This article was produced in association with Basso Bikes and Fizik.
It’s a cliché to say that a photo is worth a thousand words, and a misleading one, too. Sometimes you don’t need a thousand words. Sometimes one will do: ‘Badlands’.
You don’t need to know that Badlands are formed by aggressive water erosion on soft rock and clay soils to get an idea of them right away. The name is enough to conjure up deep ravines, arid wilderness, sparse vegetation and the complete absence of civilisation.
Compared with the lush, vineyard-cloaked hills of Tuscany, the endless stretches of purple lavender in Provence, or the breathtaking peaks of the Alps, the Badlands might not seem like an inviting place to go ride your bike, but it has a cult audience, helped by the allure of the Badlands bikepacking race, held every year in southern Spain.
The route includes forests, deserts, and the rugged coastline of Cabo de Gata. It also pits riders against the Pico Veleta, which at 3,398 metres is Europe’s highest paved road. In 2022, 281 riders came from all over the world to test themselves on the 780-kilometre route. The winner completed it in 43 hours and 36 minutes.
That’s an impressive feat, undoubtedly, but for one rider watching from afar, it was kind of missing the point. Maybe the ride could be done at a much slower pace.
“The idea began with me,” says Nicola Rossi, a freelance filmmaker based in Verona. I saw this Badlands ultra-marathon, and it got me thinking. The course looked great, but the athletes were doing it all with their heads down, going as fast as possible. It seemed like such a waste.”
“When they’re racing, they’re just thinking about the quickest time,” interjects Francesco Bonato, Nicola’s friend and confederate in this Badlands adventure. “Pedalling day and night, but Nicola saw that the race passed all of these incredible places, places where it was worthwhile stopping.
“He had been thinking about this trip for a long time, and so one day we just decided. We marked a date on the calendar and promised ourselves that was when we’d leave. We’d talked about it enough!”
“I just love the deserts in Spain,” continues Rossi. “I’ve travelled to them in the past by car, but when you’re driving you can’t really get into them in the same way as you could on a bike. The idea began there, to create this trip with some friends who saw things the same way.”
“Originally, there were three of us,” says Bonato. “Our friend Filippo was supposed to join us. Usually, we work together, and we could be on location somewhere for a couple of weeks, starting early and finishing late. So, we know each other well, but the idea was to do something fun together away from work, in a different way.
“The work we’ve done together, it’s always a little bit like a race: you’re against the clock and you’re working to someone else’s conditions. This was a chance for us to do something for ourselves, the way we wanted to do it, to shoot it how we liked, to stop where we liked, basically, to be free.”
They’re not the first Italian filmmakers to be fascinated with this part of the world. In the 1960s, a different generation came to these Spanish Badlands, looking to try something new. Their cameras were a lot bigger, of course, and their riders were on horses, smoking cigars and raising hell.
It’s not exactly a perfect analogy, then, but it is an entertaining one. Back then, Sergio Leone and his fellow directors captured the imaginations of people around the world with their tales of daring antiheroes, shot against an imposing, almost impossible landscape. They created a world where danger was everywhere, but so too was freedom.
Stunning surroundings, an element of risk, the promise of extrication from everyday life: a pitch for a modern bikepacking trip could very easily read as a Spaghetti Western. And if they’re being honest with themselves, most gravel riders, deep down, have thought of themselves as outlaws at least once. Don’t believe me? Try counting the number of paisley bandanas you see pulled up over noses at the next gravel event you go to.
It sounds fun, but not for the faint of heart. Had the pair’s cycling travels elsewhere pushed them to this extreme?
Bonato answers quickly: “The absurd thing is that neither of us had ever done a bikepacking trip before. Ever. But it didn’t worry us, we’ve travelled a lot for work so we were confident we could organise ourselves well.
“Whatever about Nicola, I had absolutely no experience. I never thought I’d do anything like this. But we gave each other the confidence to go ahead with it.”
“I’m a bit more into cycling than Francesco,” explains Rossi. “But my background is in downhill mountain biking. Prior to this the longest ride I’d ever done was 120km. We just wanted to go because it’s such a beautiful place. Then it came closer, we realised that it would be really difficult, especially as a first trip. There are long stretches with absolutely nothing. But we planned well and adapted the route to ourselves.”
Anyone who’s ever done a long-distance challenge on their bike will tell you that planning well is vital. They’ll also tell you that sometimes, it’s pointless.
“We built our bikes up on the footpath on Paseo de la Bomba, it’s a busy street, but Granada at night was so quiet, it felt empty. We began riding at around 4am, on a climb through a forest, with all of our belongings loaded into bags. It was a new feeling for me, one of autonomy, liberation.”
There wouldn’t be much time to enjoy those new feelings, though. After riding all morning on gradients that got progressively steeper and surfaces that got progressively rougher, the pair met dawn at the summit, 1,400m above sea level, without another soul in sight. After almost five hours of going up, they were looking forward to the descent. But fate had other ideas.
“I was waiting to photograph Nicola,” says Bonato. “He came through and hit the brakes and there was this explosion of dust, I knew right away something was wrong. He stood up clutching his left knee.”
“We thought we’d planned for everything.” laughs Rossi. “Of course, we knew that an injury was a possibility, but I’ve never come off my bike before and then in the first 40km… I landed on a rock that left a hole just under my knee, it wasn’t something that just needed a bandage, I had to get stitches.
