Wednesday 21 February 2024

Operation Etape du Tour: February update

Training for the Etape du Tour has given me a greater motivation to ride my bike. I have firmer objectives when I ride, plus a stronger wish to incorporate bike riding into my travels. So this month I did some cycling in and around Barcelona.

Check out my route into the Parc Serralada Litoral on Strava

My training for the Etape du Tour is getting more and more sustained and I am finding myself more into the groove. At one point the idea of getting out on my bike regularly had been a conscious mental shift. There are moments when you almost have to remind yourself of the need to get out on the bike regularly. 

Parc Serralada Litoral, just outside Barcelona

It's not necessarily that I don't want to ride my bike or that I don't enjoy it. It's just that between working as a freelance writer and keeping those plates spinning, keeping fit for my other sports, practicing my musical instruments (flute and clarinet) to play with my different bands, and just literally keeping my house in order, it's easy for cycling to end up taking a back seat. 

When I say back seat, I don't mean not doing it all. I have ridden my bike consistently for the last 25 years, but there's a difference between training and just riding your bike - using the bike to commute around or pootling around the park, versus frequently riding the bike with a mission and hitting certain mileages or making sure you get in power and speed training.

Cycling is a time consuming activity. You can't really get a training benefit by going for a quick spin like you would when going out for a run. So it has meant the need for a mental shift in getting in at least two hours every couple of days to ride my bike. I must admit I also watch the weather forecast very closely so that those couple of hours coincide with decent weather. If I am going to be doing this much bike riding I should at least enjoy the experience! Of course in all of this I also do longer bike rides too, which also requires planning so that I can in the most useful and beneficial ride as part of my Etape du Tour training.

I recall when I prepared for the Etape du Tour in the early noughties I had fewer things on my plate than I do now as a middle-aged person with more life responsibilities. Back then, getting out on my bike at various times of the day was easily done. And so, for sure I've come to realise that fitting in lots of cycle training is easier said that done - especially for a multi-faceted person like myself.

What I also try to do is to incorporate cycling into any trips I do. The rides might not necessarily be as long as something I would do at home, but I having cycle training in my everyday life like brushing my teeth makes is what is more important when it comes to keep up the habit.

So, earlier this month when I decided to go on a birthday weekend to Barcelona it was a no-brainer to factor in some cycling. Folks tend to go to Girona a lot, and it is home to many of the professional cycle racers. With lots of hills to train on in Catalunya and a strong cycle culture and community in the centre of the town this area has become a bit of a draw. But don't forget there is Barcelona too.

It's a also lovely touristic area, so you can get in some good bike riding in the hills, get to the coast, and see lots of interesting cultural sites - the sort of way I'd want to treat myself on my birthday.

While in the Catalunyan capital I hired a road bike, a Canyon Endurace for a couple of days and did a few bike rides around the area. My first outing was a city tour which was quite flat. Then came a bit of climbing - Montjuic, and the big one in the area - Tibidabo. These rides were done during the week, and once the weekend came I decided to go further out.

Because I had to return the bike at lunchtime on Saturday, I didn't want to go too far out of the city. The ride I chose was to head out North-east from where I was staying, close to El Bon Pastor and Sant Andreu, and head for the local hills. 

By 8am I was out of the door and riding on the cycle path along the River Besos heading towards Badalona and the Catalunyan coast. Interestingly, just outside Sant Adria de Besos close to the train station, I saw groups of cyclists congregating, waiting for others before starting their group ride. It seems that this was a well-known meeting point for the various club cyclists - a bit like Crystal Palace Parade on a Saturday or Sunday morning.

I had an idea of where I would be going and followed the route I had chalked out from my map research. In these situations I tend to be flexible and do check out other new roads I see when on the  ground. So with so many cyclists out and about it was a no brainer to follow where they were going, and I found a nice quiet road, slightly inland from the coast that everyone was following. I didn't join any group, but I followed them at a distance, which was as much as I could do given my fitness level, then followed the many that also overtook me. They seemed a friendly bunch, and some gave an "hola" as they passed me. Perhaps on a future occasion after more bike rides I will properly join them.

