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Trail > South Pyrenees in the Autumn

Last week I headed off to explore some areas that I have heard people talking about ever since I arrived in Spain. The idea was to start investigating with the aim of putting together an Autumn road trip package through the southern Pyrenees.  At this time of year the area is dry, the temperatures are at their most pleasant and the spectacular scenery is painted with a layer of magic as the trees take on their Autumn colours and the hillsides explode with colour.
Day 1: Driving to the Roncal Valley
On Friday afternoon I loaded up the van and drove to pick up Carlos in San Sebastian after he finished work. We were heading to an area called the Roncal Valley, where the high, rocky Pyrenees mountains start. Double parked in the rush hour traffic with our hazard lights flashing, we hurriedly threw his stuff into the back of the van and drove to the garage where we needed to use the compressor to seat some new tubeless tyres. Just as we were celebrating how easily they inflated we realised that we had left half of Carlos’ stuff outside his flat! A hasty drive back through the San Sebastian traffic ensued and luckily we arrived to find everything still sitting on the street. We loaded everything more carefully and set off for the final time. A quick stop in Pamplona to pick up another friend and we arrived at our accommodation to meet 35 people who had come from all over Spain to ride these trails, some driving for over 10 hours to be here.
Day 2: Roncal Valley – Smugglers Passage
The forecast for today was pretty bad but when we woke up the rain had stopped and blue skies were making an appearance. The temperature was low but it looked like it was going to be a great day for a ride. We set off from our accommodation and in a second we were on some pretty tricky singletrack which dropped to the river, about 100m below. The overnight rain had left the trail wet and very slippery and it was difficult to avoid the bodies littered on the trail. Arriving at the river we picked up some more singletrack that wound sinuously along the river bank, sometimes at the level of the river and sometimes a few tens of meters above it but always technical and interesting. Imagine your favourite bit of UK riverside singletrack but imagine it going on for 15kms and you’re about there. All too soon the riverside section was over, we had dropped about 200m over 10km and had arrived at the big climb of the day; a wide fireroad that wound gently up for around 1000m, never requiring the granny gear and taking us through some spectacular autumnal forest which painted the mountains with golds, reds and yellows. After the fireroad we hit more singletrack, requiring a bit of pushing and carrying. Here the mud started to get pretty bad and was so sticky in places that I had to carry my bike to stop it jamming up. This was the theme of the next hour; push, carry, scrape clean, repeat. Not very good and apparently a very unusual combination of heavy rain the week before and the cows being taken off the high pastures for the winter and churning the trails up. A pity. The payback for all this came soon enough as we arrived at a 2ft wide crack in the rock, about 1000m above the town below. We carried our bikes for a bit between the rock walls before we mounted the bikes and started down the actual descent. It all started off very technical and only a few of us attempted the slippy, steep rocky switchbacks but soon it all opened up and we were riding fast and sliding the bike round the corners before laying off the brakes and staying loose on the fast straights in between. Three of us blasted off the front and arrived at the bottom before the others, just as it started to rain. After regrouping we rode the few km back to the accommodation where bike cleaning and eating were the order of the evening.
Day 3: Roncal Valley – Disaster
We woke up to a cold, wet day. Disaster. Opting for a shorter route we decided to do all the climbing on the road and set off for a 1000m climb. Arriving at the top, thoroughly warmed up, we picked up some contour singletrack and it was very quickly apparent how much the previous nights rain had affected the trails. Muddy wasn’t the word. Within about a minute my bike was clogged up and the wheels wouldn’t turn any more. Within another minute my derailleur was wrapped around my wheel, my hanger was broken and my dropout was bent. Cursing a lot I walked back to the road and set up a singlespeed to get me back home. I cursed everything about the Roncal Valley before fixing my bike with a spare mech.
Day 4: Guara – Evening Ride
We woke up to more rain and that signalled that it was time to move on. We had been watching the weather forecast and it was wet over most of the Pyrenees but the area we were heading to, Guara, had remained warm and dry. This is quite normal at this time of year apparently.  We loaded the van up, said goodbye to the others and drove the 2hrs to our new destination. It rained the whole way but, as if by magic, just as we were around 15km away we saw the first blue skies and by the time we were there the conditions were pretty perfect for riding; cool and sunny, although there were clouds on every horizon. We met up with a local guy and decided to do a bit of uplift so we could get the most out of the afternoon’s riding. Taking the van up about 700m we were treated to some amazing views of the snow covered Pyrenees to the north. When we reached the first singletrack I didn’t know what to expect, I had heard great things about this area but was unsure what type of trails to expect. I wasn’t really prepared for what came up next, fast, loose singletrack with lots of switchbacks and lots of bedrock sections. I struggled in the tight, loose corners but it was fantastic fun. So different to our trails in the Basque Country, like a cross between the Alps and the South of Spain.
