[Published December 2014]
It is early December, and as is the case every year, I am dreaming less of Christmas and more of sunshine.
I am dreaming of long days with short shadows, long miles in short sleeves. Of the seaside, of sand and of a deep tan.
I am dreaming of the Costa Daurada.
Rewind two months and I was asked whether I would be up for a working weekend in Cambrils, Spain. “Why not?”, I asked.
It was some time after I said “why not?” that I thought to ask “why?”. As it turned out, details were not all that easy to come by, but the general idea of writing about riding bikes sounded pretty good to me! I’m all for an adventure of the vague variety.
So on the morning of 10th October, I packed a suitcase with some cycling kit, a clean pair of knickers and a bikini… I was all set for whatever might come my way!
A taxi awaited and we were delivered to our hotel in the coastal town of Cambrils. Monica Hotel is a 4* Superior hotel and we were greeted with appropriate welcome. Anna and I dropped off our bags in our room, had a quick freshen up and then hot-footed it down to the buffet!
Following a much-needed and very pleasant dinner we met a Man with a Plan. Jorge Mercader Esteve runs Natura Esport Costa Daurada, “a travel agency specialised in the MTB sector that will help you to discover the mountains of the Costa Daurada and the Priorat region.” We discussed the agenda for the weekend, namely a guided ride up into the Montsant Natural Park the following morning.
The ride was to be a joint venture with Natura Esport and Cycling Costa Duarada, a bicycle guiding company who specialise more in road riding/guiding. And here came that slightly elusive “why?”: the purpose of our trip to Cambrils was to explore the Costa Daurada region and discover its cycle-specific facilities. No one company or single hotel was the focus, it was a collaborative effort organised and supported by the tourist board. Big thinking; I like it!
So with that in mind, I set about taking in my surroundings and thinking, ‘would I want to come here to stay and cycle?’. The answer, very quickly, became a yes.
I slept all night with the door to my balcony wide open and awoke warm. Monica Hotel provided me with a breakfast of Kings – nutritious and delicious! – and Cycling Costa Daurada provided me with a Trek Madone 2.1 (with perfectly acceptable Shimano 105, and, notably, small enough to comfortably fit my mighty 152cm height) and really friendly and helpful guides, plus a mechanic.
The mountains were calling.
Thankfully we had a nice gentle roll out of town and inland; a perfect leg warmer. Talking of which, none were necessary, it was a glorious day with blue sky and the temperature already in the 20s. Even the Spaniards were down to jerseys and shorts.
The ride was just perfect. Ribbons of smooth tarmac that flowed through a stunning landscape. For the duration of the ride we had support vehicles from Cycling Costa Daurada and Natura Esport Costa Daurada to hand up bottles and food, take care of mechanicals and keep us extra safe on the roads. I may or may not have slipped into day dream mode where I was a pro… We even had a scheduled break at 50km for a Coca Cola and a cake. Pure nectar!
The Montsant National Park’s green, natural vegitation and famous, terraced vinyards are overlooked by the imposing rock cliffs that line the mountain tops and encircle the valleys. Built into these imposing natural barricades was the ancient villgae of Siurana where we ended our ride and had lunch. The tiny cobbled streets, alive with myth and legend, led us to a restaurant with a terrace that overlooked a sheer drop down to the winding road we had earlier shifted to the top of the block and levered out of the saddle to climb.
The park is grand but this is not big mountain terrain where you climb for hours and then don a gilet – or a newspaper if you’re feeling particularly traditional – for the long, fast descents to the valley floor. Instead, the riding is mostly steady, ‘piano’. The gradients and not not particularly steep so the elevation is generally gradual; ramping up and then flattening out. There are, however, most definitely a few very noticeable climbs (I am not a totally hopeless roadie but I still needed all the strength I could muster for the final ascent), and the descents are not without a perfect hairpin or two. The roads roll out in front of you, your eyes following the corners far ahead. Pedalling, pedalling; rhythm, rhythm; tempo, tempo.
