OFF THE MAP - SPANISH PYRENEES

Pyrenean trails; lunchtime feasts; James Bond-style lairs; and motorcycle ‘watersports’ -  Adventurer Richard Bott, takes his CRM250 into the mountains of the Spanish Pyrenees...

‘What’s that? Riding in the Pyrenees? Count me in!’ In a flash I’d agreed to a summertime jaunt down to Spain, to attend a pre-running of Austin Vince’s eponymous navigation challenge, the ‘VINCE’ (or The Very Interesting Navigation Challenge Event), without really knowing what I’d let myself in for. A subsequent 20-minute conversation outlining exactly ‘how’ and ‘where’ only served to heighten my enthusiasm.

This was back at Christmas-time and somehow my eager anticipation of the event had gone full circle and I near as dammit forgot about it until two days before departure, when Laurence Harnperle of the Gatecrashers Motorcycle Club phoned me again to ask if I was all revved-up and ready to go. A quick look at my 16-year old Honda CRM revealed it was far from ready to be revved-up!

Firstly, it had been explained to me in the nicest possible way that because everyone else had fitted mousses it would be potentially letting the side down if I were to ride on tubes. Luckily, a local workshop fitted mousses to my wheels overnight.

Meanwhile Leisure Trail (experts in all things CRM) sent me a chain and sprocket set, a water pump gasket, a new air filter and some handguards by next day delivery. They also endured a series of phone calls from me on a Saturday morning about a clutch problem the CRM was suffering. They dealt with this with their usual good humour…

All this help meant both bike and rider were fully prepared when we arrived at Laurence’s house the night before departure.

Aires and Graces

The first day’s drive through France in Laurence’s van, along with fellow Gatecrasher Mark Haughey, produced our usual row about Aires. I guess you’d describe them as ‘campervan parks’, provided free of charge in or near most French towns, and they usually consist of a tarmac carpark and some toilets. You also see them on the autoroutes, where they’re intended as a safe place for people to rest and stretch their legs inbetween the service stations. Anyhow, they can bit a bit soulless and, personally, I would rather pull off the main road and find a quiet spot away from everyone else. This also offers the option of sleeping outside the van to avoid Laurence’s snoring.

Last year I did persuade a deeply suspicious Laurence to try this and he spent a sleepless night imagining unspeakable horrors perpetrated on his English person by French rednecks. Sadly he has never been the same since and has now equipped himself with a book of Aires. This miserable tome lists some 30,000 such sites across France, so when it was time to stop for the night a smug Laurence was able to silence my protests by presenting a whole selection of likely locations all within 10km. So the tarmac carpark it was, and Laurence celebrated his victory with a high decibel snorathon that could be heard in the toilet block 400 yards away!

All disagreements were forgotten the following day when we crossed the Spanish border and arrived at our destination, the Camping Gaset campsite near the Catalan town of Tremp.

There, on the shores of the Sant Antoni reservoir, we met up with the rest of the Gatecrashers. Friends were greeted and elderly Transit doors thrown open to disgorge a heap of bikes, food and camping equipment. Within half-an-hour this pile of gear had been turned into a magnificent base camp, with a parc ferme for the bikes, a cooking area complete with fridge and BBQ, a row of Chinese fold-up chairs, and a collection of pop-up awnings. You had to be careful with some of the chairs, which were inclined to do the ‘Venus Fly Trap’ if you didn’t position yourself correctly as you lowered yourself into them, but it was nonetheless a luxurious effort.

Life settled into a soothing rhythm. Whilst Danny Maguire cooked up an enormous meal the other members concentrated on bike maintenance, letting off fireworks, drinking, and tormenting any fellow members foolish enough to show weakness. In the midst of this activity sat a lone figure poring over his maps. It was Glen James, our leader of navigation.

The event consists of a book of about 60 checkpoints. These are grid referenced to the map. At each checkpoint there is a unique marker - a brass or copper plate stamped with a sequence of numbers and fixed to a tree, signpost, pylon or other unsuspecting part of the scenery. Once this tag is found (which can take a fair bit of rooting about in the undergrowth) the number is entered into the book of checkpoints.

It is your job to mark all of the CPs on your map. You then have to decide how best to link them all up over the two days so you can collect as many as possible. Using a GPS is strictly forbidden. The point of the event is to draw together a set of skills - teamwork, map reading, and preparation.

That night Austin held a briefing in the campsite bar. Clad in his trademark striped overalls, our leader welcomed us and updated us on the map - some trails had been closed and some could only be ridden in one direction. We took notes. And with this information entered into our checkpoint books we were free to order another beer and catch up with friends and acquaintances.

There was a remarkable variety of people and bikes around the campsite. Some people were dressed in army surplus and living under tarpaulins. Others were in luxurious camper vans. Many of the bikes were over ten years old and it definitely wasn’t the sea of orange that you get at the average UK event.

