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Mountains of Mallorca

According to Anders, the best 3 rides in Mallorca are Cap Formentor, Sa Collabra and the Ma-10 between Banyalbufar and Andratx. Anders is the very helpful Swedish owner of Bikehead, where Clare rented her bike, and he’s cycled all over Mallorca many, many times … so he should know.

We promised him we’d ride all 3!

Day 5 – Cap Formentor

43km, 1112m climbing, 3hrs

Having driven out to the Cap Formentor lighthouse the year before, we were a bit scared of tackling this spectacular winding road on bikes but it turned out to be a lovely ride and good training for the mountains ahead. Each climb is only about 200m high which is roughly the same as a Bath hill at home. Unlike Bath, there are plenty of scary cliff faces to peer down, the kind that give you tingles.

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The cliffs of Cap Formentor

Andy enjoyed a day cycling without panniers but was less impressed by a very slow puncture that needed pumping up from time to time. I thought it might be slowing me down when an older coupler cruised by on one of the steeper hills using apparently little effort. A bit miffed, I stood up on my pedals to accelerate until I realised they were riding electric bikes.

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A great day out on a bike

Cap Formentor deserves its reputation as a great day out on a bike. Our top tip would be to bring your own lunch so you don’t have to resort to a very expensive potato sandwich from the café next to the lighthouse.

Day 6 – Port de Pollenca to Soller

63km, 1400m climbing, 4hrs 30mins

Our first job was to repair Andy’s slow puncture so we headed to a bike shop to buy a spare inner tube. Hallelujah … there in the back corner was tube of chamois cream!

Aaaaahhhhh …

Climbing at an average gradient of 6% for 7.5 km, the Coll de Femenia was our first proper mountain road since the Pyrenees last year. It felt good to breath in cool mountain air again as I watched Clare race ahead, struggling a little with the weight of the panniers.

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Top of the Coll de Femenia

At the top of this first climb the road rose gently up through some stunning high mountain scenery until we reached a tunnel that marked the start of the descent. Sure enough, we sped down for a few km but our fun was ended abruptly by a sign announcing the start of another climb to the summit … up for another 5 kilometres.

Ouch!

It turns out there are two tunnels. Perhaps we should have looked a little more closely at the map!

When we eventually made it through the real tunnel-at-the-top, the view across the valley in the late afternoon sunlight was worth the effort as was the 18km descent, full of switchbacks down to Soller.

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View down to Soller

Day 7 – Sa Colabra

28km, 1200m climbing, 2hrs 30mins

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The road to Sa Colabra

The road down to the tiny port of Sa Colabra is both an extraordinary feat of engineering and a kind of folly.

Nobody is quite sure why Antonio Parietti, the Italian designer, created it in the 1930’s. Perhaps it was simply for the challenge and sheer joy of it, although it’s unlikely the workers thought so as they laboured to move a million cubic feet of rocks by hand to make room for all the sweeping corners and switchbacks.

Nowadays, it’s recognised as Mallorca’s best bike climb both for the physical challenge and the sheer joy of the incredible scenery. It’s a proper test, averaging 7% for 10km.

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Sweeping corners and switchbacks

We wanted to experience both an ascent and a descent of this iconic road and discovered that we could do so by taking a boat along the coast from Port Soller, returning late afternoon.

As we slowly made our way up from the port, Clare felt full of energy and passed quite a few MAMILS (middle-aged-men-in-lycra) on the climb, somewhat to their surprise.

Andy on the other hand, overtook just one cyclist and he doesn’t really count as he was pushing his bike at the time. I had no panniers holding me back that day so I had no excuses.  It’s the first time I’ve experienced that common cycling cliché … “he just didn’t have the legs!”

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Full of energy

Legs or not, it’s not often a bike rider gets the opportunity to complete a Strava segment with genuine professionals on the leader-board. The current leader of the Sa Colabra climb is Columbian, Sebastian Gomez from Team Sky, who sped up in 24 mins 54 seconds.

My time of 1 hour 52 mins 33 seconds puts me in 48,459th place (out of 48,844). Clare didn’t have Strava turned on, but it’s fair to say she’d be a teeny bit higher up the leader board.

At the top of the climb we were rewarded by the ultimate cyclists’ dream … a nice café with some excellent coffee. And of course, by the opportunity to swoop back down this amazing road in a fraction of the time.

Day 8 – Soller to Portals Nous

63km, 1483m climbing, 4hrs 40mins

The Sunday roads were empty as we climbed out of Soller heading south down the coast, a gentle autumnal mist hanging in the valley behind us.

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Looking back through the mist

This turned out to be a delightful section of the Ma-10, that runs the length of the Tramuntana mountains, full of breathtaking views out to sea from villages that cling to the wooded slopes.  The road is well graded and we only came across one steep section, just south of Deia.