There are plenty of roads and thus plenty of options for where to ride and how to ride. You can ride in a sensible, steady heartrate zone, or at a reasonable and constant wattage, for hours at a time. Or, you could really push up the climbs and take rest on the flatter sections and descents. Or, you could have an all out smash fest and attack everything! The Costa Daurada is your oyster.
Which brings me rather nicely onto dinner.
Having been blessed with a cracking ride we were now treated to one of Cambril’s finest fish restaurants, situated alongside many other dining establishments, just across the road from the fishing port. A menu so fresh it was almost moving. I am, admittedly, a bit of a foodie; I am not easily impressed, but none of my culinary experiences in Costa Daurada were at all underwhelming. Cambrils is a hot bed of haute cuisine, with two Michelin star restaurants in town, but also a strip of beach and marina-side eateries serving everything from artisan pizzas to the tastiest tapas that has ever passed my lips. More of that later, but suffice to say, you will not be hard pushed to find food to accommodate your palette, or wallet, in Cambrils. As a foodie and an athlete it was exciting; healthy was easy and yet not a synonym for mundane.
I strolled aimlessly down the promenade after dinner, just taking in the ambience of typically Spanish late night, seafront dining. Twinkling lights and the gentle clanging as the breeze swept through the masts in the marina. Eighty kilometres in my legs, a day’s sun on my skin and a turbot in my tum. It was something near to a perfect day.
Morning broke, we breakfasted and then met with Maite from the Tourism Board for a tour of Cambril’s cycletourism-specific accommodation facilities. [Granted, that’s a mouthful, but I promise it is worth it.]
Monica hotel, where we had been staying, is not necessarily the place you’d feel immediately comfortable trotting about in cleats and leaving your bike in the foyer. However, you would be very welcome to do so. You would also be welcome to use the newly installed gym (small but well-equipped and seemingly not patronised by prancy types), the wellness centre (jacuzzi, steam room, sauna and massage upon appointment), the bike cleaning area (basic, but I doubt you’ll encounter much mud), and the secure cycle storage area in the underground carpark. We elicited no strange looks when we turned up to breakfast in lycra, and after our ride the staff hapilly took our smelly kit and returned it freshly laundered. All in all, you and your bike could have a very handsome stay.
The Hotel Tryp Port Cambrils offered a very similar service. Again a 4* hotel which offered a healthy buffet, fitness facilities and storage for bikes.
What really stood out at both hotels was the enthusiasm with which cyclists were welcomed, and the push to encourage more cycle tourists to come. It is the same story across the town.
If a hotel is not for you, then the next stop on our tour could hold the answer.
Cambrils Park has everything you would expect to find at a holiday park – swimming pools, playgrounds, bars and restaurants and a variety of accommodation options. In the summer time it is full of families enjoying the Spanish sun in a safe, fun and very well managed environment. In off-season (both in terms of holidays and road and MTB cycling) the resort becomes much quieter and, as a destination for training camps, it comes into its own. As big advocates of sports tourism, Cambrils Park has invested heavily in a number of new sports facilities, with cycling very high on the agenda. A new wellness suite includes a gym, fitness studio, massage/physio rooms, spinning bikes, pool, jacuzzi, steam room, sauna, and ice bath. As a cyclist, it is perfect. There is also specifically designed bike cleaning ‘booths’ and space to work on bikes, plus secure storage. Despite being perfectly adequate, these are currently being expanded and improved. The apartments – the most popular accommodation type for cyclists – are modern, clean and well-equipped. You can chose to cook at the apartment or take advantage of the on-site eateries. Again, a lot of thought has gone into accommodating elite athletes so there is a buffet catering for healthy lifestyles. As a family, a couple, friends or a team, this place is ideal. If I haven’t sold it to you already, Cambrils Park and all its exclusive-for-guests facilities are only a short ride out of town and into the mountains. Plus, they partner with Cycling Costa Daurada so there are some great packages including guiding and accommodation. But the cherry on the cake? This is the chosen training camp destination of Team Giant-Shimano. The likes of Marcel Kittel will be staying here this winter (ladies, contain yourselves) and if that isn’t testament enough for the local riding and facilities here, I don’t know what is!
