Day Three: Ax-les-Thermes to Seu d’Urgell

15th June 2016

The ride today was one of the most dramatic, certainly one of the most tiring, I have ever done and involved three countries; France, Andorra & Spain.

We started breakfast at 07.30 & everyone seemed in good spirits although there were some tired legs from the previous day & a degree of trepidation about the day ahead which we were told was a day of two halves; the first part up & the second part down!

The ‘up’ bit started straight away as we left the very pleasant Hotel Le Chalet at 08.30. This was after I’d fixed a rear flat as my tyre seemed to have lost air overnight & was virtually empty of air. That fixed, dirty hands cleaned, we were off.

The road we were on was the main route into Andorra so we were all mindful of the traffic and tried to stay in the bike lane although this was often far too gritty to trust & the very thing to almost guarantee more punctures.

The first water stop at around half way up our morning climb saw most riders fairly relaxed & somewhat relieved at the gradients, which although they saw us clocking up the metres, were not too tiring on the legs.

The second half of the climb was somewhat different, as we got progressively higher & colder, with glimpses of snow ahead & waterfalls cascading dramatically around us & into deep gorges below. However the view, looking back was amazing & I think we all marveled at where we’d come from, the long road up the valley & the switchback up to the peak.

At around 2,000 metres we met the wind, which became progressively worse, mostly in our face & I would estimate blowing at force 7, at times. It made for very difficult & dispiriting climbing, not least as we kept meeting false summits, whilst being painfully aware of a building at the top of the mountain & each time thinking ‘it can’t be that one, surely’ (& of course it was). I’m sure as a ski resort, this area is both popular & fun but the buildings are pretty grim – either multi coloured and rather weird or dark grey stone & forbidding looking. We did see the Canondale official bike team car parked there & it’s not difficult to see why they would choose this area for cycle training.

The feelings, upon reaching Port d’Envalira (the highest paved road in Europe & regular feature of the Tour de France) at 2,408 metres was one of huge relief but also the awareness that we were instantly very cold & staring at a long descent which would make us much colder, so we were all frantically searching our day bags for extra layers, long fingered gloves and wind proofed jackets.

The descent was nothing short of tremendous, but the strong winds, which affected us according to the direction of travel made it essential to keep the bike balanced & upright & at times, even on steep descents, meant we had to pedal to keep up any sort of speed.

Ever resourceful, the lead group found a café, half way down the first main descent & the coffees & hot chocolates tasted like nectar. It took Sylvana fully 20 minutes to stop shivering even though by now there was intermittent sunshine on the terrace. You might ask why we didn’t go inside but it would have been a shame to miss the opportunity to soak up the dramatic mountain scenery.

Lunch was by a dramatic waterfall, at a picnic area, where there was the usual impressive spread. The only problem was that the wind was by now simply howling & playing havoc with our lunches and body temperature so blankets were passed around, shelter sought in the van & every means used, to keep warm & stoke up on food. Hot tomato soup was a firm favourite. Judith at this point asked where my helmet was. The answer ‘on my head where it should be’ would have been a wrong one although that’s where I thought it was. I’d left it at the café & had cycled down at high speed with nothing more than a skullcap for protection – gulp. The support angels were good enough to drive back & hopefully make me DA compliant & just a little more protected.

Our transfer back into Spain was pretty un-dramatic although our small group was asked for passports, where many of the others, even those in cars, were not. The question ‘en vacance’? seemed to me particularly daft, although I don’t suppose it’s beyond comprehension (not!) that we were part of some professional cycling group.

Even with all the traffic (& one major accident that had just occurred), I enjoyed the ride through Andorra’s main town as the road surfaces were good, it was mostly down hill & fast & we were beginning to see the end of the day’s ride.

Our hotel is a ‘Parador’, one of many government run hotels in Spain, mainly in historic/character buildings. Ours (Paradores Seu d’Urgell) is particularly pleasant with a lock up for the cars & bikes & it appears we’re sharing it with an English veteran car group who have an impressive bunch of old Rileys, Austins & one particularly lovely Lagonda, all from around the 1920’s.

So, in a rather nice room, bathed, rested and having done my diary, it’s time to go & meet the Group for a little R&R!

Statistics for the Day;
51.6 miles
11.4 mph average
1833 metres of climbing
4 hours 30 minutes in the saddle

strava