We formed a long trail of riders along the coast and eventually joined a main road known as the N-11 which led towards Mataro and onwards to Girona. I followed in the wheel tracks as far as El Masnou and then turned inland to head towards Alella, while they all continued straight on. I don't know if they were going all the way to Girona, or if they might turn inland later on at Arenys de Mar, perhaps to tackle Montseny, one of the major climbs in the area. I wouldn't have minded continuing on and exploring the hills further along the road, but I was conscious of the need not to be late returning to the bike shop as they would be closing in the early afternoon.

My ride therefore took me up through Alella, a residential area. Then the houses became more sparse and the uphill switchbacks began as I entered into the regional area of outstanding natural beauty called the Parc de la Serralada Litoral. This was my first set of mountain-like roads since when I road up the col de Braus and col de Turini a couple of years ago.

Even though a fair bit of time had passed since that occasion, I still felt in my element taking on this climb. Many outings up the steep hills in my South London neighbourhood had set me up well to deal with uphill roads.

This road, up to Vallromanes only lasted three miles but it wasn't a neglible challenge and it properly switched on my climbing legs.

From here my ride took me to Montornes del Valles where this town seemed to be a cross-roads for cyclists riding through in various directions. I was definitely in club run territory. I could see why there'd be a lot of cyclists around as the roads were quiet, despite there being wide trunk roads nearby. My ride took me up more climbs then a another pleasant descent to Martorelles as I headed towards the Parc Serralada de Marina. 

Given that I was slightly in a rush to get through the ride and be back to Terra Bikes in central Barcelona in comfortable time, I didn't feel like stopping to take any photos. I know when I do this sort of thing it always cuts into the time. When I stop to take one photo I end up stopping five or six times and before I know it I have used up almost half an hour!

It has to be said though, that the weather was not really conducive to taking photos. Up in these Catalunyan hills it was a little bit grey and morose. The view of Barcelona and the coast in the distance looked impressive as they were bathed in sunshine, but I knew that I didn't have a good enough phone camera to properly capture that light in my snaps. So I just resolved to use my eyes as a human camera, and hopefully keep them in the views in my internal memory bank. I am sure I will be back before long and will take some actual photos on a future visit.

The final climb of the day went over La Conreria, a deserted area where there were just lots of trees a few fincas a livestock, plus a few trails. It wasn't a very well frequented road at all, and in fact when I took the left turn to go up it most of the other cyclists around went straight on. There had been no sign board indicating this climb. For a while I wondered if I was going the right way too. But after a about a kilometre a sign indicating Pomar and Tiana I knew I was going the right way. But why were there so few cyclists here? I wondered. Was there something I should have known? 

I felt pretty safe so I just carried on. There were very few cars and the views across the mini mountain range looked great, so I just focused on taking in and enjoying the landscape while I could. Soon came a very long fast descent back towards Badalona. Interestingly it was at this point that I saw more club riders - except that they were riding up the road. It seemed that riding up the road was the more common way of travelling through the area when leaving behind the semi-urban sprawl. I didn't mind going things a little differently.

This road then abruptly dumped me into a slightly industrialised area followed by the town centre in Badalona, which I picked through in order to reach the peace and tranquillity of the River Besos cycle path. I guess doing this ride in reverse would have meant getting the urbanised parts out of the way first and finishing the ride with a long ride along the coast, which probably does appear more attractive than starting on the coast and finishing with the anticlimax of a busy town centre on a Saturday lunchtime. Furthermore, I must say some of the roads through Badalona main drag were in poor condition - almost like Roman roads! I'll think twice before complaining about the misshapen surface on Anerley Hill!

Quick stop outside Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

After an enjoyable morning in the nearby hills around Barcelona it was time to bid my hire bike adios. Xavi with whom I had previously dealt with when I hired the bike from Terra Bike Tours was not in the shop, so I was served by an English guy who was quite friendly. Funnily enough we chatted to each other in Spanish for about 10 minutes before we realised we were both from Blighty! He mentioned the good rides to do in the area as well as a couple of hip cycling cafes nearby. My weekend cycling in Barcelona had been enjoyable - pity it was quite short and a little rushed. But it has given me even more reason to return to Barcelona for a more extensive cycling trip to this fantastic area. 

