Friday, 7 July 2017

GRAC 'Ol Boys Hit Rioja, the Pyrenees and St Emilion

Well, it had to be done. Following earlier cycling forays into the wine lands of France, it was only going to be a matter of time before Spain's most famous wine producing region got a visit from the senior team.
Suitably rehydrated at the Royal Standard, close to the team's southern outpost in Beaconsfield, and fortified by Mrs Mercxx's fine cooking, the chaps set off at dawn the following day to catch a ferry to Cherbourg and drive down to La Rochelle for an all-too brief overnight stop. 

The delightful port town of La Rochelle
The road to Rioja via Bordeaux was a busy one, but crossing the Pyrenees in fine weather, the chaps were soon into their first beer at the comfortable Sercotel Villa de Laguardia. A pleasant spot, a few minutes walk from the tenth century fortified town of Laguardia, built in defence of the kings of Navarra.

About to sample some local wines :-). Laguardia. 
View north to Basque country from Laguardia 
View east to Navarra from Laguardia
The first day's cycling took us on a loop around the whole wine producing region of Rioja, quiet lanes for the most part, with good surfaces and plenty of rolling hills to keep us busy. Some 68km out to Haro and back, including a quick look at the 'designer' buildings of the Marqués de Riscal winery, hotel and restaurant in Elciego. The day was marred a little by extremely strong and blustery winds from the east, giving the Prez a few scares with his new deep-section wheels. Oh, and one short, but highly dangerous section of a major road out of Haro, where articulated lorries rushed pass at close quarters. We soon got off of that! 

San Vicente de la Sonsierra
The Prez, seeking shelter from the wind...
Classic Rioja landscape, the river Ebro flowing serenely through the region
Alberto was also delighted to find a number of vineyards named after him, although a bottle of 'Contador' was maybe a little out of his price bracket!

In all we climbed almost 1000m, and the return leg, albeit through delightful scenery bounding the north bank of the river Ebro, was a good test into the wind.
We all decided that a four hour stint each morning would be enough given the intense heat, over 30ºC from early afternoon, and the threat of afternoon storms for the following two days reinforced our plans. It also made for a very enjoyable lunch back at the hotel, followed by a long siesta, so that we could hit the town with full energy in the evening. 

For a flypast of part of the route follow this link

Our second day's outing took on a bigger challenge, ascending the hills into Navarra to the east, a great route of some 65km, with 1120m of ascent. Fantastic vistas to the south across Rioja down to the city of Logroño, empty roads, and thankfully, less wind. But the last climb back up to Laguardia was a struggle for all, about 3km of straight road at 6% in the searing heat of midday. Phew! Of course, the routine of a good lunch, siesta and indulgent dinner in town later was now well established.

The climb out of Elvillar
Into Navarra
Jan and Alberto enjoying the climb!

The three amigos topping out the first big ascent into Aguilar de Codés
'Ice cold in Laguardia'
For a flypast of this route follow this link

Our final day's plan had been to cycle some 64km north across a mountain into Basque country, but the Prez had developed a full-on cold and storms were forecast from late morning, so a quick re-route took us back into the vineyards of Rioja, exploring new lanes (oops, and some very steep ramps and a gravel track...hmmm) but back in time to miss heavy rain which arrived for a short time in the afternoon.

Heyddie looking fresh for another ride through Rioja
Jan, Fabian and Alberto about to attack the last 5km
For a flypast of most of this route follow this link

Next day we headed back across north-eastern Spain, via Pamplona, to reach Lourdes, situated at the base of the Pyrenees, to ready ourselves for a crack at one of the most infamous of the Tour de France climbs, the Col de Tourmalet. Lourdes was teeming with pilgrims from all over the world, all visibly delighted to be in this most sacred of places for Catholics. An afternoon and evening stroll from the efficient Hotel Alba saw that we covered the ground as well, ensuring proper fuelling and hydration prior to our attempt on Tourmalet. But, evening storms, with the streets turning into rivers, did not bode well. Ah well, let's have another glass then...

Predictably, we awoke to grey skies, low cloud and showers, so decided to drive up the Col summit at over 2100m to see if there was any visibility and easing of conditions.
There wasn't. Tricky driving in dense fog, and only a very few (certifiable) cyclists seen, convincing us that driving on to Bordeaux was the best option.

A few hours later, on an empty autoroute, we arrived in the medieval hill town of St. Emilion, source of some of the finest red wines in the world. Our next three nights to be spent in the perfectly located Au Logis des Remparts, we were swiftly into town for an excellent long lunch and another fine dinner in the evening.

The following morning saw us saddle up and head into the vineyards north of the town, passing chateaux with reputations for great wines: Angelus, Cheval Blanc and Petrus to name but a few. Alas, the storm clouds were on our heels again, forcing a retreat from Lussac, and giving us all a good soaking.

Hey ho...another bibulous lunch and lazy afternoon followed, hopeful that the next and final day in the region would give us more clement conditions for riding. A walk around St Emilion revealed more delights of this beautiful fortified town, constructed in creamy white limestone throughout. A good dinner was enjoyed at Café Saigon in the evening, Vietnamese fayre rather than the usual French cuisine.

And, the weather delivered for our final day, Jan, Heyddie and Alberto completing a 45km circuit which took in the north and south banks of the Dordogne, whilst Fabian went back to bed to deal with man flu, now into its sixth day. The usual luncheon followed, Fabian corralled into joining the team for more unnecessary calories at the club's favourite watering hole, L'Envers du Décor.

Team's last day cycling along the Dordogne valley, just south of St Emilion

The final word. A lot of driving to ride not a lot of kilometres, but an enjoyable adventure discovering the delights of Rioja and St Emilion, both for the scenery, villages and the local produce. It can safely be said that calories consumed were not exceeded by calories burnt on the hill.

No comments:

Post a Comment