Landlocked Andorra is a ‘microstate’ in the eastern Pyrenees, it is the sixth smallest nation in Europe and its population stretches barely beyond 85,000 (up from 5,000 in 1900). Funny then that there should be two brilliant facilities for mountain bikes – two bike parks – in such a small area. Having said that, when you consider the country’s average elevation of nearly 2000 metres, its highest point soaring to nearly 3000, its 300 days of sunshine and its influences from residents past and present that include some of the sport’s greats (Cedric Gracia being the best–known local), all becomes clear.
Soldeu is a funny town in a strangely bare valley that extends in a slight curve towards the crossing into France on Andorra’s easterly border. The high–rise buildings on the main road through town aren’t the nicest looking, but then they aren’t particularly offensive either. Sniff around town a little and you’ll find ‘cute’ slate roofed buildings and a quaint series of streets. The town thrives on skiing in the winter and ticks over on bike, health–spa and golf tourism in the summer. We checked into a superb hotel and were treated to a five–star spa, not the sort of extravagance expected from a bike trip but the kind that Andorra can provide for a lot less money than you’d expect.
Checking back out of such a swanky and brand-spanking new pad (somehow every single building in Andorra looks like it has only just been built) and saying goodbye to a buffet breakfast is never a task achieved without great effort for someone of my inclination. Nonetheless, we eventually threw kit in bags, cobbled bikes together and rolled the ten seconds from lobby to lift station, handily placed directly underneath the hotel itself.SOLDEU RIDING
A gondola, complete with the simplest roll–in, roll–out bike carriage system that I have seen, and then a lonely chairlift above a baron hillside take you to the peak high above the town which provides a view over to both the French and Spanish borders. From the highest point of the bike park there are a number of options, all of which cross the open ‘wilds’ atop the mountain, and which cater for riders of all abilities and disposition. For our sakes (not only were we jaded from travel, but also far too stuffed full of high–class breakfast to be riding bikes) our guide for the day, Oscar Saiz (ex–pro downhiller and trainer to such riders as Danny Hart and Andrew Neethling), first showed us the green graded run which is mellow enough for the most amateur of riders, yet fun, fast and flowing enough for even the most experienced.
A little more exploring opened our eyes to the impressive array of riding on offer here. The range of trails, some ‘natural’ and some full–on jump tracks, is extensive, and their upkeep is somewhat better than certain Alpine counterparts. You can session the top part of the mountain and smash turn after turn on a relatively mellow gradient, or you can bang out laps on the gondola down low. The latter is mostly in the trees and has a mixed gradient from shallow to super–steep, and was definitely my favourite as there are more natural features, more jumps and plenty more turns.
Soldeu is one cracking bike park, serviced in what I have learned to be typically efficient Andorran fashion by the fast and modern lifts and favoured by locals and Spaniards in the know. Queues are non–existent and the tracks are quite simply, fun. I love the place and I’ll be back there to ride the dusty, twisty flow–tastic trails hopefully very soon.ORDINO AND VALLNORD
Glamour never suited me, a downgrade from the swankiness of Soldeu’s hotel was bound to come and wouldn’t have been ill–received. Downgrade, however, is not in Martin’s vocabulary. We took a mountain pass from Soldeu over to our next destination, Ordino, which sits in the second of Andorra’s two main valleys. Andorra really is a small place, but it sure packs in the peaks, and this particular road took us over one of the highest and most spectacular. We were blessed by an evening display of light as the sun set on the hillsides all around us. Later we arrived into Ordino’s popular and inventively named Hotel Ordino. ‘Posh’ is not the right word, but pleasant, welcoming and well–equipped for bikes it most certainly is. The bike cellar with hooks, tools and workstand was good to see. Also a welcome addition to any hotel is a great view out the window, and there’s no lack of vistas around Ordino. Steep–sided valleys disappear into the distance in any direction you look and there is an altogether more ‘natural’ feel to the area than in Soldeu. Rivers flow, forests thrive and, oddly, tobacco is cultivated on every spare patch of land.
The cruise down from Ordino is a pleasant five minute freewheel in the morning, which brings you to the town of La Massana, a picturesque, vibrant little town with direct gondola access to the Vallnord bike park – the site of several previous World Cup races and venue again in 2013. As part of his package deal, Martin offers accommodation directly adjacent to the brand new gondola and as central as is physically possible.
Weekends bring throngs of Andorran, French and mostly Spanish bike riders to the slopes of Vallnord, and the place is positively teeming with all sorts of folk; men, women, kids and adults all ride the bike park and it is unbelievably busy on first sight compared to the impression that I had in my mind before visiting.