From the Ocean Atlantique to the Mer Mediterranee the Pyrenees mountain range undulates from east to west for over one thousand kilometers. Its summit chain pretty much marks the border between Spain and France, with the small enclave of Andorra slotting in along the way, like one small piece of a massive rugged jigsaw puzzle. I suppose when Spain and France were mortal enemies it saved a whole heap of stolen treasure in not having to build a replica great wall of China, thus it became the default border. It is home to giant birds of prey, deer, wolves, boar and yes, bears. There were twenty three a month or so ago but some over enthusiastic boar hunters shot a female protecting its cub, so our chances of seeing one had been reduced by over 5%.
We had moved a couple of hundred klicks north from the Picos and found ourselves confronted with 3000 meter Pyrenees peaks from our fourth floor apartment in the ski town of Cerler, 1600 meters up in the Parque Natural Posets Maladeta. The old town of Benasque, on the valley floor below, proved a mine of all things BTT via its info centre, park HQ and local bike shop. We were now armed with a monster map of 30 Rutus BTT rides and a web address www.bttpuropirineo.com of even more rides, along with GPS gpx track route downloads. Although english speakers were hard to come by, we managed to deduce that May and most of June were their quiet times, it goes ballistic in July and early August and from then on up until the start of the ski season where its back to being quiet.
Our first ride took us from Banasque along the Rio Esera on single track and old forestry and hydro roads. High in the mountains we rode to a ghost of a chateau, its asbestos roof flaking, windows boarded up on this massive monument perched on a cliff edge. The track then climbs to a wall of snowy mountains and ends abruptly on the Plan d Estan. Ditte's knee was still recovering so she cruised back via the main road, while I down-hilled the up trail.
We peddled a number of local rides discovering quaint mountain villages, lakes and dams via deserted farm tracks and back country roads. Churches rung their bells on the hour to old mechanical clock time and cows, sheep and goats rung theirs randomly. We even spotted the odd horse with one around its neck. The city of Banasque is a medium sized town with a few supermarkets, bakeries and butchers, plus plenty of bars and restaurants still open in the off season. Its mainly geared up for winter skiing and summer trekking but mountain biking is starting to make its mark.
The Spanish have adopted the French BTT-VTT-MTB track marking system of a triangle floating on two solid wheels and this was used effectively on all the local trails we rode. In fact these trails are so well marked getting lost would be difficult. From our downloaded Puro Pirineo guide we chose a couple of rides that started 10kms south of Banasque at the village of Villanova. Ride No 12 Rabalturas was our first ride. A long gradual climb that zig zagged up the lower slopes of the Sierra De Chia through tall forests and out into high meadows with magnificent views of the surrounding peaks, valleys and lakes. It continued up to 1900 meters at Quatro Cruces where the pure single track started, but we continued climbing to the 2100 meter saddle for views into the next valley over and a sunny lunch spot.
I was left to my own devices on the 1000 meters of mixed downhill single-track that returned me back to the start. There were some steep bits, flowing sections and plenty of rocky and rooty stuff to keep me on my toes. The builders had made a great job of joining up stock routes and benching through some difficult terrain. At the bottom, a smile from ear to ear was a dead giveaway, now for ride No 11, Magic Line a la Tuasa. A modest climb of 600-meters awaited me, across the road and on the outskirts of Sesue Village. I was on my own for this one and discovered a brilliant figure 8 trail that climbs on gravel road and descends on flowing BTT through a mixed forest of pine, birch and larch with some stream crossings and gnarly rocky sections thrown in.
From Cerler I followed a balcony trail to an old mine around the very steep contours of the Serra Poca Roya with stunning aerial views of Banasque and the immediate valley. It winds past the mine to an old cave that I suspect some of our ancestors once lived in. From there I rode, but mainly pushed, a smooth but steep single track up to around 2000 meters. This proved to be an amazing downhill and later in the season, when the ridge-top snow drifts had evaporated, it would make a wonderful round trip. It was time to pack our bags and head to the France that was embroiled in airline and fuel supply strikes.
