By Brian Canty
We´ve just come back to Girona after a weekend away in Andorra where we took part in a mass-cycling event dubbed the toughest sportive in Europe, La Purito.
The stats that matter are 145 kilometres and 5,200 metres of climbing and in there are seven categorised climbs; the Beixalis after 18km (cat. 1), Ordino at 41k (cat. 1), Rabassa at 79k (cat. 1), Gallina at 106k (Especial – Hors Categorie), Comella at 127k (cat. 2), Encamp at 135k and Cortals at 145k (cat. 1).
Anyone with a passing interest in cycling will know that more and more professional riders are calling Andorra home and two of the more standout names in the sport who love to train there are Dan Martin and George Bennett (who we met).
The beauty of La Purito lies in the fact that it´s as much a mental test as a physical one and as a reasonably fit racing cyclist, it took every ounce of energy I had to finish it – and that took me over seven hours.
Granted, there were a few stops for punctures and mechanicals as well as food but it was one of the most surreal tests of endurance I´ve ever had to withstand.
The Gallina, for example, is an absolutely tortuous climb that drags on for 12 kilometres and only for a very (very) short downhill section, the gentlest pitch is 12% and the worst is 18%. That is almost an hour of pushing the easiest gear on a featherweight carbon bike after five hours already.
I opted for a 28 cassette on the back and my vastly experienced business partner Lee who rode the course some months ago insisted I needed bigger.
Through ignorance and pride I stuck to my 28 but to my absolute horror I inexplicably lost the use of it after five kilometres. I had two punctures inside 10 kilometres (front and back) and of the 1,500 or so I started with, I was at the very back of the group.
Naturally, I wanted to catch up so I rode the first climb very hard in my now lightest gear – the 27.
To summarise, I had 18 kilometres done. I was above threshold for most of the climb to the top – and I had a long, long way to go.
WIthout giving a blow-by-blow account of the madness that followed, here are 10 things I saw/heard/witnessed/experienced/learnt.
- There is no flat in Andorra. Period
Imagine a course without a single metre of flat road. Imagine an event where you´re either crawling up or hurtling down? This is the La Purito in a nutshell.
Suffice to say, if you plan on coming next year you´d better have good brake blocks because you´re going to need them!
The reason La Purito has such a high attrition rate is because the gradients are just so steep. Think 4 kilometres at 15% on the first climb, 6 kilometres at the same pitch after 106 kilometres and 5 kilometres at an average of 10% on the final ramp of the day.
- These guys know how to organise major events
Andorra is definitely not designed for 2,000 cyclists on open roads but that doesn´t stop the organisers making a damn good effort at creating a safe event where the cyclist comes first.
It can be a bottleneck in the urban areas but those deployed to run the event are simply outstanding.
From the way the registration is set up to make sign-on easy and efficient, to the course layout, to the road signage and the lead cars/outriders they deserve huge credit for making this possible.
I have done a lot of sportives over the years but few where they keep the numbers down and where money is definitely not at the core of why they do it.
- La Purito is very much every man and woman for themselves
Some Gran Fondos/Sportives are not hard or long. They don´t require much training or sacrifice and they are easily completed.
Then there are other events like La Purito which demand huge amounts of resolve and toughness to get through.
The thought crossed my mind yesterday as we were riding around that just how eerily quiet the event was and I can only surmise that everyone was suffering from the very first kilometre.
You simply cannot ride up seven mountains in a day if you are not fit and even those who proclaim to be kept their energy very much to themselves.
- Always respect the support crew
This is a big bugbear of mine: cyclists having a sense of self-entitlement because we are being sooooooo badass.
It kills me to see cyclists breaking the rules, hammering through red lights, not respecting pedestrian crossings and disobeying the very people who are here to keep us safe.
But one thing that struck me about the Purito is the respect given and taken by those in fluoro jackets.
These guys are real heroes and gave up their Sunday to do monotonous yet essential tasks over and over again. They stop oncoming traffic, they block side roads, they offer encouragement, they are there long before we arrive and long after they leave.
And if they get disrespected, well then we can all say farewell to these types of events.