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Stunning sea view

Around midday, we arrived at a junction and had a big decision to make.

Do we turn right and keep our promise to Anders by riding the long way around the coast? Or do we turn left up a shorter inland valley with the promise of Sunday lunch in the small town of Puigpunyent?

We turned left.

Touring cyclists like to experience a variety of different landscapes … and of course, touring cyclists like lunch!

Heading south, the inland route proved to be nearly as beautiful as the coast road, with gentle uphill climbs through vineyards and lemon groves followed by steeper switchbacks on the way down. It was so quiet we could look ahead to check for traffic before trying to take the racing line, almost like real cyclists.

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Autumn vineyards

Day 8 – Back to Palma

20km, 429m climbing, 1hr 30mins

On our last day, we enjoyed a gentle potter along the coast to Palma with time to pedal around the city and enjoy the sights.

Clare’s Spanish must have improved while we’d been away. This time when she ordered asparagus in the local tapas bar, she got asparagus. Vamos!

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Pottering back to Palma

As I’m sure you can tell, we loved our cycle tour around Mallorca and would recommend it to anyone.

The bad news … when we admitted to Anders that we’d only completed 2 of his 3 ‘best rides’, he told us that the one we’d missed (the coast road to Andratx) was the best one of all … by far.

The good news … this means we’ll have to come back.

After all, there many Mallorca’s to discover and we have barely scratched the surface.

Clare and Andy

Many Different Mallorca’s

“You say Majorca, I say Mallorca. Majorca. Mallorca. Majorca. Mallorca. Let’s call the whole thing off!”

As (not exactly) made famous by Ella Fitzgerald

Apparently, we Brits just couldn’t get our tongues round the double “ll” in the Catalan/Spanish spelling of Mallorca … so changed it to Majorca instead.

Nowadays Majorca is often associated with the beer swilling kiss-me-quick antics of Brits in Magaluf. But there are lots of other Mallorca’s to discover and a bicycle tour around the island is a perfect way to do so.

For those of you who might be even a little bit tempted to cycle there, here are the places we visited plus a few things that happened to us along the way.

Day 1 – Palma

Palma is a beautiful and fascinating old city with a history that embraces Islam and Christianity in equal measure. We spent one day exploring but you could happily enjoy several days there seeing the sights, discovering the art, wandering the back streets, eating the tapas, drinking the wine.

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The Spanish certainly know how to build cathedrals!

There’s lots to discover simply by wandering around. We came across this strange English Bookshop, an Aladdin’s Cave of assorted clutter overseen by an old chap who might have apporated straight out of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley and spent much of his time shouting at customers because they were disturbing him from catching up on Strictly Come Dancing.

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How do you find anything?

As you’d expect, Palma is full of lovely small restaurants and this gave Clare a perfect opportunity to practise her Spanish. When she ordered asparagus but was served cuttlefish, she decided she might have a bit more to learn! Fortunately, it was delicious.

Day 2 – Palma to Cala D’Or

90km, 644m climbing, 5hrs 30mins (too long but easier for the next 2 days)

To be honest we found it a little difficult to hire bikes that came with racks for our panniers in Palma. There are plenty of shops renting out either fast road bikes or slow city-bikes-with-baskets but touring bikes are few and far between.

We found one in Andy’s large size at Nano Bicycles but there was nothing for Clare in a small size at all … which meant it became her lucky week! Deciding that we could manage with just two panniers, she was now free to try out a superfast Cannondale Supersix EVO Di2 from Bikehead, complete with electric gear shifters no less. It was light enough to pick up with one finger!

So the Girl Racer and her Packhorse eventually rode out of Palma and onto the long beach strip that runs south-east of the city. It was packed with day cyclists and we were relieved to escape into the quiet country lanes south of Llucmajor and head down to the lovely coastal town of Colonia de Saint Jordi.

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The Girl Racer
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Her Packhorse

As we stopped for a drink and large slice of apple cake, we realised we’d already ridden 60km which is normally enough for us. We probably should have stayed overnight in Saint Jordi but we’d already booked a small guesthouse in Cala d’Or further round the coast, so we climbed back on our bikes and pushed on.

After the hilltop town of Santanyi, we headed down a rough track through a national park on one of Andy’s dreadful detours to a small bay called Cala Mondrago. Luckily, it was worth it and from there the south-east corner of the island became both surprising and delightful as we explored the port of Porto Pedro and arrived in Cala d’Or.

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Cala d’Or

Cala d’Or means Golden Bay in Spanish and it certainly lives up to its name. Built around no less than five small inlets, including a spectacular marina, it is both manicured and affluent. Unsurprisingly we heard lots of Scandinavian voices and saw plenty of German newspapers protecting sunbeds on the pristine beaches. They know how to find the best places!

