Ari and I drove to Andorra on Wednesday evening and worked from there on Thursday. In the evening we rolled down to the capital and I registered for the 21 Ports race. It’s a three day road cycling stage race. At least it was. As it turns out this is the 2nd and last time the race will run. It will be swallowed up by the very commercial Haute Route Pyrenees next year. The format of the race is quite simple, you ride up passes and back down. There’s not a lot of flat riding in the race, which makes sense as there’s not a lot of flat in Andorra. It covers 300 km over three days and has over 8000 m of climbing. Ideal for someone 10 kg lighter than I am.
I coasted down to the start line on Friday morning with Ari following behind in the car to help shield me from the traffic. We started in sunshine at 9:30 am. The countdown before the race was complete with dramatic music which morphed into ACDC’s thunder strikes as we all crowded across the line with the sound of shoes snapping into pedals. The field wasn’t huge, 120-ish. The first round-about sent us 180 degrees back towards the start, and the route took us straight into a climb, 23 km of climbing to be exact. I tried to take it easy so that I’d still be ok on the second pass. I followed a couple who were part of a 22 strong Israeli team for some of the climb. I eventually passed them but they stayed not far behind. We rode through a tunnel and ascended through one of the most ugly ski resort towns I’ve ever seen. The road goes to France too so there had been a lot of traffic up to the tunnel. I stopped at the drinks station at the top of the pass and then rolled down. Only the climbs are timed in this event.
After a very long descent the course lead directly into another climb. This one was much more picturesque and much less busy. Unfortunately my legs were already a little tired and the snickers bar I’d had at the pass didn’t seem to be doing the magic. A few cyclists cruised slowly past me as I rode to the top. It was a 180 degrees turn at a ski area and I stocked up on energy before rolling back down. Half way down we were directed onto another road which stopped almost immediately. I carried on along a gravel path with hikers. The section was longer than I expected and in parts a bit rough with potholes that were worth avoiding. I passed a lake on my right and then it was back onto sealed road. I called Ari’s phone briefly to give her the secret signal that I was 45 minutes from the finish. A secret signal was required as casual data use in Andorra is enough to bankrupt the very rich. I had another long descent and rolled across the finish line about 30 minutes later. Secret signal fail. Ari arrived later on.
Above: The race started each day from the capital, Andorra la Vella.
Above left: Each day we signed in on the board. Above right: There were only around 120 competitors in the race.
Above left: I survived the first stage! Because it was so hilly there were no bunches and everyone finished more or less at different times. Above right: Ariadna supported me for the race.
Above left: We headed back up to the flat in Ordino after each stage. Above right: We went for a meal at Topic in the evening with Anaïs.
Andorra 21 Ports 2022 Stage 1 85 km/2300 m
Timed sections: 3:15:06 Place 59/93 Male finishers
It seems that the previous three weeks of very high temperatures, and therefore the very little cycling that I did was not an ideal build up for the event. I was feeling pretty pooped and had niggly injury like feelings in my legs. Anaïs joined for the start and Ari and her followed me down the hill to the start line. It was sunny again and we set off like yesterday. My knee niggled at me painfully and I worked on ignoring it. After a few km of uphill it seemed to come right and we turned left onto a picturesque climb with many switchbacks. It seemed to be a Tour de France climb as there were the names of cyclists scrawled on the road. We wound our way up. I generally held my position, overtaking a couple of people. I had my gopro on the front of my bike and managed to get some amazing shots of me draping a banana peel over the handlebars in a particularly steep part.
I rolled back down from the drinks station and found myself climbing into Ordino. Ari was waiting patiently at the roundabout and cheered me on. There was more rolling and then a gentle climb, leading into a much less gentle ascent up towards where we’d been ski touring in April. Instead of hanging a right, the route continued up and up, passing through a tunnel proudly proclaiming it was a three times participant in the Tour de France. The climb seemed to drag on and I was feeling slow and tired. It was cold at the top and it looked like it might rain. I rolled back down and down and started up another valley for the third ascent of the day. I was definitely running out of go-juice for this one. It climbed steeply in parts until the last 5 km where it flattened off. Runners were on the side of the road competing in the UTMB 105 km ultra that was on at the same time. I pushed along the last section that slowly lead around the hills to the pass and stopped on the far side of the timing cables to eat whatever I could get my hands on at the drinks station.
I had another very long descent back to the warmth of the valley below. A few large drops of rain came down as I descended and I felt sorry for the cyclists still coming up, that later ones with still a big climb ahead. I continued to drop down and was directed through a tunnel that had been closed to traffic except cyclists for the race. It was a strange feeling riding through a tunnel that should have been full of traffic. I was still riding alone and the tunnel did a good job of stopping any wind, which meant I could mash the pedals.
