Ride Report: La Purito, Andorra

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Emily Chappell goes off piste at La Purito, a 145km sportive that follows the infamous Stage 11 of 2015's Vuelta España...

What? “Europe’s toughest sportive”; a 145km ride with five huge climbs and over 5,000m of ascent.

Where? The mysterious mountain kingdom of Andorra.

Why? Because any event with “toughest” in the title is like flypaper for me.

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The background
“Remind me whose idea this was?” moaned one of my fellow riders, as we crossed the border into Andorra and found ourselves hemmed in by steep-sided mountains, some of them traced with the kind of faint zig-zag lines that make you think “that’s not really a road, is it?” and then, “how did they build a road up there?” and then, “oh god, I bet we’ll have to ride up that tomorrow.”

We had all signed up for La Purito, a 145km sportive founded by Joaquim Rodríguez and based on Stage 11 of the 2015 Vuelta España – which many now refer to as the hardest stage in the event’s history. 

I’m a bit of a junkie for superlatives. Call an event the ‘longest’ or ‘hardest’ or ‘toughest’ of its kind, on whatever flimsy evidence, and I’ll be there to see what all the fuss is about.

“There’s not a single mile of flat road,” warned Barry, who had ridden La Purito the previous year and couldn’t quite recall what induced him to sign up a second time. As Knut, our steel-nerved guide from Girona’s Eat Sleep Cycle, manoeuvred the van up a narrow winding lane to our chalet, the back seats hummed with the exaggerated trepidation with which most people seem to approach a big ride.

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I kept quiet, because rather than dreading this ride’s long climbs and punishing gradients, I’d been looking forward to this trip ever since Eat Sleep Cycle announced it and I emailed boss Louise, desperate to bag myself a place.

I’ve spent most of this year riding the longest and hardest events I can find and, much as I’d like to pretend I plumbed new depths of human suffering, I’ve actually had the time of my life. I loved the Mallorca 312. I loved the Dragon Devil. I’m still homesick for Le Loop, and with the form I’ve gained from riding that lot, I felt sure that I would love La Purito even more.

Why are we doing this again?

The ride
Usually I’m an irritating ball of energy on start lines, chattering maniacally to anyone who looks even half-awake, drumming on my bars, impatient to get going. This time I was curiously subdued, hoping that my headache wouldn’t last, and that the uncharacteristic soreness in my legs would dissipate after a few miles’ pedalling. An hour ago I had watched my right hand shaking uncontrollably as I sipped my breakfast coffee, and told myself, as I far too often do, that there’s no problem that can’t be fixed by a few hours of vigorous cycling.

We set off, watching the morning sun glowing on Andorra’s jagged cliffs and mountainsides as we swept up the valley towards the foot of the first climb. And then, amidst the clunking of 2,700 cyclists rapidly switching to their lowest gear, we started going up along a road so narrow, so twisting, and – at times – so impossibly steep, that it seemed impossible the peloton would keep its pace. I had never climbed in a bunch like this – the closeness of the other riders added substantially to the challenge.

I had to read the road ahead of me all the more closely, looking out for variations in direction, surface and gradient that would slow the wheels I was following. I had to use every ounce of control and balance to keep the bike upright while I waited for another gap to open.

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It’s not too late to cry off and go to the pub instead!

Physically, I was already finding the ride much harder than I normally would. My legs had all their usual strength, but none of their energy; my muscles felt as sore as if I’d just completed the ride, rather than just beginning it, and as I began the long descent into Ordino I found my hands were still shaking, and my dizzy head was fighting to stay focussed on each upcoming bend.

As people began to overtake me on the second climb, I finally admitted to myself that this might not be my day, and as the second descent took me within a couple of miles of our chalet, I made the decision to stop there.

I probably could have carried on a bit longer, and might even have finished the ride, but I knew I’d only risk making myself more ill, sacrificing my next few weeks’ riding for the sake of a single day, and that the dizziness and shakiness would increase my likelihood of crashing as the day wore on.

