There’s a saying in Spain that roughly translates, “After three attempts you will get it.” I had to wait for the third CAT 700 edition to convince myself that I could deal with the challenge.
During this hesitation period, I managed to meet the organizers and several riders from previous editions. They were all experienced long-distance and adventure cyclists, like the event organizer herself, Mónica Aguilera, winner of the French Divide 2016.
In the weeks leading up to the event, all that I could think about was the compulsory material: a short list of clothes, lights, and a repair kit. And the only obsession was how I could possibly reduce weight even more. I guess that for someone used to this kind of challenge, it is pretty straightforward to make some decisions, but when it comes to a novice like me it is harder to judge what to take or leave behind. I was glad to find out, once the trip was over, that every packed item was useful at some point along the way.
The reason to be a bit obsessed with the equipment is because CAT 700 is a self-sufficient mountain bike event, duration a maximum five days, where you will ride through 650km of trails, paths and roads that separate the small town of Les in the Pyrenees from the finish at the river Ebro; in other words Catalonia from North to South. Rules are simple but strict. It is compulsory for riders to follow a particular track given by the organization and you are not allowed to receive any external help.
We kicked off on Saturday the 1st of July. None of us expected, at this time of the year, rain throughout the day and a temperature of only 7 degrees Celsius. The clear strategy for the first stage was to advance as fast as possible through the top mountains to leave behind the bad weather. With only two hours on the road, past Coll de Varradòs in Val d’Aran, rain and cold were our only companions. During the ascent, the body still regulates the temperature fine; however at 1900 meters altitude the thermometer showed -3C and the rain was strong. The 10km descent was a difficult hurdle to endure. We realized that we had slightly underestimated how cold the summer Pyrenees climate could be. A few extra garments would have been very handy. My initial idea to document the route with photographs was frustrated, as even using the brake levers or holding the food bag was a difficult task under those conditions. Due to that mishap there’s no landscape pictures of the first day.
To give up after only 30km was definitely not an option. My good friend and participant Bernat and I decided that we were a team and would keep encouraging each other to get to Montgarri refuge, and once there, think about our options. Needless to say, we were extremely pleased to finally be revived with some hot soup, and that it was possible to see some color back in our cheeks. However, this unexpected but much needed stop had delayed us more than we had planned. Once we were able to feel our bodies again, we continued along a soft descent toward Espot, our last chance to get provisions in a long while.
After getting supplied with enough food we rode the rest of the day—a hard, long and tedious ascent along a track with considerable grades that led us up to 2300m altitude. We went through the ski resort of Super Espot that we left behind after zigzagging a false plane, followed by Coll de Triador and its dreaded and long descent. We finally arrived at twilight, under a light filtered by dense clouds unloading a thinner rain.
Our bodies were feeling the punishing cold weather and were beginning to feel tired; the prospect of meeting other participants and getting a meal and a bed at the refuge of Torre de Cabdella pushed us to accept the improvisation of not doing our planned 40km. At least we had accomplished our goal to get over the Pyrenees. Next challenge: the heat.
Second day started early and in good spirits after breakfast and a good night’s sleep. We very soon arrived at what was initially our destination for the first day, Poble de Segur. The village was beginning to awaken while we were refilling our bottles with water. Meanwhile, the temperature was rising and the landscape looked different.
The main goal was to advance without any rest through an arid and inhospitable area, going through Vilanova de Meiá, Camarasa and Alós de Balaguer. While in Balaguer we had the chance to recharge our energy with a nice and early meal, though surrounded by a cloud of mosquitos. We reengaged pedaling and didn’t have any intention to stop until Les Borges Blanques, where we arrived at two in the morning, after 200km and 3000 meters of climbing.
The third stage of our route is sort of blurred in my mind. All I remember is that the deafening sound of cicadas managed to erase the innumerable going ups and going downs. The Priorat tested our strength. With its extensive vineyards and olive fields, it had become the hardest terrain in the route. It is a downhill road of various ramps scattered with pebbles and gravel under a relentless sun and a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius.
We arrived to Mora d’Ebre low, dehydrated and hungry, hoping to find a good place to rest our bodies and uplift our spirits. Though we thought it would be an easy enterprise, it became mission impossible. The streets were empty and our energy was low. We didn’t feel like deviating from the route trying to find a good place, and after asking in a few bars and getting negatives, as it was late, the option of staying in the parking lot of a supermarket felt like the best oasis.
When you enter an air-conditioned supermarket, thirsty and hungry as we were, you are probably going to leave it with food that has very little gastronomic interest but with the highest amount of calories that you have ingested in your life. At least that extra fuel guaranteed our arrival to Bot, where the organization had arranged the use of a local campground for all the participants. It was from there that two more riders, Koos and Xavi, would join us until the end of CAT 700. That added two more suffering souls to ride along with Bernat and me.
After a not-very-good night’s sleep, we faced the last part of the route that also included the last mountainous hurdle, Els Ports de Beseit. I could simply describe it as a long ascent followed by a long descent. But if I had learned something during the previous days, is that in CAT 700, there’s no rest, nor easy descents. We went through the day without much inconvenience; our energy levels were doing fine. Usually dramas happen in the evening. We deluded ourselves with the false idea that the end was not far and were tempted by some laziness: we received a message by the first finisher, after 51 hours, that we shouldn’t miss the chance to enjoy the natural swimming pool.
We lost a few hours in that wonderful pool, but the water was very refreshing; it was hard to escape the temptation. Luckily a wise voice among us prompted us all back to the road to face an ascending 30km of Els Ports, a mountainous range that separates the provinces of Tarragona, Teruel and Castellón. It is a unique area with a special natural interest. Mont Caro of 1447 meters is its highest peak. As we managed to overcome that obstacle, Bernat kept repeating the mantra, “Almost there guys!” for a lot longer that we would have wanted.
A never-ending descent tested our reflexes. A stop to drink icy horchata in La Senia helped mitigate the heat but made us waste more time. The sugar rush gave us the feeling of going out a Sunday morning with our usual group, doing relays and rising up to a rhythm hardly sustainable. There was still 60km left to the finish line and they were not as flat as we had imagined. Unfortunately that was not our last beginner’s mistake.
In Amposta we made our zillionth strategic error, during this, our first self-sufficient challenge. The end was near but not so close that we couldn’t make it without stopping for a meal in a Chinese restaurant, the name of which I have forgotten; luckily it was the only one open at that time of the day. We lost two hours but we loaded ourselves with protein and carbohydrates 20km away from the finish line. Those last kilometers were easy and along favorable terrain, nothing that we could not have achieved with the help of any protein bar, but it was now too late for regrets.
Finally we reached our destination past midnight with happy smiles on our faces. The organizers and a few participants were waiting for us at the finish line. Some quick photos, laughter, and we rushed to have the chance to enjoy a cold beer before the last bar closed.
We made it under 87 hours and 37 minutes. But that it is not what I will keep in my memory. What I have learned and appreciated is that this challenge has been prepared with extreme care by Eliseu Climent and Mónica Aguilera, and it led us through spectacular landscape, equally beautiful and compelling. I overheard some rumors that the distance might be augmented in future editions. In the meantime, if you are tempted, don’t hesitate to do it in 2018. Don’t let time pass by. The only barrier between you and the finish line is mental.