from the Mavic Exposure Series
Adventure seems to be a popular word at the moment. It is used to sell us everything from cars to coffee to bikes. Possibly it’s because true adventure is lacking in our modern, highly-scheduled lives; something lost yet remembered deep in our chromosomes, silently calling to us from our Neanderthal past. I have heard it postulated that the thrill of mountain biking appeals to our ancient hunter gatherer roots. That it fills that gap in our souls which once drove us to chase down deer and hunt mammoths. Now we find that the post-ride beer with friends serves as a substitute for the fire in a cave mouth, alive with the smell of roasting venison. While it sounds like considerable bullshit to me, I know in part it’s true. There is a DNA born drive for adventure, for an escape from routine, that I feel deep inside and which builds the more it is denied.
As mountain bike guides part of our job is to tame adventure. To shape it and then provide it, in a safe package, to guests. Trips appear very adventurous, and they are, but we have assessed all of the risks and have mitigated them, stacking layers of alternatives to ensure we always optimise the safest options for our groups. We have practiced our trips with friends and repeated them until we are as certain as possible of the success of each and every ride. It must be like that of course; anything else would be irresponsible. We offer perceived risk that in reality is highly controlled.
For a guide, the arrival of off-season signals the time we get to enjoy our share of adventure. We’re free to get lost exploring new areas and searching for fresh trails, and occasionally we will have to pick our way back in the dark. We’ll test new routes and enjoy them untamed before polishing and perfecting them in preparation for future trips. During this period of new exploration it has become a beloved tradition to plan a short excursion for ourselves. A time for us to gather and enjoy time riding bikes and drinking beers together. Traditionally we’ve called this our Off Season Adventure.
Sometimes the planning needed to organise a trip is in itself a hurdle – a barrier to adventure, if you like – and this proved true for our most recent Off Season Adventure. Busy with life and occupied elsewhere, nobody stepped up to take on the role of organiser. It is all too easy in this internet age to spend so long contemplating the alternatives that you end up doing nothing at all. The clever people who study this phenomenon refer to it as ‘The Paralysis of Choice’. Overwhelmed by myriad options, we freeze like rabbits in headlights, unable to decide, and can end up taking the easiest route of simply doing nothing. For a while our annual trip was stuck in that place; a desire completely stalled and appearing as though this year it would amount to nothing at all. What we really wanted was a trip to ride bikes, free from the burden of organising – we just somehow wanted it to happen magically, without requiring anything of us prior to the start of the fun times. And thus, largely through laziness and disorganisation, our ‘Plastic Adventure’ was born. The plan was simple; it couldn’t have been simpler really, because beyond a meeting point, we didn’t have a plan.
The message I sent to the group read, “Meet at my house at 7:30am on Monday, bring only what you want to carry, and plan to be back in 3 days.” We planned nothing else, beyond checking that I had some money on the company credit card.
Although we had no specific plans we had had a very dry winter and I knew the trails in the forest behind my house were running well. We also had successfully campaigned for access in a local park that links with those trails, and we wanted to take advantage of that recently granted access. This is the beauty of minimal planning – we could adapt to last-minute developments. As we climbed through the building dawn, following the maze of singletrack behind my house, it all somehow felt different knowing we didn’t have a final destination. We had no accommodation booked and nowhere we needed to be. Ahead of us lay only ever branching options leading to a plethora of possibility.
As we left the forest and climbed slowly up the open hillside we found ourselves above an incredible cloud inversion; a weather event made even more spectacular by dust which had blown up from the Sahara Desert. This is an atmospheric phenomenon which usually affects only the southern half of Spain and is achingly rare as far north as the Basque Coast. As the red tint of the dawn light strengthened, it gave the clouds a strange glow, setting our excitement levels high for the coming day of riding. We were reminded that as on nearly every journey, the best things end up being the ones you can’t plan. Around the middle of morning we reached our peak, standing 1000m above the Basque Coast, now hidden below a sea of red hued cloud. Temperatures were warm and the gentle wind carried a faint scent of the orient – or perhaps that was just our inspired imaginations. We laid out our food supplies and were happy to discover that between us we had bread, 3 types of dried sausage, and a skin full of red wine. Perfect. I love it when a plan comes together!
