We call this trip our "Backcountry Pyrenees", but of course, there is no real backcountry in the Pyrenees. There is precious little left of it in Europe I think, not in the same, “walk for a week” or “float plane access only” way that I imagine there is in Canada; the country just isn´t big enough and life encroaches on even the most out of the way places. Wherever we go, there are normally the marks of man on the land; the scars of electricity pylons, roads cutting through the contours or the acme of scattered buildings. In a way though “backcountry” is also a choice, a definite decision to seek out the quiet and out of the way places, places where you are unlikely to bump into other people and where adventure still lurks. That was the decision we made on our “Backcountry Pyrenees” mountain bike trip. None of these places are separated from the nearest settlement by days of travel, nor are they secret places which nobody else knows about, what we have are infrequently used, quiet places, where we can practice our sport with a rarely felt sense of true adventure.
Part of this blog is self interest because I run mountain bike trips through these areas every spring and autumn, however the main part is a genuine desire to share the beauty and incredible variety of these regions of northern Spain with riders from around the world who are unlikely to ever have the chance to visit in person. In the same way I get great pleasure from reading about float plane adventures in the Canadian backcountry, I hope that you guys can get some pleasure from my amateur photos and words about our backcountry places.
I guess many people have never even heard of the Pyrenees, which is hard for me to believe given the importance they play in my daily life, but the world is a big place and there are many, many mountains. Well, the Pyrenees mountains stand like a fence on the border between Spain and France, running 305 miles from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea and reaching up to 3,404m or 11,168 ft in height. For our first day of riding we were riding further south than the Pyrenees, aiming to maximise the variety of our trip by taking in some Pre-Pyrenees mountains. The Pre-Pyrenees mountains were the buckle that was thrown up behind the tectonic collision which formed the Pyrenees. They are generally smaller and more rolling than the main Pyrenees range, giving them a totally different nature, something that is especially true in the area we chose to ride in today.
We call these trails “Spanish Utah”, I guess I don´t really need to explain why. The trails here follow canyons and dried up flood beds and are kept clean thanks to the use of local mountain and motorbike riders. I have found that trails which follow lines carved out by water have a special sort of flow, something it is hard to reproduce with a shovel and sweat, and flow is what today is all about.
The fun starts with the first descent which gushes its way down into a canyon, the grey walls pressing in on you and rearing up as you flow your way ever downstream. These canyons and ravines are no more than a few kilometres from a town, however you would be hard pushed to find a place which feels more back country. Of the 50 or so kilometres of trail only around 2km are on a path wider than 6 inches and there are no marks of man to speak of. Adventures here can sneak up on you suddenly, like one 45°C (115°F) day when my hydration pack leaked and I had to limp home with only an orange to keep my mouth moist. These are lands where you can imagine bandits waiting for you and where it is more common to see bleached bones than it is to pass living humans. That day ends, as all good days on the bike should end, with ice cold beers. After several refreshments we load up the van and drive north, heading to ride in the shadows of the Pyrenees mountains proper. We arrive after dark in a tiny village inhabited by less than a couple of handfuls of residents, enjoy a meal of local meat and wine and head straight to bed. The next morning we awake to the sun rising over the mountains and it is apparent that we have stayed somewhere pretty special.
The region we are riding in is called Aragon, an autonomous community spanning the Pre-Pyrenees and Pyrenees mountains and taking in some important national parks. Historically, Aragon´s population lived in the country, eeking out a hard-won living from the rough land, however in the early part of the 20th century there was a mass movement of people seeking out easier lives in the cities. Nowadays over 50% of the population live in the main city of Zaragoza, leaving the rural areas empty and littered with eerily abandoned and semi-abandoned villages. In one of these villages all the houses are abandoned and falling down apart from one, where an 80-year old woman lives, working the fields to keep her alive. She is always so delighted to meet people and always offers us a drink or something to eat in exchange for some conversation. In another we meet a 70 year old man who limps over to us to show us where we can get water and offer us some apples from his tiny orchard. It is a rare privilege to meet these people and get an insight into a way of life that is sadly almost forgotten in these days of cars and mobile phones and stress and imported fruit. These places aren´t very hard to reach, they aren´t secret but they do seem to exist behind some sort of cloak of invisibility that keeps people away. These are places where you can feel like you are exploring on your bike, like you have gone back to your hunter-gatherer roots, chasing your quarry of singletrack through the empty lands and celebrating the hunt at the end of the day with ale and hearty food in front of the fire.