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One of five inlets at Cala d’Or

After a long ride, Andy was once again on a quest. Not for safety pins this time but for some soothing chamois cream to ease the saddle sores that were developing beneath my cycle shorts. Foolishly I’d left my tube on the kitchen table back at home. No luck … none of the bike-hire shops sold chamois cream, or indeed any of the other normal biking accessories. Clare suggested using sun cream instead … and I must admit it did help … a little.

Day 3 – Cala d’Or to Arta

64km, 718m climbing, 4hrs 30mins

This part of Mallorca was so pretty that it was tempting to linger. We pottered up the coast to the broad bay of Portocolom for coffee and then onto the working marina at Portocristo. Here we came across some port workers enjoying their Menu del Dias lunch, washed down by a surprising quantity of wine. It seemed rude not to join them.

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Do I really have to cycle this afternoon?

A good lunch, a few glasses, a swim, a lie on the beach later we reluctantly decided to pedal on, heading inland to link up with the Via Verde cycle track which follows a disused railway line that used to connect Manacor to Arta.

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The Via Verde

The Via Verde is a gravel track, tricky on the slim tyres of Clare’s deluxe road bike but perfect for my touring hybrid. There was so little traffic, I felt able to pedal whilst studying the map on the phone on my handlebars, completely forgetting the wooden barriers that blocked the path from time to time. It was a sudden but reasonably gentle crash, panniers flying but no other damage. A bit like a horse refusing a jump. Stupid boy!

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Stupid boy!

It was fun to roll into the old station at Arta making train noises. Less fun but very therapeutic was the guest house plunge pool we used as an ice-bath to ease our tired muscles. Just as well … there was still no chamois cream to be found anywhere!

Day 4 – Arta to Port de Pollenca

66km, 526m climbing, 4hrs

The only road out of Arta was the main Ma-12 but it turned out to be much nicer than we’d expected.  After a short climb, we rolled gently downhill for nearly 10km, feeling very smug as we passed a few cyclists puffing their way up in the opposite direction.

Knowing that the northern coastal strip was less interesting, we turned inland and immediately discovered yet another Mallorca. One of pretty remote farmhouses, surrounded by olive groves that were filled with sheep turned brown by the rust coloured earth, bells tinkling from their necks.

The backroads took us through several traditional Mallorcan walled towns in quick succession … Santa Margalida, Muro, Sa Pobla. Each with tightly packed streets and a church dominating the central square.

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The church at Muro

Then, we turned into the stunningly beautiful valley where Andy decided to take off with the peloton until Clare summoned me back to bring the inner tube for her puncture…

Once we’d recovered from all the hilarity, we cruised gently down to Port de Pollenca, our home for the next two nights and one of the most popular cycling destinations in the world. Cyclists come here in their thousands to tackle the challenge of the Formentor lighthouse and to climb the Tramuntana mountains.

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Looking across the bay at Port de Pollenca

Just what we were planning … let’s hope Andy found some chamois cream first!

We’ll let you know how we got on in our next post.

Clare and Andy

The Mallorcan Peloton

The first riders flew past as we turned the corner into a quiet country road that ran down a stunningly beautiful valley. It was three days into our bicycle tour around the island of Mallorca and we had just reached the north-west, one of the world’s most popular cycling destinations.

This back road turned out to be a home run for many serious cyclists who were coming down from an epic day of climbing through the Serra de Tramuntana mountains. In groups of two, three, four, even ten riders they effortlessly cruised past us, calling out a cheery ola or vamos before disappearing down the road. Some of them couldn’t hide their surprise at the unlikely sight of our bulging bike panniers on this unofficial racing circuit.

A loud whirring sound announced a much bigger peloton of about thirty riders cresting the hill behind us. They were moving very fast! For Andy, the opportunity to join in was too much to resist so I moved up a gear and accelerated, legs pumping furiously, sweat dripping from my helmet and the panniers almost jumping off my rack. As I was swept up round the next bend, all Clare could see was a yellow helmet disappearing into the pack and out of sight.

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An unlikely racer

This was my first experience of riding in such a large group of cyclists and the sensation was exhilarating! It seemed like twice the speed for half the effort as I was sucked into a pocket of air created by the riders in front. As the road twisted and turned down towards the coast, we rode at a much faster pace than I was used to. I can now understand why so many riders in the Tour de France shelter in the middle of a big group all day.  It’s so much easier!

Feeling like a real cyclist at last, I held a position in the middle of the group for several kilometres before slowly slipping to the back as the weight of my panniers began to take their toll.

It was only then that I glanced down at my phone and spotted several missed calls from Clare. Oops! Much to the amusement of the other riders, this meant an abrupt end to the fun as I thanked them and jammed on the brakes.