We rode ancient forest trails which would have served the charcoal business that ruled these lands hundreds of years ago. Ancient trails, sunk deep in hollows eroded by centuries of footfall and still filled with dry autumn leaves. We rode the old mining trails which supported iron mining stretching back over 2000 years in these hills, and in part, the reason the Basque Country remains so strong economically today. Eventually we headed for the Basque Coast to sample the food and drink of Hondarribia, a stunning coastal town where we base many of our mountain bike holidays, but a place we rarely get to enjoy so freely. We made that decision purely for a great bar there serving excellent local craft beers and, well, that was what we felt like at the time. Arriving as the sun set we quickly warmed up the credit card, ordering drinks and food in the world class pintxos bars. Pintxos are the Basque equivalent of tapas and proved to be perfect for filling us after a long day in the saddle. Happy and sated, we decided it was time to look for a place to spend the night. This exercise produced a few nervous moments as we were met with hotels that were either closed or full, but after some searching we found a place to check our bikes and rest our heads. The next morning we woke early for breakfast and enjoyed yet another beautiful view as the sun rose over the mountains and the beaches below. There were a few clouds in the sky, but no sign of the dusty air or the inversion of the previous day.
Over breakfast we made a rough plan. We aimed to follow the coast to San Sebastian where we would enjoy a late lunch before pressing on to the fantastic surf town of Zarrautz to spend the night. Things didn’t quite unfold that way though. Instead we took many longer scenic routes, ate too many pintxos, enjoyed some beers and finally arrived in San Sebastian to find the sun nearly touching the horizon. Anxious to experience sunset, we beelined for the beach, procured beer at a favourite local bar, and sat in the warm early evening glow to watch surfers enjoying some post-work waves. Our initial timing had proved off, but that’s the beauty of not making plans. Who cared? With no booking in Zarrautz we didn’t have anywhere we needed to be. We just lived in the moment, thoroughly enjoying the consequences of the day’s decisions. Our inability to cycle past a cold beer or a warm pintxo had definitely slowed us down and meant we wouldn’t get further than our current spot, but this was a trip about fun and not about racking up miles.
It turned out that this mini adventure, our Plastic Adventure, felt more like a proper getaway and much longer than the 72-hours it was. In our daily lives we are slave to routine. Each moment can seem mapped out long in advance, made rigid with a note in the calendar. Spontaneity isn’t often compatible with what is required of us through a typical day, and I often feel like I am stuck in a hamster wheel – racing but getting nowhere. On our adventure it felt significant to ride with no fixed plan and to improvise as we went along. To enjoy spontaneous decisions and seeing where the road beckoned us. Of course, we were helped by our local knowledge – between us we know these hills better than anyone – and it’s true that not all who wander are lost. We had food in our packs, just enough wine, no place we needed to be, no accommodation reserved and no one waiting for us. We simply followed the trail that felt right in the moment, and enjoyed the freedom that afforded us. The collective noun for a group Spanish of males is an ‘argument’, and aptly no junction was negotiated without raised voices and passionately gesticulating hands. All a welcome part of the spontaneous fun.
This type of trip is only possible in a relatively populated place; a part of world where you can drop into a village and have multiple accommodation options available. An adventure in the wild needs advance preparation and more kit, and is rewarded equally, but differently. For our chosen style of travel this time around, we were lucky that the Basque Coast is made up of spectacularly wild places in close proximity to more civilised ones. It was perfectly suited to our plastic preferences. This doesn’t only exist in Basque country however, and with a bit of trail knowledge you can easily do something of this nature in many regions across Europe. The experience can of course, be tamed and tailored simply by pre-planning a route and knowing the locations of possible B&B’s in advance. For us however, attempting to plan much beyond my initial text and I suspect we may have chosen that easier route, and abandoned the trip entirely. With busy lives and bursting schedules it is too easy to get weighed down in over-thinking and over-planning, and end up nowhere at all. And that’s the beauty of spontaneous adventure. You literally grab your stuff and head out of the door.
Why not give it a try yourself?
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