Backcountry Pyrenees With BasqueMTB

Nov 30, 2013
by Doug McDonald  
Riding under the waterfall the text version. The non-text version is just coming.

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.

Spanish Utah riding through all the mushrooms.
Spanish Utah and riding down into the canyons.

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.

Reaching the top in Spanish Utah.
Riding the fun but exposed singletrack in Spanish Utah.
Chasing the singletrack down into the canyons in Spanish Utah

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.

Beautiful sunrise on our second day of riding. The first uplift takes us to where the sun is rising.
Checking out the view at the top of the uplift. Not a bad way to start the day.

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.

Beer and fire. And thousand yard stares
Riding through the old tunnels cut into these canyon walls.
A little climb through the semi-abandoned villages in the background.

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.

Squeezing one more run in before the light forces us into the bar.
Flow with a penalty for failure in Zona Zero.

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.

The view from breakfast and riding down to get the BIG uplift van.

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 out of the forest for a bit on this big mountain descent.

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.

End of a long day. We started up on the shoulder of that mountain behind us and have descended to here.
This old guy hobbled over to us and gave us apples from his tiny mountain orchard. They were good. Obviously.
Riding into the grey earth sections on our big Pyrenees descent.

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.

Riding underneath a waterfall that doesn t happen every day.
Riding underneath the waterfall beam me up Scotty. The bottom of the same trail with these water formations.

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.

Exposed corner on this trail down the ledge cut into the cliff.

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!

Looking down over San Sebastian at the end of a long day of singletrack.
Riding into San Sebastian on this Basque coast day.
Getting a little help from the boat on the Basque Coast.

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.

Reaching the beach in San Sebastian after our Basque Coast day.
Riding on the Basque coast greener than the Pyrenees but still long long singletrack descents.
Great food in San Sebastian the land of the pintxos.

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


51 Comments

  • + 8
 I rode with Doug and Basquemtb this summer when I snuck in a bike ride when my wife and I were on our ten wedding anniversary in Spain this summer. Awesome guide, great guy, if I were closer I definitely would ride with Basquemtb on a more regular basis. I will be back!
  • + 3
 Cheers Jack, great riding with you this summer!
  • + 9
 Thasnks for the comments guys! Be great to show you it Jim if you´re back over here.
  • + 6
 Doug, I enjoyed reading it, seeing it, and when I come to Europe for my once-in-a-lifetime MTB holiday, I think this will have to be on my hit list. Thanks for letting us all know about it. This is the sort of Pinkbike content I love.
  • + 5
 Hey fellow Pinkbikers! We have a house in France, we are currently trying to let it out for tourists to use. The area is very scenic, beautiful mountains and scenery. The house is located in the Pyrenees, however it is in a different area to Basque. The Mountain biking scene is relatively small there, however it's potential is huge! I've ridden my bike there and the possibilities are truly endless. Feel free to check out our website! If I get a good response ill post a link to the website! No hate guys!
  • + 1
 For sure... let's see the link.
  • + 0
 I'm keen too!
  • - 2
 Hey guys! Thanks for replying! At the moment we don't have any guided tour service such as the one above, we just wanted to find out what response we would have, but who knows what the future holds! There are two websites - www.homeaway.co.uk/p1086311 and sites.google.com/site/frenchpyreneesgite/home . Please feel free to drop us an E-mail, or message me for anything you want to ask and a great description, photos and footage of biking in our corner of the Pyrenees!
  • + 5
 Hey Doug, great write up. I'll have to put that trip on the list if I get the chance to swing by that way with my bike again.
  • + 6
 I've done this trip. It's every bit as good as it looks. Get it on your bucket list!
  • + 5
 "Spanish Utah", awesome! Next trail built here will need a shout out to Pyrenees.
  • + 1
 :-) Let me know if you ever do that!
  • + 3
 Absolutely awesome trip!!! After a lot of time of riding, they´ve collected the best trails to make an epic week of MTB. Doug and Antonio are great guides. A must for any fan of singletracks
  • + 2
 Great article Doug, really does some justice to how much I have been raving about this place since we rode there with you this Spring - it's just incredible and a pleasure to be shown it by yourself. Easily some of the best riding I have ever seen. Look forward to seeing you there again in March. All the best for now.
  • + 3
 I ve made all pyrenees by foot . GR 10 + GR 11 trail. 640 km in 43 days. I can say , that this mountains are very underestimate! So,good because are still wild and remote. People ! Thats the best area for biking in Europe!
  • + 1
 You absolutely murdered the photo shoot. The scenery was beyond incredible. Every mountain bikers dream. Other than the fact you can't really get a taste of the trail technicality (usually never can). You mentioned how some people did not want their second decent and how some were oozing blood. Awesome. It would be so nice to have a POV of the technical parts of trail. Enduro trails ending with turquoise blue ocean, that's something special. Thank You.
  • + 1
 mmmm.......... pyrenees
I crossed the whole range (exactly from the mediterranean sea to the atlantic ocean) in winter a few years ago, by skiing of course, not in one go but in several stages. An awesome and hard adventure, maybe pretty hard.
Now I'm planning to do the same thing on bike, prolly the next summer, i hope. The aim would be to enjoy the ride to the max, without additional weight, carrying a small backpack only with the essentials, making use of the refuges and small towns for resting and sleeping n eating.
By the way Doug, good shots and good words.
  • + 2
 Can you please make a special news section for the news like this? There is plenty of news with great spots to ride and it will be much easier to find them while planning trips.
  • + 1
 "Spanish Utah"???? I live there... but it's Zaragoza & Planas de Maria mountain bike aera, a great network of trails from all mountain to enduro. Aragon it's a great place to ride. I was linving in Vancouver and Whistler, and there is no comparision, but we have here a very good terrain to ride and also friendly locals.