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Clare at the Cap de Formentor Lighthouse

It’s true, I had heard a loud cry of alarm from Clare as I’d first raced off but had dismissed it as one of the “don’t be so **** stupid” variety. Surely, she can’t be lost? There weren’t any other roads to go down.

Not lost … stuck!

As luck would have it a large thorn had popped open her front tyre at exactly the same moment I’d accelerated away to join the peloton.

This would normally have given her an opportunity to practise her newly acquired bike maintenance skills but that very morning she’d taken the spare inner tube out of her saddle bag. Apparently it was getting in the way of her large store of snacks! Instead, the tube was in one of my panniers now several weary kilometres down the road.

So ended my only experience in a peloton. When I told her about it, Clare quickly decided it wasn’t for her … “I want to use my own energy thank you very much. I don’t want to be crushed by a pack or pulled along by anyone else.” The spirit of a true independent touring cyclist!

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The Soller Valley

This incident was part of a delightful 10 days we recently spent cycle-touring around Mallorca. It’s a wonderful place to explore on a bike, especially in the Spring or Autumn when it’s usually pleasantly warm and sunny.

If you followed our ride from Bath to Barcelona last year, you’ll know that we were planning another longer bike tour this Autumn. As it turned out we weren’t able to get away for long enough, so a ride around Mallorca was a perfect short break instead.

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One of the many bays at Cala d’Or

Only last summer the Telegraph ran a feature on Mallorca under the headline:

Is this the world’s greatest destination for cycling?

It could be … the island attracts over 150,000 cyclists a year including many world class teams who love it for pre-season training.  Most are real cyclists from flat countries attracted by the spectacular climbs in the north and west. Indeed, there are so many people peddling up and down the more famous climbs that it can feel a bit like a ski resort … with cyclists replacing skiers.

These climbs are not so long or so steep to put off the humble older touring cyclist. Perhaps emboldened by our trip through the Pyrenees, we spent several days in the Mallorcan mountains and really enjoyed it.

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A typical inland view

You don’t have to hit the hills though as there are plenty of beautiful, quiet, flatter routes around the coast and across the interior. With lovely places to stay, wonderful food to eat and plenty of interesting things to do off the bike, Mallorca is an ideal destination for touring.

But surprisingly we only saw one other cyclist with panniers.  Perhaps this blog will inspire more people to take a bicycle tour round the island – it’s a great place for a first trip.

Here’s our route, we’ll let you know how we got on in a few days’ time.

Clare and Andy

Mallorca Map 2

To arrive where we started

It felt like the only thing to do. The right thing to do. Waking up on our last day in Barcelona we cancelled plans for more museum tours, dug the bikes out of the hotel basement and took them on one final ride around the city. They were delighted to be out in the fresh air … and so were we.

We showed them all the city sights including the Olympic Stadium, Las Ramblas and the Mediterranean beaches where we all gazed out to sea dreaming of future adventures together.

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Olympic Park
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Barceloneta

It turned out to be our favourite day in this magical city – better than the Gaudi, better than the old city, better even than the great restaurants. Perhaps this means all four of us (two bikes & two people) have now officially caught that notoriously infectious bicycle-touring-bug.

Then we collected some large cardboard boxes from a local bike shop (ones that new bikes come in) and carefully packed them up. A daunting prospect beforehand, this ended up much easier than we had expected.

Here’s all we did:

  • Removed anything that stuck out (like the top box mounts)
  • Removed the pedals and front wheel
  • Twisted the handlebars, parallel with the frame
  • Put the saddles down
  • Took some air out of the tyres
  • Protected anything delicate with cardboard (like derailleurs)
  • Wrapped them up in lots of bubble wrap and tape.

The main problem was filling the space around the bikes so they didn’t rattle around. Stuffing our clothes and panniers down the side wasn’t enough until Clare came up with an inspired idea to pad the space with lots (yes, lots) of kitchen roll, which was light and exactly the right length.

The bike boxes just fitted into a large taxi to the airport and Easy Jet looked after them nicely on the flight to Bristol. We were rescued from an airport rebuild by Andy’s parents who squeezed us into their small campervan for the journey back to Bath.

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A tight fit in the campervan

Frank Sinatra once sang
“… it’s oh so nice to go trav’ling, but it’s so much nicer to come home …”

And it was … home cooked food, a familiar bed, even catching up on 8 weeks of Strictly Come Dancing!

Having never been away for so long before, we were surprised that some appliances had stopped working in our absence. A flat car battery was predictable but the washing machine had also gone on strike as the pump was jammed by sediment that had slowly settled during the last two months.

Encouraged by his new bike maintenance skills, Andy decided to fix it himself but only managed to flood the kitchen twice before giving up and calling a plumber. A reminder of those early puncture repairs but at least all that Spanish kitchen roll came in handy!

