Cycling with TDF Royalty – Big Mig!

The Sierra peloton received a special treat cycling an organised 150km stage with Miguel Indurain from Urzainki to Formigal through the Spanish high country. The ride took us from the Irati Forest before finishing above Formigal, one of Spain’s most recognised ski stations in the Pyrenees, and only 5km from the Spanish/French border.

Big Mig’ stepped onto his first TdF podium in Paris on 28 July 1991. During the 1991 Tour de France, Miguel gained more than 7 minutes over Greg LeMond during the ‘Tourmalet’ stage to receive his first yellow jersey (Stage 12 from Jaca to Val Louron). The rest as it goes was history and he held it all the way to the Champs Elysees and started a 5 year winning sequence through to 1995!

As our day surrounded by cycling royalty was heading to a close we arrived to the valley approaching Formigal. The final 16km climb at 4% average grade, while long, is not overly taxing unless of course you are riding with a past TDF champion! To add some interest we left the main road mid-climb to cycle the winding road which follows the reservoir through to Sallent del Gallego. Spectacular scenery with multiple 3000m+ peaks surrounding us! After leaving the town centre one is met with a sudden transition of 4 kilometres around 8%. The final ramp on the backroad to the Formigal ski resort was 25% and required one last effort.

On arrival Miguel Indurain spoke to the local newspaper that had gathered to ask him about his famous day on the Tourmalet in 1991:

“My idea was not to attack in the mountains.  When I launched my downhill attack on the Tourmalet I simply wanted to see what happened. At the outset I was not prepared. My intention had been to try and maintain my presence during the mountain stages and to arrive to the last time trial with an opportunity”. You already know the rest of this story.

The Sierra peloton continued to chatter away excitedly in the presence of an international sporting hero!

European Holiday Cycling Tips

This post is a result of a fun and interactive webinar hosted by Cycling-Inform where Paul D’Andrea from Sierra Sports & Tours also joined the panel of presenters. The webinar topic was ‘How to Get the Best Out of Your Next European Cycling Holiday’. The focus of the webinar was to receive live questions and provide instantaneous responses!

Cycling through Flanders

1. Where are some of the best European regions for cycling?

The Dolomites in northern Italy are a favourite destination for cycling enthusiasts. Jagged limestone mountain peaks provide an inspirational backdrop for testing yourself on some of the most mythical Giro d’Italia climbs. The Sella Ronda loop is a real gem and includes a staggering 4 categorised climbs within only 60km; Pordoi, Sella, Gardena and Campolongo!

The French Alpes are home to 4 of the 5 highest mountain passes in Europe and often play out epic Tour de France stages on Alpe d’Huez, Col du Galibier & Col d’Izoard but for pure cycling enjoyment the Sierra guides cannot go past the Pyrenees in southern France. There are many quiet linking backroads to be found in the Pyrenees where cycling through valleys and dense forests is also possible. Check out Argeles-Gazost & St Lary Soulan for an excellent base!

Andalusia in southern Spain is the sleeping giant when it comes to quality road cycling. While the Costa del Sol is packed with beachgoers the inland mountains offer a peaceful setting and incredible mixed terrain rides. Sierra de Grazalema, Sierra Cazorla and Sierra Nevada are just a few places to enjoy quality road cycling. With 300 days of sunshine per year there is no better place in Europe to just get outside and ride!

For pure drama Oudenaarde in western Belgium is the place to be during the European Spring. Cobbled classics races follow one after another and for cycling superfans the Tour of Flanders and Paris Roubaix professional races provide a once in a lifetime experience!

2. How does one go about selecting a cycling tour?

There are a few things to consider here and it basically comes down to whether you want to travel alone or within a guided group, what time of the year do you plan to travel and where do your interests lie? If your plan is to cycle the big mountain passes then to be safe cross-out October to June. The majority of Europe’s high mountain passes will most likely be under metres of snow during these months! Guided cycling tours also follow different styles some of which include:

a) those which follow the professional races (Giro, TDF or La Vuelta),

b) those which ride all the iconic cycling destinations but away from the professional races and

c) those which also include a gran fondo/sportive ride into the tour program.

At Sierra Sports & Tours we find that our guests often begin by joining us on a tour such as the Giro d’Italia where the race atmosphere is a key focus. For future holidays some guests move across to the other tour types where their interests shift to wanting more time cycling and time to explore the European regions during the afternoons!

3. What are the typical characteristics of a tour group?

Sierra Sports & Tours is based in Spain but its roots are from Melbourne, Australia. As such, 95% of our guests are from Australia and New Zealand. The typical age profile of a Sierra guest is between 45 to 65 years old. We have many couples joining our tours so the current male to female ratio is about 60-40%. Non-cyclists do join our tours and typically account for about 15% of our clientele.

