Riding the Trans - Pyrenees MTB route
In Autumn 2012 Gairy, a Yorkshireman now living in France, posted on a forum asking if anyone was interested in cycling from one side of Spain to the other. I had ridden with Gairy the previous summer for a few days and knew our pace was similar, and the off road route from llanca in Catalunya to Hondarria on the Atlantic ocean appealed. Another guy called Duncan also signalled his interest and would bring along a fell-running mate of his called Nick.
Duncan and Gairy seemed to know most about the route and they were left to sort the logistics, which were to drive to the finish at Hondarribia, take a train to Portbou before cycling 10 miles to Llanca and the start. It was a ride of about 1,000km, with >20,000 metres of climbing over 12 riding days, although the guide book suggested 16 days. Additionally we were carrying everything we needed on our bikes to increase the element of a challenge.
The drive and ferry to Hondarribia passed by well enough and the next morning we had a 42km ride to Bayonne to get the first of three trains to the border town of Portbou on the east coast. As we arrived it started raining and we put up our tents in the rain. Gairy would be 24 hours behind us and so we spent Sunday passing time in a very wet Llanca. I had forgotten any waterproof socks so bought some from a surfing shop and Nick threw away his sun cream.
Day 1 - The forecast for our first day was wet in the morning followed by a sunny afternoon. We set off in light rain and mist on some easy tracks leaving Llanca and the sea behind. I spent most of the morning at the back with Gairy and I was beginning to think 1,000km was an awful long way to ride with a fully loaded mountain bike. Towards the end of the morning we were pulled up by some military personnel who stopped us as some shooting practice was going on. Our worries that it would necessitate a large detour proved unfounded, and we were back spinning again after only a short 10 minute stop. As we started the descent the sun came out as forecast and layers were shed right down to bare arms. Into the evening we were getting to the main challenge of the day which was a 1,000 metre climb from Albanya to Bassegoda. The climb was not too steep until two sharp pitches near the top. Despite trailing with Gairy most of the day I was surprised to pass the other two pushing and also be the only person to ride the first steep pitch before pushing the second longer section and getting to the top first. I was hoping this would tell me that, whilst I may not be quick, I was at least reasonably fit! The descent was to a small camp site North of Montagut and passed a beautiful old bridge in the Alta Garrotxa Natural Area. The day capped 100km of riding with 2,700 metres of climb, and wearily got our tents up, showered and made a meal of whatever we had brought.
Day 2 - We got away at 8.30 am on a lovely morning heading up into the hills. Gairy was going to do his own thing and meet us at the campsite as he had recently seriously hurt his elbow in an accident at home. The three of us started at an altitude of around 300m and climbed steadily for a few hours to 1,000 metres before descending into Camprodon for coffee, cola and frites. Leaving Camprodon the climbing got much steeper and we eventually topped out at 1,600 metres. The official route swung a little further to the north, and a higher elevation, but we were worried about reaching our campsite on time and decided to take one of the route alternatives over the Serra Cavallera to Pardines. We stopped for another coffee in a small cafe with a lovely view over the valley and I treated myself to a Magnum; I was on holiday after all. We then had a pleasant 4km descent on well surfaced roads down to Ribes de Freser before starting an 8km climb to Planoles where I was happy to hang onto Duncan and Nick. This was a 72km day with 2,350 metres of climb.
Day 3 - This was to be a short 60km day in order to recuperate and get our kit cleaned. It proved to be another tough day. We started quite late at 09.50 as we were waiting for the shop and bakery to open. The first few miles passed steadily enough alongside the local RENFE railway line to the town of Tores. Leaving the town a sign showed 10% climb over the next 3km and I found this incredibly tough. My legs were just not working and I immediately dropped off the back of the other riders. Gairy was walking and doing the odd back stretch and I was still barely keeping pace with him. I passed Gairy and Nick stopped close to the top taking photographs but I pushed on as I wanted to get it out of the way. The summit had good views and we headed off-road towards the ski station of Molina. Duncan was leading down the track when suddenly he went over the bars (not intentional) and post-crash as we congregated, we found he had a few scratches on his face that were bleeding, caused it seems by his glasses. The muddy patch he rode through happened to have a very deep hole that his front wheel dropped into sending him over the bars. Cut and with a swelling under his eye we set off again aware that we needed to take care often being far from help. After a short while we stopped at Molina ski station for a snack where we the only customers. A week earlier the skiing was still in full swoosh, and from here we moved onto Super Molina before starting up a very steep, snowy track. s we pushed, and occasionally rode, the snow got deeper and it started to rain. We eventually reached the Col de Pal at 2,070 metres before starting a 21km descent into Baga. The descent was on excellent tarmac and we saw just one car the whole way down. Maybe it is a road to nowhere but it would make an excellent climb and return descent if you are ever in the area. We did not get into town until 17.30 after 57km and 1,446 metres of climb; this was no easy day.
