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How altitude training and hairpins have improved my fitness levels

And how you could replicate the Andorra landscape in the UK

As a bike racer, there’s no better place to train and explore some of the best roads in Europe than Andorra, a small (but hilly!) principality bordering northern Spain and France. I’ve been living and riding out here for the past few months, and it hasn’t taken me long to realise why so many other cyclists choose to live and train here.  

It’s no shock that winter training in the UK can be notoriously challenging and, at times, unpleasant. Getting out the door when it’s a smidge above freezing, grey and drizzly (a common sight in my north-England hometown) is hardly as easy as riding a bike! So, when the opportunity arose, I was more than ready for a change of scenery, and with that, a fresh source of motivation to gain that racing fitness back after the off season.  

Despite swapping the dreariness for the sunshine, I quickly came to realise that training in Andorra poses a completely distinct set of challenges! I’m based in Arinsal, one of the country’s northernmost towns, situated right next to the Vallnord Ski Resort and bike park. With an altitude of 1500m, I was keen to find out the effects that training at such altitudes would have on my body and fitness. This intrigue was short lived as soon as I got my head around the sheer amount of climbing I’d have to every time I headed out on my bike. While it’s made my Strava stats undoubtedly much more impressive, I have questioned my own sanity halfway up a 10km climb. 

If you’re more of a rouleur, a quick descent down across the border into Spain is probably where you’d find yourself headed. If you choose to ride up north through Arinsal, you’re faced with a 7-kilometre climb averaging out at 8.2%. I love riding climbs with hairpins and switchbacks such as the Arinsal climb – it’s something a lot of riders miss when training on home roads in the UK, and although they can be super tough, there’s nothing better to improve your climbing legs.  

“They say 2000m is where altitude training starts to be effective”  

Another climb I’ve really enjoyed riding whilst out here is the Col d’Ordino; it featured in the 2019 Vuelta a Espana and is one of the most famous climbs here. It was the first real taste I had of climbing at altitude – and it was tough. It has 8.9km of ascent, averaging at 5%, maxing out at 7.5% – so whilst not being overly steep (though when you do reach the top, you’re sitting at about 2000m above sea level), it’s a long old slog. It was something I hadn’t experienced before, but even with a paced effort, I was breathing harder, my heart rate was faster, and when I’d reached the last couple kilometres of the climb, I had nothing left in the tank. They say 2000m is the point where altitude training starts to be effective, and I was starting to feel the effects. The views however (and of course, the descent) may be why this climb has come to be one of my favourites.  

Overall, I’ve found Andorra to be so exciting and refreshing – I recommend it to anyone who wants a change of scenery from their usual training roads, or even just for a break to enjoy some fresh mountain air. After having been out here for a few months, my fitness levels have increased tenfold and I’m less daunted by long, steep climbs. I hope to continue training hard out here and learn more of the roads Andorra has to offer, as well as continue to race my bike. If you’re thinking of riding over here, be sure to bring your climbing legs!  

Altitude training closer to home 

The truth is you don’t need to go abroad for tough cycling ascents- there are some brutally steep climbs here in the UK. With summer on the horizon, there’s no better to time to feel like you’re abroad without the fear having to pray that your bike made it through airport customs in one piece.  

One of my go to’s for training is Porlock Hill in Exmoor. The southwest has some absolute brutal climbs. There were a few I could have chosen here, with Haytor being the other strong contender. But I chose Porlock Hill because of its pure steepness (dubbed the steepest A road in the UK!) it climbs up onto Exmoor from the coastal village or Porlock with an elevation gain of 366m and an average gradient of 9.3%. Don’t let that fool you! As with most climbs in the UK, the gradient is rarely constant, in the early sections of the climb, you’ll tackle a maximum gradient of 23.5%.  If you can hold on, the climb will eventually flatten out near the top, giving you wonderful views of the channel and the coast. 

 If you’re just getting started with climbs and don’t have access to steep slopes, find a nice hilly loop and just ride as hard as you can for as long as you want will help you improve. You can also you shorter UK hills for getting used to climbing, choosing your gears, and learning when to be in and out of the saddle.  





Written By:

Grace Castle
Grace is a first year Under 23 rider, riding with Tofauti Everyone Active. She was discovered by the team when she competed in the virtual junior series that the team organised in the early days of the first Covid-19 lockdown. Grace is largely based in Andorra, living with her partner, who rides for the Ineos Grenadiers.