“Where?” I was asked when I told the airline employee in the United States where my final destination was after my flight to Barcelona.
10 min read by Laura Fletcher
“Janice, can you look up this place called… How do you spell it, hun?”, the check in attendant asked, a classic New York accent lifting her vowels to a height that might very well reach the top of the mountains of Andorra’s tiny enclave. Andorra is its own country, but unique as a dual principality. It’s been represented by France and Spain and their two princes, giving strong ties to both its neighbours. Two Princes? Yes, it’s more than just a great hit song from the early 90s by the Spin Doctors – you’re all welcome for that earworm now. Were the masters of pop punk one hit wonders singing about this mountain paradise all along?
For others, Andorra is famous for ski fields and tax free alcohol. It's a giant duty free country perched high above its neighbours.
But Andorra is much much for than that, more than a namesake song or discount shopping destination.
It’s a country with a similar culture to its neighbouring area of Catalunya, with a shared language, and day to day pace. But it’s a quiet escape from the hustle and bustle of coastal life.
Andorra is tucked away meals with fireplaces roaring, summer valley roads with lilacs and lichen.
It is the wild horses on the hillsides and summer ski field solitude.
And it is home to some of the toughest training roads in mainland Europe. A true cycling destination. Andorra cycling is not for the faint of heart.
Andorra over the last few years has become home to more and more pro riders.
They migrate upwards to avoid the summer heat of Girona, and use the altitude as a training tool
Around fifty pro riders live in the tiny country, and it’s almost without a doubt you will pass one or two on rides… or they might pass you on one of the many cycling routes in Andorra!
It might feel discouraging to watch one fly up the climb and disappear into the distance. But remember, it’s mostly climbers living up here and they are fully acclimated to the altitude!
Speaking of altitude, it’s actually really important to keep in mind if you are planning a cycling holiday to the country.
Andorra la Vella sits around 900 metres and generally, it goes up from there. Even not doing endurance exercise, when you are up at 1900 metres, the air is thin. It takes a few days to get used to cycling Andorra, so it’s really important to not plan a 5-hour ride when it’s your first day there, especially if your accommodation is high in the hills.
Three Country Loop
Check the wind direction before taking on this loop
You never want a head wind coming home, and as it’s a loop so it can be done in either direction. For purpose of example, our ride went: Andorra (Soldeu)-France-Spain-Andorra.
Starting in Soldeu we headed upward towards the very top of the country over the Envalira pass (Porta d’Envalira). This is a beautiful way to start the day as it’s a soft gradient upwards, enjoying the views of epic mountains and snow caps. Since most car traffic uses a tunnel the top of the road is quite quiet, a real picturesque moment to take in, before the long descent. It’s 2,400 metres, the highest point for the day. From there, the first of the two parts of the long downhill begins, first passing by Pas de la Case, and through the customs border into France. We descended about 6 ks before the road kicked up again, a short 4 to 5 k section of steep uphill as the feelings of France started to come in, the cows grazing the hillside, bells ringing. Once we hit the top of this, we then began the epic long downhill, about 15 ks of winding but a well-maintained road, sweeping corners and a few nice areas to pick up a decent speed. We slowed down as we hit the small towns at the bottom, passing the boulangerie and the Marie de France, a real jarring notice that we had crossed the border.
A few roundabouts and we headed towards Puigcerda, the Spanish border town that would welcome us, our third host country of the day.
From Puigcerda we began the long flat section of the day. Following the river, we headed towards La Seu d’Urgell. This road is constantly undulating through green valleys and we overlooked the roaring river, horses grazing and small Spanish farms, as we dove in and out of small towns, still with an air of ski culture around them. This area has a lot of short tunnels, so note a rear light is needed for safety on this road. We stopped in La Seu d’Urgell at Velocafe for a coffee and snack before heading across the border. The owner is a huge cycling fan, and welcomes everyone in, with fantastic cinnamon rolls, and a great cup of coffee. The last climb is no joke, so we welcomed this refuelling. TVs were streaming live feeds of a grand tour when we were last there, and the Andorra based pros can often be seen here, refilling bottles and having a quick coffee as well.
