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M&M Across Catalunya 2024: A gravel adventure for the brave

Last weekend, on May 17-18th, we embarked on an adventure of self-discovery through some of the most remote yet mesmerizing spots of the Catalan mountains. We took part in the inaugural edition of M&M Across Catalunya, a gravel event that covers a vast parcours through Catalonia, as the name indicates. What makes this event different is that it goes from point A to B, and also that it features a huge amount of accumulated elevation in an everchanging landscape from the north-facing Pyrenees in Vielha to the the Mediterranean coastline in Santa Susanna.

Right now, we are still processing what we endured during those two days, a journey of resilience that made us discover some wonderful valleys, peaks, paths, and mountain passes we had never heard of. Even the most experienced local participants could not have done the whole track without a GPS. Bernat Buch, the organizer, established the motto ‘welcome the brave’, and he was not bluffing. The 400 km, +10.000 m journey was challenging in terms of terrain, climbing, isolation, and weather, because believe it or not, it also rains in Spain.

Where does the idea come from?

Bernat, or Berni for his friends, is originary from Calella de Mar and has always been a sports enthusiast, playing handball for a long time but not getting into cycling until seven years ago. After a bikepacking trip with James Noble around the Pirinexus 360 in the Girona area, he came up with the idea of a gravel route around Montseny and Montnegre i el Corredor, his cycling playground. Despite the imagined 200 km +5.000 m track being tough, last year he organized the first edition of M&M Gravel Grinder, a way to show people that gravel in Catalunya extends beyond Girona and that it is not necessarily always flat.

The event was a success, so he was eager for more. After M&M in winter, he had prepared a 300 km loop, but Berni was not satisfied. This is when he convinced himself that a route is not necessarily a loop, and that gravel is also an adventure. Thus, taking advantage of the event M&M Gravel Grinder taking place in Santa Susanna, he envisioned a 400 km, +10.000 m gravel track from the most western part of Catalonia in the Pyrenees, to the east and finishing at sea level following the last kilometers of the M&M Gravel Grinder.

The aim was to provide a route to discover the country, passing through remote regions at 2.000 m above sea level, descending into deep valleys, and always moving forward in this endless roller-coaster towards the finish line. M&M Across Catalunya is not a race, but a journey through forests, mountain passes, and towns only accessible by gravel paths. Nonetheless, there is a 42-hour time limit, so do not oversleep.

Across Catalunya: High mountains at the Pyrenees

One of the main highlights of M&M Across Catalunya was the one-way track, which meant different departure and finish points. Although this can be somehow burdensome, the organization had anticipated everything so that we, the participants, had the best experience. On Thursday morning we met up at Santa Susanna, where fourteen of us jumped on a minibus with our bikes and luggage to arrive 4 hours later at Vielha. Most of us were Catalan, but there was an Italian, a French, and two Dutch.

Once at the hotel Blu Aran in Vielha, among laughter and hesitation, we all checked our bikes to make sure everything was perfect and headed to the event briefing. Bernat described each one of the climbs, the difficult sections, and the towns where we could spend the night, and encouraged us to, above everything, enjoy the route he had been preparing with love. Although 60% of the route was going to be paved, it did not mean it would be easier. In fact, it was made in such a way that we could alternate and deal with the elevation gain more easily. After dinner, we all went to bed early, ready for the next day.

On Friday early morning, breakfast was served at 5 a.m. The weather forecast was not promising, but at least when we started it was not pouring rain. However, 0 ºC were expected at several mountain passes around 2.000 m above sea level. For us the strategy was clear: eat, drink and ride at a decent pace to make it to la Seu d’Urgell, leaving the high-mountain part behind, before getting caught up in the rain.

Fifteen participants started the journey as planned at 6 a.m., as Nol from the Netherlands had found his way to Vielha by bike the days before after participating at la Traka. All of us, with different strategies in mind, climbed the first mountain pass at our own pace, which rapidly split the group. The start was on tarmac but we quickly switched to an Alpine gravel path, which despite being wet was perfectly rideable.

Already at the top, at 1.875 m on Pla de Beret, Bernat and Oriol (the cameraman) were encouraging us, but not helping as this was a self-supported event. From there we had a wonderful downhill gravel path that took us to Alós d’Isil and the tarmac started again. Despite the cloudy weather, the views were mesmerizing, and the mist on the mountains gave the landscape a mysterious vibe.

Once at Llavorsí, the most fearsome climb and section of the whole route started, as it was described by Bernat. Coll de So was a hors category climb, half on tarmac, half on gravel, but always with a gradient above 8%. Topping at 1.930 m, and being surrounded by deep forests with glimpses of the deep valleys, we continued on a gravel descent to climb up again to Sant Joan de l’Erm at 1.972 m, the highest point of the route. Up there, the air was cold, but no rain despite the menacing clouds, so we moved forward to la Seu d’Urgell through a never-ending gravel descent.

