Making a difference – sponsored ride for Cancer Research

It’s about time I started posting again so what better motivation than to help promote Graham Lampkin’s epic ride through Spain and France on his 1960 vintage Royal Enfield trials bike!

Over the winter we’ve been working out his itinerary from Santander to the Pyrenees, passing through majestic scenery, some of Spain’s best and most famous trails and, er, as many towns whose name begins with ‘L’ as possible!

Do check out Graham’s site: Lampy goes to L and back – get the ‘L’ joke! 🙂 – for the full story or you can donate directly via his entry on the Just Giving fund raising platform.

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Day 5: Escape across the desert!

Day 5: Thursday June 21st – Escape across the desert!

Blog log: 432 kilometres today – 1,483 total so far.

I had to make a start getting nearer to the Maxitrail party on Saturday and was tempted to join them in their ride out in the morning. One post on their topic was suggesting a start at the Sierra de Moncayo, one of my possible destinations, one the far side of the Ebro depression west of Zaragoza. But I didn’t want to go directly that way as it meant riding through the Monegros, an arid zone an area close to home that I know too much anyway. I also wanted to visit two more valleys in the Pyrenees, the Anso and Hecho, that I only knew a little. Plus I also wanted to avoid the N240 trans-Pyrenean trunk route, which is genuinely horrible!

My other big objective was to ride through the Bardena Blanca ‘desert’! This has become well known in riding circles thanks to an article in Adventure Bike Ride magazine earlier this year, so much so that a large group from my HISS rally went on there on their way to Santander and the ferry home. But got there first having driven through the reserve last autumn! So I knew that the 50 km trail posed no problems for me technically and in the event of a breakdown or accident I was certain that someone would come along soon enough , either other tourists, forest rangers or even the military police from the army base, which is located right in the centre!

The Bardena Blanca - approaching the military zone
The Bardena Blanca – approaching the military zone

The Bardenas, in the plural, are ancient land use areas granted by various royal decrees down the centuries. Almost all of the zone is in Navarre with a bit that runs over the border into Aragon. They are in the arid zone of the great depression formed by the river Ebro and in many respects they are similar to much larger areas of ‘desert’ space in that region (I use ‘desert’ in parentheses because they are just short of being technically desert – but what a few millimetres of rainfall between friends!). Three different zones make up the Bardenas and it’s the arid ‘white’ zone, tha Bardena Blanca, which gets everyone exited. It’s a small river valley with new soft earth that erodes quickly and dramatically mostly from the effects of the stong winds, leading to a remarkable landscape that is much used by movie makers and dare I day it – wannabee Sahara explorers!

Bardena Blanca expanse
Bardena Blanca expanse

Meanwhile I had a great time in the Aragon Pyrenees, passing swiftly and fast out of Navarre and into the Vall de Anso – the pass over from Isaba is truly lovely, but like many of the Pyrenean roads that I feature in my guide, is little more than a country lane. The route passes down the Anso valley which is narrow here, passing along a long but not very dramatic ravine. But before I went that way the trail to the head of the valley was ooooh so inviting! just afew kilomtres of easy trail but worth the diversion .  .  .

Near the head of the Anso Valley
Near the head of the Anso Valley

It also softened me up for crossing La Bardena of course. This trail is super easy as I’ve already mentioned – there’s a strict 30 KPH limit but .  .  .

the Bardena route is sooo inviting!
the Bardena route is sooo inviting!

After that I had a dilemma – I wanted to carry on a spend some time in the Sierra de la Demanda by a nice looking back road to research next year’s HISS rally but the time I’d spent in the Bardena has cut the evening short. So i decided on a quick hop to the camping Moncayo – disaster, it was closed! So I had to ride up to Soria anyway – horrible, the trip meant using the national high road, riding into the sunset and, as I’d quite my lining from my riding suit to go through the desert’ I got b*****y cold to boot as I rode onto the central Meseta in he dusk! Luckily, I knew the camping and was assured a warm welcome!

Day 4: Back to Plan ‘A’!

Day 4: Wednesday June 20th – Back to Plan ‘A’!

