After 2 days spent on a bus, and a night in a Premier Classe Hotel in Rheims, France, we were ready to get on our bikes and stretch our legs. (There had been the temptation to get the bikes unpacked in Rheims and re-run the stage finish there from the 1985 Tour de France when Sean Kelly and Eric Vanderaerden had thrown punches at one another as they sprinted for the line ! But as it was dark, 1 a.m. and we were all tired it was decided to leave it until another time.)
The camp was based in L'Estartit, a holiday resort on the Costa Brava approximately 100 kms north of Barcelona. Each day there were rides for 3 different levels: Group 1 was the longest ride, usually around the 130-160 km mark, Group 2, by far the largest group, would do a ride of 90-120 kms and Group 3 would do a ride of 50-90kms with at least one cafe stop. On most days Group 2 was split into two halves of roughly 25-30 riders in each group.
Some of us had been saying how much more courteous the Spanish drivers were compared to their British counterparts when along came the exception to prove the rule! An elderly (why are these drivers always elderly?) Spanish man came up past the outside of our peloton, realised he couldn't get past due to oncoming traffic and proceeded to cut into the group. Luckily we had our wits about us and managed to avoid any collisions but for a moment it looked pretty dicey. The driver was then treated to a quick lesson in English vernacular ! (One rider commented that the driver must have been an English taxi-driver on holiday in Spain such was the (poor) state of his driving).
As we approached Roses we came past an airfield and a light aircraft was coming into land as we rode by. Such was the angle and speed of the aircraft's descent most of us were convinced he was going to crash and we preparing to take evasive action when the pilot pulled the nose of the plane up slightly and executed a safe landing. We were all left feeling a little silly.
As we rolled into Roses the first occurrence of a phenomenon that was to grate on my nerves more and more as the week went on happened: a group of elderly Spaniards spying a group of 30 cyclists started to shout "Indurain, Indurain" as we came by. It made a change from the names I get shouted at me on occasion on British roads though. We stopped at a cafe on the promenade in Roses for a coffee whilst Allan Peiper promoted some of the keener riders to Group 1, despite their protestations. After a 30 minute break we all settled our bills and rolled out of the town.
The ride back was eventful for only one thing, the fact that we got lost in the area between Roses and L'Escala and ended up adding 15 kms to our overall distance. We went through the same village 3 times as Allan struggled in vain with the map and on each pass through the village we passed a young Spanish woman on a mountain bike who blushed each time as 30 young, male cyclists all greeted her with cries of "Hola !"
The final stretch back to L'Estartit involved riding into a headwind and the two guys on the front we left there for a 30 minute turn as everyone else saved their energy for the sprint for the L'Estartit sign. This was a tradition of the previous years' camps and it got very serious at times. I decided there and then to get on Peiper's wheel because I reasoned that he would have the craft (and the legs) to be in there at the death. I only hoped my legs would be up to the task. The road from Torroella to L'Estartit is dead straight and 5kms long with the sign just before the turning to our apartments. Anyone prepared to go for a long ride to glory would have to be really strong as they would be in sight all the way. As soon as we hit the road, coming off a roundabout in Torroella, the first attack came and immediately 5-6 riders slid off the back of the bunch as the pace increased dramatically. I was nicely tucked in on Allan's wheel and we soon reeled in the lone attacker. Someone had obviously read the textbook to racing because as soon as one guy was caught another guy would go and it was like this all the way to the sign. My heart, lungs and legs were screaming at me to ease down but I was having so much fun that I tried to ignore them. However, just as the sprint began to wind up with 300 metres to go I had to ease up and I rolled in 9th (out of 30) totally spent for the day !
After the exertions of the day before I'd decided I was going to take it a little easier today and sat in the middle of the bunch as we left L'Estartit, headed through Torroella and into La Bisbal. On the road out of La Bisbal you could notice that the hills were beginning to close around you and the road was beginning to go up. We'd decided to ride tempo on this climb but as soon as the road steepened riders were easing out of the back of the group. I felt comfortable at the pace we were doing and I think this was aided by the fact that the wind was behind us. The climb itself was fairly easy, never very steep and the pine trees on the hillside provided some shade from the sun. The road wasn't particularly twisty and those riders who had been dropped kept the main group in sight to the summit. The climb itself was about 3 kms long and we had a bit of a sprint for the summit.