Crashed Out

Back at Gatecrasher HQ Glen James organised us into two teams. There was an A-team of four named ‘The Dog Beds’, which he led, and it was upon this team that hopes of Gatecrasher glory were resting. The rest of us, five in number, formed the B-team. It went unsaid but was a truth universally acknowledged (to paraphrase Jane Austen) that not a lot was expected of the B-team and they were duly christened ‘The Bottom Feeders’. If anything this sentiment was reinforced when I found myself appointed map-reader!

The next morning the Dog Beds were away by 0800. The Bottom Feeders looked up, gave them a cursory wave goodbye, and continued their breakfast. After a certain amount of chivvying the ‘Feeders were lined-up and having their photo taken by Austin at 0900. Soon after we were swinging off the tarmac onto the first trail…

The Pyrenees are infested with trails and they’re nearly all marked on the map. Most of them are very old farmers tracks connecting long since abandoned villages and valleys. Luckily for us they usually have vehicular rights.

After remarkably little faffing about we were soon at our first checkpoint. Whilst I stopped and sorted out how to get to the next CP the rest of the team consulted the book and located the tag. Before long we started to develop a rhythm and began to collect CPs at an encouraging rate. Occasionally we encountered other teams and would share pleasantries and information. One rival team even had a KTM 950 Adventure among their number. Watching this aircraft carrier-like device move off I remember thinking it was surely a handicap too far and they were unlikely to trouble the leaders…

As the morning progressed we worked our way down to the southeastern corner of the map. Our goal was CP 501, which had been enthusiastically endorsed by Austin as a perfect trail. It started off as a grassy track leading up a wooded valley with a stream running along the bottom. This lead to a steep staircase of switchbacks, which took us onto a rocky ridge. On one side was a deep gorge with a large deserted village built onto a prow of rock. More technical than the usual trails, it was a great ride and we followed the ridge north, back to the eastern side of the map.

Midday found us knocking off a few easy CPs miles from any surfaced roads, when to our surprise we came to a signpost for a restaurant. A swift Bottom Feeder conference soon had us heading for the food. Six kilometres later we came to a restored farmhouse with a courtyard, and huge slabs of stone set up as a tables. The place seemed deserted but a tentative knock at the large wooden front door produced an owner who spoke only Catalan.

Following a conversation conducted mainly in sign language he agreed to feed us, and things kicked off with a refreshing beer and a large plate of cheese and paté. Assuming it was a starter we snaffled the lot. Next a mounted tree branch with seven salamis hanging off it arrived. Swiftly christened the ‘Tree of Cock’, the team gave it a savage pruning. This was followed by a salt cod salad, one of my favourite Spanish dishes. Regarded with suspicion by some of the ‘Feeders, it of course meant all the more for the rest of us. So I made a bit of a beast of myself. A glass watering can full of wine appeared for those in need of lubrication… which turned out to be everyone.

By now we really should have stopped, but the food and drink kept coming. Finally, after a robust goulash with chips landed in the centre of the table, we had to beg them to stop. They appeared genuinely surprised. This huge dish sat menacingly before us. We could not send it back untouched so we all had to dig deep to consume it. Danny McGuire and Laurence showed particular grit in the fight to finish it. Burping happily we were congratulating ourselves on this unexpected find when ice creams, coffee and a sort of homemade melon firewater were pressed on us. So we ploughed on…

Two hours later the Bottom Feeders were back outside, giggling happily and struggling to get on their bikes. I rather woozily set course north for the next CP and pretty soon I was lost. We were in a huge and spectacular gorge so I stopped to see if there were any features I could get a bearing on. Around me the Bottom Feeders slumped on their bikes. Laurence slid off his KTM and curled up in a drainage channel. The slick teamwork that had developed in the morning had evaporated away. An enormous vulture circled overhead, either thinking we were ill or hoping for a mass pile up further down the road. There were piteous pleas from some of the team for us to stop and have a sleep. It was, with hindsight, a good idea. Nonetheless we elected to continue…

The afternoon wore on. It was certainly entertaining but not very fruitful in terms of CPs gained. At one point I was looking at the map when Ian Adler, who had the CP book, declared that he thought we were at the checkpoint. Indeed we were. Only I thought there was another 3km to go!

We finished the loop about 1800 with a final CP in the river below the Tremp dam. Situated on an island, we had to abandon the bikes and squelch through a boggy forest to reach it, all the while slapping at squadrons of savage mosquitoes.

We arrived back at camp long before anyone else. Whilst Danny cooked up another meal we scratched our bites, popped a beer, and discussed a superb day’s riding. A little after eight the Dog Beds appeared. Their day had started badly when their first CP refused to be found. And things failed to improve. Despite their lunch being a fish pasty in a petrol station they had only nailed a few more CPs than us. Whilst we regaled the ‘Beds with exaggerated tales of our gastronomic adventures, Glen sat to one side with a single controlled beer. He had adjusted his usual 1000-yard stare out to 1500 and was giving himself a severe talking to. It must have worked, as the following day was to show…

Go West

In the morning the Dog Beds consumed breakfast and geared up like a well-oiled machine. Bang on 0800 they were off with the lead teams. Meanwhile Ian and I tried to round up the Bottom Feeders who were feeling under no such pressure.