Day 5: Guara – Zone Zero
Today the plan was to check out some of the lower lying singletrack in a place the locals call Zone Zero. We had spend a few hours with some local guys the night before pouring over maps and GPS data and had come up with a 35km ride, mostly on singletrack with a few road sections to ease the climbs. The trails today were amazing; technical rocky singletrack for climbs, traverses and of course descents. The descents were a great mixture of fast rocky trails with tight switchbacks either exposed or in the trees, or fast sections over bedrock with lots of drops and jumps. We didn’t take many pictures on the descents, purely because once you’re in the zone on these trails you don’t feel like stopping much! We wound through gorges and ancient villages on trails that felt ancient but were cleaned and perfect for biking. We finished just as the sun was setting and loaded the van before grabbing a well deserved beer!
Day 6: Guara – Barrancos
We had an early start this morning because we had an hour in the van to get to the trail head. The drive was on one of the twistiest, narrowest roads I have ever driven on and was made all the more dangerous by the amazing views which distracted me around every corner! We reached the southern most hills of the Pyrenees and to the south was miles of flat plains. This is a land where the ground is wrinkled like ancient skin, with canyons (known as Barrancos) carved deep into the soft rock, it is an amazing sight and not one I will forget for as long as I live.  The temperature was noticeable hotter and short sleeves were the order of the day. Neither of us knew what to expect today but after winding through amazing gorges and towns on a nice fireroad we settled in for a day that was shaping up to be more scenic than technical. After a 1000m climb we left the bikes and walked for 30 minutes to check out some prehistoric cave paintings, what an amazing place… a cave high up on the wall of a gorge which had a painting of a deer that is estimated to be around 10,000 years old. It was a strange feeling to be sitting there in our biking gear trying to imagine what the painter’s life would have been like and what brought him to this remote wrinkle on the face of the Pyrenees. We regained our bikes and started the descent. It was all singletrack but at the start was very rocky and didn’t really flow, we both agreed that this ride wasn’t really about the descent so we weren’t disappointed in the least. Then it changed. The singletrack started twisting through the trees, popping out for some amazing views before diving back into the shrubbery and punishing any prolonged view-taking by throwing in sudden drops and unexpected chicanes. Amazing. We reached the top of a deep, deep canyon and could just make out the blue river below and it seemed our trail was to take us into this nether-world. We started tenuously with a lot of exposure to our right but the trail soon picked up speed and we rocketed down the 300m deep canyon on fast, rocky switchbacks. It was like a great Alpine descent but starting at the ground level and dropping down into a beautiful, cool underworld. We reached the bottom and neither of us said anything for a very long time, just feeling the buzz from the descent and looking around at the massive rock walls that pressed in on us from all directions. Finally pulling ourselves together we rode along the bottom of the canyon before a 10 minute push and a 30 minute climb on the bike to get back to the van. It would have been an amazing day out even if the descent was boring, however with that descent it was truly staggering.
Day 7: Guara – Sickness Strikes
When we woke this morning we realised that Carlos wasn’t well. His bum had turned into a volcano and the toilet looked like a Jackson Pollok reject. It was a pity because we had a route planned that we were told was amongst the best in the area and the day was warm and sunny. We decided to load him with drugs and go for a local ride, meaning we could always cut it short if he soiled his chamois. We started riding early in the morning, opting for the ease of the road climb, and at the foot of the deep valley everything was shady and the temperatures were lovely and cool. As we wound our way up the road the sun gradually peaked over the valley walls, warming our bones and throwing long shadows from our wheels, and as the light found the trees the landscape was lit with autumnal colours. The 700m climb disappeared without problem and we arrived at the trail head, a long singletrack back to the van. This was an incredible trail all on singletrack through the woods which was littered with every type of challenge the discerning biker could hope for but was never steep for long, making the best use of the gravity we had so easily won. We had to stop several times and shake our our hands and feet before arriving at the bottom totally shaking with adrenaline and laughing at the fact that the descent seemed more tiring than the climb. We decided to do another descent, even though Carlos was flagging by now and the climb up was going to be a bit harder in the warm midday sun. We made it but it was slow going with Carlos having to push his bike on the steep bits now he was reaching the end of his energy stores. Was it worth it? You know that it was! Rocky, rough, loose, open and fast it was the ying to the first descent’s yang. It also finally came together for me on the loose switchbacks and I was sliding the bike round them without loosing too much speed.
We loaded the bikes up and drove back to the Basque Country and we talked of the trails we had done. The big question we debated was whether they were any better than our Basque trails. What was obvious was that we are very lucky to live in an area where you can ride such variety of trails within a shortish drive and we both agreed that we would rather live on the Basque Coast where we have such a variety of trails and better summer temperatures. For every good trail we had ridden over the last day we could name a Basque trail of equal quality and as we drove homewards we talked excitedly about our trails that we were going back to; making plans to do Ernio, Larun, The Blue Pill and more over the next few days.
Our roadtrip was a great way to get some warm riding as winter starts to settle over the Basque Country and it was great to ride some dry trails. We were very unlucky with the weather in the Roncal Valley but the quality of the trails there was obvious, especially in the dry. Guara is a place we will return to without any doubt though, a special place in the world which would be worth a visit even it it wasn’t crissed and crossed by sublime singletrack.

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