Exploring North-East Ibiza

Santa Eularia del Riu Loop

I’m in Ibiza for a week, celebrating a friend’s 40th Birthday & in between all the eating, drinking & sunbathing, I found the time to spend a day in the saddle exploring the remote North-Eastern corner of Ibiza, the self-proclaimed sunshine Isle.

Late on Saturday afternoon, myself & Leighton took the decision to go riding on the Monday – as we’re here on a socialising trip, we needed to hire bikes. I’d done a bit of research before the trip & had found loads of good reviews for Kandani Bike Rentals in Santa Eularia des Riu. On the Saturday evening I booked an Orbea Orca for each of us, together with pedals, saddle, saddle bag & bottles for €35 euros each to be picked up by us at 9.30am on the Monday.

After a 15 minute cab ride to Kandani’s, everything was there waiting for us & after a little bit of fiddling around to get the bike fits right, we were ready to start riding by 9.45am. I’d found a hilly 51 mile loop around the North-East corner of the coast which looked like it would tick all the boxes, with a coffee stop along the way.

Before the ride started in earnest, we had to cross Santa Eularia, fortunately this involved cycling along a dead straight & quiet two lane road for a mile or so. In next to no time we took a right turn & we were on quiet country lanes which reminded me of Ibiza’s Balearic cousin, Mallorca. Lovely smooth tarmac took us between fields of corn & into a gorgeous smelling pine forest, with big, blue skies above us, while every now & then we caught a glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea in the distance.

As we headed towards Cala Llenya, the road turned inland & took towards our first bit of climbing, a short, sharp rise that took us up to cliffs with big ocean views to the North & South. As we descended the twisting & turning lane, we were met by a man & his dog stood in the middle of the road – I’m still not sure who was most surprised to see the other! A reminder that there are still many remote parts to Ibiza once you get away from the main towns & roads.

While the climb had been on pristine tarmac, the descent had grit on almost all the corners, so there was no room for mistakes & full concentration was required, As the gradient levelled off, we turned inland again before taking a right turn towards Cala de Sant Vicent. The pristine tarmac rose again as we gradually climbed the cliffs again to get yet more views of the beautiful Ibizan coast. We followed the cliffs for a mile or so, before a fast & sweeping descent which skirted the edge of town.

We were now at the North-East corner of the island, so took a left turn inland on the PM 811 along a fertile grassland valley towards Sant Vicente de Sa Cala, before the longest climb of the day (875 feet of ascent in just over 4 miles), as the road hair-pinned ever upwards. We climbed at a steady 6 to 7% & topped out at about 900 feet above sea level. While the gradient wasn’t that challenging, the temperature had risen throughout the morning & was now at about 30 degrees centigrade, which made the ride a bit tougher than usual.

As we dropped back down through Sant Joan de Labritja, we took a sharp right turn & continued descending towards Cala Benirras Beach, where we found a great beachfront restaurant & enjoyed a cappuccino & piece of whisky cake, as well as topping off our water bottles – at this point we were 24 miles into a planned 51 mile ride, so this was the perfect spot for a well-earned break.

As soon as we left the beach, the climb started to climb steeply, at times the gradient exceeded 15%, which was unexpected & a challenge for me, as I was on a rental bike with a 27 tooth sprocket on the rear, rather than my usual 32 tooth “granny gear”. The views from the clifftops were spectacular, which made the climbing well worth the effort. We descended into the picturesque Port de Sant Miquel, turned inland & then gradually climbed up to the small village of Sant Miquel de Belansat, which marked the end of the quiet back lanes.

We took a left turn & joined the PM 804, which gradually nosed downhill for the next 6 miles until it merged with the E 10 main road towards Ibiza Old Town & Port d’Evissa – out of nowhere, we spotted sculptures of blue cows in a field, we never found out what they represented. As we headed ever closer to Port d’Evissa, the traffic became heavier & we eventually found ourselves on a dual carriageway heading ever closer to the Old Town. We found our way across town easily enough & then navigated our way through the port & past the large cruise ships & ferries, which connect the Balearic Islands.

The route indicated that we had one last climb to conquer & that we were a mere 11 miles short of completing our loop. However, all was not what it seemed!!! We started climbing a very small & badly paved lane & as we climbed, we got a view back to Ibiza Old Town & Port d’Evissa. It was at this point that Leighton mentioned he was short on water & could I share any of mine, which of course I agreed to do – nothing to be concerned about as we were now fairly close to the summit of the last climb……except the road finished at a quarry!!

The only turning I could remember seeing was about ½ mile back down the hill & it looked to be an unpaved track. I was a bit confused, but we headed back to the track & my Garmin chirped to let me know we were back on track (pun intended!). After about a mile of riding uphill on the loosely packed gravel (remember we were on road bikes), the surface turned to sand & our progress was slowed even more for the next 5 minutes.

