Navigation, or the inability to navigate, is one reason why you would choose a guided tour. Nobody likes getting lost when you are trying to get to somewhere, but when you don’t have to get to anywhere in particular, wandering off-course or becoming ‘lost’ is all part of the adventure.

I have spend decades travelling around Europe, and its only in the past year or so that I bought a navigation device. I still don’t use it for navigating, its primary role is to track my riding so I can create GPX files and in particular to keep a record of rideable off-road routes in order to maintain and develop the TET (Trans Euro Trail) in my area.

So how did I get around 14 European countries without using a sat-nav or similar device? Well I am somehow able to look at something and absorb and retain the information within what I looked at. And its not just short term information retention, I can remember clearly information I read decades ago. Have you seen the TV show Suits? When Mike Ross can look at something and recite it word for word. Well I’m not quite like that, but similar. I can look at a map, quickly assess the route, put the map away, go to sleep, wake up and have the image clear in my head.

So that was how I was able to navigate my way around Europe without using a sat-nav, and why I don’t really need to use one today. And not all of the travelling was on a bike, sometimes I was in a car or a truck. There are times when I use Google Maps, primarily for finding specific shops etc. within towns and cities I haven’t been to before.

So you’re probably thinking why is he writing about this? If we want to go from A to B, does it matter whether he uses his memory map or a satnav? Well if you are simply going from A to B, the answer is no, it doesn’t make any difference. But if during that journey, someone asks if there is an alternative route that is less twisty (or more twisty), or can we deviate to find a pharmacy as they have forgot their medicines, or simply is there somewhere interesting we can go and see on our way, then you need someone who can memorise a map and places of interest.

How many times have you heard about people saying their satnav has frozen and they had to wait to reboot it? Tried to enter a place name, but they type it phonetically and it isn’t recognised, or it takes them along the fastest and most boring route. I’m not anti-sat-nav. They have their place like all electronic devices, but I believe that if you go on a guided tour with someone who knows the area, knows the places that you will enjoy visiting, and doesn’t have to stop and research somewhere, you will have more time doing what you want to do, and less time waiting for the sat-nav to decide your route.

My Garmin Montana will always be turned on when we ride, plotting our ride, altitude, speed and distance, but by not using it to get around and by using my knowledge of the area and the roads, and places of interest I’ve memorised from looking at maps, you will have a much better guided tour with a portion of adventure thrown in.

Click here to read about other riding equipment I use.

A local ride can become an adventure

One of the benefits of owning and riding an adventure bike in Spain is that you can always find somewhere new to explore every time you ride. The country is a maze of roads and dirt trails which constantly intersect each other, so no matter where you are, you can simply divert from tarmac to dirt, knowing that the trail will inevitably lead to more trails and more tarmac and the adventure simply continues with each and every kilometre.

I had to ride to my local dealer to get some parts, and I decided to turn it into a circular route which comprises of some of my favourite tarmac roads. Part way towards the dealer, I spotted a dirt track to my right, and something was telling me to explore it. I turned off the tarmac, and hit the trail, and I was immediately presented with a wonderful mix of stone and dirt. The trail was a complete contrast to the road I had been riding, with varying camber angles, dusty lose climbs and descents, and fast but rutted hard-pack in-between.

My instinct to explore this trail was rewarded with some beautiful scenery and eventually a rest stop on the banks of the river Ebro. Every rideout can be like this, and you don’t need to be on an adventure bike or have dual-sport tyres, because the maze of tarmac roads linking towns with villages can also lead to places of interest. This is why my clients enjoy touring with me, they get to see places they didn’t expect and that is what turns a tour into an adventure. Click here to see the video I made after the days riding.

A six day guided tour of Catalunya

I provide guided motorbike tours throughout Spain, and two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of guiding Gill around North East Spain. Gill has only been riding motorbikes for 4 years, but she decided she needed a personal challenge and a bit of a two wheeled adventure, so she planned a solo ride from the UK to Spain where she would meet me and be guided around Catalunya for 6 days before heading back to the UK on her own.

We met in Zaragoza, which is a 2hr ride from my home, and meeting at a retail park gave us the opportunity to park the bikes, have some food and drink and talk about her journey down to me, and what she wanted from the tour. I did this because what something initially thinks they want, can change once the journey has started and they have experienced things en-route. Gill’s requirements were quite simple, she hadn’t been to Spain before, hadn’t been on a motorbike tour before, and she wanted to experience rural Spain and its wonderful roads.

