Quiet, Almost Se­cret, Trails on the Coast

The Basque re­gion of north­ern Spain has chal­leng­ing rid­ing for you to discover

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Steve Thomas

The Basque re­gion of north­ern Spain has chal­leng­ing rid­ing for you to discover

Yes, I ad­mit it: I was freaked out by the twisty trails on the tightly wooded slope in Basque Coun­try. I did fal­ter a time or two. Nat­u­rally, I put that down to the fact I was rid­ing an all-new (to me) rental bike, one that was a mil­lion tech­ni­cal miles ahead of my reg­u­lar hard­tail. We were some­where just i nland from the craggy Basque coast­line of north­ern Spain, neatly squeezed into a slice of im­pres­sive green­ery be­tween the wa­ter and the Pyre­nees. I sup­pose these are tech­ni­cally foothills. As they top out well above 1,200 m, the term small moun­tains may be a tad more ap­pro­pri­ate. The lan­guage and cul­ture of Basque Coun­try is strik­ingly dif­fer­ent than what you’d find just an hour or so far­ther in­land or along the coast. The scenery is also far re­moved from your typ­i­cal Span­ish semidesert-like land. Here it’s deeply green, steep, craggy and is of­ten lashed by the wrath of the tor­rents from the Bay of Bis­cay, all of which adds up to some­thing a whole lot more wild than you would ex­pect of such a south­ern Euro­pean re­gion.

Ear­lier that morn­ing, I’d risen from the haze of a great night out in the small sea­side town of Hon­dar­ribia. (There had been a pin­cho [a lo­cal take on ta­pas] and lo­cal red wine crawl.)

From the hill­top base of Basque mtb, a lo­cal tour op­er­a­tor, we could see an eerie morn­ing mist ris­ing over the rooftops be­low, which usu­ally sig­nals a sunny day of rid­ing ahead.

Our lead guide for the day was Doug Mcdon­ald, who, as you may have guessed, was not a lo­cal by birth. He has some­what been adopted since mov­ing here from his na­tive Scot­land a few years ear­lier. Mcdon­ald is a sci­en­tist by train­ing and some­one who sim­ply loves to ride his moun­tain bike. Af­ter meet­ing a Basque lass, he de­cided to ditch the test tubes and take to the trails.

For our open­ing ride, we drove out of town for around 30 min­utes or so, up through a wooded gorge and on to open and rolling high ground, which of­fered great views of the coast be­low. We were headed down, even­tu­ally. Climb­ing is kept to a min­i­mum on most days. At the bot­tom of the de­scent, vans would be wait­ing to take us back up for yet an­other blast of fun. Per­fect.

The weather along this coastal fringe is pretty tem­per­a­men­tal and can vary from bay to bay. The guides tend to work with the ev­er­chang­ing daily fore­casts to keep things sunny side up as much as pos­si­ble. From the high ground (if you stop for long enough), you can ac­tu­ally see the weather fronts sweep in and tra­verse the coast­line, which is quite mes­mer­iz­ing.

Fol­low­ing a steep and grassy up­hill slog, we topped out, and then be­gan fol­low­ing a maze of rolling sin­gle­tracks around the hill­side, drop­ping through rocky out­crops. Next was the first wooded sec­tion. The trail was slightly down­hill over roots and big rocks, with the odd wa­ter splash hurled in for good mea­sure. For me, this run was far more tech­ni­cal than I’d rid­den for a good few years. Of course, it ended up with me face plant­ing over one sheep-size mossy root, which later had me un­nerved for the day’s very long and steep trail down through the trees.

I hung back a few bike lengths here with Car­los, one of the guides, who is also a qual­ity down­hiller and ma­jor contributor to the trail build­ing on this sec­tion. It was steep,

loose, tight and not a place to be hes­i­tant on. Here it was a case of all or noth­ing, and un­for­tu­nately I rode some­where in be­tween, which was far from ideal. All I can say is thank the big guy for dropper seat­posts.

Al­though it had been an im­pres­sive open­ing day of full-on rid­ing, the images that had lured me to the area were those of pris­tine coastal sin­gle­track. Head in ei­ther di­rec­tion along the coast and you’ll leave be­hind the ur­ban cen­tres and find your­self rat­tling through a net­work of eye-pop­ping sin­gle­track, with very few other trail users to con­tend with. By com­bin­ing up­lifts with “cross lifts” (trans­fers), you’re able take in the very best of these coastal routes. It’s pos­si­ble to spend a few days rid­ing them with­out too much dou­bling up. There are all sorts of trails here: from tech­ni­cal sin­gle­track de­scents to dou­ble­tracks, flow­ing coastal rides and even long climbs, if you want to pay your dues.

Lo­cal rid­ers and groups also use these trails, and have fought hard to keep them low-con­flict and open. There is a wise and vol­un­tary ban on post­ing Strava files and gps tracks from these routes.

My time in Basque Coun­try had been way too lim­ited, so I’m in­tent on mak­ing a re­turn jour­ney here in the not­too-dis­tant fu­ture.

“Here it was a case of all or noth­ing, and un­for­tu­nately I rode some­where in be­tween, which was far from ideal.”

De­tails How to get there

Bil­bao is the best-served in­ter­na­tional air­port and also links to most Euro­pean hubs. From the Bil­bao air­port, there is a reg­u­lar hourly trans­fer bus to and from San Se­bas­tian. San Se­bastián has a small air­port, with reg­u­lar flights to Madrid and other re­gional hubs.

Just over the French border is Biar­ritz, which has con­nec­tions to Paris and other Euro­pean hubs. You can hop on a train here to Irun, which is just a few min­utes away from Hon­dar­ribia.

When to ride

The weather here is far re­moved from that of south­ern Spain, so it doesn’t have the dry win­ters and scorch­ing mid­sum­mers. The best time to ride is from early April through to Oc­to­ber, al­though it does pay to avoid the mid-au­gust hol­i­day pe­riod.

What to ride

Over­all, the best bike choice for rid­ing here would be an all-moun­tain or en­duro bike, al­though there are some Xc-ori­ented routes.

Where to find sup­port

Doug “the Fly­ing Scots­man” Mcdon­ald runs The Basque mtb tour com­pany ( basquemtb.com). Mostly things are based in a house in the sub­urbs of Hon­dar­ribia. Break­fast is in­cluded, lunch is taken on the road and you can ei­ther cook up your own evening meals or head into town for some of the world-fa­mous Basque culi­nary de­lights. Rides are mostly flex­i­ble and are up­lifted by vans and trail­ers, with the bulk of the rid­ing found within 45 min­utes of the base.

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