It has to be said that training for the Etape du Tour has given much more direction to my bike riding and I feel a renewed motivated to get out and ride in new places both in the UK and abroad. 

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Barcelona cycle ride: Part 3 - Tibidabo and Sagrada Familia

Operation Etape du Tour: January update

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 2 - Up and over Montjuic and down to Port Vell

Saturday 17 February 2024

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 3 - Tibidabo and Sagrada Familia

After a ride around Montjuic, I then attempted the other great vista in Barcelona, Tibidabo, followed by a stopover at Sagrada Familia. I ran out of time to reach the summit, but it was still a pleasant if tough uphill ride.

Check out the route I took on Strava

Unlike Montjuic, this area is not in the heart of Barcelona, but it is a popular venue visited by walkers, joggers, on- and off-road cyclists, plus joggers. Set in the suburbs of Barcelona a trip to Tibidabo makes for a pleasant day trips given the pleasant trails and also the amusement park. 

So on a Friday afternoon I set off by bicycle from my lodgings, feeling a mixture of apprehension and excitement. The excitement was around discovering a new place to cycle, but knowing how high above the city this place is I was slightly apprehensive about how steeply the road would rise. At 512m above sea level Mount Tibidabo is the highest peak in the range of hills outside the city known as the Serra de Collserola. Would I have the legs or low enough gears to get up the ramp? Would it be like the Mur de Sormano in Italy, or Hardknott Pass in the Lake District?

Tibidabo skyline

On my previous visits to Barcelona I had not managed to get the time to go to Tibidabo. On public transport it's a bit of a trek as you have to get to the Avinguda Tibidabo by metro or local train, or bus and then pick up a funicular. When standing in the city, particularly to the North, the iconic view of the Sacrat Cor cathedral next to the vintage-style fairground rides look distinct, and evoke a kind of other-wordliness in a far-off land. Indeed the Tibidabo amusement park dates back to the early 1900s and is one of the oldest in Europe.

From my flat I passed through the neighbourhood of Saint-Andreu before riding along the very long Passeig Maragall, a road heading up north with a gradual uphill drag. Interestingly this road didn't have any cycle path, and so it was a question of me freestyling it along the road and keeping my eyes peeled for the many buses that would stop at the frequent bus stops. Despite the Friday afternoon traffic, I didn't feel particularly unsafe and motorists generally gave me a wide berth.

At Horta market, a signboard indicated for me to go straight on up a quiet but the slightly steep Carrer de Lisboa, which meant that I was that bit closer to my destination, as the signature big wheel and cathedral appeared bigger than it had done half an hour earlier. However, there would still be more climbing to do. Hopefully I would have the legs.

Eventually I reached the women and children's hospital at Vall d'Hebron. At this point I became aware I was quite on the outskirts of the city given the suburban feel of the area, and the city centre looked quite small down below in the distance. Even the Sagrada Familia, a behemoth of a monument in Barcelona looked small. Furthermore, I was on a slightly busy ring road characteristic of the edge of any city.

This was probably the most unpleasant part of my cycle ride as there was no cycle lane and I had no choice but to join the fast road. Thankfully it only lasted a couple of miles before I took a right-hand turn to get into the meaty part of the ride - climbing up the hill the Tibidabo.

Climbing stats for ascending Tibidabo from Barcelona

Folks that live around this residential area, Vall d'Hebron, must be pretty fit as you can't go anywhere without going up a steep hill. It was like a hardcore version of Crystal Palace - after all my neighbourhood in South London also has a park at the top of a hill, and a fairground at various times of the year!

So my work began by tackling the Carrer de la Enginyeria which round around through various hilly residential streets, which were actually a hive of activity given the slightly remote location. In fact this wasn't just a Friday - it was also the last day of school before the half-term holidays, and more importantly for the excited kids, it was carnival weekend. So the street was full of groups of children walking around wearing elaborate costumes - and there was I thinking it was their normal school uniform! 

