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by Matt de Neef
July 10, 2016
Photography by Cor Vos
Stage 9 of the 2016 Tour de France starts in Spain and finishes in the tiny principality of Andorra. For many riders, this tiny landlocked state — 1/20th the size of Melbourne — is much more than just another destination on the 2016 Tour — it’s a place they call home for most of the year.
There are several cities in Europe that have long been favoured as training bases for riders. Girona, Spain is a popular option, as too is Lucca, Italy. The French city of Nice and the nearby city-state of Monaco are also popular.
But in the past couple years Andorra has exploded in popularity with many pros packing up and moving to the tiny landlocked nation in the Pyrenees.
So what is it about Andorra that makes it so popular among the pros? We spoke to some riders at the Tour de France (and beyond) to find out.
Look at a topographical map of Andorra and you’ll quickly realise how hilly the country is. Which, as Orica-BikeExchange rider Damien Howson explains, makes it perfect training territory for those who enjoy climbing.
“I think there’s 22 categorised climbs here, just within the country itself and then you’re free to explore within France and Spain, which is obviously not too far away,” Howson said. “The training is endless and obviously as hard as you want to make it.”
Stage 11 of last year’s Vuelta a España showed just how hard the riding in Andorra can be. While only 138km long, the stage, designed by Andorran resident Joaquim Rodriguez, featured six categorised climbs for a total of more than 5,000m of climbing.
Australian Rohan Dennis (BMC) is another rider who now calls Andorra home. He got his residency at the start of 2015 having spent some time there a season earlier. For Dennis, a noted time-trialist, moving to Andorra is a real investment in his future.
“Towards the end of this year I want to go towards more the GC side … and I need to climb,” Dennis said with a smile. “Obviously there’s altitude there as well so you can benefit from that factor.”
Fellow Australian Leigh Howard shares a similar view. He’s been a resident of Andorra for nearly six years — almost all of his pro career — and his girlfriend is from Andorra.
“You can live at altitude as much as you like, without having to travel away from your home,” Howard told CyclingTips. “We spend so much time on the road as it is, that if you can avoid going away again just for training camps or altitude camps and stay close to home then it’s a benefit.”
Andorra’s capital, Andorra la Vella, is the highest capital city in Europe, perched some 1,023 metres above sea level. And from there it only goes up. The average elevation nationwide is a touch under 2,000m, the highest peak reaches 2,942m, and the highest pass — the Port d’Envalira — peaks at 2,408m. That particular pass features early in stage 10 of the Tour while stage 9 concludes with the 10km ascent to the Arcalis ski resort.
While the terrain in Andorra certainly favours those who enjoy riding uphill, there are opportunities for the flat-land specialists nearby as well.
“Obviously there are a lot of mountains but if you want the flats you go out of Andorra and you go into Spain a little bit,” Rohan Dennis said. “You just basically train in the valleys there.”
And with Andorra being little more than 25km across — north to south and east to west — getting out of the country doesn’t take long at all.
Map by Eric Gaba (Wikimedia Commons)
Another factor that makes Andorra appealing for professional riders is the climate.
“The weather is normally in summer quite good — not too hot like it can be at sea level sometimes,” Howson said. “But also, surprising as it might be, in the colder months, providing you wear the appropriate clothing and stuff the weather … you’d be surprised how much sun it still gets in those colder months.”
Tourism brochures claim that Andorrans enjoy sunshine for 300 days a year with average summer maximums in the mid-20s Celcius, and average winter maximums in the low-teens.
Two-time Australian champion Simon Gerrans spent nearly 10 years living in Monaco before he and his family made the move up into the hills of Andorra during last year’s Tour de France. He describes the move as “family-motivated”.
“Monaco is apartment living, like living inner-city, so we were looking for a bit of extra space,” Gerrans told CyclingTips. “We’ve got a house in Andorra and a backyard and there’s plenty of fresh air and things to do outside, so it was really for the family we moved up there.”
Leigh Howard is also a fan of the more rural lifestyle that the sparsely populated Andorra offers.
“I’ve always loved the mountains, even though I’m a sprinter,” Howard told CyclingTips. “I come from the country anyway in Australia — I grew up on a small farm. It’s nice to have the fresh air. I’m able to have a dog there with my girlfriend. We love it up there.”
