After a day of rest I decide to do the longest ride and go visit to the monastery of Vallbona de les Monges. It is the first of the three Cistercian monasteries that I will visit in the next three days. I love to take pictures of churches and old buildings in general. I have always loved Medieval architecture, so that will be my excuse for my first Festive 500, ride the Ruta del Císter – The Cistercian Route – visiting three monasteries, plus the Montserrat warm-up. In the hope that my visit to Montserrat meant I have the Catalonian black virgin on my side during this rides, I set off to Vallbona de les Monges. I still don’t believe in the supernatural, but I couldn’t resist.

Although I want to pace myself, I am a bit worried about the duration of the rides in general. The route editor at Strava is very conservative with the average speed, which is not a bad thing when planning routes as things could happen, but when I saw a duration of 7 hours and 34 minutes I despaired slightly. I can’t spend the whole day away from home. I am taking care of two dogs and I don’t want the abuse of the neighbour that is dog walking them for me while I am out. Also, if possible, I would like to be back at a reasonable time for a Spanish lunch, by around 4pm tops. I like to have proper lunches. In the end my time in the saddle was 6h 58m, so I averaged a whopping 23.2 km/h.

This is the only route, along with Montserrat, that I have followed without deviation from the original route made with Strava’s editor. The idea was to follow the shortest and flatter route to Vallbona de les Monges and return by the same way, so I had to stick to it. With no opportunities of easing the effort if things went awry.

I know the first 20 kilometres very well, heading south along the plana del Penedès towards Sant Jaume dels Domenys. This is where I do most of my road winter training at weekends. The road is flat with some interesting rolling hills, where you go up and down while turning. I enter less traveled roads and after getting out of La Bisbal del Penedès a short climb starts – 3 kilometres at a 4.9 % gradient – that will get me out of la plana del Penedès and up onto a big plateau. I recognise it, I remember it from a day I got a bit lost and ended up here. That day I was not carrying a GPS and I did a few more kilometres than I had planned. Road cycling is a lot more forgiving if you do a wrong turn, a road is still a road. But when you are in the mountains with your mountain bike any path can just disappear.

This is not Santes Creus.

This is not Santes Creus.

I made my first stop near Vilarodona, but I mistakenly think the little village in front of me is Santes Creus – Aiguamurcia, one of the Cistercian monasteries I want to visit. No one will notice it when I upload the picture to social media sites. The stop is brief, I eat a banana, take a couple of pictures and I am back on the bike. There is a little climb ahead that brings me to a big flat plateau, you can see Valls in the distance and also the Prelitoral Range, that I will cross following the road to Cabra del Camp. I run more or less parallel to the motorway, I know this route very well too and I recognise some isolated farmhouses I have seen from my car window for years. The road goes slightly uphill, with a very easy gradient, and I am past the Prelitoral Range in no time. The landscape is now changed, drier, less populated. There are still vineyards, but now mixed with almond trees and wheat. Fields are organized in terraces, divided by stony walls. After crossing Cabra del Camp I continue to Sarral. From there I can see wind turbines in the distance, this is where my route will bring me, a small range that will mark the descent to Vallbona de les Monges. In half an hour I am already at the foot of those white giants. I stop to hear the sound of the rotor blades turning. It is mesmerizing, like the sound of tiny airplanes that cannot rev their engines quite enough.

Not so scary when up close.

Not so scary when up close.

Once I got past the wind turbines it was all downhill to Vallbona de les Monges. When I already have the little town in sight I have to stop to take a picture of a strange group of scarecrows planted near the road. From afar it seems taken straight from a horror movie, but once you get closer and you read the signs it is a very different thing. They are not scarecrows – espantaocells in Catalan, or “scarebirds” – but estimaocells,  “birdlovers”. The whole thing is an art installation made by the town children who want to demonstrate their love for the birds and the environment. They even installed a bird feeder. I do not know if the birds are clever enough to read, but if they can I’m sure they appreciate the gesture.