This road wound round and round a few switchbacks with distinctively short sharp steep sections where I had to get out of the saddle and push hard. Thank goodness for 30-tooth sprockets on bikes!

Eventually I reached a point where the road levelled off and reached a car park where many people were pulling in to take part in different outdoor activities. It was a crossroads for various activities as some cyclists and joggers were arriving from downhill while others emerged from trails that were coming downhill. A few motorbikers arrived too. If I wanted to proceed further uphill I would have needed a mountain bike or gravel bike. In fact I saw a few mountain bikers doing just that. But on my road bike it would not have been possible, so at that point I rolled downhill. 

A ride all the way to the summit would have required for me to have left the main road at Vall d'Hebron to head towards Sant Cugat, then taken the longer road to reach the Mont Tibidabo. Unfortunately, just as with the previous day when I went to Montjuic, time was marching on and sunset was approaching. It's a shame as the area where I had to head downhill, Passeig de les Aigues, looked very picturesque with trails as well as beautiful vistas across the city.
My Canyon Endurace bike outside Sagrada Familia, Barcelona
Wanting to be prudent, I decided to take the long twisty road back down to the city centre. 

It was necessary to pay attention on the descent, not just to watch out for other vehicles, but also the tramlines that were part of the funicular going to the summit. 

I'm sure many a cyclist riding up would wish they could throw their bike in the carriage and get a lift up!

After the long downhill my route arrived back at the roundabout at Vall d'Hebron from where I followed Avinguda de la Republica Argentina to the city centre, and made my way to Sagrada Familia, the centre piece landmark in Barcelona. 

I must say I find this cathedral incredibly impressive as it dominates all the other buildings in the city. Antonio Gaudi, the architect, must have had an incredibly expansive mind to have dreamed up this creation.

By the this time it was early evening and Barcelona was full of  tourists enjoying an early evening drink. (The locals probably wouldn't start their night out before 10pm!) 

It had been a very pleasant ride, even if I didn't get right up to Mont Tibidabo, but I hope to return there in the near future. I can't imagine I will be very fast given the gradients, and I must say that the guys who race up it sometimes at the end of a stage of the Tour of Catalonia professional cycle race are blooming impressive!
And for those who are brave enough to race it, there is a hill climb race that takes place on Tibidabo in November.

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Thursday 15 February 2024

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 2 - Up and over Montjuic and down to Port Vell

Kitted out with my hire bike, a Canyon Endurace from Terra Bike Tours, I did a couple of mini tours around Barcelona - My first ride was a short spin around Montjuic

Check out the route I took on Strava

I cycled out to Montjuic, a popular area with tourists. Its castel by the same name, and the Joan Miro museum at the top of the hill make it a draw already, and the vistas over Barcelona are stunning. Pedestrians can use the funicular to reach the top, while those of us pedalling rely on our quads.

My route to Montjuic and home via Port Vell

My ride to get there was practically all on segregated cycle lanes. I crossed the area of St Andreu, up some quiet streets through this rather arty neighbourhood of Barcelona, then I joined the Avinguda Meridiana, one of the principal axes through the city. The road itself is quite busy, but as a cyclist you are shielded from all of the traffic thanks to cycle lanes. Initially the lane passes close to the pavement and you have to pay attention as it sometimes juts right onto the pavement, weaving around recycling bins and bus stops.  Then soon the route crosses the road to put you onto the central reservation, which has a two-way cycle path bordered by trees. A lot of care has been taken to make this part of the itinerary pleasant for cyclists. 

At the bottom of the wide avenue comes a narrow less picturesque section bordered by construction railings as it passes Gran Clariana park to reach Avinguda Diagonal where there are various building works in progress (as described in my previous post). 

A typical cycle lane in Barcelona

A short stint along Diagonal, a main thoroughfare that runs through Barcelona from south-west to north-east, led to another road called Carrer de la Diputacio which seemed to continue forever, passing through various neighbourhoods and landmarks. The beauty of it was there was a parallel cycle lane the whole way along, and a well-used one at that.