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As we arrived home, Bob T sent us this lovely phrase from Little Gidding by TS Eliot:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

After living for so long in our bicycle bubble, coming home did feel a little like that. We briefly looked at Bath through the eyes of a visitor – as a beautiful and distinctive Georgian city that’s feels like a great place to live. It was good to be back.

As I’m sure you can tell, we’ve both loved our first bicycle tour and would recommend the sense of freedom it gave us to anyone.

Talking to many of our friends it seems that men are often (not always) a bit keener to go on a bike tour than women are. So for couples like us, no longer in the first flush of youth and who haven’t done lots of cycling before, here are Clare’s ’12 top tips’ to help other women enjoy it as much as she did:

  1. You don’t have to be super fit – fitness develops as you cycle.
  2. Buy decent equipment – a good bike and saddle become your friends.
  3. Cycling shorts with padded underwear are surprisingly comfortable – wear Lycra when you want to feel more sporty.
  4. You can happily exist without many clothes – as women’s clothes are lighter than men’s, it’s OK to include a few extras.

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  1. Take a luxury item – not necessarily a hair dryer (though I’d take it again!)
  2. Make him carry more weight – it will help him feel manly.
  3. Don’t let him be too ambitious with the daily distance – a few hours quality cycling is much better than hours on end.
  4. Make time to see the sights – have rest days in interesting places.
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Moissac Abbey
  1. Make sure you know where you’re going – don’t let him take you on too many ‘dreadful detours’.
  2. Don’t go over any mountains unless you’re sure – I wouldn’t have gone over the Pyrenees if I’d known what it would be like!
  3. Learn a bit about bike maintenance – at least you can give him some advice when he has to mend a puncture.
  4. Always stop for coffee and enjoy all the eating and drinking – you deserve it!

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Thank you for following this blog over the last two months and for all your encouraging comments. Here are just a few of many that made us laugh:

“Cycling is life with the volume turned up.”
Dave H

“Fab inspirational effort. I am planning to cycle into town tomorrow… and back …”
Jonathan S

“What with beard and fishnets, I think Andy is having a retro Kenny Everett moment … and it’s all in the best possible taste!”
Maggie C

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“Canal paths are like fish and chips, nice to start with but then too much and rather boring.”
Judith D

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“Go over the mountains or you will regret it forever. However you will probably curse me all the way up the first 3 hour climb!”
Mark F
(He was right on both counts.)

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There have been a few unintended consequences from our trip:

  • Andy (who was overweight) has lost 12lbs, Clare (who wasn’t) has lost 3lbs despite eating more than she has ever eaten before.
  • Andy is keeping his first beard (for the time being).
  • Most surprisingly, since we got home Clare has been cycling up every Bath hill she can find, knocking minutes off her old times. (Perhaps she does want to go back to the mountains after all?)

So what’s next for us? Now that we have caught the bicycle-touring-bug we plan to do lots more in future. Our bikes are keen too – here they are dreaming of those future adventures on the beach in Barcelona.

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We’ll let you know when the four of us are ready for the next one. Until then … happy pedalling!

Clare and Andy

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The End of the Road

It was with a mixed emotions that we joined the Friday night commuters cycling 8km down the Avinguda Diagonal to the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona’s iconic heart. We pedalled slowly, taking in the moment, reluctant to leave our saddles as we came to the end of our journey.

“Though the roads been rocky, it sure feels good to me.”
Bob Marley

After descending from the Pyrenees earlier in the week, we enjoyed three interesting days in small, historic Catalan towns – Solsano, Cardona and Montserrat. Firmly part of Catalonia, signs of the independence movement are everywhere – from the many yellow and red striped flags hanging from balconies to the extensive use of Catalan as the main (and often only) language in hotels and restaurants. A referendum is muted for September 2017 and it seems, from our brief visit, that the independent spirit is even greater here than it is in Scotland. Interesting times!

We joined the All Saints Day celebrations in Solsano on November 1st by tasting the macaroon pastries and sweet wine that families traditionally share that day to honour their ancestors.

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Another Catalan food that Andy really liked was a breakfast of pa amb tormaquet. This is lightly toasted bread rubbed with lots of garlic, squashed tomatoes, olive oil and salt, eaten with Iberian ham and cheese. Delicious! Clare would really have preferred a big bowl of muesli.

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Cardona is famous for its salt mountain and the impregnable hill top castle built to protect it.

Mined since Roman times, there are 300km of tunnels and galleries running through the salt mountain with tours, of course, conducted exclusively in Catalonian. The castle is now a Parador – a chain of state run hotels that both protect historic buildings across the country and make interesting, unusual places to stay.

