What Happened When the Tour Visited Shangri-La?

Editor: The Tour is over and Sky's winning methods were so calculated that they earned themselves an article on FiveThirtyEight, a website devoted to journalism rooted in statistics and data. Does this mean we will see less of the panache and romanticism in pro cycling that inspires our own riding ? The 2016 Tour de France may have been a calculated procession, but that doesn't mean the race wasn't beautiful. Geography and culture remains the maker of the race. So, where was it in this year's Tour? Max Leonard picked the 9th stage from Vielha Val d'Aran to mythic Andorra, featuring rain, wind, and hail. Read on below for Max's words on the strange roads of Le Tour.

Andorra or Shangri-La.  Photo:  Antton Miettinen. 

Andorra or Shangri-La. Photo: Antton Miettinen. 

Shangri-La was a mythical mountain kingdom in a lost Tibetan valley. It appeared in a book, Lost Horizon by the English novelist James Hilton in the 1930s, and has since passed into the common currency of our language to connote some remote, beautiful and peaceful paradise on earth. Andorra, which can only be reached by high passes (and, latterly, tunnels) from either France or Spain can seem like a kind of Shangri-La. Enclosed by the high peaks of the eastern Pyrenees – there are 74 peaks over 2,000m (6,500ft) tall squeezed inside Andorra’s borders – the territory tumbles down through forests and lush meadows to the capital, Andorra La Vella. Squeezed between valley walls, modern glass-and-steel buildings mix with traditional stone, and even near the centre you are not far from fields of sunflowers, vegetable plots and the tinkle of bells around the necks of farmyard goats. 

Maybe that’s romanticizing it too much: Andorra is a tax-free principality, and consequently is a Shangri-La for those wanting  spa hotels, discount alcohol and cigarettes, cut-price electronics and cheap gas; but there remains something magical about the mountain kingdom. Whether, as a cyclist, it seems like an earthly paradise very much depends on your attitude to climbing. There is not, I don’t think, a single kilometre of flat road anywhere.   So for those of a certain disposition – and weight – it is a very attractive destination. Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez has been based in Andorra for years, and Dan Martin, formerly of Cannondale and now with Etixx-QuickStep, moved up the hill from the Catalonian town of Girona, last year.

If it’s a known outpost for a few pros, it’s still not all that well visited by the WorldTour. This year’s Tour de France stopped here on its way out of the Pyrenees, but that was only the fifth time in the race’s long history. The Vuelta a España, Spain’s Grand Tour, also came to town last year (ASO often trials stage starts and stage finishes in its other races before sending the Tour de France to town), but that was its debut visit to the principality. That stage – which was designed by Team Katusha’s Joaquim Rodriguez himself – was called by some ‘the hardest Grand Tour stage ever’. And, while there have been stages of the Giro d’Italia, as well as the Vuelta, which stand out for their combination of tough, steep climbing and terrible weather, but the 2015 Vuelta’s Queen stage – with 5,000m (16,400ft) climbing in 138km (86mi) and taking riders up to finish at 2,095m (6,900ft) – perhaps laid claim to packing in the most vertical gain per horizontal kilometre of riding.

Last year, Andorra held bad things for Chris Froome. A crash at the bottom of the first climb, the narrow, twisty Collada de Beixalis forced him to withdraw. He returned this July in the Tour de France’s yellow leader’s jersey – but the weather gods literally rained on his parade, as a torrential downpour, with hailstones the size of marbles, hit the riders at the stage finish at the Arcalis ski station. Just proving that, even in Shangri-La, it has to rain sometimes. 

Photo:  Antton Miettinen

Photo: Antton Miettinen