Blog log: 378 kilometres today – 1,051 total so far.

Straight to Day 4? Torrential rain began on Monday evening and carried on all night, and carried on drizzling all day on Tuesday . . . making it pointless to ride in the mountains. So so-called Day 3 was spent making do and mending, getting my camping set up better and making a start on this blog and the Adventure Bike Rider forum topic.

The camping had good enough facilities for this, plenty of space in the bar for working with Wifi and even some useful plug sockets – which makes a change. But even I can’t spend all day in the bar, so when Google maps started playing up I gave up and went for a walk in the drizzly village. Ochagavia is seriously pretty – very typical of Navarre. The camping belongs to the village and is run by a loose team of young people, it is also a centre of village life. Highly recommended, even being stuck there in the rain.

But I did have plenty of time to plan Day 4. having learned the lesson on Monday to give France a chance to dry out I decided to do my original route but backwards, staying on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees where it promised to be sunny. I’d also decided to move on and stay somewhere further west along the Basque coast – there are lots of campings along that coastline and I’d been particularly recommended the camping at Mundaka. But even as I was packing up in the morning I changed my mind – back to Plan A!

I reckoned that by the afternoon things would be brighter on the French side and I was right – earlier in fact and as I passed close to the pass at Roncesvalles, which I knew already and was going to by-pass, I decided to take a look over to the other side from the top as it was so close. What a good idea – a thin mist was melting away even as I was photographing he view and I decided to carry over to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port and throw all my plans into the metaphysical trash!

I ‘spotted’ an tiny pass that looked too good to miss, the Puerto de Izpegui, that also took me more directly to the Hendaye – via a few Tour de France passes to boot! The Pyrenees really have dwindled in stature in this area but are no less lovely, rising steeply from lush agricultural land – full of scantily clad British holidaymakers enjoying the strengthening sun! up to mountain pasture, seriously pretty!

Back in Spain I joined the N121b and headed north to the frontier at Ainhoa – easily memorable as it’s a Basque girl’s name – and then turned quickly west over the Col de St Ignace, getting quite a surprise rounding the last bend straight into crowd queueing up for a narrow gauge railway at the bottom – how very British it all seemed!

From there the obvious way forward was to head to St. Jean-de-Luz – a French name even I could remember! – and carry on into Hendaye along the ‘Corniche Basque’ as opposed to the boring main road or, perish the thought, the peage autoroute! The weakness in the plan was exposed when I got lost in St. Jean trying to find the beach and the Corniche. I lost time, patience and cool – literally! – OK, so maybe I should have a Satnav, but if I did I wouldn’t have found all these lovely rides after getting a bit lost!

The frontier towns all have a lot in common: the French towns are prettier but rather dull whilst the Spanish towns are visibly profiting from the cross border price difference; fuel, fags and booze never fail to pull the crowds. Both ST. Jean and Hendaye – at least the beach part – are typically French, twee almost, whereas Irun really is an ugly town, or rather puts an ugly face on. Like may Spanish towns and cities you have to right in to the centre to se them at their best as there’s no concept of ‘leafy suburbs’ in Spanish urbanization.

So getting to Cabo Higer (or Higuer in Castilian) was a bit of an anticlimax after an urban street fight to get there. It was also a bit grotty – clearly I’m the only person with big ideas about extremes of geography! But there’s a camp site there – that I was glad not to be staying at! – and a little cafe where egg-and-chips with a ‘sin alcohol’ beer put me right back on form!

I would have liked to have ridden a bit further down the Basque coast but time had really marched on so I decided head straight back to Navarre and back up into the Pyrenean passes on Plan A. The Basque Country is not the easiest place for biking as it is heavily urbanized, with villages and small towns stretching along the highways in the narrow valleys. I realized that I’ll have to explore the Basque County as a trip in its own right one fine day!

The N121 to Pamplona is a serious trunk route and I only used it reluctantly to whizz over to another part of the country. I still wanted to retrace my steps on Monday and complete all those lovely passes – a splendid sunny evening’s riding was in store!

