A story of a half-catalan exploring his father’s homelands rural parts on a bike for the first time on the Montsec Bikepacking Loop.
My choice of steed for this trip, my Marin Four Corners build as an All Terrain Bike. The Skyscape Trekker shelter is nice packed with my sleeping pad inside the gray drybag on top of the rear rack.
Easter, that perfect time to explore places on a bike abroad
Free vacation days? Yes, please. Combine them with winter vacation days? Yes, please. Go ride and explore places that during summer might be a bit too warm?
Yes, please and that is how the tradition of Easter bike touring came into my life. At first we were happy to just go to Sweden and ride out of Stockholm. It’s a little more to the south than the Finnish capital so it is a degree or two warmer. Then in 2018 we decided we wanted real sunshine, maybe 15-20°C temps and good food. So we flew down to Malaga, Spain and rode for 7 days in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The temperatures were around 8°C on average and we did get a bit of sunshine too, but mostly we had all kinds of storms. Still was a great adventure.
Then we did another in Sweden and than thanks to the epidemic, we got to enjoy the Easter times riding around Finland. For 2022 to enjoy the given freedom to move again we went down to Tuscany, Italy for 12 days to finally have 22°C days in the saddle, good food with some good wine. It was a success. Small towns, big hills, countless scenes from postcards. Little nonnas cooking amazing gnocchis in tiny hilltop village restaurants and the tower of Pisa. Hot springs, pizza, pasta and did I mention the wine. Some nice stealth camping too. So for Easter of 2023 I wanted to enjoy some proper sun after a long, dark and cold Finnish winter.
After 3 hours of sleep, a early morning 4 hour flight and a 2,5 hour car ride later I pitched my tent in Ager, Catalonia in an old olive tree grove that now serves as a camping ground. It is also the start and the end point of the loop.
Montsec Bikepacking Loop
As a mudblood (love that term from Harry Potter), a mix of Catalonian and Finnish with a hint of Ukrainian, I had always had the idea of exploring Catalonia, the country of my father and 95% of my relatives, on a bike. I can’t even count how many times I have been to Barcelona, Girona, Cardedeu or Boï up in the Pyrenee Mountains and the surrounding areas. I was always visiting my family and exploring on my two feet and sitting in the backseat of a car during my 34 years on this planet. But on the bike, my only rides were when I was a small kid and I rode my cousin's bike (might have been a tricycle) to the playground. So when I found the Montsec Bikepacking Loop route network last summer, I knew where I would go for Easter of 2023.
The Montsec Bikepacking Loop bikepacking network let’s you explore around and into the area of Sierra de Montsec, located in western Catalonia and will take you to Eastern Aragon too. The main route is the mountain biking route and there are also the gravel bike and even a road bike variant, but the creme de la creme is the mountain biking route. The MTB loop is 590 km long and has over 14 000 meters to ascend. Didn’t have the time or the bike to fully enjoy the glory of mountain singletrack and dirt roads, so I chose to ride the Gravel option. The Gravel loop is only 372 km long and only has 7 270 meters to ascend, but I did do some sections of the MTB route on my trip. So I bought flights to Barcelona for Easter and managed to get my aunt and uncle to drop me to the start point from the airport and they kept my bikeluggage at their home during my trip. Otherwise I would have booked a hostel for the first night, left my luggage there and taken a regional train close to the trailhead.
Then it was time to wait for easter to come.
My bike stripped down after pitching up my camp in the camping ground and riding to the center of Ager to buy dinner and water. In the background you can see the southern Wall of the Sierra de Montsec.
On the 30th of March 3 in the morning I jumped on a taxi to the Helsinki-Vantaa airport with my bike in a bag and a 90 liter duffel bag in my pack and a small carry-on backpack in my other hand. As I boarded the plane in Helsinki it was -14°C and 4 hours later getting off the plane in Barcelona it was 14°C and the sun was shining. A promising start to a trip with the objective was to ride in sunny and warm weather. My uncle and aunt picked me and my bike. We started our 200 km ride to Ager. Was a nice car ride and we stopped for lunch in the small town of Les Avellanes in the Can Jordi. Enjoyed a hefty rustic lunch outside on the terrace, life was good. We arrived to Ager, we enjoyed some tapas and vermuts together and then my aunt and uncle drove back to Barcelona and I loaded my bike and rode to the camping area. Bought a camping spot, pitched up my camp in the light shadows of the olive trees. I did a quick ride to town in the evening for some supper, water and supplies and checked out the route before enjoying my first warm night in the Skyscape Trekker.
