story and photography by David Mittleman[this review of IMTBike‘s Catalunya MotoGP motorcycle tour was originally published in the November 2007 issue of Rider]
Spain is the mecca of motorcycling and the epicenter of the Formula One equivalent of motorcycle racing, MotoGP. If you’re looking to immerse yourself in a society that oozes motorcycling, Spain is unquestionably the place to do it.
Roughly 195,000 square miles, or the size of Arizona and Utah combined, Spain borders Portugal to the west, France and Andorra to the north and Gibraltar down in the nether regions. Some stars of Spain’s mountainous regions include the Cantabrian and Pyrenean Mountains in the North and the Sierra Morena in the South. IMTBike’s Catalunya MotoGP motorcycle tour strives to extract the best from the Pyrenees, which provide the majority of the riding routes on the tour.
If you fly into Barcelona a day early as I did you’ll have time to indulge in a sensory-barraged stroll on La Rambla, doubtless the most talked-about boulevard in Barcelona and just blocks from IMTBike’s base hotel. It packs a lot of color into a short walk with bird stalls, flower stands, grand historic buildings, a pungent produce market and a ceaselessly changing parade of people. Expenses associated with an early arrival are not included in the tour price and the included airport pickup is not available (the same applies to an extended stay at the end), but do consider taking the extra time to experience the effervescent vibe of Barcelona.
Joining us on the tour were three riders I had the pleasure of getting to know: John hailed from Alberta, Canada, while Eric and Phillip were both from the States representing Washington and Texas respectively. Our bike-mounted tour guide was Martin (Mar-teen) Cebrian, a Spaniard hailing from Barcelona, who has my full respect when it comes to riding skills—a true master of the trade! Then there’s the hardest-working man at IMTBike, Ethan Grunstein, a yank from New Mexico who calls Madrid his home. Fluent in Spanish, Ethan is IMTBike’s resident Michael Schumacher and pilots the chase van, which makes it possible for tour participants to pile their belongings in and ride sans 50 pounds of socks and underwear bursting from otherwise protesting hard cases. Ethan also runs sweep and provides peace of mind to anyone worried about losing touch with the group ahead.
The base steed that comes with the price of admission is the BMW F650GS, a competent mount able to get the job done. Upgrades available include three additional BMWs: the F800ST, R1200GS and R1200RT. If you have the available inseam don’t think twice—secure the big GS for the tour. Along with the potentially challenging roads and conditions, it handles the sustained speeds well and you’ll be thanking me as you carry on about your Spanish business.
The tour starts with a Sunday morning departure from Barcelona on a northerly heading. Just outside the city we stop for a quick coffee break in the town of Vic, then continue to Collada de Tosses, a well-known mountain pass that is visited annually by the World Rally Car Championship. Though narrow, the quality of the road is superb and gets the blood flowing. We end the day somewhat early with our arrival in Seo de Urgel, just on the border of Andorra.
Unique to Spain are the paradors, or Paradores de Turismo de España. A profitable state-run enterprise, paradors often take the form of castles, palaces, fortresses, convents, monasteries and other historic buildings. They stretch from Galicia in the northwest through Catalonia and Andalusia in the south of Spain.
Our first evening was spent in a parador, one of three nights on the tour that would be incorporating these 9th-century-garbed hotels. Though you won’t find Roman invaders or Don Quixote throwing back shots of whiskey at the parador bar, you will most likely find a modern, classy environment, with interiors that are fully renovated and up to the task of soothing road-weary individuals looking for a comfortable bed and an on-premises restaurant with a competent kitchen.
The dawning of Day Two brought rain and everyone was silently pleased with themselves for bringing raingear as suggested by IMTBike. With our first brief foray into France planned for the latter part of the day, we spent most of our time among the green-carpeted mountains of the Spanish Pyrenees. Thankfully low-lying clouds obscured the scenic snow-covered mountain peaks, as my attention was needed for the frequent segments of gravel-strewn pitted road, rain and steep switchbacks which ultimately dictated the pace that day.
As we departed France the rain hounded us the rest of the day and was nipping at our heels all the way to Bielsa and the awaiting parador. Despite the frequent showers I ended up appreciating the various waterfalls, roadside rivers and small pristine lakes that dotted the landscape. The rain did add an extra dimension to our day and the diverse conditions left all of us with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the ride and provided story fodder at dinner.
Our parador for the evening was just 20 kilometers outside the town of Bielsa, tucked nicely into a cul-de-sac of snow-kissed mountains that were fractured by numerous tiny waterfalls and fronted by a lively river that provided an aquatic soundtrack for our stay. Over yet another sumptuous dinner I realized that—for a people who carry no extra body weight as a rule—the Spanish eat A LOT. Sometimes I would lose count of the courses as we worked our way into double digits.
