A cycle through the night until 2.am. left me feeling pretty exhausted, especially because I was woken up early from the clanking of two lads trying to fix a dodgy lorry on the road next to where I was sleeping. After reluctantly packing up, I sat lazily next to the river in Quillan – the last sizeable town in the south of France before the Pyrenees take over – and alternated between coffee, sleep, and looking at the map. There was lots of cycling to do over the next few days, and lots of mountains to get over too. Today I would travel along “La Route des Cols”, or in English, “Shitload of hills”, which would take me right into the heart of the Pyrenees.
I watched Quillan become smaller and smaller below, the mountains around slowly coming into view in the distance as I paced up the first of the high passes, the Col de Coudons at 883m (2,896 ft). Despite being the smallest pass I’d climb over today, it was probably the most scenic.
By now, it was cloudy and a little colder, but I continued up and down the next two – Col des Sept Frères and Col de Marmare – without hindrance, enjoying the quiet, undulating roads and farmland on the plateaus. The last one, the Col de Chioula, at 1,431m (4,695 ft) was the hardest, but equally the most rewarding.
The descent from the top, to the city in the picture above, was probably one of the best I’ve ever experienced. The road was super smooth and was spoiled only by the fact that I was going quicker than all the cars so I had to wait for them at the corners.
Oddly, there was a huge string of cars stretching for miles in the direction of Andorra, from Ax-les-Thermes, but I thought nothing of it, cycled a little up the valley and went to sleep at the quaint village of Mèrens-les-Vales at around 1,000m.
The following day I woke up pretty late, a combination of tiredness and a late sun due to southerness, Autumness and big hills everywhere. Now I was to climb the highest road in the Pyrenees, although I never knew that at the time, and it was a pretty tough one. The road was pretty dangerous – I was helped only because there was a large drainage gutter on my side big enough to cycle in. But once the dangerous section was over I was still only at about 1200m, the top is over 2,400m in Andorra. And so I began, the slow, relentless, boring ascent into the clouds, passed by well over one thousand struggling engines and breathing in so much of the fumes that I ended up with a sore throat and subsequently a headache. If you would like to experience the cycle from France to Andorra from the comfort of your very own home, follow these 4 simple steps:
1. Set up your T.V. in your garage playing a blank grey screen (cloud simulation)
2. Place your exercise bike in front of the T.V. so that all you can see is the grey. Make sure the bike is on the highest setting.
3. Reverse your car into the garage so that the exhaust is pointing in your general direction and turn the engine on.
4. Cycle for 4 hours.
The situation wasn’t helped due to scheduled maintenance of the tunnel (the short-cut through the mountains to Spain) and so all traffic was diverted onto the high pass road. But the traffic, at least in my direction calmed down as I crossed the border into Andorra (Strangely, there’s still border controls here, but they are quite selective. Andorra is not in the EU or the Schengen area). On the other side of the road though was a traffic jam for a few kilometres trying to exit this tiny country. Every single car had a French number plate, and the reason became apparent when I reached Pass de la Casa.
Pas de la Casa is a peculiar place. Sitting at around 2,000m, it’s the first place you’ll get to coming to Andorra from France, and despite the language of Andorra being Catalan (not the same as Spanish), everyone speaks French here. And that’s because this is where all the local French people come to grab a bargain. How about a litre of Jack Daniels for €14? People can be seen walking all over this tiny village, consisting almost entirely of shops and shopping centres, carrying little cardboard boxes bundled with tax free goods. Antonymous to other “tax havens” I’ve been to, such as Monaco or Luxembourg (and to some extent Switzerland), stuff is actually kinda cheap here; and so the massive queues of French traffic can be explained. What a strange world we live in, where we climb mountains to go shopping.
I cycled the last 400m to the top of the pass and like the Grimsel Pass in Switzerland a few weeks ago, there wasn’t much of a view.
The temperature was a decidedly Scottish 7ºC at the top. It was far from remote though: there’s a restaurant here and ridiculously, not one, but FIVE petrol stations. How does €1.11 for a litre of diesel sound? You just need to burn a few litres climbing the hill to get it.
The descent proved worthy of the climb though – for me, it would be mainly downhill for the next 100km. I reached 73km/h on the main stretch – a record for this trip, though still shy of my fastest ever.
After my brief tour of this miniature country, I wandered around Andorra la Villa, bought some groceries and left for Spain. I sped through the border after a few easy paced kilometres, still continuing thoroughly downhill, ate dinner next to the river Valira and slept.
Over 3 months since I had left, I had finally made it to Spain, and realized a dream. It was a powerful feeling crossing the border. And I was rewarded with some of the most spectacular views throughout the next day. Around every bend, every hill and every rock face was a new, slightly different, but equally beautiful landscape.
The road continued downhill until I had to make the cut across East, and over the hills to Barcelona in the baking sunshine. Cycling the Pyrenees has been quite fun, and I think on leaving Spain I’d like to cycle over them again, maybe further west in the Basque country. If you don’t mind a few hills, it’s certainly worth it for the scenery.