Trans Pyrenees by Mountain Bike

All good ideas….

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Early in 2018, in the grip of a hard winter… you can’t always get out as much as you’d wish, so you sometime resort to dreaming and scheming… It was then that I thought about the idea of merging a bigg’ish ride into the start of our summer family holiday in northern Spain. As the Pyrenees was close by it seemed almost logical to capture the Trans Pyrenees route. After a bit of research (and there was not a huge amount of stuff out there) it lead to me finding some GPX tracks of various routes – all Mtb of course! or ‘BTT’ as it is known in Spain. The route seemingly had a choice of start points on the Mediterranean, either Llanca or Roses, both small seaside towns. We chose Llanca as it was connected by rail and had more choices of places to stay. The GPX traces indicated a route distance of approx 830km, altitude gain was suggested to be around 24000m. We knew it would involve lots of climbing!

Mark Wildsmith a friend from the running club indicated an interest in doing it as well and I was glad to have some company on a ‘tour’ style ride and share the experience and journey.

As usual in life, time is often the limiting factor and I could only really ‘eak’ out 7 days to do this journey and after comparing with the Trans Pyrenees Race stages it seemed easily doable – albeit some long days cranking the pedals.

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Dreaming of this….

The splits are shown below and gave us a target of what to aim for. Most people take 12-14 days to do it.

116km2200m LLANCA > CAMPRODON

114km2700m CAMPRODON > LA SEU D´URGELL

115km2930m LA SEU D´URGELL > EL PONT DE SUERT

98km2785m EL PONT DE SUERT > AINSA

97km2200m AINSA > JACA

132km2595m JACA > BURGUETE/RONCESVALLES

97km1980m RONCESVALLES > HONDARRIBIA

Like any long journey the memories often get merged, blurred and mixed-up, so mainly for my benefit I have done a short recap on each day…

Day 1 Llanca to Llongrriu (area) 109km 2728m

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Saturday morning, a poor nights sleep in an uncomfortably hot hostel…  It always feels good to start rolling, a lot of worry and anticipation builds up before hand and almost as soon as you set off it all seems to disappear as you’re off on the adventure, and pretty well nothing else matters! Concentration goes into the bike, the route finding and keeping the body going. Then the sights and wildlife you pass are a bonus and will be collected all the way along the route. The extended UK summer had helped to condition us, however today was a hot day, in fact a ‘really’ hot day –  the forecast suggested 38degC and the hostel owner said that it was the hottest so far this year, not great for setting out on a long journey, but hey ho, it has to be better than rain, or wind, or no ride at all. The bikes were reasonable well loaded up – probably around 8-9kg of kit and liquid and that was ‘paired-down’, but it allowed for kit in the mountains and bad weather – most of which felt superfluous at this stage. The trails were pleasant jeep style tracks and small roads, it generally felt all uphill as we climbed into the mountains.  Of the villages we rode through and they generally all had drinking water taps, this is a real bonus and removed a lot of worry of where to find water.

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We passed by a large lake and made a short but worthwhile detour, it was late morning, things were hotting up and a cool off was required. It was like a bath! We dried in an instant, the journey continued through scrub and bush, it took us through some delightful old villages, one of which we stopped at for lunch. This is where we realised our diet for the week would largely be made up of egg tortillas and Coca Cola. The first big climb was reached and I was conscious of drinking way too much and not being able to stay cool. The climb was around 800m and would take two hours. I started to suffer, pedalling was just unpleasant, with cramp onset and a feeling of weakness and nausea. I had to push on many sections, meanwhile Mark seemed relatively unaffected. In my head I was not overly bothered, I just knew it was the heat and I would have to manage it and then get over it, but when my legs locked up with cramp I just had to lie down. Mark had the look of ‘hmmm Alex is broken, its day 1, Alex does not normally break…’ I had 30 minutes of pained rest and eventually got back on the bike, we had made the col and Mark had assisted by pushing my bike as well as his. Good teamwork Mark!

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Mileage so far was around 80km and it was now late afternoon, the plan was to get down off the hill and find somewhere for a drink. We passed through a stunning gorge, were there where families picnicking and swimming, but not for us, we pressed on and found a hostel and got drinks, first a coke and then a beer – it seemed to sort things a little. We had planned to get to a little town called Comprondon, but the map indicated that it was around 40-50 km away – too far. So we made progress up a quiet valley and found a nice bivvy spot in a forest near a river. It was nice to wash and get some food into us and we were asleep by 10pm with the intention of rising at dawn, which would be around 6.20am, so a good rest really.

The image below so the temperature trace for the day, I usually knock off 5degC as the watch is not always in the shade and rides higher – nonetheless it was around 38degC, the hottest that I have ever had to cycle in, I think.