We waited at the top for the less able climbers to re-join before heading off downhill towards Calonge. On the descent the strange disease known as Yatesitis, which afflicts all British cyclists when confronted with long, twisty descents took over, and we all hammered down the hill taking (calculated) risks as we tried to see if we could improve the maximum speed on our cyclo-computers. This was to be a trend all week!
Once through Calonge we headed onto the coast road towards Sant Felui. It was fairly built-up along this section and the road was busy, by Spanish standards, so we took it fairly steady until we were out of Sant Felui. Once out of the town we immediately hit another 3km climb and this time no attempt was made to ride tempo - instead it was hammer down time from the first bend until the summit. I enjoyed this climb despite the fact that the heat was almost intolerable. I was climbing far better than I thought I would be and I really pushed hard on the final kilometre to the summit to finish second at the top. Again we stopped and waited for the slower riders. However, after looking at the map we decided that this would be the last time we stopped as it was very easy to get into Lloret de Mar from here and some of us wanted to climb at our own pace rather than waiting for the slowest riders all the time.
What followed over the next 20 kms has to rate as one of the finest rides I've ever had. The road clung to the coast and climbed and descended constantly as it twisted and turned its way to Tossa del Mar. After hammering along for 3-4 kms I let the 5 younger riders we were with go as I wasn't sure if I could keep up their pace all the way to Tossa and some of the risks they were taking on descents (crossing the white line on corners etc.,) were ones that I wasn't prepared to take. A sign of maturing, finally?
As I eased up slightly I checked behind me and a guy called Chris from Newcastle upon Tyne was 50 metres down the road. I waited for him and we rode the rest of the way together, constantly testing each other on the climbs and pushing ourselves to the (legal) limits on the descents. We passed a lot of riders from Group 3 who were going to Lloret too and they kept shouting encouragement at us and told us we were less than a minute behind the front five. (Such was the twisty nature of the road that you could rarely see much more than 200 metres ahead). This spurred us on and over the final 5kms to Tossa del Mar we really rode hard, my heart-rate was hovering around the 180 bpm mark all the way, but to no avail as the lads in front beat us by about 45 seconds. We found them in Tossa as they were having problems finding the road to Lloret.
We had a map and so we climbed out of Tossa on a small climb of maybe 2 kms in length. About two thirds of the way up the police pulled us over to the side of the road as the race, Stage 1 of Catalan Week, was about to pass. We stood and cheered on as the riders swooped down the hill on their way into Tossa, catching a glimpse of Miguel Indurain sat at the back of the peloton taking it easy.
Once the race convoy had raced by we continued on the climb and then really got the speed up on a long straight descent into Lloret. My maximum speed for the day was attained here; 64 km/h. Once into Lloret we found our way to the coach park and loaded our bikes onto the coach, changed into dry clothes, had a bite to eat and walked down to the sea-front to watch the race. The Italian rider Fausto Dotti outsprinted Francisco Cabello for the win, these two being the only remnants from an eight man breakaway. The peloton thundered in a minute after these two.
As we approached L'Estartit in the coach on the way home we passed the remnants of Group 1, still on the road some 9 hours after leaving that morning. Talking to some of them at dinner that evening it seems the ride leader, former British professional Dudley Hayton, had wrongly estimated the distance and they ended up doing a 200 km ride with 3 big climbs. They were not happy.
This was my second event of the season and I was sure I couldn't do any worse than I had done the Sunday before I came out to Spain when I'd ridden a 2-up time trial with one of my club-mates and had been totally useless.
