Unknown roads, huge vistas and challenging climbs — no wonder the Pyrenees mountains draw so many cyclists from around the world. In just a day you can find yourself on deserted roads with epic views, Classic Segments and climbs from some of the most historic races. Strava recently traveled to Catalonia in northern Spain to ride the Pirineus Orientals.
The last of Friday night’s revellers were still sitting under the palm trees outside the beachfront bars as we left our hotel in Sitges, near Barcelona before Sunday’s dawn. Our destination: Pavé Culture Cycliste, the renowned road bike shop in Barcelona, where its club members and guides from Thomson Bike Tours, were waiting to take us on a special excursion into the Pyrenees.
The eastern Pyrenees, or Pirineus Orientals in Catalan, are a little way north, but few would think you could experience such stunning mountain scenery only 90 minutes from La Rambla in the centre of town. Further west, they’re known as the Judgement Mountains; in the weeks before our trip they had treated the 2014 Volta a Catalunya stage race to sleet and rain, but the morning we drove to Ribes de Freser they were dressed in long white coats, after perhaps the last snowfall of the year, pristine in the low morning sun, rising over the meadows and foothills, sitting and waiting to pass judgement upon us
Our lead guide, Sergi, had devised a mountainous route that would take even the experienced locals on to unknown roads and out of their comfort zone – over the little-ridden Coll de Jou, the long Coll de la Crueta, the steep Collet de les Barraques and the Planoles-Campelles “secret” road. Sergi knows something about climbing – he is the current Strava KOM on the Vuelta’s legendary Angliru climb – and, having lived there all his life something about riding the region around Barcelona.
After the second coffee of the morning in Ribes de Freser we set off over the railway tracks and into the cold shadowy lee of the mountain, climbing slowly and gently up the side of the Freser valley on the Col de Jou. We’d been a little worried that riding with such a mountain-conditioned group of riders would be hard work for our city-conditioned legs, but the Pavé clubmen were welcoming riding companions for the day. Many of them were sporting moustaches, which they were growing for Pavé’s celebrated annual Moustache Ride in May – not least of them was Javier Maya, Pavé’s owner, who, as we relaxed into our climbing rhythm, rode up and down the group chatting and telling stories.
At the sleepy village of Bruguera, the road ramped up and turned into a tiny broken concrete track with 12% and 14% sections under pine trees, before opening out to huge vistas of the Pyrenees towards the top.
The descent was similarly rutted and broken and had to be taken with caution, but we regrouped for the ride through the valley on the main road to Ripoll to the drag up to the Coll de la Crueta – 8 kilometres of climbing even to reach the bottom of the Crueta, which over the next 20 kilometres rises 933 metres to a height of 1,932 metres. This road featured in the Volta a Catalunya, and the Strava leaderboard is dominated by pros from that race – though you’ll also see Levi Leipheimer up on there, from a ride in 2006. Up at nearly 2,000 metres the spring sun had little warmth. The wind whipped over the snow heaped in small piles by the road, so we only stopped to collect wind jackets and some sweet sustenance from the Thomson vans before descending back down into the warmth, 20 kilometres to the Collet de les Barraques.
Unlike the others, this was an up-and-back climb and, while some took the road back to the start for early refreshments, we tackled the quiet forest road up through the trees. The rest area at the top was idyllic but the climb, though beautiful and peaceful, was less so: an unrelentingly steep 9km, it has only ever once featured in top-level racing, in the Volta a Catalunya 1984. The papers at the time reported a terrible battle for supremacy in which the Spaniard Pedro Muñoz crossed swords with two Colombians, eventually besting them to take the Queen Stage of the race.
From the top of the Collet we descended again to the foot of the final climb of the day, a road that we would not have found without the guiding skills and the unparallelled local knowledge of our guides. It was another concrete back road, one of the many that criss-cross the area and are used for the transhumances, the traditional mass movement of livestock from their winter shelter in the lowlands to the mountain pastures of summer. When they aren’t covered with sheep, the transhumances routes are deserted, and hours can pass without seeing a car. And though the climb to Campelles was only small in comparison with the previous ones, sections of 15% in the final kilometre definitely made their mark – Pyrenean roads are likely to pitch up in your face with little warning, unlike those in the Alps or most mountain ranges in the US, where gradients are consistently more shallow. It’s no surprise, said Sergi, that local riders such as Joaquim Rodríguez are such accomplished climbers.
From Campelles, it was an easy descent to Ribes de Freser, where showers and a big dinner awaited. After 124km and 3,350m of climbing on beautiful roads and in good company we deserved it.