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Day 2 Llongrriu to Baga 128km 3810m

We were rolling at 07:30, things felt a little sensitive and weak to start with, but the rhythm of the continuing climb soon distracted us and it was a case of getting on with the job in hand – and getting to the mythical Comprondon for a proper feed. It took quite a while, but we eventually rolled into the bustling, medieval place at around 10:30 and a nice little bar-café was awaiting us for breakfast. Lots of food, some nice coffee and a coke seemed replenish us nicely. After leaving town we knew that the first big climb lay ahead, we had climbed 400m to Comprondon, the mountain col was a further 1200m, peaking at 2100m. We passed through more lovely mountain villages, slowly, and they get smaller and more rustic the higher we progressed, eventually it turned to dirt at 1600m. We would climb for about 30min and then have 5min rest or push, just to rest the muscles on this relentless climb. It was exciting to feel that we were now in the big mountains – the Pyrenees proper! The trail however was slightly disappointing as it seemed that some people were doing the route in their cars, which spoilt the ambience a little.

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After a 1000m descent we had lunch and studied the route ahead for the day. We realised that we were not making progress fast enough and with so far to go, we elected to miss out a mountain loop, it looked nothing too special and it would give us probably 2hrs to cycle on further, we had no idea where we get too and tried not to think of the ‘big picture’ too much. Another big climb lay ahead and the small road seem busy with the Sunday traffic, after an hour we were back on the trail and in the wilds, we saw many eagles in the next section and the weather looked moodier and was feeling a little cooler and damp – we were high up and started to pass some ski small stations, which I think always look ugly without the snow cover to hide the mess. Route finding was quite fun and it was lovely to do our first bit of ‘single track’, if we had more time we would of preferred more of this stuff. At the second top of the day (2200m) it was now getting on a bit around 19:30pm and we wanted some food, so we decided to make the descent by road instead of the forest tracks. Baga was our destination around 30km and all downhill. We passed only one car and had the pleasure of a race track like surface – we were in town 45min later buzzing! and so was the town with a carnival and fair. A bar was found and much food was ordered. A good day, but no plan of a place to sleep so we headed out of town to a park and found a nice little area and bedded down. Here we found to our annoyance that the town clock rings throughout the night and strikes twice on the hour…

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Day 3 Baga to Livorsi 125km 3111m

The body was now adjusting to the new routine of life – long days in the saddle and a big feed-up in the evening and a bivvy-spot on the trail. As usual the morning started with another long climb and we were soon warmed up. With the sun poking through the trees we were already trying to hide from it and enjoyed the steady woodland climb that took us into Cadi Moixero Natural Park, here we passed several other groups of bike-packers – comrades of our journey! As we came out of the trees big limestone monoliths appeared, this was spectacular country for sure! After a short breather at the col we were soon speeding down with the thoughts of a late breakfast in mind, the next village was Tuixent, perched high on a rock, and were we hopefully we would find a café… Typically a four hour climb on one side will be rewarded with a 45 minute descent on the other – and so we were soon nearing the little hilltop village, with a climb of its own. We sniffed out a little café and shop and enjoyed an egg tortilla some coffee and cold Cokes. The route after this seemed to take a series of roads over some medium sized cols – it was good to get a rest off the bumpy trails, but the tarmac soon became a chore and it would be several hours before we met the trail again.

Day 3 was tough going again for me, I was still not finding my form and this extra struggle distracted a little from the ultimate enjoyment and I was hoping it would soon change! After another monster climb that seemed to take most of the later part of the afternoon we reached a large Refuge that, as it happened had a road up to it and so quite a few people where milling around there – we had not seen many people all day and it weirdly felt uncomfortably busy, but I wanted to stop and fancied another cold Coke and some crisps. It was here that Mark the genius, suggested we try to get a hotel or B&B in the next town – the wonders of 4G and Booking.com and we had a nice little place booked. We would pass the previous Plan A accommodation on the way down – another little refuge and as it happed it was  a gem, bad timing it would be nice to have stayed there or had another like this for the night after. Livorsi was the next town and it had a few shops, hotels and bars. The hotel was lovely and as soon as we had de-kitted and locked the bikes we both raced to the shower! It was good to wash and refresh our kit. That done we headed out for food …and a good feed was had!

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Day 4 Livorsi to  Col de Espina (near to Laspaules) 128km 3534m

Usual routine… shop for food then start mahoosive climb, expect this time it would be our biggest; a 1400m non-stop and to the high point of the whole journey passing through the Parque Nacional De Aigustortes. A picture paints a thousand words – so here it is…

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We met another couple of Brits up here on a motorbike tour which looked good fun and maybe a little easier/quicker than our effort…? The scenery was magnificent and we had a lovely contouring track that endlessly lead around the mountains until the next big valley was reached. Mark was now mastering his bike and his descents and he took off at speed and it was great to follow his dust infused trail, down at least a hundred switch-backs to valley floor – time for Coke stop..? and so we switched on our bar-radars …before too long we had found a watering hole, this time nuts and double Cokes – we needed it!

