Looking for somewhere different to Morzine or Les Gets for the summer trip? We tried Andorra, get the Lowdown here…
Not going to Morzine or Les Gets for the summer trip is a big call to make. You’re giving up some of the best riding in the world. And there’s the Mutzig too… This summer we pushed that boat out and headed up to the hills of Andorra.
Andorra sits high in the Pyrenees on the French-Spanish border. The nearest big cities are Barcelona and Toulouse, both about three hours drive away. You can fly into either of these or Girona (the Ryanair “Barcelona” airport, about an hour north of Barcelona). Novotel do run a transfer service from Barcelona and Girona, but they are a bit funny about taking bikes in the bus, so driving is the better option.
20 down, three hours to go…
There are two ways to drive Andorra: a ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao then across Spain, or Dover to Calais then down through France. In theory the Bilbao way is better – you jump on the ferry, get drunk, sleep, wake up in Bilbao and then cover about 600km across Spain. It’s about half the driving of the route down from Calais. Price is the problem – £400 for the ferry. Driving down from Calais is only about 200km further than it is to Morzine, about three hours. Door-to-door it took us 23 hours to drive out from London, including long ferry delays and traffic jams. On the way back it was a modest 18. It was hard going, but not terrible. Although after that long, three men in a rarely air conditioned van (it used too much extra fuel) was pretty grimy.
Where to stay
Soldeau and Vallnord are the two biking resorts in Andorra. Let me get this out of the way now: don’t go to Soldeau, it’s shit. Riding the lift to the highest point of the resort you can see the threads of singletrack winding down the hillside below you. It’s heartbreaking to run down them and find there is no flow to them. In Earthed 3 the trails look amazing with the Lacondeguys tearing down the hill. We found a series of flat, blown out corners and braking bumps. Oscar Saiz is supposed to have built these trails, but from what we saw, I’m not sure when he last rode them. Anyway, on to the good stuff: Vallnord.
The view from our apartment
Don’t try and search for Vallnord in Google Maps, it doesn’t exist. Vallnord itself is the bike park up in the hills. The nearest town is La Massana which is where the lift goes up to the bike park. What you will find is that it’s harder to find accommodation for riders, it’s a much newer resort and there aren’t the companies catering for them yet. Much of the accommodation in La Massana is hotels set up for skiers. We ended up staying in an apartment in Arinsal, which is a village a few miles up the valley from the lift. With a van this was just a few minutes drive, but pedalling back up that hill didn’t look like much fun.
At the top of the bike park
The big question: is it any good? In a word, yes. The weather is noticeably hotter and dryer than the Alps and talking to locals it seems to be a lot more stable. Rain doesn’t come often, although when it does it’s biblical in its scale, but it also passes quickly. You don’t get the fortnight long wet spells that occasionally curse Morzine and Les Gets. Because it’s hotter, it’s dusty, which does take a little bit to get used to. Even the heaviest rain we saw barely damped the trails. The only thing to do is to strap on a set of Minions and spend some quality time drifting in the dust.
Vallnord Bike Park has a bit of everything, with trails running from green to black grades. Some of the blue and green runs are great fun and really useful for getting a feel for the conditions, although they can occasionally turn into a fire road slog if you take the wrong one. There’s a red-graded north shore area called the Wood Park, which has drops ranging from the tame to a huge road gap. For downhillers there are three real highlights (that we found):
- The World Cup track
Riding this is a great reminder of how talented the riders on the World Cup circuit are. The open corners at the top are surprisingly sketchy to really pin; it’s a lot steeper than you expect it to be; and, the huck to flat where Sam Hill crashed this year is savage – it’s completely blind. Try and work out where he landed and you realise he must have covered a good forty feet before coming to rest. To ride the track at World Cup race pace is just impressive.
- Project 1.0
It’s hard to find the top of this one as it gets a bit confusing, but it is well worth finding. This is the slowest trail in the park and not the steepest, but it is the most technical and has a brilliant series of rocks, short ladders and drops. They have used north shore how it was supposed to be used – to bridge awkward gaps and help the track flow down the hill.
