What do the hinterlands of Siberia and the towering peaks of the Pyrenees have in common? Population density is the answer. Amidst the towers summits and deep valleys there are many things, people are not among them. The population density is the same as far-flung Siberia. While most European mountain ranges are relatively heavily populated (certainly compared to most of the world's mountains), the people are leaving these mountains. The work is down on the plains and the ski resorts, while nice, are not bucket-list material. With the people going and no investment or property developers circling, they are starting to look like a place that could one day be one of the world's great playgrounds for mountain bikes.
Land access is usually something that stifles the spread of mountain biking - pubic landowners are risk-averse and private landowners generally don't want you anywhere near their land. Yet here, there a few private landowners and the public landowners are starting to see mountain biking as a tool to bring people back to these slopes. Talking to our guides, Bea and Andres who run Biescas DH, they have a situation that most Americans should look away from now. Not only do the local government like them riding here, but they are funding them to open trails and refresh old ones... Before anyone on the lefthand side of the Atlantic has a stroke reading this, it's not a complete free for all. If you show up with a spade nobody is going to hand you a bundle of cash and let you get on with it. But... Once you start to know the people in charge and establish a reputation for being professional, reliable and building good trails, then yes - with little more than a pitch and a few meetings with the government, the funding comes.
Of course, access and everything else is only worthwhile if the land is good - there is little point of having free range of a refuse disposal site or a small, flat stretch of scrubland. This is what makes this place even more amazing, though - these are an incredible mountain range. The dirt is good, the land has a natural shape for mountain bikes and the backdrop... let's just say it doesn't suck.
Doug at Basque MTB is a trail connoisseur. He runs his Backcountry Pyrenees tours through these mountains, traversing from East to West as the week goes on, riding trails that most people would never even find otherwise. With a good summer season under his belt, he looked to head up into these mountains in late October, searching for new, fresh trails to refine and polish his tour. He knows these mountains better than almost anybody else out there, so when someone like that phones you and asks if you'd like to come explore, saying no isn't really an option for anybody who likes riding in the high mountains...
On our first day we headed out from our base in Biescas to a trail just down the valley above the village of Sabiñanigo. Doug promised us something of a backdrop. Climbing up from the refuge at the top of the mountain it was easy to let doubt crept in - this was little more than a grassy crest. Yet once we passed that crest we remembered why we drove across a continent. The trail snaked its way across a cliff face - a 3m wide shelf with cliff above and below with medieval refuges cut into the rock. As we passed under the thin stream of a waterfall and the sun set out across the plains it was clear that this had been worth the drive. That was all before you reach the lower half. Maybe it wasn't as pretty, but it was an unending, natural rock channel. At the bottom Doug admitted that he hadn't run this trail for a while as it's not for everyone - the surface is all loose, shifting rock, making it all the trickier to weave your way through the tight corners, awkward ledges and fast straights. Certainly we reached the bottom grinning from ear-to-ear.
Day two was searching time. We loaded the bikes onto the 4x4 and started to climb one of the local ski resorts. It's at a time like this that you need to keep the faith. As we headed up through the resort there was little but barren, open pistes and the infrastructure that the resort relies on to run. After more than half an hour of traversing through this mess, the doubt starts to creep in. While there was plenty of vertical, it wasn't what we had come here for. But trust in a man like Doug will be rewarded. As we summited one final slope, we unslung the bikes and followed the piste up to the crest, and there it was... On the edge of the resort was the bowl, with the cliffs towering above and a perfect, still alpine lake there in the bottom. The trail wound its way down the side to the waters edge, finishing by an impossible, postcard cabin.
Sadly the trail down from the hut was closed, rock slides had blocked the way. But... a short haul up to the crest once more, followed by a wide-open blast down the ski field brought us back to the treeline where we picked up the real trail once more. Steep, fast and always with something to keep you on your toes, it seemed like a never-ending blast down amidst the forest and into the tight tunnels through the dense undergrowth below.
The second mountain was maybe the most unexpected thing. After climbing with the 4x4 some 45 minutes up from the valley, we alighted at a meadow. Following the pale, green line through the grass, we found the trailhead and there the surprise lay. This was no goat track or ancient trading trail, they had come this far up the mountain and cut in a fast, flowing jump track that soon had us hit warp speed through the trees. Some 15 minutes later we emerged, grinning once more. Two more laps of this mountain and it was time for home and some time to let our sore bodies rest after a long day on the bike.
For our third and final day in this high-mountain paradise we left the known trail network behind, in search of uncut trail. Crossing to the other side of the mountains. Although the maps show nothing up here, Bea and Andres knew better and we climbed to our highest point of the week. As you got higher, the view just got better and better, until we reached the most amazing high, alpine valley. Some 2,000m, it is walled on two sides by 1,000m peaks, an unscaleable stone wall. If you looked closely, there were pale marks and dirt line in the grass. If you used a bit of imagination you could already see where the trail would run. And in this location, this high above the valley, it's hard to see how this trail would be anything less than unforgettable. Bea and Andres said that they were applying to start clearing and building...
For sure, this remote part of Spain will never compare to a playground like Whistler. But for those who like their trails high and wild, then the potential here is stunning. With the work Bea and Andres are doing, before long this could become the best-kept secret in Europe...www.biescasdh.comwww.basquemtb.com