I was getting a bit concerned, as there didn’t appear to be an obvious road above us – this was confirmed when we rounded a corner & we were faced with a rocky track that required us to carry the bikes up a steep incline, never an easy task in cleats! This continued for about 25 to 30 minutes & at the time was quite frustrating as we also ran out of water at this point. However, Leighton & I are both quite stubborn (& the way back looked worse than the way forward!), so we cracked on with our hiking expedition.

Eventually we reached the summit on foot & we were rewarded with a rough track along the ridge, which we could ride. After about a mile we joined up with a small road at the side of a golf course & I knew roughly where we were – we’d passed the golf club on a larger connecting road on the way from the airport to our hotel when we first arrived in Ibiza.

All we had to do was descend back into Cala Llonga (where our hotel was based) & then follow the main road the final 4 miles back to Santa Eularia. We found a small bar by the port to re-hydrate with a coke, as we had 30 minutes to kill before we could return the bikes to Kandani’s. We’d had an awesome day out exploring Ibiza’s wild North-East corner, as well as seeing the trails less travelled. If ever you’re in Ibiza & based anywhere near Santa Eularia, I would absolutely recommend using Kandani’s if you need to hire a bike – they were more than happy to help us in any way they could & even sorted us out a taxi back to our hotel in Cala Llonga, where we toasted a great day in the saddle!

Passo Campalongo, Passo Pordoi, Passo Selle & Passo Gardena

Devilish Dolomite Delight – Day Five

After yesterday’s epic day in the saddle, I woke up this morning feeling dehydrated, heavy legged & several hours short of the sleep I wanted (& probably needed). The plan today was to drive to La Villa (a 20 mile drive), then ride the Maratona Dles Dolomites short course loop. In other words, 4 climbs in just over 36 miles with 5,600 feet of climbing.

For the first time this week, the skies were overcast & the mountains were all hidden from view as we drove out of Cortina & up the Passo Falzarego – we were soon in the clouds & the incredible views of previous days were very much a distant memory! However, the cycling gods were on our side, as the weather changed as soon as we drove down to La Villa.

We parked the car by the sky lift & as soon as we started riding, the road to Corvara started gradually rising – today we would be tackling the Campalongo, Pordoi, Sella & Gardena from a new direction. While we’d experienced the scenery previously, a combination of the different weather & a new direction guaranteed that it would feel like a totally new ride.

As we left Corvara & started to climb Passo Campalongo, it quickly became apparent I was in for a challenging day, as I didn’t have any power in my legs & I couldn’t raise my heart above 150 beats per minute (normally I’m comfortable doing a 1 hour effort at 175 bpm). This is a fairly standard symptom of being over tired – I was finally paying for missing 3 weeks of training. I knew this was likely to happen at some point on the trip & I’m rather happy it’s taken until day 5 for the symptoms to show themselves.

The climb to the summit was a little over 4 miles long & the road snaked its way between forest on the one side & ski runs on the other. It was pretty Alpine scenery at its best & the ascent was done in a little under 45 minutes. As we crested the summit, the clouds disappeared & we had glorious view down towards Arabba below.

We were only an hour into the ride at this point, so we made the decision to delay our planned coffee stop until we reached the summit of the Pordoi. Almost as soon as we started the climb (not that steep as you can see below), I dropped further & further behind Sean – we both know the importance of climbing at our own rhythms, so while it was frustrating to be feeling so weak, it wasn’t a big deal for either of us.

There’s a classic car rally taking place in the Dolomites this week & we were lucky enough to see tens & tens of vintage Bugatti’s, Mercedes’, Porsche’s & Jaguar’s (amongst others) streaming down the hill, as they did the same loop as us but in reverse.

I took time to take in the views as the road twisted & turned towards the summit. The climb itself took a minute over an hour for me, which was more than acceptable, considering how I was feeling – we’d climbed a little over 1,800 feet in 5.5 miles. Needless to say, warm chocolate cake & cappuccino revived my spirits.

The descent from Passo Pordoi was hairpin heaven, as we twisted & turned during the 4 mile descent to the start of Passo Selle.

The longest & steepest of the climbing was now behind us & we were back in sunshine – hurrah!!! Pine trees were immediately next to the road & further in the distance were enormous cliffs of bare rock – the view today was so different, mainly because what had been in sunshine on our previous ride was now in shadow & vice versa. Once again, the gradients were never too steep, although they always kept me honest.

A feature of the Selle Ronde circuit from either direction is the multitude of hairpin bends (there were 31 on the Pordoi, 18 on the Selle & more than 20 on the Gardena) – these give respite from the climbing & provide an opportunity to give the legs a fleeting moment of relief.

Before we knew it, we’d reached the top of the Selle with stunning views in every direction. Once again it was threatening to rain on a mountain summit, so we put our rain jackets on yet again & set off for the valley floor.

Within 5 minutes, the rain had stopped & we could enjoy the descent on bone dry roads. As we plummeted downwards, I could make out the rifugio on the summit of our final climb of the day – The apex of the Gardena was some 6 miles away at this point.

After a brief stop to tuck away the rain jackets, we began the final 4 miles of climbing on today’s epic route. As the road rose higher, some of the rocks that were visible on Wednesday were hidden from view, while some new ones showed themselves for the first time.

