The long ride to freedom

Jordi Canals versus the Pyrenees. Our intrepid designer traces his ancestors’ escape from persecution.

Jordi looking fresh and well-rested 200km in.

Twice a year, Crafty Capers fever sweeps through OPX. Each edition has a different theme and £500 up for grabs. Everyone in the studio pitches for the prize, which can be used for any kind of experience, course or, indeed, caper. (These don’t have to be work-related by the way — one recent winner went hunting for the Loch Ness Monster.)

Proposals are submitted anonymously and judged by an independent panel on their creativity, originality and persuasiveness — with particular attention paid to how they’re presented. This time around the theme was FREEDOM. And our winner? Designer Jordi Canals.

The man himself picks up the tale…

Jordi’s corkboard presentation. (The background aubergine was part of another entry, we don’t just have them lying around the studio.)

My proposal was to cycle 323 km north from Barcelona, through the Pyrenees, and across the border into France.

It’s a route many Catalans took between 1936 and 1939 to escape persecution during the Spanish Civil War. Over three days, my friend Ramon and I would follow in the path of our ancestors.

In my proposal I asked for:

Bike rental x 2: €250

Hostels: €100

Food: €80

Total: €430

Even before Crafty Capers, I wanted to do this trip. Many would say we are still facing persecution in Catalonia — that fascism never left. Since the Independence Referendum, several of our politicians have been jailed without trial.

The Catalan Independence Referendum was held in October 2017 with 92% voting YES for independence. It has since been declared illegal by the Spanish government.

This was to be my tribute to them — and my grandfather. He was a massive defender of Catalan independence and once crossed Catalonia on his motorbike. (Back when motorbikes were more bike than moto.)

Jordi’s grandfather, Sisku, on his own cross-Catalonia ride.

Day 1 — Barcelona to Lloret de Mar

Jordi and Ramon with their rented bikes. Little did they know what the day had in store.

Like me, Ramon does a lot of marathons and triathlons, so he’s super fit. The first day was tough though. From Barcelona, you take one road up the mountains. You just keep going and going until you reach Blanes. From there you join a road to Lloret de Mar, our first stop.

When we reached the top of the final hill, I turned to Ramon and was shocked: he was white as a ghost! We had no water left, it was getting dark, his knee was killing him, and we still had 20 km to go. Eventually, we found a guy in a village and begged him for something with sugar in it. At that point I knew Ramon would be going home tomorrow.

We ended up in Catalonia’s coldest, creepiest hostel. We were at the bar recovering when a fight between the barman and some drunks broke out. At night we could hear people wandering the corridors and knocking on all the doors. It wasn’t a restful sleep.

You should never have to sleep in a snood.

Day 2 — Lloret de Mar to Barcelona 😅 (And on to l’Escala)

We were both on our bikes by 7.30. After 20 km, Ramon was struggling. The pain in his knee was too much — so I had a decision to make. Do I carry on or go back to the station with him? In the end, I couldn’t let an injured comrade cycle alone.

By the time we got to the station, I couldn’t get to l’Escala before dark. Another decision. In the end, Ramon got on the train and I raced back to Barcelona on the bike — 70-odd kilometres.

We met in Barcelona and drove to our hostel in l’Escala. It wasn’t the way we wanted it to go, but we’d made it. Our reward was another freezing night. Exhausted, we fell asleep in all our clothes.

Day 3 — L’Escala to Portbou, actual France

I got up while it was still dark and ploughed on alone. I had 90 km ahead of me.

I got to the first town, Roses, ahead of schedule. On the way, a falcon tailed me as the sun rose in the sky. That was amazing. I also crossed an unexpected river and got absolutely drenched. Less ideal.

Natural Park of Cap de Creus, located at the far northeast of Catalonia.

After Roses, the climbing started. From the top of the mountain, I could see the whole of the Catalan coast. I took a thousand photos and crossed into El Cap de Creus, a nature reserve containing the famous elBulli restaurant. It’s cool seeing one of the world’s best restaurants hidden in a secluded cove.

Before long, Cadaqués was on the horizon. The downhill road into the town was exhausting as it was all natural. After falling earlier on the trip, I couldn’t afford to hit the ground again.

Cadaqués is beautiful. Salvador Dali used to live there and if you ever get the chance to visit, you absolutely should. I used to go there with my father to dive, so it was nice to return.

Cadaqués, Alt Empordà

After something to eat in Llançà, I passed through Coll dels Belitre (Thieves’ Pass) and crossed Portbou into France. Shattered and with no battery on my phone, I rode past the Exilium monument. Seeing it made me realise how lucky we are to live in this moment — despite all the current turmoil.

Many Catalans crossed this border in the worst conditions ever. They were willing to lose everything just to survive. I’d done it on my bike, at my own leisure, because I was free to. That’s something we should never take for granted.

I met Ramon in France for the long drive home.

For more information about the route, contact @lascanasdejordi.