In 2018 Ainsa hosted the Enduro World Series and the basqueMTB team were there, running a trip. Over a couple of beers in the local bar, (Avrebadero – if you know you know!) we got reminiscing about our time guiding our Ainsa Enduro mountain bike holidays and just generally riding in Zona Zero. The changes we have seen and how things have changed for us and for the other people around since then. I though it might be interesting to put it all into a blog post with some older photos from our first rides in the area. At the least it should give everyone a laugh at our old riding kit! I will also give some advice on riding in the area and maybe recommend a trail or two.
This confuses a lot of people. It is really simple though, Ainsa is the town and Zona Zero is the trail center. It used to be so called because it was zone zero, the closest area to the town where there was a dense network of singletrack, however things have grown and times have changed and now the trail center encompasses so much more space.
basqueMTB have been involved with mountain biking in Ainsa since the creation of Zona Zero, over 10 years ago, when we first started visiting with international guests and media. Antonio, our guide, has been involved since long before then and was one of the first people to start riding in the area, way before trails were marked! As you can imagine we have lots of friends in the area. These guys are pushing the respectable face of mountain biking in Spain and in my opinion they are making the local governments sit up and take notice. If it was not for Zona Zero and the people who started it then I think we would have very few marked mountain biking trails in Spain at the moment. In other countries people like IMBA and local governments seem to have pushed mountain biking, however in Spain these organisations seem to not be so well organised.
We have built our very popular Ainsa Enduro mountain bike holiday around this area.
I remember the first time I visited Zona Zero to mountain bike really clearly. I had just moved to Spain to set up basqueMTB and was exploring the area around Roncal with Antonio and a bunch of local riders. The weather was terrible, the mud in Roncal is incredible and pretty quickly I had snapped my derailleur twice. With no spare I was stuck. There were no bike shops in the area those days that would stock a 9 speed derailleur (cutting edge back then) so we got into the big old white van and drove to Ainsa. This was in the days before the new road existed which takes you more directly to Ainsa and cuts hours off the journey, and it was a long, slow journey in the old van. As we came over the pass in the mountains above the Ordessa valley, it was like passing through a curtain of rain. All of a sudden we were looking across the mountains and valleys below, with the sun shining brightly. That was how I discovered the microclimate that holds Ainsa and makes Zona Zero perfect for our mountain bike holidays in the winter!
Over the coming months I visited Zona Zero many times. I was there for the first gathering in the area where hundreds of Spanish mountain bikers came to check out some trails prior to launching Zona Zero. Most our future basqueMTB guides were there, back when they had real jobs and just rode on the weekends. The trails were different then and so were the bikes. In that time in the Ainsa area it was pretty rare to see other bikers, even in the town, unless you knew them. Out on the trails the biggest maintenance problem was moving the rocks which fell, there was barely enough traffic to keep the trails open!
Later that year I returned to shoot some video with James McKnight from DIRT magazine. The following year I returned again with Steve Jones and Laurie Greenland, again for DIRT and I even got a photo from the badlands into the magazine. That was when Laurie was still racing juniors in the world cup but it was pretty clear that he was something special on the bike. Later we returned again with IMBMag, for several photoshoots and again when we helped with a feature for WhatMTB´s bike of the year.
Over the last decade Zona Zero has grown and mountain biking in Ainsa has flowered. We have helped in the small ways we could, bringing people and journalists, however really it is due to tireless work from people like Angel who has Intersport in the center, or Rafa who runs the the taxi service, or Jorge who owns the Casa Rivera apartments we use for our Ainsa Enduro mountain bike holidays. You also have the people who are working on the trails, and have been for the last decade, with a vision of creating what we have now. There have been lots of problems along the way. There were conflicts with the hunters, something that is largely resolved. There was a period after the first EWS that the trail conditions were terrible, thanks to the surge of visitors, again that is resolved. Not everything is perfect but in my opinion it keeps getting better.
I hope that we have been an important part of that growth, especially during the early years. I like to think that we were. We have stuck by our principles of only using local businesses, and specifically ones that were members of Zona Zero. We have always tried to make sure that the people we bring put money back in to the area and the trails. Everyone should do that I believe, make sure you leave some money in the areas you ride, and it is something we have always tried to do. Would you like to know an easy way to contribute? Drink a fantastic Rondadora beer. Want to contribute more? Drink two.
