Tuesday, 23 December 2014

London to Paris - Tour de France 2014

It’s 08:00 am on Thursday 23rd July. The sun has just come up across Canary Wharf and the City is starting to come to life. As the lights of One, Canada Square are still twinkling, workers from all across London are on their way into work, with their best suits on and coffee in hand, discussing what is to come from the days trading – just another weekday in London.
But today is different for one set of city folks. The morning meeting is taking place overlooking the city, at Greenwich Observatory. The meeting is not about stocks, shares, current accounts or financial products. This meeting is about a grand 280 mile journey to Paris by bike, to watch the final of the Tour de France on the cobbled streets of Champs Elysees in just 4 days time. Suits have been replaced by their best cycling lycra and the only drinks that can be seen here are isotonic Nuun tablets.  After 6 months of preparation its time to ride out Paris bound on this Adventure Café Corporate London to Paris Tour de France Ride.

Day 1: Greenwich to Dover – 75miles

As we depart Greenwich Park and turn left onto Shooters Hill Road you can sense the excitement in the air amongst the team. For many, cycling is an individual sport, as we get used to those training rides where usually, we are the small speck on the horizon for drivers - but not today. As we head towards the first note of interest on the gradient profile, Shooters Hill, its clear to see that today cyclists are taking back the roads. Our peloton is not met with hostility from local motorists or the general public but instead intrigue and wonder. As the group slowly gets spread out along the road, split by pace of different riders and the ebb and flow of traffic lights, there are many conversations breaking out between motorists and cyclists at red lights…  

“So where are you lot off to?”


“Paris – France??”

“that’s the one!”

“wow… good luck to you….. I would get the train!”

With each encounter you can see the pride sweep across peoples faces with distinct broad smiles.

In no time at all, powered by excitement and adrenalin, and with many dreaming that its their own mini Tour De France (I know I certainly am!) the 60 strong peloton sweeps out of London and crosses over the M25. From here on out, the traffic eases and the scenery becomes far more green. We pass Dartford and Gravesend, with many open straight roads in front of us, bound for the historic town of Rochester and the crossing over the Medway.

Rochester is our designated coffee stop on this ride, and as I arrive in at Simply Italian on the high street, some may be mistaken in thinking we had already arrived in France. The sun is shining, the bunting that is hanging across the high street is fluttering, and everyone is outside the Café, espresso in hand, smiling and joking about the mornings’ ride. It’s these moments that you can’t help but think life is good! Inside the café, our host, the eccentric Giuseppe, is entertaining everyone. Giuseppe epitomises everything that is great about this type of ride - everyone comes for the roads and the challenge, but it is always these small encounters that will continue to make us smile at the end of the day. 

Fresh from the mornings caffeine fix the next stage of this ride takes us from Rochester to Staplestreet, via Sittingbourne and Faversham. Continuing to pass through the beautiful Kent countryside, we can’t help but feel that the gods are smiling on us; the roads are dry, the skies are blue, the sun is beating down and there is not a breath of wind. Perfect conditions for cultivating those tan lines (Rule 7). We settle down and clock through the mileage. Talk is of “If only Chris Froome had had it this easy during the tour, what might have been?” After no time at all, we are greeted by the support vehicle and the welcome sight of the Three Horseshoes Pub at Staplestreet. Once again they have done us proud with a great lunch buffet. On such a lovely summers’ lunchtime it would be easy to think about a cold shandy, but with another 27 miles to go we continue with our Nuun Tablets and rehydrate.

The final 25 miles are by far, my favorite section of the day. The route take us out of Staplestreet via Canterbury and then alongside the Kent Downs. This section of road is truly beautiful as you make your way through beautiful Kent villages, and small roads in the heart of the countryside, until you finally make the long descent into Dover.

Arriving at the port of Dover, we were greeted by a number of other cycle tour providers, and what seemed like an army of cyclists, ready to invade France. The port of Dover knew we were coming, so had made us wait at the gates of the port with the other cycling teams, to wait for a lead car to take us through customs to the ferry holding area. We patiently waited for this car to emerge, but more and more groups were being escorted through in front of us and still no car! “Right that’s it” Lead by our fearless leader Richard, enough was enough “These groups that are going through in front of us, have been following florescent arrows from London so need guiding through – We are cycle leaders… we know our way to the ferry!” and so the Grand Tour Cycling assault on the port of Dover began!! Within minutes, we were through customs and ready to board the ferry who’s passenger manifest must have been made up of at least 90% cyclists.

After a smooth crossing, it was a short ride to the hotel, a shower and a glass of French red wine. 3 More Days to go!

Day 2: Calais to Abbeville – 78miles
Departing Calais early, it’s very clear that from here to Paris the riding will be very different. The peloton again departed our hotel, Hotel - Calais de la Plage, riding out along the promenade with the warm sea breeze in our hair. Again we had been greeted by another blue bird day – perfect! Our route today was very simple keep the sea on the right. We follow the D940 through the Nord Pas de Calais National Park - on quiet, rolling, coastal roads never loosing sight of the sea. Either side of us, we pass beautiful green fields and it is hard to imagine that there was ever a time when this coastline was not tranquil. Looming never too far away though, is the history of this coastline. The war museums, with old WW1 tanks outside and the abandoned gun turrets are nearby, reminding you of a sadder time.  

