Mountain Biking In The Pyrenees
The alarm goes off too early for a Saturday morning. Bleary eyed, head downstairs to the coffee machine, bring up tea and coffee to the room. Ease open the creaking wooden balcony doors and shutters and sit contemplating the empty town square in Boltaña. The sun hasn’t even fully come up yet, it’s hidden behind the hills, the light in this valley still just a gray dawn. I’m feeling the light throbbing of nervous butterflies in my stomach. Trying to stay focused on the present, the warmth of my cup of tea contrasting with the cool morning air, the gray cobblestones contrasting with the splashes of color from the balcony flowers. The church in the town square rising to meet the sky, with multitudes of tiny swallows playfully fluttering around the eaves, the only audible sound aside from the light rustle of my Patagonia jacket.
Tie my trail running shoes, double check my backpack has all the right things, zip a seemingly infinite number of zippers, take a deep breath, head out the door. We’ve set the meeting time for 9:00, and make sure to hit the road extra early. It’s only a few miles down the road, but on these mountain roads, it always seems like more. Nobody on the road except for the occasional work van speeding by, on their way to deliver bread or beer or other supplies to the villages. This is one of those mountain roads, like many in the Pyrenees, that has sharp cliffs dropping off the side. Take it slow, enjoy the stunning views of the valley below. Worry a little about the road to Jánovas: on Google Maps, it looks like a tiny pista forestal with a steep drop, but turns out it’s a normal left turn onto a normal road. We arrive to Jánovas at 8:30. Half an hour early, what now? The first thing to notice is the road leading into town is completely submerged in water. The only bridge to cross the river, is pedestrian – the “bridge” for cars is just a cement slab that doesn’t even rise out of the water. Heart pounding a little quicker. How is this going to work? Don’t let your nerves get the best of you, Spencer.
Text The Bike Guy to let him know we’ve arrived and we won’t be able to cross the river by car. Take a quick walk around by the river, notice a guy standing on the riverbank by his van where he’s apparently camping. (Contemplate, once again, the fascinating life that van people lead, and consider when to get my own van.) At 9:00 the white van arrives. The Bike Guy is clearly made for the mountains and extreme sports. His laid-back demeanor makes us feel at ease as he unloads and checks the bikes and reassures us this will be easy before he hops back in the van and speeds away. We did choose the easiest trail in Zona Zero, in fact. With a few adjustments of the seats, click the helmet strap into place, and it’s go time. The first step is to cross the roaring river via the wooden pedestrian bridge that looks like it’s seen better days. Wooden planks that have been replaced at varying intervals in its history. I grit my teeth and push the pedals and make my way across, making sure to look ahead and not down through the slats at the frigid, roaring waters.
Okay, made it across! I feel ready for anything. Now it’s gravel roads for a while, passing through the village of Jánovas, learning that it has literally been completely abandoned, but people are bringing it back to life, so there are some construction materials lying around. Start slowly making an upward trajectory on the way out of town, noticing how the tires just glide over rocks and roots like butter, I can hardly feel a single bump. This is going to be a long ride, I think, as my thighs are already starting to burn. Click down to second, then first gear, my legs pumping faster while the fluorescent yellow bike goes slower and slower. This is mountain biking, though. Better get used to it. The rocky trails turn into dirt trails as we make our way into the forest, splashing through streams, getting sneakers wet. I start going through the puddles instead of around them, like a child splashing in puddles on a rainy day. This is what mountain bikes are made for, right? Coming out of the forest, the trail opens up into the lushest, greenest meadow I can remember ever seeing. For a while it’s flat, with large rocks hidden under the grass, and a magnificent view of the river below. I inhale the fresh mountain air and marvel at the surrounding landscapes – how is it possible for a place to be this beautiful?
It goes on and on like this for the entire morning: rocky trails, forest trails, meadows, and one-lane mountain roads where thankfully there aren’t any cars at this hour. Grinding uphill in first gear, panting hard, removing layers of clothing as the late morning sun beats down. Then suddenly, it’s all downhill, the speed injecting us with a sense of freedom, shouting “woohoooooo!!” into the silent mountain air. This is quite possibly the closest I’ve ever felt to being a superhero.
Having four or more hours to do this route before turning in the bikes, there were plenty of opportunities to stop and rest. The picnic table next to the cow pasture, the perfect spot to take a break for almuerzo, the ham sandwich and cold water reviving our spirits. The tiny villages with their water fountains full of fresh mountain water. And let’s be honest, the multitude of stops to take pictures to document this adventure.
The halfway point of this 28-kilometer journey was Fiscal, the biggest town in the immediate area. At this point my legs and back are begging me to rest. A quick tour of the town done, the next stop was a bar for a well-deserved caña and a slice of tortilla de patata, with sweeping views of the valley, of course.
After a half-hour rest, it’s time to hit the trail and finish this route. The way back is quite similar, with a short detour near the end to reach Jánovas from the other side. There were a number of stretches of rocky downhill path where gravity did its job and the brakes seemed like merely a suggestion. Standing up on the pedals to feel more control of the bike, I start to nearly feel like a mountain biking expert. Rounding the corner and heading down the rocky hill, I can see Jánovas and the river come into view. Once again I cross the creaky old wooden bridge from the morning, this time a new person who’s just overcome another fear. Invincible! After a long stretching session, we wolf down the last half of our ham sandwiches by the river and smile, high fiving each other: Another adventure for the books.