Crossing at the highest of the Pyrénées

Today is “the day”. The day I have been anxious about during the past week. It only consists in doing 50 km until Andorra-la-Vella, crossing the border between France and Andorra at an elevation of 2408 meters, after a gentle slope (of 30 km uphill).

The annoying parameter is that we are now in December, the forecasts have been announcing cold waves, heavy snowfalls from 500 m and above, calling for caution on the roads, etc. The problem is the weather: if it’s bad and so bad I can’t take the road, I’d have to cycle all the way around the Pyrénées until the coast on the east (and getting out of Ax-les-Thermes by small roads must be at least as hilly as getting in). If it turns bad while we are on the road, we could get stuck in a village or refuge for days, or worse, on the road. On the other hand, if it works well, the road descends all the way to Barcelona and then it’s Spain and sun and happiness. This road is said to be open year-round, but as a bike is slightly less stable and snow-proof as a car …

We’ve been following the forecasts the previous days, have had experiences with nearby passes, have heard many warnings and little convincing encouragements from people we met. Going by bike up to 2400 m in this season is definitely not the smartest thing to do. Cold, snow, frozen roads, … It doesn’t look good for now, but that’s what I planned (quickly and 2 months ago) and now that I’m at the foot of the beast, I just have to go.

We’re a Monday, so there should be less traffic than on weekends, when all the French go to Andorra to buy goods and cigarettes at a lower price. The latest weather forecasts tell us about light rain and a cloudy sky, but with a light improvement at the end of the day. We don’t trust the forecasts anyway, but this time, it matches with what we see out of the window: a light (more or less) rain.

If things go right, we’ll reach the Port d’Envalira at 2408 meters, 8 times in the program of the last 50 editions of the Tour de France, and then have a long descent down to the capital of Andorra, Andorra-la-Vella, at 1000 m, slightly above where we are now. That is the highest way to cross from France to Spain (and incidentally, but not worthlessly, to check in a new country).

 


 

We have breakfast in the hotel room and prepare sandwiches to eat on the way, so that it is less cumbersome and time-consuming to make them outside in the cold. When we get out of the hotel around 10:30, it’s not raining as much as in the morning. Good sign. In those moments, I want to be super fast and finish the ride before the weather conditions deteriorates. So from our location in Ax at 730 m, we head for the 30 km ascent, optimistic about the weather.

 

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A brand new bridge that never opened in Ax

 

We reach quickly Mérens at 1000 m and then L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre at 1400m. The easy slope allow us to progress at a decent speed. The weather is relatively good so far, only cloudy and with droplets from time to time. If we open our jackets, it is like opening a hammam door: steam goes out forever. Well “forever” … for 5 minutes until we get cold and must move again.

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Mérens-lès-Vals

 

The traffic is also better than I expected. A few bunch of cars from time to time, a truck here and there, but overtaking correctly.

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Playing Mario Kart

 

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In L’Hospitalet, we make a break at the train station. This is the last train station before Andorra. Unfortunately, it is closed until 15:00. Fortunately an adjacent room, seemingly for the Andorra tourist office, is open and super warm inside. The 3 heaters are burning and as we are wet, soaked, not from the rain as expected, but from sweating, we undress to dry out clothes here. We also eat already our sandwiches, after all food is always more useful before the effort than after. It’s already half-of-the-daylight-passed and the hardest is yet to come.

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OK thank you

 

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Leaving l’Hospitalet

 

Just after leaving again, for the hairpin bends this time, the sky surprisingly turns blue! What a good feeling.

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Surprise blue sky!

 

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Taking pics here was annoying the snow removal truck at work

 

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On the road to Envalira

 

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Customs France – Andorra

 

We are so lucky to be cycling under this beautiful scenery for the ascent. I can remove my jacket (as I seldom did in France) until the Pas De La Casa at 2100 m, just behind the customs, in Andorra. It is a ski resort and shopping center. Almost suddenly, all the anxiety I had about this border crossing vanishes.

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Pas De La Casa, 2100 m
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Some do it for the challenge, but apparently most do it for the cigarettes

 

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Happy to be almost done, but weird to see shiny new buildings at 2100 m in the snow

 

The place looks quite sophisticated. We learn at the tourist office that the town has some 2000 inhabitants, but only 200 Andorrans. Most are Portuguese and French. The town has running ski lifts (they opened on December 1st), shops re-opening for the afternoon at 15:00, shopping malls, and shops again.

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In the heart of the Pyrénées

 

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Andorra culinary delights

 

We are happy to have made it, but actually, we have another 300 meters of elevation to climb until the pass called Port d’Envalira. There is a tunnel (for motorized vehicles) to avoid it in Pas De La Casa. This last strech of road is icy and dangerous. It’s slippery. On the white stripes, it’s not just slippery, it’s slipping. Along this last ascent, we meet a tourer on his way back to UK after 16 months on the road. First cycle-tourer met in 30 days on the road! Yes, I know, it’s not the season …

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Enjoying the fruits of our efforts

 

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In between the lifts

 

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The top is so close! Port d’Envalira

 

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Port d’Envalira, 2408 m

 

Finally on the top! At 4 pm, we reach the top of the road, and most likely the highest of my route until Cape Town. Seeing the pass sign make me feel instantly satisfied and provides a great feeling of relief, as I feared all those past days not to be able to cross through here. We got super lucky to have the sky showing its best against all expectations.

It removes a big weight on my shoulders, but the 25 km descent to Andorra-la-Vella is not yet in the pocket. Thanks to the sun, it’s as warm as 0°C, but I’d rather not see and feel how cold it is to sleep here. The road downhill can be icy and very dangerous, but it’s also the south face and should be completed in less than in 1 hour.

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Top of the Pyrénées, above the ski lifts

 

There’s still traces of ices on the road. When it shines with the sun, it’s no good sign. I brake hard to go down as slowly as possible, try not to turn my handlebar and keep on foot almost on the ground. We make a break before Canillo to relieve those poor fingers, frozen but having to hold the brakes tight.

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Downhill to Andorra-la-Vella

 

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Canillo, Andorra

 

We still go slowly as our fingers get paralyzed on the way. Despite the relatively warmer temperatures here, the descending and and the holding the brakes permanently make it bad. We now cycle downhill with our lights plus the headlights. There is no point in checking a map, as Andorra only has 2 roads: one to France, and one to Spain. Oh, those are actually the same road. One segment entirely downhill from France to Spain. There’s another smaller dead-end valley (La Massana)  to the west for even more ski resorts. It is night when we reach the first villages, and 6 pm once in Andorra-la-Vella, the capital, at 1000 m.

All the towns are small ski resorts. They apparently welcome loads of tourists during the winter. The main town, in which we are now, looks very clean, rich, safe. A bit like a small Switzerland, but without bratwürsts and swiss-german.

I try for the first time warmshowers.org as a guest and Gonzalo comes to pick us up at la Caldea spa resort, we have a royal welcome and dinner at his sisters.

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Andorra-la-Vella

 

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Caldea, Andorra-la-Vella

 

We sleep well with satisfaction and hope that from now on, it will be warm and dry!

 

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Con Gonzalo y Maria
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The bottom of Andorra

 

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Agriculture or the mainstay of Andorra … once upon a time

 

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Less than 24 hours after entering the country, the same road leads us to the exit towards Spain