11 December, 2020

Hard for the Body is Good for the Soul

What is hard for the body is good for the soul

Text: Douglas McDonald

It has been a hard year the whole world over. In Spain we were confined to our houses for a long time with no possibility of biking and plenty of time to think. One thing I know that all my mountain biking friends felt was the call of the mountains. I think it is fair to say that we all had similar thoughts; we were thinking about our mountains but their absence made us think a bit differently. Looking at the mountains from indoors made us much more aware of the environment and of how we interacted with it. I personally was left with a real desire to enjoy the connection my bike gives me to the trails and mountains, not just wanting to blast through landscapes at full speed but rather to embrace the experiences and let them deeply into my soul. I wanted a feeling of intimacy with the environment. I wanted kick off the shackles of lockdown and breathe fresh, clean air, sleep below the stars, avoid towns and uplift vans and hotels. I wanted to suffer a bit. What is hard for the body is good for the soul.

Video: Martín Campoy

I think that it´s also fair to say that I also wanted to have a clear goal, something to keep my spirits up during our national lockdown. I wanted a reason to suffer the mind numbing boredom of keeping fitness up while we were confined to our houses. Something to motivate me to put in hours on rollers, or practice hopping around the garage on my bike. I have had a route in mind for a while now. I wanted to link three of our favourite Pyrenees riding areas and in the process, ride all around Aneto, the highest mountain in the Pyrenees. There are some great camp spots on the way and I wanted to use our friends at Trekking Mule to help supply a chain of high mountain camps. (I wanted to suffer but, this is Spain after all and if I can get a hot meal and a glass of wine along the way then I´m not going to say no!)

I spoke to Orbea about helping us record this trip, and they instantly agreed to send along a filmer and photographer. And so it was that I started to assemble a team and contact old friends from around the country. It was a no-brainer to invite Kike Albeira, a fantastic photographer who also is very handy on a bike plus a great relaxing guy to have around. Filming was taken care of by Martin Campoy, one of the fastest riders in the Pyrenees, a ukulele maestro and a great filmer as well. Quiri was next, he is another Orbea ambassador and has a great youtube channel. Quiri is also famous for being in a punk band in the 80´s and now travels the world singing and playing his drums. The next person was obvious, it wouldn´t have been the same without Paul Humbert from Vojo magazine. Paul came along on the very first Pyrenees adventure trip we ran with Orbea and we needed to have him there. And finally we had Borja and me (Doug) from basqueMTB, taking care of the organisation of the trip. 

All adventures need a name and I´m going to call this trip the “Tour de Aneto”. I planned a 3 night adventure, linking the valleys of Cinca to the valley of Benasque then onto Val d´Aran before crossing back over to Benasque across some of the highest rideable trails in the Pyrenees. It is an adventurous route but the rewards are amazing with some of the very best trails in the Pyrenees and a series of incredible high mountain camping spots.

The group all met in Ainsa which often seems to be the jumping-off point of any adventures in the Pyrenees. Spirits were high, socially-distanced elbow bumps were exchanged and last minute spares were bought in the bike shops in town.  From there we drove north to the beautiful mountain village of Sarevillo where we left our van. Our goal that night was to reach Ibon de Plan where we would meet with our mule team who would have our camp set up ready for us. The guys at Trekking Mule are good friends and we have been working with them for trips for several years now, ever since we organised one of their first bike camps a few years ago. It was great to see Alberto and Alvarro, and their mules, at the top of the trail. These are guys who I find it hard to imagine meeting anywhere other than a wide open mountain top; guys who camp more days than they sleep inside and who live with their mules in the open air.

These are mountain dwelling, mule-smelling, good people with faces wrinkled in equal parts by the sun and by endless smiles. When we arrived, they had already prepared some tents for us and the food was already on the stove. We sat around the table together, feeling the fresh air and open spaces lift our spirits. Gradually the sun sank down and the stars came out. Wine glasses were refilled and when wine ran out whisky was substituted. There was ukulele playing and singing deep into the night. Finally everyone crawled off to their tents but I opted to sleep out under the open sky and watch the stars wheel across the mountain tops until finally I fell deeply asleep. 

