Bikepacking the Pirinexus: An eye-opening ride through Catalunya

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The Pirinexus is a hilly 340km mixed terrain cycling loop that connects Spanish Catalunya with the southern-most tip of mainland France. British writer Tom Owen rode the Pirinexus earlier this year and discovered a region defined by effortless beauty, political uncertainty, and challenging yet ultimately rewarding riding.

As Tom writes, a late-night visit from the local authorities also helped illuminate the many differences between Spain and his native England …


I hear the car pull up, stop. The engine impossibly loud on the road, ten metres up the slope above my head. The driver switches it off and I hear two doors open, close. Then a sound I’ve only ever heard on TV: the uniquely musical, unmistakable beep-boop-beep of a cop’s radio. My heart jumps.

“This is it,” I think. “After many wild camping adventures, you’re finally going to be arrested for vagrancy. Justifiably, I might add.”

***

When Henry the VIII sacked all the monasteries in England he did more than just piss off the Pope. He impoverished the landscape of Britain for decades of cyclists to come. Cyclists like me.

You’re reminded of just how much the UK lost out when riding in the depopulated borderlands between France and Spain. Here, gorgeous monasteries and tumbledown churches that would draw busloads of tourists were they in England, remain totally unvisited. Unloved, not because they are not beautiful, but because there are so commonplace. You have to pity the Aussies who had no medieval Catholic architecture to dismantle in the first place – poor sods have to make do with their stunning weather and splendorous nature.

I had no idea when climbing up to the village of Riunogùes that the close trees would open up to reveal a historical jewel, a landmark I’d never heard of but one, it turns out, that has held quite some significance over the years. Fort de Bellegarde was built in the 17th century, was besieged by both sides in the War of the Pyrenees in the 18th, and used during the Second World War as a gestapo prison.

There weren’t even any signs with the fort’s name on when I rode past it on a road across the valley. In the rolling plains that lie between the Costa Brava and Girona, each significant town is built around some beautiful hill fort or chapel. Pals, Ullà, Peralada – all worthy of a photo stop, all sleepily deserted and all blessed with stunning architectural feats from centuries past.

In the UK, on the other hand, rather than rundown monasteries, you’re lucky if you don’t find a heap of fly-tipped domestic refuse, soggy old mattresses and ripped up credit card statements soaking into the turf at the top of a climb.

Obviously, there are also similarities.

A contentious referendum with allegations of illegality. Arguments about sovereignty and the right to self-determination. A pulling apart of the existing order and a move towards isolationism, spurred on by nationalistic ideas and cynical rhetoric. Catalan or Brit, both peoples find themselves mired in a mess that is simultaneously rampantly out of their control and at least partly of their making.

Catalunya is struggling for identity. It is a place torn apart by divisions, by perceptions of being unjustly controlled and unfairly treated by a larger outside entity. The protests and the ‘illegal’ referendum in 2017 have faded from the global news cycle, bumped by larger and more idiotic political disasters around the globe. But the conflict rumbles on.

Earlier this year, the trial of those responsible for the contentious elections began in Madrid, while in Catalunya itself, there didn’t appear to be a single building unfestooned with pro-independence banners or the twisted yellow ribbon that has become the independence movement’s emblem.

Cycling is escapism in a purely physical form. The action of riding uphill is a mind-quieting miracle. It is the perfect way to forget what is going wrong in the wider world. So what do you do when you find a bunch of protesting Catalans of both French and Spanish persuasion at the top of a col it has taken you two hours to climb?

This really happened at the top of the Col d’Ares – a very real reminder that no bike rider, not even one who sleeps in roadside ditches, is an island.

Catalunya is a fundamentally beautiful place, capable of prosperity and peace, but the divisions are not hard to spot – impossible to forget, in fact, even when you’re pedalling.

When you’re bikepacking, you cease to exist within the continuum of normal life. You enter your own sub-strata of society – a weird otherness descends.

After one night sleeping on the ground, you look brain-fried, cognitively disjointed. While coffee might drive away the mental fog of tiredness, it does nothing for your appearance. Drink all the flat whites you like, you still look like a hobo.

By day two you will smell like one too, at which point you have to start choosing dinner options based on availability of outdoor seating – unless you don’t mind inflicting your bivvy bag musk on other diners. Thankfully the Spanish are incredibly nesh [Dialect, north of England; meaning soft or pathetic, particularly in reference to sensitivity to cold temperatures] and their outdoor patio tables always have overhead heaters.

You need to find a spot to sleep and don’t want to do that in the dark, which in early spring in Spain means you need to know where you’re going to sleep by 6pm. Usually, I try to be in position, effectively ‘in bed’ about half an hour after the sun has gone down. I don’t like to faff about in the dark, trying to find various odds, sods and camping accoutrements with the light from my phone screen.

Sometimes you don’t know your bivvy spot is a bad one until night has fully fallen, when it’s too dark to easily repack all your kit and move to a new one. If it’s your first night sleeping out, you might not know that it’s currently a full moon, that the whole country will be illuminated in silvery light and you’ll be as visible to passers-by as if it were noon.