Even more spectacular is the monastery at Monserrat, perched precariously 740m up jagged limestone cliffs. Now served by a road, a railway and a cable car it has become one of the biggest tourist destinations in the region with beautiful walks, hotels, restaurants etc. There’s an iconic bike ride up the hill, climbing 600m from the valley below but we quickly agreed to take the funicular railway this time, with all the other sensible people.

In the mountains we had always worn our most serious cycling gear, including the proper padded lycra shorts and tops we had carried through France. It seemed necessary somehow! Now it was back to the favourite old shorts (still held up by safety pins) for the final ride down to Barcelona.

We always thought that last day of cycling from Monserrat to Barcelona would be the most dangerous and so it proved to be, dodging large trucks and speeding cars much of the way. Barcelona is bordered to the north west by a steep, rocky range of hills so all the main roads, rail links and industry are concentrated into two narrow valleys, one to the north and one to the south.

We chose the slightly easier southern route but tried to get off the highways and onto minor roads as much as we could. Unfortunately, the geography often made this impossible so for much of the time we were squeezed into a narrow space between the crash barrier and the trucks. It’s not much fun (especially in tunnels) and needs a lot of concentration. We slotted into our preferred formation of Clare in front and Andy protecting her rear, put our heads down and pedalled furiously. We’d have been a lot less comfortable on roads like this earlier in the trip.

Our attempts to get onto the minor roads meant several more ‘dreadful detours’ as they sometimes morphed unexpectedly into rough tracks. A white line on our map could be a busy dual carriageway through an industrial estate or it could be a winding narrow track that disappears into a footpath. From the map, it’s impossible to tell which is which so it becomes a game of chance.

Our mountain bike practise in the Pyrenees proved invaluable as we negotiated dried river beds and camino (pilgrim) paths. It meant walking a few sections but by this time we were well past caring as we felt safe and anyway, the end was now in sight.

Cycling in Spain has been a bit more challenging than cycling in France as there are a lot less cycle paths, the roads are busier and the highways can be quite narrow. However, most drivers are courteous and the road surface is smooth with very few potholes (helped I suspect by lots of EU money).

So we were relieved to reach the suburbs of Barcelona and the dedicated cycle track down the Avinguda Diagonal was a lovely way to arrive.

We’ve pedalled 2200 km (1375 miles) from Bath to Barcelona, climbed 17,800m and spent 143 hours in our saddles. All with the hairdryer, pillow, pilates balls, beard trimmer, colouring pencils, keyboard and other bits of excess luggage.

After taking some celebration snaps at the Sagreda Familia, we hit the Barca bars to celebrate with our friends, Mark and Susie, who were in town for a conference. They’ve been on biking holidays to Nepal and South America so we happily swapped cycling tales until the restaurant kicked us out in the early hours.

We fly back to Bristol on Wednesday which means that our last task is to pack the bikes (and everything else) in cardboard boxes so they survive the relatively quick journey home.

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When we got to La Rochelle a month ago, we said there were 3 reasons we couldn’t yet call ourselves real cyclists:

  • We like long coffee stops
  • We don’t have a clue how to fix the strange squeaks on our bikes
  • We haven’t been up a real mountain yet

Well, we still like long coffee stops and the squeaks have got louder. But we’ve now been up four mountains (three more than we expected to!) So after several glasses of wine, we agreed that we might just start to begin to think of ourselves as real cyclists – so long as Andy doesn’t always have to wear lycra shorts and Clare doesn’t always have to clip in on both sides!

Clare and Andy

Note: Our final post will include some general reflections about our journey plus a few tips for people who, like us, are new to cycle touring but might be thinking of giving it a go.

Please let us know if there’s anything you’re curious about.

Beauty and the Boy Racer

It turned out our first two days in the Pyrenees were just a warm up for days 3 and 4. Mainly for the scenery but also for the things that happened to us along the way.

On a cloudless Sunday morning we were ready to tackle our third climb, the Port del Canto (part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour de France). For those that don’t know, the Tour has 5 climbing categories defined by their steepness and length. Toughest are ‘hors categorie’ – literally meaning ‘beyond categorisation’ but really meaning climbs for riders that are properly mad. Category 1 climbs are the next most demanding, then 2, 3 and 4.

The Port del Canto is a Category 1 so this meant it was our third such climb in as many days. I must admit we wouldn’t have come this way if we’d known that beforehand (especially with panniers). It climbs more than 1000m over 19km (12 miles) at an average gradient of 5.4% but with several steeper sections. For our Bath readers, that’s the same as 12 Prior Park Hills in a row.

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Clare listened to an audio book (The Miniaturist) to help her through the 2 hour climb whilst also enjoying the spectacular views. For the first time I discovered the power of music, pedalling to the rhythms of Coldplay and the Two Door Cinema Club. I began to understand why people actually enjoy cycling up mountains – I felt stronger, able to increase the pace a little and to last a bit longer.