From here we began another gentle rise to the Andorran border, through a few more tunnels before we hit the border. We respectfully slowed down at the border, they tend to not stop cyclists, but always good to be aware and alert to the laws. Into Saint Julia we went, the first town in Andorra. The road near the border on this side is a bit busier and nothing to write home about, the main goal to get through Andorra la Vella, to take on the last stretch home.
From Andorra La Vella we headed upwards again, through Encamp, Canillo, El Tartar and Ransol before finally landing again in Soldeu. The last climb on this Andorra cycling route, being about 16 kilometres, is never too steep but a great last challenge for the day.
Andorra is built around two main roads really, that meet in the valley in Andorra la Vella.
If you are looking for a more urban area to stay, with shopping on the doorstep, Andorra la Vella is for you. If you are looking for a more mountainous, quaint or rural feel, head up into either of the mountain roads.
Let’s start with La Massana. This is the most population-dense area outside of la Vella, although you could hardly call it a metropolis. It sits in ValNord, with the ski resort and slopes just up the road at Arcalis and Ordino. La Massana valley is the most populated area after Andorra La Vella, although the ski fields come quickly after leaving the town centre.
To refuel for a big day of riding, be sure to have breakfast, lunch or both at Grupetta Cafe, owned by pro cyclists Koen de Kort and Willie Smit. The menu is a blend of Australian breakfast joint with a more typical European flavour thrown in. For breakfast, I can never pass up the brekkie burrito and the smoothie bowl. And for lunch, try a curry for something you don’t see on every menu in the area! Good chance you will see a pro rider or two eating or taking a quick coffee in there as well, and a good chance it’s either Koen or Willie at that!
Coming from the La Massana Valley, we’ve discussed the climbs that take you to the other half of Andorra, but not the flip side.
Starting from the Grupetta café, having taken on the necessary caffeine needed for the day’s duties, we ride north towards the town of Pals. The road gently begins to rise, until the climb starts in earnest. The road surface is incredible, fast, smooth and begins to climb steeply taking on switchbacks. We passed one of the worlds smallest golf courses tucked in between the road and the gorge you ride up. It’s a strange juxtaposition, but the green colours on the black cliff faces are a beautiful contrast.
Once we hit the town of Pals, which has a very timely freshwater fountain, we began to climb again towards the Passa de Pals, another gruelling steep section of road that can send fear into your heart and legs. But fear not, after the first three kilometres the gradient eases and you come to a roundabout. We suggest beginning by going left to the Vall Nord mountain bike park, where you can refuel at various outdoor cafés, playing great music, surrounded by lounges and ad hoc seating. You can watch the crazy mountain bikers playing down the ski runs and jumping on the very stylish pump track.
When we were ready, we began to descend. A truly fast flowing road brings you back to the roundabout you turned on before. This time, turning left to take on the Passa de la Cabús.
This climb is painfully long, but it’s never steep. The drags feel like you’re climbing forever. Well, the real reward is the views. These are arguably the most incredible of the entire region and make cycling Andorra totally worth the climbs.
At 4 km to go, when we were questioning our life choices the climb descends, giving a bit of respite you so badly need before climbing once more, this time at about 3% gradient until you hit the end of the road. It turns to gravel, for those so inclined to continue, but you are met at the end of the road by a family of mountain horses and their fouls. It is truly a grounding experience to be so high in the mountains (2300m elevation), surrounded by completely wild nature. When you are ready, take care going down as the speeds reached this altitude are fast! It’s very fun and flowing, but do take care.
When you reach the bottom you can always extend your ride by going towards Ordino and taking on the famous Arcalis climb, a common finish for the Tour de France and la Vuelta. But believe me, you might be done with the Cabús alone!
The Arcalis and Cabus are one of the two valley roads.
The other main stretch of road, the alternate way is the main road that goes from the bottom of the country at the Spanish border all the way to the very highest point and down to France on the other side.
