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Biking in the Spanish Sierra de Guara

A bike trip through the conyoning paradise in the Pyrenees

by Jan Sallawitz 07/04/2014
The canyon cuts deep into the karstic landscape; I struggle to find my feet on the slippery ledge. The water roars at my feet and plunges into a deep, black hole. The noise is so loud that I can't possibly understand what Stefan is trying to tell me, but his outstretched thumb and broad grin show that everything seems to be fine.

I hang my body on the rope very carefully and slide into the cold water - down into the darkness. As I swing under the waterfall, the water crashes down on me with such force that it takes my sight and breath away. Disoriented, I swing back and forth between the narrow rock faces under this giant shower until my feet finally make contact and I can abseil down in a controlled manner. What have I let myself in for? Canyoning is the name of this wet pleasure where you climb, dive and swim along the course of a wild river through the gorges. And the Sierra de Guara is world-famous for this sport. To see for ourselves, we left our bikes behind today and headed into the torrent under Stefan's guidance. Although he actually lured us to this spectacular area on the south side of the Pyrenees for a bike discovery tour, he knows this rocky region with its impressive gorges from his work as a canyoning guide and instructor.

At first glance, the maps of the Sierra de Guara, a mountain range belonging to the Spanish Pre-Pyrenees, located north of the city of Huesca in the province of Aragon, show a multitude of bike routes. On site, it is not easy for us to find attractive routes that are really good for mountain biking. On our first tour from Rodellar, even after an intensive study of the map, it is not clear to us how best to ride it and so, after a spectacular but very short descent, we struggle down a small climb through the rock face, first a few kilometers through a blocked river valley in the midday heat through the undergrowth. Shit, we must have chosen the wrong direction.
The challenge is to move forward on the bike as much as possible, if you're not already struggling to cheat the handlebars between treacherous bushes and nasty vines. Riding pleasure is something else, but at least the scenery makes up for the effort. Between dramatic rock faces, rock needles, stone arches and domes, which look as if they were put here by a perfectionist set builder using papier-mâché for a monumental nature film, a light-flooded gorge landscape stretches out. Crystal-clear water gurgles over small waterfalls into turquoise pools, from which smooth, flat rocks rise, inviting you to jump in and sunbathe. Gravel banks, loosely overgrown with small holm oaks and low bushes, reach right up to the imposing walls that tower into the sky and offer the crowds of climbers who cavort here ideal starting and resting places. Dragonflies buzz through the shimmering heat and the silhouettes of huge birds circle in front of an azure sky: griffon vultures, golden eagles and kites, as an ornithological guide tells us. Snake eagles, Egyptian vultures and peregrine falcons are also said to be found here, but at the moment we are more interested in how the cycling is going.

Because although the designated tour is only marked as the second most difficult, red category, we now have to shoulder the bikes again to climb a rocky step. Well, maybe we really have ridden the wrong way round and downhill these carrying and pushing sections could be fun. The landscape becomes more and more spectacular the further we get into the canyon. The rocks reach higher and higher and the tower-like limestone formations become more and more spectacular. Instead, a small single trail meanders slightly uphill but is easy to ride through a small meadow strewn with boulders. Right turn, left turn, right turn around a bush, hollow, right turn, left turn - that's the flow we were looking for! But as soon as we've finished thinking about it, the trail starts to climb steeply again. And how... The path is completely blocked and leads up the slope in steep serpentines. Panting, we push through the blazing sun, sweating and alternately cursing the author of the "bike map" and our own stupidity for not having informed ourselves better. As our liquid supplies approach the end, but the path continues to climb up the slope with no prospect of rideability, we capitulate and turn around. The last blue swimming pool we had passed an hour ago, which had shouted "Jump in me!", was too tempting - we had all heard it perfectly. And a challenging descent, which we had only just been able to take a close look at, is not to be sneezed at. The next day, we take a smarter approach and ask our landlord Omar, who is a hiking and canyoning guide and therefore knows the area like the back of his hand. He recommends a trip up the Sierra de Sebil. It's not that challenging in terms of driving, but the scenery and views are stunning - especially in the late afternoon, the purple blooming broom fields begin to glow magically, creating a very special atmosphere. And there would probably also be a trail or two to discover ...

