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Mountains of Singletrack in Spain Part 1: Aran and Val Benasque

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With all the great places in the world to ride it’s tough to choose where to go for your next mountain bike vacation. Trails, people, and culture are always a draw, but often times marketing hype obscures the truth of what’s out there. Recently, word of mouth, stunning pictures, and video of riding in Spain caught our attention, so we felt the urge to check things out first-hand.

The Pyrenees Mountains on the border of Spain and France have always held an allure, particularly given the views and epic topography. Despite there being so many strong Spanish bike brands and riders, there seems to be a bit of a lack of press around Spanish mountain biking among North Americans. From a distance, it’s hard to understand how they could have possibly developed trails and a mountain bike culture with the distractions of such excellent mountain scenery.

Doug MacDonald of BasqueMTB came highly recommended from mutual friends who have had first-hand experience mountain biking in Spain. His reputation is largely due to his local knowledge, his affable customer service, and (importantly for us) his trail work and trail advocacy volunteerism. After emailing back and forth with Doug, our group was booked to go to Spain in late October of 2018.

After spending time in Spain on this BasqueMTB mountain biking trip I can tell you that there is indeed a passion and spirit for mountain biking in Spain which is alive and well. And the FOOD! How are these people not fat?

BasqueMTB’s six-day High Pyrenees trip had us sample riding in four Pyrenean locations, ranging from the Central to the West Pyrenees. Trails were the best we’ve ever had the privilege of riding in the European high alpine. Travel was tight and well-organized, and the accommodations were well-chosen. The food was amazing and copious, the service was superb, and the weather during our trip was incredible.

An overview of our travels. A – Val D’Aran, B – Benansque, C – Ainsa, and D – Biescas.

Day 1: Val D’Aran

We flew in from Vancouver, BC to Barcelona where we checked out the city and culture, and ate a lot. From Barcelona, we flew to Hondarribia, then onward to San Sebastian for yet more food!

In San Sebastian, we joined part of our group, then were picked up by Igor of BasqueMTB. BasqueMTB had arranged for us to test out Orbea Rallon bikes. These are 160mm front/150mm rear carbon 29er bikes that are well-suited for long, fast, varied descending through the technical terrain we were to encounter in the Pyrenees and on the Basque Coast.

With the long descents, the Rallon’s plush Horst Link suspension made the multiple runs doable and comfortable. BasqueMTB’s Pyreneean trips also involve pedaling, and the Rallon’s anti-squat pedaling platform allows the bike to climb efficiently. These Orbea Rallons are tuned for Spanish technical terrain. They would be more than capable of handling any rough, steep trails your area has to offer.

We rode Orbea Rallons on this trip. The bikes felt very plush, offer good pedaling, and are confidence-inspiring.

We met the rest of our group who were a mix of visitors from the UK, Australia, and Canada, and loaded our bikes in the BasqueMTB Vans. The first travel day for this tour is the longest as riders are transported from the shores of the Atlantic Ocean 320km east to the small town of Seixes in the Val D’Aran. The drive through the Pyrenees is well worth doing in the daylight as the mountains rising from the flat plains are rather stunning in their vertical relief.

We spent the evening assembling and tuning bikes. We then had a great dinner and breakfast in the Hotel Seixes, waking up to weather of the most superlative order. The combination of a comfortable nights’ rest, nerding out about bikes and trails, and great food set the tone for the days to come.

Our first night at Hotel Seixes. Bike Friendly!

Dinner with our guides Antonio and Borja.

Up at 7am for a massive Spanish continental breakfast.

Val d’Aran is a geographical curiosity of the Spanish Pyrenees. Until a 5km tunnel was built through the mountains to link the town southward, Aran was difficult to reach from the rest of Spain in winter. Even in the summer, it was a bit cut-off.

The town also sits in a northern-facing valley in the Spanish Pyrenees — most valleys face south — with the drainages oriented toward the Atlantic Ocean. Climatically this means Aran is largely affected by Atlantic storms, where many other Pyreneean valleys are drilled by Mediterranean weather systems. From a mountain biking perspective, this makes for a wide variety of soil composition and trail characteristics.