Taking in the ski fields of Granvalira, the hikes from Encamp and the gentle village feel of Canillo, the road heads up and up until it finally hits the top at Envalira. For a true mountain stay, try Soldeu.
Our favourite spot is in Val d’Incles, just off the main road in Soldeu. The valley parts ways here, opening up a rolling road for a few kilometres, dotted with old stone outposts, wild horses and the occasional goat. The river Incles runs through, bubbling and flowing from the highest points of the mountains. Need a recovery day for your legs? Try the natural “ice” therapy of braving a dip in the river.
Soldeu is a small ski town with some great hospitality on offer. Taverna Iaia, run by Peter, an expat Brit makes an amazing local cuisine, whilst being very dietary limitation friendly. His terrace in the summer is great for sipping on a warming glass of red wine.
Delbosc cafe is just a few steps away from Taverna Iaia, offering a mean flat white and some nice international breakfast staples. Try the cinnamon bun, if there are any left!
Let’s make one thing pretty clear though about cycling Andorra.
There are no flat rides here. Every road is up and down, or sometimes, we swear it feels like it’s always up.
The roads are wide and well maintained and drivers are respectful, but this is no destination for a rare cyclist. Even easy rides can be a challenge. But with every challenge comes the reward of completion, and in Andorra, that means hearty meals, local wines and cosy firesides after long tough hours pushing through the mountains. This is what cycling in Andorra is all about.
Beixalis to La Massana and back over Col d’Ordino
Two fantastic climbs in Andorra are the Beixalis and Ordino.
Starting from Encamp, we immediately started the Beixalis climb, the hardest climb in Andorra. The road quickly becomes switchbacks, pitching up to 20% as it rises over the Parish of Encamp. The average on this section is 12% This one was a real lung buster, about 7 kilometres, the first 3 k with the hardest parts. Over these short kilometres, we were taking in 555 metres elevation gain in total. The second half of the climb luckily relaxed a bit as we wound our way towards the top. From here we dropped down into the Valley of La Massana and stopped into Grupetta for our avocado on toast.
We headed into the valley towards Col d’Ordino, ready to take on the next climb. Col d’Ordino is longer and steadier – 9.9 kilometres long with an average gradient of 8% – a testing ground, but an old classic. Being off the main road we were pleasantly surprised by the lack of traffic and the views into Val Nord as we rose higher and higher. Look out for the Strava milestone marker at the top of the climb.
Andorra has well and truly embraced cycling, and cycling has well and truly embraced Andorra.
The Ordino descent into Canillo is one of the most fun descents in the country, a banked carpet ride with tight corners that gets a real great flow. This 2.5 hour loop is a great mid range day, for a tight time frame but full of challenges.
For real authentic Andorran meals, try one of the Bordes restaurants
On each county (or parish, you might call it border), there is always a building marking it, a “Borda”.
Now, 18 of these rustic buildings have been turned into restaurants celebrating Andorran cuisine. Expect old dark wood fixtures, cosy tables and the heat coming from the hearth, where the cooking might be done as well. The typical cuisine is really quite a meat heavy, and the menus reflect this. A great choice if you are setting off for a six hour ride the next day, or of course, if you just finished one.
Andorra has been host to many a tour de France and Vuelta an España stage, the latest due to take place this July when the Tour takes on a super tough epic climbing stage.
If you were looking for a fantastic excuse to visit this country, why not come for a summer trip and watch the pros roll past? Then see how your Strava times compare for a real challenge!
Andorra is best to visit in the summer months as the higher altitude areas can still get snow into late Spring
The mountains make it impossible to have an airport, the closest international airports are Barcelona and Toulouse, both a few hours drive away. The best bet is to rent a car at the airport so you can get around the country a bit easier once you are there.
Where To Stay in Andorra For The Best Cycling Holidays
Andorra La Vella – Art Hotel
Ordino – Hotel Babot
Soldeu – Hermitage Sport hotel
Andorra Discovery: Cyling Tour of the Pyrenees
Discover a place where the dominant protagonist is the mountain. Dare to take in the hardest slopes of European geography. Defy gravity on the asphalt on this road cycling holiday in Andorra.Discover