. Fortunately Andorran drivers are creatures of habit and there are clearly defined ‘rush hours’ which can be avoided by the canny cyclist but there is no getting around it: cycling in Andorra will mean a trip along a main road at some point. The Andorran authorities are mindful of this though and whenever a road is resurfaced or repaired a bike lane is added to smooth the way to those towering cols – or ‘ports’ as they are referred to locally.
Depending on where you stay though – we were in La Massala north of Andorra la Vella – it is often not long before you leave civilisation behind and find yourself alone with just your thoughts and the nagging pain in your legs! For there is one thing that is certain in Andorra and that is when a local tells you a road is ‘flat’ they mean the gradient won’t exceed 6%. Nothing is flat in Andorra! If your idea of a bike ride is a gentle spin out to a coffee shop for cake, then forget Andorra as a destination. Not that there isn’t plenty of coffee and cake to be had - but you’ll have to earn it first!
But it is certainly worth the effort. Not for nothing - apart from the low rates of income tax perhaps - have 43 world tour professional cyclists taken up residency in the principality. It is surely cycling’s best kept secret. Mallorca and Girona have become popular as training grounds for the aspiring amateur but Andorra still remains largely untouched and we saw few other groups on the road even in the few days before La Vuelta made its entrance… although Dan Martin was definitely following us on our first day!
Our local guide, the excellent Gerard, an ex pro and ‘El Presidente’ of the Andorran Cycling Association, seemed to know everyone we met and he relished showing us the cycling delights of his country. While he smiled gently at our discomfort as he effortlessly climbed out of the saddle on the eye-watering gradients he was attentive and encouraging throughout. As a ride leader and guide myself it was a pleasure to have him with us and we left feeling we had made a real friend of him and our equally helpful and attentive companion from the tourist board, Jordi.
There are 23 marked climbs in Andorra and the most famous are probably those that have been used in the grand tours: La Rabassa, which provided the finale of stage 19 in this year’s Vuelta; the ascent to the ski resort at Arcalis, used three times in the Tour de France; and the 20 kilometre ascent to Port de Cabus, which offers stunning views as it winds its way towards Spain. These are long climbs of 17-20 kilometres with stretches of demanding gradients in excess of 8% for some of their length, but these segments are relatively short – although La Rabassa starts with 5 kilometres of such pain – and the remaining slopes are more manageable. The climbs in the south of the principality though, while shorter, are significantly steeper with multiple kilometres of double digit or nearly double digit percentages. For those that like a challenge the Collada de Beixallis from either side – take your pick from 6.8km at 8% average gradient or 6.3km at 7% - with their ramps of over 20% in places will sap the legs. So too the brutish 11 kilometre ascent (at 9%) of the Collada de la Gallina via Bixessari - ridden just part way in this year’s Vuelta as the finale to the last mountain stage or its baby sister via Fontaneda which measures a kilometre more but rises at a comparatively gentle average of 8%!
Add in the altitude – I definitely took a day or two to acclimatise - and you can see that Andorra is not for the faint-hearted. But if you want peace and quiet – once you leave Andorra La Vella – and a place to test and/or improve your climbing skills, this tiny principality wedged in between France and Spain provides it all. But whisper it quietly or every man jack weekend warrior will be there!
Viva Velo is currently planning a new adventure to take our clients ‘in the wheel tracks of the pros’ to Girona, Andorra and France. Watch this space for updates.