The change in scenery is what makes this trip for me. Or to be more accurate, how that change in scenery affects the trails we ride. Yesterday´s flow is replaced by a far more physical type of trail today, with long carpets of awkward rock and super tight switchbacks. Today we ride a point to point, using old roads and the van to do the lion´s share of the climbing and descending on the bikes using ancient trails that would have linked now-abandoned villages. We ride into a semi abandoned village where friends of basqueMTB have opened a little hostel and, as per the arrangement, they have cooked us a meal, lit a fire and put some beers in the fridge. The numbers today don´t really give the full story, and certainly don´t justify how quickly we destroy the first few beers. We have descended around 3000m, (almost 10,000ft) and climbed around 300m, or 1000ft, today but the real story lies in the rock marks on our bodies and bikes and in the ache in our arms and backs. Sometimes on the bike we can go a long way easily and other times we fight for every kilometre, yesterday was the former and today was definitely the latter.
The next few days of the trip we make our way further into the Pyrenees, running shuttles one day to get another 10,000ft of descending, with the highest mountains in the Pyrenees offering us a view which we ride into throughout the whole day. These trails are actually marked and kept clean by a local organisation called “Zona Zero”, a group of local riders and business owners who have reclaimed the abandoned web of singletrack which links now abandoned villages. The trails still manage to have a really out there feel, as if you are miles from the rest of the world or maybe displaced in time from the modern age. We can see trail markings but don´t see another soul, or even any bike tracks on the trails. This is our world. Eventually the sun descends behind the nearby mountains and we finish the last run in the gloaming. The temperature drops sharply and we have to pull on a down jacket to enjoy the beers we have earned.
As the sun rises we prepare breakfast for the guests in our apartment in a medieval town dating back to the 11th century. It´s another special moment for me as I open the balcony doors and point to the mountain, framed by the windows, and explain that I have arranged a 4x4 to take us up there. Today will consist of a single descent of over 6000ft and 22km as we ride back to our accommodation. There is always silence over our coffees as that sinks in.
Riding from the high mountains to the river beds below the terrain changes continually and the temperature gradually climbs as we continue our descent. Half way down we stop in a few houses clinging to the sides of the mountains where a tiny restaurant prepares us a paella made from local meat. Life is good and these moments are special.
Another day and another experience. I guess life is always like that but today was going to be an experience that took my group to the very edges of their comfort zone, and beyond on a couple of occasions. Today we really had to work as a team and there were moments when our adventure was poised on the edge, literally at times. These are moments that only became cherished in hindsight, too intense to be savoured at the time.
This morning we have breakfast in a tiny bar and paid the barman the princely sum of 2€ to let us use the road which climbs up to an old church, almost 2000m on the mountain above us. The church is connected to each of the villages which surround the base of the mountain by a long singletrack, and each village is connected to its neighbours by more singletrack. This gives us a great place to ride our bikes, with our choice of 1000m singletrack descents and a perfect track to the top for shuttling. Today we planned at least two descents, the first one timed to take advantage of the southern face of the mountain, which the sun had already warmed up. The track is unlike anything I have ever ridden before, it follows a ledge or rock down a pretty sheer cliff face, passing through 16th century chapels cut into the face of the cliff and recessed in natural caves.
The exposure is breathtaking, you are never far away from a serious fall, however at this point the track isn't super technical, the hardest thing is to keep your eyes away from the view. At one point you pass under a waterfall, tumbling hundreds of meters down the rock face and the trail changes character. It becomes very technical indeed, with exposure and loose rock to keep you on your toes. Everyone was taken to their limits here, with the technical trails, huge exposure and really out there feel. We had a couple of falls and some blood and by the time we arrived at the bottom we were drained mentally. Thousand yard stares were the main course of our picnic lunch that afternoon. Another shuttle up the mountain and as always some people decide not to ride the second descent. This time we ride down the north face this time on loamy, greasy trails where the frost was still hanging. After a long run down we arrived at our end of ride beers in a little bar. Another day of riding survived, another couple of cold beers murdered. That's how we roll!
The last day of the trip it is time to leave our backcountry adventure and head back to civilisation, which lies a little under 2 hours away on the Basque Coast of Spain. The circle is complete, we have ridden through Spanish Utah, survived rocky Aragon, shuttled the old market trails of Zona Zero, adventured high in the Pyrenees and blasted through old chapels built under waterfalls. We have chased our adventure hard, descending over 12,000m (40,000 feet) on singletrack so varied that nobody had a chance of nailing it all and now we spend the last day riding on the Basque Coast, making our way into one of the biggest towns in the Basque Country for a dip in the ocean and some world class food and drink.
So, did our trip live up to its name, did we ever find our backcountry? Well, the truth is that real backcountry is hard to find in Europe, what we have is the lands which are one valley over, or one dirt road further than other people normally venture. We have the country that lies behind the main, populated areas. That is the land where we can still find adventure and push our limits in wild places where you won´t find any berms, ladders or prepared singletrack. I think that at some point the question was lost as we chased our adventures, rode our bikes and enjoyed the views. And beer, I definitely remember finding beer. www.basquemtb.com