HIDDEN IN THE SHADOWS OF THE SPANISH PYRENEES SITS A SMALL TOWN LOST IN ITS OWN WORLD WHERE MOUNTAIN BIKE TRAILS ARE ABUNDANT. THE SPORT’S HEROES WILL BE BASED THERE LATE-SEASON 2015 FOR THE PENULTIMATE ENDURO WORLD SERIES ROUND OF THE YEAR.
THAT TOWN IS AINSA, ITS MOUNTAIN BIKE ALTER EGO NAMED ZONA ZERO.
After visiting Lourdes prior to the World Cup late in 2014, we carried on our road trip and took a drive three hours through the mountains to check out the trails of Ainsa in Spain and discover more about this superb, soon-to-be-very-famous, region.
The cluster of five – Trek World Racing’s Laurie Greenland, Dirt’s Steve Jones and Sam Jones and myself, plus a mystery guest called ‘MildDoom’ – eventually managed to evade the grips of God Vegas (Lourdes) and snuck away through the mountains south at first light.
At first it seemed an unlikely mirage, this couldn’t be true. Our bleary eyes could hardly believe what they were seeing. After several hours of driving an epic valley burst into view, heaven-reaching peaks soaring to infinity on both sides, golden forest weaving its way in front, a meandering river feeding life in this valley. We were through the dark tunnel and our crew staggered towards the adjacent establishment mouths open, thirst and hunger soon to be quenched in this heaven. What had seemed like a lifetime punishment had in fact equated to a hangover of several hours suffered in a moving van through winding French territory from Lourdes to Spain. We’d made it out of purgatory and into a valley of dreams.
We immediately entered a bar, commanded a slap up feast for five with lashings of strong coffee and stumbled back on our way. Down the stunning pristine valley a little further toward Ainsa, with the monumentally high peaks on either side funnelling us towards our destination and an emerging state of nirvana.
The difference between this EWS venue and its nearby World Cup DH neighbour is almost unimaginable. Just a matter of miles as the crow flies but a change in pace, ethos and surrounds so huge that a description imagined could never do it any justice. We arrived mid-morning to glorious sunshine, clean air and our ever-helpful host, EWS organiser and Zona Zero frontman Jorge Ruiz de Eguilaz.
Bikes were soon unpacked at our accommodation – Casa Rivera, one of several local businesses which are part of the Zona Zero trail centre – an incredibly simple process as the ‘unpacking’ was more a case of ‘open the doors of the highly over-packed van and let everything crash onto the street’. Once bikes were detangled from one another and suitable amounts of coffee and snacks were consumed we headed out onto an easy ride to get things warmed up. Jorge had earlier arrived on his prized Harley, but was now back in his riding kit and ready to show us the first of many great bike rides.
Cut in along the line of an old hunter’s trail, this forested ridgeline provided flow, loam, tech, in fact all the necessary taglines that make up a perfect trail. Jorge put in a lot of the graft here along with the rest of the Zona Zero team, and their continuing effort is unearthing new trails almost weekly.
After taking it in turns to chase each other along the narrow trace of trail, we eventually popped out onto a 4×4 track high above an expansive valley, a viewpoint over a sublime natural world below. We pedalled a little and then made our way onto some faster, ferociously rocky trail heading back towards town, passing the odd abandoned settlement, dozy roadside dog chilling in the sun and plentiful farmsteads. Our arrival into an otherworldly place was confirmed. Somehow, hell knows how, we’d slipped the grasp of Lourdes’ evil party scene and now our escape was being decorated in trail heaven.
With the high mountains staring down at you from a distance wherever you ride in Ainsa, there is no avoiding their lure and a ride from the saddle between the main peaks behind town is a given event. I’d ridden here several years prior to our group’s trip and so had already had the fortune to ride this monster, but to the others it was an eye-opener.