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We were refuelling ahead of some steep switchbacks near the top when a club cyclist in full lycra kit came past. Perhaps that unexpected feeling of strength caused my inner boy racer to spring into life as my only thought was ‘I can take him!’

It took a while to choose the perfect music track, which gave him a start of about 400m. The commentary in my head was clear and loud:

“Maintain an even pace. Reel him in slowly. Don’t burn yourself out.”

Bit by bit I got closer and closer:

“Once you catch him, stay on his wheel to recover. Then quickly change gear and accelerate. Keep the pace high so he has no chance to react.”

I passed him near the end of the second switchback:

“Don’t look back. Don’t call out “Ola” as he might think it’s condescending.”

Yessssss! That’s why we Brits are cycling world champions! Hah!

Was it a bit uncool to take a selfie of triumph at the top?

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Hopefully he thought I was taking pictures of the magnificent views instead!

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The afternoon didn’t go quite as well with our worst ever ‘dreadful detour’. Coming off the top, our planned route didn’t look that inviting as it wound down a steep, gravel track. The only alternative was fat red line on our map called the ‘Trans-Pyrenees Cycle Route’. It was a 15km detour but it still felt like the right way to go.

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Wrong! It turned out to be a mountain bike trail, little more than a rutted path winding through the woods. Again, I have to admit we wouldn’t have come this way if we’d known THAT beforehand – it was muddy, steep and quite scary!

“Get me out of here!”

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Eventually emerging back onto the road in the dark, we were surprised by the volume of traffic coming down from Andorra on a Sunday night. This was actually the first time we’ve had to cycle on a major highway and Clare was superb, riding smoothly and quickly in front for an hour. I tucked in behind, slightly on her outside to encourage cars to leave a wider berth. Helped by our drafting practise along the canals, we safely reached the hotel in this formation – tired, hungry but unscathed.

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On Monday morning we were sufficiently revived for a fourth and LAST big climb in the Pyrenees. Despite being exhausted, we knew that this one (from Coll de Nargo to Solsona) would be worth it as it has an understated reputation as one of the most breathtaking bike rides in the world. It winds up a spectacular gorge, through hanging valleys and then traverses across the rugged tops. We have genuinely never seen mountain scenery quite like it.

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Another spectacular sunny morning
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A quiet road with lots of tunnels
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Autumn highlights
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A welcome coffee stop
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Looking back to the road we climbed
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Spectacular rock formations

Amazingly, this was the day that Clare had her strongest legs and despite insisting on still clipping in on one side only, she powered up the climbs.

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Not feeling anywhere near as good as the day before, I decided that cycling up hills must be a bit like golf. The moment you think you’ve cracked it you have a run of bad holes.

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I had a VERY bad hole on a steep section near the top. Messing about and not concentrating I came to a complete standstill whilst clipped in on both sides. The inevitable outcome was a serious tumble off the side of the road!

My first thought was to take a photo so I have obviously been treating this blog too seriously. In truth, I was lucky to escape with just a few cuts and bruises.

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For those of you who like stats, here’s a summary of our time in the Pyrenees:

Thursday – 43km, 1485m climbed
Friday – 67km, 1810m climbed
Sunday – 66km, 2034m climbed
Monday – 54km, 1860m climbed

Over the 4 days, we have pedalled 230 kilometres and climbed 7,189 metres. It’s fair to say we don’t feel we’re the same cyclists that naively cycled towards the mountains from Toulouse last week.

Now safely down in the foothills we have less than 100km left to reach Barcelona.
Nearly there!

Andy

Pyrenean Perspectives

As we have different perspectives about going over the Pyrenees, we thought you might like to hear from both of us:

Andy
Cycling south from Toulouse in pouring rain, I was praying that the weather forecast I’d used to persuade Clare to go over the mountains would turn out to be true.

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This is the forecast that I’d shown her for the week ahead together with words of encouragement like … “Perfect conditions for a mountain adventure. How hard can it be? We’ll always regret it if we don’t.”

To be honest, I didn’t really have any idea how hard it might be.

Clare
Secretly I was hoping that bad weather would mean we had to take the coast road around the Pyrenees and along the Spanish coast to Barcelona. However, as this window of opportunity opened up and I realised the sense of achievement we’d get by going over the top, I began to prepare myself for a mountain crossing.

Andy
I googled potential routes and found one on the website of a cycling holiday company that we could join at Bagneres-de-Luchon. OK, it meant riding further away from Barcelona through the middle of the Pyrenees and it included four mountain climbs (rather than one) but they didn’t appear to be quite as steep. Plus we would cycle on quiet roads through lovely countryside – perfect!

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I carefully plotted the routes and did all the calcs declaring these climbs not as steep as Prior Park (one of our local hills in Bath) but just a bit longer! They averaged ‘only’ 6-7% gradients with the first one being the steepest.