If you’re looking for basic Spanish fare or more traditional dishes, I suggest taking advantage of your time in Barcelona. With the high-end hotels and paradors used by IMTBike on the majority of the tour you’ll be navigating menus that cater to a more sophisticated palate.
Day Three took us back into France for what was our longest stint in Spain’s neighbor to the north. Our group shared numerous mountain roads with aspiring Tour de France bicyclists as we made our way from Luz to our destination in Sallent, just over the border in Spain. The day brought heavy fog at the higher elevations and, once again, roads of questionable quality while the rain continued its sporadic assault on us.
The small town of Sallent and the Hotel Bocale marked our first of two rest days. Thankfully for me and the others IMTBike had thoughtfully planned an optional rest day ride for those in the mood. Eager to experience it all and miss nothing the whole group elected to roll on this day of rest, risking the wrath of the leisure gods. We returned to Sallent 320 kilometers later (longer than any leg of the tour) after a very enjoyable and productive ride.
Day Six was by far the best day of roads with sinewy ribbons of pristine tarmac and varying degrees of elevation change. The weather also chose this day to remind all how perfect it could be when it chooses—sunny and in the mid 70s, ideal riding weather! My joy came to a crescendo as we approached the town of Alinya and the official start of Leonard’s Loop.
Leonard’s Loop is hands-down the most amazing piece of road I’ve yet experienced in my 20 years of road riding. Now this is what I expected from a tour that uses the Catalunya MotoGP as a focal point! I was in heaven as I blissfully bullied the big GS through fast, supple sweepers and into increasing-radius turns that were billiard-table smooth. This is God’s paved country and I was lucky enough to be permitted entrance courtesy of Leonard and my friends at IMTBike.
Our dreamy day delivered us to what was by far the best example of a true parador (if not the best parador in Spain) located in the lovely town of Cardona. This 9th-century converted castle offers panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside. The Cardona parador presented a face weathered by centuries with a utilitarian architectural style that bespoke the true nature of these castles and the war-torn history that marks Spain’s well-known growing pains.
On Day Seven the group, now a well-oiled machine thanks to the numerous days of riding together, followed Martin back to Barcelona and the base hotel where we started the tour. Here we had about 30 minutes to get what we needed for our visit to the Catalunya track and the qualifying sessions for the 125, 250 and MotoGP classes. Thanks to Ethan our bags were waiting for us in our rooms, which made for a quick turnaround so we could mount up and make tracks to the track.
The Catalunya MotoGP, both qualifying on Saturday and the actual races on Sunday, was the perfect reward for all the days up until this point. Even better, our IMTBike-supplied seats for the weekend were phenomenal, giving us a perfect view of the four turns that make up the La Caixa and Banc Sabadell sections of the course, with an adjacent Jumbotron screen feeding us the action on the rest of the 4.7-kilometer track.
In a euphoric post-race mood we made our way back to Barcelona with the throngs of Spanish motorcyclists, my satiated state seemingly mirrored by those around me. After cleaning up at the hotel we went into the streets of Barcelona for our final dinner. It was about this time that reality flicked yours truly in the ear and reminded me that not only was my time in Spain waning, but that the race weekend had done something special to the overall trip, like the final piece inserted into a grand jigsaw puzzle of adventure. It was this enlightened state that helped me realize that, as a whole, the people at IMTBike couldn’t have put together a more satisfying MotoGP motorcycle tour or a more balanced, superbly executed life experience.
Nuts & Bolts
On this 11-day tour, two are transatlantic traveling days and another two are rest days. Prior to departure IMTBike sends all its tour participants a well-thought-out package that includes seasoned traveling advice and a detailed trip ticker that outlines your entire tour route, broken into daily segments. As with most IMTBike tours you can follow the guide or take off on your own. The good folks at IMTBike have been operating tours in Spain, Portugal and Morocco for 10 years, so don’t second guess them when they advise you on gear and other necessities. With this particular tour taking place in June, the Spanish climate tended to be hospitable, with temperatures ranging from 60-85 degrees F, depending on elevation. Rain is not too common at this time of year, but always a possibility, as we especially found out in the Pyrenees.
Participants are responsible for their own airfare, lunches, gas, tolls, tips and drinks. The U.S. dollar was fairly weak compared to the Euro, which was hovering around $1.36 while I was in Spain in 2007.
For more information, visit www.imtbike.com