One of the biggest reasons pro riders tend to congregate in certain areas is the proximity to other cyclists. Having other riders to train and socialise with — whether they’re teammates or not — creates a much needed sense of community for those who have moved away from home to pursue a career.
This is doubly true for the wives and partners of riders. Having others in a similar situation makes being away from home all the more bearable.
“As much as it’s impossible to replicate Australia, I think there’s a fair bit of an English culture about it here,” Damien Howson said of Andorra. “And you can also make friends pretty easily. Also friends outside of the cycling world which is nice to live your own life.”
The 23-year-old set himself up in Girona when he turned pro in 2014 before setting up a place in Andorra as well. He would move between the two for a season and a half before leaving Girona behind.
“As of midway through last season I and my girlfriend made the decision to move up to Andorra full-time,” Howson said. “We were enjoying it that much and not to have to travel between the two places and call one place home which has been good I think.”
The last time the Tour de France visited Andorra was stage 7 of the 2009 edition. On that day it was Brice Feillu that won the stage solo.
The number of riders with a base in Andorra is growing all the time but just some of the current residents are Svein Tuft, Simon Clarke, Estevan Chaves, Joaquim Rodriguez and Dan Martin. Many are based in La Massana — one of the nation’s seven parishes — including Damien Howson.
“Most of the cyclists I know either live in this valley that I’m in or they choose the Soldeu option which is a little bit higher in altitude,” Howson said. “They use that more as a set period in the year. They’ll go up there for altitude purposes, and then move back to Girona and continue their living there.
“But the guys that spend more regular time — I believe they live where I do, which is not as high. My place is just below 1,400 metres.”
There are also several practical reasons for moving to Andorra. Where getting residency in other European nations can be tricky for professional riders and their partners, it’s somewhat easier in Andorra.
“It’s actually quite hard for people from Australia and America to get a visa to come and stay in Europe for extended periods of time,” wrote prospective Andorran resident Jack Haig in a recent diary post for CyclingTips. “From what I’ve heard it’s pretty easy to get residency in Andorra and you can apply for it while in Europe, rather than having to apply for a visa back in Australia.”
And then, of course, there are the financial incentives for moving to Andorra. Monaco, for example, doesn’t require residents to pay any income tax, but has expensive housing. Girona is cheaper, but doesn’t offer the same tax breaks as Monaco. Andorra, by contrast, is a tax haven and has cheap housing.
It’s an element of the Andorra equation that few riders are willing to talk about openly, but it’s certainly a motivating factor for many.
“Someone my age … if I was to have a full 15-year career it definitely adds up and can set you up for a lot longer post-career if you’re saving those extra dollars,” Howson said of living in Andorra.
“It’s also a place you have to be really happy to live and not think about the money too much because if you’re thinking about the money only and not enjoying the life you’re living here, it’s a long 15-year career. It’s finding the balance.
“But yeah, as most people are aware, it’s quite tax friendly and that plays on a lot of guys’ minds I imagine.”
While there are great benefits to living in Andorra, there’s at least one notable drawback for cyclists that race all around the world — the lack of an international airport. Barcelona has the closest airport of note, and that’s some 200 kilometres away.
“It’s a long trek being a minimum of two and a half hours in the car,” Howson said. “Often I take the bus during tours which can be between 2:45 and three hours of travel time one-way.
“Having said that, most of the races I do, especially the type of rider style that I am, I do a lot of tours and Grand Tours. You only make the one trek each way at the start and finish of a tour.
“[If you’re] a one-day specialist and constantly going to a bunch of one-day races all throughout the year then you’re going to have to go to and from the airport a lot more often than what I do. [But] for me it works out not too bad.”
When the Tour de France visits Andorra on stage 9 this weekend, it will go within yelling distance of several riders’ homes, including Leigh Howard’s.
“We actually ride straight past my front door and the hotel we stay is about 2km from my house. It’s going to be a nice feeling,” Howard said, “At least I get to catch up with my girlfriend, my dog, my girlfriend’s family — it will be nice.”
For Rohan Dennis, too, it will feel like something of a homecoming.
“I’m pretty happy to be going back home,” Dennis said. “I won’t be actually stepping through my front door but I know all the roads, so that’s a bonus.
“I’m just back one street [from the race route] but it’s a normal road I’d ride on on the way home.”
If the current trend is anything to by, even more pro cyclists will be riding past their homes when the Tour de France next visits Andorra.