Once again, we clouds closed in the nearer we got to the top & by the time we reached the summit sign, it was spitting rain again, so it was out with the rain jackets for the final time.

The rain had finally caught us up & we were on damp/wet roads all the way back to Corvara, but all things considered, we’d been incredibly lucky to avoid any proper rain. The micro climate in the mountains is amazing, as by the time we’d completed the descent, we were back on dry roads again, enjoying the sculptures that make the Dolomites so unique.

We stopped in Corvara for a quick bite of lunch, then retraced our way back to where the car was parked in La Villa. As we crested the Falzarego, it was raining in the Cortina valley – when we got back to the hotel, the owner said it had been raining for most of the day. The cycling gods really had been kind to us today!

Daily Cortina Trivia Feature (stage 5) – The stunning mountain scenes in Cliffhanger (starring Sylvester Stallone) were filmed in Cortina d’Ampezzo, although the film was set in the Colorado Rockies. More useless trivia tomorrow!

Passo Cibiana, Passo Staulanza & Passo Giau

Devilish Dolomite Delight – Day Four (July 2017)

It was a late start today as we had to wait for the car repair workshop to open, but not for the reasons you’ll be thinking! One of our group (not me, the other one!) somehow managed to get a front wheel spoke stuck in the seating mechanism when we were loading the bikes into the car after yesterday’s ride – it was a one in a thousand moment & neither of us would have been capable of doing it deliberately! I’m pleased to say that after about 15 minutes of poking around, a very kind mechanic managed to release the spoke & we were good to go!

The first 14 miles of today’s ride followed the same route as Tuesday’s ride (Day 2), so we powered downhill on the cycle path. Again, we were riding under blue skies & enjoying early morning temperatures in the mid 70’s, with next to no wind to speak of.

We turned off the main road before plummeting downhill to cross the River Boite & start our first climb of the day, the Passo Cibiana. We had a rather rude introduction, as the first couple of miles kicked up at 10%, although it had the advantage of very quickly giving us wide views of the river valley way below us. We had a brief respite as the road flattened out as it passed through the village of Cibiana, a beautifully laid out place with a pretty clock tower at its centre – the village was typical of so many we’ve ridden through this week.

As we continued to wend our way up the valley towards the summit, we were slapped in the face with a 200 yard stretch of 17% gradient – this is right on my limit of what I can ride before I topple off & not really what I wanted to experience on day four of an adventure!! Luckily, it was a very short stretch, but most of the remainder of the climb stayed in the 9% to 11% range. I was grateful there were plenty of stunning views to help take my mind off the challenge.

The climb took us a minute over an hour to complete & we’d clocked up just over 2,200 feet of ascending in that time, so we were certainly ready for a coffee & strawberry flan stop at the summit!

The start of the descent was very sketchy, grit covered the road, there were smallish potholes & the corners were blind, so we took things very cautiously to begin with. After about 5 minutes, the road surface improved significantly, the corners were less severe & the views into the valley below suddenly opened up. All was good with the world again & we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves! Before we knew it, we were on some flat road for the first (& only) time of the day. We passed through the small town of Forno di Zoldo & aimed for our planned lunch stop of Dont – there are so many simple gags to be made at this town’s name. If you’re planning to stop here for lunch Don’t, as in spite of what I’d read online, there wasn’t a single restaurant open!

Dont marked the start of our 2nd climb of the day, the exotically named Staulanza. The early slopes kicked up to 8%, just to remind us we were on a mountain, but soon the gradient stabilised at a far more manageable 6%. After 3 or 4 miles we found a small restaurant that very generously agreed to serve us a late lunch, although they were in the process of closing up. This has been typical of the friendly greeting we’ve received from everyone we’ve met.

After a quick spaghetti bolognese lunch, we were back on our way up the Staulanza, as it continued upwards at a steady 7%. On the way to the summit, we passed a couple of chic sky resorts, with what looked quite scary runs through the pine trees – no doubt an experienced skier would correct me & say they were nothing more than nursery slopes!!

The summit of the climb was marked by an incredible rock outcrop that rose some 1,500 feet above us & was in the sun, although we were firmly in the shade. After a quick stop to get a few photos, we plummeted down the other side on near perfect roads, with wide open corners – the only thing that slowed me down was the cars in front of us – it was much easier to manoeuvre a bike through the corners than a car!!! As the road began to level out, we began to get more nervous – while there was only one climb left to tackle, it was the monstrous Passo Giau from the classic (read ‘more difficult’) Selva di Cadore side.

A mere 7 miles long, its average gradient is 9.4% – it was also the last road to be built to reach a Dolomite Pass when it was completed in 1986 (prior to that it was simply a mule track). The first ½ mile was all over 14%, so we simply paced ourselves to survive this part of the climb, as we knew that things got slightly easier after this first stretch. The early stages of the climb follow the Codalonga river & there are 4 bridges where you have the briefest of respites from what is a constant 9% to 10% gradient for the entire climb – there was nowhere to hide, especially when the temperature was in the high 80’s!