Non-cyclists receive a discount and can join the group in the support van or visit the towns where we are based. If they would like us to prepare special excursions we have experience organising local cooking classes, guided hikes, leisure bike rides, etc. For road cyclists who are keen to join but are unsure about the big mountains we also have a fleet of electric road bikes that we can make available when things get a little more challenging.

4. Should I bring my own bike or hire a bike?

For many clients this generally comes down to what their pre- and post-tour travel plans look like. For guests who are travelling solely for the cycling tour we find many will bring their own bike. International airlines, such as, Emirates and Qatar provide a 32kg luggage allowance which is more than enough. For guests though with several other domestic European flights or train connections they might find it easier and cheaper to select a hire bike.

For clients attending the Spring Classics we find most select hire bikes as we have them fitted with 28mm wide tyres, double handlebar tape, etc so there is already some extra comfort built-in! For a tour ranging from 8-10 days the bike hire price is typically 300 Euro.

5. What does a guided tour include and what is a typical tour price?

Tours to the public generally range between 8 to 10 days. We like to spend 2 to 3 night stays in each location to provide a relaxed setting and to have time to explore each township. All of the guided tours also have at least one support van on-hand carrying your day packs, food and drink, spare bikes, parts and wheels, tool kits, etc. The Sierra guides all speak English but also have additional languages including Spanish, French and Italian. All of the accommodation and breakfasts are included. We like to select hotels with local charm, which are family owned and are welcoming to cycling tourists.

About half of the dinners with beer and wine are also included. We find it is also great for clients to have the chance to explore for themselves during the free evenings. Most of the start and finish locations are international airports and all of these transfers are also included in the tour price. For each tour we also have a commemorative cycling jersey which among other cycling related gifts is presented during the tour briefing.

And most importantly you, receive our professionally guided cycling routes following breathtaking scenery on roads away from major traffic to maximise your enjoyment and safety! The typical price for a 9 day / 8 night trip is around the 3000 € price range. There are also discounts for group bookings with a starting 5% discount for a minimum group of 4.

6. Who designs the cycling tours?

Paul and his team of guides have over 10 years experience cycling through Europe. We have set off on 100’s of cycling adventures through Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Norway, Slovenia, Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Sweden, Austria & Germany. Every year Sierra Sports & Tours also conducts a number of private cycling tours so if you have a group of 6 or more why not ask us to design your very own customised European cycling tour.

7. Any other tips?

  • If you like to plan ahead then be sure to look at the European early bird flight specials which always finish around late October / early November. Through our association with Pellegrino Travel Agency we often secure flights for our guests between $AUD 1300-1500.
  • Just ride! Many guests are initially unsure if they have what it takes to join a cycling tour. Being consistent is the main thing! Get in a longer ride on the weekend but keep up the spinning during the week (a few 45 minute indoor sessions with Cycling-Inform will put you in good stead). To get the most out of a tour you do not need to be fast. Cycling on the flats (25-28km/hr) keeps the group together and then you are free to ride the climbs at your own speed (always guided support at the front and back of the group). Remember – pace your climbs! Ride within yourself, be able to talk, then if you have some more to give finish the final 2-3km with a burst! Also consider getting away pre-tour for a long weekend ride in the mountains and Cycling-Inform events, such as, the Bright Boot Camp and 7 Peaks in 7 Days are selected by a number of Sierra Sports & Tours guests to start preparing for Europe.
  • Practice your descending skills! Many guests have the stamina and strength to cycle 1-2 hours uphill but then some find it difficult when descending for 30-45 minutes continuously. Practicing to be relaxed and in the drops helps a lot, knowing when to apply the brakes and which ones is critical, how to handle the bike in wet or dry conditions, picking your entry and exit lines, outside pedal down and pressure applied, …….. Practice will make perfect and a cycling clinic is a good place to start developing these skills.
  • And the final word on Travel Insurance – there is a saying that goes ¨If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel overseas¨. We recommend that any travel insurance purchased should also cover tour cancellation in the event you become ill, injured or other last minute family or work related matters arise. If you are travelling with an expensive bike also make sure that you have a sufficient level of cover in the event of damage.

Safe cycling everyone!