We left Zaragoza, heading towards Alcaniz, a route which has a nice mix of roads and allowed me to asses Gill’s riding. From the start, it was clear she was safe and competent, wouldn’t take risks and her road positioning remained off-set from me so she was always visible in one of my mirrors. As we moved from motorway to national road and eventually onto minor rural roads, I didn’t have any doubts about her riding. Working our way towards Flix, which would be our base for the week, we stopped to get some supplies at a supermarket and arrived at the accommodation after sunset, where we sat and talked over a bottle of wine and I explained the routes I suggested she would like to try.

The next morning, we checked her bike, lubed the chain and set off for a day in the Pyrenees with my girlfriend joining us on her bike. We took a direct route to Tremp, but the roads and scenery are absolutely breathtaking in this area, especially once you get past the plains and start to climb into the mountains. Lakes, streams, towering hills and deep gorges make it a wonderful ride on a motorbike. We stopped in Tremp for lunch and refreshments, and to find out how she was finding the roads and scenery, before heading west. We wound our way up and down some incredible mountain roads, through tunnels, along more deep gorges and stopped once more for refreshments before heading back to Flix for the evening. I have done this route in January, to read about it, click here.

The next day was a rest day, Gill had been riding for 5 days and had already covered 1700 miles since leaving her home in the UK, so we just stayed local in preparation for the following day, but still managed 120 miles of quiet, twisty roads and sleepy rural villages with plenty of refreshment stops.

This was the longest day of Gill’s tour, going back into the Pyrenees, but cutting across a high mountain pass and working our way into Andorra. Our first stop was in Sort, a lovely little town situated on a river which provides kayak and white water rafting excursions, and dozens of lovely bars and restauants. From Sort, we took a pass towarrds Andorra which seemed to climb higher and higher with every hairpin bend until we were looking down onto what looked like a toy village that we knew was the village of Sort where we had stopped for lunch. We had a look around some of the many motorbike clothing and accessory shops, where I bought myself some new boots, and then we headed south towards Flix on a wonderful road, full of fast sweeping bends, a contrast to the mountain routes we had been on earlier that day.

After such a long day on the bike previously, we had a relaxed morning, and then went out to do a nice 120 mile circular route with my girlfiend on her bike, and our friend Martin on his bike. This is a favourite route of mine, great for blowing away the cobwebs without it being too challenging. We stopped a couple of times for refreshments and a chat, and climbed to the highest village in the area, surrounded by a farm of wind turbines, before descending to the river valley below and on to Flix for an evening of home-cooked food.

Gill’s final day was a little unusual for a bike tour, but something I think she needed. We had a late start and took a trip over the local mountains before descending to one of the most beautiful seaside towns in the area where we walked along the marina and had a leisurely lunch overlooking the Mediterranean sea before riding back on more amazing roads so we could check Gill’s bike and she could start to pack her luggage ready for the ride back to the UK.

The final morning was an early start, we loaded the luggage onto Gill’s bike and I had decided to ride with her almost to the French border in the Pyrenees. As she had 355 miles to cover today, we pushed on for almost 3hrs before stopping for a bikini (toasted sandwich) and coffee. It was here we parted company and Gill continued into France and I returned to Flix. Gill returned to the UK, already planning at least one more tour next year, because she knew we had barely scratched the surface of what this corner of Spain had to offer those travelling on two wheels, and there is also talk about taking a couple of days to travel south and a ferry to North Africa to explore Morocco for a couple of days and then returning to Catalunya.

If you would like to explore Spain on your motorbike, contact me to discuss routes and options.

Click here to read Gills testimonial

The Pyrenees in January

Riding the Pyrenees in winter can be a wonderful experience. Most bikers have read about and imagined riding in the Pyrenees, its wonderful twisty roads, smooth tarmac and breathtaking scenery, and both the stories that they read and the images they create almost always centre around riding in the summer months. My first trip into the Pyrenees was very different, as it happened one very cold January morning.

My Belgian friend sent me a message asking if I wanted to have a ride-out and blow away the cobwebs, well it would be rude to give a negative response to an invitation which meant riding part of the Pyrenees, so a loose plan was formed which would involve calling in for brunch with a friend of mine who lives in Tremp, and then we would take the N260 West and at some point, descend back into the plains around Lleida.