 Our target for this morning is the beautiful fishing town of Boulogne, and more espresso, opposite the harbor. The roads are good and we all make steady pace. This enjoyment is only briefly interrupted with the rumor of a looming Strava segment – suddenly the mere thought focuses the mind and narrows the vision – apparently our city riders are competitive!!

After our morning coffee, and a brief rest to again work on our tan lines, we continued toward Etaples and lunch. This section again flashes by as we make use of good cycle paths, and continue to pass wartime relics, the most poignant being the Etaples cemetery on the outskirts of town, where we pull over to pay our respects. After a short ride into Etaples, we are greeted by Ian and our lunch stop on large park area outside a marina. Typically lunches on these cycle trips are a buffet style with French baguettes, ham, cheese as well as many other finger snacks. They are always well received and a great chance to kick back and relax. The only real cause of great stress and debate was between two Grand Tour Cycling Leaders Rich “tabouleh” McLaughlin and Rob “the gherkin” Lucas over which is the best cycling superfood – I’m pleased to report the winner was my ham, cheese and rocket sandwich, as I was too hungry to listen to the outcome of the debate.
After lunch and fuelled by whichever super food you settled upon, we continue south to Abbeville. The route changes significantly from the morning’s riding as we head inland. We move away from the coastal roads and find ourselves winding our way through pine forests, as we head towards the Somme Valley and the market town of Abbeville, our evening stopover. After a warm shower, we all departed for our evening meal where it was clear that moral was high. The lead leader of our illustrious group from Grand Tour Cycling was to bear the ‘brunt’ of the mood; 5 or 6 times we tried to offer the briefing for the following days riding, what people had ordered, the weather or even just tried to stand up to visit the bathroom, each time to be greeted with rowdy jeers! As the wine seeped in, the volume increased. Clearly everyone was having a great time. Tomorrow Beauvais.

Day 3: Abbeville to Beauvais – 65miles 

Day 3 is always a great days riding. Motivated by the thought of only 65 miles riding, and after celebrating our first proper days riding in France the night before, the peloton set off flying. The ride from Abbeville to Beauvais takes you up onto a high plateau, with French countryside spread out before you. We wind our way from one farming village to another, and it is clear to see we are in the heart of Northern France, and it is easy to think that in many ways this region is very similar to the UK.

 This day really allows people to stretch their legs. We are predominantly riding on smaller roads and using the support vehicles and cycle leaders, we can really allow the group to flow through junctions at their own pace. Today, more than any other day, the group feels that they are cycle touring. The routine is set, pace is steady, and the team can really sit back and enjoy the ride. The day passes smoothly. Lunch is taken in the charming village of Brombos, on the village green, next to a lovely little pond. As the group is lying on the village green, eating lunch, laughing and joking, it is evident that they have settled into life in the saddle. Again blessed by another beautiful day, we allow ourselves a bit of an extended break, before making the final push towards Beauvais and its magnificent Cathedral. 

Over dinner that evening, it soon became clear that the tide had turned. After three days successful days riding, with a Grand Tour Cycling Leader at the head of the peleton, a splinter breakaway was forming. An eager alter-leader was shaping a new counter challenging team. The plan: to deliver their leader and hopeful sprint champion in prime position, for a prestigious stage finish at a small abandoned garage some 20km into tomorrow’s ride. Declaring to put their Superfood differences to one side, the Gherkin and a third Grand Tour Leader, Pime aka Owen Wilson, had vowed to do the same for team GTC. Talk of this battle filled the evening and many performance enhancing drinks were offered to aid the team domestiques, and lead out riders, but what would tomorrow bring…??