We checked the map and the next 40km looked a little non-descript and some of the GPX trace did not sit on a map trail, so that could be interesting… I felt more on it today and was happy on the next climb, after several kms of tarmac we hit a little trail over some cols. These became small and eventually lead to an hour of Hike-a-Bike, but it was quite pleasant. The villages we passed through were really out of the way and very rustic, quite often we would not see a sole and they would feel like ghost villages. As always we could always get water in these places and it was our little routine to find the tap and fill-up our bottles and splash the face. We heard some thunder and as we climbed up to the next relatively short mountain stretch the skies really darkened. The urgency meant we upped the pace and the wind would pick-up little ‘dust devils’ it was very eerie…  The thunder soon came nearer and the lightning flashes were very intense, as was our pedalling – on we sped with some rain drops getting us. Would it pass? …No after another 20 minutes it was coming down thick-n-fast – time to find shelter and layer-up.

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We dug out our jackets and duvets and put them on the temperature had gone from 26deg to 16deg, we had a big descent and it would be cold… The next town was 15km off and we decided to make a dash for it! We got soaked, but were soon rolling in to it and on the lookout for a food place, soon enough we found a bustling little café/bar and rushed in. The rain continued for a while and after much food, beer and our body weight in olives we did not have a plan of where to stay… Mark suggested that we stay and drink beer and ask to kip in the bar. We soon dismissed this and I persuaded Mark we could ride on into the damp night and find a ‘doss’ somewhere! We rode and climbed and then climbed some more, through damp woodland – not very appealing, eventually at the col it opened out and we thought it wise to stop – now that it was almost midnight and pitch the tent… I had a scuffle around and saw a faint outline of a building, on investigation it turned out to be a view point on the col and in the circumstances was almost perfect – trial gods on our side yet again! Mark put on some club music and we sorted our stuff and had a little party and scoffed a bit of emergency whisky. Not long after we were in our bags and snoozing. However…

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Day 5 Col de Espina to Fiscal 120km 3200m

The cows, the cows, the cows and their damn bells – they were making so much noise all through the night!!! It was a damp cool start and Mark was not for waking up, even when on the bike, I think this was his first big low point and quite often I find the first of morning after a hard day (or nights) ride tough to deal with. But you do come through and the solution would be to find a place for a proper breakfast and coffee. It took a while but by 9am we found a reasonable town and had the usual platter of stuff. I laughed again at Mark as he now the face of a man who needed a good sleep – like an adventure racer on day 4!

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After breakfast we found a market and stocked up on some lush fruit and provisions for lunch. Rolling out of town the descending valley closed in on us and we had a magnificent gorge to pass through. The weather warmed and our combined morals grew some. After the gorge came a turn off and the start of the next long climb section. Our legs churned away, slower than of the previous days, with all the riding so far wearing us down a little. We head off the tarmac into a deep forest, very vegetated and damp, almost like a rain forest. As we climbed to the col we detoured to a refuge and decided to stop for lunch, which turned out to be a very wise decision as the heaven’s suddenly opened. We had lots of bread cheese and tomato – it was a great feed! As usual the big map was our table cloth and we studied it and looked at it – we were only just over the halfway mark, maybe 2/3. The reminder to be done the time we had left depressed me a little as I knew it would mean some decisions would have to be made on ways to accelerate our progress.

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We headed off the mountain in more haste as we felt the pressure to press on our travels. At the next valley it looked like we would be heading up a long gorge, however on arrival at tits start the sign said road closed, which meant a detour, but thankfully not that much longer – I was majorly disappointed not to do the Gorge de Huica, we thought about trying it but decided a thwarted route would be a pain and mare our progress some more, on we pedalled on the detour. Day 5 was a tough day and at the next stop we talked about a hotel stop for the night and get a good evening feed and a monster breakfast, Booking.com did not reveal much and I suggested that the trail gods would sort something for us, so on we pressed. We now were at the top end of said gorge and the mountain scenery was stunning, it was a popular spot as would had seen a lot of traffic and folk around holidaying. The next town we headed for was called Fiscal, we had our fingers crossed for finding a place and before too long we were checking into another ideal place. Everything was such good value here in Spain – 90E for dinner B&B for the two of us, and beers only 1.40E a bottle – Bingo!

