The words “Zona Zero” have been on my mind all summer. It was to be the 7th stop of our Enduro World Series tour and was definitely the one that I was most looking forward to. Don’t ask me why, but I have always had a very specific picture of old world Spain in my head; visions of what the towns looked like, the people, the mountains, the trails and the vegetation, and I was beyond excited to see if it was going to be what I had imagined over all these months.
Chris Ball is a good friend of mine and whenever he returns from a “race recce” trip to scout out locations for the next best EWS location, you can sense how good it will be from his excitement level. After his first trip over, Chris was so excited about Ainsa that I knew it was going to be a very special round. It was like this little secret spot that not too many people have had the privilege of visiting or riding just yet. As the event neared I came across a small handful of people that have been lucky enough to go and ride in the Zona and when I mentioned the area, their faces would light up and you couldn’t get them to stop raving about everything.
We arrived the Sunday evening before after quite the adventure of our own—yep, our trusty, rusty old van finally decided to die its final death on the way to Spain. But don’t worry, it ended up being the most perfect scenario for a breakdown episode, with some luck a replacement rental van was sorted and we were back on the road with only a mere 8 hour delay. She served us well, but it was her time to go. All the van dramas were soon forgotten as we pulled up into the 11th century walled castle city of Ainsa, which is situated in the Sobrarbe region in the Central Pyrenees. It was like going back in time—absolutely fantastic. The plaza square was buzzing with excitement, the people were lounging about outside enjoying drinks and tapas in the balmy climate, and I immediately knew that this was the Spain that I’ve been waiting to experience for so long. It was going to be a good week.
We had a big week ahead of us, with three days of practice and then two days of racing, so we had to make sure to save a bit of energy for the race weekend, but man, was that hard to do. How can you come all this way, to such a fantastic area with so many trails, and not explore more than just the race tracks. With this in mind we met up with Doug and the guys from Basque MTB who specialize in guided mountain bike tours in the Pyrenees and surrounding area, and were lucky enough to join him and his group on a proper backcountry adventure ride on Monday. It was huge and it included what is probably some of the best trails that I’ve ever ridden. Yep, it was that good! Multiple 1000-meter-plus shuttle drops.
After that big day out exploring, I knew the racetracks were going to be next level, and they were. Dry, dusty, rocky, and just fun. There wasn’t anything scary about them, they weren’t overly steep and riding them was super fun, but racing them, man, they were plenty physical and quite pedal-y, but still fantastic.
It was a combination of the place, the effort of such a small community, the scenery, the history and the excitement of this event being in their little corner of the world, which made this race so special to me. I have never experienced such effort to go into one bike race. Where in the world would you have a kilometer-long sausage being grilled hanging from a crane? Or free beer and red wine for the entire week for everyone, or a giant, I mean giant, sized paella pan to feed everyone after the race.
We had a prologue race through the old cobbled street of Ainsa on Friday night and all the marshals were dressed up in Medieval attire—which I thought was fantastic and opted to get in the spirit and join them for a bit of fun. It was great to see quite a few of the other athletes also embrace the spirit of this town and join me in getting dressed up. It’s bike racing after all and we’re here to have fun. That evening set the tone for me of what and how I wanted to approach my race weekend. The times didn’t factor into the race either.
Saturday was a big day out on the bike, with four race stages and some pretty big liaisons. It was a warm one but we still got caught in a massive thunderstorm before the last run of the day, it felt like we were just out on a big ride, more like a Trans Provence day than the usual frenzied, crazy paced EWS races. The trails and liaisons were fantastic. Stage three, Sarrastafio, was covered in fossil rocks from a gazillion million years ago when the whole valley was under the sea. When or where have you ever started a race on a bed of fossils? The spectators and fans were pretty surreal, they knew pretty much everyone by name, they shouted and cheered and took photos with us and they were everywhere! Some liaisons took 2 or more hours to get to, but the fans were there, lined from the top of the tracks to the bottom and in-between. When we pedaled on the road, they were there hooting from their cars, waving banners out the windows, shouting words of encouragement and high fiving us as we climbed. I get goose bumps just thinking about the amazing support we had from all these super-enthusiastic people.
Sunday was another big day, with some very physical stages. I loved the fact that it was dry and rocky for once, loving my new Roubion and feeling quite bad for her as I smashed through the rocks all week, but that’s what she’s made for right? The stages all had so much history tied to it. Stage six was called Cottado de los Muertos, this trail was built because the little village below was so small that it didn’t have room for a cemetery, so the people had to walk up this trail with the coffins to the higher, bigger village where there was a cemetery. Needless to say, the corners and gradient of the trail were pretty amazing.
We were all expecting thunderstorms on Sunday afternoon and after a few delays, we knew we were not going to get away from this one. As I set off for my final stage, the most physical one, the heavens opened up and it began pouring. I kept racing my heart out, pedaling as hard as I could, railing the corners and loving every minute of it, only to be waved down by marshals to stop (I ignored the first one, and yes, maybe the second one too, as I was in the zone and racing), when I finally stopped, I realized that the stage was cancelled because of flash floods in the canyon below that had already washed away the timing table, the photographers and most of the spectators. WOW. We were on this knife-edge ridge and there was just water gushing down everywhere. A human chain of about 8 men were formed down this pretty steep slippery clay chute and our bikes would get passed down and then we had to sit down and slide from one arm to the next to get down safely. This was a first for me and a pretty memorable occurrence. One I won’t forget anytime soon and one that made this event stand out even more. With the stage cancelled we made our way back to the magical castle of Ainsa, soaked to the bone, muddy as hell, and smiles as wide as the length of the Pyrenees themselves. I loved every minute of this weekend and had an absolute blast on my bike.
This is what it’s all about; this is why I race and this is why it is so important to keep visiting new venues—to explore new countries and cultures. A week ago all I had were visions of what this place may be like, but now, 7 days later, I’ve fallen in love with a country, a region, its proud and humble people, its culture and its spectacular scenery and trails. I’m going back next year to ride my bike and explore more of this wonderful place. This is why I am so grateful for racing mountain bikes.