Day 4: Beauvais to Paris – 56 miles The Big One

Knowing that today was the big day the group set off riding early and made good time passing through Meru for our daily espresso, (you are probably now noticing a theme), and powering towards Cergy Pontoise where we had lunch next to the Seine river. Although the legs by this point are starting to feel the previous days mileage, teams are always given a second wind, because as you make your way down into Pontoise, the skyline of Paris can start to be seen on the horizon – not far now! We finished lunch and re-instated the peloton for the remaining 20 miles, we would ride in together. The mileage ticks by with out you noticing, and our approach quickly sneaks us into the suburbs alongside the Seine and via the back roads, towards the capital. All around the buildings are getting bigger and bigger, the traffic gets busier and you can feel the buzz of the city growing. Keeping the group moving together using the un-crowded bus lanes in the city, and with cycle leaders buzzing around like ranchers keeping everyone safe and on the right route, the excitement grows. Shouts of “go” at traffic lights and the emergence of typical Parisian cafes with people sat outside, only continues to build the anticipation. The architecture is changing also as you pass by. Gone are the glass and steel of the business district instead you are greeted by the older buildings that are so typically French. Almost unaware of how close you are, we swept around one last corner and up a final climb, with the Arc de Triomphe standing on the crest – wow this is Paris! Horns are beeping and there is traffic everywhere, but similar to the Red Sea, the traffic seems to part for us to enter into the Arch de Triomphe for the mandatory laps around this most famous land mark – and to think in less than 24 hours the Tour de France riders will be riding on the same hallowed cobbles! Its always great to see how respectful and tolerant Parisian drivers are to cycle groups. Cycling does seem to be part of the French DNA.  From here it’s just a question of cycling to the Trocadero and the iconic Eiffel Tower to let the celebrations begin. We’ve made It!!
After 20 minutes and many many photos with bikes aloft with the famous Paris backdrop its time to depart but the fun has not finished yet. We still have a few more miles back to our hotel past the where’s where on the Paris Monopoly board, before we are finishing for the evening. Right on cue, the Red Bull Girls turn up in their little Red Bull Mini, and started to hand out cold cans of Red Bull for the final push – that should see us home. Again riding as a peloton we depart the Trocadero and head back towards the Arc de Triomphe where we turn right and cycle down the most famous road in cycling history the Champs Elysees. As we ride down these famous cobbled streets, which have already been prepared for the Tour’s final stage you can’t help but get caught up in the history of the grandest of Tours. It is also hard to not feel the excitement and anticipation of the event as you cycle over these cobbles – the whole city is waiting. It in these moments the achievement of what the team have just completed is clearly setting in.
A shower and a few beers later its time to reflect on a what has been a great 4 days. The speeches passed without any renditions of Happy Birthday and we all settled down for dinner and a small glass of wine in a great little Parisian restaurant…. The perfect way to finish a grand ride.


Day 5: the Tour de France

            My choice was an early start to make the most of the day. For others, a later start was the option of choice, after a later evening. Paris is a fantastic city and for any cycle leader, after a grand 280 miles, the way of exploring the French capital was only ever going to be by one form of transport – the bike! We took to our Hidalgo Bikes. I can only imagine this is what they would be called… We have Boris Johnson they have their Parisian Lady Mayor Anne Hidalgo. After 4 days on Road bikes we were overjoyed to be back on these street cruisers; fat tyres, low gears, buckled wheels. This was living the dream J. We took in the sights of Notre Dame, Montmartre, The Eiffel Tower from below and Stella Artois, the only thing we needed to complete this perfect day was a Team Sky British win. As we waited by the side of the Champs Elysees, the overriding sense was of how much the French, and now the world, love their cycling. The buzz was amazing, and then it was the moment we had been waiting for. As the riders got closer we could see the helicopter in the sky approaching as the wall of sound got nearer. And then the peloton zipped by in a nano-second followed by their entourage. There were multiple leaders in the multiple laps, Jens Voight was there, as was Geraint Thomas but both faded into the distance. For a long time it seemed that Richie Porte may just hold off the chasing pack, but ultimately it was Marcel Kittal who stole the show. What an experience, the speeds and closeness in proximity of the rides was amazing. An unforgettable ride. A huge thank you to the Team who made this an unforgettable ride.
If you fancy joining this fantastic mélange of sporting masterpiece and 4 beautiful and fun days in the saddle. Then visit www.adventure-cafe.com or www.grandtourcycling.co.uk – or just pick up the phone and call us on 01460 249191…. Rides available throughout Europe all year round….

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

My name is Richard and I am a recovering Bikeaholic....

