Stage 9: Vielha Aran to Andorra Arcalis

Cycling summary

Breakfast: 05:50. Transfer: 45 minutes. Start time: 07:55. Distance: 180 km. Terrain: high mountains (3,700 metres). Climbs: one HC, three category 1, one category 2. Finish: 20:15. Time in the saddle: 10 hours or so.

The eagle eyed may spot a discrepancy. You are correct, I did not do the final climb in the end which would have added say 1,500 metres climbing on a 15 km climb. With the subsequent descent, I would not have got back to the hotel until at least 10 pm.

Local lowdown

Brown trout is a favourite dish in Arcalis, Andorra, but that sounds quite ordinary compared to the fact that we are near the Madrin-Perafita-Claror glacial valley here, which is a UNESCO World Heritgae site. It’s not the Eiffel Tower, but nevertheless an impressive place to finish my own personal tour of France.

Tale from the Tour

We started today on the border between France and Spain, starting in the Spanish town of Vielha val d’Aran.

What a total turnaround with the weather conditions! Clear skies, glorious sunshine and temperatures that soared into the mid thirties, even nudging 40 degrees at one point. You can expect extremes of weather in the mountains, but nevertheless it seemed odd that the temperature did not seem to drop as we climbed, though there was the occasional cool breeze and some shade.

I felt really good on the first climb, which commenced the moment we got off the bus. Though I must be feeling cumulative fatigue, it wasn’t evident. The first climb was punctuated by the Spanish police stopping us and making a fuss, presumably because of the 80 or so riders on the road, but by the time they stopped us we were already split up into small groups anyway. I guess they could see a long line coming up the mountain and reacted to that. After some discussion, they let us continue provided we were in groups of no more than 20.  Ridiculous – we were already in groups of less than that size and the mountain soon splits us up anyway. Hope that they don’t pull the same stunt next week or the pros will have something to say about that!

Using “the Gary pose”

During that whole climb we were rewarded with spectacular views. Everyone seemed to be going well, the mood was great, celebratory almost even though we still had a long way to go. Again, this is why we ride.

I am not the greatest descender but was pleased that the descent off the climb (which peaked at 2,075 metres, so not far short of yesterday’s Tourmalet) was not technical. In other words it was not too twisty and I was able to go down at speeds of up to 60 kph. Others can go much faster than me, but that’s about all I seem to be comfortable with. It’s a great feeling swooping down at such speed while also feeling in control.

There was a longish gap to the next climb, at the top of which there were again great views. On the way down I started to feel like I just wanted to shut my eyes as I was so tired – I had not had a coffee at the previous stop as Ian was away getting extra water. We were all chugging it today. I was looking out for a shop or cafe and then lo and behold I saw the primary exponents of the art of stopping for coffee – Paul and Tony – sat outside a cafe drinking ice cold cokes. A few others had followed their lead and I did likewise. Good call.

Feeling refreshed, we set off towards feedstop 3, the lunch stop (stop 3 = lunch even though it was actually 4:30 pm). By now the temperature was at its peak. By the time we got to lunch most of the riders had gone through but there were still about a dozen behind.  I had felt good at the beginning of the ride and the two cat 1 climbs had passed without difficulty. I used Gary’s trick of wearing two pairs of bibshorts for comfort, which helped, but had to discard one of them at lunch because it was far too hot to continue like that.

I was with the original founders of the fun bus that had got us through the long, wet stages on days 3&4 and we had a discussion about the rest of the ride. We were now in Andorra with a cat 2, a cat 1 and an HC still to go. At the briefing this morning were were told that at the point where the HC climb began, there were also arrow markers direct to the hotel. As Jenn is a lifer, she joined Nick, Ivo and others and they all ultimately got to complete the ride. Massive chapeau all round.

Overcome with emotion a overlooking Andorra, or wiping sweat from my eyes?

Annabel and I were never going to Paris and our ride was finishing in Andorra come what may. We decided that we would complete climbs 3&4 (going direct to the hotel was also an option at that point) and then skip the final HC. Had I been going to Paris then I think my mindset would have been different, but this was our Paris and I wanted time to unwind, have a glass or two of wine and generally savour the moment.

So onto the last climbs. The first (i.e.third of the day) saw us baking in hot sun and grateful for the shade when it came. The last climb of our day was an absolute pig. Only 6.6 km, but much of that was in double figures in terms of gradient including a 1 km section at an average of 12% with some 16% ramps. OK so we do this at home – think Toys Hill –  but the run into Toys is much more benign in comparison! One final smooth descent before the final run into town, dropping off the bike for return transfer to London and collecting my bags and room key.
I am so glad that I gave myself permission not to thrash myself unnecessarily on that final HC. You could argue that none of this was necessary of course, but that’s a different story. Do I feel that my achievement has been diminished as a result? Not a bit of it.

So I now have a little trophy to commemorate this, made by people learning practical skills at a project in Scotland. It can stand proudly with my Wiggo and Cav shirts.

The buffet dinner was great that evening and bears listing out. I had chicken, mixed veg and salad followed by a big plate of various fruity and chocolate desserts. Followed by entrecôte and potatoes and some more desserts!

Despite still carrying aches and pains in various places, to his great credit Gary completed the whole ride. Now you never for a moment thought he wouldn’t, did you? I think Gary and the other lifers are now really well placed to go on to Paris. They will be so strong after a rest day and in addition to a further rest day next week, there are also two time trial days to come. Even if they decide to smash round those two courses, they will still be much shorter days in the saddle and will offer some more recovery time. Bonne continuation.

Celebrating with Team Wales – invaluable support provided by Sam, Ian and Stu as well as all the rest of the TDF team

Gary and I then retired to the bar for a beer with a few others. It’s a rest day for them tomorrow, so they could afford to indulge. I managed only one, but by then it was midnight and enough was enough.

Penseé du Pédaleur

Gary’ s bike will get there for real, hopefully with Gary on it.

And so ends my odyssey. It’s been an amazing journey through France (and a little bit of Spain and most of Andorra) and has brought back many memories as well as creating new ones that I will cherish for a long time. So until I find the time to be able to ride the whole Tour (maybe!) its “au revoir” and not “adieu”.

3 thoughts on “Stage 9: Vielha Aran to Andorra Arcalis”

  1. Wow. You are a giant. Loved every moment of your Tour as you described it so vividly along with your glorious photos. May the fields of golden sunflowers forever bow their heads in your honour. Love Hugh


  2. Chapeau John. I’ve loved readying your blog every day and and relished your achievements and those of all members of the fun bus. Thank you for embracing the spirit of the tour so fully – without an attitude like yours, the tour wouldn’t be the success that it is.

    Enjoy basking in the glory and watching the pros on the roads you’ve ridden. Safe journey home and see you again very soon.

    Tracy and the TDF gang


  3. A big “Well done” John! – a truly fantastic achievement and a great insight into what the professionals experience. You deserve a well earned break before your return to the fray. Great diary, wonderful pictures and many memories for you to cherish! Cheers! Paul


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