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Day6 Fiscal to Jaurrieta 163km 3150m

Running out of time and not particularly near to the end of the road…

The previous night’s map studying suggested we had somewhere between 250km and 300km to the finish – a tall order to do in what was ideally just less than 2 days riding, so we planned to defer to the road were possible and try to take the easiest route, while avoiding any main routes. The start out was a bit of an exception to this as we had about 40km on the N260, which traversed the south side of Pyrenees. It wasn’t overly busy, but it did have the appearance of a road built to drive quickly on… and there was a long 3.5km tunnel, which Mark was dreading… We soon reached the tunnel and switched on our lights so we could be legal and seen.

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It was not too bad when in and to our surprise as we entered a large overhead road sign illuminated ‘bicecletas’  80kph > 60kph. Amazing we both thought, the tunnel had recognised our presence and had slowed the traffic – what little there was for us, how nice! Fast progress was made, until we reach a more exposed part in the valley and the wind seemed to funnel into our path, but the kms ticked quickly by and by the mid-morning cola stop we had done some 50-odd kms. Back on the little roads it was pleasant going, but quite up/down again. The hills were a little softer but to the north the main ranges could still be seen. Dinner was had in a beautiful old town called Hecho, were we found a nice grocery and grabbed bread, cheese, tomato, fruit, crisps and drink. We enjoyed the feed before the next long climb to a 1300m high point, through some more spectacular gorges. We picked up a few bits of technical downhill, to spice the ride up a little and it was nice to be whizzing through dark, lush woods then sun-drenched open meadows. We had enjoyed the days ride so far, despite it mostly being tarmac and soon we had reached the part of the map where all the places had ‘Zs’, ‘Xs’, in the name and this was good, as it meant we were getting nearer to the coast.

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We passed through more quaint mountain villages, that look distinctly Austrian/Romanian – certainly not your typical Spanish names or looks – It felt like we’d been transported to Eastern Europe! We found places that served food were few and far between and all busy, so we made do with an expensive delicatessen that night. It was now the evening and we had one quick beer, before we decided to press on and find a sleep spot for the night – the last of the ride it would be… It took some time and was almost dark when we found a little roadside picnic and bbq spot, with nice grass area and a water tap – sorted! Your needs really boil down to simple things on these trips – food – shelter.

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Day 7  Jaurrieta to Hondarribia 137km 1597m

So far the ride had been one of those – rides-of-a-lifetime, so much amazing scenery, lots of nice people and places and lots of great things to remember. The last day is often mixed feelings, but I have to say I was keen to get to the Atlantique, see the family, have a swim and get my sore arse off the this bike. I think the heat and sweat had given me a hard time on this ride and despite feeling okay on the last day I was wanting ‘normal-life’ back! But not before some more kms and hills – but it would be downhill surely…  …as we spent the night at 1000m..?

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We continued on a lovely road crossing rolling countryside in the hole of finding a bar or café open for breakfast, everywhere was still sleepy looking at first light, with no signs of life, it wasn’t until we had done about 35kms of riding that we found a nice little place to stop for breakfast and again we had the usual order of stuff.

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More road continued, quite a big road, but not too busy, however there where a lot of ‘roadies’, coming the other way – I’m guessing out of Pampalona, the next big city some 40km away. Luckily we would not pass through this place and turn on to smaller roads that would take us over our last ‘col’. We passed through some woods and the last climb took an hour to get to the top, it felt good knowing we had downhill to the coast. The road was twisty and it was a good buzz as we raced down, it also noticeable warmed up and at the bottom we found a place for food and final snacks to get us through the last 30-40km. The road had been upgraded, with tunnels and bridges to make it faster for vehicles, cyclists were prohibited and had to go on the old road, which was good, but meant more distance and some extra hills. We soon reached the outskirts of towns, first ‘Irun’ then Hondarriba, it was bustling and busy with cars, the cycle lanes seemed to come and go and it was hard to find the best route through all this metropolis stuff –  our senses were not attuned to this! The exact finish point was not really known but we rode to the beach at the end of the promenade and parked our bikes and waited for the ‘Pilkington Support Team’ to arrive.

Post Script.

A journey like this provides lifelong memories of all the special places visited, the hard-ships enroute, the funny moments, the kind/interesting/unusual people we met, the wildlife, the mountain weather  …the list goes on.

I would like to thank Mark for joining in on the expedition, he was a rock-solid, biking companion and sharing the journey with someone like this is really important. You need people with a strong resolve, but also chilled-out to take the rough with the smooth. It would be remise of me not to mention our bikes, which were both impeccably reliable – with not a single mechanical, or puncture or anything, they just performed. My biggest thank you however goes to my family who tolerate, or dare I say support my passion for exploring and adventure and being at one with nature – and that’s with just the basic things you need to stay safe and keep moving. Go and find your journey and do it!

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