Once I got going I felt pretty good and I soon established a good rhythm and could see I was gaining on the rider who started a minute in front of me. At the first turn, the roundabout at Torroella, I had closed the gap to 30 seconds and this spurred me on as I powered back down the slight slope to L'Estartit. This was the hardest part of the course as the wind was blowing off of the sea and into your face all the way. Back into L'Estartit and I was only 10 seconds behind my man and I soon made this up on the way back to Torroella. With the wind behind me, and despite of the slight gradient, I was holding a steady 43-45 km/h on this stretch. Once around the roundabout again I was soon back into my rhythm and fighting the wind all the way back to the finish. I made one last effort and crossed the line to record a time of 28 minutes 20 seconds. This was good enough for 11th place (out of 41 riders). The winner, who used aerobars, recorded a time of 26:17 and beat Allan Peiper, who once finished 3rd in the Tour de France Prologue, into 3rd place.
I was fairly pleased with my ride as it was only March and I didn't expect my form to be so good so early on in the year and my saddle sore hadn't worsened.
On the ride out to the foot of the climb we encountered the strongest winds of the week and those less experienced in riding in a group in strong crosswinds were really struggling as we tried to keep an echelon going on our side of the road. Once we approached the climb the wind seemed to ease a little and the group reformed.
The approaches to the climb soon sorted out those who could climb from those who couldn't as there were 4 short, sharp ascents before we reached the foot of the climb proper. According to the couple of riders who had ridden up this mountain before the actual main climb was 8kms long and was very steep in places. As we got closer the talking stopped and an eerie silence embraced the group. We finally turned left at the Santurio de Los Angels sign and you could see the road twisting and turning up the side of the mountain.
Gradually the road steepened before it reared up sharply and everyone was soon reaching for their lower gears as we climbed steeply up through the pine trees. Like all cyclists I am not a very good judge of a gradient but in places I would say the climb was as severe as 14%. Just as I was getting into my rhythm my right-hand brakehood started to move and I had to stop and tighten the bolt that clamps it to the handlebars. This repair took about a minute and I was passed by 4 other riders. I set myself a target of catching all of them before the summit and jumped back on and started to chase. However, I soon found that the combination of the ever changing gradient, the heat and the fact that I could have done with a lower gear than the 39x21 I had meant that I wasn't climbing as well as I would have liked. I certainly wasn't going as well as I had on Tuesday.
I was slowly reeling in the 4 riders ahead but as I continued to climb I began to realise why I hated these big, hot climbs; they were too difficult and too long. I've been raised on short, steep climbs in the UK, usually no longer than a kilometre or two. I could use my strength to get over them but here my 71 kgs was too much of a burden to allow me to climb like a true climber. A short flattish section allowed me to regain some speed, I'd been climbing at a steady 14-15 km/h most of the way, and just as we approached the summit I caught the final rider of the 4 who passed me when I stopped. I'd finished 12th out of 24 riders. We were going to descend down the other side of the climb towards Girona and then ride back but the combination of the wind and the climb had tired most people out so we descended down the side we'd just ridden up so we could take the shortest route back. I atoned for my (by my standards) poor showing on the climb by again contracting a bout of Yatesitis and being the first to the junction at the bottom of the climb. The absence of any traffic meant that a few corners could be cut on the descent but the scariest moment came when three of us came around a right-handed bend to discover one of the riders from the other Group 2, whom we'd been passing all the way down, on our side of the road. A few choice phrases were directed in her direction as we sped past.
The ride back to L'Estartit was fairly brisk and once again you could see that everyone was beginning to think about the all important sprint for the sign at the end of the ride. The previous evening Allan and Dudley had given us a talk about race tactics and everyone was eager to try out what they had learnt ! However, everyone had obviously not listened because as soon as we came around the roundabout at Torroella someone jumped hard into a headwind and a long, straight road; precisely what we'd been told never to do the night before. I was nicely tucked in on Chris' wheel and we were given an armchair ride to the finish as other people chased down every attack for us. As the sign approached I jumped hard with 200 metres to go and thought I had got it but Chris just managed to get around me to take it in the closing metres. But it was fun so I wasn't particularly annoyed.
