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Castle At La Iruela In The Sierra De Cazorla Cover

Around Spain, off road, on a mountain bike

We all know Spain is a beautiful country, but most of us visit the coasts and the famous cities. Jonathan Halstead, author of Three Wheels on my Bicycle, decided to visit a less well-known Spain, travelling through its remote mountain ranges and visiting small towns and villages in quiet valleys. Below are selected excerpts from his book, describing a 3000km, five month journey involving over 67,000m of ascent. We join him travelling through the mountains north of Malaga.

Crossing the Sierra de Tejeda

After a day of rest I head north again, over the Sierra de Tejeda to Alhama. For my route there I considered taking a pass through the Sierra to Ventas de Zafarraya which I had seen on my way to Vinuela yesterday. It travels through a pair of threatening steep rock towers on each side of the road and looks quite spectacular. But when I get there the road is tarmacked and full of lorries, so I turn into the hills and take a track north out of Alcaucin.

The track passes through a national park full of pine trees and is quite lovely, and very deserted: I see no one all day. I am really starting to enjoy the travel now – this is the kind of thing I have come for.

The forest is beautiful even though it isn’t sunny. There are many types of pine and spruce, and as I climb higher the views are spectacular. Down through the forested valleys and across the sparking blue lake I can see all the way back to the camp site, where I started out this morning, sitting on the cloud shadowed plain far away. The mountain track winds in and out of the valley like a huge ghost train ride, but the only shocks are from the breath-taking views. In one place as I ride through the valley there are long gentle slopes filled with stands of Aleppo and Scots pine; around the next spur I find a deep steep gorge cutting back towards the peaks as if a huge axe had fallen and cleft the mountains. Rainstorms come and go, and I can see them passing across the plains for miles below.

Looking Back Towards Vinuela
Looking back towards Vinuela

North of the Sierra Nevada, Jonathan passes over the plain near Baza

For the next two days I work my way northwards over the plain, past the Sierra de Baza and on to the Sierra de Segura. Away from the mountains and their steep inclines I can make good speed, and cover the distance to Pozo Alcon in two short days. Yet again the scenery turns out to be outstanding. When I had viewed it on the pass over the Sierra Nevada, I couldn’t see that north of Baza the plain is cut by deep ravines, etched into the friable sub-soil. Some have their steep sides carved into intricate pillars like a Gothic cathedral, and everywhere the roads are forced to follow the spurs between ravines. A reservoir has been created in the largest valley – called Negratin – and the road makes a long, gradual descent towards its blue waters. Inevitably this is then followed by a steep ascent up some intricately carved cliffs, and finally a long but more gradual ascent to Pozo Alcon.

Negratin With Gothic Pillars In The Ravines
Negratin with gothic pillars in the ravines
Castillo De Segura
Castillo De Segura

North of Pozo Alcon is the remote Sierra de Segura, and village of Segura de la Sierra

Segura de la Sierra turns out to be a small but perfectly formed village with a long history. Although the first written mention is in Arabic texts from the 11th century, when reference is made to ‘beautiful Saqura’, the town was probably founded in the 10th century. Standing as it does on a 300m hill, overlooking the fertile valley with cliffs all around, it has probably always been used as a defensive site. During the Arab Tarifa and Allmoravid dynasties, work was done to extend the fortifications, and a cistern was installed to help withstand siege. During the Reconquista, Fernando lll captured the town and in 1241 ceded it to the Order of Santiago for their help in fighting the war. It was then subject to even more building, and remained in use until the 16th century. The reason such a large fortification is important in such a seemingly remote location is that the valley was the main trading route from the coasts towards the north east, into the rich Guadalquivir valley. But now it's just a route for tourists.

Now in the north of Spain, Jonathan tackles his first day ascending the formidable Pyrenees

Suddenly the asphalt road turns one way and my route turns off another way, onto uphill single-track. I have anticipated this, having seen it on Google satellite, and I know that it only goes on for two or three kilometres, so if the worst comes to the worst I can push or carry my bike and trailer. I press on for 500m and the going is fine: hard and technical, but passable. Then I come to a point where I have to push. No problem. I push for 50m and carry on. Then I come to a place where I can't push. The ascent is too steep and too broken for the trailer to get through. I walk up it to see how far it goes, and again it's not far, maybe 150m. So I separate the bike and trailer, and push one up and then return for the other. As I am doing this I am aware that if the track becomes impassable at some stage, I do not have a problem. Although the ascent is hard, it's still passable as a descent with bike and trailer; technically difficult but doable. So if I need to retreat I can be back in the hotel with a G&T before it’s late enough to drink G&T.

