The Pyrenees Are Massively Underrated as an MTB Destination

Riding the Maxi Avalanche trail in the Ainsa region.
Riding the Maxi Avalanche trail in the Ainsa region.

Confession time: when I was en-route to Europe for a three-week tour of as many of the best mountain bike trails as I could fit in, I considered my first week-long stop in the Pyrenees mountain range, which forms the border between France and Spain (with Andorra sandwiched in between) a preview, an appetizer to the main course: riding in the world-famous Alps.

But on my long, long flight back to the States, exhausted, physically destroyed, and thoroughly enamored with the mountain biking in Europe, as I reflected on the parts of my trip that I enjoyed the most, I realized that objectively, the very best mountain biking that I experienced during my time in Europe wasn’t found in the Alps like I thought it would be—it was in the Pyrenees.

Now don’t get me wrong, I had an absolutely superb time riding in the Alps, and one of the trails I rode in Switzerland was probably the single best ride of the entire trip. But for most people, when I tell them that the riding in the Pyrenees was, overall, way better than the mountain biking I experienced in the Alps, I can tell they don’t really believe me.

Heck, even compared to the Rockies, the Pyrenees absolutely rock! Seriously, I was blown away by this mountain range—a true sleeper, under-the-radar mountain bike destination.

Here are 7 reasons why the Pyrenees deserve to rank among the raddest mountain bike destinations in the world:

1. The Cultural Immersion Is Unparalleled

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The old town center of Ainsa, a UNESCO heritage site.

Compared to other parts of Europe that I’ve visited, the cultural immersion in the Spanish Pyrenees is second-to-none. Part of this incredible cultural experience is thanks to the fact that Spain isn’t truly a first world country, like its nearby neighbor France. Instead, especially in the rural areas like the Pyrenees, development seems to be a massive step behind the rest of the developed world. This feeling of stepping back 20 (or more) years in time is largely due to the influence of Francisco Franco’s long 36-year dictatorship, which ended in 1975. During this time, the rest of the first world raced ahead in technological and social developments and Spain was left behind in a big way.

One crucial example of this is the rail system. Franco decreed that Spain would use a different rail gauge from the rest of Europe, in an attempt to prevent invasion during World War II. While the Second World War never made it to Spain, that unique rail gauge has persisted to this day, so if you want to take a train from Spain to the rest of Europe, you’re forced to switch trains at the border. Not only are the trains different, but many of the trains are old and run-down, with at least one breakdown expected on every train trip from the Pyrenees to the bustling city of Barcelona.

Walking through Ainsa

The lack of spoken English also contributes to the feeling of immense cultural immersion. Unlike much of northern Europe, when you travel into the rural areas of Spain, don’t expect to be able to navigate on spoken and written English alone. It’s rare to find signs and menus in English, and when it comes to waiters or other staff, their English may be broken at best.

So, to make my way around when I wasn’t with my guide, Jordi Bonet of MTB Dreams, I tried to rely on my own broken Spanish, thanks to years of Spanish classes in high school and college. However, I found that as I listened to conversations I was often unable to understand anything, and the words on many signs were unfamiliar. This is because the majority of our trip was spent in a region of Spain called Catalunya. Think of Catalunya like a state in the United States, but one that has its own distinct culture, and its own spoken and written language—Catalan. This is why I could rarely understand what anyone was saying, because they weren’t speaking Spanish at all—they were speaking Catalan.

Catalan isn’t even a variant or dialect of Spanish—it is absolutely its own unique language. However, thankfully, everyone in Catalunya still speaks Spanish, meaning you can navigate on spoken Spanish. But if you’re coming from the States, expect even the Spanish to be difficult due to the dialectical and vocabulary differences from that of Latin America and South America, which we are most accustomed to.

Rolling through a village in the French Pyrenees

While we spent the majority of our time on the Spanish side of the border, for one day of our trip we drove over to the French side of the border for a double-header two-ride day in France. While it’s still very much the Pyrenees, both the language and the culture change at the border; “hola” on the trail is exchanged for “bon jour.” So if cultural experience is your main goal, you can easily experience three distinct countries in the Pyrenees, if you include Andorra.