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What It’s Like Bikepacking with the Family

article by Marc Gasch

My daughters keep asking me what do I do for a living. Most of the time I tell them I shoot pictures of gravel-bikepacking trips. I get strange faces in return, so I thought let’s go do a trip together so they can experience it for themselves…

Even if my daughters know I’m a professional photographer and I travel a lot shooting pictures of bikes, and especially gravel bikes, I can see in their faces that they do not grasp 100% of the concept behind that. I have already shown them pics of my previous trips, watched the videos, etc.,  but I thought a better way to show them the magic of bikepacking would be to take them on a proper XPDTN3 family trip!

Of course my wife also “signed up” (well, I did that for her) and we started looking for a trip that can be doable for them in 3 days and won’t become a nightmare for them due to physical requirements or logistics.

My two daughters are fit and active but, let’s be honest, not really “training” in any sport other than school basketball, skiing during winter weekends and some Jazz dancing. So I did not want to kill their legs on the first day of the trip, and we settled on the famous Tarragona’s “Via Verda”, a repurposed old railroad that the government turned into a cycling path. It travels from Teruel to the Mediterranean Sea at the Delta de l’Ebre, where the Ebro river meets the ocean.

There’s a nice network of “Vias Verdes” in Spain – you can check it out on their website – and it’s a good source of ideas for future trips, either with family or even with friends if you go for the longest/tougher ones. The itinerary we created is a mix of three sections of a VV (called “Via del Zafan”, “Via de la Terra Alta” and “Via Baix Ebre”).

We extended the route with a path called “Camí Natural de l’Ebre” that took us from Tortosa to the Mediterranean sea in the Delta de l’Ebre on the last day. The trick here is doing the Via Verde only in one direction, and being with kids we chose the descending direction, starting in the mountains and aiming for the Sea, so even if there is (a little) climbing, the major part of the route is flat or down and easy (wind permitting…) To do that, you will need to get a transfer from the end to get you and your bikes to the start of the route, which takes about an hour in a van.

We chose to sleep the first night in Tortosa, which is also the stop for the second night of the route. We stayed in the Hotel Corona, which is a “Bikefriendly” -certified hotel with some amazing bike facilities in the basement, from cages to lock your bike to a mechanic’s bench, bike shower, etc, so totally recommended. And for about 100 euros for a 4 people room, with breakfast included, I think it is a steal for a 4-star hotel.

Tortosa is the biggest town in the area and the easiest to get transfer services. The guys at “Via Verda Esports” organized a shuttle van for the 4 of us for about 100 euros, check with them for your group price, depending how many people travel and where do you want to start (and during which season).

The shuttle van dropped us at Valdealgorfa, the first old train station where the path becomes exclusive to bikes (you can start the route further up in Alcañiz, but you share the path with cars (few) for a while, which we did not want to do with kids. The sun was shining and the temps were perfect (this is Spain after all), in the 15-20 degree range, and we loaded up the bikes and got ready for some family fun.

Of course, 3T doesn’t make XXXS Exploros,  so my kids were using their 24″ mountain bikes, and I could see the excitement in their faces when they start strapping their own bikepacking packs (they were carrying their own clothes and spares) on the bikes.

Proper (hotel based) bikepacking.With XPDTN3, we usually include hotels or other lodging with a nice bed and hot showers so the kits can be super lightweight, no need to carry tents, food, towels or sleeping bags. That makes the trips easier to organize (and more enjoyable IMO if you just go for a 2 or 3 days short trip). I personally also enjoy the other side of bikepacking, roughing it in nature and bringing my Titanium pot and Dyneema tarp, but I leave that for longer trips (and no kids….)

One extra thing you need to pack for these trips is lights, as the railway path makes use of the old tunnels where the trains used to roll, and most of those don’t have lighting. So bring your bike lights ( a headlamp will work too, the tunnels are short) and get ready to scare the kids once inside the dark tunnel.

The first stage will take us from Valdealgorfa to the beautiful town of Arnes, where a family hotel is located, a perfect fit for this trip. The Vilar Rural is a hotel we already know, and it’s totally family-oriented and kid-friendly, from the food in the restaurant to their own little farm with animals, warm indoor swimming pool, etc. The kids love it.

This first stage can be considered the toughest one, as it has some climbing involved, with about 500m climbing in 42 km, but with a cool restaurant and ice cream in the middle of the route life is easier.

We stopped for lunch at Torre del Compte, an old way train station that has been transformed into a cozy small hotel and restaurant in the middle of the Matarranya area, a beautiful area to get lost for a couple of days.

After a (too) long lunch and a “siesta” powernap laying in the grass, we start pedaling again with the longest climb of the day ahead of us, a 10km continuous drag, obviously not too steep, but still tough for the kids, especially after a plate of pasta bolognese, chicken with french fries and triple ice -cream….

