Enduro trip through the Pyrenees

All Saints’ Day, 1st of November, and here in Austria it’s an unseasonal 20° C. The bike has been retrieved from the basement and the carefully prepared skis have been put back in their bag. In other words, our plans have changed. For one last time this year we’re going on a bike trip. Our destination is the Pyrenees. Something we’ve been planning for a long while, but never quite managed to make happen.

First of all we had to postpone because of workrelated issues. At some point a second cousin once removed had a decadal birthday; next we noticed that the dear cat had bleeding gums. Another cancellation was due to the (unfashionable) fact that the common cold hits men particularly hard. But finally, we’re on our way!

The Pyrenees, Catalonia, and their confusing boundaries

During our plane’s final approach into Barcelona, the advent of winter becomes visibly clear. The summits of the Pyrenees have clearly long been sprinkled white. But the snow is restricted to the higher altitudes and we’re confident that we’ll be able to find plenty of snowfree routes down there.

As we stride out of the arrivals area, beladen like asses, we immediately look for two things. We need something to eat: economy airlines mean hungry landings. And we’re looking out for Ian, our host and guide for the coming seven days. In the distance, next to the bunch of guys in suits and ties, we spot someone wearing outdoorsorientated clothing. He’s looking for us, and appears a little frantic. But we’re hardly difficult to spot, given the amount of luggage we’re carrying. Laden with sandwiches, cake and coffee, we head over to his van and after three hours driving back into France we reach our accommodation, the “Mouli del Riu”.

Chambre et tables d’host

My knowledge of French is more than wobbly, and so it takes several days before I truly get to grips with this phrase and concept. It’s a French way of running a guesthouse, where the proprietors share a table with the guests at dinner. After our journey, past the famous Montserrat monastery and high into the Pyrenees, it becomes clear: “evening meals are definitely sorted”. Ian has a vast knowledge of the area and its history, and has a large repertoire of funny stories from his life as a guide. We hang on his every word.

For today, we’re more than satisfied with dinner and a goodnight beer, and fall dogtired into our beds. Did I mention that winter is on its way? It’s cold and I’m grateful for my extremely warm duvet.

Off to the sea

Because the weather forecast for the next two days is “cold and wet”, we head east towards the Mediterranean. This threeday trip down to the foothills of the Pyrenees had actually been planned for the end of the week, but we’re more than flexible – and pleased that with every turn of the pedals we’re getting further away from the bad weather.

Before heading off, Ian shows us on the map where we’re headed. It’s our first time in the Pyrenees and we pore over it, devouring its information like a child with a bag of sweets. A thick black line gets us pondering. It soon becomes clear that Catalonia isn’t restricted to Spain. But while south of the border the demand for independence is growing ever stronger, here people see themselves primarily as French, although they are proud of their Catalonian roots. The previous day, we had noticed yellow ribbons hanging from lampposts all along our route. We even saw yellow stripes painted in all different sizes on buildings and cliff faces.

Now we’re finally off; the next history lesson will have to wait. We set out from St Pierre del Forcats, at an altitude of 1200 m, and first of all ride further up in order to get warm. There’s a vast network of paths here, in many places marked VTT (French for MTB) to indicate that they are official cycling routes. Three left turns, four right turns and already we no longer have any idea where we are. Confusion tactics, to demonstrate the need to have an official guide? No, just local knowledge being used to show us the best routes around the Mouli. We ride through dense oak and birch forests, brightly coloured for autumn, and over constantly changing terrain. The trails are generally fast, but feature lots of roots and are sometimes very tricky, with tight bends. Variety is guaranteed, and that’s our first taste of riding in the Pyrenees.

On the trail of the Romans

On our way to the beach we encounter numerous ruined buildings and also a few forts that are still wellpreserved. Many are from the time of the Romans, who controlled this area for a long time and crossed the Pyrenees by the famous Via Augustus. We find ourselves with our enduro bikes in ruts created by immense Roman wagons that were dragged over the pass by oxen. It’s fascinating to think of Hannibal, who crossed the Alps around 200 BC, beginning his journey here.

We find the enormity of the history here intensely humbling. It almost feels like a history trip with a sprinkling of bikerelated activity. But a look at the watch and the map makes it clear that actually we have done rather a lot of cycling. The ground begins by alternating between dry mud and lots of springy forest floor, with frequent irksome, diagonallyplaced roots that demand good riding technique and constant awareness. Further down in the valley it becomes increasingly rockier, with broom and other prickly plants far more challenging than the tree roots from earlier. We wish we were wearing long socks, or perhaps pairs of strimmers mounted on our calves. Meanwhile, there goes another ancient ruin …

Cafe solo and Star Wars

Ian suddenly realises that if we don’t regularly get coffee, things are going to get tricky for all of us. So we begin stopping off the charming old villages for caffeine boosts. The official phrase “Bistrots les Pays” guarantees top quality produce, and already after one day we’re constantly on the lookout for the elegant little signs that bear these words as we ride through the twisting lanes in the villages and small towns. The same procedure is followed once we cross the border into Spain. I’m reminded of a time here many years ago, when – not knowing a word of Spanish – I thought that the question “café solo” was simply an attempt to sell me something to eat with my coffee. Because I still drank the elixir of life with milk in those days, wasn’t interested in cake, and answered “Si” (I did actually have one word of Spanish), it quickly became clear that the question was probably about whether I wanted milk. I choked the dark brew down and learnt something. Nowadays my coffee is black by choice, and when it comes to placing the order I am master. Learning through suffering …

En route to the sea, the limestone has now given way to conglomerate rock which gives excellent grip (also when wet), and from time to time we also encounter granite. The paths now have less loose gravel on them but there are more boulders, which we are happy to use for our fun. There’s a free choice as to how challenging a line you want to take, and we’re glad to be totally lost in both time and space. With our heart rates raised a little from the frequent coffee stops, in our doodlings we lose track of time and with the advent of a few clouds it’s suddenly almost dark.