I knew I would have to turn left at some point, but it wasn't clear when. Although it's great to have lots of cycle lanes and special bike traffic lights, not putting up sign boards to indicate the route to the most famous landmarks and neighbourhoods was a significant omission. Who knows, maybe it was a deliberate ploy to not flood the cycle lanes with local riders and tourists. I seem to  recall when the local authority first introduced the city bikesharing scheme it was only open to those who had proof of residency in Barcelona.

With the help of Google map I found the correct turning to head towards Montjuic. There was no cycle path for this part of the route at Carrer Vilamari and Carrer Lleida which ran uphill past the Barcelona Teatre Musical, but the road was comparatively quiet. At this point I began to see the first of a few other brave souls like myself who had opted to take on this climb to the highest point in Central Barcelona. 

My hire bike from Terra Bike Tours - Canyon Endurace WMN Disc AL 7.0

The last time I was here I had taken the funicular to reach the summit, and marvelled at those who had walked or cycled all the way up. And 15 years on, here I was taking on the same challenge. 

I must say it didn't actually feel as tough as I had expected. My hire bike, a Canyon Endurace felt very comfortable to ride on this terrain. It was light and responsive as I pushed on the pedals. In fact I didn’t have to press that hard, as the gears were low enough to just twiddle up the hill comfortably. Sure, it was possible to use a harder gear and make an out-of-the-saddle effort, but I was feeling slightly tired after my early start, so wanted to take things easily. I was glad to have had this bike to do the job. 

Montjuic is a popular climb with road cyclists, and professional cycle races have taken place there over the years. In the 1960s and 70s Eddie Merckx won the famous Escalada A Montjuic cycle race many times. More recently Montjuic has been included in the Vuelta a Espana, the Tour de France in 2009, and a couple of editions of the World Road Race Championships too.

Unfortunately, due to time constraints I couldn't hang around long at Montjuic as sunset was approaching and I didn't want to get back to my lodgings too late. I was able to quickly check out the various ornamental gardens and certain landmarks - the National Museum of Art, the Museum of Ethnology and a museum of archeology, as well as various Olympic sport venues. The place looked very neat and prim, set among buildings with a mixture of modern and catalan modernism architecture, set among stone pine trees.

Being up at Montjuic was like being in a large fortress surveying the city, ready to spot any unwelcome advances. In some ways it reminded me of Edinburgh when at the castle, or on the other side of the city, at Holyrood. Sadly I only had mental picture memories to take with me of Montjuic as I didn't even have time to take any photos. 

My ride finished with an enjoyable, long, sweeping descent to Plaza España, and then the homeward bound trip via another principal axis with a central reservation cycle lane, Carrer Paral-lel, and onwards through the old port, Port Vell.

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Tuesday 13 February 2024

Barcelona cycle ride: Part 1 - Picking up my hire bike

I decided to do a city break in Barcelona and while there I would rediscover the area by bicycle. That's my preferred way of getting around any place I visit. Taking my bike on a flight wasn't worth doing for just a weekend, so I managed to hire a nice road bike and check out the city, using its various bike lanes.

On a long weekend to Barcelona I couldn't pass on the opportunity to get out on a bicycle. Barcelona is pretty bike-friendly too.

It's been a long time since I was last in the capital of Catalunya - probably about 15 years ago. I don't know why I left it so long before returning, The city has a laid back atmosphere, coupled with an artistic vibe which I guess is in no small part influenced by its most famous son (after Pep Guardiola), Antonio Gaudi.

I remember on my very first trip, being impressed by the Casa Batllo and La Pedrera-Casa Mila, especially when I got on the roof of the latter. Of course I walked around his opus magnus, the Sagrada Familia cathedral - which was then probably the most touristic building site in the world!

Anyway, after all this time I was happy to return to Barcelona, and hopefully visit the surrounding area too.

