Badlands to the Bone

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Riding buddies Martin Gelder and Ted Cockshott are out to prove you don’t need an ‘adventure’ bike to have an adventure. They’re taking on the Bardenas Reales desert, Spain, on a 35-year old Beemer and a Harley Sportster

Words: Martin Gelder Images: Martin Gelder and Ted Cockshott

The heat is the enemy. Not the loose gravel track, not the inappropriate bikes we’re riding; it’s the heat that really gets to you. We’ve covered about 10 miles since we turned off the road between Sabada and Carcastillo and onto the dusty trail that runs round the edge of the Bardenas Reales National Park. In those 10 miles, we’ve seen no other vehicles, no other people, and no shade. It’s still only mid-morning but the glare from the sun reflecting off the dust-yellow world that surrounds us is relentless. And it’s hot.

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Ride on time

Six months ago it had seemed like a good idea; a trip to the Pyrenees, a bit of gentle touring, some off-the-beaten-track sightseeing. And then things escalated. While browsing stories of other people’s Pyrenean trips in ABR we noticed that all the photos of bikes showed them on flat, smooth-ish, unmade roads. “You could ride those trails on any bike,” we thought. “We could ride those trails on our bikes”. And now, here we are. We pull over next to a tumbledown dwelling, long abandoned, and the dead quiet hits us as soon as our helmets come off.

The bikes tick quietly to themselves as they cool but we stand in silence, gazing around us. It’s a stunning landscape. Breathtaking. Or maybe that’s just the heat. We drink some lukewarm water and inspect the bikes, which by rights should have fallen apart or spat us into the dust by now. The five-year-old XL1200 Harley Davidson Nightster has no ground clearance, no suspension travel and a balloon of a rear tyre.

The ‘airhead’ BMW R80/7 might look more practical but it’s 35 years and 100,000 miles old. It’s been round the clock and it’s been round the block. Yet both bikes are coping really well. They shudder over the corrugations in the trail – for a while, I wondered why there was a sound like a bag of spanners rattling when I went over a series of ripples, then I realised it was the rattling of the bag of spanners under the seat – and they kick off the bigger bumps, but we haven’t struggled for grip as much as we expected.

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The bikes coped admirably with the terrain

Park life

Refreshed and awed in equal measure, we press on. The trail begins to climb and dip following the terrain, the surface demanding confidence on the climbs and caution on the descents. I thought we’d be trickling along at a walking pace, but we’re maintaining a steady 20-25mph in second or third gear. You can tell little traffic passes this way; our arrival sends bright green lizards scuttling for sanctuary under rocks, sets flocks of tiny nimble birds into flight and startles rabbits from their lazy morning activities. ‘What do rabbits find to eat out here?’ I wonder.

Each crest brings a new vista, then we spot the dust trail of another vehicle in the distance. A 4×4 is heading towards us, and my Englishness instantly fills me with guilt; it’s surely a park ranger, coming to turf us out or turn us back. The driver eases off the trail to let us pass, then with a smile and a wave he’s gone. We rumble on, pausing once or twice to check the road book or to take in the view.

The trail is obviously managed, with markers indicating the correct route and a very occasional sign showing paths to nearby settlements, but for the most part the track is just a flatter version of the surrounding landscape. The surface is loose, but with a firm base below. It’s wide enough for a single 4×4, with corresponding wheel tracks, and in places the centre of the trail gives an easier ride. In other sections the wheel tracks are better; it’s fairly easy-going but demands concentration.

A smooth flat area at the base of a climb looks like concrete but turns out to be fesh-fesh, a talcum powder-like soft sand that grabs at the front wheel and then billows up in a cloud as we pass through it. Further on we see weathered sticks poking out of the trail, warning of points where wind and water erosion have crumbled the track into a gully. We settle into a solitary rhythm, trying to stay cool by minimising exertion. After 30 miles, riding on gravel has become normal, with loose steering and marginal traction our whole world.

When we begin to see signs of civilisation – a military building, the odd tired shack here and there, then a jogger and two cyclists – it’s a surprise. Then we round a corner and suddenly we’re at the park’s visitor centre; a coach party of school kids bustles past, tourists take photos, a tarmac road leads back to reality.

ABR heaven

Parked at the end of that road is the first – the only – other motorcycle we encounter while riding the desert trails. It’s a local XTZ 750 Super Tenere, ridden in on the paved road and heading out the same way when sightseeing is done. We nod, grin, and then head off into the desert on a track running at right angles to the asphalt. It’s nearing midday and soon the heat will become unbearable; we want to get to the end of our desert trail before the humidity becomes suffocating.