Day 4 - Today was to be a long day to a refugio at 1,750 metres where we would be staying indoors. Gairy was feeling a bit fragile so had decided to head off a couple of hours ahead of us so that we could perhaps re-group on the 1,000m climb straight out of Baga. However, just as we were departing Gairy appeared, his back was causing him problems and he decided to stop early as Baga was a reasonably sized town that he could escape from. The 20km climb seemed to be taking for ever but finally we made it to the top and started a really nice descent to a road not on our maps. We passed Jossa del Cadi and continued down to Tuixen yet again on quiet roads with an excellent surface. We stopped for some fortifying pasta in Tuixen before continuing down the valley to start another 350m climb and then descent to the main road between Barcelona and Andorra. We crossed this and still had 33km and 1,150 metres of climb to the refuge at Sant Joan de L’erm. We arrived later than planned having covered 94km and 2,700 metres of climb. This proved an excellent stop, we were able dry our tents, get our kit washed, bed, breakfast and evening meal for just €30. A bargain.
Day 5 - The manager of the refugio advised us that there was still snow on the next two high passes so we elected to do avoid these and use some minor roads and do two sections in one, camping at El Pont de Suert. The initial miles were along a forest track before a long road descent towards Sort in which we lost the 1,000 metres of elevation gained the evening before. On the descent we saw numerous riders cycling up, reminding us that it was the weekend and this would of course be a popular local climb, with many a cafe con leche sipped and pastry nibbled at the summit for the locals.
We picked up provisions in Sort and then continued easily down the valley for some kilometres before our left turn. On the map it just looked like a short cut on a minor road, in truth we gained 450 metres of elevation while being constantly passed by numerous motor bikes. During a stop in Peremea for a well earned coffee we learned that 600 motor cyclists were out on a rally. After the descent back into the valley we reached Senterada which boasted 30km and 100 metres of elevation from the days finish at El Pont de Suert. An early evening beckoned! The road was climbing steadily and I was struggling to get back to the other two riders and as we reached a small gorge I could see a church way up on the hill. Surely we are not going up there I thought, we have already gained the requisite height and a bit more. I am not always right, but I was wrong again. Some kilometres later I was looking down on that church in Perves as we continued to the Coll de Creu de Perves at 1,334 metres. And the climbing for the day was not over as we crested another small col before the descent into El Pont de Suert. It was an 88km day with a further 1,340 metres of climbing.
Day 6 - The following day started warm as we set off for Bonansa and a quick stop for coffee. Soon after we headed off-road for a steep climb up to 1,600 metres where we got passed by a couple of local mountain bikers moving a lot better without bags on there bikes. Just after the summit I could hear air escaping from my tyre and after a quick fiddle with the valve this was solved. However, I also noticed a spoke was broken on my front wheel. I pumped some air back into the front wheel and carried on taking the descents easy to save the wheel. Very disappointing as this was proving to be some excellent mountain biking territory.
We eventually hit the road where Duncan discovered another puncture. As he was out of tubes I gave him my only tube and took the opportunity to dry out my tent in the warm sunshine. We dropped into Campo for a late lunch before dropping to the N260 for another stiff climb and drop into Ainsa to the nicest camp site of the trip.