From our accommodation, Casa Atuel, beautifully situated on a small hill near Bierge, we set off in the afternoon and cover the first few kilometers on a tarred road. To the right and left of the road, lined with low oaks and beeches, miles of golden yellow cornfields stretch out to the horizon. Every now and then, olive groves appear like islands in a sea of yellow, gnarled and overgrown, as if they were thousands of years old. The further up the hills we go, the more we are surrounded by lovingly tended orchards and vineyards. And a little further up, there are only woods and pastures, which are obviously rarely used, as almost every house we pass is a ruin with a collapsed roof, if not just a pile of stones. Urban sprawl you can touch. We are all the more astonished when, a little further on, we come across a small settlement of lovingly renovated, almost spruced-up houses that have apparently only recently been inhabited again. The fat sow that greets us grunting in the middle of the village street cannot destroy the impression that these are the weekend homes of city dwellers who have (re)discovered this original piece of nature for themselves. Through extensive beech forests, the route climbs steadily northwards up the slope on a cart track. It may be a bit long, but it is a leisurely pedal along and the warm atmosphere in this mixture of wilderness and ancient cultural landscape is something unique. As we reach the edge of the forest, the late afternoon light is just beginning to take on a very special color, bathing the wide-open mountain flanks around us in golden light. The stair-like limestone terraces stretch far across the valleys and Mediterranean machia alternates with a veritable profusion of flowering gorse bushes - not only in the purple announced, but also in bright yellow. The cart path has turned into a high-altitude trail; the panorama is breathtaking. The gently undulating mountain ridges in front of us run towards a mist-filled valley, over which huge birds of prey circle. Behind them, other mountain ranges form a somewhat paler backdrop above which the snow-covered peaks of the High Pyrenees tower majestically. The Pico de Aneto, the highest mountain in the Pyrenees at 3404 m, and the 3335 m high Monte Perdido, which is a World Heritage Site due to its beauty, stand out here. Next to them, you can clearly see a cut in the mountain range that doesn't really fit into the picture. "This is the Bréche de Roland", explains Stefan, "according to legend, it was created when Roland, a nephew of Charlemagne, tried to destroy his legendary sword "Durendal" so that it wouldn't fall into the hands of the Saracens after a lost battle".

The path winds gently up and down in long S-curves through the hills. It feels good to let the bike run properly again without having to pedal. You also want to carry the momentum for the next climb as well as possible. If you brake, you lose... So we try to steer around the bends as smoothly as possible and keep the speed up. At the same time, we keep our eyes peeled for the edge of the path on the right: according to the map, there should be a small path turning off somewhere here that could promise a good descent. After the fourth dip in the road, we have come a few kilometers further, but there is still no sign of a turn-off. Instead, I hear an unfamiliar grinding noise in my rear wheel hub, which I ignore for the time being as a positive thinker. However, the deafening crack, followed by a second loud, metallic thud, is impossible to ignore and I stop to have a look. When I remove the rear wheel, the sprocket set falls straight into my hand and spits out a few steel springs and other destroyed metal parts. It seems to be something more serious. The diagnosis is sobering: the freewheel has come apart and the pinion attachment has broken off. Unfortunately, we are at the furthest point from our accommodation and the late afternoon has given way to early evening. So the search for the trail is over and we have to see how we can get back somehow. With a bit of tinkering, we manage to push the sprocket back onto the axle and fix it in place with the help of the last remaining pawl. On the flat it can even be pedaled with a lot of feeling, but as soon as the pressure becomes too great, the drive simply slips through with a nasty, metallic rubbing noise. At least the bike runs freely as soon as you stop pedaling. That's something when you consider the prospect of the nine-hundred-metre descent down the cart track. Nevertheless, the way home is an egg dance ...
The damage turns out to be a bigger problem for our bike trip than initially assumed. None of the bike stores we visit the next day are able to repair my freewheel construction. Everyone is amazed at this technological masterpiece, but no one can find a suitable spare part. There are no rental bikes in the area either and we slowly realize that mountain biking is an absolute niche sport here. This would also explain why we haven't seen a single biker so far and could also be a reason for the poor bike map, which we used to try and find our way around with moderate success. The best bike we could find in a bike store here would hardly pass for a DIY store MTB. What a prospect! A call to the manufacturer of the broken hub gave us hope: After a long search, he found a dealer in Huesca, 50 kilometers away, who might be able to help us. The friendly Spanish bike shop owner is called Alonso and turns out to be the chief mechanic of the Spanish cycling team at the last three Olympic Games. The certificates on the wall immediately inspire our confidence and after a few phone calls from him to some warehouse in Madrid, it becomes clear that he can get the spare part and even fit it. The only catch: the whole operation will take at least two days... Great! That brings us almost to the end of our time here in Spain. Unfortunately, he's never heard of a mountain bike rental shop in the area either, but when we explain to him that we've come all the way from Germany to discover this great area for mountain biking and report back home, he spontaneously offers to lend me his own bike for the duration of the repair. Unfortunately, he doesn't have it in the store, but he wanted to take a lunch break anyway and I should just come along and take it home with me. I'm impressed and try to imagine how many bike mechanics there are in Germany who would simply let a Spaniard I've just met use their fine bike. And what's more, Alonso's bike is a very well-maintained all-mountain bike in the higher price category. Perfect.