There must be hundreds of people involved in the race mostly directing traffic. It’s quite impressive and makes me wonder how the organisers can make any money at all. Each roundabout has someone directing traffic and we were given right of way through the entire course. I narrowly avoided an accident as I sped down towards a roundabout, the motorist thinking the warden was gesturing to her rather than me. A sharp right hand turn and I was on the narrow cycle way to the finish line. Ari turned up 30 seconds after I arrived indicating that the secret signal was improving but not quite there yet.
Above: Both Ari and Anaïs came to the start line for Stage 2 to see me off. My legs were already feeling pretty tired!
Above left: The race started each day bumping down a narrow path onto the main road, then hading down to a roundabout and looping back in the opposite direction. Above right: Ari waited at the roundabout in Ordino to say hello.
Above left: Ari waited again in Ordino for when I came back through many vertical metres and a couple of hours later. Above right: I did more posing at the finish line. The little sign lit up with my name and time whenever I crossed the finish line, much to the annoyance of one of the organisers.
Andorra 21 Ports 2022 Stage 2 105 km/2900 m
Timed sections: 4:19:14 Place 71/92 Male finishers
The last stage. Sometimes I don’t understand my legs. I was sure it would be a very painful slow stage but it ended up being my best. Perhaps it takes me two stages to warm up. The stage started as usual with a climb. We headed up towards Ordino, riding through the same tunnel that was closed to traffic yesterday. I towed a group for a bit, enjoying the lack of wind in the tunnel. We veered off the main road and I rode with a group, up smaller winding roads. We had the media star from the all woman Catalonian team in the group and a race motorbike was recording her every move.
I rode ahead a little with the Israeli couple and we kept right, next to a line of cars, banked up due to the race. Ari handed me a bottle at the roundabout and shouted go, go, go!. I went. I tried to walk the line between pushing too hard, and blowing up, and riding too slowly. I was probably more on the conservative side. The already sparse field dispersed further until I was more or less riding alone. I passed a couple of people during the climb and exchanged places with the Israeli guy, passing him again near the top.
Rather than turning around at the pass, the route rolled down the other side for a few km before the drinks station. After a good break, that didn’t count towards the overall race time, I continued down. It was sunny and warmer than yesterday. The descent was very nice and the road passed stone houses pasted onto the side of the hills. I joined the main road that leads to France again and continued down, finally passing through the capital and heading further down towards Spain.
Finally, there was a left hand turn and the road kicked up into a steep climb. Beep, I crossed a timing mat on the road and the race was back on. The second climb also went well and I felt pretty good despite expecting to fade. Although it was far too hot at the bottom, it was cool by the time I got to the next refreshment stop at the top. I spent some time eating before rolling down the windy roads alone. There was no traffic and it was enjoyable. I descended back down into the heat and rode down the valley a few km before turning right and starting the final climb, a 1000m ascent.
It was very warm. The sun was beating down and the cliffs around and rock near the road were radiating heat. The ride started with switchbacks. The yellow girls team stopped, for some reason, within the timed area and their support vehicle stopped with them. Later I could see them a few corners behind me, following up the road with their support car playing music and the lads sitting with their torsos out of the windows, driving slowly up the road. I edged away from them, passing a few other stragglers up the road also. My legs were doing well and the temperature was starting to get more bearable as I climbed. The road narrowed and became very steep. I passed a couple of others and it was just a few more switchbacks before the top and the drinks station.
It was the last of the timed section and I took a good break before rolling down the very steep descent. There was no cellphone coverage to call Ari until I found a cell tower next to the road further down and found I had 5 bars of coverage. Amusingly, I heard a fan spinning up inside the tower as I placed the call. It’s quite a remote road and I guess there’s not that many people making cellphone calls, or perhaps it was just a coincidence. I continued down grinding my brake pads into the rims. The last few kms back to the finish line passed quickly as I had a big tailwind and was enjoying mashing the pedals. I crossed the line feeling good to end my first and last Andorra 21 Ports race. Next year the race will merge with the Haute Route Pyrenees meaning it will be much more expensive!
I did some active recovery in the evening with Ari and we did an easy via ferrata route near the apartment.
Above left: The competitors had a large tent where they could hang their bikes and eat after each stage. Above right: Ari came to the finish line each day.
Above left: I felt surprisingly good after the last stage and we did an easy klettersteig near the flat in Ordino. Above right: We then refuelled in the evening with Anaïs at a restaurant.
Above: The following day was home office followed by another klettersteig.
Andorra 21 Ports 2022 Stage 3 105 km/3100 m
Timed sections: 4:19:14 Place 54/87 Male finishers