Back Country Pyrenees with Basque MTB
June 1st, 2017
Back Country Pyrenees with Basque MTB
Words and Pictures | Sandy Plenty
The days leading up to an adventure such as this one, for me, are filled with deadlines, rushing around and panic-packing.
All made better by my favourite tonic – Excitement.
I always forget just how excited I actually get to ride my bike on new trails, with new people through fresh surroundings and cultures. The journey started for me on an overcast October day; I answered the last few emails and was soon waving goodbye to Shrewsbury heading southwest to Mojo Suspension to pick up my good friend Chris Porter (who I will later refer to as CP).
After loading the truck and heading to Portsmouth for the overnight ferry to St Marlo, I quickly realised that CP shared the same excitement that I did for all things new and fresh. It was only when I delved deeper I learnt that he had ridden this area a few times before.
This only increased the stoke as I was getting the dirt and blades of grass described to me like that infamous scene in the blockbuster Gladiator when Maximus Meridius rubs the dirt through his fingers, moments before unleashing hell.
The ferry to St Marlo meant we could sleep all night and wake fresh ready for the drive to Doneztebe where we met the Basque MTB team and our fellow riders. The trip is run by Doug and his crew who made sure we wanted for nothing on this six-day epic. We arrived in Doneztebe mid-afternoon, and quickly settled into a bar, sampling the tapas and beer until the rest of the group arrived from various parts of the world. We soon had the bikes built loaded into the trailers and heading for the Villalangua area where we would spend our first night in a lovely remote hostel. The food was sublime as was the wine, it slipped down easily as we got to know the group, building the excitement for what the first days’ riding had in store.
Morning came quickly and before we knew it the whole group of 13 were being shuttled high up into the mountains. At the foot of day one’s big climb, bikes were being fettled, suspension set up and cameras packed. Then we were soon high above the clouds looking down across the valleys. I had never ridden in Spain before this trip, and certainly never thought the landscape would be this impressive. Looking back day one was one to remember, it had it all. The first descent was littered with jagged rocks, steps and holes to swallow your wheels. Everyone found their place in the order and on we went as a group with CP leading this one out down a series of ancient walking paths. The main thing I remembered from this epic day was the huge vultures that sat high on the cliff tops, they sat calmly soaking up the rays, like sun worshipers getting re-charged. The ever-winding rocky trail took us through switchbacks, then into fast flowing sections past ancient buildings. After a good 30 minutes descending we arrived back at the hostel for lunch, from where we were quickly whisked away for more equally good trails. One things that stands out the most from the Spanish Pyrenees is the food. The hostel served us quality local dishes, with lots of options and no fuss. I’ll always remember the food from this area.
Rather than give you a trail diary and risk spoiling the surprise of your own holiday with Basque MTB, I would like to tell you a few short stories and describe some of the standout trails from the areas we visited. First of all, I’ll introduce the staff. You have Doug The Gaffer, a quiet Scotsman, but what he does say is well worth listening too. He has all the info as well as years of guiding experience. He is also very handy on his Orbea Rallon. Next up is Carlos The Shredder, straight from San Sebastian, he knows the area and the trails like the back of his hand. Carlos also has great music taste with a love for British sayings, and one-liners. Borja is a softly spoken man who belongs in the mountains, he is very good at explaining the areas, and local history. Then you have Antonio The Gaffer pt2; Antonio helps keep everything running smoothly, and also has a great taste in music.
Back at base camp building bikes, it was clear we had a lot of Geometron bikes in the group. Long, black and slack was the theme. I could see the Basque MTB crew curiously looking, wondering why these bikes wouldn’t fit in their trailers properly. After plenty of speculation any doubts were put to bed on day one, when CP took off down one of the many rocky chutes like a man possessed. This guy can ride. I spent most of the holiday taking it in turns with him to thread the needle down windy technical trails occasionally coming across some loam under the wooded sections. Back Country Pyrenees really does have it all in the way of trail variation. It has every type of rock, soil and its very own ‘grey earth’ area, known as the ‘Bad Lands’. This was where the juvenile whooping and cheering was at its best. I remember lifting up over a blind crest to soon have the grin wiped of my face when the trail swung left, leaving me nowhere to go other than off piste. Myself and CP laughed all way down the rest of the trail to lunch.
Another memorable stop was when we stayed in a one-horse town called Nocito. The hostel we stayed in was owned by a horse whisperer type, who gave shelter to the four-legged variety as well as the two-legged tired ones. The accommodation was clean and basic but very charming, just how I like it. The next morning we loaded up and received a good uplift to a cluster of masts where we descended into the neighbouring valley. On this descent we were greeted by a 300-strong army of soldiers who were out on exercise. Doug led this one out from the top at warp speed, only slowing down once to negotiate a fallen tree, and then the marching army. We also came across a section of trail that had fallen away, this meant carrying your bike with your left arm and holding a pinned (into the rock face) wire with the other hand to safely get past the exposure. With over 500m of vert we ended in the valley floor with huge grins on our faces, and some breathtaking stories in the memory bank.
A standout place I must mention is Ainsa, a municipality located in the province of Huesca, at the foot of the Aragon mountains. Home to a round of the 2015 EWS, Ainsa has it all. Including a trail network know as Zona Zero, which offers a vast network of trails with good mapping to back it up. We spent three nights here, and it soon began to feel like home. Basque MTB use Ainsa as a midweek base, shuttling us out in different directions on each of the three days. After one of the longs days riding, we returned to Ainsa for an evening of wine tasting. Imagine nine dehydrated hungry riders, wine, cheese and local meats making for a hilarious evening. It ended up with us purchasing some great local produce, which we had to shoehorn into our luggage. Maybe this is why CP insisted on driving…
Our penultimate day had us hopping over to the nearby Benasque area where we were uplifted to some remote high alpine mountain tops. Some of these trails are even used in the Trans Nomad, a multi stage race that passes through this area. We did a huge 1000m vert descent down into Villanova that took us through so many microclimates. This trail had it all from flat out grassland up top, through warp speed wetter loamy tunnels of trees onto a harsher rocky lower section. With another 30-minute descent in the books, it meant the group where already talking about that ‘best trail ever’. This area held many more gems taking us high into the mountains with spectacular views that for me rivalled the likes of British Columbia or Chamonix. More good food, more singing to 80’s anthems, before soon arriving at our last day.
For this we headed to the Biescas region where we were uplifted by a local company in some early 80’s Nissan Patrols. We were taken high up where we where greeted by some of the best views of the trip. We still had a few hundred metres to climb to the summit, Carlos proudly naming the distant mountain tops that stood like giants overlooking us. I was just about done, and although I didn’t want to go home I was satisfied beyond all belief.
One thing I want to make clear is, I paid for this trip. it wasn’t a freebie or a handout in return for this article. In fact, I had no plans to write about it until I got home and couldn’t stop thinking about just how good it was riding in this area of Spain. I have missed some truly amazing gems out from this account – I may add on purpose though – in the hope that you will get the chance to take this trip yourself one day.
Back country Pyrenees is money well spent in my eyes, with over 10,000m of descending in six days, you can’t help but be content.
Our top three songs from the trip:
- Killing Joke; You’ll Never Get To Me
- Johnny Cash; When The Man Comes Around
- Neil Young; Rockin’ In The Free World
Massive thanks to:
Doug and the boys for hosting the amazing trip, CP & Phil Prior for the invite, Neil, Alessandro, Mark, Molly, Andrew, Neil and the boys for making me laugh non-stop, Europe for having us.