La Quebrantahuesos

Tuesday 17th February 2009 - 6:19:01 PM

The greatest cyclosportive in the world?

So I’d done La Marmotte - twice - and fancied something a bit different. Whisper it, I fancied something a bit easier too. I’d read a few positive things about La Quebrantahuesos, a 215km cyclosportive in the Pyrennees. I ran this past the Brixton Cycles self titled El Presedente Lincoln and he was postive once I told him there was less than 5000m of elevation over the course.

For once we seemed all to do plenty of training in the winter of 2006/7 and that spring, probably helped by the weather. Four of the five Quebrantahuesos gang did Castle Ride Cyclo in May, which strangely proved to be an excellent warm up training event with a course that bore more to the Ardennes than the weald of Kent (and despite being billed as a 100 miler eneded up weighing in at 111). Then two weeks before the Que… me, Lincoln and token Aussie Stevo did the excellent Wicklow 200 cyclosportive in Co.Wicklow, Ireland. This was again excellent prep and we all boarded our budget flight to Zaragoza in good spirits.

Fray Bentos


Quebrantahuesos is a bit of a mouthful; kway-brant-a-who-eh-zos is the best way to say it if you’re not a native Spanish speaker. Its the name of the massive eagle thats often seen swooping down from Pyreneean thermals to snatch its prey. The translation of Quebrantahuesos is ‘bone breaker’ and if you’re a rodent living in Aragon this something is you’re probably keenly aware of. We were mooching in the streets of Sabiñánigo one afternoon and one of these swooped down silently and grabbed some food left in the street and sat therer bold as brass eating it. Wingspan of about 7 feet, these things are as cool as fuck. But as their Spanish name was quite a mouthful we decided to call them something a bit easier on the tongue. Fray Bentos.

Aragon

…is beautiful. Beautifully underdeveloped, rocky, lots of white water rivers and tiny mountain roads that had warning signs for wild bears. I thought it looked a lot like Colorado. We were staying in a log cabin in Fiscal, only about 15km as the Fray Bentos flies but as this was mountainous country it was about an hour and a quarter in the minibus over an 1300m col and mucho twisty roads. To our shame we were all shite at speaking Spanish and sadly had to rely on the kindness of the locals to get fed and watered. Fortunately our campsite had a bar and a hut across the road sold Patatas Bravas so we were well fed.

Friday

We went to sign on in Sabiñánigo. It was hotter then the surface of Venus and there were thousands of folk milling around. All the prizes were on display, the most intimidating of all a huge bronze Fray Bentos with an evil scowl on his mush. We foreigners were all in the 7xxx numbers and qeued up politely for our jersey, numbers and transponders. There were the usual array of local bike shops selling tat , a big Selle Italia stand, a Campag stand (they were an event sponsor) and an Orbea stand with a raffle to win an Orca frame. What became apparent was how few non Spanish were knocking about. That might read strangely but normally events of these size attract a lot of folk from all over the globe; this didn’t feel very international at all. We went back to our log cabin in the mountains to do our final prep and try and get an early night.

Saturday

The mood was sombre at 5am when we loaded the bikes into the minibus and headed for Sabiñánigo. Dawn was breaking over the Pyrennees but there were a trail of glowing red tail lights ahead of us on the normally quiet mountain road . Every car that passed us had a couple of bikes on the back…and there were lots of cars…LOTS of cars. I started to get goosebumps but had to worry about not lunching our minibus and playing tunes on the 6 speed gearbox to try and maintain any kind of pace on the mountain roads. As we approached Sabiñánigo there were Police everywhere directing traffic, this was 6am and the town was rammmed! We were ushered to a sportsfield at the top of the town and put the bikes together. Freewheeling down to the start we were able for the first time to see the magnitude of this sportive.

Smile

The main drag, a 2 lane highway was choc full of lycra, bikes and tense cyclistas - for what seemed like a mile ahead. I was just getting my head round the size of this when a helicopter with a big camera slung underneath came buzzing down from nowhere and did a low level run over us at what felt like about 60 feet.  It seems they were making a DVD and wanted everybody to wave, so once this got through to us the copter came round again for the money shot.  We said our last words of encouragement to each other as the gun went off ahead.  There were fairly strict elimination points along the route and it was important to start fast.  My timing chip gave a reassuring ‘beep’ as I crossed the start line.

