Epic mountain biking in the Pyrenees
Tuesday 8 November
Now that the autumnal weather is in full effect, some of you might be thinking of jumping on a plane in search of foreign trails. I was lucky enough to join BasqueMTB last month to ride some epic trails in Northern Spain.
We all know Wales is an incredible country for mountain biking. Thousands arrive here from other areas to ride the trail centres, cross country routes, downhill tracks and bike parks etc every weekend of the year. But there is always that time of year when the mountain biker's mind begins to drift towards thoughts of slightly more exotic mountain biking locations... probably around the time that the clocks go back. While slithering around in mud and ploughing through freezing gritty puddles is a lot of fun, the punishment to man and machine week after week does for many riders result in a visit to a favourite budget airline website to seek out the possiblity of heading South for a week or two.
Spain has been a top winter mountain biking destination for many years and riders tend to gravitate towards the arid singletrack of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Incredible riding yes, but for something a little different you could consider a trip to the Basque country which straddles the border of France and Spain along the Atlantic coastline. Not only does the Basque region have amazing beaches and a vibrant and unique culture but it also sits neatly on the Western end of the Pyrenees mountain range. The mountain biking here is phenomenal with a diverse range of trails to keep everyone more than amused. There are the big inland ridges and peaks of the Pyrenees which you would expect but there are also lower altitude coastal trails if you want to take in some scenery along the beaches and headlands.
BasqueMTB, run by Scottish rider Doug, is a grass-roots mountain biking company offering holidays tailored to the riding aspirations of its customers. You can ride cross-country routes taking in the suitably epic surroundings whilst giving the lungs and legs a good workout or you can jump in the back of Doug's van and get a lift up for some technical and steep downhills. I was lucky enough to be invited along for the day with a group of grinning English blokes who were 4 days into their BasqueMTB experience. I happened to join them on one of the uplift days so that was also a bonus! The journey up the hill in the mini-bus was full of tales from the last few days of all-mountain adventure in the Pyrenees and although physically quite beaten up, these guys were chomping at the bit to see what the day's downhill riding had in store.
The mountain we had been teleported to the summit of, was right on the coast and the views were astounding... the sweeping sandy beaches of France to the North and the rugged and wave-lashed coast of Spain to the South. I could even check the surf from here! Five minutes taking it all in was enough though because we were all keen to get moving and throw ourselves back down the hill. We could see the singletrack laced across the top of a grassy ridge in the distance and spirits were high. Our guide was Carlos; local Basque mountain biker and all-round nice bloke. Although slightly apprehensive about what lay ahead, Carlos put us all at ease with his calm and confident approach.
A short clamber over some gritty rocks and we were soon pointing the cockpit down some wild and exposed singletrack with rocks aplenty and some lovely sweeping lines. Then it was into the woods on a fast narrow trail with small unexpected rock drops which were loads of fun. Everyone was in the zone and when stopping to regroup at the end of various sections, the excited chatter was ample indication that the trail was to everyone's taste.
Then Carlos displayed his serious face as we filed in to another wooded singletrack section which we had been warned was a little more challenging. The rocks were bigger and the corners a little more tricky but this was really starting to feel like proper mountain biking. The final third of the trail was a super fast-flowing and slightly wider section which had you pedalling hard and pumping through a smooth and leafy rollercoaster ride. There was a steep section through an old woodland with a series of switchbacks reminiscent of some of the downhills to be found in the Welsh valleys. After a blur of epic scenery and some seriously entertaining riding, we were ejected into a small village at the bottom to be greeted with coffee and tortillas.
We repeated the trail three times but on the final descent took a detour down a steep rocky chute which had I not been following Carlos, I may have been very hesistant to commit to. The thirst for adrenalin took over and I just let the bike do the work; sliding and ricocheting down possibly the most technical section of trail I've ever ridden. Its always a great feeling to empty your mind of all trivial thoughts and focus purely on a stretch of really demanding terrain.
To me, the essence of mountain biking is a combination of exploring new places and pushing your own abilities. A trip to the Basque Country could be just the ticket to re-awaken your passion for the sport. My lasting impression was of how natural the trails are - totally different from the man-made centres back home. The experience has also inspired me to discover more of the awesome natural mountain biking that Wales has to offer.
Thanks to BasqueMTB for the hospitality, trail know-how and expert guiding. Highly recommended.