Today’s route: Balaguer to Aínsa
Today’s distance: 0 kilometers / 0 miles
Today’s elevation gain: 0 meters / 0 feet
TOTAL DISTANCE: 257 kilometers / 160 miles
TOTAL ELEVATION GAIN: 3,870 meters / 12,700 feet
I awake to the sound of rain inside my hotel room. This can’t be good. The erratic leak that appeared in the corner last night is now a constant stream of multiple drips. I place the wastebasket from the bathroom under as many of the drops as I can and pull back the curtain of the picture window. Heavy droplets bounce off the sidewalk, pooling into large puddles that the cars splash through. The deluge churns up mud in the river that runs along the far side of the street.
Downstairs in the hotel café I find our team of gerbils divided. Sam, Thor and Claire are decked out in rain gear and determined to ride. Andy, thoroughly undecided, is in cycling shorts but a regular shirt. Ciarán is wearing jeans. The rest are not yet present. I’m in yoga pants and a hoodie so you know exactly where my head is.
I don’t make this decision lightly. I’ve spent a lot of time on the bike in terrible weather conditions and I take pride in pushing myself past my perceived limits. But it’s also early in the week and I don’t want to get hurt. Flashbacks of flying over the trunk of the car that hit me just outside of Sligo last year race through my head. It’s dark out, the rain is heavy, and there are a number of busy streets to navigate to get out of this city. I just don’t want to do it when I’m not at 100%.
So I decide to sit this one out. I decide to enjoy a rest day exploring cities I’ve never come close to before. In fact four of us do. Seven gerbils bravely set out onto the rain slicked streets and Team Dry—myself, Andy, Ciarán, and Elena our Spanish translator—heads over to an adorable café to make a plan to get ourselves to the next town.
Option A is an all-day somewhat sketchy route involving four separate buses. They don’t necessarily line up in a real schedule and one of them only departs once a day. If we miss it we’re stuck. Option B is we all pitch in for a taxi to drive us nonstop to Aínsa. Well who wants to spend a full day of vacation in a bus station? Decision made, we enjoy oversized pastries, coffees and hot chocolates while Elena kindly negotiates with the cab company.
Within the hour our driver is out front and we’re on our way. We pile into the taxi and he takes off through town at 130 kph. That’s roughly 80 miles an hour through the city before even making his way onto anything resembling a motorway. We’re holding on for dear life as he nearly launches us into the stratosphere. This supposed two-hour drive will likely be closer to 45 minutes.
Spain is comprised of 17 autonomous communities, also known as regions, and on this trip we get to visit four. Today we’re crossing over from Catalonia into Aragon. Though we’re happy to take in the scenic shift from the interior of a warm taxi, we can’t help but feel for our friends on the road. The car is taking a different route so we’re unlikely to pass them. On our way through the countryside we get word that Helen and Vanda have joined our support driver, Alistair, in the van. It’s a smart move and they send us a cute picture of themselves smiling and dry, cozied up in the cab.
That leaves five cyclists on the road and it’s getting colder. Crossing over into Aragon also means climbing higher into the mountains. We’re not only moving north, we’re moving up. So now the cyclists don’t just have the muscle fatigue effect of elevation gain (the number of vertical feet we climb over the course of any given day), but they’re also dealing with a higher altitude. Altitude drops the temperature and turns rain into slush.
Consider this difference: A) You start at sea level (0’), climb to 1,000’, coast back down to sea level and climb again. You’ve now climbed a total of 2,000 vertical feet of elevation gain. B) You start at 3,000’, climb to 4,000’, coast back down to 3,000’ and climb again. Same total elevation gain but you’re doing so at a higher altitude and therefore have to deal with everything that comes with that difference. Make sense?
The taxi driver revs the engine and starts up a brutal hill flanked by snow. The rain is morphing into something more like sleet and we cringe knowing what our friends are in for once they make it this far. Today’s route is just as long as the previous ones we’ve done, but the difficulty lies in the majority of the climbing being at the tail end. These cyclists have been wet since the minute they stepped outside and they’ll be pretty stretched for stamina when they reach the hardest part.
Aínsa is the polar opposite of forgettable, dull Balaguer. Voted one of the most beautiful villages in Spain, Aínsa boasts a cobbled Plaza Mayor from the 12th century and outstanding views of some of the highest peaks in the Pyrenees. After quick naps at the hotel (don’t tell the others!) Team Dry can’t help but step out in the rain to explore the old town.
After a late lunch at a hole-in-the-wall pub we head back to the hotel. We know the riders will be dead tired and near frozen by the time they arrive. Andy suggests we form a Welcome Party and we’re all in. In a hilarious mix of Google translate from Ciarán’s phone and my pathetic Spanish skills (“Nosotros amigos tienen mucho mucho frio!”), he and I manage to convince the attendant to give us everybody’s room keys. When Alistair pulls up with the van Team Dry works quickly to get everyone’s suitcases up to their rooms. This way we can greet them with high fives and keys so they can go immediately upstairs for hot showers without the hassle of digging out passports and checking in.
One by one they start to arrive. Paul is laughing a tad deliriously. Sam stumbles off his bike claiming to be a broken man. Mark believes he’s been hallucinating for miles and insists the van go out in search of Thor (who is last to arrive but OK from what we can discern). Claire, also known as The Rocket, simply has no words. Team Soaking Wet Gerbils has climbed over 8,000’ in close to 90 miles of rain, slush, and sleet.
Over an extravagant dinner on the plaza, complete with house made Spanish liqueur compliments of the chef, we toast their rock star status. Seriously these folks are hard core!
Sending admiration and love from Aínsa! ❤ ❤ ❤