Mallorca: Spain´s Cycling Secret

Spain is home to ‘La Vuelta’, one of the three Grand Tours which shape the European cycling season. It has a rich cycling tradition and its profile as a quality cycling destination has risen rapidly over the last 15 years. The now disgraced Lance Armstrong first put Girona in northern Spain on the international cycling map when he lived and trained there, bringing along many of his former US Postal teammates. They were quickly joined by other pro-team outfits such as Garmin Cervelo. In recent years though, the trend has shifted to the Spanish islands of Majorca, Tenerife, and Lanzarote with a huge influx of pro cycling teams looking for places to escape the winter chill of mainland Europe.

mallorca cycling

Mallorca provides the perfect base for European cyclists looking for some quality early season training. While the rest of Europe is caught in a freeze and mountain passes are buried under metres of snow, the cycling season on the Balearic Islands can begin as early as February. During February, Mallorca enjoys calm and clear weather with temperatures typically ranging between 10-15 degrees Celsius. The chance to train at this time of the year definitely gives you a head start; just ask 2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, who bought real estate on the island during 2012 and spent early 2013 training on this cycling haven.

Mallorca – is it really the new Cycling Mecca?
So why exactly have cyclists sought out Mallorca of all places? Perhaps it is the stand-alone airport bike carousel, or perhaps street vending machines that sell bike tubes rather than cans of coke. In all seriousness, the first wave of international cycling tourists arrived to Mallorca about 25 years ago due its warm temperate weather, sandy beaches, long days, excellent accommodation and fresh food. They discovered a variety of cycling terrain, lightly trafficked roads, and the chance for enjoyable loop rides combining picturesque coastal views, interior scraggy mountain rocky landscapes, and fertile green central fields and pastures.

Mallorca offers a range of cycling terrain which means the island is accessible to beginners through to professionals; anyone with an interest in pedal power. The island measures 3,640 square km and has a well organised and interconnected road network; depending on where you call home there will be door to door cycling options available. The island also opens itself to 10 to 12 unique cycling stages which will take you through the flat central sections of the island to the mountainous and remote southern and northern roads. Though “remote” might sound strange for a relatively small island, the mountain roads are exactly that. Cycling switchback after switchback, up and over its ten categorised climbs, the chances of being passed by a professional cyclist on his daily training ride is greater than being passed by a petrol fueled vehicle. Don’t let them get you down though as they speed by. For what it’s worth I prefer being overtaken by a professional cyclist than a car any day!

The Mediterranean island also boasts the spectacular World Heritage ‘Serra de Tramuntana’ mountain range to the north and west of the island. Cycling this mountain range is a treat for those looking for elevation gain. There are seven Category 1 and 2 climbs available which range between 5-14km in length and have average gradients between 5-7%. The two Category 1 climbs to ‘Puig Major’ and ‘Sa Colabra’ are a must do. Puig Major rises to Majorca´s highest point at 1445m and offers amazing island views, and the battle to ‘Sa Colabra’, with its 26 switchbacks, is a test of concentration, all the while though enjoying the beautiful landscapes.

Mallorca and its Cycling Calendar
From the 10 million tourists who visit Mallorca annually, approximately 70,000 thousand are cyclists. Almost half (40%) of this number are women, so the island is a great cycling destination for individuals, couples and families alike. There are also many events on the Mallorca cycling calendar which are attracting cyclists of all breeds: competitive, social and challenge seekers. The fact that professional and recreational cyclists return year after year speaks volumes for the royal treatment they receive and the cycling experience that awaits them at every kilometre marker.

The cycling season in Mallorca is split into two periods from January to May, and September to October. A list of some of the key events on the calendar is provided below:

1. Challenge Iberostar Mallorca
Pro tour event which is held every February.

2. Marxa Cicloturista de Femines
Cyclo-sportive event solely for female participants and held every year during late May.

3. WiW Duva International
Cyclo-sportive ride which is held during April and includes 95km & 135km options.

4. Mallorca 312
Cyclo-sportive event held during April which is a serious challenge and not for the faint hearted. Mallorca 312 takes cyclists around the entire circumference of the island (312km) and includes over 4300m of elevation gain. If you think you can beat the 14 hour time limit, then this could be the next challenge ride for you!

5. Tour of Mallorca for Masters
During October, a full week of Masters racing is available for those looking to test themselves against the best ‘veteran’ riders from Europe.

Establishing your Mallorcan cycling base?
This is in no way an exhaustive list of regions to choose from, but the most popular towns for cyclists looking to establish a cycling base include Port de Alcudia (Puerto de Alcudia), Port de Pollenca (Puerto de Pollenca) and Portocolom. These regions are all to the east of the island and far away from the capital Palma de Mallorca and its tourist masses.

