If you could write a dictionary of common misconceptions, then the prerequisites of adventure are: 1. ass-numbingly long flights, and 2. ass-loosening restaurant dishes. But what if adventure can be found closer to home, maybe just behind an EWS race track, just a short budget flight away in a place that has great food and beer, no risk of stomach trouble and has big mountains to boot? You know, somewhere such as Ainsa in Spain?
Ainsa was put on the global mountain bikers’ map by the EWS in 2015 and again in 2018. The popularity of this ancient town—or specifically the enviable 1200 Kilometres of trails that sit on its doorstep and are managed by Zona Zero
— have led to a ten-fold rise in mountain biker numbers since that first EWS tape was unrolled down one of its trails. And now some 30,000 riders come to wash down good food with locally brewed Tronzador beer and thrash down descents in the tire-tracks of their EWS heroes.
But there is more to Ainsa than beer, EWS tape and its fast, dusty tracks. Look beyond its stone ramparts and you’ll find even more riding and diverse experiences to be mined from the rugged, steep mountains that harbour this Medieval town.
In June I teamed up with guiding outfit Blacktown Trails
for a taste of the adventure potential to be found in the mountains around Ainsa, going way beyond the race tape. On a road trip between the Pyrenees’ highest summit Pico Arneto to the north East, and Huesca to the south West, a tumbling landscape of unforgiving peaks and steep river canyons became the backdrop for six days of exploration and hard-earned descents.
With Blacktown’s guides Pablo Irigoyan Claver, Rafa Molina and Emilio Garcia leading the charge, we dipped into a diverse spectrum of landscapes and a year's variety of trails, from the fast, loose shale of the barren mountains above Benasque to the twisting, tormented rock gardens of the Sierra y Canons de Guara.
And in between we sheltered from unexpected storms in old shepherds huts and pitched our tents among the deserted buildings of old, abandoned villages that dot this wild landscape.
Surrounded by glaciers and tumbling rivers we slung our bikes onto our backs for arduous hike-a-bikes into the backcountry, and when unseasonal snowfall scuppered our plan to camp high on the Sierra Negra, our pre-arranged gear-carrying mules went light, hauling just our bikes instead to its 2700 metre high summit for a snowline descent.
And we emerged from our six days dirty, tired but grinning and swearing to return, aware that we’d only scratched the surface of the adventure potential of this area. Leaving the race tape behind we had merely eaten the crumbs from a seemingly limitless adventure buffet, and it has left us hungry for more.
In a place like Ainsa, adventure doesn’t have to mean long-haul flights and stomach upsets, it just means ducking the race tape and heading off the beaten track. No timing chips, no trophies, no fuss; just you, your bike, a solid group of friends and some world class backcountry singletrack.
for more info on Blacktown Trails guiding.
for info on riding Ainsa’s Zona Zero trails.