After the bridges were crossed, the hairpins began (there are 29 of them), which kept our minds occupied as we fought the relentless gradient. The early slopes took us through pine scented forest, which while pleasant on the olfactory organ, closed off all the surrounding views. About half way up the climb, the trees were replaced by typical Dolomite pastures (as seen on each of our routes so far) & every now & then we could hear the marmots calling to each other.

With only 2 miles remaining, the enormous Nuvolau peak came into view, perhaps the largest of all the surrounding peaks & definitely the most awe inspiring. The rifugio at the summit of the Giau came into view with a mile to go – it seemed so near & yet by this point I was only travelling at 4 miles an hour & it felt like some kind of torture! Finally at the summit, we celebrated with a coke, took some panoramic photos & prepared for the final descent back into Cortina.

The descent was truly amazing, with hairpins upon hairpins as the road plummeted down the mountain. There was hardly any traffic, as by now it was 5.30pm & most tourists were long gone, which allowed us to use most of the road on the way down.

We finally arrived back in town at about 6pm & stopped for a pint so we could absorb what has been one of the epic days in the saddle. No words or photos can describe the climbs, descents or scenery, but I’ve given it my best attempt!

Daily Cortina Trivia Feature (stage 4) – The 1956 Winter Olympics took place in Cortina d’Ampezzo. We rode past the original ski jump on today’s ride, however you’re more likely to recognise it from the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only. More useless trivia tomorrow!

Passo Valparola, Passo Gardena, Passo Sella, Passo Pordoi & Passo Falzarego

Devilish Dolomite Delight – Day Three (July 2017)

Today we experienced the Italian Dolomites in all their magnificence as we explored 4 classic climbs from the Maratona dles Dolomites sportive, which was held last weekend. We drove to the summit of Passo Falzarego, to commence our loop.

Straight from the get go the road headed upwards & today we got the most difficult gradients out the way in the opening one mile – Passo Valparola is known as a wall, as although it’s only 1 mile on from the Falzarego, it rises at a constant 12%. However, because we knew what was ahead, we could spin in our smallest gear, knowing that this particular beast would be out the way in less than 15 minutes.

We then had a 7 mile descent with huge views of the mountains on both sides of us.

We reached the small town of La Villa (the start & end point of the Maratona) as we reached the bottom of the roller coaster descent, then took a sharp left to Corvara – this part was the reverse of Monday’s route & it was so much easier this way!

We found a great bar/restaurant for apple strudel & cappuccino (the best coffee so far) before setting off on the Selle Ronde Loop, which takes in the climbs of Passo Gardena, Passo Selle & Passo Pordoi. I had very high hopes for this part of the ride, as I’ve seen loads of GCN cycling videos which have been filmed here – I wasn’t disappointed, as this really was cycling nirvana.

First up was the Passo Gardena at 5.5 miles in length & an altitude gain of just over 2,000 feet, all of it at a steady gradient. The climb started by passing through a couple of small villages, before it started to snake its way up the plug of volcanic rock that marked the end of the valley. The lower slopes were tree lined, before we reached the alpine meadows, with cows & sheep grazing to their hearts content.

Either side of us were monstrous monoliths shaped like teeth & they towered many hundreds of feet above us. Looking back down the slopes, it was possible to make out the road twisting like spaghetti up the mountain, while in the far background were more enormous mountains dwarfing the towns below. We stopped for a few mountain top snaps, crossing to the Gardena valley for a swift, but relatively short descent.

Again the views were breath-taking & it took all my concentration to stay focused on the road – we had plenty of photo stops!Our road would have descended all the way to Gardena (the World Cup skiing venue), but we took a left turn to climb the Passo Selle.

A very welcome surprise was that Wednesday’s are vehicle free days, so as cyclists we had the road pretty much to ourselves, We followed a ribbon of tarmac between the pillars of rock on either side & marveled at a couple of climbers who were rappelling some 300 feet above us – they must have nerves of steel!! The gradient was consistent again, so it was easy to find a rhythm & then lose yourself in the majestic beauty all around us.

In some ways, the summit almost arrived too soon, however it also meant that I had another opportunity to practice my cornering techniques on the wide open bends on the descent. Just before the bottom, we stopped for a quick bite to eat & drink, before heading for the Passo Pordoi. This was the baby of the bunch in terms of length (4 miles) & gradient. The scenery was once again out of this world – I now know why this loop is considered the most stunning 25 miles of road cycling in Europe!

From the summit we could see all the way back to the Passo Valparola, some 25 miles away & all around us were more towering mountains. This was my favourite downhill of the day, with 31 hairpins (eat your heart out Alpe d’Huez, with your measly 21) on almost perfect tarmac.

We stopped in Arabba for a quick espresso & caught up on the action in Le Tour, before racing to the day’s final climb, a 7 mile ascent of the Falzarego, which would take us back to the car. I wouldn’t be surprised to find out the engineers for this road were cyclists, as again the gradient was fairly consistent & never above 9% (much like a typical Alpine climb).