Orica GreenEdge (the original Australian pro team) made their first official training visit to the island in February 2013 and called the Hotel Iberostar Playa de Muro home for a week. It is not difficult to see why this hotel has become a magnet for cyclists. With over 2000 road bikes on site for hire, one can quickly see that this hotel is prepared to satisfy the hungry demand for cycling tourists. It is obviously a hit with the tourists as 90% of their guests travel to Mallorca without their bikes. The hotel also includes resort like features with many pools, spas, sports training rooms and its own private beach. Not forgetting the cycling memorabilia that is littered throughout the hotel from pro teams including Katusha, GreenEdge, Garmin, and Omega Pharma Quickstep to name a few.

Cycling is full of tactics and Mallorca, while being a fun holiday destination, could well be your next secret training paradise.

Cycling the Highest Road in Europe!

Located deep within the Sierra Nevada mountain range in southern Spain is the towering summit of Veleta (Pico de Veleta). Veleta is the highest asphalted road in Europe (3392m) and the cycling experience is challenging, unrelenting, rewarding, and for some, life changing!

This climb has everything that the hardened cycling aficionado might want: a 40km continuous climb, an altitude gain of approximately 2650m and an average grade of 6.5%. No wonder this unique cycling ascent is known as ‘The Everest of European Mountain Passes’.

Assault Veleta
Rising from the valley floor is probably a strange way to describe it when you are already at 800m altitude but the ride does in fact begin on the floor of the valley. Before setting off we decide to bypass the modern highway and its ‘comfortable’ 6% gradient and head for one of the mountain back roads. As we arrive at the base of the climb we quickly realise that the most daunting and difficult part of the climb is at the beginning, well before the silhouette of Veleta and its vertical wall even enters our line of vision. The first 3km, the hardest of the ascent, include seven spectacular switchbacks with an average grade of around 11% and sections in some curves above the 15%.  After about 7km the road eases slightly and continues on at a more realistic angle climbing up along the ridge at 5-6%.

It is not long though and after 12km of climbing the road presents us with a new feast of switchbacks; a total of twelve in the next 6km to be precise taking us to 2000m altitude. It is during this second section of endless switchbacks that we catch our first glimpse of the beautiful green-blue vertical wall which defines the Pico de Veleta and which afford magnificent views as we continue gaining height. We are snapped out of our reverie by the realisation that only half the job has been done and we are still far from the Veleta peak. By comparison, even in the Pyrenees or anywhere else, the effort so far would have been enough to reach the top of any famous mountain pass. Here though one must be patient if one is to climb the 1300m of further elevation gain to reach the summit.

Waiting to regroup at the 2500m altitude signpost we refill our water bottles and pack our warm-weather clothing and hear that the temperature down at Granada is nearing 35 degrees. At the top of Veleta there couldn’t be a bigger contrast – there the temperature is likely to be 10-15 degrees and wind-chill could see the temperature plummet exponentially.

A drawcard for climbing Veleta is that the final section of road is guarded by a military barrier that prohibits the passage of civilian vehicles. As you gaze into the distance and towards the sheer vertical rock wall which characterises Pico de Veleta you cannot help but marvel at the engineering feat that enabled you to tackle this ultimate cycling challenge. This is now a mountain road in every sense. Only 12kmand 850m of further altitude gain separates you from cycling heaven!

From the military barrier the hairpins continue at an alarming rate and the slope hovers at 7 – 8%. In some places, too, the road twists tightly and rises into double digits. These steep pinches, whilst short in length, inflict considerable damage as the continuous effort and the lower oxygen levels at these altitudes take their toll. At this point the 2750m altitude signpost is reached and received with joy and great emotion. Its sandblasted shape is testimony to the severe mountain conditions that batter this area. It is here you take the opportunity to take stock of your achievement to date. The elevation of famous mountain passes such as the Gavia or the Galibier are long in our wake and we now share company with some of the authentic myths of our cycling sport, such as, the Stelvio, the Agnello, the Iseran or the Bonette. We pay our respect to these climbs but appreciate that with over 600m of elevation gain still awaiting us the challenges is still tantalisingly in front of us but in reach!

Adding to this challenge is the vagaries that snowfalls can present to the aspiring rider. Depending on the season it is not uncommon to find fields of ice strewn across the road or around 3000m elevation uncover walls of snow up to 3m high in places.

Cycling Heaven
From 3100m altitude we swing around a hairpin to the right and as our eyes lift from the road we come across the completely vertical wall of Veleta: “We still have to rise more? But how much more? It seems to be further away than before!” The asphalt has now become weathered through years of ice action and as we enter the last hairpin it disappears and the final authentic wall is all that remains. As we scale the final metres our eyes fix onto the survey column which defines 3392m altitude and more importantly for us the finish line! Resting at the survey column our exhaustion disappears and a sense of exhilaration takes hold as it dawns on us that we have conquered the beast of a mountain. We find ourselves at the highest point than can be reached by road bicycle on the European continent. The effort was definitely worth it!!!