Big ring

Within 200 metres I was two gears from the top and hammering the pedals, weaving through this 8000 strong peloton, finding wheels, losing wheels.  For the first 10km it was completely mental, there were thousands of local folk lining the route cheering us on, lost in a blur as the biggest pack of riders I’d ever been in surged along at insane speeds.  At one point, a slight downhill on a dual carriageway riders spanned the entire width of the highway as far as I could see in the distance.  I looked down and was slightly suprised to be doing 44mph - riding flat out and sheltering in this massive pack.  It couldn’t last. The base of the first mountain approached…

Puerto Somport - 1632 Metres, 22km, average gradient 5%, maximum gradient 8%

First Col of the day so don’t blow it, sit in and don’t go mental.  The temptation is to have a real go at this as its not terribly steep but its a long one and my experience from my 2nd Marmotte (when I started way too fast) was to sit in a bit and twiddle up it.  It wasn’t too bad.  Clubmate Braveheart passed me about half way up.  There was a dude in a Tonbridge cycling club top I said hello too but he blanked me.  Theres not too much visible at the bottom, there are some lush fields either side from about half way up but its not a spectacular pass.  As we neared the top the crowds picked up again - where were all these folk coming from?  There were thousands more at the top and complete chaos at the summit with the usual bargy for water and bananas.  I didn’t take the offers of newspaper to stuff under my jersey as I still had my gilet on.  I rolled over the top and into France, feeling like a pro thanks to the cheers and clapping from all the spectators.

Descent

It became immediately apparent that almost all of the field couldn’t descend for shit.  I’m not the best climber in the world but I’m certainly not the worst descender.  These folk have no excuse, they’re surrounded by mountains and yet here they are pussyfooting it.  The roads were completely closed, each bend had a marshall with a red flare or red flag so you could attack the descent with hetrosexual abandon.  So I did.  It helped that I was riding a Wilier Triestina Alpe d’Huez, possibly the most uncomfortable frame for all cycling activities other than climbing and descending.  Here it was in its element, as stiff as Nicholas Whitchell at the Queens garden party, the kool stop brake pads let me stuff everybody in the bends before handing over to the Vredestein tricomp tyres.  These then let me lean the bike over further than I had a right to before getting upright and hammering the pedals again.  Do this for 6 seconds and repeat at next bend.  It was silly, I maybe took 200 riders on that descent - billiard smooth road, grippy tyres and demon brakes all made for great speed.  The drop over the side did make me think once or twice but sod it, how many times do I get to do this?

Rolling rolling rolling

There was a rider on my wheel - it was Braveheart (must have passed him at the top of Somport).  We worked together over the next 20km or so as the road went up and down.  Loads of folk got in behind us for a free ride.  It was cycling nirvana here, the day was just coming to life and you could feel the heat starting to bounce off the road.  The French firemen were outside their station cheering us on as we zipped past on the still closed roads.  We went through a tiny village and turned a sharp right uphill, hundreds of front mechs clunking down onto the little ring for what was to come; that being…

Col de Marie Blanc - 1035 metres

The only thing me and Eddy Merckx have in common as cyclists is that we both rate this as the hardest climb there is. Despite its diminuitive 1035 metres it is one evil bastard.  It starts ok, the road is very narrow with fields either side and barbed wire fences, the surface very poor with lots of lumpy chip and seal tarmac that reminded me of Irish roads.  Comparisons with Ireland soon became meaningless though.  At the water stop this Spanish dude in Gerolisteiner kit saw my Brixton Cycles jersey and came over for a chat - he’d lived in Brixton 4 years ago and knew the shop. He asked me if Bradys was still open (notorious late night boozer in central Brixton) and seemed very dissapointed when I told him it was shut down. ‘Be carefull here’ he mused, ‘in 1 kilometer it gets very steep and stays like that for 4 kilometers, all the way to the summit’. This man was a master of understatement gentle reader.

There are no words for the suffering I went through on those last 4km of the Marie Blanc.  I have never seen metres dissapear so slowly under my wheel and I’ve never experienced minutes and seconds being distilled so perfectly into pure physical pain.  Its a 4km straight ramp with no bends, just little kinks that look like bends.  As you grind away praying for a 29 sprocket you think the kink is a bend where it may flatten off for a few metres and let you get your breath back; wrong! All it does is reveal the next section of killer ramp.  Now pile on the gradient.  The gradient is constantly shifting, requiring more effort there, less here, then more again here…you can’t get a rhythm going and so can’t get even comfy enough to slog it out.  Now add in that lumpy road surface and you have the climb from hell.  After what seemed like forever the sickest sign in the world apeared - 3km to summit; that was a kilometer?  It felt like a year had passed and I had 3 more of these to do!!!

I was boiling from toil and I’m ashamed to admit it but I simply had to stop at one point and get my breath.  Despite training loads and using a 34/26 lowest gear I had to stop, flop over the handlebars and curse the world for being so unfair.  All you super climbers at the back can chortle all you want, its only fair and honest to tell you that I went up against the Marie Blanc and came off a distant second best. Time went into reverse and I was in a dark place indeed.  Somehow I made it to 2km to go and then 1.  The summit was the biggest anticlimax ever - peversely on the other side to the mountain the road up was well surfaced and featured much easier gradeints…bastards!