I was the only rider who had been over Los Angels the day before so everyone was keen to see the climb for themselves apart from me. The riders I were with all seemed to be a lot stronger and fitter than me and I was worried that I would be a liability to them on the climb. I matched them okay on the small approach climbs which boosted my confidence a bit but once we hit the steep part at the foot of the climb proper I began to lose contact. I dug in and tried to keep a good rhythm going and as we ascended I could see two others about 100 metres ahead. I didn't think I could close the gap but if I could maintain it I would be fairly happy. I kept pushing hard, riding at my absolute limits and was pleased to see, through the sweat, that I was holding the gap. The climb seemed longer today than it had yesterday and I kept hoping that the flatter section was around the next corner but each time the road just continued to climb steeply upwards. The heat was, for a British person like me, intense and I really found it uncomfortable to climb in these temperatures. I hate to think what it must be like in July. Finally the flatter section appeared and I once again built my speed up for the last kilometre section, which wasn't as steep as the rest of the climb. As I approached the summit I realised that only one rider, a guy called Andy from Sheffield, was waiting as the others had started on the descent. So I zipped up my jersey, looked around for a fan with a newspaper but to no avail, and we then began to descend towards Girona.
As we descended we began to realise that the climb from the other side of the mountain is a lot less steep than the side we had come up and, consequently, was a lot longer. Whether the climb would be easier from the Girona side is uncertain. I found the unrelenting steepness of the other side a problem so maybe the lesser gradient would be easier but then the much longer length of the climb could prove difficult. Next time I'm in the area I'll climb it and let you know.
The descent was very twisty and this prevented us getting any real speed up, about one third of the way down there was even an uphill section of about 1km which wasn't at all welcome. When the road finally started descending again we began to pick up speed but just as we approached the last 1km an unsigned right-hand bend nearly caught both of us out. Previously the sharper bends had been preceded by signs warning road users of them but this one, which was one of the sharpest bends on the whole descent had no signs, no armco barriers and a drop off of about 40 metres in height to a small river below. Luckily for us we were able to slow down enough to steer around the bend but if there had been anything coming up the hill we may have been in trouble. A scary moment.
When we got to the bottom the other four riders were waiting for us and we carried on on the road through Cassa, Llagostera and on to Sant Felui. This was the hardest part of the ride as the wind was in our faces and for a while, Dudley and another rider really forced the pace whilst the rest of us hung on desperately. Luckily when the next two guys moved onto the front they eased the pace and finally when I got to the front I slowed it down a bit more. Even so on a short ascent into Sant Felui I lost contact with the others and had to descend rapidly through the streets of the town to regain contact. Once we were in the centre of town we sought out a cafe and had a bite to eat and a coffee.
Suitably refreshed we headed up the coast towards Palamos on a fairly busy road, which got worse when we joined the main road which by-passed the towns on the coast and headed towards Palafrugell. On the coastal section this rode was very undulating and on one of the descents we reached speeds in excess of 70km/h - the fastest of the week ! We rode into Palafrugell and headed onto the road towards Torroella. Just on the outskirts of Palafrugell a couple of Civil Guardia's came alongside and told us to ride in single file rather than two abreast as we had been doing. The wind had now turned and was on our backs and we proceeded to ride bit and bit all the way back to L'Estartit - a distance of some 25 kms. I don't think our speed fell below 40 km/h on this section and was hovering around the 50 km/h mark for most of it and going through Torroella I was struggling to hang on. However, I came round and managed to stay with the group until they jumped for the sprint by which time my goose was well and truly cooked ! But I'd wanted a long, hard ride and that was precisely what I got. The beer in the bar afterwards tasted good !
I'd wholeheartedly recommend such a camp to anyone who is looking to reach a good level of fitness prior to the start of the racing season.
Andrew Powers Tel: 0151 794 2290 R & D Unit for English Studies Fax: 0151 794 2298 University of Liverpool Liverpool Email: firstname.lastname@example.org U.K.