Mention riding in Spain to most Europeans and the immediate image that comes to mind are the costas on the southern coast. The small strip of arid, over-developed coastline packed with fat, lobster-coloured Brits and Germans hiding from the Northern European winters in their final years. Sitting on the shores of the Bay of Biscay, the Basque Country is a world away from the concrete, fried food and expats of Malaga and Marbella. Big wave surfers have been flocking to the lush, green Basque Coast for years, so have food and wine connoisseurs, but until recently it hasn't been a mountain biking destination that many people consider.
Landing in Bilbao it is plain to see that this is prime territory for biking, with mountains coming right the way down to the foam-tipped crests of the Atlantic Ocean. Behind those first peaks the next row climb up well over 1,000m. Starting so close to sea-level, that means alpine-scale climbs and descents are on the cards, and with a bit of creativity, beaches at the end. While it may not be the perma-summer of the south, and the Atlantic means the weather dice will certainly be rolled, even in deepest winter in midst of the off-season for mountain biking in the region it wasn’t what you’d call cold - think of a mild Autumn day in Northern Europe, more than a pleasant climate to go riding in. Come summer, that translates to long, hot days, but not the harsh, oven-door feeling you get further south.
We took the small town of Hondarribia for our base. Just a few miles south of the French border and the more glamorous beaches of Biarritz, it's an old, fortified port town overlooking one of the biggest breaks in surfing. When the conditions are right the waves can go over ten metres high here. Watching the surf break out at the headlands is no bad way to start a day, although we were more than glad the weather wasn't wild enough for big wave riding... Doug, our excitable host, a Scotsman who set up here in the Basque Country some six years ago now, picked us up early to go and see if the promise we had seen from the boat matched up to the reality.
Climbing in his van up above the morning clouds we were greeted with one of the biggest inversions we had ever seen - perfect, fluffy white clouds rolling in towards us from every angle, with just the single thread of the crestline we were about to ride weaving down away from us. In truth, it was hard to get on the bike from a view like that, but as soon as the wheels started rolling, the clouds were quickly forgotten as we reveled in the perfect, Basque dirt. Those first mountains that line the ocean didn't always keep guard of the coastline, once upon a time they were part of that same ocean, they were the seabed some untold millions of years ago. That means sand. Not deep, unrideable beach sand, but loose, soft soil that feels soft yet grippy beneath your wheels. Weaving between the rocks it felt like you could place your bike wherever you wanted, and after a small slide there would just be the traction that meant you could pick up speed.
All too soon we were some 500m below in the town of Pasajes de San Juan. There began what would become the rhythm of the trip - trails, followed by food and drinks, rinse and repeat. A short boat ride across the harbour and we found Muguruza Ardoak. It is a small cantina away from the tourist tracks that serves some of the weirder local dishes, like Falcons Crest, a sandwich of tuna anchovies and jalapeno peppers, that sounds like it shouldn't work, but somehow tastes incredible. A couple of short, dark coffees to mask the heavy lunch and we were climbing up towards the clifftops overlooking the ocean.
The trails lining the sea were much like the crestline trails - fast, flowing and just technical enough to be exciting. Alternating between descents and short, punchy climbs to get us to the next fun section we wiled away the afternoon in the blink of an eye. Before long, lunch seemed a very long way away and it was time for food once more. Dropping down the other side of the hill we descended all the way to the beach in San Sebastian and a beachfront bar for pinxtos and beer. Around the area there is a great train network - fast, reliable and frequent. They meant that you can cover fairly substantial distances on the trails, then when you've had enough you can pay a couple of Euros to jump on a train home. Two Euros and ten minutes later we were back with the van and ready to head home for some well-deserved rest.
As we woke the next morning it was clear that those weather dice hadn't landed in our favour. Storms lashed against the town, with rain coming in almost horizontally off the ocean. While it ruled bikes out, it did give us some time to explore the streets of Hondarribia, poking around the narrow streets of the walled town and marveling at the cannonball holes that still pock-mark what once was the castle keep some hundreds of years later. A slow lunch of more pinxtos and liberal glasses of the local Txakoli wine made waiting for the storm to pass all-too-easy, so easy it was hard to get out and enjoy the sunshine that broke in the afternoon. Yet as we rolled up towards the coastline of Faro de Hondarribia a few kilometres out of town, we knew we'd made the right decision.
Watching the sunset over the ocean is the kind of life experience usually only talked about in horrific chick-lit and flowery new age life guides, but ignore them. Here on the lower coastline you still have that perfect, sandy soil, the rounded limestone jutting up from the trail, the only difference is that the riding tempo is like a brutal interval session - steep, demanding climbs straight into fast, techy descents down towards the water, over and over again. It's hard work, but damn, it's worth it. Mix all that with the sky burning orange as the sun touches the Atlantic and the roar of the breakers below and you have an unforgettable evening; just don't go telling people you "found yourself" while you were there.
For our final day in the Basque country we got a pair of sixes on those weather dice, perfect blue skies to crown our all-too-short stay. Good weather meant we could venture higher, a chance to try out Doug's all new Red Comet trail - named after the Belgian special forces unit who used it during the Second World War. Leaving the ancient coastline hill behind we climbed up into what is more recognisable as Pyrenean terrain. Gone was the soft sand, but not soft soil, there was always good, forgiving dirt under your tyres. That is partly because this isn't a huge mountain biking destination right now, the trails feel fresh because they don't see bike park volumes of traffic to wear them down to the bedrock, even the relatively well-used trails feel somewhat untouched.
Red Comet was like nothing else we had seen on our stay. Along with the change of dirt there was a definite change of gradient - this was far steeper and less forgiving than anything we had ridden so far. Along the mountain tops you are running fast along the lines of the rock, bars scraping the inside at times as you tried to avoid the drop to your outside. Nature's sense of humour meant that these sections tended to be the nastiest too, with awkward rock steps just waiting to throw you down the mountainside if you made even the smallest error - the kind of trail that makes you feel alive. Lower down it got steeper and steeper, running almost straight down the fall-line under the winter canopy of the empty deciduous trees. It felt like classic alpine riding, where you try and control the speed with the rear brake, relying on the front for traction. Grinning and sliding your way to the end of the trail, some 700m below our start point on the summit of the mountain.
One final, long lunch and we decided that Red Comet had been so much fun we needed a second lap to cap off our stay in this beautiful corner of the world - a final 700m descent from the summit overlooking the beaches of Biarritz into the steep, dark valleys as the sun fell beneath the mountains. The Basque Country had been on my list of places to visit for nearly five years, and after our rather short stay, my only regret is that I didn't make time to go there sooner. Sure, there are clearly the trails to do a hardcore week or more here of smashing every possible corner and line, but for me that would miss the point of visiting the Basque Country. The pace of life here feels slow; sitting in the bars eating pinxtos and drinking the almost sparkling Txakoli wine; not rushing to get from one place to another; waking up slowly as the sun spills in over the bay: those things are almost as good as that perfect, sandy soil that makes the trails so special. It felt like the best thing a trip like this could feel like - like a complete break from the world, and what more can you ask for from a holiday?
A big thanks to our hosts, Doug and Antonio of Basque MTB