Over the next two kilometres I have to push several times and disconnect the bike and trailer once more. Finally I make it to a high pass, form where the view is spectacular. I lie down on the grass exhausted, and stare at the surrounding mountains, topped with snow towering above the lush forests. It has taken me two hours to get here, but it doesn't matter. I'm no longer racing to get somewhere, I only want to be here. And however long it has taken to get here, and carry my bike and trailer over obstacles, it doesn't matter. If I get in to the next town at 9 in the evening, it doesn't matter. In extremis, if I don't make it at all, it doesn't matter. One of the reasons my trailer is so heavy is that I am carrying emergency kit: a bivvy bag, sleeping bag and dried food. So I really need to focus on letting go of any striving, any sense of pushing myself. I need to focus on the moment.

After A Muddy Descent To Isaba
After a muddy descent to Isaba

Further west in the Pyrenees, Jonathan has an exciting descent into Campo

After the top the track turns downhill and I start to accelerate. And accelerate. On and on. Suddenly this is turning into the best downhill yet, and I know it's going to be a long one. In places it’s very steep and the surface is constantly changing, which makes it both exciting and interesting. Often it's gravel, where slowing down and cornering are difficult, and in other places I come across bedrock. This bedrock is some kind of slate, with the grain pointing vertically uphill at me. So I am having to ride over sharp edges, which threaten pinch-flats (when your tyre hits a sharp rock and is compressed so much the inner-tube is squeezed and fractures without breaking the tyre). Normally one jumps such sharp obstacles to avoid a flat; here I am passing over 10m of the stuff at a time with a trailer, so jumping is not an option.

In other places I find myself passing over boulder fields, with rocks 10–20cm across. I can see thin tracks made at the edges of the boulder field where riders on hard tails (the favoured bike round here) have sought to avoid the rocks. But with my full suspension on both bike and trailer I can storm across at full speed. Indeed, on such terrain, speed helps as the bike skims across the tops of the rocks. The view streams by, whole mountains on the other side of the valley passing at speed. I can feel the air heating up as I descend, but unlike a slow ascent I am unaware of subtleties like birdsong and cicadas. All I can hear is the rumble of tyres on rocks, the scatter-shot sound of gravel fleeing my tyres on the corners, and the air streaming through my full-face helmet. This is what I came here for; this is what I towed the trailer up the mountains for. And it all makes sense.

As before, I find myself looking behind me to check the trailer is still there, as it deals with all this terrain so unobtrusively. And again I am grateful I thought to change the tyres; the Maxxis High Rollers grip so well on the downhill and on corners, I can have a lot more confidence in my descent. Good kit makes the downhill exciting rather than fatal – a crucial distinction.

In our final excerpt, Jonathan meets the Camino de Santiago at Roncesvalles

The sun has disappeared again and it is overcast and drizzling, but it doesn't matter. I take my time, moving uphill into deciduous forest, stopping to hide under a tree when the drizzle turns into a shower. At the top of the valley I pass a heritage site called Fabrica de Orbaizeta, or the ‘Orbaizeta factory’. I have seen this on the map and wondered what it was. It turns out to be an 18th-century munitions factory, set up by Charles III in 1784 to take advantage of the local iron and wood supplies to make iron bombs, grenades and other ordnance. It seems to have a chequered history, as various armies moving back and forth over the Pyrenees laid it to waste at their convenience. It also set itself alight a couple of times. It finally gave up the ghost 100 years later. As I ride through there are lots of Spanish tourists huddling round umbrellas, come to visit the place, and looking perplexed as I ride through it and disappear into the woods.

As I continue up, showers become more frequent and so do my stops under trees. I don't want to put on my waterproof, as then the sweat just makes me wet inside. I am in no hurry, and this way I get to appreciate the deciduous woods. Sheltering under a tree does not work very well in the UK as rain is usually accompanied by wind, so the rain comes in horizontally. Here there is almost no wind, so the trees work well as big umbrellas. I think this woodland must look like English woods did hundreds of years ago, when there were still some substantial forests. I can just imagine Robin Hood being happy here.

Arriving in Roncesvalles, I find a collection of hotels serving the large through-put of pilgrims (peregrinos) walking the Camino de Santiago Frances, coming north from St. Jean Pied-de-Porte in the French Pyrenees. There are four large hotels and hostels, a church and a centre where you can register for the route. There are no shops, banks or restaurants besides the hotels. Roncesvalles, as well as being an important stop on the Camino, has also earned a small footnote in the history of the Peninsular War from 1813. After the French forces left Spain following their defeat at Vitoria, Marshal Soult decided to launch a counter-attack south through the Roncesvalles pass, in an attempt to relieve Pamplona, where the French garrison was besieged. One interesting feature of the reports from that time is that the hills all around were clear, and allowed the armies' units to manoeuvre. So all the forest I was seeing must be secondary growth subsequent to that time. Roncesvalles is also the place where, in ad778, Roland famously died in the rear-guard of Charlemagne’s retreating arm. A little chapel here has some relics associated with him.

The Pass Above Roncesvalles
The pass above Roncesvalles

Go to Amazon to buy Jonathan's book, Three Wheels on my Bicycle.