On Hannibal's Trail - 2013
In September 2012 Ride and Seek Bike Tours ran the inaugural Hannibal Epic from Barcelona to Rome. The tour was conceptualised on the back of a BBC documentary - 'On Hannibal's Trail' - that guide Sam Wood presented in 2009. Split into 3 stages the tour can be taken in seperate stages or as one 27 day Epic. Steve Nash came on board for Stage 1 from Barcelona to Rome. His account of the experience can be read below.
On the Trail of Hannibal
The early morning light trickles across the ominous hills of the Montseny Mountain Range. Situated just north of Barcelona this picturesque area marks the start of a bike odyssey I’m about to embark on that follows in the trail of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, his 100,000 strong army and 39 African elephants.
Briefed on the route ahead, with the close companion of my Garmin 800, I’m trying my best to empathize with what Hannibal and his men might have been thinking over 2000 years ago as they prepared to take on the might of Rome. We’re accompanied on our tour by archeologist Sam Wood who cycled this route as part of a BBC and National Geographic documentary – ‘On Hannibal’s Trail’ – and he does a fine job of setting the scene. To make us feel suitably intrepid he chose to overlook the fact Hannibal probably didn’t have GPS technology at his disposal.
As I look around at my new acquaintances, all of whom look the part, I remember how I had ended up here. It had been a brave conversation after a few beers at the foot of Canada’s Blackcomb Mountain. Living by Ernest Hemingway's advice “Always do sober what you said you’d do drunk” I’d had no choice but to sign up. Knowing that the majority of day 1 was downhill only slightly assuaged the anxiety I felt at taking up the challenge.
Within kilometres of setting off I was experiencing for the first time travelling at +70Kmph on two very thin wheels! At this point it seemed a dangerously fast speed to be moving but I soon found myself sticking to pace-lines that I absolutely trusted switching from riding on the hoods to the drops as my speed grew parallel with confidence. At this point I had started to form a new relationship, not just with the iconic timeless beauty of the Specialized three times winner of the Paris-Roubaix race bike, but with myself.
Within any sport, it’s those that don’t train, show up in unimpressive gear, and still kick ass that leave you with a sense of jealousy, and in my own way, I think I had hoped for this but the first day had been a shock to the system. During the final 20km of the ride to Empuries I had found myself drifting into ‘The Zone’, a metaphysical exhaustion state that Bob, a well-travelled cycling guru had advised me of earlier that day. It was only when I ran into the sea at the end of the day that I started to feel ‘normal’ again.
Surprisingly, with the 7am banana filtering through and a couple of Torq energy gels ingested, setting off for Ceret the following morning had been less painful than anticipated. Bathing in the salt strip Mediterranean had clearly worked wonders! However, having descended from the mountains to the Mediterranean in a day we were now heading towards the Pyrenees on our way to France.
Whilst our route avoided the tougher climbs that this mountain range has to offer we were still faced with a fairly imposing elevation profile. It started to hurt about half way through the day when I faced another grueling climb in the deceptively tough Pyrenean foothills that are found in northern Catalunya. I was fast beginning to understand why the Sky team riders that passed us earlier in the day chose to train in this area. As I pushed and pushed I could feel the lighter and more experienced riders on my tail, occasionally one steadying past, with friendly comments, in voices somewhat out of breath which assured me I was not alone!
Our destination at the end of this day was the charming French town of Ceret that was once home to Picasso. Arriving through the convoluted streets I couldn’t help but feel perhaps that is where Picasso got much of his inspiration, the obtuse lines reminding me of ‘Ma Jolie’. After a brief sampling of Catalunyan cuisine we were now in the Languedoc region that relies heavily on local produce: olive oil, tomato sauces, herbs from the wild garrigue. Whether it was the exertions of the day that played a role I don’t know, but our first evening meal in this region was the finest I’ve ever had.
Not knowing much about the Languedoc before the tour I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d read an article by Steve Razzetti in which he had listed the region as one of the best places in the world to ride but I was skeptical given that hardly anyone I spoke to even knew where it was. However, as we cycled deep into the region I began to appreciate what he was saying. We had the road to ourselves as we passed through stunning medieval hilltop villages and over incredible rolling hills as we headed deep into Cathar country.
