What we really wanted was a trip to ride bikes, free from the burden of organising – we just somehow wanted it to happen magically, without requiring anything of us prior to the start of the fun times. And thus, largely through laziness and disorganisation, our ‘Plastic Adventure’ was born. The plan was simple; it couldn’t have been simpler really, because beyond a meeting point, we didn’t have a plan
This article was originally published on Eskapee, that website has shut down now sadly, although you can still get the books.
This is the long version of the video, I prefer it. There is a short version too for the you-tube generation and their 3 minute attention spans.
Adventure seems to be a popular word at the moment, it is used to sell us everything from cars to coffee to bikes. Possibly it´s because it is lacking in our modern lives, something lost which is remembered deep in our chromosomes and calls to us from our Neanderthal past. I have heard it postulated that the thrill of mountain biking appeals to our lost hunter gatherer roots, and fills the gap in our souls which once drove us to chase down deer and hunt mammoths. Now we find the post ride beer with our friends as a substitute for a fire in a cave mouth with the smell of roasting venison. It sounds like so much bullshit to me, although it is true, there is a drive for adventure, for an escape from the routine that I feel deep inside me and which builds the more it is denied.
As mountain bike guides part of our job is to tame adventure, to shape it and to bring it, in a safe package, to our guests. Our trips seem very adventurous, and they are, but we have looked at the risks, mitigated against them and stacked alternatives on alternatives so that we always have good, safe options for our groups. We have practiced our trips with friends and repeated them until we are pretty sure of the success of each and every ride. It must be like that of course; it would be irresponsible to do anything else. It is an adventure from your side of the trip but for us it is very controlled.
When the off-season rolls around it is normally the time when we enjoy our share of adventures. We get lost out searching for fresh trails and exploring new areas, and occasionally we have to pick our way back in the dark. We test new routes and enjoy them before we have tamed them and polished them ready for our trips. Also, each year we plan a trip for ourselves, a little time for us guides to get together and enjoy riding bikes and drinking beer together. We call it our Off Season Adventure.
Sometimes the planning needed to organise a trip acts like a hurdle, an adventure barrier if you like, and it was like that with us; we were all busy and nobody wanted to step up to the mark and organise anything. It is all too easy, especially in this internet age where we are submerged in information, to spend so long looking at all the options that you end up doing nothing. It´s a real thing which clever people have studied and they call “The Paralysis of Choice”. Hemmed in by the myriad of options we freeze like rabbits in the headlights, unable to decide, and all too often we take the easier route of doing nothing. We were stuck right there, with our trip stalled, and it looked like this year we would do nothing. What we really wanted was a trip, riding bikes, without any planning or organising; we just wanted it to happen magically without any work prior to the start of the fun times. And thus, largely through laziness and disorganisation, our “Plastic Adventure” was born. The plan was simple, it couldn´t be simpler because beyond a meeting point, we didn´t have a plan.
The message I sent to the group was, “Meet at my house at 7:30am on Monday, bring only what you want to carry, and plan to be back in 3 days.” We planned nothing else, other than me checking that I had some money on the basqueMTB credit card. What could go wrong?
Although we had no direct plans we have had a very dry winter and the trails in the forest behind my house were running great. We have also successfully campaigned for access in a local park which links with those trails and we wanted to take advantage of that. This is the beauty of having no plans, we could adapt to these last-minute developments. As we climbed through the building dawn, following the maze of singletrack behind my house, it all somehow felt different knowing we didn´t know where we were going to end up. We had no accommodation booked and nowhere we needed to be; ahead of us were only ever branching options leading us to a whole bunch of possibilites.
As we left the forest and climbed slowly up onto the open hillside we found ourseleves above the most incredible cloud inversion. The inversion was made more spectacular by dust which had blown up from the Saharah desert, an atmospheric phenomenon which usually only affects the southern half of Spain and is incredibly rare as far north as the Basque Coast. As the dawn light built it had an incredible red tint to it, giving the clouds a strange glow and setting our excitement levels high for the coming day of riding. Things like these you can´t plan for. Around the middle of the morning we reached our peak, standing around 1000m above the Basque Coast which was now hidden below a sea of red hued cloud. Temperatures were warm and the gentle wind carried a faint scent of the orient, or maybe that was just our imaginations. We laid out our food supplies; between us we had bread, 3 types of dried sausages and a skin full of red wine. Perfect … I love it when a plan comes together!
In our lives, we are slaves to the routine. Often if feels like each moment is mapped out long in advance and fixed with a note in the calendar. Spontaneity isn´t compatible with modern life and I often feel like I am stuck in a hamster wheel, racing but getting nowhere. It was great to ride with no real plan and make it up as we went along, enjoying spontaneous decisions and seeing where the road led us. Of course, we were helped by our local knowledge, between us we know these hills better than anyone, and it´s true that not all who wander are lost. We had food in our packs, a bit of wine and no place where we needed to be, no accommodation reserved and nobody waiting for us. We just followed the trails which seemed right at the time and enjoyed the freedom that afforded us. Of course, the collective noun for a group Spanish males is an argument, and no junction was negotiated without a raised voices and gesticulating hands. It´s all part of the fun though.