Almost the entire climb was in pine forest & the shadows from the trees gave regular respite from the sun overhead. At one point it had been necessary to tunnel one of the hairpin bends into the rock face, as there was so little room to climb the final cliff face.

This was an awe inspiring day of cycling, with scenery the exceeded even my wildest expectations. The icing on the cake was the friendly gradients, so we were able to enjoy the views. After a quick photo opportunity at the summit, I also made a visit to the souvenir shop to buy a fridge magnet for my cycling memorabilia collection.

As we were putting our bikes back in the car for the 30 minute drive to the hotel, disaster (of sorts) struck – Sean somehow managed to clip his spokes into one of the clips that hold the seats in place. We spent 20 minutes attempting to free the wheel, but to no avail, so in the end we had to remove the rest of the bike from the wheel, so it would fit in the car. This was done in a bit of a rush, as the skies were darkening by the minute & a thunder storm was on its way! We’ll have to try & find a mechanic to help us tomorrow.

Daily Cortina Trivia Feature (stage 3) – The opening scenes in the 1963 version of The Pink Panther (starring Peter Sellars) were filmed at The Hotel Cristallino in Cortina d’Ampezzo. More useless trivia tomorrow!

Passo San Antonio, Lake Misurina & Passo Tre Croci

Devilish Dolomite Delight – Day Two (July 2017)

After yesterday’s monster day of climbing with relatively low miles, we decided to switch things around today & do a longer ride but with less climbing. The plan was to do a 75 mile loop, with 3 medium difficulty ascents in the 2nd half of the ride. The weather had defied the forecasters again & we were greeted by the sun & blue sky, much better the rain that we were expecting!

We set off from Cortina d’Ampezzo at 9am in what the route described as a ‘power descent’ for the first 25 miles – I now know this means you can get into an aero position & let gravity do its stuff as we dropped downhill & reversed the final 18 miles of our Sunday evening’s car journey from Venice. After about 5 miles, we stumbled upon a cycle track that followed the route of the old railway track & would take us all the way to Pieve di Cadore – this was a real bonus, as the road was busier than we expected & we’d already been passed by a large petrol tanker & a couple of logging lorries with additional trailers.

The cycle path took us through meadows, along the edge of a pine forest (which seems to be the tree of choice in the region) & gave us a great view of a deep river valley several hundred feet below us. All this scenery was wearing us out, so we decided to stop at a small café on the cycle path & build up our energy levels ahead of the climbing fest later in the day. Today’s delight was a scrummy apple roll (picture a sausage roll, but filled with apple!) & cappuccino as we overlooked huge views of the mountains in the distance.

After our refreshments, we continued downhill for another 7 or 8 miles before we came across the first of several lakes on today’s route. Due to the glacial sediments, the water had an un-natural greenish/blue tinge & it marked the end of our long descent. At this point we had the first of several surprises, as the cycle path that avoided a 2.5 mile tunnel was closed & that meant we had to either miss out an 18 mile segment of the ride, or brave the tunnel…. 2.5 miles later we were back in daylight – let’s face it, you knew that’s what we’d do!

We were now in a wide open glacial valley, cycling the opposite way to the flow of the river, so at some point we’d have to climb our way back to freedom! The road rode gently for the next 6 or 7 miles & then as we reached the village of San Nicolo di Comelica, we started the proper climbing – nothing too serious but enough to warm the legs up for the bigger challenges to come. We were now 39 miles into the ride & the climb had temporarily flattened out, so it was time to recharge the batteries with a lunch stop. We found a great little restaurant that rustled us up some pasta & sauce, even though they were just about to close – we were so hungry, I forgot to get a photo of lunch!

After lunch we continued along a shelf road for another couple of miles, before making a left turn at Padola for the ascent of Passo San Antonio. I hadn’t been able to find out anything about it, except that it was approximately 4 miles long & rose about 700 feet. On the face of it, one of the easiest climbs we’ll do all trip & that’s how we treated it….until it ramped up to 11% for the last but one mile (pretty much all the climbing was in the middle two miles!) Surprise number two delivered.

The start of the descent was incredible, steep long straights & wide corners, giving clear views of the road ahead. As we dropped down, the road began to twist & turn as it followed the contours of the mountain. After a mere 5 miles, we were in Aurenzo di Cadore, where we found another lake where the water was of the purest green.

Aurenzo also marked the start of the day’s longest climb, the 10 mile ascent rose 3,000 feet up to Lake Misurina. The alarm bells started ringing when after 5 miles we’d been climbing a 2% to 3% gradient in the big ring – if the stats were right, we were in for a torrid 2nd half to the ascent! The good news was my stats were right, the bad news, was also that my stats were right!

The final 4 miles of the climb didn’t drop below 11% & it regularly hit 14 & 15% – luckily there were stunning views every way we looked, but this was also where I found out how much top end fitness I’d lost in the last 3 weeks – this climb would have been tough whatever my fitness, but my arm, back & legs took it in turns to object to the stresses & strains they were under!