I invite to you to know our crew:http://jabalienduro.wordpress.com/

And our last trip to Dolomiti in Italy, another great enduro area in Europe: vimeo.com/76593820
  • + 2
 You're the guys who built the wooden stuff in the area? I always wonder if anyone rode that stuff and meant to take the big bike to have a try! I was shown the trails by the local club after I showed them some of my local stuff. I guess we have a few mutual friends, and you know some of the Basque guys, maybe from Fast Fokus. If you ride enduro too it'd be cool to know you and if you want to ride with us one day up near the coast it would be a pleasure.
  • + 5
 One of the very best trips I've been on.
  • + 1
 all Pyrenees are great to ride -it's all amazing and beautiful, and the people is excellent- Hope they all have re-established after last year floodings. Greatnpictures and great adventure!
  • + 1
 It's a beautiful set of pictures. Certainly shows the character of the country well. Would it worthwhile going to the area even in late Sept October?
  • + 2
 These photos were taken on the last trip we did, around the middle of October. I think that's the best time of the year.
  • + 2
 I think I just found my next vacation destination! Thanks so much for the great story and pics. I grew up in Europe but never been to the Pyrenees and never thought of them as a place to visit for biking.... my bad.

Lee, let me know if you plan on going... I'd meed up with you and Sharon ;-)
  • + 1
 Doug, That's seriously very interesting. I'll do some talking to Tourism Spain. Caribooyj - for sure. It won't be soon though - as next year we're headed back to Italy and Wallis
  • + 2
 If you ride like you write, anyone should be so lucky to spend a day or three with you. Very much enjoyed this!
  • + 2
 This was really well written, sucks you into the experience. Would love to have a chance to ride there.
  • + 1
 Spent a week with switchbacks in September that was fantastic, this trip just looks amazing and is a definate for next year
  • + 1
 Every word gripped me wish I could get an epic adventure in like this. So jelous of you guys
  • + 1
 Definitely one of the most beautiful regions of the world. Actually most of Europe is a mountain biking mecca.
  • + 2
 nice kraken for some protein!!
  • + 2
 I think I have to add another point to my ToDo-List!
  • + 1
 I love the water fall (pixie dust) in the picture on the left www.pinkbike.com/photo/10346650
  • + 2
 Great story and awesome pictures!!!
  • + 1
 jsuis sur bordeaux , jride avec vous quand vous voulez !!!
  • + 1
 I could see myself taking part in this trip some day. Awsome terrain!
  • + 1
 Officially on my to- go and do list now!
  • + 2
 Simply awesome!
  • + 2
 great job you guys!
  • + 1
 Que hermoso lugar, la tierra de mis abuelos. saludos y abrazos Doug
  • + 1
 Thanks for all the comments so far guys, I'm really glad you enjoyed it.
  • + 1
 This trip is on the bucket list.
  • + 2
 My Bucket list too. Each photo looks like a different exciting adventure. I love the diversity!
  • + 1
 Nice!
  • + 1
 Spain Rocks for MTB!!
  • + 1
 Gora Euskadi
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