“So, you know these aren’t, uh, “purpose-built” trails, right?”
Juan asked this question within the first couple minutes of meeting me at the train station. Even though we were conversing in Spanish, he used the English expression “purpose-built” as though it were a mountain bike industry standard. Which, I suppose, it is.
A “purpose-built” mountain bike trail is exactly what it sounds like – a trail built expressly for mountain bikers, generally by mountain bikers, to allow them to climb and descend at just the right grades to be pushed by tough-but-doable climbs in some spots and rewarded by thrilling-but-not-too-thrilling descents in others. Purpose-built trails do not generally involve walking your bike.
It seems like a lot of traveling mountain bikers must expect purpose-built trails; hence, the warning. Luckily, my brother John and I did not and do not have that expectation. We’ve ridden marginal trails all over the US and done our fair share of hiking with bikes on our shoulders. We had decided to meet up in Andalucía (southern Spain) to do some foreign exploration together. Our goals were to see some new terrain, log some sibling time, and be on bikes, so riding purpose-built trails was not necessarily on our agenda.
Neither John nor I had ever done “guided mountain biking” before. Generally, when either one of us wants to ride somewhere new, we buy the maps or the guidebooks to the area, do a little online research, and then go out there and figure the place out. But that’s in the US. Riding in a foreign country where there are no maps, no guidebooks, and no signed trails is another story. Add to that complication of not owning bikes in Europe, and we knew we had to find a guide service.
I had chosen a company (Andalucian Cycling Experience) in Montecorto, Spain primarily because of its location. It is based in one of Spain’s “pueblos blancos” or “white towns” (for more on the town, see my last blogpost). I had fallen in love with this area a handful of years ago on a previous trip to Spain, and I knew that, at the very least, the scenery would be great – even if the trails weren’t.
And the trails weren’t great; but, they were pretty good. We rode on singletrack about half of the time (singletrack is what mountain bikers prefer – it’s narrow and challenging and feels like a hiking trail), and the double tracks and dirt roads that we navigated were scenic enough to keep us entertained. Some of the singletracks we rode were, in fact, hiking trails. Others were farmer’s paths, or, more commonly, paths used by their sheep and goats.
We rode through countless farms of all shapes and sizes. We rode next to a railroad and in a river canyon. We rode up some very old and very steep cobblestone switchbacks to a historic sanctuary, and we rode on a European-style rail-to-trail conversion.
We also rode through actual towns, and this is the aspect of mountain biking in Spain that was most new and most interesting to us. In the US, most riding is done on public land. You can’t ride trail from town to town because the trails are generally located away from populated areas on US Forest Service (USFS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), or State Park lands.
I found myself having to explain this contrast to our guide, who was clearly puzzled when I stopped to take pictures of John riding up a cobblestone alley on his muddy bike or filling his water bottle from a “fuente” in the center of town. Village riding was a novelty for us, I explained, and I had to chronicle it.
The other benefit of riding through and around towns is the café break. It’s just too easy to stop for a cold beverage on the plaza after a ride, we discovered. Guzzling “Fanta Límons” while watching the array of tourists, locals, and road bikers parade through town may be one of the great pleasures of riding in Andalucía. And there there’s the post-ride tapas option…
We did ride in one area that seemed to be “purpose-built.” Located in a park between the towns of Ardales and El Churro, near the famous Caminito del Rey walking trail, this area was like a mini-Moab with its sandstone outcroppings and rollover drops. There would be no reason for anyone to hike on these trails, leading us to believe they had been constructed by bikers.
This suspicion was confirmed when we were passed by a shuttle full of obviously foreign mountain bikers fully clad in body armor – some of who were on downhill bikes and in full-face helmets, although the terrain certainly didn’t require that kind of gear. Ironically, John had been logging his rides on Strava, an mobile app developed to help cyclists of all kinds keep track of their rides and compare their training schedules with others. When John got online later that day, he discovered that the trails we had ridden were actually called “Moab 1, 2, and 3.” Strava also told John that he had clocked the fastest time of all the app’s users on Moab 1, 2, and 3 for the twenty-four hour period. Hmm.
While those trails were great, there was something that didn’t feel quite right about them. For some reason, I felt like we were cheating. This isn’t a reaction I have ever had to riding well-built trails in the US; joy and gratitude are the only reactions I ever have to purpose-built trails at home. So what was that about? It’s worth my questioning why I think that I – and therefore, everybody else – should have to work harder for good trail in Spain than we should in the US. While there aren’t many mountain bikers in the pueblos blancos, apparently there are quite a few in the largest town in the area, Ronda (population 30,000). And there are a bunch in the nearby city of Málaga (population 600,000). These folks deserve purpose-built trails, and they are almost certainly capable of devising ways to get it built.
As John and I sat on our rooftop patio after a long day of riding, we looked out over the intermittently forested hillside right outside our house and said, “you could build some amazing trail right here that you could ride straight from town.” (We, of course, had been driving a van anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to get to our rides) This would be fantastic to be sure, and it would almost certainly prompt me to figure out a way to buy a cheap pied-a-terre on a steep cobblestone street in a small town where the food market is only open for three hours a day. It would also change that town, and I am not sure if that is a good or bad thing.
The Romans built a small city just a couple of miles from that hillside John and I were gazing at. Five thousand people lived there in the first century BCE, and now the nearest settlements are clusters of a two to four houses. After the Romans abandoned the site, the Visigoths came crashing through the area, followed by the Moors, the Crusaders, and the various dynasties of Spanish royalty.
If there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s the fact that this land has seen both its fair share of change and a whole variety of uses. And, so far, it has outlasted all of them.