It was amazing to get an insight into the history of the Cathar’s who inhabited this area from the 11th to 13th century. Ostensibly the tour was all about Hannibal but we also gained an insight into the broader history of the region too. Catharism was a Christian religious movement that was against what they perceived to be the moral, spiritual and political corruption of the Catholic Church. The Pope at the time didn’t take too kindly to this and called a crusade on these rebels to wipe them out. He then followed up with the first religious inquisition to finish the job and all that remains is a series of Cathar fortresses across the region. Perched in the most precarious of positions one such fortress provided a challenge at the end of day 3. Never has a post ride beer tasted so good after taking on the 2km 20% ramp climb to Chateau Queribus.
The most impressive of these fortresses though was the Chateau Peyrepertuse that sits on an imposing 2400m defensive crag which offers breathtaking views in all directions – probably a key prerequisite for a fortress I guess. Not all the guys, least of all myself, were too chuffed with the post ride hike up to this remarkable site but on getting there it was definitely worth it. Once again having guides that were able to explain the history of what we were seeing brought them to life. That said my personal highlight of the day was the wild boar that was served for dinner which had been caught in the woods below the fortress earlier in the week.
I’m sure that in part it was the fine sustenance that we found in the Languedoc which enabled me to take on each days riding with my legs surprisingly still going strong. However each day still started with a hearty breakfast of carbs and painkillers. Amazing how you can soldier on though when the scenery is spectacular and the food is so good. Seeing the impressive fortified Cite de Carcassonne in the distance on day 6 for example served as a beacon some 40km out and somehow the pain dissipated as it beckoned me in.
Granted as the aggregate distance increased I raised the dosage levels of medication and my joints were somewhat in disarray but with the camaraderie of the group getting stronger as the tour went on there was plenty of support to fall back on. The fine wines of the Languedoc that I have failed to mention also played a role. Staying away from the coast in the high Languedoc we really felt that we experienced the best the region has to offer. We gently ribbed Sam about why we were there when logic would surely dictate that Hannibal would have stayed closer to the coast on his journey but he seemed to have an answer to everything. Since I had no intention of reading the ancient texts of Polybius it was easier to take his word for it.
As we continued on our way to the Papal city of Avignon we joined the extraordinary Voie Verte that is a converted railway that links a number of the regions’ picturesque villages including Olargues, voted one of France’s most beautiful villages and the site of the medieval Devil’s Bridge. Our aperitif on the bridge is an abiding memory as is the fine cuisine served by our Danish hosts that evening who managed to fuse the best of Languedoc cuisine with a hint of Denmark.
My final day on the bike was a bit of a slog as we pushed our way through a continuous head wind, noting the incredible Clamouse cave, the Gorges de’Herault and the Pic Loup Cliffs on our way to the Rhone River. The day was long and tough on the legs, but from deep within the energy was there to sprint the last 20km, and passing through a small French village, youngsters playing a game of football on the street greeted us with chants of ‘Tour de France’. The medieval centre of Sommieres, rich in Roman history, was a highlight but the crossing of the Rhone and heading towards the golden Madonna on the Papal palace in Avignon will be the memory that lives the longest.
There is still much conjecture as to how Hannibal got himself, his army and elephants across the Rhone with a number of outlandish ideas having been put forward. From elephants walking along the bottom of the river with their trunks breaking through the surface to rafts being built and covered in earth to look like land, the list of hypotheses is long. This is very much the case with my own experience of getting from Barcelona to Avignon as few of my friends believe I actually made it under my own steam! In my case the consensus is that I hitched a lift with the support vehicle!
Notwithstanding my skeptical friends I have to say that never at any point did I feel the need to flag down the van. With great support from the Ride and Seek guides and my fellow Hannibal riders the challenge always felt surmountable. Having the routes uploaded on the Garmins was also a bonus as it allowed you to go at your own pace and never worry about losing your way. I’m not sure I could have done what a number of the others were doing and continue on to Rome, but it is amazing how much stronger you get when you conquer an epic ride such as this. I hadn’t started this ride expecting to feel better than I did at the start, but I certainly did. No matter how many things I will forget in life, this ride will certainly not be one of them.
Steve Nash 2012
For more information on the Hannibal Tour visit www.rideandseek.com