On a recent trip across the Pyrenees with Basque MTB, Pete followed some ancient trading routes from a once deserted hamlet in the Sierra de Guara, to the market town of Ainsa.

Words by Pete Scullion | Photos by Sam Needham.
Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

Crossing Cowboy Country.

With a population density lower than parts of the Sahara Desert, Sierra de Guara offers a unique experience lacking in artificial light, phone signal, background noise or any of the pitfalls of modern living.

Away from the coast and the motorways, the northern regions of the Basque Country, Navarra and Aragon get very empty with every passing kilometre. The road seemed familiar enough to begin with as both myself and snapper Sam Needham had been this way on a trip with Basque MTB in 2014.

Carlos unpacks the van of the day’s essentials in the bright morning light on our first day in the cowboy country.

Into the unknown.

It didn’t take long after me and Sam joined Doug, Basque MTB’s owner, and Carlos, our multi-lingual guide, that we collected Paul from Vojo, Muriel from MTBPro and our videographer, Ian in the famous bullfighting city of Pamplona, before we were into new territory. By the time darkness fell we were a long way from a road of any size, winding our way from the broad plains into some serious mountains.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

When not hosting bikers, the owners of our accommodation for the night, run horse treks in this amazing part of northern Spain. Pete ready to rock and roll.

A village reclaimed.

Our first ride out of a formerly derelict hostel starts with a rowdy 4×4 ride up a long, broken access track onto the shoulder of Tozal de Guara. As we leave the high pastures, the gradient steepens and Doug motions to our driver that he’s never seen anyone get up it. Challenge set, manual diff locks on, and we winch our way skyward with the ever-present vultures circling.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

Wild saffron blooms carpet the tree-less parts of the hillsides, adding a dash of colour to a fairly mute ground underfoot.

Running with the pack.

Long, steep and loose, this has my name written all over it. Everyone is now a bit more comfortable on their bikes and have found their place in the pack. Sam and Doug disappear into the closing darkness, whilst me and Ian trade places, Muriel and Paul seem content out back, with Carlos playing sweeper. If only we’d had daylight enough to ride the full monty! Bright smiles are plainly obvious in the advancing darkness.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

Paul Humbert of French outfit Vojo enjoying a fast, blind drop on the first descent where we could let it rip.

Heading down the mountain.

Once atop a long, broad ridge, we’re back under our own steam, winching our way to the peak in the distance. Storm heads bulge above us, and the first cracks of thunder make everyone a bit nervous. As we cross the col towards Tozal, the light begins to fade, and we make tracks down what has to be one of the best big mountain trails I’ve ridden.

Paul hitting another drop on the school run down to Nocito. Children would walk this route to the church and school at the top of the hill in all weathers. Not an SUV in sight.

Million star hotel.

We camped beneath the stars that night, Bertran and his daughter Eva put on a fine spread, pitched our tents and told tales that seemed too tall, but were nothing but the truth. Someone should make a feature film about this man!

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

After dispatching the drop in the shot above, this staircase was accessed by a sharp right-hand turn that required full commitment. I took a few goes before taking the plunge!

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

Above my head, you can see where we were aiming for. Tozal de Guara is the tallest peak in the area at a peep over 2,000m. Failing light would stop us in our tracks, but the run off the col was all time.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

Paul leads out Carlos and Muriel down the flag-paved bedrock under the Tozal’s watchful eye.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

The architect of the trip, Doug McDonald of BasqueMTB attacks the bedrock like it’s going out of fashion. This trip was his baby and you could tell a hell of a lot of prep had gone into it.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

After a long, rowdy 4×4 ride up the side of the mountain, vultures and diff locks aplenty, Doug leads Paul out with the Pyrenees proper in the distance.

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Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

Vast stormheads grew and darkened overhead as we winched our way to the col below Tozal de Guara. Thankfully they would dump on Zaragoza in the plains below, the lightning flashes would ignite the starry sky above our camp for the night.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

Chasing Doug would always keep me on my toes and pushing me to up my game. Possessing what I call ‘guide speed’, that annoyingly effortless pace that comes with riding big bikes in big mountains 24/7.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

This mountain refuge would be our restaurant and digs for the night, for anyone not wanting to sleep in a tent. I opted to shun the fire and take to the tents, an odd move for someone who does not take to camping. Bertran’s dogs were the friendliest wee beasts going too.