So I just got a new bike... Another one, yes. But I'm not a bike-a-holic. It's under control. The financial controller said that I didn't have 'sign off' for the purchase... But to a biker on the edge of a dangerous addiction it seemed obvious... £500 off, it was obviously a sign from a higher power; "buy, buy!"
All of Ridley's bikes are tested on the cobbles to make sure they meet the brand's own durability standards
Of course, it's not like I don't have an all purpose go anywhere road bike. It's not as if I don't have an aero bike, ideal for time trialling. And of course, in the stable at Adventure Cafe we have endless hybrids, and back up Genesis machines when we need them. And then, gathering dust in the dark recesses of the garage are the poor, almost fore gotten mountain bikes, both fully rigid and front sus.
So the obvious question is "why did I need another bike?" And the answer comes in many forms. In my mind it is because I didn't have an out and out hill climbing machine. But in reality, the reason I splashed out on another new bike is probably because the bike industry is so clever at reinventing itself. For a machine that purports to be so simple, it really is something to behold the way the humble bicycle has evolved, metamorphosised and regenerated more times than Doctor Who or Madonna. Kids street bikes, BMX's, folding bikes, touring bikes, recumbents, mountain bikes, DH, XC, TT, Aero, Triathlon, Cyclocross, Fixed Gear, it is just bonkers how the bike has splintered into a million subspecies.
But the question is how to select the right bike for you. Which breed are you going to pick. We'll assume for arguments sake that you are one of the legion of road bikers now multiplying on our roads, looking for a machine that will go anywhere as long as it is good quality tarmac, and looking to cover the miles with ease. But within the gamut of road bikes, we need to consider the range of types on offer, and of course for that, we need to know what the bike is to be used for. The first way to weed out a whole chunk of bikes is to confirm that the rider is not partaking in TIme Trialling or Triathlon. This being the case, forget anything with the words aero featuring. These machines are amazing, lightning fast,  pieces of engineering wizardry, but their geometry is designed for one off shorter spurts of effort and certainly not for climbing hills or mountains or all day enjoyment.
Next there are the cyclocross, and old school touring machines. If you are bound for some serious multi week tours, or travel on suspect roads or even semi off road, then these machines with their design to accommodate wider gauge tyres and hi durability could be just the thing you are looking for. But be careful, and consider who you're going to be riding with, as these bikes will sacrifice a lot in terms of extra weight, and acceleration won't be startling! If you want to keep up with friends on road bikes, then a cyclo-X machine won't be the one for you.
So now we're getting to the nitty gritty of things and we have a range of road bikes still to choose from, still with varying geometries and frame materials, at a dizzying array if price points from around £600 up to around £10k. And here I think comes the next key question. Which is the most important item for you, out and out acceleration / hill climbing ability / or price. If you are on a budget (£1200 or less) then you are now narrowed down to an aluminium entry level road bike - potential candidates that we see often on the road would be Giant Defy range, Specialised Allez or similar, or Genesis Volant. These will all be available at around £600- £900 and will feature good quality Shimano groupsets that will offer an entry into the world of roadbiking.
If however, you have more extravagant plans, then the world of Carbon, the material of choice for the whole of the Pro Peleton, is open to you. These frames can blend lightness, stiffness and comfort in incredible ways, defying traditional logic in certain instances (yes frames can be stiff in some areas and shock absorbing in others!)... So now it is a question of homing in on your frame of choice by reading, speaking with vendors, and checking size very very carefully. Clearly all the above discussions will become completely pointless if you end up with an incorrectly sized frame. Especially if you are about to embark upon an expensive purchase... get measured accurately... get a bike fit. For a small percentage of the price of the bike, you can ensure it works optimally for you, maximising your physiological and mechanical attributes.

Each type of frame will lean slightly further to one of the above qualities mentioned (price, stiffness, comfort, and weight)** ...
Me personally, being as I happened to have winter riding, and time trial riding sewn up, I was looking towards a machine that would help me on mountain / hill climb stages, ie a superstiff, superlight carbon machine. It probably is time to mention that another key factor in bike selection is the rider's personality. Traditionalist , leading edge early adopter of technology, easy going, ultra competitive, understated; whichever describes the rider, will also dictate the nature of the bike purchase. It just happens that I am painfully competitive, and hence I opted for a machine that was the closest I could manage to the wonder bike I ride last year in Mallorca; the beautiful Cannondale Supersix Evo. This machine had changed dramatically the complexion of my climb on Sa Calobra, allowing me to zip past a fleet of other riders all on the mountain that day.
The Ridley Helium is a stiff, fast and lightweight bike designed for climbing
My final choice, significantly influenced by a £500 extra special discount for last years model, was the Ridley Helium. At first sight it seems to be exactly what I was hoping, light, fast, zippy, and beautiful. Equipped with Ultegra, and Fulcrum F4 wheels and a dream frame, it gives a great ride on flat and undulating, but adds real sparkle to the hills, positively itching to be let loose on short sharp hits. I am happy again on the road, and I have another motivation to get out and train (to live up to the potential of my new wheels). And finally it seems my stable is complete. For the time being :-)

www.grandtourcycling.co.uk - Let your bike loose on the best roads in Europe...

Monday, 24 March 2014

Cycling Through the Ages....

When I was a nipper... I rode on a beaten up old Raleigh Shopper. I used to build ramps, do jumps, pull wheelies, generally try and pretend I had a BMX (which I was not rich enough to own). Unsurprisingly it broke, after a particularly daring and over ambitious leap through the air that Danny Mcaskill would have been proud of.
Next I graduated to a Dawes Lightning, which was a beaut' ! I rode it to and from school, initially very proud of the GT extensions, and the twin Suntour shifters on the downtube. It even allowed me to start exploring the countryroads around where I lived, and gave me transport to town when I needed it. It walked home with me from school with mates, it even helped me in my early abortive attempts to woo the ladies on the way to and from school. But eventually it too was overtaken. Scratched to pieces, and with buckled wheels, and rusty from haven been left out in the rain one too many times, my heart was stolen away by my first glimpse of a Dawes Ranger in the playground. Furious plotting and planning followed. That bike, or at least something very similar, would be mine...

