Some bill it as the toughest sportive in Europe.
They would not be far wrong.
When designed for the 2015 La Vuelta, even the world tour teams questioned the brutality of the stage.
With 5200m climbing, crammed into 145km, La Purito in Andorra is just about as tough as it can get. The course itself is a construction of beauty. Six major Colls, of which four are Cat One and along with the Haute Category climb of Gallina. With tree lined winding roads, views of the Andorran valley, one has to take a pause to take in the views. Take them in whilst you can, because once peaking over the summit, each descent is technical and hair-raisingly rapid.
The event is billed as an open road environment. However, bar support vehicles, we did not pass anything on four wheels up any of the mountains. Indeed, it gets better. You travel through Andorra’s arterial roads as you quickly switch between colls. Yeah, these routes are busy and open to traffic, but they are policed: and they do a cracking job of standing in the road giving cyclist primacy of access to each roundabout … and between the roundabouts … a moped escort. Perfect.
Food stations are great. Copious Nutella filled croissants, sandwiches, fruit, energy drinks, first aid stations, mechanical support. Best of all? The smiling volunteers, laughing, encouraging you along your crazy journey.
That’s the positives out of the way, for now.
The ride is a killer. When viewing the profile, we were convinced that each of the claimed gradients, was simply averaging the switchbacks along with moderate slopes. We were wrong. It is nothing to be climbing for 15% over 2km, or 9% for 6km. I am glad that I switched to a compact chain set and found that 34/28 was enough to let me spin up even the most savage gradients.
Our strategy was simple. Don’t get drawn along by the early pace of the stick thin locals. However, it was not just the locals who participated. Three world tour teams were using it as preparation for the 2017 La Vuelta. That alone should’ve rung alarm bells for how serious an event this would be. Still, we stuck to our guns. At the start, we instantly started climbing. Yet, with 400m climbing within the first 4 miles, we still hadn’t hit the start of the first Coll (Beixalis). We were pretty much at the back of the peloton from the outset. Yet, as time drew on, we gradually started to pick off the early pace setters. It was even quite satisfying to pass representatives from Team Spain.
Beixalis and Ordino were tough, but didn’t stop me smiling. Even the 18% start of Rabassa didn’t dampen the spirits. Gallina is a grind and cramp started to kick in. Cycling strategy changed from spinning in the saddle, to mixing up with slower out-of-the-saddle, Contadoresqe methods. It worked. Stretching the legs allowed the cramp and lactate to drain away.
Comella, on paper, seems a walk in the park. Just a 500m climb. It is not. It is 9% of hard work.
Then you are left with Encamp. It is long. It is hard. In fact, hell could have swallowed me up. It is best at this point not to look at the Garmin and work the maths. You are so close to the finish, but it is around 7km of steepness. Psychologically, at this point, you are broken. There is little left in the body to counter this, so you are left with the support of those around you. Yes, I could have walked away with around 2km to go. I’d had enough. It took the light-hearted offer from Glyn, “do you want me to push you” to fire me up, along with the Whatsapp banter from Brian “at least I will finish my event” to summon up the last drops of energy.
I don’t remember much about crossing the line. I do remember the irrational sensation of just wanting to burst into tears. What was that all about? It was just about the tremendous feeling of achievement and completion.
We’d completed Europe’s toughest cycling one day event inside the required qualification time. Entry is capped at 2500. Only 1600 completed that day.
I was one of them … along with two others in my team. Well done Glyn and Fiona. We did it!