Google Earth can help you find a likely spot, identifying fields far from farmhouses and arterial roads. Although, of course, these factors are only reliable to a certain extent as indicators of a sound night’s sleep.

That tiny road that seems to go nowhere, which looks unused by anyone, may actually be the fastest rat run out of town for those heading towards the main road to the next towns over. Google Streetview also won’t tell you about the footpath that bisects the field in which you’re sleeping, serving as a handy cut-through for people who live on the other side to get into town quickly on foot without walking beside a main road.

This is what I think happened on the first night of my trans-Catalan adventure.

A family walked across the field taking their usual Friday night shortcut into town. Small-town Friday nights in Spain are characterised by parents droving their offspring around the various plazas and ramblas, saying hello to everyone they meet. Bedtime is only understood as an abstract concept in Spain.

I guess one of the parents saw a body-shaped lump lying in a ditch, sinisterly wrapped in dark green plastic, perfectly illuminated by the moon. It being me.

Rather than upset the children by investigating further, the parents walked quietly past and then called the cops from a discreet distance. The two clunking doors I heard a half hour later were the police duly checking into this reported ‘possible homicide’.

And that’s where we came in. Me, shivering in my zipped-up bivvy bag, hoping against the odds that – despite the billion-lumen silver orb in the sky – they might overlook me lying there at the bottom of this obscure roadside ditch.

After what seemed like an eternity, punctuated only by more of those tuneful boopedy-beeps, the two policemen exchanged words, then, from the Spanish he murmured into his radio, I made out the one in charge saying, “He’s sleeping” and something about a bicycle.

My heart still racing, I expected the gentle toe prod of a police issue size ten, but it never came. The doors clunked open and closed again. The car drove away.

Just imagine how that scene would play out where you live. For me, a Brit, it’s unthinkable. Even in the towns, Spain has a wilder sensibility, a more permissive attitude. “He’s a moron for sleeping out in close-to-zero conditions,” goes the logic, “but he’s only hurting himself.”

I rode the Pirinexus, or my version of it, on a steel frame Decathlon road bike from the 1990s. I bought it off a Belgian bloke in Kentish Town five years ago and have put about 25,000km on it since. It has carried me over the Galibier and up the Koppenberg. It is a wonder bike, an unlimited sensation machine. It is my most treasured possession, but I love it more like a family member than something I own.

It is many things, but it is not a gravel bike. Running 25c tyres, mismatched wheels and a metal fork with an outrageous rake to it, it proved anything but nimble; it felt practically lethal on rocky descents.

I also could have slept inside. I rode past a hiker’s hostel with a vacancy sign on the way – on the same street in fact – to the roadside ditch where I eventually drew the attention of the fuzz. My water bottles froze both nights. On the first night my breakfast banana also froze. On the second night I slept with my snacks inside my sleeping bag.

What I’m saying is I made life harder for myself than it needed to be.

And that is sort of what cycling is, isn’t it? Placing obstacles in front of ourselves, or steering a path that deliberately encounters them, to amplify the sense of challenge? An experience with a deeper meaning is reached via discomfort. Why go through the tunnel when you can ride over the col?

And before you say it, I know not all cyclists gravitate to painful experiences. Exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, a bit of suffering makes us stronger. That’s what we cyclists believe.

I hope it is true for countries, as well.

How to ride the Pirinexus

I rode the Pirinexus bike route over three days, with two nights sleeping out in my bivvy bag. The first on the outskirts of Olot, where my spot drew the attention of the local feds, and the second just south of Peralada, a gorgeous and brilliantly preserved medieval village that has been co-opted in the last few years by a sprawling casino resort.

The Pirinexus in its entirety takes riders from Girona in Spanish Catalunya, over the Pyrenees via the Coll d’Ares, down into the Pyrénées-Orientales department of France, before crossing back into Spain further east. From there, the route – which is composed of quiet roads, greenways and bike paths – heads to the Costa Brava, before looping back round and approaching Girona again from the south. It’s about 340km in total. There is an event called the Pirinexus 360 which sees riders tackle the whole thing in a day.

I trimmed off part of the final coastal bit, because on Sundays the road between Sant Feliu de Guíxols and Tossa de Mar buzzes constantly with motorbikes. It’s a gorgeous piece of tarmac that dips and climbs in serpentine fashion along some of the most stunning bits of the Costa Brava, but is much better enjoyed during the week. I’d advise you to plan your trip for a weekday if you can, or take the road back to Girona via the Col de la Ganga as I did.

On reflection, I would have had more fun on a proper gravel bike like the Canyon Grail or Specialized Diverge, something that can still hit big speeds on flat tarmac. Even then, some of the lumpier gravel descents were impassable on anything but a front-suspension MTB.

I was kindly lent bikepacking bags from Eat Sleep Cycle in Girona.

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For more great stories from Tom Owen, be sure to check out “Last good country left” and “The Slaithwaite Redemption”.

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