In the morning I packed up my bike, rode to town to have a proper breakfast (toast with iberian ham and manchego cheese, coffee and coke) and checked the route I will be taking the following week. The route was mostly gravel roads of different levels, but the wider tires the better the ride would be. So I had 2.0x650B tires on my Marin Four Corners and my trusty Jones H-loop bar that gave me good control even in the gnarly trail sections. The route was gonna be a lot of climbing, but my 30 tooth chainring had worn out just before the trip, so I arrived with a 32-11/48 gearing. If I would have been smart I would have added a 28t in the front to make the long climbs easier. But hey, there is no fun like type 2 fun. For my shelter I had chosen the Skyscape Trekker, as it was light, semi self standing and green. The color is important when you are going to be stealth camping. As the day temperatures were around 18-22°C I rode in shorts (just love shorts) and a merino t-shirt and a technical merino blend flannel shirt. The night temperatures would vary between -1/+8°C so I took my DIY Apex 200 synthetic quilt and a light synthetic hooded jacket and a long merino underlayer for the nights in camp.
After finishing breakfast I rode to the start point to a route that would take me from Ager to Estopiñan del Castillo-Benabarre-Puente de Montañana-Sierra de Montsec-Moror-Tremp-Basturs-Isona-Toló-Vilanova de Meià-Ponts-Artesa de Segre-Camarasa-Les Avellenes and back to Ager. Here are some photographical highlights and notes about the trip below.
After leaving Aren I had long uphills and after them came long downhills. The first long dirt downhill went all the way down to the reservoir of Embalse de Canelles that you see shining almost turquoise blue in the distance. On the banks of the reservoir you can see the effect of the long drought.
To cross the Presa de Canelles, a dam, to the other side you ride thru tunnels. The road is sometimes blocked by rock slides, but lucky for me the previous rock slide had been cleared. Lucky me there was a long uphill ahead too.
One of the many places of worship along the route. The architecture and remote locations always made me stop and admire them.
Stealth camping in Aragon. 60 meters from the route, downhill thru spiky bushes I found quite a nice even spot to pitch up my Skyscape Trekker. The horny deer bucks were also in the area, but that is a byproduct of camping around the spring time.
Maybe the coolest campsite in all my travels. The ruins of an old, walled farmhouse coming down from the mountains. The only way in was a small opening in the wall framed by thorn bushes and small trees. Gave me good shelter from the high winds. I did hear the bells of the medieval church and the loud talking of children playing around the church.
A morning view from camp Looking down at the church of Santa Maria de Baldós in the medieval village of Montañana. On the right you can see the canyon where the river Riu Noguera Ribagorcana flows and forms a natural border area between Aragon and Catalonia. A nice view and a pleasant ride downhill all the way down to the town of Puente de Montañana for a pick up to enjoy a rest day up in the Pyrenees.
Bike on a bridge in Puente de Montañana. After a rest day up in Boï in the Pyrenees my aunt and uncle dropped me back to the village. Was nice to combine adventure abroad and visiting after many years my family.
The old way of building cramped villages on the hilltops just makes me smile and stop. A good way to have a break on the long uphill climbs. This type of building style made sense in the conflict rich medieval times. Hilltops are easy to defend and tightly build stone towns with their narrow passageways are good place to make a stand against invaders.
Up in the Sierra de Montsec. Behind the bike you can see the entrance to a cave that is big enough to even pitch up a tent for the night. With my fear of heights I didn’t take a closer look, especially after doing two 10 km long uphills. In the distance you can see the village of Ager where I had started a few days before.
The downhill from Sierra de Montsec is part of the MTB route. Big, loose and sandy. A bit rough on the hands on my ATB to go down 5 km on this, but fun was had and the scenery was beautiful.
Stealth camping 101. Pitch late, pack early. This way you get to see some really nice sunrises too after listening all night the horny mating calls of deer bucks.
Just casually posing in front of the monastery of Santa Maria de Mur that is in front of the castle Castell de Mur. Fun fact: 52 million years earlier I would have been standing under the sea.
An arid section on the mtb route. The different landscapes made every day a bit different, tho everyday involved climbing uphills and riding downhills.
Water is life. Tho the region has been suffering from the effects off countless dry months I found paradise for a moment in the flowing low waters of the river Rio de Abella. Spent maybe 2 hours just chillin’ and relaxin’.
Stealth camping between sandy hills, next to a game trail and the road goes on top of the ridge. The ground was hard enough to break an alloy y-tent peg in half.
Long uphill from Isona to Toló with mixed surfaces and going thru fields, pine trees up to the arid hill landscapes . On this section I passed by a waterfall, where I was supposed to stop and have a swim. Because of the drought there was no water flowing down so the idea of a refreshing swim was made into dust.
