Please don't go up there, please don't go up there... The words keep repeating themselves in my head as I glance at Mare de Deu del Mont, the longest and hardest climb in the Girona area. I did it once, last year, and with just a 25 on the back, it was pure torture. Now I’ve got a 27 on and I still don't feel like riding up.
This time, it's the guys I'm riding with who scare me. Going up there will mean 18 kilometres of hanging on for dear life and making sure I don't get dropped. There's only one rule if you want to ride with the guys – at least, that's my one: never get dropped. Otherwise I'd never dare to join them again.
Today we're a small group: Matt Brammeier, Daniel Martin, his dad Neil, David Millar, a strong Spanish amateur, Ricard. And me. Dan said we won't go up Mare de Deu today because he found another road he wants to explore, but you never know with these guys.
We hit the bottom of the climb. The pace isn't too bad, I can keep up easily. The weather is gorgeous: clear blue sky, fresh air, golden winter sun. I feel fit and the guys are all in a good mood. Dan explains what kind of road he found on the internet: a small path, hardly known by anyone, starting with a couple of hunderd metres of dirt. “After that, the road is supposed to be a bit bumpy, but more or less flat,” he says.
After a couple of kilometres Dan points at a dirt road full of holes and we turn off. It looks like we will end up in the middle of the woods. But after a couple of hundred metres, it changes into a concrete bikepath of sorts. It’s rugged and narrow and it goes up immediately. Steep. But short.
We get out of the saddle and push and pull through a hairpin. The road gets a bit flatter. But after the next hairpin, there's another wall rising up in front of us. “Wow, it's almost 25 per cent,” one of the guys shouts, out of breath. No need to say, I can feel it. This is true power training, not just for my legs or arms, but the rest of my body.
Dan's secret "flat" road turns out to be so ridiculously hard that we can't stop laughing and yelling “don't worry, it's flat here” at each other. “We'll be at the top soon," we keep telling each other. But after every corner there's a new steep section. The road goes on and on. This is so much worse than the climb I’d feared. But it's also so much fun.
All of a sudden, we're at the top. Although the guys know this area pretty well, they have no clue where we are. There's no living soul to be seen, just goat shit everywhere. We start the descent on a road as bumpy as the uphill with even steeper hairpins. All of a sudden Millar, riding in front of me, shouts: “Woooo, stop!” and brakes so hard I almost crash into him. He's out of breath, smiling like a madman and pointing: “Look at that view! I've got to take a photo!”
I focused on the downhill so much I didn't look around at all. For the first time, we get a glimpse of where we are, looking over a gorgeous, totally deserted valley. I guess the guys hardly ever stop to take photos, used as they are to riding in stunning areas. But this tops it all.
We continue the downhill, shouting and laughing so loud the birds stop singing when we pass by. The steep path ends and we're on a wide, smooth road. Still no clue where we are, though.
Ah, there's a sign. It says... “Hahaha, we're in Albania!” Finally, a village! It's actually spelled Albanya. But we feel like so far from home it might as well be the Eastern Bloc.
We stumble into a hotel where time seems to have stood still. Old chairs, a fireplace and a grandmother in front of the TV, with a blanket over her legs and a dog at her feet. We drink coffee, have cake and agree that this is what cycling is all about: amazing roads, adventure, awesome nature. Getting lost.
We find our way back, of course. We did more kilometres then expected, but no one cares. I feel shattered when I come home. That's what happens when you ride with the guys.
The next day though, all kind of messages reach me. Ricard couldn't move anymore once he got home. Matt went for a recovery ride but didn't even make an hour. And Dan slept for 11 hours, straight through his alarm. It wasn't just me, then.
Marijn De Vries is a professional cyclist for Argos-Shimano.