The climb topped out at the tourist friendly Lake Misurina, with incredible views up to the Tre Cime de Lavaredo (The three peaks of Lavaredo) – the spot where Vicenzo Nibali won the penultimate stage on a summit finish in driving snow storms & secured overall victory in the Giro d’Italia in 2013. After a pit stop of shortbread dipped in chocolate & a coke, we were ready for the final short, sharp ascent of the Passo Tre Croci. Just as we were puffing & wheezing our way up another steep ramp, we were overtaken by two JLT Condor professionals, who were sprinting up it in the big ring – a huge reminder of the difference between keen (but old) amateurs & the pros! This area’s a cycling mecca, as yesterday we saw the UAE Bahrain Merida squad heading to the Passo Giau on a training ride.

Once we’d crested the climb, we stopped long enough to absorb the surroundings, take a quick photo & then descend back into Cortina. It was another high quality road, with plenty of long, sweeping corners, which made for a fun last few miles – the final surprise of the day was to take a left turn into the town, only to realise it was a one way street! No harm done, as the road was empty, but another reminder of the need to concentrate all day!

Daily Cortina Trivia Feature (stage 2) – the ski chase in the James Bond film ‘For Your Eyes Only’ (starring Roger Moore) was filmed in Cortina d’Ampezzo.  More useless trivia tomorrow!

Passo Giau, Passo Campolongo & Passo Valparola

Devilish Dolomite Delight – Day One

The first task of the day was to check out the breakfast facilities, so we turned up 7.35am thinking we’d have the place to ourselves – there were already at least 20 people sat down & tucking in! I won’t bore you with the breakfast options (I’ll save that for another day!), but needless to say we’ve got plenty of choice.

We arrived in Cortina d’Ampezzo at 9.45pm last night, so we needed to build our bikes before we could start today’s epic adventure. As a result, we started riding later than originally planned, but when you’re on holiday, time has no importance! We set off under mostly bruised grey clouds, with occasional glimpses of blue sky, however the temperature was already in low 70’s when we set off at 9.15am. I had absolutely no idea how I would cope with today’s devilish delight, as I’ve ridden a grand total of 4 miles in the 3 weeks since I was knocked off my bike & am still having a few issues with my elbow & forearm – not ideal preparation! Anyway, enough of the excuses…..

The road headed up straight out of town, as we headed up the first 4 miles of Passo Falzarego & clocked up 1,000 feet of ascent in the process.

After this rather rude awakening, we were ready to meet today’s legend in the shape of the Passo Giau (I believe its correct pronunciation is Gee-Ow!!!) – this is an absolute monster of a climb, it averages 10% as it rises 3,300 feet in 6 miles. That makes it tough enough, but the real sting in the tail is the ever changing gradient as it ramps up from a benevolent 6% to a brutal 15% in the space of a few tortuous yards. The lower slopes take you through scented pine forest & the beauty of the Dolomites is hidden from view until about 2 miles from the summit.  This is where the treeline finishes & is replaced by meadows, with cows & horses roaming freely.

The mountain also rewards you with stunning views of enormous limestone monoliths.  The 360 degree panorama from the summit made all the effort well worth it. If you’re not a cyclist, visit anyway, as there are trails for all levels of walkers, plus if you’re really adventurous you could join one of the many climbing groups.

Incredibly, we were only 11 miles into the ride when we reached the summit, but it had taken us over 90 minutes to cover that distance. It was the perfect moment to stop & take in the views & reflect on the climb – the Rifugio at 2,238 metres was the lucky winner of our custom,  so we rested & tested out the freshly made apricot tart & enjoyed an espresso to liven us up before the plummet down the other side.

I’ll be honest, I was nervous about how my arm would cope with heavy braking on the descent. I managed the descent of the 29 hairpins safely enough & am now a little worried about how tough the climb of this side might be in a few days. But that’s a challenge for another day!!

We then had our first real surprise of the day, as we were expecting to follow the valley floor as it descended towards Arabba, however it went up, not down! Nothing too steep, but totally unexpected. The scenery all day was stunning & now that the sun was behind us, we could see the mountains in their full majesty. As we climbed above the valley floor, there were massive mountains on either side of us, as well as an enormous drop down to a river below us.

Lunch came at the halfway point of the ride in terms of distance, but we’d already climbed 5,000 of the 8,750 feet of ascent. We found a great little restaurant/bar for an energy top-up of spaghetti bolognese, before setting off up the sedate climb of Passo Campolongo – a relative baby at 3 miles long & only 700 feet of climbing. As we climbed out the valley, we had a final view back down from where we’d come.

The descent into Corvara was loads of fun as I now knew my braking limitations & could go just a little bit quicker – I maxed out at 43 mph, but then had to back off to safely navigate the next corner. There’s an iconic Corvara sign with the huge Dolomites in the background & as I was taking a photo I somehow managed to ‘save’ my ride – effectively ending my ride some 25 miles earlier than expected! Luckily, I’ve managed to upload Sean’s ride, so at least I’ve got a single ride with all the stats.