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It is the Angelus time – a traditional Catholic moment for prayer at noon – as I arrive at the monastery of Santa Maria de Vallbona. It is a small monastery, embedded in narrow town streets. I make a brief stop to eat. I will not visit the monastery, I just take pictures and hit the road again as soon as I can. I make mental plans to do a different kind of ride in the future. It will be in the summer, with more light hours, without so many time constraints, with enough time to stop and visit the places, even to stop for a meal in a decent restaurant. But now I am a sort of a scout, on a reconnaissance mission. I text my significant other, she is working today – and tomorrow, and the day after – I am the lucky one.

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It has taken me 3 hours and 40 minutes to cycle the 84 kilometres between Santa Fe del Penedès and Vallbona de les Monges. As I am going to get back by the same route I expect to get back to Santa Fe a little bit faster. I still feel strong, I have had only good sensations so far, I am right on schedule… but I have a craving for a banana. I only took one and although I have an energy bar left, I would prefer something more natural. This is something that I am slowly introducing into my rides, natural foods or at least food I can prepare by myself, like small sandwiches. I stop in a tiny supermarket in Sarral. Then something funny happens. I am in the queue of the supermarket with my single banana in my hand. But now I don’t know if I should have weighed it or if it is the cashier who will do that. I go to ask the cashier if I needed to weigh the fruit, but no sound comes out of my mouth. I have been silent for more than four hours and it seems my vocal cords are totally asleep. It is slightly awkward, I make another almost painful effort and finally I squeak my request. Yes, the shop will weigh the banana. It was 10 cents.

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The Conca de Barberà region, in all its parcelled glory.

Back on the saddle I power through the rolling hills to Cabra del Camp and then I go slightly downhill to el Pla de Santa María. I feel happy as I look down and I see speeds well above 30 km/h, I use the big ring almost all the time. I had planned an optional stop for lunch in a road restaurant around the 120 kilometre mark, just in case I felt tired or it was too late. But it is ten minutes to two and I feel like I can get home way before four o’clock, so I keep pedalling. When I am about 30 kilometres from home I eat a gel, it worked brilliantly the last time so I repeat. My legs feel the distance ridden, I am tired, but not exhausted. The gel does the trick and I keep pushing and pushing, trying to keep the momentum through the rolling hills, big ring and out of the saddle if needed, it feels great, my longest ride ever but I feel still strong.

I make it to Santa Fe at half past three, I realise this is not only the longest ride of my Festive 500 but also the one with the most climbing. My Strava account might tell a different story. Sometimes it gets the altitude wrong in the conversion from my Polar GPS, I am entirely not sure who is at fault here. Polar Flow now makes a direct export to Strava, but I was missing kilometres, so I keep doing it manually.

Leftovers are BLISS.

Leftovers are BLISS.

But the Festive 500 doesn’t stop when I get home. There is a lot to do. I eat some leftovers, more Christmas soup – it is incredible, I text my cousin thanking him for the soup, again – and a bowl of tagliatelle with clams from yesterday. Everything tastes like heaven. When I finish I do the laundry, I have another couple of kits, but I want to wear the same kit in all the rides. No surprise here, I love my black Rapha Pro Team kit. I sit on the computer and I start uploading the ride to the Polar site, and then the exports to Strava. I also check tomorrow’s route. The original plan was to go to Monastery of Poblet making a big loop involving some long climbs, total distance 169 kilometres. I crunch some numbers. I don’t need to do as many kilometres. I decide to repeat part of the same route I have ridden today so I get to Poblet as fast as I can, total distance is going to be 153 kilometres. Tomorrow I hope I will be grateful of having chosen an easier route.

I rest a little bit, but I spend too much time on the computer downloading satellite photos for my GPS and tweaking the route. It is time to walk the dogs before it gets dark. And I have to go to the supermarket. I get finally home by 7pm and lie down on the sofa. Nothing to do until dinner time.

I eat a pizza and drink a Weissbier, good for hydration – if you don’t drink too much – and good for sleeping. Good night.