We rode ancient forest trails which would have served the charcoal businesses which ruled these lands hundreds of years ago. Ancient trails, sunk down deep in hollows eroded by centuries of footfall and still filled with dry autumn leaves. We also rode the old mining trails which supported iron mining which stretched back over 2000 years in these hills and is part of the reason the Basque Country is so strong economically. It was only late in the afternoon that we started to make our way anywhere. We decided to make for the Basque coast and sample the food and drinks of Hondarribia, a stunning coastal town where we base many of our mountain bike holidays but rarely get to enjoy as we are working. We made the decision purely because there is a great bar there for local craft beers and that was what we felt like at the time. Arriving as the sun set we quickly warmed up the credit card ordering drinks and food in the world class pintxos bars. Pintxos are the Basque equivalent of tapas and are perfect for filling up after a long day in the saddle. After our bellies were filled we started looking for somewhere to stay. There were a few nervous moments as we found some hotels that were shut or full but after a short search we found a place to stay, checked over our bikes and headed to bed. The next morning we woke early for breakfast and enjoyed a beautiful view as the sun rose over the mountains and the beaches below. There were are few clouds in the sky but no sign of the dusty air from the previous day.
Over breakfast we made a rough plan. We aimed to follow the coast along to San Sebastian for a late lunch and press on to the fantastic surf town of Zarrautz to spend the night. That didn´t quite happen, we took scenic routes, eat too many pintxos, drank some beers and finally we arrived to San Sebastain just as the sun was reaching the horizon. We went straight to the beach, bought a beer in one of our favourite bars and watched the sun set over the heads of the surfers enjoying some post-work waves. That´s the beauty of not making plans, we didn´t have any need to be anywhere, we just lived in the moment, followed the best options as we saw fit and dealt with the consequences when we needed to. Our inability to cycle past a cold beer or a warm pintxo definitely slowed us down but this was a trip about fun and not about racking up miles. We walked into a hotel on the beach, paid with our credit card and left the bikes in the storage area for the bar before heading out for dinner and drinks in San Sebastian´s famous Parte Viejo. The beauty of modern mountain bike clothing is that it is comfortable, quick drying and doesn´t smell. We wore our mountain bike gear out to the bars that evening, after rinsing out our shorts liners in the hotel and drying them on the radiator. At one point in the evening Igor, our guide, was a little cold so he popped into a cheap shop and bought an old jumper for a few euros. The next morning we left it in a charity shop. If we had gone for any more nights I would have taken a second set of shorts, a packable down jacket and a second biking top so that we could wash and dry one set in the evening ready for the next morning.
In the morning we woke with slightly sore heads. San Sebastian will do that to you! We had sampled some of it´s legendary nightlife and it was late before we had made it to our beds. Probably the only thing that saved us from serious hangovers was the fact that we had eaten as much as we had drunk! This was the only day that we had a firm plan because today we needed to make our way back home. There are more options that the obvious ones though and better ways home than the direct way. We took a train from the city center heading directly south and from there we picked up some old trails which travel across the least populated part of the Basque Country and dropped us right back where we started.
The whole trip had felt like a mini adventure; actually if the truth be told it didn´t feel that “mini”, it felt like a proper get away and much longer than the 72 hours it actually was. It felt more adventurous because of the lack of planning and because it was something a bit different for us. The beauty of this kind of touring is that you are supremely flexible and aren´t weighed down with heavy, unstable packs. In fact we carried no more than we would for a normal evening ride. Like this you can link up an adventure of a few days in perfect comfort. We were quite lucky with the weather, but if it had rained we could have dried our clothes in an hour in a hotel room or bar. There were only a few things we couldn´t pay for with credit card, however we only needed to carry a few € for those eventualities.
It was a great break from the hamster-wheel of modern life and it felt like, in some small way, we had snatched back some spontaneity for a few days. It was also the perfect antithesis to our daily job and felt like a real break from organising holidays, after all this was a totally unorganised holiday. This type of trip is only possible in a relatively populated place, somewhere you can drop into a village and have a few accommodation options. An adventure in the wild needs much more preparation and more kit, and you get a different type of reward from that. For this type of adventure, you need some network of civilisation and we are lucky that on the Basque Coast we have the wild places very near to the civilised ones, however with a little bit of trail knowledge you could easily do something this in many, many places across Europe. You could of course tame the experience a bit by planning a route, having a list of B&B´s planned out ahead, or even booked and paid for ahead of time. For us part of the fun for us was the feeling of having absolutely no plans and nowhere we needed to get to, also I think that if we had planned it better we might have taken the easier route and not gone. With our busy lives and tight schedules it is all too easy to over think and end up not doing anything, that´s the beauty of this type of adventure, just grab your stuff and head out of the door.
Why not give it a try? What could go wrong?
Check out our Backcountry Basque Bike Tour