Last Exit to Monserrat

You know the story. You haven’t been on your bike in weeks, due to the pressures of work, family, life. Your fancy bike is still encrusted with the winter road grime of the last country you lived in. It’s a sunny day, not too hot. You have a few hours on your hands, a luxury. You plot a route through the confusing sprawl of leafy suburbia of greater Barcelona, searching for the rural backroads, navigating past abrupt bike lane endings and motorway on-ramps.  A climb, up past post-industrial businesses, more houses, then suddenly, forests, fields, vineyards, and the makings of a 50km loop.  You can see the basilica of Tibidabo and the Mediterranean in the distance. And looking the other way, you can see the Mountain.

Monserrat.

It looks so close. It always does. But it’s 50km away.  You can see it when standing beside Sant Cugat’s symbolic tree, the Pi d’en Xandri, with sunset light trapped by the multi-fingered peaks. After descending the Pyrenees from Puigcerda, and onto the autopista at Berga, Monserrat appears, a jagged sawtooth on the horizon, still an hour away by car. At 1,236m, it’s not at all high compared to the nearby Pyrenean peaks. But as it erupts almost vertically, out of relatively flat land, it appears huge, mysterious, forbidden.

Monserrat, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain
Monserrat, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, from near Ullastrell

And so, as I cycle towards the hilltop town of Ullastrell, Monserrat is provoking me, goading me. I drop 250m of altitude down towards the Llobregat valley, ostensibly looking for a turn left for home. But as I pass by a solar farm with the Mountain framed behind it, I make a decision. I take some photos, wave to a totally pro-looking dude about to start the ascent to  Ullastrell, and turn right instead of left.

It’s a boring enough road, nether countryside or town, remnants of failed industry in decline. It’s not too hot, but there’s wind. I arrive in Olesa de Monserrat. I don’t know what I’m expecting, but my ride through town doesn’t say much to me about the place, other than there’s a sort of grid system and despite its proximity to Monserrat, I can’t imagine living there. I stop at a service station and stock up on fluids, then exiting onto not very cycling-friendly national route. This road winds up through the valley beside the Llobregat river, as it brings a trickle of water from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean.

Now the landscape is changing, and threatening to become dramatic, with vertical cliffs rising from the valley.  I’m looking for Monserrat. I can’t see the whole mountain anymore, sometimes I can’t see it at all. It’s too big to see, and the foothills are blocking it out. The land has become drier, more scrubby.

Monserrat, Barcelona
Monserrat and solar panels, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

The car park for the cable car to the Benedictine Abbey of Monserrat appears and disappears to my right, before I enter in the run-down looking town of Monistrol de Monserrat. I don’t wait around, and take the left turn onto the climb.

At 8.3km, and an average of 7%, you may be surprised to hear that I don’t think this 559m is a hard climb. Every climb is hard, but thanks to the good road surface, and excellent road design, the Monserrat ascent doesn’t suck away your energy. It flits between 5%-10% but never abruptly. I didn’t go up particularly fast, but I didn’t suffer, either. And I certainly didn’t break any records. What I did do, was keep some of my energy for enjoying the ride, and the incredible views of the surrounding countryside. I pass a bunch of guy with ramshackle mountain bikes and buckets of attitude in the first couple of kilometres, stopped at the side of the road. Three guys in pave.cc whip around a corner and flick a “hola” to me on their way down.

Monserrat, Barcelona
The climb Monserrat, Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Cycling on a road like this, you’re measuring your progress to the top, that’s the goal. The curiousity of “can I?”. If you’re riding up Monserrat, go to the top, through the parking barriers, past the battalion of tourist buses, past the tourists squinting at the view and at the rather grey looking ecumenical buildings. Then turn around, come back out into the countryside and enjoy the peace and the views. If you’re driving, just park at one of the places on the way up and go enjoy the forests of Spain’s first national park and forgo the tourism mill at the top.

The view of Monserrat, from Monserrat!
The view of Monserrat, from Monserrat!

It’s like Tibidabo without the amusement park. Lots of mass tourism cafes and for once, a tourist train that doesn’t actually look like a toy choo-choo. I buy some more water, and don’t stay long. Canny folks are jumping on a funicular to go to the peak. This part of the mountain is in shadow and there’s a breeze. I’m wearing nothing on my upper body but my Café de Cyclist Lucienne, which is a magnificent piece of kit, but it’s wet and I’m getting cold. It’s odd for a cyclist, but I start descending into order to get warm, to get out of the shadow and into the sun.

I meet the mountain bike guys again, some of them pushing their bikes. They look beaten. It’s the hottest part of the afternoon, and they many kilometres to get to the top.

At the bottom, I swing right onto the main road, and start time-trialling with and against the wind, it seems. The unexpected efforts and temperature changes give me leg cramps, and I try and shake them out as I descended by the river. Back the way I came, past the solar farm. I’m going to try and navigate a “fast way home”. It sort of works, but Google Maps sends me up a steep climb then onto a dirt trail. I’m running hardy tyres, but no, gracias. I go back down and fight my way to through the industrial quarter of Martorell. Actually, maybe all of Martorell is like this, a mass of dusty industrial zones straddling the river. A straight road that goes on forever, past big factory units near Sant Andreu de la Barca before I can finally swing left and get towards home. Cycling in the Barcelona neighbourhood has its rewards, but my god, do you earn them.

Extra bonus trivia: 

Shakira. My beautiful other half has pointed out that the mystical mountain in the background of her video for Empire is in fact Monserrat. Shakira lives hereabouts, dya see.

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