While planning this trip, we’d just assumed that there’d be other people doing the same thing; the adventure bike class is the fastest growing at the moment, a fact borne out by more than half of the bikes on our ferry to Spain falling into the adventure/big-traillie/tall-rounder category. So where did they all go when they got off the ferry? The following day, we got our answer while riding from the desert plains up into the Pyrenees for our second dose of trail breaking.

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“What, up there?”

The towns we pass through get bigger, the roads get wider and busier and the number of bikes we see swells. We pull off the main road that hugs the Embalse de Yesa Lake to check the map and admire the view, and a steady stream of bikes passes in both directions. It’s a busy road, sinuous and scenic, but the sports bike riders we see must be constantly catching caravans and motorhomes.

Our route then takes us on lesser roads through the foothills of the mountains, and as the roads, we’re riding get better for bikes, the number of bikes we see drops. Their loss, our gain. The blacktop is smooth and grippy, the weather is much more temperate than yesterday, the views are fantastic and it’s rare for us to have a run through a series of bends interrupted by another vehicle. This is heaven compared to home.

Onwards and upwards

Having started by riding across a desert, it seems only fitting to end by riding over a mountain. Our trail starts on a path that runs beside a house guarded by a dog on a chain – without the road book, we wouldn’t have had the confidence to follow that track. We climb, zig-zagging on more loose gravel, away from the sleepy village and its barking dog and up through lush, green woods before emerging into the sunlight and a view that makes the scrabbling ascent all the more worthwhile.

The surface of the track we’re riding is familiar from our desert crossing, but there the similarity ends. The climbs are steeper, the landscapes greener, the temperatures lower despite the bright morning sun; it was interesting to visit the desert, but I could settle here.

We press on before I start looking for an estate agent. Our route drops us down onto minor tarmac roads again before climbing up into the mountains proper. The plan was to loop round the edge of a lake before trying to find a way into France, but we find our way barred to anyone other than hikers and cyclists. This is the first time we’ve been brought to a halt by officialdom, but the nice man in the rangers’ office suggests a route for us which will take us past an old munitions factory and some stone circles, up into the peaks and onto a famous cave. As we climb higher, the temperatures drop.

We look for the stone circle but miss it, distracted by the herds of horses and cattle with their mournfully clanking cow bells. In the interests of science we can report that wild horses are unfazed by the sound of a BMW starting up a few feet from their backsides, but are somewhat more startled by a Harley doing the same. So now you know. Onwards and upwards, and the track we’re following becomes rougher as it becomes steeper. Mist, low cloud in fact, is rolling in from the French side of the Pyrenees and hiding our view of the very top of the mountain, but while stopped to discuss whether we’ve already entered France or not we see an eagle soaring just below the cloud base, hunting the valley below for prey. It’s on the same level as us, and seems close enough to touch. The sound of our engines starting doesn’t bother it one bit; this is the eagle’s territory, not ours.

Bikers in the mist

And then the cloud is on us. We pick a route that will drop us down into the valleys and set off into thickening fog. The trail we’ve chosen is part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostella pilgrimage path over the mountain, and every now and then a hiker will loom ghost-like out of the mist, our clattering, rumbling engines breaking their contemplative uphill trudge. All we can do is follow the path in front of us as it snakes its way downhill.

It becomes impossible to judge the distance we’ve covered and difficult to gauge our speed with so little peripheral vision. It’s like riding through soft grey cotton wool; sound is muffled, vision limited to the track ahead. Suddenly the cloud lifts revealing a pastoral landscape, we round a downhill bend, and there’s a cafe with bikes lining the road outside.

We order up coffee, tea and jambon baguettes and look back at the steep, broken, patched and pock-marked road we’ve just ridden down. It looks like a substandard farm track, and I’m not surprised to find that the cafe is as far as the rest of the bikes there will go. They don’t know what they’re missing. If you’ve got an adventure bike and a week’s holiday to fill, get yourself to Spain.

It’s what your bike was built for, and you’ll have a trip to remember for the rest of your life. You don’t need an adventure or off-road bike to do something like this, though. For the routes we took, anything with a reasonably upright riding position would be fine.

You could do it on a GSX-R or Fireblade, but you’d have to write off your bodywork as a lost cause. A Speed Triple would be fine, an ER-6N would be a breeze, and any adventure bike would shrug off a trip like this without breaking a sweat. How about a Triumph Scrambler, a Ducati Monster or one of Honda’s NC700 range? Arguably, something small and manageable would be a better prospect than something with an off-road bias but so big you can’t pick it up when it falls over. What have you got? That’ll do.

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The Bardenas Reales National Park

…or Park Naturale de las Bardenas Reales in local parlance is 100, 000 acres of semi-desert or ‘badlands’ located in southeast Navarre, Spain. The chalky, clay and sandstone soil makes for some interesting rock formations, canyons and plateaus, and erosion has left this landscape looking something like a mini Monument Valley – ideal ABR-ing territory.

