Cycling from Barcelona Spain to the French city of Avignon, and then on through the Pyrenees you’ll ride many roads that have seen the pro peloton in bygone years. Add the captivating historical perspective of perhaps the most astounding expedition of ancient times and you have a fascinating cycling experience.
The early morning light trickles across the ominous hills of the Montseny mountain range. Situated just north of Barcelona, this picturesque area marks the start of a bike odyssey I’m about to embark on that follows in the trail of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, his 100,000 strong army and 39 African elephants.
Briefed on the route ahead, and with the company of my Garmin 800, I’m trying my best to empathise with what Hannibal and his men might have been thinking over 2,000 years ago as they prepared to take on the might of Rome. We’re accompanied on our tour by archaeologist Sam Wood, who cycled this route as part of a BBC and National Geographic documentary – On Hannibal’s Trail – and he does a fine job of setting the scene. To make us feel suitably intrepid he choses to overlook the fact Hannibal probably didn’t have GPS technology at his disposal.
As I look around at my new acquaintances, all of whom look the part, I remember how I had ended up here. It had been a brave conversation after a few beers at the foot of Canada’s Blackcomb Mountain. Living by Ernest Hemingway’s advice, “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk”, I’d had no choice but to sign up. Knowing that the majority of day one was downhill, only slightly assuaged the anxiety I felt at taking up the challenge.
Within kilometres of setting off I was experiencing for the first time travelling at 70kph and more on two very thin wheels! At this point it seemed a dangerously fast speed to be moving at, but I soon found myself sticking to pace-lines where I absolutely trusted switching from riding on the hoods to the drops as my speed grew parallel with confidence. At this point I had started to form a new relationship, not just with my bike, but with myself.
Within any sport, it’s those that don’t train, show up in unimpressive gear and still kick ass that leave you with a sense of jealousy, and in my own way, I think I had hoped for this but the first day had been a shock to the system. During the final 20km of the ride to Empuries I had found myself drifting into ‘The Zone’, a metaphysical exhaustion state that Bob, a well-travelled cycling guru had advised me of earlier that day. It was only when I ran into the sea at the end of the day that I started to feel ‘normal’ again.
Surprisingly, with the 7am banana filtering through and a couple of energy gels ingested, setting off for Ceret the following morning had been less painful than anticipated. Bathing in the salt strip Mediterranean had clearly worked wonders! However, having descended from the mountains to the Mediterranean in a day, we were now heading towards the Pyrenees on our way to France.
Whilst our route avoided the tougher climbs that this mountain range has to offer, we were still faced with a fairly imposing elevation profile. When faced with another gruelling climb in the Pyrenean foothills that are found in northern Catalunya, I began to understand why the Sky team riders that passed us earlier in the day chose to train in this area. As I pushed on I could feel the lighter and more experienced riders on my tail. Occasionally one would come past somewhat out of breath, which assured me I was not alone!
Our destination at the end of this day was the charming French town of Ceret, which was once home to Picasso. Arriving through the convoluted streets I couldn’t help but feel perhaps that is where Picasso got much of his inspiration; the obtuse lines reminding me of Ma Jolie. After a brief sampling of Catalunyan cuisine we were now in the Languedoc region that relies heavily on local produce: olive oil, tomato sauces, herbs from the wild garrigue. Whether it was the exertions of the day that played a role I don’t know, but our first evening meal in this region was the finest I’ve ever had.
Not knowing much about the Languedoc before the tour I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d read an article by Steve Razzetti in which he had listed the region as one of the best places in the world to ride, but I was sceptical given that hardly anyone I spoke to even knew where it was. However, as we cycled deep into the region I began to appreciate what he was saying. We had the road to ourselves as we passed through stunning medieval hilltop villages and over incredible rolling hills as we headed deep into Cathar country.
It was amazing to get an insight into the history of the Cathars, who inhabited this area from the 11th to 13th century. Ostensibly the tour was all about Hannibal but we also gained an insight into the broader history of the region too. Catharism was a Christian religious movement that was against what they perceived to be the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Catholic Church. The Pope at the time didn’t take too kindly to this and called a crusade on these rebels to wipe them out. He then followed up with the first religious inquisition to finish the job and all that remains is a series of Cathar fortresses across the region. Perching in the most precarious of positions one such fortress provided a challenge at the end of day three. Never has a post ride beer tasted so good after taking on the two-kilometre, 20 per cent climb to Chateau Queribus.
