We crossed the border into Spain from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.
We landed on a different planet.
The French Pyrenees had been lovely with lush green fields and forests, villages with vegetable gardens, corn fields and vineyards, the air always fresh, even on warm summer days, a comfortable breeze, a fresh mountain stream alongside a shady road. I had this major crush on the Pyrenees.
Something already familiar happened. I felt homesick for the country we just left. Little Good byes, fore-bearers of the big Good Bye that loomed. Spain and Portugal – our last ports on our journey through Europe. I wanted to hang on to every second. I did not want to go to Spain because it meant ‘The last chapter’ began.
It didn’t help that the first week in Spain was uncomfortable. The air was hot, muggy, unbearable. The landscape was arid, barren, forlorn. Not just cycling, but any movement, was an effort.
We also felt stranded. Our always reliable guide, the 50 Rides before you die magazine, had only one entry for the Spanish Pyrenees, the Quebrantahuesos Cyclosportif from Sabinanigo. The list of Spanish and Portuguese rides and climbs that we had collected from cycling friends along the way was scarce of Pyrenees’ options. Sure, there was Arcalis in Andorra to our east and the famous climbs of Andalusia and the Basque country to our west but right there, between Pamplona and Andorra, it felt like there was a big dreary cycling desert. A glance into our map did not reveal many rideable roads. Spoilt by hundreds of Cols on the French side, Spanish Puertos seemed few and far between. I couldn’t find many wiggly little lines in the map that promised cycling bliss.
Ah, roads! Spanish roads! They are amazing, brand new, four lane highways – empty of cars! And they run parallel to the mountains, so no good for climbing-fanatic cyclists like us.
I didn’t like riding in Spain that first week in Spain.
Now, that the unfavourable first impressions have faded and the sweaty discomfort is forgotten, with the distance of time and after sorting through the many photos, I realise that we stumbled over beautiful pearls of rides and climbs along the Spanish Pyrenees after all.
Jaca Ride – 90 km through Aragon
One of the stages of this year’s Vuelta a Espana finished in Jaca. The town has an enchanting medieval town centre with charming restaurants, lively at night. Kids played soccer near the old church, while we enjoyed raciones and a Rioja Crianza under crystal clear skies. It was after midnight, when we walked down narrow alley ways back to our motorhome. Spain is romantic at night.
But cycling in Spain has it’s challenges, especially this time of year. People had warned us.
Just like in Australia, the best time to ride your bike is early in the morning, when the air still hangs onto a hint of freshness from the night and the humidity is bearable. Forget about cycling between midday and six in the afternoon.
But unlike Australia, life happens after dark. While in Oz you won’t find an open kitchen after nine, in Spain you are hard pressed to find one open before nine. Late dinners mean late bed time mean late wake ups mean long siestas mean riding in 40 C…
By the time we woke up from our late night stroll over time-worn cobbles and headed out on that loop that the nice lady in the tourist information had marked in the map for us, it was past ten in the morning. The sun glared into our squinting eyes, and it was realistically too late for a 120km loop.
We headed up the N330 towards the Col de Somport, and I would have loved to keep going along that road, all the way back to my beloved France. It was hard to imagine that less than 50-60km from us, behind the peaks in the distance was Laruns, with the wonderful Marie Blanque, Solour and Aubisque.
Here, the landscape was so different. The grass was burnt, the trees looked thirsty, the air stood still. We turned off the National road to Borau.
The small road, in bad state of repair, wound over rolling hills. We climbed a few switchbacks, a 1.3 km climb here, a 3.7 km climb there. Thankfully, none of them were too steep because I struggled with the heat.
Every time we reached a crest and looked down into the next valley, I imagined the Kings of Aragon riding up and down those hills, hundreds of years ago, with pride looking at their kingdom, down to the villages across the river. Aisa, Jasa – the names sounded ancient and alien to me.
There was a creek. There wasn’t much water, but the turquoise colour spoke of refreshing coolness. We were tempted to stop for a skinny dip.
In Hecho we found live in the local Tapas bar. The deep fried tuna balls and Coke tasted like the best meal ever. The bar owner had family in Perth.
It was after midday by the time we got going again, and we opted for the flat road back to Jaca instead riding further to Ansa like initially planned. Even without Ansa it was a 40km team time trial back – a suitable start to our very own Vuelta a Espana. Yes, I did take my turns and was quite happy and proud of myself by the time we got back to our motorhome, just on time to hold siesta while watching the Vuelta stage on TV.
I felt sorry for the Pros who had no choice but battle the oppressive afternoon heat on a different road, not far from us.
El Portalet and Hoz de Jaca from Biescas
The very next day we headed for France. We were just North of Sabinanigo, the town that hosts the already mentioned yearly Quebrantahuesos cyclosportifs. It was unrealistic to ride the entire 205 km course; in fact, we weren’t even riding the course in the classic direction.
But I was keen to check out the Puerto de Portalet after missing out less than a week earlier. Alberto had already climbed the Col du Pourtalet from Laruns. That day, after the tempo ride up the Col d’Aubisque, I was too fatigued to add another 60km to an already tough few days. I had called it a day and turned around after only 5km up this very long 30km climb.