The 8 km long downhill from Toló to Vilanova de Meià. A perfect downhill cruising down at a speed of 30 km/h on a nice gradient so didn’t need to brake much. Passed by many vans parked next to the roads as this side of Montsec has countless climbing routes on its vertical walls.
Stopped for the night in Vilanova de Meià in a climber bar, Restaurant Cal Cirera, that also had rooms to rent for the night. Spent the evening with two climbers that lived near my aunts house in the Pyrenees. The bar as a big wallpaingint showing all the climbing routes and was nice to see unknown people discussing routes and their plans with each other. In the morning I had a peculiar resident of the bar join me for breakfast. The bird is a red-legged partridge that hangs around the bar during the mornings and days among the clients. Tho I found it funny that the bird that I was sharing breakfast with also had its clan members available on the menu of the restaurant. For breakfast I had a cortado and a omelette sandwich, not one of its clan members.
The route passes by many medieval building sites. Even if you don’t stop for everyone the look of them on top of the hills watching over the rural gravel roads kinda let’s you go back in time. History has always been fascinating and learning from it on my travels make the adventure even better.
On the MTB section towards the town of Ponts. Mostly going downwards from the hills to the river valley. The change of vegetation across the route differs a lot.
On the outskirts of Ponts you follow the river Segre and past the town the route follows a maintenance road along a canal almost all the way to the town of Artesa de Segre. This section is quite flat and fast, a welcome change after days of intervals. The flowing river also worked well as nice place to stop, cook lunch and watch the water flow by.
After crossing the Segre river after the town of Camarasa and following nice greenways for a couple of kilometers the final climbs loomed ahead. On the other side of the mountains is the valley where the route ends. Maybe one of the most beautiful sections on the route.
The last morning on the route started with a beautiful sunrise. The night was quite warm, around 6°C that was pleasant since most of the nights on the trip had been around 0°C. To balance out the beauty of the area, the ground was plentiful with spiky and sharp plants.
A view that I don’t get back home. Even the lower Pyrenees are higher and steeper than the average fells in the Finnish Lapland. Best part of the morning is just watching the surrounding basking in the warm morning light, watch the birds of prey gliding in the sky and enjoy the moment before the final climbs to the hills overlooking the town of Ager and the end.
The sweat master 3000, all you need is to spend 3 hours going mostly uphill, stopping in the village of Les Avellanes for a second breakfast on the way, before riding and climbing a bit more of gravel roads. I was passed by an e-biker, a vanlife van and two off-road motorcyclists. But in the end I made it to the top of the old Roman road of Ager to the look out point. Behind are the walls of the Sierra de Montsec. After this all was left was a paved 6 km downhill to the town. Managed a speed of 59 km/h,so almost broke the speed limit of 60 km/h.
Summing the trip up
The Eastertour23 was an exceptional trip. Sunshine, warmth, good food, nice people and it was great to meet my family too. I Haven't been to Boï for over 6 years and just love the air and the views up there. In total I rode 6 full days and had two partial rest days. The first one with my family up in Boï and the second one chilling, socializing and having a shower in Vilanova de Meià. In total my version of the route was 364,5 kilometers long with 8777 meters of ascension. I did 56 summits and the longest non-stop uphill was 12 kilometers long with over 600 meters of ascension. I spent 5 nights stealth camping and unlike in my trip in Tuscany, I didn’t get caught even once. The weather was mostly sunny all of the time with the temperature around 20°C which is a perfect cycling temperature. I carried 4,5 liters of water between Ager and Isona, but after that there were more places to fill up on water so I just carried 3 liters per day. For food, my favorite is a bocadillo, a sandwich with a topping, but in Restaurant Cal Cirera they have these huge mountain loafs that I just love. Only had 7 claras to drink, that is 50% lager beer and 50% lemon soda. A great drink for the hot days. The chocolate factory in Benabarre is a great stop for a second breakfast and to take some chocolate on the way and the medieval town and its castle are worth the visit too.
I had a great but rough time, thanks to the uphills but I want to come back again one day to do the full mountain bike route on a mountain bike. The route explores deeper and you will see sites with dinosaur footprints, get to sleep in mountain shelters and really see the area of Montsec. I would take more time, so I would have time to explore more of the towns and castles on the way and just stop more to enjoy the surrounding area.
If you want to read and see the route more in detail you can visit www.montsecloop.com (they have it in english, spanish an catalan) and they have links to their .gxp files in Komoot and Ride with GPS and also other smaller routes around the area to explore. If you have any question about the bike or my exprience feel free to contact me on Instagram @a4d3e.
Enjoy your rides and dream of adventures.