Aran’s relative geographical isolation from the rest of Spain has contributed to its sparse population. Approximately 10,000 people are spread among 650 square kilometers. This puts Aran way down the population density list. The lack of crowds means a lack of pressure on the trails. In large part, this has contributed to Aran’s friendliness to bikes and to outdoor activities in general with the local government, tourism association, and ski hills helping to fund and build bike parks. The valley also sees a mix of paid and volunteer trail crews making and maintaining trails throughout the region.

Val d’Aran is part of the Spanish state of Catalonia, jutting into the Pyrenees and abutting the state of Aragon to its west. Aranese speak Catalonian, Spanish, and their own valley dialect of Aranese. The food here consequently receives a mixture of treatments and different regional combinations.

Enduro trails.

No Dig No Ride! Aran Bike Parks.

A sunny day from start to finish. Riding through the fog as it rises from the grass.

Our guide Borja was also on an Orbea Rallon.

Nick on a short pedal to our next series of trails.

Vast valleys and views in the Pyrenees.

Traversing an old trail in October, when the fall colors come to the mountains.

Ken on a short-hike-a-bike.

Down some old buff Pyreneen trails.

Borja on the sweet singletrack of the Pyrenees

Doug and Borja.

Lunch to refuel for two more afternoon uplifts.

Riding in the Pyrenees isn’t complete without at least one slow spin through an old town.

Antonio, from Pamplona, was another one of our guides for the week.

Buff trails, amazing views.  Fall colors and temperatures mean quite a change when transitioning from shade to sun.

Doug starting on our last leg from the Museu Mina Victoria.

This light! Last run to beer.

Overview of the rides in Val D’Aran

In Val d’Aran there is a large chunk of trails.   Some are marked on maps but many of the cherry linkups are not.

Our group completed five laps and 3,335m of descending in Val D’Aran. We were all very well matched and moved together smoothly, despite the size of the group. Aran Bike Parks shuttled us, and they’re the same group that does trail maintenance and runs events in this area.

Post-ride from Val’Aran to Benasque

Following our Val d’Aran rides we were off to Benasque, where we looked forward to more food, a different valley, and different trails. We stayed at Hotel St Anton in Benasque which, like Seixes in Aran, was relatively deserted since our trip was during a shoulder season for travelers.

Bike maintenance, wine, beer, and unwinding after a good day of riding with massively fantastic weather started the BasqueMTB trip off with good vibes.

Next stop Hotel St. Anton in Benasque. All the hotels we stayed at had secure bike storage, great food, and comfortable rooms.     

Dinner at Benasque.

Day 2: Val Benasque

After a full day of riding in Val d’Aran,  then lunch followed by more riding, then a grand dinner and a good night’s sleep at Hotel St. Anton in Benasque, we were more than pumped for our second day of the trip.

We started early with a wake-up call at 7am for breakfast. On a side note, while Spanish coffee is superb, the continental breakfast can be a bit light for a full day of riding, particularly when lunch is fashionably late at 2 or 3 pm. At Hotel St. Anton we asked for more bread and eggs, which made for a hearty breakfast. It probably didn’t hurt that we were the largest group in the hotel and that the entire Valley seemed pretty deserted. Such is a bonus of shoulder-season riding.

Fueling up at Hotel St Anton’s breakfast.

Hotel St Anton in the Picturesque Benasque.

Cerler Ski Area.

The sun was shining and the air was cool, making for perfect ride temperatures. The next two days we shuttled with Basque de Novela, another group active in maintaining and advocating for the trails in this region. It is noteworthy that BasqueMTB insists on supporting local companies during their tours. Doug MacDonald does a fair bit of trail work and prefers to support local trail volunteers and groups. It’s a net positive for his guests as it allows us to meet and interact with some great locals, and it’s a fairly easy way to top up the trail karma bank.

Fall colors on the Magic Line.

Antonio on the Magic Line.

Doug rocking the Rallon.

Antonio mid-trail.

Benasque is a ski town. We started off in the Cerler ski area in temperatures well below freezing, in the shade of a chairlift. After a riotously fun, fast, and rocky downhill, we were shedding jackets down to our short sleeve shirts. Similar to other ski areas that have embraced mountain biking, the locals are making a living from this magnificently fun and growing sport of mountain biking. It was pointed out to us that cycling is particularly good for the valley’s economy since mountain bikers like traveling and riding in the less busy time of the year, thus contributing work to hotels, restaurants, and bars during their slow season.