I got a part time job, and I saved like a Scotsman on a budget. I reviewed every bike available. Friends bought their first mountain bikes, and paraded them around sixth form college proudly. I MUST GET ONE! I dreamt every night of having my own off road vehicle. And eventually, at a princely sum of £279.99 I ordered last year's Specialized Rock Hopper in glorious technicolour yellow. I assembled it in a flash, and tore off to the hills by myself to see what it could do. I bumped and careered along the upland trails, plunged down terrifying descents, with no technical skills, and crashed three times, the final one seeing my front wheel plant in a muddy stream at 20mph and launch me clean over the handlebars sprawling in an ignominious heap. I limped home afterwards, utterly exhilarated.

Soon after, with mates we would push the boundaries, visiting countries far and wide, and in the late teenage years, more than happy to camp, sleep on floors, and even better in exotic destinations - we explored the backpacker network on 2 wheels.

Cycling had revolutionised, and indelibly changed my life. Bikes came and went, and upgrades were purchased as money allowed. At one point we even managed to score a slightly surreal sponsorship deal from Saracen Cycles, for an epic ride across Asia. This slightly more professional arrangement happened to co-incide with my mid to late 20's, I guess a time when I was gradually working out what I wanted from life. Bicycles. Lots of them. And Cycling kit. Lots of it. Parcels and packages and boxes arrived by the truckload. Very cool.

We rode for 519 days this time. And after 28 000 km of bicycling, I kind of found that I had had enough. I even found one day whilst showering that my backside seemed to have changed shape. Its contours had taken on a saddle like form. So I dallied with other forms of activity for a while. I rowed, I ran, I swam, I even climbed and caved. But somewhere, there was a voice calling. "What
about me?" called the 2 wheeled steed of my youth.

At work by now we had started organising trips, and even though I knew so much more about cycle touring, it was still well and truly on the backburner. We organised mainly hill walking, scrambling and canoeing adventures. But folks were starting to ask for 2 wheeled trips. So of course, we obliged.

We took people on trips from London to Paris, and I stuck resolutely to my guns about what cycling meant to me. "You need a good simple, reliable bike" I would instruct people. "Good tyres, no to suspension, but yes, mountain bikes are fine". And folks did ride their MTBs. But things started to change. The tyres got skinnier, the wheels bigger. The handlebars stayed flat, but not for long. We saw the brief rise of the sports hybrid - which brought me across from Mountain Bikes, and on to the tarmac.

For me, the advent of the Sports Hybrid and skinny 700c wheels coincided with young children in my household. This time of my life meant that I wasn't realistically able to drop everything and disappear to the mountains for a long weekend. But slipping out on a summer's evening for a couple of hours was a regular possibility. These training rides quite quickly showed up what road riding can become. I kept watching the speedo. I kept looking at my average speed. And the riding became quite a different experience. It became much more of a pursuit of speed. And once that happened, the flat handlebars were living on borrowed time. My Giant FCR2 - despite the lovely carbon forks, and despite the perfectly adequate Shimano 105, just couldn't cut it. I upgraded to my Genesis Aether 20. And I got my head down, literally, to some more serious riding.

In the meanwhile, the arms race was continuing out on the trips. And riders were starting to venture further afield, joining us on rides from Paris to Munich, and Munich to Venice, and across Italy, and into the Alps. All these journies combined with comfortable digs at the end of the day, and with excellent food, and maybe the odd glass of wine thrown in for good luck. The riding was just as intense, but life after the ride was certainly looking more comfortable, more middle aged some might even say :-(

Carbon fibre machines started to appear on our rides. And at first we scoffed. And then we saw more and more coming, and of course, we became quite envious. The shiny paintwork, the zippy performance, and the downright stylishness of it all got under our skin too. Fortunately we have some good relationships in the cycling industry, and so I was able to negotiate a good deal on my next dream machine. Complete with deep section wheels, I am still somewhat ashamed of the price tag (I always said £600 was enough to buy a really good bike) - but my Cervelo S1 with carbon wheels and 105 throughout doesn't quite fit in that price bracket. But my god was it quick. I had been content with 13-15mph on my old touring adventure mountain bike, then we had progressed to 18 or so with the sports hybrid, and 19 or 20 with the Aether. But the Cervelo, and a good stretch of road, feeling good can get up to 24-25 happily.

The thing is, this bike only gets taken out when it is safe to do so. And it certainly isn't permitted in the hold of a plane, 'she' can only go where I can see her!

And so, last week, I found myself on the perfectly smooth roads of Majorca, in March, in the sunshine. Blitzing along, with the peloton in tow, the sea shimmering away on our right, dancing from one wonderful hotel and restaurant to the next, with quiet clean and beautiful roads in between.