The cowboy himself. Bertran Cauchy. Originally from France, trying to decipher his life story that we were treated to was something else. You could make a film about his life all too easily. WRC Rally of Africa mechanic, horse trekking leader in north Africa, big mountain skiier… Trying to keep tabs on where this man has been and what he’s done is mind-boggling.

All roads lead to Ainsa.

Day two started with foggy heads and sore legs but under blue skies with strong coffee, everything was looking good. Today would be the big one. 50km from our overnight spot deep in the Sierra de Guara, all the way to Ainsa. A full day’s riding without a road or human being in sight. We didn’t even see power lines until the final approaches to the now infamous EWS venue.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

After peeling off from Nocito, our 50km ride along an old trading route to Ainsa would take us past an 11th century cathedral. The old timer at the door couldn’t wait to tell me all about it in a Spanish accent so thick, I just had to smile and nod politely.

Endless singletrack.

The previous morning’s uplift-assisted runs were put in stark contrast with riding this massive tract of empty landscape, just a thin ribbon of singletrack guiding us along the way. Riding blind is great fun, but hard on the body, as we simply didn’t know how far we still had to go. Long, torturous climbs were, as always, rewarded with endless singletrack of every possible type. Grip was always high, and knowing how to ride blind fast paid some massive dividends.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

Tecnhical singletrack for days! After winching our way up some lung busting climbs in ferocious heat, constantly circled by vultures, we’d be rewarded by mile after mile of grin-factor 50.

Candle burnt at both ends.

Approaching Ainsa though, I’d been burning the wick a little too hard, and my toys almost left the pram. In a silver cloud moment my dropper broke, and while Doug and Carlos turned the air blue to fix it, I took the opportunity to have a much needed lie down in the van, and was asleep before my eyes closed. Spent.

My toys almost left the pram before I had a word with myself. While Doug and Carlos fixed my dropper, I may or may not have keeled over in the van. I was asleep before my eyes closed!

Hammering the vine terraces.

After recharging the batteries, I was like new and full of beans in anticipation for riding arguably the most iconic EWS stage from the Ainsa event. Hammering down the vine terraces along a route to the now derelict church, I was again doing my level best to keep pace with Doug, who was scorching off into the distance. After a few wild moments, I opted to just keep it rubber side down and try to enjoy it.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

What would you do if you found a snake skin?

All the pizza.

Pizza in the market square at Ainsa was the perfect way to end a massive day in the mountains. This one third of our crossing of the Pyrenees and I for one couldn’t wait to see what was to come. A group of strangers would become friends over the following 200km+ in the empty mountains of the Pyrenees, but we’d meet more amazing people with some crazy stories along the way.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

With energy levels critical, it’s just as well the final clatter into Ainsa was all downhill. We’d been on the bikes all day and were at the point where tiredness allowed the bike to flow a little better.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

The 11th Century market town of Ainsa is an awesome place to ride bikes from, but also an even better place to finish a monster bike ride. The old town has a charm like nowhere else, plus steak and pizza in the market square is the best.

Basque MTB Orbea Bicycles Pyrenees Conexion Nocito Sam Needham Wideopenmag

From the hill above Ainsa, the sun catching the Pyrenees to the north was quite something. A taste of things to come.

For anybody wanting to escape the rat race with a bicycle, Sierra de Guara might well be the place for you. Endless ancient singletrack stretches off in all directions through a landscape devoid of humans, and for the most part even their influence. If you can’t remember the last time you had no phone signal for days or haven’t spent days without seeing anyone else but your pals, then BasqueMTB might well have the trip for you.

Big thanks to Doug and Carlos at BasqueMTB for the trip of a lifetime, Orbea for the bikes and supporting Doug’s vision, and Sam, Ian, Paul and Muriel for the good times!


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