Whenever I visit a city I try and get around by bicycle - either with my own bike or a hired one. Given that I generally only spend a few days away and the cost to transport a bike on a flight can be over £90, hiring would be a no-brainer. 

After a quick Google search I identified a couple of companies to hire from. Given that it was February I figured it wouldn't be a problem finding a bike at short notice. So I emailed the company, Terra Bike Tours while in the airport lounge at Gatwick Airport. 

By the time I touched down at El Prat de Llobregat I had received a reply saying that the women's specific bike of my exact size (2XS) was not available, but I could try the XS which they did have. That slightly surprised me, but I was willing to give the XS a go.

As soon as I had checked into my apartment to the East of Barcelona, I hurried across to Terra Bike Tours, in the heart of the city before they closed for lunch, and tried out the Canyon Endurace they had set aside for me.

It felt fine for, so we did the paperwork and the mechanic put on my Look pedals and pumped up the tyres, ready for use.

Xavi the sales assistant told me I shouldn't have problems with punctures as the roads were of smooth quality and without much débris. That was reassuring to hear given that my run of punctures of late in London had made me quite pernickety about keeping tyre pressures high. He reckoned I only needed 90PSI in the tyres but for peace of mind I asked him to go to at least 100 PSI.  

As well as Terra Bikes being a bike shop, they also organise cycle tours around the city and club rides in the surrounding areas. So very helpfully Xavi gave me the QR code to download routes from the members section of their website, and talked through a few of them. 

When I told him I was hoping to ride to the nearby seaside town of Sitges he made a point of strongly advising me not to do so because the road is narrow, busy and with fast traffic. It's not even a route they include among their itineraries.

"It's really not a nice route, I must tell you," he warned. It would be better to catch the train for part of it to the less busy section of the road, and go to the other side of Sitges."  

He continued advising me that if a coastal ride was what I was looking for it would be better to head in the opposite direction, towards Girona.

Another customer in the shop, a local guy, joined in the conversation and added his opinion, saying to avoid cycling towards Sitges. He knew of people who had been hit by a car cycling that way. 

So it was clear, Sitges was off the menu - at least by bike. Given that it was almost 2pm and I hadn't eaten since early that morning it was unlikely I'd be riding out much further than the city limits so riding to Sitges or along any coastline became academic.  

I paid my 70 euros for 2 days' hire and we wished each other a good day before I hit the city streets of Barcelona. Unfortunately because they don't open on Sundays and my flight back to London would be first thing on Monday morning I had to bring back the bicycle on Saturday and hope I could find an alternative bike hire place for Sunday.

For the afternoon my itinerary would be fairly basic - just a discovery ride around the local neighbourhoods of Barcelona - more like a rediscovery ride.

On previous trips I had ridden around the city to reach Sants train station and also the Port when I sailed to Mallorca once. 

My recollection was that the roads were okay - no worse than Central London, though the motorists would generally give cyclists more space - which is always a good thing. 

The main difference on this trip was that the city council, like many city councils around the world, had splurged out on cycle lanes - lovely smooth cycle lanes with no débris in them, and cyclist traffic lights. Many roads in central Barcelona are one-way streets and the cycle paths generally follow the same direction. But there are some streets with two-way cycle traffic within a cycle lane, like what you see in central London on Park Lane, or along the River Thames at Westminster.  So that makes it handy that you don't have to navigate the one-way streets network. 

The cycle paths network was still under construction in places, so at times you were randomly dumped into the road, or would have to ride on narrow sections of path between building site railings.

One of the main roads, Diagonal, notably near the park by the same name, was a building site. When riding down the narrow path among all the various cyclists and e-cyclists and scooters either privately owned or from the city transport sharing scheme all travelling at vastly varying speeds, you had to pay attention. But I'm sure it'll be great when it's completed. Another main road, Avinguda Meridiana was one I used a lot and that had a two-way cycle lane down the central reservation and was bordered with trees. Again, it wasn't complete but will be a great lane eventually, especially as it's a lovely downhill to the heart of the city.

My focus was on getting back to my lodgings near Sant Andreu, resting up and grabbing some lunch before going out again to Montjuic.

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