 Here, unlike some of my explorations in India, Cambodia or Indonesia, where it has been necessary to wade through thick fumes, endure clouds of dust, and skilfully avoid dangerous driving, the enjoyment is not something one has to wait a few weeks to look back upon. It is very, very immediate. It is cycling Nirvana. And to cap it off, my journies through the march of bicycle technology reached a place I never expected to go. My steed for this wonderful 4 days in the Balaerics, was a Cannondale Supersix Evo Di2. Electronic gears, married with the lightest productions frame available. The bike was hired I hasten to add. And all in the name of research and cycling knowledge. The electronic gears were precise, efficient, and incredible. But not for me. But when I gave this wonder machine a proper shake down on the wonderous mountain climb of Sa Calobra, I can honestly say I have never encountered a bike like it. Epic performance, in an incredible location, on perfect tarmac. To date, this has been the pinnacle of my cycling. Not withstanding the mountain passes of the Himalayas, or the deserts of Iran and Pakistan, or the rice paddies of Cambodia and Indonesia, this day of riding was simply sublime. But what made it so special, was that it was the right ride, at the right time of my life. And riding has always been like that. It as changed so many times over the years. It gives so many options, so many styles, so many facets, and so much to enjoy. Vive le Velo! To 2 wheels that keep on giving...



Friday, 7 February 2014

Awesome Short Break in Aiguestortes Parque Nacional

As a trek leader, there are times when I pack the bags, and rush out of the door, passport, first aid kit, emergency shelter, and gaffer tape at the ready. Often with little time to appreciate the incredible variety of landscapes and experiences that I work in. And then, there are the other times, when I just wish I could bottle the essence of mountain, and sell it to the world. The Aiguestortes would do that trick rather nicely. A nice short journey, good weather at the destination, the most stunning mountains, and fantastic food, this trip has it all.


Just a short hop from the UK to either Pau or Lourdes Tarbes airport, and from there are drive of around an hour and a half, will bring you to the trailhead for one of the finest mountain experiences available in Europe.


This piece describes how you might consider this as a bit of a wham bam, quick hit and run on the Pyrenees. You can cram it into a Budget flight weekend, but of course, you could happily double, triple, or more the length of time to dedicate to it.


We flew into Pau airport (but you might use Lourdes - or if pushed, even Biarritz), and after a short transfer to the French Spanish border, then through Vielha and the Vielha Tunnel, we pulled up at Hospital de Vielha - ready to take on the Pyrenees finest. With poles extended, laces tightened, and food squashed in as best we could for the 2 days ahead, we climbed out of the valley, inevitably winding our way up towards the high and wild mountains. As we climbed up through the pine forests, our breathing adjusted slowly to the task that lay ahead; 2 days of mountain trekking. Our small team of 3, used to trekking together, chatted eagerly for the first couple of kilometres, before settling down to the task ahead.  As the first Col at 2320m approached, that special feeling of anticipation started to build. With blue skies overhead, and the sun rising rapidly in the sky, the canvas was set, for a very special couple of days.


Crossing the Port de Rius, the landscape undergoes a simply incredible change. From the unassuming climb, we snuck through a narrow nick of rock at the top, over and into the outer reaches of the Aigues Tortes National Park. Immediately we knew we were in for a special treat, as the first of a series of impossibly beautiful and pure Glacial lakes came into view. The deep blue of the lake makes an impressive backdrop, and contrasts beautifully against the brightness of the pristene wind scoured granite. The sublime combination of colours and crystal clear air are intoxicating, and make the soul and the spirits soar. We sprung along lightfootedly beside a series of lakes, and marvelled at the beautiful waters, and perfect reflections. The walking is so absorbing that miles and hours pass so quickly. The horizon draws you in, the intrigue and amazement of the ever more spectacular surroundings is breathtaking.


Our end of day destination was the Refugi de Colomers, an innocuous 12 miles of walking - but of course, cols at 2355m (Port de Rius) and 2570m (Port de Caldes) conspire to make this trek somewhat more arduous. Depending on how you are travelling, this could be a tough day, or fairly manageable. Our recommendation for a fast break like this is certainly to pack light, and enjoy every minute. Also, the weather will change the undertaking considerably, summer weather in the mountains is perfect, especially here in the high Pyrenees, where we spent most of the day above 2000m. You should expect temperatures to fluctuate in the middle of the summer from 25 degrees down to 5 or 10 degrees (closer to feeling like zero with a stiff breeze blowing). We trekked with small packs (as we were making full use of mountain refuge facilities) - and so the day's walk was around 8 hours.


With perfect weather conditions, our lunch break beside one of the high mountain lakes was a blissful affair, the warm sun keeping us just warm enough to stretch out on a nice soft grassy lawn. Nothing can really get close to the feeling of soft grass, clear air, and warm sunshine. Add some Spanish Omlette and some Chorizo, and lunch is just what the doctor ordered. Let your eyes close, lay back, and take a few deep breaths... this is what mountains are all about.


The walk remained high up for the afternoon, and we reached the intermediate Refugi dera Restanca  in the mid afternoon. Across a long hydro electric barrage, the path reached the Refuge, and our slightly dehydrated bodies were pleased to find the Guardian already serving cold drinks. This was just the tonic we needed to continue on the second stage of our day's trek. Tempting as it may have been to roll out the sleeping bags, our 'camino' wound on, up and over another pass - and further amongst these wondrous peaks.