We bumped along the valley floor through the towns of Verda & La Villa before turning tight for our final climb of the day – the Passo Valparola. At 10 miles long & 2,500 feet of climbing it should have been straightforward, only there were flats & descents, which resulted in the uphill sections being 7% to 9% in gradient……. & we were into a headwind! This was when I found out what 3 weeks off the bike does to you at altitude. It was a case of digging in deep & drinking in the amazing views, while making sure I kept pedaling. It was a mighty relief to finally reach the summit, but strangely I also had a real sense of achievement.

All that remained was to take a photo at the summit & then enjoy the final 10 miles of descending back into Cortina. If you were one of the unlucky people who had to listen to me bang on last week about my injuries, my sincere apologies, as I’ve made it through the first day of the trip!

Daily Cortina Trivia Feature (stage 1)– I’ll get the obvious one out the way first. The Ford Cortina is named after the town of Cortina d’Ampezzo & several of the cars were driven down its bobsled run – it was called Cortina Auto-Bobbing. More useless trivia tomorrow!

Col du Soulor, Col des Borderes & Lac d’Estaing

Pyrenees Peaks – Day Six, Lourdes (8th September 2017).

Somehow today was the final day of cycling in The Pyrenees, where has the last 6 days gone? I spent 30 minutes last night looking for a replacement ride for today, as we used up our planned ride when we extended our day out to Col des Tentes yesterday.

I eventually came up with a plan to explore some quiet back lanes, tackle a couple of climbs & then loop back to Lourdes – all in all, about 55 miles of riding with 5,500 feet of climbing. The ride started outside the hotel door & as our way out of town took us past the Sanctuary, we stopped to admire the view & take a few photos.

As soon as we left town, we found ourselves on quiet roads with views of the large mountains in the far distance. At one point, we took a wrong turn & found ourselves on a small gravel lane that took us past some unusual wooden sculptures, before ending abruptly at a tiny convent – Lourdes, as you might expect is home to many convents, monasteries, churches & religious orders. It’s a strange mix of peace & tranquillity, offset by chaotic parties of pilgrims.

Once we were back on the right road, a fast flowing river guided us down the valley, as we passed miles of maize fields, where the corn on the cob looked like it was ready to be harvested. These were the quietest roads we’d cycled all week & it was one of the few occasions where we were on relatively flat roads – it made for very relaxed riding.

At Lestelle-Betharrem, we saw signs for Notre Dame de Betharrem, so pulled in to find out a little more – it’s a church that is set right next to the river & it has a large plot of hilly land, where 19 chapels have been built over time & it was an incredibly peaceful & tranquil place.

We turned off the main road & headed along remote country lanes towards the lower slopes of Col de Soulor, which begins in earnest at Farrieres – I had it in my mind that this would be a great place to stop for coffee….. except it was a far smaller place than I expected & it was only a small village!!

From here, the Soulor climbs 2,950 feet in 7.5 miles, at an average gradient of 7.4% – this was the first climb of the week where the gradient was fairly constant for the entire climb & it made such a difference! I chose a gear & then spent the next hour & a half enjoying the views & stopping every now & again to capture the stunning scenery & get out the way of the local wildlife.

At the summit, we stopped for a lunch of waffle with Nutella & a coffee, before descending back towards Argeles-Gazost. We took a right turn after about 5 miles & headed up the climb of the Col des Borderes that we descended on Sunday. As we reached the Col, we made an impromptu decision to take a side road up to Lac d’Estaing – we had no idea what to expect on the climb, but the point of exploring is to find out what’s there! I was a little nervous of what lay ahead, as I was having problems with my gearing, the cables have stretched slightly as the week’s worn on & I could no longer use 1st gear – not the ideal situation for a weak climber like me. However, I didn’t want the ride to end yet, so we set off for Lac d’Estaing.

As we climbed, the surrounding forest protected us from the sun. After about 5 miles, we crested a rise & there before us was the lake & we weren’t disappointed! It’s a beautiful expanse of open meadow, with a lake at its centre. There are strict rules & regulations for using the area & as a result it’s in pristine condition. They were people fishing on one side of the lake, while at one end there were wild horses frolicking in the shallows – before today, I’d never seen a horse in a large expanse of water. This is a place that’s well worth a visit & I’m sure I’ll be back again at some point in the future.

Although we were still more than 20 miles from our hotel, the first 10 was downhill, so in next to no time we were in Argeles-Gazost for a well-deserved fruit tart & coffee. From here we took the same route back to Lourdes as Sunday, again it was slightly downhill, but into a headwind – for every ying there’s a yang!

In the end today’s ride was just over 68 miles long & had 7,000 feet of climbing – both numbers were bigger than planned, but it was our last day of riding, the sun was out & we were keen to make our adventure last as long as possible!

As it was our final evening, we popped into town to watch the sun set over the Sanctuary, then raised a glass to celebrate a glorious week of riding. I’m sure I’ll be visiting The Pyrenees again in the not too distant future.