Bikers are welcome in Benasque, and as long as we’re respectful, it should stay that way for a long time to come. After sampling the first set of trails, all we can say is that we’re lucky for it!

A nice pastoral jaunt to the next descent.

These are probably thousand-year-old stairs!

While the trails are signed, it is fantastic riding with someone who knows how to connect them all. Plus it’s fun to watch someone with the requisite skills to slay the best lines!

Integral Gallinero and the Benasque high alpine

Val Benasque’s tourism website proudly proclaims that this valley has more 3,000m peaks (80 of them) than any other in the Pyrenees. We saw this on our next ride as the drive to the trailhead of the Gallinera is mind-blowing, with expansive vistas overflowing the mental palate.

Val Benasque’s tourism is exceptionally conservation-oriented. The locals know and treasure the diversity of their geology, flora, and fauna. Many glaciers in the region offer a storehouse of pure, fresh water. We were constantly reminded, not only by the guides of BasqueMTB and the locals, how privileged we were to ride bikes in such surroundings. These reminders were hardly necessary in the presence of the mountains.

Benasque’s character as a former glacial hanging valley became readily apparent as our drivers navigated a winding gravel access road from the valley bottom at 800m to approximately 2,150m. From this high ridgeline, we then descended to the main Benasque valley to the Esera drainage. What a descent and what variety!

We started off in the high alpine with superlative views. Following a road traverse, we were very quickly into alpine tech, with trails carved willy-nilly by various Pyreneean wildlife and herd-animals. At treeline, we then hit some wonderfully fun rocky tech-gnar where our North Shore low-speed handling skills came into play, as did the long travel of our wonderful Orbea Rallon bikes.

Somewhat implausibly following this rocky jank-fest, the vistas opened up into incredibly grippy red slickrock. After navigating this fantastic Moab-ian tech-fest, the trails open up in speed as we rode into the more familiar Spanish lower forests, sliding and slipping through fast yet technical trails. That’s 1,235m of good honest descending.

Getting ready for run two from 2,160m. The following week this was covered in snow.

The Orbea Rallon in its natural environment.

At the Gallinero trailhead.

Mark and Matt of Team GB dropping into Gallinero.

Heading down the pass. Photo by Doug McDonald.

Steve, Wayne, and Joel on the Gallinero track.

It’s worth emphasizing again the sheer length and technicality of the Gallinero descent. It’s definitely not a ride for the ham-fisted or those not technically inclined. There were rocks stacked with pinpoint chutes to slide through. There were diverse trail routes and line choices, particularly at the treeline alpine interface, and committing ledges on slickrock.

Once we were through the tougher upper mountain, we were home free. From here, it was tech-flow singletrack where all you have to do is burn brake pads.

There were trail signs! Lee chasing Steve.

Tech Flow on the slickrock.

Down the Red Rocks. Photo by Doug McDonald.

Steve on the jank.

Gallinero is on the south side of Val Benasque’s main valley. On our third run, we moved over to Benasque’s north flanks. These north-side trails have their own distinctive characteristics, being a tad steeper perhaps then the Gallinero. As is typical with Val Benasque, the trails are natural and in fantastic shape.

We quickly found out that the trail quality in the Pyrenees is exceptionally high, even by our snooty North American standards. We had previously experienced trails in the much more traveled and touristed Alps, where cow and human travel would wear ruts, but those were not what we found here. Sure there was some erosion and not all trails were ribbons of meandering loam, but the trail surfaces were in really good shape. Technical challenges exist, not marked by fall-line ruts or abrupt nose-pivot turns, but instead by roots and rocks interspersed with fast sections.

These Val Benasque trails are not maintained in the way that a bike park would be maintained with berms and grade-reversals or sculpted jumps. However, they are clearly maintained in that water and drainage is considered in some erosion-mitigation efforts and brush and blowdowns are cut away.

Start of run three on Val Benasque’s north side.

Flowing through fall.

That evening we were honored to taste some local wine, beer, cheese, and Jamon at Hotel St Anton.

Overview of Val Benasque ride

All told, we descended about 4000m on our four runs in Val Benasque including Cerler, Integral Gallinera, Rabaltueres, and Pianadona.

Stay tuned for more mountain bike tales from Spain!