The twin passes of Gueliicrestada and Caldes require a further 500m of ascent, but once again, it brought us into sublime territory. The feeling here is certainly of remoteness, and the mountains became more atmospheric as the day drew towards its close. The whispy white clouds in the deep blue sky had developed through the afternoon, becoming heavier, and greyer as we marched on. By Port de Caldes, our high point for the day, as is so often the case, the wind had freshened to a stiff breeze, whipping our rucsack straps, and encouraging us to hurry off down the hillside towards Colomers. The trail roughened and steepened up coming down the final 400m down towards the lakes of the Circ de Colomers. Certainly this kind of terrain deserves some thought and consideration. Whilst it may not be the domain of extreme altitude, and it was on the waymarked GR11 trail, a slip and tumble here can have serious complications, and can turn an easy and enjoyable day into something very different. With wearying legs we trod carefully on our final descent of the day - and down to the lakeside which we skirted to find our way into the shelter of the Colomers Refuge.


The refuge is a wonder of the European Mountains, and no matter how many times I visit, it is always such a great experience to be able to be fed and watered up high in the mountains. Some may find sleeping cheek by jowel with folks from across Europe a disconcerting experience, but I find it life affirming, and always a fascinating way to spend a night. Dinner was served bang on the stroke of 8pm, and with three courses, including thick creamy polenta, tasty gravy sauce and local mountain meat (probably horse!), followed up by fruit for afters, and a cold beer, life just doesn't get much better.


An important aspect of any trip to a mountain refuge in Spain, is the etiquette of life in the refuge. First rule is that all bags must stay downstairs (usually in storage lockers or similar). Second, you will usually be offered slippers for use whilst in the refuge, and you should definately NOT enter the refuge with boots on (unless you want unspeakable things to be done to your dinner !). Thirdly, if you get any choice over your bed for the night, there are 2 key factors; firstly stay on the bottom deck, and close to a toilet escape route, or, if you don't generally need night time pit stops, you could consider a window spot, to benefit from fresh air. Fourth: Keep your Headtorch easily accessible. Fifth: Whilst Refugi may look like hotels in the mountains, don't treat them as such. They are staffed by a small team, and any help you can offer clearing tables, putting rubbish in bins, and generally keeping the place tidy, always goes a long way. Finally, remember to take home everything, including all your rubbish, the refuge has enough of its own rubbish to dispose of, and it all has to be carried out.


Inevitably the next morning, we all looked around to identify the phantom snorer, who had gurgled and growled through the night. Every person was ready to lynch the person who looked like they had enjoyed a good nights sleep. 11 trekkers had been awake all night, one slept like a baby. Should be easy to guess who? As quick as we could we squashed our sleeping bags away, and made for breakfast. For those of you who are not experienced visitors to rural Spain, it could be that the breakfast ('Desayuno') will take you by surprise. Forget Egg and Bacon, forget Porridge, in fact forget anything apart from coffee and some stale bread and biscuits. The Spanish simply don't believe in breakfast. It could be something to do with often taking dinner at 10pm at night. For trekkers used to early nights, and big days however, this can be tough. Forearmed is forewarned though, and you might just want to pack some little extra treats from home for this part of the weekend's adventure.


The upside of this less than memorable meal is that it hardly held us up from getting off and away. Good thing too, as outside the day was dawning bright and beautiful, once again we tramped straight into the continuing mini lake district of the Aiguestortes, or in English - the Park of winding Streams. Immediately our path plucked a route through the heart of the park, through the lakes of Plan, Long and Redon, before climbing up to Obago. The pleasant fresh mountain air warmed steadily as the sun climbed higher and we emerged from the morning shadows into warm sunshine.


The second day of this two day trek is very similar in distance, at 12 miles, but easier physically with just one pass, at 2580m the high point of this trek. We were then once again treated to another incredible change in horizon. From being drawn to the incredible lakes, and the reflections and shades of blue in the water, over the Port de Ratera, our eyes were drawn to two incredible peaks. The amazing silhouettes of the Enchanted Peaks - 'Els Encantets' greeted us like the Twin Towers of the Pyrenees. Positioned perfectly amongst an impossibly beautiful layered landscape of blues and purples, the 2 twin peaks draw the eye inexorably. The path descends at a gentle rate through the layers of a perfect mountainscape, and provides some most enjoyable walking. With time to savour the epic view, and not requiring high concentration we walked on, and chatted as we dropped away down towards the Lake of Estany St Maurici, and then onwards into the Espot Valley.


As the afternoon wore on and we dropped further and further the sun became ever warmer and more powerful. Our feet appreciated a generous lunch break, once again beside the water, where we dipped feet in the freezing mountain stream waters gurgling down the valley bottom. The trek finishes off with a steady descent of the sweeping Espot Valley, following the lightly used valley track which eventually gives out to a narrow tarmac road. Our journey is at an end, and we turn to savour these 2 amazing days in the mountains.


To cap our 2 incredible days of trekking off, we had reserved a night in La Guingueta, in a reasonably priced but very comfortable simple Spanish Hotel. Either a short taxi ride, or a further 6 miles down the road, brought us to La Guingueta - where there are a choice of places to eat, and a couple of nice places to stay.