Token Aussie Steve Jones and I stopped at the feed station before descending into the valley for the start of the days biggest climb, the Col de Portalet.  Steve was taking tips from these Spanish pussy descenders and went down cautiously, I adopted my knee out Kevin Schwantz style (google him!) and had it large.  I waited for Jonesy at the bottom and towed him along the floor of the valley for about 5km. He responded to this kind act but sitting in till the base of the Portlalet and then buggering off up the road just as the climb started!

Col de Portalet - 1794 metres, 29km of climbing(!)

If there are more beautiful roads in the world than the Col de Portalet please tell me where they are because this had everything.  It is the architypal Pyrennean climb. It starts with huge rockfaces on your left and fast white water on your right.  There are those hanging bits where the road had been dynamited through rock but as time has weathered them it looks like nature has just happened to allow a two lane road through here. After a while there are beautiful meadows and some beautiful houses spread accross the mountainside; mountain streams drain into huge stone drinking pots at the side of the road.  The road surface is impeccable and the French have put excellent signs purely for cyclists all the way up - every kilometer theres one telling you what the gradient of the next to come.  This allows you to moderate your effort, everything 6% and below I went quite hard at, 7% and above and I backed off.  The meadows give way to trees and then at about 20km up its all left behind with that kind of blasted hillside with lonely brown cows with big bells round there necks giving you the evils.  Now come the avalanche tunnels to remind you that it snows here - in fact most of the year it snows here.  The crowds started to pick up again and there were legions of Basque folk up here, ‘Vamos Vamos Brixton!! Vengavengavengavenga!!’.  After 29 kilometers you reach the ski resort of Formigal and roll over the border back into Spain.  Nobody asked to see my passport.

Puerto Hoz - 1270 metres

The sting in the tail.  Half way down the Portalet on the Spanish side you have this nasty little spike called the Hoz, or as it became known, ‘the fuckin’ Hoz’.  Its a 3km 10% climb up to a beautiful little village of Sallent de Gallego skirting the side of a lush lake.  At the village there is a bizarre 50 metre section of dusty cobbles like something straight outta Roubaix and then its back down the main highway to Sabiñánigo and the finish.

The Finish

I rolled into town in a bunch of about 80 riders.  Local police stopped all traffic and let us go through (could you imagine trying to do something like that in England?).  I sprinted for the line and went over about 50 metres clear of the next bloke that gave a toss about sprinting out for 4000th place, punching the air like a tool.  I rolled into the sun baked weclome village, got my cert, cashed by timing chip in and headed for the food.  I had maybe 3 platefulls of eat as much as you want pasta and tuna before stopping off at the drink as much as you like San Miguel tables…which featured beer pumps facing towards you to help yourself!  So I did…:D

I walked up the short hill to where we’d parked our minibus and met Braveheart.  I sat in the shade of the van looking down over the valley and the streams of riders still coming in.  “I’ve never had a better day on the bike than that.”  Braveheart agreed, theres just nothing like as well organised, friendly and spectacular as the Quebrantahuesos, its breathtaking.

The beef


Registration is slightly cumbersome and maybe thats what puts so many non Spanish folk off.  Regsiter at http://www.quebrantahuesos.com , its fairly straightforward as long as you can babelfish and fill in every section of the online form (be creative when they ask for national ID card no).  Registration is about 40 Euros but you get a jersey, a medal, a certificate and as much beer and food as you can eat / drink. The entry fee puts British cyclocportives to shame but quelle suprise there eh?

We stayed in Fiscal in a campsite with log cabins as well as space for tents.  Accomodation any nearer to Sabiñánigo books out very early.  I sorted out our campsite using http://www.eurocampings.co.uk/en/europe/spain/aragon/ .  They wanted a depsoit but were happy to sort out on the day - it meant loads of hassle with bank transfers and the like.

Flights to Zaragoza were about £85 return including bikes with cheap and cheerful Ryanair.


6 Comments »

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  1. Andrew Morgan

    What a great blog probably the best article I have found on the Quebrantahuesos inspiring hope to see a brixton shirt in 2010. Andy

    Comment left on December 3, 2009 @ 4:16 pm

  2. Dom

    Great write-up. My folks live near there so it’s on the cards for 2011.

    Comment left on March 19, 2010 @ 8:51 am

  3. Billy Byrne

    Andy that was a very informing I am doing it this year ,so ithas given me the motivation to really press on with the training.

    Comment left on April 5, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

  4. Simon

    Fantastic write up, a very entertaining read.

    Comment left on June 18, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

  5. Bob

    Ha ha laughed like a drain, doing it this June. Great write-up.

    Comment left on April 13, 2011 @ 9:29 pm

  6. Chris OSullivan

    Great piece…very real description…..I’m based in the area…if anyone one needs help with accommodation or logistics….please just let me know…

    Comment left on November 8, 2011 @ 8:35 am

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