Yet again, Ian has a fitting story at the ready and with much mirth recounts the story of how he talked shit (of sheep) up to the status of ewok droppings. Those fabled cuddly animals from Star Wars are actually real and the few still remaining live here furtively within the labyrinth of old mine workings in the area. Some of the clients, Ian tells us, polished off their sandwiches at lightning speed and used the wrappings to pack away some of the little brown balls of mere ovine origin. As though they were the most valuable thing in the world, these were then stashed in as crashresistant way possible within the clients’ rucksacks.

We’re already picturing our evening beers and listen with only half an ear. Off we go, through wild cork oak forests and along intensely challenging trails down to Cerét where the day will finish. But Ewoks?

Beach in sight

The last day starts with a comfortable drive up to altitude. After just a little pedalling we start the downhill, riding through Mediterranean fields. We can already see our goal, a small sandy bay near Argelès-sur-Mer. But before we hit the beach we want to spend the day doing some exploring. There’s a complex network of paths here, and Ian feels like trying out something new with us. We aren’t saying no, so we leave the known routes and head out into adventure. We push our bikes up the mountain a little and then ride a fairly tricky upanddown forest path around the surrounding hills. We love it – it’s perfect for anyone who enjoys the variety found in constant and complex short climbs and descents.

And what’s more, in this forest there isn’t a single prickly bush and our legs are safe again. The last section down to the sea is an enduro trail that has been built by the locals. We fly between banked curves and jumps of all sizes. From time to time we allow ourselves a short break, and take photos or munch on the fruit of Arbutus unedo, the strawberry tree. Ian tries to urgently tell us, in a shocked voice, that this is probably the most toxic plant in the whole Pyrenees – but he hasn’t reckoned with our prior Portuguese strawberry tree experience. As a result, we assume botanical expert status, sort of. Yum yum.

Our driver Jan (whom we name “The Swiss Clock”) arrives at the beach punctually to the minute (as always). And he doesn’t arrive emptyhanded. Various types of pizza, chilli sauce and beer are on board. Good times! We savage a slice or two each, to deal with what Germanspeakers call “hot hunger”, and then relaxedly work through the rest of the stack. Finally, and not without some careful consideration (we Austrians are by temperament wary of anything sea), we jump into the cool water one more time. And then we’re on our way home to the Mouli.

Dinosaurs and vultures

The next days are to be all about mountaintops. We push ourselves hard and acquire some serious Spanish altitude. Unfortunately there’s snow from 1900 m (we’re on the north side), which means wet feet and cold bones. But also a nice feeling from reaching the other side of the mountain. There waits a very challenging singletrack, an eternally long descent into the valley. We’ve been daft enough to leave our waterproof trousers in the van; soaked to the skin, we keep a good look out for a tapas bar. We don’t have to search for long: in we surge, behaving as though everything’s available free of charge today. The owner grins and knows exactly what we want: beer and tapas all round, in large quantities.

On the way to our last descent of the day, we pass a very prominent cliff face. Above it vultures are circling and we try to estimate their wingspan. As we look at the rocks more closely other animals appear in the form of numerous fossils, right across the cliff, from left to right, from top to bottom. Ian tells us that during opencast mining, traces of dinosaurs were discovered. With wideopen eyes and chins on the floor, we go closer and place our hands in the lithified footprints. And it just wouldn’t be Ian, if he didn’t have a crazy story ready for us. Apparently many years ago some clients – standing in front of these footprints in the vertical cliff – had been astonished to find out that back in the day, dinosaurs were able to walk on vertical surfaces. Sure, a brontosaurus with suction pads on its feet: probably a completely new discovery, right here in the Pyrenees.

Roland, the geologist in our group, had briefly explained stratification, plate tectonics and mineral extraction to us. The multiple layers of coal and other rock forms provide insights into the repeated extinction events in the region. Millions of years of life are lined up here, one after the other, twisted from horizontal to vertical by plate tectonic action. It’s a strange feeling, seeing all this as though in timelapse photography. At the youngest end of these now vertically aligned layers there’s a bulldozer … and then us. Having seen enough, it’s time to get moving again. The coldness is starting to bite, making it very clear that we’re in November. We pedal off; riding on damp, mossy stone with pretty much zero grip means that we’re warm again straight away.

Hot springs, cool beer

Better that way, than the other way round. After riding past several commercial spa complexes, we asked Ian whether there were any natural hot springs around. And we don’t have to travel far. Only 15 minutes from the Mouli there’s a spring that feeds several different natural pools in the surrounding rock. On a slope partway up the side of a mountain, hot water appears out of the ground. Over the years, pools have formed – mainly through the natural geological process but also with human assistance. Just like your bath at home, you can get the water just right: if you want it cooler, go down to a lower pool. We consider ourselves pretty tough, so we start right at the top. But despite the chilly air temperature at this time of year, we can’t handle this top pool at all. Neither could our beer: it took just a minute or so to transform itself from cool and refreshing into something much less pleasant that was essentially hop tea.

Flexible Pyrenees

In this short time we have fallen head over heels in love with the area. Not just because the trails are all so magnificent, but also because there is such a wide range of options here. If the weather in the mountains is bad, just ride for an hour or so towards the sea. If the rain is coming from the north or the south, you simply head over to the other side of the mountain you’re on. Because the trails aren’t all up high, there are all different levels of difficulty available and every day there is something new and different to try.

And if the weather is a problem absolutely everywhere, there’s still the hot spring option, or Ian’s pool table in the hotel. Although there’s one thing we did discover: it’s never worth challenging a British guy to a game of pool.