I battled up the final hill to the chalet (there really isn’t an inch of flat road in Andorra), where Knut and mechanic Joan clucked sympathetically over me, assuring me that I’d made the right decision. To my surprise, I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of regret. Perhaps if it were earlier in the season I’d have worried that my inability to complete the ride meant I was a failure or an imposter, but I knew I’d made this decision from a position of strength. I’d listened to my body, recognised that the weakness I felt was out of character, understood that my ill health was beyond my control, and stopped riding in order to limit the long-term damage I might have done.

I felt curiously pleased with myself as I trudged upstairs for a long sleep, looking forward to when the rest of the group got back with their tales of triumph and hardship.

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The highs
Andorra’s spectacular landscapes: the entire country appears to be build around a series of steep-sided valleys, hairpins abound, and La Purito seems to be designed to show off this climbers’ paradise to its best effect.

Watching Knut spring into action as an unexpected rainstorm hit riders approaching the final 2,083m climb. He ransacked the entire chalet for waterproofs, got on his bike and sprinted off to their rescue. When the riders stumbled in later that evening, they told me how he’d caught them up, handed out the extra kit, and then ridden up and down the mountain repeatedly to tow them all to the top.

Billing itself as the toughest ride going means that La Purito attracts the very highest calibre of rider. I was delighted to share the road with some of the strongest women I’ve ever ridden alongside (and a few very impressive men). And despite the crowding on the first climb, the peloton was a lot less of a mosh pit than on the Mallorca 312.

The lows
Not getting to ride the entire route. Everyone came back with horror stories about the gradients on Coll de la Gallina at 100km, and I had to comfort myself with resolutions to return to Andorra and ride it as soon as possible.

Each rider is provided with one of La Purito’s distinctive red jerseys – and required to wear it for the event. I had mixed feelings about this. Admittedly 2,700 red jerseys streaming across the landscape was quite a striking image, but as Knut pointed out, one of the pleasures of riding an international event like this is admiring all the different kits, deciphering the logos of obscure foreign cycling clubs, and spotting jerseys from events you yourself have ridden in the past. When picking people to chase, I tended to go for the few riders who – like myself – had rebelled and worn a different colour, simply because they stood out more.

The food
I only made it through one feed stop, but it was plentifully stocked with pastries (sweet and savoury), fruit (oranges, bananas, watermelon), sandwiches, nuts and dried fruit, and piles of sugary sweets. A bunch of very energetic volunteers made sure everyone’s bottles were refilled with water, isotonic drink or coke, and the only thing missing was pocket food. I’m told there was a hearty barbeque – and beer – at the finish.

The saddlesore
Chance would be a fine thing! I didn’t ride long enough to succumb, but some of my fellow riders said they suffered later in the ride – probably through a combination of the intense heat (they tell me it reached 40C on La Gallina) and the exhaustion that meant everyone’s posture was shot to hell by the end.

The lessons
Listen to your body. If you’re feeling weak and sore where you wouldn’t usually, chances are something’s wrong. Quitting isn’t easy, but I’m already grateful that I did, rather than pushing myself through another 100km of mountains and probably then spending the next two weeks in bed.

What’s next?
Some shorter, gentler rides while I wait for my body to recover.

The practical advice
Unlike many sportives you’ll have entered, this one requires you either to hold a racing licence, or to pay €10 for day insurance. Don’t get caught out.

The route doubles back on itself a lot (you’ll find yourself riding back and forth along La Valira valley three times in all), so if you have vehicle support, or a friend or partner who’s not riding, there’s ample opportunity for them to meet you without having to drive too far.

La Purito doesn’t take place on closed roads, but given the lack of traffic in most areas you might occasionally forget this. Remember to stick to the right-hand lane when descending.

The earworms
Turin Brakes’ ‘The State of Things’, and The Cat Empire’s ‘The Crowd’: smooth, rhythmic tunes to keep my head steady as I wobbled down the descents.

Is it for you?
Yes, if you like hills, and want to boast that you’ve completed one of Europe’s hardest events. It’s also a nice way to see the best Andorra has to offer in a single day.


Get more from Emily

Check out the tour from Eat Sleep Cycle

Sign up for La Purito

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