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Thursday – Luchon to Arties over Col du Portillon

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Friday – Arties to Sort over Port de la Bonaigua

Clare
By this time I’d convinced myself that it was the right decision to follow Andy’s new route but only had the first mountain climb in mind (as he had said the others were easier). Despite his detailed analysis of elevation, incline and stats, I prefer to not look too far ahead and just tackle what’s in front of me. One day at a time! I did, however, point out that this first climb was going to be six times longer than Prior Park Hill!

As we pedalled up the valley towards Luchon on our last day in France, the mountains grew bigger and the river flowed stronger. The sun was shining, my legs felt good and we were on cycle paths for most of the way.

Andy
The closer we got to the mountains, the higher they looked and the more nervous I became. I had a sleepless night wondering if we’d done the right thing.

By Thursday morning (Day 38) we were heading up the Col du Portillon on that first climb. This pass has featured in the Tour de France several times and winds it’s way 700m up through 10km of pine forests to a height of 1292m. I must admit it was a bit steep at times (13.9%) but it was incredibly beautiful.

As we whooped with delight at the top, Clare confessed that she’d enjoyed it more than she’d expected to. Phew!

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Clare
The moment I had anxiously waited for had arrived. It was freezing cold as we set off from Luchon and the incline graph Andy had showed me the previous evening kept racing through my mind. Had I reached the red, orange, blue or green phase? Not knowing what these really meant was probably a blessing in disguise as I arrived at alpine pastures and the sound of cow bells more quickly than expected. A long climb punctuated with steeper ascents then took us to the top.

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Much to my surprise I had made it with some energy to spare. A moment to savour. As we cruised down the winding road into Spain, the Aran valley opened up and we were soon enjoying our first Spanish tapas.

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Andy
After lunch we faced a long slow climb back up to 1100m which I found a lot harder than Clare. As she ate the miles up I rather limped into the delightful village of Arties.

On Friday morning (Day 39) the mountain road led us up through Baquiera ski resort to the mountain pass of Port de la Bonaigua at 2072m. This is a climb of 1000m over 16km and was part of Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour.

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Not quite as steep as they day before but it did go on and on and on. The last 5km were dominated by switchbacks which I rode up as fast as I could to the summit. It was only when I looked down at Clare emerging from the tree line that I realised just how high we were.

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Clare
Have you ever felt delirious with exhaustion? Well I did today. Throughout the climb I could hear my daughters voice repeating in my head “Jeez, why put yourself through this?” As I looked up, all I could see were yet more hairpin bends above.

Two hours of leg throbbing and brittle determination got me to the top – I was almost too exhausted to enjoy the moment and the beautiful scenery around. No whooping this time!

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Andy
Predictably Strava recorded us as amongst the slowest cyclists on these climbs. Was it the stops to admire the view? Or to munch a banana and recover? Or was it the extra weight we were carrying including such essential kit as a new beard trimmer, a keyboard, 2 iPads, a sketchbook and pencils along with the hairdryer, the pillow and the Pilates balls.

Nurdishly, I worked out on bikecalculator.com that the panniers equate to an extra 1% apparent gradient. This climb was an average 6% gradient, with our panniers it felt like 7%.

Clare
Who cares about Strava? We’re touring cyclists.

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Snaking down hairpin bends on our descent was incredible. A sense of freedom to both legs and mind. It was surprisingly cold as the alpine air whipped past. Cruising at a speed of up to 50km/hour we descended into the magnificent Aran valley, stopping occasionally to take in the breathtaking view.

Andy
On the steeper sections we practised descending techniques we’d been told about – inside leg up and braking alternately front and back to stop the brakes heating up too much. Occasionally I had to pull both of them hard at the same time. The sudden smell of burning rubber and the realisation that it can only be coming from your own brakes is not a great feeling!

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Once again, Clare was stronger in the afternoon. Perhaps I pedalled too hard at the top of the mountain and burnt myself out? Perhaps I’m just not as strong as she is?

We now have two choices. Go over the mountains for the next two days or head down the valley towards Portugal. No choice really – I’ll just have to pace the climb better to keep up with my wife in the afternoon. Here’s the profile for the next two days:

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Sunday Plan – Sort to Coll de Nargo

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Monday Plan – Coll de Nargo to Solsona

Clare
Now feeling re-energised after a rest and three huge meals yesterday, the thought of another 1000m of mountain climbing doesn’t fill me with quite such dread. I’m so amazed how much I’m eating!

But I have come to a realisation:

Some people are made for cycling in the mountains, others are made for pedalling along canal paths.

I like canal paths!

Andy
I think she secretly likes cycling in mountains …

Clare
No I don’t …

Andy
At least the weather forecast came true!