Barcelona’s biggest, best kept secret

I used to live in Brussels, until I left, on February 29th, this year. People who have never been to Brussels and have never enjoyed cycling up a hill say “oh you must have loved that, it’s pan-flat”. Cycling people who have never been to Belgium, but have watched the Tour of Flanders, or Liege-Bastogne-Liege on TV know that that Belgium, while not mountainous, is anything but flat. Downtown Brussels is about 20m above sea level – I was living about 100m or so above the North Sea, towards the South East of the city. It wasn’t unusual to go out for an hour on the bike, and come back after 500-600m of climbing, but never having gone higher than 150-200m above sea level. Just up and down and up and down and up and down on 15% power climbs, many of them horribly (I mean beautifully) cobbled with broken, subsiding pavé. Watch a video of the Brabantse Pijl to get an idea of the roads I used to ride, with their short sharp ramps.

As Camille MacMillan says in his recent cycling photography book The Circus, “I read somewhere that American post-war suburbia is based on Belgium. It’s the most densely population country, you never seem to leave an urban environment. A whole country of suburbia, apart from Wallonia, which is nice.”

I agree with this feeling – although I think the American influence is the other way around – Belgium is often cited as the first European country to be “Americanized” post-WWII.

Most of my Belgian countryside rides from were rides through this  glorified suburbia, this pretend countryside. I started believing that this was the world now. Everything is suburbia, even the “wild” places. Often enough, when I was desperate to get out on the bike, I would shoot out through Uccle and into the Forêt de Soignes, a 4,500 hectare woodland that serves as the green lung of Europe’s capital, even if it meant riding through wet leaves and mud en route to the backroads of Wallonia and Flemish Brabant. Anything to get away from the enveloping thrum of traffic and humanity.

These days I live near Barcelona. If you’ve been in Barcelona, and have ever looked up to the hills above the city, you’ll see the strange church at Tibidabo – a basilica in fact, coupled with an amusement park, at an altitude of 512m. Behind that peak, in the Serra de Collserola, lies the 8,000 hectare Parc Natural de Collserola. After that lies the Vallès Occidental, where I live.

Collserola is one of the world’s largest metropolitan parks. In fairness, it’s not a city park in the sense that say, Central Park is a park. Collserola is more like a forest that has never been fully encroached upon by the massive city below. The train ride in through the park to Placa de Catalunya, via La Floresta and Les Planes seems more like a safari than a trip to downtown Barcelona.

The Basilica and amusement park at Tibidabo, Barcelona

As I’ve written about in March of the Pigs, Collserola a pretty wild place. While it gets fairly busy with mountain bikers, horse riders and hikers getting out of the city to explore, it’s easy to find pockets where you’ll bumped into few people, if anyone. Just a few roads cross Collserola and these have become integrated of the ritual of getting out of the city for thousands of road cyclists, many of whom seem to the climb over the Serra twice, making a loop to from home, to the Vallès and back.

Collserola has become for me what the Forêt de Soignes was in Brussels – a place to seek quiet, while I’m getting warmed up and focussed on the bike. If I’ve only an hour or so to ride, it’s more fun than trying to navigate north through the sprawls of Terrassa and Sabadell.

From the moment I leave the house I’m climbing up towards Tibidabo. It always seems odd to be going “out on the bike” towards a major city.  I leave the house at 100m above sea level and finish the warm up at about 450m, six kilometres or so later, after climbing the beautiful twisting Carretera de la Arrabassada. Drivers tend to be fairly patient to cyclists here, and I’ve never felt endangered or crowded by cars. There’s plenty of signs warning to give riders 1.5m of space (2m is always better)

The view from Tibidado, Barcelona
The view from Tibidado, Barcelona

Yesterday I swung right at the top, and skirted along in front of Tibidabo, a hazy view of Barcelona and the Mediterranean below me. I dropped  down into Vallvidrera and then started looking for a new route I’d checked on a map. I turned right, and I left Barcelona behind me climbing towards  the chapel of Santa Creu d’ Olorda. The road surface was amazing, there was no cars (ok, it’s August and everyone’s gone on holidays) and a few cyclists. Most cyclists give a wave or a “hola” here, which I find familiar from Ireland. Acknowledgement of shared purposes – forget snobbishness, we’re doing something we love. I noticed that in cycle-racing-made Belgium, riders weren’t so quick to say hello. Up through the forest, past the chapel.

As the road tops out, a fit looking rider flakes past me wearing jersey and shorts labelled Tomás Domingo – the Bike House (a Barcelona shop I’d been in less than 24 hours earlier), then dives ahead down the hill and is gone. The rider, who turns out to be Txusmeister, out of sight before I get to Sant Bartomeu de la Quadra on a road, that I still can’t believe are right beside Barcelona. Occasionally I can see the signs of heavy industry in the Llobregat valley. Right in Sant Bartomeu, down through a set of tight switchbacks and into what feels like the middle of nowhere. Then, the ramps… up a very, very steep set of ramps toward La Floresta. I catch a father and son weaving on the last 20% bit on their mountain bikes and we grin and grimace a quick celebrations then go our separate ways. 

Suddenly, I’m back in civilisation. La Floreta, Valldoreix, Sant Cugat. I feel like I’ve been on an expedition. Thank you, Collserola. Don’t ever get eaten up by the sprawl.

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