Wild and magic: Val d'Aran

This land on the border between Spain and France is one of the cradles of adventure sports, to which we must also add cycling now

This article was produced in association with Tourisme Val d'Aran

This is perhaps one of the best kept secrets of Pyrenean cyclotourism. When you think of the Val d’Aran, the words snow and alpine skiing probably spring to mind, as Vielha, the capital of this Catalan region, is a world hotspot for winter sports. However, when the temperatures rise and the snow melts, this land reveals a magnificent high mountain environment that has been winning over trail runners and cyclists for years, but, be warned, they may not have told you about it because it’s been kept in a bit of a secret.

The Val d’Aran is a very special enclave in the Atlantic Pyrenees. It has been the backdrop to many battles in the Tour de France thanks to high mountain passes such as the Portillon, which has been climbed 20 times in the Grand Boucle. Being a cross-border pass between Spain and France, it is a well-known pass in the Pyrenees, having been climbed both from Bossòst and on the French side, from Bagnères-de-Luchon in the world’s biggest bike race. On the last occasion it appeared on the Tour route, in 2014, the venue was the Aranese slope and Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodríguez made it first to the top.

But beyond the great stories of pro cycling, the land of Aran has always been a special one, somewhat mysterious and enigmatic. For centuries, the only way to access this area was through France or via the long Bonaigua pass, which rises to 2,072m and is often closed during the winter due to snow. It was in 1948 that the Aran was opened up to the mainland through the tunnel that connects Vielha with the national road to Lleida. This historical isolation, together with the fact that it is a mountainous border area with France, has contributed to its magnetism.

The region has its own government institutions, its own language, Aranese – that comes from Occitan – and even a unique climate. Its orography features many mountain passes that were once used for smuggling, and are now magnificent routes for hikers, as well as hiding places and nooks and crannies that were once used by the resistance during the Spanish Civil War.

Visiting the Val d’Aran also means being under the influence of two seas: it is still a Mediterranean area but it is also not far from the Atlantic. This means that its vegetation is greener and more lush than the rest of the Catalan Pyrenees, with more firs, beeches, spruces and oaks, and its fauna is wilder and more elusive: brown bears, capercaillies, marmots, eagles... This sense of being unreachable and untamable is one the things I like most about the Val d’Aran, together with the feeling that in every valley, there will be a surprise, like an unexpected landscape, a lake, or a typical village with a Romanesque church. Plus, the best thing about this place is the feeling of total immersion, as if the mountain were constantly embracing you.

In fact, Val d’Aran means valley of valleys in Aranese, and in those valleys only 10,000 people live in 620 square kilometres, which means that you have many chances to feel that the mountain only has eyes for you. I had ridden in the Val d’Aran on a road bike before, but this was my first time on a gravel bike and all the good memories I already had from road riding were amplified.

On the road, the sensation of riding between stone giants could be dizzying, but being able to get into the mountains thanks to gravel took the experience to another level. I started riding a gravel bike a couple of years ago as another way to enjoy routes of this type, which require versatility, and immerse you in the landscape. I knew that in the Plade Beret area, a plateau at the foot of the ski slopes of the Baqueira-Beret ski resort, there are usually wide trails for hiking, mountain biking and even horse riding, but this time I was going into a more rugged area in the interior of this infinite valley.

Riding into a more rugged area was a personal choice, to get more a sense of adventure from my visit to Val d’Aran, plus a way to say goodbye to the Catalonian landscape for a few months, before heading to Canada first and then Germany for work. My profession is actually very tied to the outdoors and sports, and my PhD project – which I am currently halfway through – was motivated by cycling and the effort required on high passes. I am a neuroscientist and have a Masters in sports psychology, and my research focuses on ways to measure fatigue and stress, improve recovery and promote relaxation. It was mostly through riding passes in the Dolomites and Andorra since the early days of my cycling life, that made me understand the power of the mind in sports, and the importance of physical and mental health to enjoy being active and able to go further in performance.

Back in the early days I wasn’t physically fit at all, but I was so impressed and overwhelmed by the environment that I always ended up climbing all the passes. Later on, while on the verge of overtraining, I learned about Heart Rate Variability (HRV), and since then, this has been my main topic of research. HRV converges my interest in neuroscience and psychology, and my passion for cycling. HRV can be a measure of your autonomic nervous system, in charge of your breathing, digestion and pulse, amongst other functions.  

It is a very useful metric to tailor training to each body. In other words, it helps to know, together with other variables, how stressed your body is and adjust the training load and rest. Now in Canada, at Simon Fraser University, I will be getting more in depth into biological data analysis, which I think will be a big step in my PhD research. (Of course, I am taking my bike there!).

Somehow, every time I have the chance to ride among high mountains I have butterflies in my belly, as they remind me of being in the Dolomites. My ride started from Vielha, the most populated town in the Val d’Aran, and the challenge was to crown the Salient, a pass that rises to 2,148m over 24km of continuous ascent along a path called Camin de la Coma d’Auran. It is not a very common route in the world of gravel, where the tracks tend to be much flatter, but we are in the high mountains and we have to accept the rules of the game: a winding track, full of curves in its first kilometres and some mini ambushes typical of an almost wild environment. In fact, it’s the longest climb in the Val d’Aran.

I was set for a special day in a special place. The track had some technical sections and some considerable ramps that forced me to put my foot down and push the bike, but this was not a problem, since I was on a quest for adventure and the unexpected. These are the kind of details that can turn your gravel ride into something more. Besides, I always think that these breaks allow you to keep in touch with the environment and look around —maybe there’s a chance to see a grizzly bear, but from as far away as possible. During the ascent I only came across one hiker and another mountain biker with whom I exchanged friendly glances. I did the rest of the climb alone, enjoying the scenery that opened up before my eyes at every turn.

Carla rode the new MMR X-Tour for this gravel route in Val d'Aran

As the gradient increased, the forests became less dense and at the almost bare summit, the immensity of the mountain became obvious. A small lake after 18km on  a gentle descent was the prelude to the summit a few kilometres later and the great reward: huge meadows where the mares graze, dotted with many wild flowers on summer days and views of the Maladeta glacier in the background. A mountain refuge, the Cabana deth Coret de Mont, was the only vestige of human life at over 2,000m.

For bikers, the track narrows and continues onwards with a technical descent via a path that winds its way down the mountainside, but for gravel riders, it is advisable to return to the same track where we had climbed up. The descent also required me to test my technical skills. It was a demanding descent, but very fun. After 19 km of descent, I took the path to the right instead of continuing to Vielha, to connect with  another track that allowed me to enjoy another of the charms of Aran: its picturesque  towns and the Garonne river basin, one of the arteries that mark this region and the only one in the Catalan Pyrenees that flows into the Atlantic watershed.

Riding on firmer tracks and some tarmac sections, I passed through the small villages of Mont, Vilac and Gausach, which have only a few hundred inhabitants, and have houses with black slate stone roofs, while descending through the valley curving as if I was imitating the fall of a feather in the air.  

The return to Vielha after 55 km of hard gravel adventure was a shock, after spending hours surrounded by lush nature in which there was hardly a soul. But I know that the memory of riding at over 2,000m of altitude on a gravel bike in the Val d’Aran and letting myself be pushed and embraced by those magic mountains, will put a smile on my face for a long time.

To know more about Val d'Aran and its cycling resources, please visit Visitvaldaran.com

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