Our mission can now continue. We quickly jumped into the car to make the most of the day we had just started. We wanted to go to Alquezar because we had been tipped off that there was not only an incredible canyon landscape here, but also some great trails. But as soon as we leave Huesca, we have a spontaneous change of plan: an elongated, brown mountain rises up in front of us from the glowing yellow grain fields, crowned by a castle at its right end. That looks good! Alquezar and the canyons can wait, we can still get there tomorrow. Especially as it's only a stone's throw from Bierge and time would be a bit tight today anyway.

The map tells us that it is Montearagon and the castle is Castillo de Montearagon. It's actually an insignificant foothill that isn't high at all, but the terrain looks promising, and when we spot a few cycle routes on the map, we turn off the main road and unload the bikes. The ascent to the castle is not worth mentioning, but when we get to the top, we can hardly stop marveling. What looked like a mountain from below is the step to a plateau that stretches for miles up to the actual mountains. Directly in front of us, the grassy terrain slopes down in many small terraces and steps into a huge basin that looks man-made, but the dimensions are too enormous for that. The meadow steps run symmetrically, interrupted only here and there by a few rocks in the wide circle around this natural amphitheater. In many places, small paths descend, sometimes directly, sometimes slowed down by narrow serpentines, running along the bottom of the basin through small hollows or over pointed, moraine-like earth walls before losing themselves in the greenery. All without any apparent purpose or destination, but a huge adventure playground for us. With a little creativity and a bit of shoveling, it would be easy to create a top-class freeride bike park here. But we want to look around some more and cycle on the dusty cart track, which the map describes as a cycle route in a north-westerly direction. We head straight for two huge rock massifs that tower up in front of us like giant sugar loaves - the Salto de Roldan. Another highlight for birdwatchers, as there seem to be some very special and rare bird species here, but the distance is too great to get there today. We prefer to enjoy ourselves on the trail that we have now discovered and which not only offers us a magnificent view over Huesca and the endless fields right along the edge of the slope, but also a real, sporty mountain bike experience - the first time the suspension travel of Alonso's bike has to undergo a real test.

The little trail offers everything a biker's heart desires: banked turns, tight hairpin bends, small jumps and a few boulders for technical spice. Towards the bottom, it branches off several times and offers variations to suit your mood. After a few meters, however, the path merges again and again and allows for small racing interludes: Who will be first back on the main route? Now we come across the first remnants of old buildings: small, dilapidated walls from old fortresses and the sloping steps of old staircases require a little more riding skill. Of course, we have no objections to this, as the first olive groves tell us that we will soon be back on the plain. Nevertheless, we still have a few meters to go on the loamy path, which offers real flow towards the end and lets us pump around the bends at high speed. We roll out comfortably in the warm afternoon air and are delighted to have discovered this beautiful spot. The grin widens even more when we see that we are heading straight for an outdoor pool.

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This article has been automatically translated by DeepL with subsequent editing. If you notice any spelling or grammatical errors or if the translation has lost its meaning, please write an e-mail to the editors.

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