The most impressive of these fortresses though was the Chateau Peyrepertuse, which sits on an imposing 2,400m defensive crag and offers breathtaking views in all directions – probably a key prerequisite for a fortress I guess. The post-ride hike up to this remarkable site was definitely worth it; having guides that were able to explain the history of what we were seeing brought the place to life. That said, my personal highlight of the day was the wild boar that was served for dinner, which had been caught in the woods below the fortress earlier in the week.
I’m sure that in part it was the fine sustenance that we found in the Languedoc that enabled me to take on each day’s riding with my legs surprisingly still going strong. Each day started with a hearty breakfast; amazing how you can soldier on though when the scenery is spectacular and the food is so good. Seeing the impressive fortified Cite de Carcassonne in the distance on day six for example, served as a beacon some 40km out, and somehow the pain dissipated as it beckoned me in. The fine wines of the Languedoc that I have failed to mention also played a role! Staying away from the coast in the high Languedoc, we really felt that we experienced the best the region has to offer. We gently ribbed Sam about why we were there when logic would surely dictate that Hannibal would have stayed closer to the coast on his journey, but he seemed to have an answer to everything. Since I had no intention of reading the ancient texts of Polybius, it was easier to take his word for it.
As we continued on our way to the Papal city of Avignon we joined the extraordinary Voie Verte, which is a converted railway that links a number of the regions’ picturesque villages including Olargues, voted one of France’s most beautiful villages and the site of the medieval Devil’s Bridge. On the final day we pushed our way through a continuous headwind, noting the incredible Clamouse cave, the Gorges de’Herault and the Pic Loup Cliffs on our way to the Rhone River. The day was long and tough on the legs but from deep within, the energy was there to make the last 20km. Passing through a small French village, youngsters playing a game of football on the street greeted us with chants of ‘Tour de France’. The medieval centre of Sommieres, rich in Roman history, was a highlight but the crossing of the Rhone and heading towards the golden Madonna on the Papal palace in Avignon will be the memory that lives the longest.
There is still much conjecture as to how Hannibal got himself, his army and elephants across the Rhone, with a number of outlandish ideas having been put forward. From elephants walking along the bottom of the river with their trunks breaking through the surface, to rafts being built and covered in earth to look like land, the list of hypotheses is long. This is very much the case with my own experience of getting from Barcelona to Avignon, as few of my friends believe I actually made it under my own steam; consensus is that I hitched a lift with the support vehicle!
It is amazing how much stronger you get when you conquer an epic ride such as this. This was just the first and perhaps easiest of three stages in the Ride and Seek tour but even though I had not completed the entire voyage of Hannibal, the scenery and history woven into this expedition were spectacular. No matter how many things I will forget in life, this ride will certainly not be one of them.
STAGE 1 Barcelona to Avignon
Countries: Spain and France
Regions: Catalunya, Languedoc and Provence
Number of days: 9
Highest point: Col de la Brousse (860m)
Elevation gained: 8705m
Tour de France 2013: Stages 6, 7 and 8 all visit towns on the route and ride sections of the same roads.
Stage 1 Barcelona to Avignon is one of three stages in the Hannibal Expedition from Barcelona to Rome.
WHO WAS HANNIBAL?
Hannibal Barca is one of the greatest military commanders of all time. As a leader of the ancient superpower, Carthage, he waged a lifelong war against the Romans and nearly destroyed them. And yet, today we know very little about Hannibal or his people: the Carthaginians. What we do remember is one of his amazing feats: to fight the Romans on their own turf, Hannibal led an army that included nearly forty elephants over the frozen mountain tops of the Alps and into Italy.
That achievement, leading the largest land animal over one of the biggest mountain chains, was just part of an incredible journey that took Hannibal and his force of 60,000 men from southern Spain, through France, into Italy via the Alps and finally, over the sea and back to the now Tunisian city of Carthage.
For Hannibal Barca this was a very personal conflict – a family affair. As a boy he’d sworn to his father Hamilcar that he would fight Rome to the death and his top generals were his two brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. Their struggle was the main event during the biggest and bloodiest conflict of ancient times, the century long Punic Wars (264-146 BC).
With Hannibal as commander, it really looked as if Carthage was going to win. European civilisation came so close to being something very different – Rome-free, and yet Rome totally dominates our imagination when we think about the ancient world. When Hannibal lived, things were very different.