Day two was spent on the western side of the map. The country had a different look to the east and seemed drier, with a spaghetti western feel to it. Once again it was great trail riding. Having completed the lower west corner we decided to move north and suddenly it was that time of day again - the Bottom feeders were feeling peckish. A medium-sized town on a main road yielded nothing. So we tried a small village 4km away up a valley. It turned out to have a bar and no less than three restaurants - one of which even had white and gold chairs, pink tablecloths and flower vases. We selected a more rustic number with a huge stone wood-fuelled barbeque in the courtyard. After the previous day’s excesses we were all a bit more restrained on the food and drink front. Nonetheless paella followed by a whole roast rabbit kept the culinary standard high. 

The riding in the afternoon was again fabulous. I was initially a bit suspicious of the idea of a navigation event. Why not just buy the map and spend a few days trail riding? As it turns out the extra level of effort required by the checkpoints makes for a much more involved day out. Not only do you improve your map reading but you also get a lot more connected to the landscape around you as you are forced to look at it more closely. Roads, hilltops, powerlines, and even the position of the sun all come into play.

We ended the day with 30 points, taking us to a total of 54. Soon after us the Dog Beds arrived in high spirits, having achieved an impressive haul of points…

That evening we all walked down the road to a restaurant overlooking the Tremp hydro dam. Set into the hillside with one wall made entirely of glass it was rather like Blofelt’s lair. After a rather splendid meal (an event some of us were beginning to get a touch blasé about) Austin delivered the final results. The winners were Garry Bower, Russell Spray, and Neil Bennet. Out of a possible 110 points they had managed to get 100. This effort was even more remarkable given that Russell was riding the previously mentioned KTM Adventure. He claimed it was no big deal, though he did admit that at one point the KTM had settled into a seat-high rut for a rest and it had taken all three of them to persuade it out!

Glen and the Dog Beds came an impressive fourth with a total of 78 points - 55 of which had been collected on the second day. Lunch, however, had been a bag of sweets!

Slash and Burn

The next morning, although the event was over, there was the option of tackling the Montsor hillclimb, just north of La Pobla. The climb wound its way up a steep ridge for about 4km, and was really nothing more than a precipitous singletrack. All those who fancied a go at it were to assemble at the bottom at 1030. Suspecting that being late onto it would lead to bottlenecks and delays I wasted no time in starting up…

The track ascended in a series of terraces. The first was pretty tough but with a lot of undignified paddling was dispatched. The second involved a path which zig-zagged steeply. Sometimes the switchbacks were little more than the length of the bike and it required much heaving and shoving to change direction. In places there were dramatic drops to discourage more committed feet-up heroics. If the previous days’ riding hadn’t been especially technical then here it was with knobs on!

My CRM was pretty much ideal for this sort of going but being beasted along on the clutch in first gear eventually caused it to boil over. So I stopped to let it cool off and took in the impressive views. Under way again, I came to a rockstep that was almost three foot tall. This proved insurmountable until I rolled several neighbouring rocks to the foot of it and built a small launch ramp. A fully committed charge saw me up ‘n’ over.

Then the CRM boiled over again. Keen to keep going I decided to pee on the radiator to help cool it. After a quick glance round so as not to offend an unseen walker or passing shepherd I got things under way. Lots of sizzling and clouds of water vapour indicated plenty of heat being dissipated from the engine. I was feeling pretty pleased with my resourcefulness when a flash of red ‘n’ yellow caught my right-hand retina. 60 metres away two lycra-clad mountain bikers appeared, descending towards me. I considered brazening it out, the assumption being that the sight if a middle-aged man p!ssing on his motorcycle, in such an impossible location, would be so preposterous that the normal human reaction would be to ignore it. Then I remembered the 40-or-so riders below me. Some of my team-mates would be only too happy to discuss my deviant behaviour with a couple of cyclists. So I went for the quick switch off, combined with the turned back and a sudden and intense interest in the valley below.

Once the mountain bikers had passed I concluded operations and carried on upwards aboard my cooler, but slightly whiffy, bike. Eventually things began to flatten out and I arrived at the abandoned village of Montsor at about 1000 metres feeling pretty pleased with myself. As a trail it would hardly have bothered an expert, but for the likes of me it had been pretty tough. Not fancying the return trip, I took a much easier track down the other side of the mountain.

Back at base camp it only remained to say our goodbyes, pack up, and point the vans north for the long drive home. But not before Austin regaled me with the details of his twin-shocks-only event that runs to the same formula in the exact same place. I can already feel the wheels of fate pulling me towards that one. Not least because in my shed, in bits, there lurks a Triumph street scrambler. I might need a bit longer than two days to get THAT prepped, mind you…

With thanks to the Gatecrashers for letting me, er, gatecrash their club. For further information on The VINCE visit www.austinvince.com

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