When the Enduro World Series came to Zona Zero it all changed really. It was a massive step change in the number of bikers that visited the area. I have seen the numbers, they aren’t mine to share, but think an order of magnitude change in the money coming into the area. My opinion is that it hasn’t all been for the best, in fact I think that Enduro racing and Strava hasn’t had a great effect on mountain biking in general. We really noticed the change in the trails, all of a sudden there were Strava lines on a lot of our favourite trails. The more popular trails really suffered with aggressive use, especially the very few trails which it is obvious how to shuttle. Bit by bit things improved though, a dedicated person was employed to maintain the trails. More trails were opened as well which took the strain off the trails which were being used to death. I think that now in 2019 the trails in Ainsa are better than ever, they have eroded for sure but with trail maintenance mixed with enough riders to keep trails clear and open we have a good balance. We have seen the benefits but of course there are always some downsides too. Ainsa used to feel like our own personal playground and, while its still really quite unknown compared to many places, seeing other bikers is something we have to get used to!
I don’t know how the series seems to people from the outside but we have seen a bit of both sides. From the outside its a big race, lots of media and very serious. The other side we have seen is a real caring about the area and the culture. Chris and the guys at the EWS really want to leave the areas better than they found them and bring a positive economic impact. Did you know that a lot of the top racers spent the day before practice, when others were track walking, with the children from the local school running skills and signing things? These things happen but aren’t reported very widely. Nobody sees photos of Sam Hill giving up track walk time to put back into the local area. It was really cool to see and it is great to see the young riders in the area out on the trails a lot more than before.
In 2015 we took a bunch of people to Ainsa for the EWS and I also raced. It was a massive eye-opener for me with regards to the fitness, skills and outright balls you need to race at that level. I’m noramally reasonably fast in a group of riders, nothing special but able to ride at the front of most groups. During the Enduro World Series I was giving it everything I had and ending up around the middle of the pack. To get into the top 100, or even 200 I suddenly realised the commitment you needed to have, both during the race and during the months running up to it. Those guys are super fast. It wasn’t for me though, I found that I didn’t like the competition, or the way you needed to ride. It was my first and last race!
The EWS organisation during the event was really top notch. The local history, food and drink really took a central place in the event, much as we try to do when we run our holidays in Ainsa. The course was another eye opener, it was long and technical. There was over 2000m of climbing during each day of the 2 day race. To be able to compete at your best during that you really needed to be in top form. The thing that we all really sat up and noticed was how the practice worked. The organisers offered two shuttles a day and then the rest climbing on great trails to link descents. That really went on to shape what we now call our Ainsa Enduro mountain bike holiday, (formerly the Winter Enduro).
We returned again in 2018 for the second EWS. It was bigger and the organisers has it dialled. We knew what to expect and we organised a trip for a few guests to spectate, ride and in some case compete. The race was noticeably bigger but there were more people there just to watch than previously. That was obvious because of how busy the bars were! The racers don’t visit the bars, even the also-rans, they are too busy watching their Go-Pro videos of the track and memorising all the ways they are going to cut the corners. It was amazing in 2015 how empty the bars were but in 2018 we were amazed at how full they were!
It really was great to see the success of the event. There were so many people from all over the world converged on this tiny village where we have spent so much time. It has a massive economic impact on the area which has affected people´s lives in a really positive way. We will just have to get used to sharing our playground!
We would obviously recommend that you visit with a guide. A good guide can unlock the area, linking together the trails in a more interesting way. A bit of van assistance really helps get the most out of the area as well, even if you love climbing. We can help with both those things. We don’t offer day trips in Ainsa, we do offer our Ainsa Enduro mountain bike holidays, which is a week long, however if you find yourself looking for a day trip then give us a shout and maybe we can help you get a local guide for the day.
If you really don’t want to get a guide then here are some tips for getting the most out of the area.
If you feel that you can respect those things then I will pay you back by suggesting a few trails that maybe aren’t so well used but we think are fantastic.
Our Ainsa Enduro mountain bike holidays have just finished for the year. These trips use uplifts to see a lot of the Zona Zero, and lesser known areas, during a one week holiday. Running uplifts in Ainsa is really complicated and it is something we have spent a lot of time working on, using our experience to link up the best trails and get the maximum uplift for the minimum driving. After a break for Christmas we will be running trips from January through March. Get in touch if you are interested.
See Ainsa with basqueMTB!