The next few days were amazing and although they were hard for the body, they were good for the soul.  The days followed a pattern, starting with a very early breakfast at camp; coffee and toasts and more coffee with amazing views across the high mountains. We drank coffee until the sun started to warm the mountain air a little bit and then we had a big hike a bike to reach that day´s high mountain pass and from there we had amazing, long, technical descents. Each descent took us from one valley to the next, keeping Aneto to our right and working our way slowly around it like the hands on a clock.When we reached each valley we typically had time for a bit more riding before we had to make our way to our next campsite with a short van transfer and a bit of a climb on the bike. Each night when we arrived to camp we found tents pitched, dinner cooking and a bottle of wine ready for our enjoyment. We spent the evenings watching the sun set, eating great food, drinking better whisky and singing along with Martin´s endless ukulele repertoire as the starts came out. When the time came the choice was where to sleep inside or outside of the tents. 

In each valley we met old friends and work mates like Chris at Pyrenees Connection or Mark and David at BikeParksArran. These are people who helped shape each valley and who, in the process were themselves equally shaped by the valley. It was great to see these old friends again and spend some of our adventure with them. In each valley the riding has it´s own character, formed by aeons of geology and also by the character of these local trail workers. One day we enjoyed the most anti-flow trails you could ever imagine, picking our way down using all the tricks and techniques we could just to get the bikes over the jumble of rocks and around the seemingly impossible corners. As a balance, the next trail was the most serpentine ribbon of dirt with endless flow and naturally bermed corners for what felt like hours.  That is Pyrenees riding for you; a real mixture and it always keeps you honest! You need to be a well rounded rider, and you need a bike which can adapt to any style of riding, from fast and flowy to rough and technical. We used a mixture of trails, some maintained for biking but also a lot of high mountain paths, this is the mountaineer´s territory and relatively few bikers venture here. All the people we crossed on our adventure were interested to see our bikes and had lots of questions about our trip. It is important to share these special places and a mutual respect between walkers and mountain bikers is essential to a long term enjoyment of these places for both parties. 

After almost 4 days of riding we arrived to the end of our adventure. It was short but intense. We finished with a 2000m descent all the way to the Valle de Benasque. More specifically the village of Benasque. More specifically the trail ended at the bar at Hotel San Anton where we ordered beers, drunk them and repeated the process very quickly. Backs were patted and elbows were bumped. Our Tour de Aneto was over and it was exactly what we had needed. It was great to be outdoors, to reconnect with our environment, to reconnect with friends and in doing so to lift a weight off our souls. Like we said, hard for the body is good for the soul. 

I couldn’t write this article without mentioning the global pandemic we found ourselves in. It was partly the force that shaped this adventure, however during our trip we found ourselves in an ever-changing situation with new rules often appearing as we arrived to the next town. We aimed to be very respectful of the populations in the little villages we passed, that meant that as soon as we arrived we put masks on and tried to keep a distance. You will see in the video that not everyone is wearing masks, that changes as the video progresses because the advice changed during our trip. We all had individual tents, or slept under the stars. In the vans we all wore masks, and the usual hugs we would share with friends were replaced by elbow bumps. The team of 6 people who made this trip had all been in isolation in the weeks running up to the video and we made the decision to wear masks when we were in enclosed spaces but on the mountains it was not possible. We took people´s temperatures in camp each day and hand sanitiser was used whenever we took our gloves off. We felt very safe and as always we felt very welcomed by the people in the villages we passed through. Following the video nobody involved in this video, or who we had contact with, showed any symptoms for CoVid. This isn´t the place to be political but please stay safe, try to protect yourselves and those around you and follow all the best advice. Lets hope that we can beat this virus and get back to guiding and riding, carefree, in the mountains.