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Montserrat is going to be my first ride into the Festive 500. At first glance, it is going to be the hardest one, the ride with more climbing and less kilometres, with a long climb to arrive to the Montserrat monastery (570m of ascent in 9 kilometres). I normally don’t use a GPS in my road rides, but this time, as I am venturing into mostly unknown roads, I will be mounting my trusty Two Nav Sportiva in my Specialized Roubaix stem.

A big anticyclone has been hanging around over Southern Europe for a while now, perfect for cycling: sunny skies and mild temperatures, although the humidity is high and early in the morning there are road patches menacingly shinny wet. You can expect fog too.

All my Festive 500 rides will start from Santa Fe del Penedès, right in the middle of “la plana del Penedès”, a small depression between Massís del Garraf and the Serralada Prelitoral. This area – now known best as Cava country – has been through various marine periods, in prehistoric times of course. And the rocks which were at sea level, worn during millions of years, have formed many streams, creeks and rivers that cross this depression, giving this terrain its characteristic rolling hills. But if there is one feature that stands up in the Penedès landscape is the Montserrat massif. The biggest single geological feature around and home to an ancient monastery. This massive stony mountain, one of Catalonia’s most iconic, it is also a permanent feature of the Penedès scenery. This mountain is the product of an old marine-river delta, it is made of all the sedimentary deposits fused and shaped by the elements during ten million years as the landscape dried again. My longtime friend Joan Lesan – he calls himself a photographer that flies – has made an amazing drone video recording the surrounds of the monastery. If you want to understand the scenery, it is worth watching.

But Montserrat is also full of legends and myth. The monastery at Montserrat holds a small black wooden sculpture of the virgin Mary,  popularly called la Morenetathe little brunette. It supposedly appeared before some shepherds and became a source of miracles and healing powers, similar to many virgin apparitions. Even more amazing and disturbing is the nexus between the Holy Grail, Montserrat and Himmler. Hitler’s SS’s Reichsführer was known by his interest in mysticism and the occult. While fascist Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco was meeting with Hitler in Hendaya in 1940,  Himmler went to Montserrat. We do not know why, but he returned empty handed.

The cableway of Montserrat, the fastest way to the monastery.

Two hours and twenty minutes into the ride I get to the bottom of the mountain, it is my first climb up to Montserrat, and I have purposely avoided checking an excellent guide 1001 Puertos de Montaña. Notably their useful interactive map. This means I won’t know beforehand the details of the ascent to Montserrat. 9 kilometres with an average gradient of 7 %, with sections of gradient going as high as 13 %. If I had bothered to read the guide I would have known the hardest part comes at the very end, when you breathlessly enter the parking lot of the monastery. But the idea is to pace myself, no matter what. Before I made the final left turn to start the climb I see two cyclists at the side of the road. I leave them behind, confidently. One kilometre into the climb one of them overtakes me, flies past me would be more accurate, he is pedalling out of the saddle and I lost sight of him quickly as the road snakes uphill. A few kilometres more and the other one also overtakes me, this fellow is not that fast, but still he pulls away from me with ease. But soon after I see him stopping. Maybe taking a picture, after all the views are breathtaking up here.

The cog railway from Monistrol, the second fastest way to get to the monastery.

Today is a holiday here in Catalonia, Sant Esteve’s day, and there are many visitors. So I have to navigate a long queue of cars that are waiting to enter the parking lot, while simultaneously climbing an 11 % slope. I hate traffic jams so I squeeze past them to the monastery. The tradition for visitors is to light a candle, but being a non believer in the supernatural – and being in a hurry – I made my way to the highest spot where I am allowed to ride. There I made a brief stop to eat a fruit bar and take some pictures, before getting back on the saddle.

I ride solo, so I take a selfie. I hate selfies. I always say that when I’m taking another one. This time it will be the last one I promise myself. I text my wife that I arrived safely and that I am starting my way back. I am doing a big loop, so the way back is on a different route. I ride the north side of the mountain, it is in the shadows and it is a bit cold. Big rollers ahead, momentum is very important, but I take precautions. I don’t know the road and there are wet spots. I made my way onto the south face, it is sunny again. I begin a long 18 kilometre descent towards la Pobla de Claramunt, near Igualada, including el Coll del Bruc. The route features tight hairpins where you have to be very careful with the brakes. Coming from disk brakes in mountain biking, I find calliper brakes scary. My next road bike will feature disk brakes I tell myself.

Thinking about these homemade caneloni made the final kilometres of the ride much easier.

Thinking about these homemade caneloni made the final kilometres of the ride much easier.

I have just 28 kilometres left but there is still a 9 kilometre climb in there. So I stop and slurp a gel. I am getting used to have a gel when I have around 30 kilometres left, it is very easy to forget eating when you are getting close to the finish line, so in this way I avoid the dreadful feeling of emptiness in my legs. I stop in a petrol station in the middle of the climb and buy an Aquarius drink. I text my wife that I will be at home in an hour. I nail it. I rejoice in my punctuality when I finally get home. It is around three in the afternoon and the roads are deserted of cars. Everyone is eating cannelloni, it is the traditional meal for Sant Esteve. Cannelloni are made of the leftovers of the Christmas meal, and I want mine. Food is always a motivator for me when I am on a ride.  Proof of that is that I make a personal best by more than 2 minutes in a long section, 11.7 kilometres, that combines both ascent and descent. By the way, Strava athletes, stop making ridiculous short segments.

So my first ride of the Festive 500 ends nicely with a plate of homemade cannelloni and a hot bowl of Christmas soup. The soup was made by my cousin Javier, who is also a personal trainer and a great cook. Tomorrow it will be a resting day, there is a family gathering at our house in the Penedès and I will get my birthday presents, at last. My birthday was a few days ago, but you know how spacetime organisation can slip a little with families.