I was pretty much sold by the bike ride alone, but, along with the accommodation, my 2015 return to Cambrils was confirmed by an afternoon eating Tapas and drinking wine at a local food fayre in the beautiful town park, and a couple of hours topping up the tan on the almost deserted beach with intermittent swimming in the warm sea.
This place really has a lot going for it.
Unfortunately we didn’t have time to explore the off-road options, but the landscape was undoubtedly inviting. To ride dry, earth roads between the villages high in the mountains, ducking in and out of singletrack and having dust stuck to your sweaty shins, would be wonderful! If this appeals, Natura Esport is who you want to be in contact with. Their MTB guiding looks fantastic, with options to go for several days, stopping over night in different towns in the region. Jorge was a fantastic host; kind, organised, knowlegable. If our lunch stop in Siurana was anything to go by, you’ll be in for a real treat.
In fact, all the guiding options available in the Costa Daurada look to offer very professional services. Our guides from Cycling Costa Daurada and Natura Esport knew the roads, the region and soon gauged our strength on the bike and rode accordingly. There was no need to worry about food or water, punctures or mechanicals; they had it all covered. It was really a pleasure to ride with them.
Of course, if you don’t mind a bit of map reading and route planning, you can head out into the hills unaccompanied. Tourist information have maps a plenty, many with suggested routes marked out.
Back down on the coast my weekend away was, sadly, drawing to a close. I was in an advanced state of relaxation and not at all eager to return to England’s grey skies. Admittedly 80km was a bit of a shock to the system after a summer of reporting on cycle events rather than racing them, but I would have very gladly jumped back on my bike and done it all again the next day. And the next day, and the next.
Yes it is a tourist town, but out of season Cambrils is still a traditional Spanish port with character and charm. In October it didn’t feel deserted or derelict, in fact it felt lively and friendly.
There is no big construction work or big high rise buildings, there is more green than brown and much more class than crass.
For me, Cambrils had it all. It’s sunshine and cycling were fabulous, but if offered more than that. The roads were perfect, they were quiet, they were yours. There was culture and cuisine. There was the toil of hard training and the shock of an ice bath juxtaposed with smooth golden sand and the gentle lapping of the waves. It could be a training camp and a holiday. There doesn’t really seem to be compromise.
The Costa Daurada has everything that Majorca and the Canary Isles have, except the overcrowding. Try something different; the Costa Daurada is calling!
SOME LINKS AND EXTRA INFO
I urge you to get in touch with the companies if you have any queries – they are very helpful, and I am sure you will get more out of them than out of the websites alone.
- Cambrils tourism site. I’ve linked you to the ‘cicloturisme’ page, but have an explore elsewhere to get a feel for the town: http://www.cambrils.cat/turisme/vacanes-a-cambrils/esports/cicloturisme
- Cycling Costa Daurada (who are not just guides but a travel agency offering accommodation in Cambrils Park with additional transfers, bicycle hire and all your cycling needs): http://cyclingcostadaurada.com/index.php/en/
- Cambrils Park Resort. This site is designed for the summer season of family holidaying. Please get in contact with me for details of winter stays, I am working with the company and can do you a deal!: http://www.cambrilspark.es/en?set_language=en
- If you fancy a Spanish sportive, check out Cycling Costa Daurada’s ‘Canyon Cambrils Park Sportive’ on 18th April. There are some great training/accommodation packages leading into the ride, even if you’re not big on sportives themselves. http://canyoncambrilspark.com/
- Natura Esport Costa Daurada: http://www.natura-esport.com/
- Mediterrania Cycling Tours: http://www.mediterraniacyclingtours.com/
* January flights to Reus are currently £35.98 return from Stansted.