Ovo Energy Tour of Britain

Beautiful Britain By Bike – Tour of Britain (stage one).
Back in July I entered a competition to win a day in the Vittoria UK Neutral Service Car for Stage One of the Tour of Britain – I was fortunate enough to have my name pulled out the hat & today I got to experience the thrills & spills of a top professional cycle race at close quarters! Even better, the prize was for 2 people, my good friend & long time cycling buddy Sean would be enjoying the experience too.

A mere 30 minutes after leaving our hotel in Llanelli, we arrived at Pembrey Country Park, for the start of the 2018 Tour of Britain. There were only a few hundred people on site when we turned up at 8.15am, but it wasn’t long before the fans & teams started turning up. We met our host Jon at 9.15 & he took us straight into the VIP section, where we enjoyed a coffee & panini as he talked us through the plan for the day.

There was time to catch up with Ian Ruck & Bryn (who was racing later at Pembrey – he finished 2nd!) for a fun 25 minutes looking round the team buses (they varied in size from camper vans for the domestic teams to the Death-Star (as it’s lovingly known) for Team Sky. The winner of best team car went to Team Pro One Cycling, as they’re sponsored by Aston Martin & three of them were on display!!! It was great to see so many of the riders making time to sign autographs for their young fans.

We then had exclusive access to the teams as they signed on prior to the start of the stage – Alex Dowsett was the British rider (& previous ToB stage winner) for Katusha Alpecin, while Connor Swift is the current British road race champion & was proudly sporting his stripes. Jon managed to get us in amongst the press, so we were right next to the riders, in fact I nearly bumped into Team GB’s Ben Swift! From here, Sean & I went our separate ways, as I went off to the Vittoria car, while Sean made his way to the finish for VIP access to the Tour village.

I was introduced to Marco (our driver) & Matteo (our mechanic), two Italians who made me feel welcome from the moment we met. We were in the lead Vittoria car, which would provide neutral service (drinks, spare wheels, mechanical assistance etc) if there was an early break. This is the biggest race in the UK cycling calendar, so I figured that it was a nailed on certainty that some of the domestic teams would want to have a rider up the road getting their sponsors some air-time on ITV4.

After an 8km neutralised start, the race began in earnest, with a mere 174.8km to go until the finish in Newport! It took about 45 minutes for the day’s 6 rider break to finally escape from the main peloton – there were representatives from Team Dimension Data, Team GB, Madison Genesis, JLT Condor, Canyon Eisberg & Team Wiggins.

The excitement began for me when we pulled to the side of the road to let the breakaway past, as we were now officially in business. If anyone needed any assistance, we’d be in the middle of action! As we headed for the first intermediate sprint in Camarthen, it was clear that the supporters were out in force to support the Tour of Britain – in places the crowd was 4 or 5 deep. The race was taking place on rolling closed roads, where the entire race convoy is protected in a bubble of road closures, which is expertly organised by the local police & race marshals. The riders can race safe in the knowledge that they won’t meet any oncoming traffic, but the roads are also only shut for a short period of time.

After an hour of racing the peloton had covered 47km & the break had a lead of almost 2 minutes. We were now nearing the first of the day’s climbs Bethlehem Hill & it was here that misfortune struck Richard Handley of Madison Genesis – a rear wheel puncture! His team car was there within seconds of him stopping, but the convoy of service cars (including us) were past in a flash & it looked like his time in the break was over. However, Richard had other ideas, as he sprinted past us as the climb began & he tucked in behind the Canyon Eisberg car to get some aero assistance as he chased down the rest of the break.

Up ahead, the break split in two on the descent & Richard joined the chasers of Canyon Eisberg & Team GB, as it became a 3 vs 3 time trial for a couple of kilometres. Eventually they managed to join up with the 3 leaders again & it were back to a 6 man break. Then out of the blue we were called into action, as Nic Dlamini of Team Dimension Data needed a drink & we were on the scene in no time! Everything looks so simply on tv, but the reality is that both bike & car are speeding along at in excess of 45 km an hour & the slightest mistake will spell disaster. However, all went well on this occasion & Nic soon joined his 5 escapees.

As we headed for the 2nd King of the Mountains climb, the peloton still had the break in their sights – a mere 1 minute 30 separated to the two groups & all the support vehicles were called out of the gap & we were sent ahead by race control. Although this was the last of the action that we’d see, we had a front row view of the incredible crowd that had turned out to welcome Geraint Thomas as he rode on his home roads. A Welsh winner of the Tour de France & here he was being lauded by his countrymen & women, what an amazing sight it was!

We sped away from the race that was taking place behind & we were able to park up & get to the finish line just ahead of the action, as Andre Griepel just held off Caleb Ewen & Fernando Gaviria for the win! Marco, Matt & I had our photos taken together, so I had a memento of a special day at the Tour of Britain.

Then as I was heading to the presentation podium, I passed the Team Sky bus & managed to get a snap of Geraint Thomas & Chris Froome as they were warming down!

The final act of the day was to meet up with Sean & Jon in the VIP village, where we climbed aboard the Vittoria bus for a coffee & to catch up on all we’d seen. I want to end my update by saying an enormous THANK YOU to Jon, Marco & Matt for a truly exceptional day & to Katie at Vittoria UK for organising everything.