- And the old Basque guys on Orbeas…
These guys…All I can say is hope I am like them when I´m older. They all ride Orbeas because Orbeas are the bike of choice for the firecely-proud Basques.
The old guys are all tanned and lean and wear either the orange of the now defunct Euskaltel-Euskadi team or green/red/white of the many club teams in the region.
There were quite a few from the Aldro team also, very distinctive in purple and orange.
They all seemed to ride in groups, with the elder statesman at the front and centre like Bernard Hinault in his prime. There´s women here too, all riding custom paint job Orbeas and it´s in these clusters where I lodge myself for much of the day.
Why? Well, they can all ride and there is something quite magical about climbing with a fleet of rail thin Basque grimpeurs.
- You must improvise by any means necessary
So, to my actual day…
Riding an event in high mountains that´ll take most of the day demands lots of consideration, most notably what to wear. A mandatory pre-event debate ALWAYS takes place and goes along the lines of the following:
“What´s the weather like for today?” “Not sure but there will be rain so bring a jacket”….”Will it be cold?” “Yes, always cold on descents if there´s been rain.” “What about arm warmers and leg warmers?” “No harm to pack them”. “You could be too hot on the climbs and too cold on the descents”. “I always say ´better to be looking at it than for it´”. It´s a free-for-all now. “Accuweather says a thunderstorm at 5.” “BBC says 30 degrees all day”.
In the chaos, I decide a base layer, short-sleeve jersey, gilet, fingerless gloves, skull cap and overshoes will do me. Two hours later and I am rummaging in a skip, tearing an empty pizza box in half to stuff under my jersey for the descent. A plastic bag with some paper makes a lovely buff for around my neck.
And when the sun comes out later I can discard both in a bin and ride the sun-scorched final climbs with arms out and not weighed down by heavy jackets. Bliss.
- Remember there is always someone worse than you
So, we all have to give ourselves a slap in the head sometimes when we ride because guess what? Others are hurting too. And many others are hurting a lot worse than you. I thought I was having it rough yesterday until I rode up alongside a guy in a recumbent bike, pedalling for all his worth up a 17% hill.
I was doing 9kph. He was probably doing 5 at best. And we had 5 kilometres to go. So, next time you are hurting and you´re getting it rough in a race, or in training, or in a Gran Fondo remember there are others in a far worse state.
Just suck it up and keep riding!
- The power of NOW!
One of my favourite cycling mantras. If you are cold, get warm NOW. If you are hungry, get food NOW. If you are thirsty, drink NOW. I was parched as we appraoched the first feed yesterday but seeing as there were so many people there I decided to truck onto the next one, 25 kilometres away.
What I didnt know was what terrain that would be…and yes, it was half up and the other half down.
When you´re hydrated, climbing 12 kilometres is NOT easy. When you´re dehydrated, it´s hell. So while I ´saved´two minutes by skipping the first feed, I ´lost´ 15 by crawling up to the next one. I won´t dare pass a feed zone with just 200 ml again…
- Never, ever get too cocky
I felt great yesterday because I prepared well and rested in the days approaching it. I knew I was on a good day when I cruised up the outside of the bunch as we rolled out of Sant Julia de Loria without any bother.
Then disaster struck with two punctures and as I lost 10 minutes there, I was keen to get back up to the front as soon as I could.
That meant riding way harder than I´d budgeted for and as I was determined to race up the timed section of the course this was hardly ideal.
But we cyclists are a proud lot and I´m no different. That early effort followed by racing up the timed section left me in a pretty dark place with four climbs still to go.
The thing about these long events is you can feel good for a time and push on, only to realise later that this was a baaaad idea.
And in time-honoured fashion I am a shell on the final climb up to Cortals. I simply had to sit on the back wheel of a rider twice my age and have him drag me up.
A final word to salute the efforts of the 8 clients we had with us this weekend. Hollie, Peter, Brendan, JoAnn, Amy (pictured left), Barry, Todd and Francesc, you are all my heroes.
And to the one and only Berta of Gabinet Medic in Girona for doing the million jobs only a woman like her could do.