“We had to go to the nearest town, about 20km away. At first, I didn’t feel too much pain. We got to the hospital and the nurse wasn’t sure if I’d be able to keep pedalling. I wanted to keep going, so I was happy when they gave me the stitches and then asked me how best to dress the wound so that I could get back on the bike.”
“It was crazy, we’d only been riding a few hours and then he crashes. He’s the expert, not me, and all of a sudden, he’s injured, we’ve got to find a hospital, he needs stitches, it was a bit of a shock,” laughs Bonato. “At the time the only thing we were thinking about was his knee and getting to the hotel. We knew we’d have to wait for the morning to decide about what to do next.”
“I tried not to think about it too much,” says Rossi. “We’d put so much work into organising the trip, I just wanted to keep going. Obviously, in a situation like that it’s the injury that decides, and that night it was really painful. But I think Francesco was doing more thinking than me.”
“My mind was racing through every outcome,” agrees Bonato. “Would we continue? Change the route? Go home? Nicola said to me, ‘Let’s sleep on it and see what it’s like tomorrow morning.’ And then in the morning he just gave me a look and
I knew we were going to ride on. Maybe if it’d happened on the third day, we’d have been close to the finish, we’d have done a lot and seen a lot already, it would have been easier to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ and just go home, but the first day, we were just getting started.”
“The next day, within less than an hour we were riding in one of the most beautiful places of the whole trip,” continues Bonato. “We descended into the middle of a desert; it was an incredible feeling. For the next few hours, I think we both forgot about everything, we were surrounded by such an absurdly beautiful landscape, so far from everyone. At least that’s how it felt for me, maybe Nicola’s knee was killing him.”
“That was funny too because Francesco had his own little crash soon after,” says Rossi. “Luckily, it wasn’t a bad one and we just kept riding.”
“And Nicola was filming at the time,” says Bonato, “so we caught it on camera!” More laughter.
Teething problems overcome, the pair didn’t take long to find their stride and by the time they reached the desert, they knew that they’d made the right decisions, first to come, and then to continue.
“You first reach a small plateau dotted with fruit trees and then the landscape opens up,” says Bonato. “You finally understand the extent of the Gorafe Desert, and the beauty of it. The view was thrilling. It was a maze of gullies, canyons, and ravines, like sculptures carved into the earth. The desert makes you feel small, like a tiny witness to this unchanged greatness. And at the same time the desert makes you feel big, it fills you with a new energy.
“Then there was a long, gentle descent down a road that made no sense at all, existing in such a remote place. It was technical and we had to keep an eye on the terrain, but you can’t keep your eyes off the scenery either. It brought us into a narrow gorge, on a trail that follows the route of a prehistoric river. Looking back, that might have been the most beautiful part of the entire tour.”
“The route actually passes through two deserts,” says Rossi. “Technically, Tabernas is the only one that’s big enough in terms of square kilometres to be classified officially as a desert, but the one I liked most was Gorafe. It’s red, full of rocks, maybe a bit like the deserts in California, to give you an idea.
“There are networks of riverbeds that cut through the rocks, but they’re dried out and have become trails now, and they actually form in the flat highlands and then descend into the canyons and valleys, but for me it was really strange, because it looked like the opposite when I’d researched the route on Google Maps. The valleys looked like the mountains. The scenery was spectacular, and a little bit unexpected too.
“It was incredible for me because we were really in the middle of nowhere. It felt like the most isolated place on earth, but when you’re on a bike you feel like you can just keep going. We had food and water, and tools should we need to do repairs, it was wonderful to feel like there was nothing that could stop us. It was something you’d never do in a car, but on a bike, if it came to it, you could just get off and push. It was a beautiful sensation, a real adventure. We rode for hours without seeing anyone.”
“I used to think cyclists were a bit crazy,” says Bonato with a smile. “But now I’m one of them. I came home with a newfound love for the bike and I’ve kept riding. I was actually out on the bike earlier today, and I find myself constantly thinking about places I’ll go to ride someday.”
“It was such a wild place,” says Rossi. “And not just the desert, the towns and villages, too, it’s a different reality. It’s hard to describe, there was a sense of liberty that I haven’t found anywhere else. As Francesco said, we had all we needed with us, and around us, a lot of nothing, just us two.”
“I loved the small towns we stopped in,” adds Bonato. “I don’t think I appreciated places like that before. After the Gorafe, we made it to a place called Gor; at that stage we were running on empty. There was one bar, for the pensioners, but that was all we needed. Only 10km from the day’s finishing point: cold beers, fried food, old men playing cards. It was magic.
“And in a town called Las Juntas, there was only one hotel, one restaurant, and one bar. And they’re the same place! It’s the kind of village that doesn’t get many outsiders, but they were happy to see us. We were treated like distant cousins who had finally come to visit.”
“The bike is a great way to travel,” says Rossi. “And in places like these, where there are hardly any people, when you do meet someone, they’re always great. The people we met in all of the little villages were so curious and friendly. We talked to so many people along the way.
“We didn’t have any of the problems we’d planned for, and anything that we hadn’t expected happened,” he pauses for laughter before offering a final assessment. “But that’s the beauty of travel, too. You go expecting one thing and another happens.”