From the Spanish side, the Portalet isn’t quite as long. But first things first, we collected another little Puerto along the way: the short but steep Hoz de Jaca.
This climb may not sound like much with the short 2 km length each side but it’s steepness and the scenic views down to the dam and across to the mountain peaks of the Pyrenees distract from the pain. Readily available Internet and a newly downloaded Strava app ensured that we knew what times we had to aim for and a little spark of competition ensured that this ride was already memorable before we started the ascent up to the border to Francia.
La Pobla de Segur
We continued our journey eastwards along the Pyrenees. Another Spanish town, another 95 km ride, and this one stood out for the unexpected scenery.
Again, the local Tourist Office was our port of call for maps and ideas where to ride. I had finally spotted some wiggly roads with Colls, two of them, in the map, but they were along major arteries to Andorra and France, and not recommended for cycling. Instead, it was suggested, we should ride up to Capdella, a dead end road with a dam and a teleferico (cable car). There was hardly any traffic, the climb was pleasant enough, the road was good, but it was all a tad plain, I thought.
At least, it started drizzling and the oppressive heat of the previous days wasn’t quite as oppressive up there. We sat down and enjoyed lunch at the lift station and I spotted a over-sized dimensional map of the area painted on the wall. Villages were drawn as cute lumps of tiny little houses and the road seemed to connect to the neighbouring valley, with another road back to our motorhome. The best thing was: the road was wiggly. I know a good cycling road when I see one in a map now.
The turn off was easily remembered and found, but we turned away from the cool river stream and, like I had observed many times now in Spain, we could draw a line between lush cool green and arid sandy hostile. There it was again, the Spanish heat.
But the road was just what it had promised to be – a quiet, curvy, uphill cycling heaven. And once we had worked our way up to the plateau, we were spoilt by spectacular sierra views and hill-top villages and a fast descend back into the other valley.
Once down in the valley, we expected a fast, flat, N(ational)-road ride back to La Pobla de Segur but the ride wasn’t over, yet. It kept something else in store for us, and we had almost ridden pass it without ever knowing.
The N-road had tunnels. The tunnels were only for cars. We didn’t immediately spot the old side road that bypassed the tunnel. Unsure at first, we took the small road alongside the mountain cliff but when a canyon opened up, with a whitewater river rushing next to the old road, we couldn’t believe our eyes. I had never ridden a prettier road before.
Ride from Solsona: Coll de Serra Sec and Coll de Jou
Another hot ride, this one, by now in the fascinating province of Catalunya. I wish photos could capture humidity and temperature but there is this one photo here, where I come up the Coll de Serra Sec that shows the agony!
Spain has its fair share of tough climbs. This is one of them and it’s probably the reason why it featured in the Tour de France in 2009, when the Tour borrowed from the Vuelta with a stage from Barcelona to Andorra/Arcalis. A cyclist statue reminds of this event nowadays.
We started this ride from Solsona, another picturesque and age-old Spanish town, at four in the afternoon. Another late night upset our early morning riding plans, which led to an afternoon spent holding siesta in one of the beautiful bars. It’s surprisingly cool at the cobbled plazas within the stone walls and the drinks are incredibly refreshing when served on ice.
Four o’clock was still way to early to head out but we didn’t want to cut it too fine. 75km was just a rough guess how long the loop would be and we didn’t want to get caught in the dark. Sure, the temperatures still felt like summer but the ripe, juicy blackberries everywhere along the roads told a different story. The long summer nights were not quite as long anymore. Autumn was just around the corner.
The loop, once again along quite roads, packed Spanish countryside in abundance. Another creek tempted for a refreshing swim but this time the locals had the same idea so a skinny dip was out of question.
I don’t remember much of the Coll de Serra Sec except that for a long time I thought ‘This must be it’ only to find the road flatten out again and then ramp up again. And then it got really steep, out of nowhere. The next ramp appeared but it never seemed enough road left ahead of us for a Coll. Only later, from the other side of the valley, we saw that we had climbed along the ridge. This is why there hadn’t been a mountain visible ahead of us.
The road along the other side of the valley wound along the cliff wall. It wasn’t a climb, it wasn’t downhill. It was just hanging there, clinging to the side of the Sierra. We knew there was the Coll de Jou but we weren’t quite sure when and where and how long or steep it would be. Water was an issue and there was a village in our map, just 1.2 km off the road we were on. The brief detour revealed the village to be a church and a graveyard but luckily, there was a fountain with drinking water.
It was all very scenic and pretty and not even all that hot anymore but it was getting late and the road kept stretching and stretching. The Coll de Jou couldn’t come quickly enough and when we reached the Coll sign, I was surprised because it hadn’t felt like a climb at all. The sun was setting when we started the 18 km descend back into Solsona, only to hit 9% gradients again shortly afterwards.
It was a beautiful ride but – maybe the heat sapped my energy or I was in urgent need of a rest day – I was glad when we arrived back home that night.