Taxis here are fully prepared for mountain bikers, with 4×4 VW Transporters and proper bike trailers at the ready to shuttle riders from anywhere to the start of any accessible trail. No need for expensive chairlifts that run at a loss when there’s no one riding, and riders can be dropped to the head of any trail they wish, if they can’t be bothered to pedal it (yes, us).
Fuelled on coffee we left the sunny square early the next day and began the drive into the hills for a ride to remember. Several encounters with flocks of sheep blocking the road and a savage off-road uphill later and we were at the start of our adventure.
From the saddle to the left of Pena Montanesa the views are stupefying and the feeling of space sublime. Cast an eye back toward Ainsa and let your gaze float down across a natural paradise before soaring skyward up the huge cliffs, gods in the sky looking over a vast area of mountain biking potential that will in the future be regarded a mountain bike mecca.
We picked up the trail here and thundered across the hillside below the cliffs at speed, piling over loose boulders, moss, exposed roots and mud. It’s a rowdy start to a long ride back to town.
This route is one of the area’s gems and the natural beauty of its wild terrain could never be recreated on a manmade trail. Many miles of riding cut into the hill below the first section. This traverses a slope so steep you really don’t want to catch a pedal or get a short stuck on your shifter.
Having ridden pure flow, to head-jarring rough and prime dirt, through to slimy dank roots, we arrived to the highlight of the trip and something that differentiates this area from nearly anywhere I’ve ridden across Europe. And even though the trail was killer, this wasn’t about the riding.
Having ridden through a maze of little paths between old stone walls separating fields of size enough only to sustain a small community and nothing more, we popped out into someone’s back garden to be by greeted slow, inquisitive turns-of-the-neck and raised glasses from the collected five locals. We’d stumbled into their territory and they were more than happy to see us.
Doug MacDonald (of Basque MTB fame) was along for the ride at this point – he’s good friends with the folk at Zona Zero – and he did his best to translate from roughly spoken Spanish, the voice of the gathered people’s spokesman hardened by a lifetime of smoking thick cigars – a hobby that he evidently wasn’t keen to give up. A bottle of Vermouth was pulled from the stash in this old farmhouse and another of rosé left to cool in the adjacent stream as the welcoming inhabitants gathered together a platter of local olives, goat’s cheese, nuts and bread.
Young Laurie has been fortunate to travel extensively through racing, but this is the sort of experience that no race track could ever bring to you and to see the lad’s eyes light up was a throwback to the rest of our crew’s early travelling days. Reaffirmation if it were needed that Ainsa isn’t any old mountain bike resort – but it is the future of mountain bike tourism as small towns realise that their mix of ancient access trails, rolling slopes and local culture is more of a draw to the modern adventuring mountain biker than a ski resort.
BRINGING IT HOME.
If we weren’t sold on that experience, we rolled down the hill to the one-and-only local bar, which was technically closed, and the owner threw the doors open and laid on a feast for us while we relaxed outside with the free-roaming animals and took in the vast views. I could go on for days explaining the rest of this epic ride, but a photographic journey in Part 2 should give you an idea and get you in the mood for a trip to Ainsa.
I’ll briefly give you some highlights instead: Cruising wide tracks, flowing through badlands, high speed through wide rocky old streambeds, a Frenchman who missed a turn and faced near-death, Ainsa constantly in view but always with many more miles of prime trail to ride, a perfect sunset finish. We eventually rolled into town shattered and elated. This sport really does take us on accelerated adventures with each and every ride, and the dozens of kilometres we’d ridden primarily downhill on that day was a firm reiteration.
Zona Zero’s Enduro World Series race is going to well and truly put this place on the map as a global mountain biking destination, you can mark our words on that one. It is in a fantastic setting, it has wholly passionate people behind it, it has more trails than anyone could ever need and the place is crying out for mountain bikers to come and stay. The positivity behind this place alone will carry it to huge success, not to mention its sublime trails.
Look out for Part 2, with the race details and a photographic journey through our trip to Ainsa. It’s a special place that is about to get very famous thanks to the Enduro World Series. Stay tuned.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2