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The Bardenas Reales National Park

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Want to do this?

How long does it take?

You can do this trip in a week.

When to go?

We went in August and it was hot; September is perhaps an ideal time of year to visit when temperatures have cooled a little; don’t leave it too late in the year as snow could be a problem on the high passes.

Get there:

To ride your own motorcycle in this area, there are three main options.
1.) Ride the 800 or so miles
2.) Brittany Ferries direct sailings into Santander from either Plymouth or Portsmouth.
3.) Fly with British Airways directly into Pamplona and James Cargo Services Ltd. can transport your motorcycle to an address in Pamplona for £475+VAT ready for you to begin your trip (www.jamescargo.com).

We used the Portsmouth – Santander Ferry which took 24 hours each way and worked out cheaper and quicker than riding down through France and back.

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Accommodation:

We based ourselves in Ejea de los Caballeros for the desert and in Roncesvalles for the mountains, but there are plenty of other options nearby, particularly in the Pyrenees.

Paperwork for you:

You can ride in Spain on a UK licence, but keep your passport to hand as backup identification on the road.

Paperwork for your bike:

To get your bike into Spain you’ll need the vehicle V5C, a copy of your MOT certificate and proof of insurance.

The route:

Our desert trail was centred round the Park Naturale de las Bardenas Reales and our mountain exploration around the Orzanzurieta range; Michelin map 573 covers both, but not in enough detail for off-road route planning; we used Michelin maps 144 and 145 to trace the tracks. Our routes were based on roadbook No.10 from Vibraction – we didn’t follow the whole book but it was invaluable in getting us started and giving us the confidence to explore. Expensive but worth it.

Map

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The bikes

Airhead BMW

Martin says: My 1978 BMW R80/7 predates the Paris Dakar Rally by a year, and the first GS BMW by two years. It wasn’t exactly designed for rattling across deserts or bouncing up mountains, but the long travel suspension, big tank and soft, flexible engine that made it a good choice for explorers 35 years ago were just as relevant for our mini adventure. It’s been a long time since I did any proper off-roading but the BMW soaked up ruts and bumps and covered for my lack of practice.

The biggest problem I had was a combination of short legs and a high seat that made paddling impossible; it was feet-up or nothing for me. That, and perhaps having too much imagination; the consequences of getting it wrong on a sharp turn leading to a steep climb, on a loose shale surface with a steep drop on one side loomed large at some points. The BMW got me through without any fuss. If we’d hit mud or a lot of soft sand I think I’d have struggled more, but for this kind of soft trail riding, it made my life easy.

The Boxer gave us the only mechanical problem of the trip, a worsening misfire on a slightly opened throttle that made control on some of the mountain ascents a bit hit and miss. It got me home under its own steam though, and you can’t say fairer than that for such a high-mileage bike.

The 1200 Sportster

Ted says: Riding a Harley on dirt roads? Nowhere near as difficult as you might think. On the loose stone surfaces of the desert route, there was definitely a strong sense of stability and a good feel of directional control. I couldn’t just turn as and when I wanted, there was still a need to straighten out the tighter turns whenever possible. Sharp braking was out of the question, but as confidence grew and I adapted to the conditions I was able to take her up to 30 or 40mph on the larger curves and straights, at which point the ride was surprisingly smooth and stable through the Maxton suspension.

Then either lack of bottle or common sense and self-preservations took over and I went no quicker. We expected traction through the talcum powder-like sand to be a big problem, but as long as I kept up a good speed and preferably some level of acceleration, the tyres gave no trouble, although I did fear for their survival over some of the potholes, which felt all the worse on a heavy bike on short-travel suspension.

The steeper, longer climbs in the Pyrenees were a different kettle of fish. The further away from civilisation and surfaced roads we went, the rougher the surface became. Imagine a Cobb or flint wall laid flat on the floor with loose gravel and ruts added into the mix on climbs of between 30 and 40 degrees and you’ll have a fair picture in mind. No problem with rear traction but the juddering action running through the bike made it more difficult to steer, and this was made worse by going either too slow or too fast. Overall, it was just a case of finding the right speed for the rhythm of the surface.

Mods and farkles

We didn’t do much at all. Both bikes got hand-guards in an attempt to save brake and clutch levers in the event of a slow-speed off, but we kept our standard road tyres. The Harley’s rear indicators are staggeringly expensive which is why it’s carrying its pannier in all the photos; they were there to provide protection rather than carry luggage.

We carried enough tools to do basic maintenance, some spare cables and inner tubes we had anyway, and the inevitable cable-ties and insulation tape, of course.

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