We refueled at the border town of Bourg Madame with only 20kms to our rental apartment in Font Romeu, a ski town of Queenstown size and architecture. The local info centre supplied us with a colourful map titled “Espace VTT-FFC Pyrenees Catalanes” containing 40 VTT routes and a few extended tours. This along with our 1:25,000 www.ign.fr topo maps proved invaluable. Unlike Spain with its myriad of rules, regulations and ride restrictions, the French are really laid back and genuinely want to encourage the insane. A mixture of showers and sunshine cycled through most of the week, with clear mornings and mixed afternoons. After enjoying a few of the marked local trails, I was keen to try some of the back country tracks in the remoter parts of the surrounding area that were marked in red on our topo map No 2249 ETR.
The first trail, around Lac des Bouillouses and up the la Tet Valley to the saddle, proved to be a very rocky and technical ride indeed. Past the hydro lake, late snow melt made for a wet but enjoyable ride up to the saddle where massive waterfalls drowned out the cries of circling vultures. The return trip was way more fun, just like paddling in with the surf. This is where I perfected my 10 second selfies, as Ditte had decided walking was the best way to recover. The trick is to find a natural tripod or carry a light weight collapsible version. Then like everything in life, its just a matter timing. The La Monds start to the bike, but without tripping over the immediate terrain or a furry animal, the mount, the take off, and after much practice you may be lucky enough to end up in-frame riding.
A ride from Barrage de Puyvalador (hydro lake) utilizing one of the VTT short tours, a TV trail and a GR trail, introduced me to my first and second French version of the famous kiwi tramping hut. There ones are small, whimsical and made of local stone. The hut books are for poetry, musing and artistic expression which cover the pages in flowing French.. They both had tiny log stoves, polka dot table cloths, draped wooden tables and a library of philosophical French authors. I rode around the lake and through the forest to Refuge du Becet, then onward and upward on steep single-track to Refuge Oller. More climbing ensued to the high point of the ridge for lunch. Then as luck would have it, an amazing return downhill before continue the single-track circumnavigation of the barraged lake via the small village of Puyvalador. A mongrel dog pushed in line as I was about to fill up my water bottle at the village trough. For a moment I thought he was going for a swim and I would get covered in flying doggy spray. But no, him and his mate soon disappeared down a back alley on their own adventure leaving me surprised.
The local ornithological society had been busy placing wooden wind-up boxes around the lake edge track. Each emitted birdsong that frequented the lake and by the time I had returned the lake was full of birds, as Ditte had been at play (much to the annoyance of the local French fishermen). My next adventure took me south of Font Romeu and up the wooded da la vallee d'Eyne following a steep and rocky footpath into the mountains. Progress was made but a steep gorge soon made forward motion uneconomic. A great downhill it became, then lunch at Eyne, before tackling VTT no 22 Rec Del Moli - a circumnavigation of an adjacent peak and ski area. This was a mix of forestry uphill and fantastic endure descending, with 360 degree views. With the trail GPS loaded it was a breeze to follow this complicated circuit from the start and back to our picnic spot.
La Tour Des Garrotxes started out well from Col de la Llose, again initially through forestry then descending on remote trails between villages. A long section of single track above a deep gorge was especially memorable but from there the track got a bit boring for most of the second half. Rain came in late as I packed up the bike and headed back to our digs. It was time to move to Italy and for Ditte to see a doctor about her knee as recovery had plateaued. I was surprised she had put up with it for this long.
A full day of driving saw us cross the border from France into Italy and then up the Aosta Valley. The valley is surrounded by massive peaks, many over 4000 meters, still snow topped and very pretty. On a very narrow and windy road we found the beautiful village of St Nicolas and our digs, a house sized palace. An early start to the doctors, followed by a hospital specialist, and X-rays, showed a broken kneecap. Exit Netherlands, but only after a rest day for Ditte - following all the medical prodding and poking, and an epic ride around Mt Fallere for me.
We had ridden part of this track a few years back, but had trouble finding the trail while trying to follow a poorly marked track. This time I was armed with a GPS gpx download of the entire route. I encountered four seasons in one day, with sunshine, rain, hail and sleet appearing randomly during the 62km ride and 2450 meters of climbing. It was amazing riding up to the snow line and around the southern aspect of Mt Fallere. Despite the inclement weather, I really enjoyed the long single-track traverses and downhills while my Ground Effect Storm Trooper jacket and Helter Skelter leggings kept me comfortable, dry and warm at the high precipitacious altitudes. A long final descent ensued from Tsa de la Comba with fabulous riding into the forest and all the way back to the quaint stone roofed village of Vetan, then down to St Nicolas. That feeling of stunned satisfaction at the end of a long hard day was tempered by the realization of an 1100km drive the very next.