- Maxi Avalanche
Running from the highest point of the hill, right down to La Massana this is the longest trail at forearm bursting 25 minutes. At the top you get a series of fun jumps and berms (although god only knows why they put the jumps at the top of the mountain in the wind) which lead into a singletrack blast down to the main lift. You then pick up a blue run to the visitor centre and run a short way down the road to pick up the trail again. It’s worth the road section – the lower section is immense. Fast and rocky are the two words you need to know here. In parts it is similar to the Canyon at Les Gets, in that you’re flat out through sketchy rock gullies. By the time you reach the town your body will be ruined and brakes boiled. Fortunately the Podium bar is close by…
The best photo of the trip: a random Euro on a Kona…
Then there are the backyard/secret bits. We didn’t do too well at finding them, if I’m honest. The trick is, as with everywhere, to get chatting to the locals. According to a certain, popular, downhill magazine we did miss a whole set of good trails that run down from the highest point, Cubil, to a village called Erts. We did manage to find a couple of gems:
- Keep your eyes open on the Maxi Avalanche tracks as some of the offshoots are amazing, although I can’t really describe how to find them here. The best one starts off as nice loamy corners, and then the corners get steeper and steeper and steeper still. It gets to the “can I really ride down here” kind of gradient and left everyone with huge grins on their faces.
- Riding the lift up from La Massana you’ll see singletrack winding underneath. What you don’t see from the lift is just how tight and steep the switchbacks are. Or the bits where the world drops away from you on one side…
What you don’t get with Vallnord (yet) is the same freedom to roam that you do in Portes du Soleil. There just aren’t as many lifts open so you can’t do the day-long treks hitting several spots, which we did miss. But, if Vallnord keeps getting more popular in the next few years you should see the area open up.
Euro on one of the road gaps
Drinking and eating
La Massana and Arinsal are quieter than Morzine. Depending on what you want from a holiday, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You don’t get the same testosterone-fuelled sausagefest that’s so familiar in the Alps. What you do get is Cedric Gracia’s Podium bar in La Massana. It’s a cool little bar with room to hang your bikes and cheap gin. Only a minute’s ride from the bottom of the hill, it’s perfect for a few post-ride drinks, and then a few more.
The proper post-ride cooldown
Up in Arinsal there wasn’t much by the way of nightlife. There aren’t many people living in the village during the summer and we didn’t see any other riders out at night. What there are though, are some ok restaurants where you can get a good meal for a decent price.
Going in Andorra’s favour is the price of alcohol. Generally alcohol is cheap, very cheap. A crate of beer is about €5, a very good bottle of wine is €10 and you can get an ok bottle of spirits or for about €10.
Food isn’t as cheap from the supermarkets, mainly because it’s expensive to make deliveries into the mountains. As you head down the valley back towards the capital, Andorra La Vella, things do get cheaper, but it is hardly worth the hassle. La Massana does have everything you need, including a couple of very good butchers who sell amazing steaks.
Other things you ought to know
There are three decent bike shops in La Massana, although they are a bit odd. One of them doesn’t sell anything made by Shimano for some reason. It is worth bringing spares with you if you can – I lost the tension cap for my Hollowtech cranks and couldn’t get a replacement in any of the shops. Tyres are also the usual sky-high European prices. Surprisingly, Commencals are quite cheap.
It is worth getting one of the Vallnord cards from the visitor centre. You can get the forms from the lift station, they’re free and give you 10% off in the bike shops in town.
Watch out for the traffic wardens. There’s dozens of them around La Massana and not many Brits, so they will remember you. We got a ticket on our first day and later that week a traffic warden stopped one of us to ask if we’d paid it yet.
Would I go back?
When it rains it pours
Yes. Andorra doesn’t have the same network of trails and lifts as the Alps open, but I think that it is only a matter of time. The riding that is there is amazing, the place is beautiful, the locals were friendly and it was thirty degrees every day (except when the heavens opened, but the thunderstorms were very cool). If you want to spend your evenings getting leathered then running naked through the town centre letting off fireworks, this probably isn’t the one for you. If you want to ride, chillout and enjoy some sunshine then this is a great alternative to the Alps.