The Puerto de Artesiaga road is little more than a country lane, but definitely a worthwhile ride. It’s heavily used by cyclist and in any event isn’t safe to ride at any kind of speed. The southern slopes are deeply forested – in fact a royal hunting forest – and all trails are closed here. But the road more than compensates, especially once I doubled back up to the France and the Vall des Aldudes and a return to St. Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Then the maximum highlight of the day, the French side of the Irati forest and the pass of the same name. I know the Spanish Irati – you have to walk there as it’s a Reserva Natural – and found the French side equally impressive, especially from a motorbike!

The road is more than fantastic but time consuming and I was also getting pretty tired by then. The past is also immensely vertigenous! More was to come as I retraced my steps up the Puert to Larrou, scene of my encounter in the fog on Monday. Approaching from Larrou I realised that I had ridden almost all the way to the village before I turned round! The views from the top are indeed spectacular – more so havine relised just how terrifying the drops were on the poor verge of the road – that I rode in almost zero visibility!

What a day!

Day 2: no nonsense nadgery in Navarre!

Day 2: a ‘circuit’ of Navarre

Blog log: 285.5 kilometres ridden today – 673 total so far.

I should have known better; clouds rolling over mountain passes mean only one thing – rain on the far side and fog at the ‘summit’! But ever onwards ever upwards. My plan was ro reach the coast at Cabo Higar, the furthest extreme of the Pyrenees, to ‘begin’ my voyage to Punta de Tarifa, the southernmost point in Peninsular Spain, by way of as many Pyrenean passes as I could find.

But once over onto the French side I encountered the thickest, and coldest, fog I’ve seen since January. Worse, the road, wide and in immaculate condition in Spain – as usual it has to be said! – instantly deteriorated into a rough, narrow and scantily marked ‘C’ class road. I wasn’t looking for crash barriers but some sort of indication as to where the road ended and the abyss – for surely that was what was out there in the gloom! – begain would have been nice. This was seriously scary, visibility down to less than five metres and seriously sharp hairpin bends the road just ‘disappeared’ into the gloom.

Fog rolls over the Coll de Larreu - a sign to plan a diversion until the afternoon!
Fog rolls over the Coll de Larreu – a sign to plan a diversion until the afternoon!

After too much of this I passed into the forest where the fog turned to drizzle and I reckoned that this was it as far as the French side was concerned. While I was looking for a place to turn – the road was that narrow! – I passed another biker that I thought must be local as he was wearing jeans. A few K’s back up the trail I found the same guy sitting on his Triumph T160 Trident busily punching a text into his mobile. He was totally lost and furthermore had hardly a single working light bulb. So I suggested we rode over the top together into the sun and sort things from there.

Amazing world: going back the visibility was even worse and at the hairpins near the summit the road literally disappeared, catching me out three times. I’m sure that if it weren’t for my brake lights my companion would have gone over the edge and that would have been and end of him. As it was we carried on right over the pass and down some miles into the sunlight and away from the cold air – I was soaked right through and feeling seriously cold by then!

Strange meeting!
Strange meeting!

Mr Triumph was amazed to find that he was in Spain  and began to worry that he’d missed meeting mates in France when there was roar of big bikes coming up from the Spanish side – amazing, his mates screeched to a halt! Big greetings all round as the group, who were all at school together up to the early seventies, renewed their acquaintance.

Time for me to go and I headed west with an idea to cross the Pyrenees where they are lower into the Vallée des Aldudes – no way! So after much needed break at what I thought was a roadside café that turned out to be a smart restaurant – where i had a dish of fish soup to die for! – I decided to run down towards Pamplona and revisit the amazing section of the NA-214 between Navacués and Bugui, a road that inspired me to come back to biking! On the way don’t miss the short section of the original road signposted for the Foz de Arbayún – an amazing viewpoint into the ravine and a fantastic section of hairpin bends!

Day 1: a pootle up the Pyrenees

Day 1: La Pobla de Segur to Ochagavia

Blog log: 387.5 kilometres ridden today.