The pre-Pyrenees and the middle mountains

At kilometer 130, and with already +3.200 m of accumulated elevation gain, la Seu was the perfect town to stop for a rest, recharge batteries, and refill our stomachs. At that point, a little storm caught us by surprise. Some of us were already climbing the paved road up Coll de la Trava, while others were still on the way down to la Seu. However, that did not stop us and we went on. Personally, Coll de la Trava, with these unfavorable weather conditions, was the hardest climb of the whole track, so the descent to Fórnols and Tuixent turned out to be very pleasant.

Once into the deep valley, we started Coll de Josa, not a steep climb until the end, but a long one. A start on the gravel and with some sunrays leaking through the tall black pine trees resulted in a rewarding experience. The top of Coll de Josa was also the halfway mark of the route, and also the initially planned stop which was the proposed for those who wanted to sleep in small villages like Tuixent or Gòsol. Nonetheless, we decided to go on.

We continued to Coll de Pradell, considered the hardest climb in Catalonia, but we climbed the western side, which despite being tough and having 10% gradients, was much easier. The view from there was beautiful despite not viewing the Pedraforca, hidden by the clouds. We took a moment to step back and realized how the landscape had changed from high Alpine mountains to a rockier and arid environment despite the huge quantity of trees.

Down to Vallcebre and into the valley at Cercs, there was one of the most amazing views of the whole track. A descent between steep cliffs that opened up into the valley and the half-empty dam at the bottom. This was also probably one of the most technical gravel descents, which turned out to be very muddy for participants who tackled it the next day.

The following part of the route, from Nou de Berguedà to Alpens, was a kind of roller-coaster on the tarmac along the forest, with rabbits and deers crossing from time to time. The road was not busy at all, but it felt long due to the accumulated fatigue.

Once in Alpens we entered a gravel path that took us to Vic but not in an easy way. We started to hear some thunder, which gradually turned into a proper storm. We only caught the end of it, but some riders behind us were stuck in heavy rain. In an area where it has rarely rained in the last few years, rivers and creeks started to appear everywhere, so we had to soak our feet in them at least five times. However, we like playing in the mud, which reminded us of cyclocross racing. It was already nighttime when we arrived at Vic, so after 300 km and +7.000 m, we decided to call it a day.

The last stretch

The next morning we woke up very fresh and ready to finish it off. Some riders had continued riding during the night and had already finished, others had stopped mid-way and slept a few hours before an early-morning start, but we decided to take it easy and avoid unnecessary risks. The rest of the route was known to us so it was supposed to be relatively easy.

The rain from the night had soaked the gravel paths all over the territory. Besides, it was raining during the morning in the Montseny and Montnegre area, which made things interesting. After looking at the rain radar for a few hours, we decided to start moving, and we climbed the Collformic mountain pass on the road and went down to Sant Celoni. This road is beautiful, and a typical destination for cyclists all over the year.

From Sant Celoni, we started the last climb of the route. We went across the Montnegre mountain range on a full twisting gravel road. The fatigue was present, and gradients above 11% on the Sant Martí de Montnegre climb did not make it easy. However, it was worth it as the landscape had totally changed from Montseny, and we were now surrounded by pine trees and we were starting to see the sea horizon line. In this part, we came across some participants of the M&M Gravel Grinder. This is when we found the motivation to get to the finish line, which also made it easier to overcome a short but steep climb over 20% before the end.

The first riders of M&M Across Catalunya had arrived at night after 22 hours of elapsed time, before the organization’s planned schedule. From then on we all arrived one by one before midnight, all of us completely exhausted but with a huge smile on our face. The finish line was a party as all the riders of the M&M Gravel Grinder were arriving as well. They had completed shorter distances of 85, 120 or 200 km, but with a proportional elevation gain of +1.400, +2.500, and +5.000 m that made it certainly tough given the terrain and rainy start. We all greeted each other, and we ate a well-deserved burger right after receiving the finisher award. It was time to relax, recover, and most of all, clean the bikes after the long but beautiful journey.

What comes next?

After this edition’s success, Bernat is already thinking about the next one. Although M&M Gravel Grinder was his first event, M&M Across Catalunya felt more of a personal project, as the number of participants was also smaller and we created a friendly atmosphere from the start. Thus, he expects the event will attract more participation in the future and that he will be able to introduce more and improved events. We highly recommend it given the level of organization and the quality of the route. A total must if you want a friendlier event.

Within the same trademark of M&M, he is currently working on other events related to trail running and road cycling, while maintaining the same ones he has already started. Moreover, he has been preparing the first gravel event with start and finish line in Barcelona, the Barcelona Gravel Classic with three distances (70, 100, and 150 km) that will take place on June 1st.