But after a long climb there is always a long descent, right? In this case not too steep, but one of those “false flats” where you need to keep pedaling to move forward but without too much effort. We could already see the town of Arnes in the distance, with the majestic Roques de Benet cliffs in the background, and the mountains of Els Ports.

In this section, we got a bit lost trying to get from the Via Verda to the hotel, which is located on the outskirts of this little town, so we end up doing some real (mountain bike) navigation and a bit of extra adventure for the kids!

Arriving at the Vilar Rural felt like home to the girls, who had been here a couple of times before, and were already asking for the swimming pool and the classic visit to the animal farm. Dad thought about it and was carrying swimsuits for everyone so pool relaxing for all! (well except for Dad who, in classic lightweight-XPDTN3 style, was cleaning 4 bibs and 4 shirts to get them ready for the following day…)

The next day, after a copious breakfast, we had to use the wind jackets on a chilly spring morning, but the sun was shining, so we knew it was a matter of time before we were in short sleeves again.

Our first stop was Horta de Sant Joan, a very famous town and the area where Picasso used to spend lots of time painting and relaxing. As Picasso said once “Everything I know, I learned in Horta”, and you can indeed really feel there is a magic atmosphere and lighting in the area, especially in spring, with all the flowers blossoming and the evening light hitting the Roques de Benet mountains with a warm touch. Magic sunsets for sure.

We continued our family affair crossing dark tunnels to the enjoyment of the girls, who kept screaming in the dark. A few stops at repurposed train stations (bus-food-truck included close to the town of Bot) made for a less boring ride for the kids, who kept also looking for gelato and playgrounds with slides and swings scattered along the Via Verde.

One of the highlights of the second day is the Santuari de la Fontcalda, a monastery hidden between tall cliffs and a gorge, with a beautiful river full of mini pools,  where summer baths are recommended to get away from the heat of the region. Not hot enough this time for a swim though, so we stopped for a couple of pics, talk about the monastery and keep pedaling to the restaurant stop lower down in Benifallet. Girls are hungry!.

After lunch in the restaurant relocated at the old Benifallet train station, we kept coasting down to the point where the Via Verda meets the mighty Ebro river, one of the main rivers in Spain, and that weaves its way to the now closer Delta, where it meets the Mediterranean Sea.

We could already spot a change in the scenery, orange fields and plantation replacing the wild forests and rock cliffs that have been accompanying us the last two days. The downhill part of the route ends here and it’s time to pedal hard again to get to Tortosa kids!

We are back at the hotel where we spent the night before starting the trip, so it feels a bit like coming back home. The trip is not over yet though, and we have the third day waiting for us to get to the Sea.

The Via Verda ends here, but as I mentioned, we planned to extend our trip following the bike path that goes from Tortosa to Amposta and then follows the Ebro river again to meet the Delta.

The first part of that route shares some parts of the route with cars – that’s a no go for me with the girls – so I decided to ride from Tortosa to Amposta following one of the main water irrigation channels that runs parallel to the main road. It offers a perfect gravel surface! We didn’t expect this strong headwind though, so it’s time for Papa to push the kids for a while, otherwise, it will take us forever (or they will be riding backwards…)

The sky is grey today, the wind making for a chilly day compared to day one. Windbreakers and fleeces are off and we pedal following the view of the Delta on the horizon. We pass the town of Amposta, where we can already start smelling the sea breeze. The girls are tired after 2 days in a row in a bike, something they have never done before, but I keep pushing them with gelatos and granola bars. Nothing sugar cannot fix…

In Amposta, we visit the Tourism Office where we learn how people used to live here when they used the river as a highway to transport all the food and gear they needed. In fact, we will be now riding the famous “Camí de Sirga”, an old path that goes parallel to the river, and that the local people used to carry (pulling a rope) the boats upstream back to town after navigating down to trade stuff.  Pretty hardcore.

One last effort and we make it to Deltebre, where we stop for a quick refreshment, still under grey skies, but perfect temps for cycling (advice: don’t come here in August, it’s definitely too hot, ask me how I know…)

Following the river makes for more opportunities of learning how the people fished and sailed here, with fishing techniques and boats unique to this area. The Delta del Ebro is also a birdwatcher’s paradise cause all the birds making the migration between Europe and Africa have one of their main stops here.

After following the last part of the bike path in the Delta, we get to the point where the way ends and the Ebro river finally meets the Mediterranean Sea, a popular stop for tourists.

But the kids are hungry, so we ride our way back to the nearest restaurant where we treated ourselves to some of the finest rice dishes you can have in Spain. The Delta is the main rice producer in the country and its inhabitants learned the magic recipe of local paella,  and other amazing rice recipes (I personally love the artichoke rice !) so don’t miss the opportunity to taste one of the best rice you’ll ever have.

And so here ends one of the trips I never expected to do when we started with the XPDTN3 project, but one I really enjoyed a lot, sharing some quality time with my family close to my home. Sometimes the best adventures are not 12 hours away on a plane. Find your own adventure and explore cycling!

 

 

XPDTN3

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