After a pleasant overnight, and more than a couple of cool fresh Estrellas, a classic tasty Spanish dinner was our reward for 2 days on the trail, and the journey home was a mere formality. The hotel connects perfectly for the return journey, and is just over 2 hours by road to the airport. From here, the wonders of the budget airlines will bring you back to the UK. 2 of the finest days of mountain walking, to be found anywhere. That's anywhere, any continent, this is mountain-ness of the highest order. What are you waiting for? Get going!




Best Time of Year


Mid June - Mid September




As ever - you should expect everything. But it should be pleasantly warm most of the time - increasing to hot in the valley bottoms (up to 27-28) and cooler at the tops of the Cols (typically down to 10 -15 degrees).




The trails are well marked using the Grand Randonee Red and White splashes. Also from time to time named signposts exist. However, nothing should replace your ability to navigate. Poor visibility can render the high mountains disorientating, and although the trail is generally benign, terrain just off to the side can be difficult and dangerous.  Best of all would be to engage the services of an International Mountain Leader for such a mountain journey. www.adventure-cafe.com 01460 249191.



Essential Kit List

                                First Aid

                                Walking Poles

                                Mini Storm Shelter

                                Sleeping Bag / Silk Liner

                                Change of Clothes

                                Full Mountain Clothes - including waterproofs & leggings




                                Water Bottle + Extra Water Carrying Capacity

                                Snacks (& Optional Breakfast Extras)

                                Maps / Mapcase / Compass

                                Good Quality boots




                                Refugi Colomers - http://www.refugicolomers.com/


Last Minute Items

                                Food / Trekking Gear / Medical etc. Available in town of Vielha, just before passing through the tunnel to the start of the trek.



                                May be done by taxi (relatively expensive) - or by hire car. Or you can join an organised trek - to take away some of these difficulties.


                                Airport - Hopital Vielha - Approx. 1.5 hrs

                                La Guingueta - Airport - Approx 2 hrs.



                                Adventure Cafe recommends the Institut Cartografic Catalunya Series - which are generally accurate and sufficiently detailed for accurate navigation.



Richard McLaughlin is a member of the British Association of International Mountain Leaders, and leads treks around the world, in Africa, Asia, Europe and all around the UK, in summer and winter. Experienced as a mountain leader, climber, cyclist, caver and by Sea Kayak, he has been lucky enough to travel the world extensively. To find out more, or to engage his services, contact Adventure Cafe. www.adventure-cafe.com

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Bikes, Bedouin's and Bazaars...Cycle to the Sahara

Cycle The Sahara

From the minute the plane touches down, and you eye the distant snowcapped Atlas Mountains and the palm trees that surround the airport, you can smell the exotic atmosphere of the Imperial City of Marrakech. Any time we spend on two wheels is always special, but as we cross the Atlas Mountains and head out desert bound through the Anti Atlas, and each day passes, a new and ever more spectacular landscape unfolds before us. At Grand Tour Cycling and Adventure Cafe, we know a thing or two about cycling adventures, having ridden the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Australian Outback, the Rainforests of Sumatra, and even the high and mighty Himalayas. Believe us when we say that a week's cycling adventure simply doesn't get much better than this.

Our evening before setting forth into the wilds of Morocco allows us to sample the energy, sights, smells and sounds of Marrakech's wonderful Medina (Old Town) and main square the Djema El Fna. In itself a destination and experience worth a flights alone, on this ride, this is only the tip of a wonderful iceberg! Early the next day, we ride up the winding mountain road to cross the Tizi n Tichka - the high pass across the Atlas Mountains, before enjoying screeching descent to the only major large town on the fringes of the desert.

            We then ride to the amazing Dades Gorge, to witness the deep red earth, and impossibly shaped rock formations, and we continue onwards through the Valley of the Roses, to reach the biblical Todra Gorge. This Gorge is an epic slice that cuts like a knife through sheer and towering walls of orange limestone, populated by a small collection of guesthouses, and a crystal clear stream running through the heart of the valley. We spend our third night here before riding on further into the wilderness.

            From Tinerhir (last main town near Todra Gorge), the road branches off shortly and becomes eerily quiet, now pointing squarely at the dunes of Merzouga. The tranquil road is home to the odd small group of grazing camel, and goatherds lazing under shady trees to avoid the midday sun. We have just one more overnight before the road makes its final southwards spur, and reaches the towering dunes at Merzouga. On arrival in the desert, we have time to relax, shower, let the heat of the day subside, before we head out in the late afternoon to watch the sun set on a most amazing ride. The colours of Morocco reach their climax here, with deep blue sky fading to deep purple, and the orange sand reddening as the sun slips behind the high dunes.

Distance: - 360 miles
Days Cycling: - 5
Max Altitude: - 2260m
Typical Average Daily Max. Temp: - 25 degrees
Start : Marrakech
End : Merzouga

Departures: 25th March 2014 & 8th October 2014

Price = £599pp