El camino real

A ride through the buttresses of the Spanish Pyrenees, Bruno Compagnet shares his love for old pedals and the roads of Aragon.

A vagabond’s perspective on a region that’s crossed history with more to offer than just canyons, medieval churches and overly-sweet almond cakes…

She stretches out, long and sinewy in the springtime heat of the Aragonese sierras. She is a synonym for trade and commerce. The Moors eyed up these sun-drenched and fertile lands, the vines, the almond trees, the olive groves and the fields of cereal crops fed by the turbulent turquoise water of the rios. They seized her. But history is a strange thing, as tortuous as this road, with something new around every corner and at each seemingly never ending mountain pass.

In summer, the ground burns hotter that hell itself but it’s also the canyoning season so it gets busy. But for now, the Sierra is still one of the most sparsely populated areas in Europe per square mile.

Between the Ainsa area and the Sierra, the Spanish have put some real blood and sweat into finding, clearing and restoring a network of tracks and trails crossing through some incredible surroundings. Maps are available for just a few Euros and you can even get free ones for the Sierra. Downhill, enduro, cyclo-cross and road biking; circuits ranging from little family ride to big loops with considerable vertical difference. Sublime itineraries sectioned by canyons that you can swim in.

Compared to the coast, there is real challenge and there is also a cyclist pedaling, adjusting his effort to avoid putting a foot down, sometimes bursting with energy and desire, other times downtrodden and ready to throw in the towel. What does it even matter when no one can see you apart from the birds whose songs accompany you the whole way? When it’s not working out I’m hard on myself and later I laugh about how mad I was. At the top of the slope, it’s into the unknown: a ground rise, a down slope or face another ascent. The game is endless and I love it all. Down, up, dusty tracks, finding the right balance and choice of route so that effort and pleasure converge to enhance my day out.

There’s also my bike, or bikes I should say because I’m starting to have serious storage problems. But even there, things are beginning to change. For some time now, I’ve been leaning towards simplicity and function. I don’t let anyone tell me how I should roll any more. I don’t need a full suspension with big tyres or different wheel diameters to clock up the miles between the road and deserted tracks. I absolutely love steel frames, old mountain bikes and old race bikes. I love finding them and restoring them because often they have simple, beautiful mechanics.But what I love the most is using them. It’s a huge source of discovery as well as satisfaction. A few years ago I rode in the Sierra on an enduro. I didn’t cover a quarter of what I was able do today on an old road bike equipped with nice wheels of 700 and tyres of 35. When the road was slightly downhill or the track was nice and smooth, it sometimes felt like I was flying, while on my big tyres I’d feel like I was sticking to it. That said, this type of bike has natural limitations on bashed up paths.

I completely understand the pleasure of riding a modern bike, to make the most of the lovely single tracks but I’m not sure about coming back to this discipline. Everyone has their preference, the most important thing is to have a good time with it.

Bruno Compagnet 17th May, 2017

Bièrge. Sierra de Guara

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