Off at last! After the HISS event at the end of May time flew by with little spare for planning, so this trip is very much a seat-of-the-pants thing with only outline plans made.

First observation is what a change it is to be riding alone, having spend most of my recent riding time with other bikers and much of my waking hours thinking about routes and how to disseminate this information it was great to feel a genuine sense of freedom – and the N260 between La Pobla de Segur and Pont de Suert is an unbeatable way to get in-the-mood!


First observation is what a change it is to be riding alone, having spend most of my recent riding time with other bikers and much of my waking hours thinking about routes and how to disseminate this information it was great to feel a genuine sense of freedom – and the N260 between La Pobla de Segur and Pont de Suert is an unbeatable way to get in-the-mood!

I try to avoid doing this ride too much in case I get bored – how is that possible on this road!  – and the last few times have been different, twice accompanied by trail riders for the HISS Rally and the last time a quick burn up to get myself back into ‘road mode’. This time was different again as fully laden the bike behaves differently – very well in fact, especially as I had a short test ride on the fabulous C1311 with the extra weight. Oddly enough the little G650 thrives with the additional 25 kilos, maybe I should go on a diet!

On from Pont se Suert I take the A-1605 to Campo saving the N260, which is lovely but with a very bad surface, for another day. This is a lovely route through a ravine to Bonansa and the ‘port’ of the same name, which leads into the valley of the Isaba river. From here the HU-V-9401 runs around the southern slopes of the Turbón mountain – a spectacular local landmark. The landscape here is grueling, a badlands environment with amazing erosion set amongst dense forest. This was once a quiet back road but is in the process of being ‘improved, with huge bypass around the village of Egea. Fortunately it looks like the old road is being kept open for access to the village. It passes through a very lovely ravine.

The N260 from Campo to Ainsa has been ‘improved’ to the point of being useless for biking but as my mate Ted says, “At least you can look at the magnificent scenery”- Ted has been bumbling up and down the Pyrenees for at least thirty years and showed me a ‘new’ route last autumn through the Cañon de Añisclo gorge that runs up into the Ordesa National Park. But I get a bit cañon-ed out at times and wanted to try the ‘high’ route into the Val de Vio – It was not disappointed!

Rejoining the N 260 at Sarvisé and on to Biescas was the first time on the trip I encountered any traffic – one of the advantages of avoiding the N 260. Worse was to come over the lovely Puerto de Portalet pass as I got caught up with literally hoards of French Sunday drivers returning home after their day in Spain. They also clogged up the ‘last chance’ filling station at Formigal, loading up with fuel at about 20% less than French prices – a worthwhile tip is to stop a bit  further back into Spain that I forgot to my cost!

After the frustration it was great to get off the main roads again, this time onto the Tour de France routes over the Pyrenean ‘Cols’. These routes are signposted which was handy for me as my map didn’t cover this area. I ended up going over the ‘Col de Marie Blanque’ through lovely countryside – the green was almost hallucinogenic to my eyes as I’m so used to living in an arid part of Spain. The ‘Col’ itself was relatively free of tourists, who tend to clog up theres passes to the extent that it’s often difficult to stop and photograph. But at least here they were actual cyclists!

The next stage was a bit of a mistake. The D 441 towards the Pyrenean pass at Col de la Pierre St. Martin turned out to be a tiny country lane! But it passed through the lovely Forêt d’Issaux, which although was rewarding gave me a hard ride of it – hard to think of racing cycles up here, especially when the Tour route rejoined the Tour route towards the Col itself – I was so glad of the sign saying I was on the way to Espagne that I even photographed it!

The pass at Pierre St.Martin has got to be one of the most beautiful of the Pyrenees. You ride right up amongst the peaks thereabouts and to the west look down along the while remaining range towards the Bay of Biscay. I encountered ferocious winds on the top, however, and was running very late by then, so I only stopped once on the far side to record my welcome back into Spain – my ‘home’ ground after all!

The ride on to my camp site at Ochagavia was more than welcome – I knew the roads well having holidayed here before at as the evening drew on I was glad to know where I was headed!