Day 7 - Ainsa had a bike shop so as I had a broken spoke on my front wheel and as we were also running short of tubes as a group we decided to sort ourselves out. The decision was made that while the others went on the route I would stay in town and join them later as they intended to cross over a col back into the valley we were in. I was secretly relieved as it did give me a rest day, and was not sorry to miss another massive climb. The initial itinerary for the day was to ride up and past the Odessa canyon, a UNESCO world heritage site. However, the campsite advised us that the track was blocked due to snow so I was missing the climb rather than the beautiful canyon.
Having got the spoke fixed I just had an easy day riding up the valley to the town of Fiscal where I met the others later in the afternoon.
Day 8 - I was hoping that my 2 hour ride the previous day would help me recover but the day started with a 28km climb of 1,000m, much of it off-road. Initially it was fine but just as we reached what I thought was the summit we turned left up a rough track and into the snow. After some pushing we eventually started the descent but quickly reached some fallen trees spread across the track. We eventually carried the bikes over the fallen tree and descended to Senegue which I reached feeling dog tired. I elected to take a road route to our overnight stop in Castiello de Jaca while Duncan and Nick headed for another climb over the top.
Day 9 - The next day was all on-road through tiny Aragon villages. It was climbing work from the beginning with a series of 200 metres climbs to Jasa. We stopped at Aisa for a coffee and a snack and discovered the place also had bike storage, a repair stand and route information as part of the Bike Friendly website. Worth checking out if ever in the area. I let the other two go along this stretch and rode along on my own to Anso where I got lunch as rain threatened. From here I elected to take a Southerly option and cross into Navarra and the Basque Country, proudly wearing locally produced Etxeondo shorts supplied by Always Riding, and after a steep climb was rewarded with a steep descent with plenty of hairpins. Once in the main valley I called into a bar in Roncal for coffee and coke and saw on the television that Sir Alex Ferguson had announced his retirement. Leaving the town it was nice to see some young boys riding into town with one of them wearing a Euskatel-Euskadi cycling jersey, stars of the future perhaps. Reaching Izaba I discovered the camp-site was a further 6km uphill from the town. It was beginning to rain as well and it turned out the site also had a bunkhouse and offered meals. An easy decision for us to make.
Day 10 - I was ready earlier than the others and as I knew we were headed for a bar 30 km away, set off early to get a head start. The first climb was dispensed with easily enough, before we re-grouped and on the second climb was staying in contact when Nick started to have wheel problems. It turned out that his freewheel was not engaging properly and on closer inspection it turned out some of the pawls were broken. This was looking serious up at 1,300 metres on a remote col with the weather starting to draw in. Luckily, Duncan managed to clean it up and got it working well enough for Nick to continue. We were descending now through a forest and past a reservoir in the Irati area as the rain started to teem down. We dried off briefly in Larrako before continuing to Urrobi where the campsite again had a bunk house. Again, we were glad to be able to stay indoors and dry our kit out of the incessant rain and get 2 meals provided for around €30. Nick had managed to get hold of a Scottish guy named Doug who runs Basque MTB who was able to arrange a replacement loan wheel for the last couple of days.
Day 11 - We set off in grey weather heading up to Roncesvalles and towards France. As soon as I dropped into the small chainring for the climb my chain was getting caught up between the frame and chainring (Ed- should have been in the big ring - problem solved). Despite trying a few things this was not getting any better and I knew a decision had to be made to try and get to the finish tonight. As the problem only occurred in the small ring I decided to stick to the road once we had reached the summit and crossed the border into France. Once we had descended into Banka I said goodbye to the others and headed off on my own as the sun came out for the day. The road section was mostly pleasant and not especially hilly accept for a little climb near Hendaye. I did get a little lost a few kilometres from the finish and rode round in circles for a bit before finally finding the right road back to the campsite and the long journey home.
In summary I really enjoyed the route. It was harder than I anticipated which is probably due to my lack of homework before we left. The total distance was 912km with 22,500 metres of climb over 11 days. The area was absolutely beautiful with quiet towns, villages, roads and people. Even some of the main roads we occasionally rode along were remarkably free of traffic with constant undulations and an excellent surface.
We did do the ride a bit early in the year but doing the ride, or a road version of it 4-6 weeks later would be a wonderful tour. Just pack the waterproofs and suncream.