We met at my local petrol station, filled up with fuel and coffee and set off. My friend was on his BMW 1200 GSA, with heated everything and the wonderful BMW Rallye suit, so to him, it was a warm spring morning. I was riding my KTM 640 Adventure, which is a wonderful do-it-all bike, but it lacks the creature comforts that people expect from adventure bikes. I enjoy riding my bike, its raw, cheap, easy to repair and will do everything I ask of it, from climbing mountains, wading through rivers or cruising on the motorway at 120kph. But that morning, I wanted heated grips and a heated seat.

It was 7°c when we left Flix, a little foggy, quite damp, and compared to the summer here when it reaches 45°c, it felt like we were closer to the arctic circle than rural Catalunya. I had my winter base layers on, thick socks, a 100 weight fleece jumper and my RST Adventure suit combined with Hein Gericke All Season gloves and Fox Motocross boots. I felt like Mr Staypuffed from the Ghostbusters film, but I was confident that as the sun started to burn through the fog, I would need to stop to remove some items of clothing and I may also be able to change into my summer gloves. This is Spain, its a hot country, right?

The C-12 is the main route out of Flix towards Lleida and onwards to the low Pyrenees. Its a lovely road with a track-like surface and concentric bend after concentric bend interspersed with a few straights to allow you to pass the occasional slower vehicle with ease. We rumbled along at a steady pace, climbing in altitude with each kilometre, enjoying being out on the bikes and riding together after not seeing each other for a few months. After the turning towards Fraga and Maials, we were greeted with a lovely view of the snow capped Pyrenees.

As we rode around Lleida, it started to become increasingly foggy, and I noticed the occasional patch of frost on pavements which confirmed that the cold was starting to penetrate my clothing. Being the eternal optimist, I knew it was just a small patch of fog and soon we would be back in the sunshine and climbing towards the snowline.

Instead of following the C-12 to its end, we took the parallel C-13 towards Camarasa. This road is a wonderful introduction to the sort of riding you can expect as you climb further into the Pyrenees. Its like a roller-coaster, up, down, left, right, with incredible views. The difficulty is deciding whether to fully enjoy the fast sweeping road or slow down a little and enjoy the views. Its one of those stretches of road you can do several times and always see something new.

When we approached Cellers, the fog had returned and this time it was like pea soup. I couldn’t see my friend in my mirrors, speed was down to around 40kph because we simply couldn’t see far enough ahead to risk going any faster. I was constantly wiping the water droplets from my visor. My fingers were numb with cold, despite having hand guards and thick winter gloves. My breath was creating ice on the inside of my visor. It was bittersweet, despite the freezing fog, I enjoyed the challenge of riding in those conditions. It reminded me of my winter commute in the UK, astride my Honda CG125 with my boots skimming the snowy road surface as I tried to get from one side of Milton Keynes to the other.

When we finally reached Tremp, whether we had arranged to stop or not, we were stopping for brunch and to thaw out. I guided us to the bar where I had arranged to meet my other friend, we parked our bikes and dismounted. My riding buddy informed me it was +0.5°c according to his BMW’s air temperature sensor. We had barely started to climb into the mountains, only travelled for 2.5 hours, but it had been a great introduction to winter riding in the Pyrenees.

After an extended brunch, the fog had cleared, the sun was shining and we were ready to head west along the N-260. This road runs from the French border along the Mediterranean sea, and follows the Spanish side of the Pyrenees almost all the way to Jaca which is about two thirds of the way from the Mediterranean towards the Atlantic. Its a wonderful biking road with something for everyone, but on this day, the road was fringed with snow and where the sun hadn’t managed to reach the tarmac, there was still a covering of ice. It made for a fun and challenging ride, but it was great to have the N-260 to ourselves.

From here, given the weather and road conditions, most people would probably take the N-230 South towards Lleida, but we don’t like to do what everyone else does, so we decided to take the A-1605 and what a great decision that was. When you mention this road to people who know the roads around the Pyrenees, they greet you with a smile and almost a twinkle in their eye as they say ‘ah, you found the A-1605, not many people know how good that road is’. Well they will after reading this. It doesn’t matter what you ride, a CRF250 or a ZX10R, you will all equally love the A-1605. And when you get to the end of it, you will want to turn around and do it again in the other direction.

The road follows the river Isabena all the way to Graus, crossing it several times as it winds its way down the valley. At Graus, the river Isabena joins the river Esera and the A-1605 joins the A-139, which then becomes the N-123 which we followed as far as Barbasto. From here, we took at A-22 to Lleida as my friend had a safety recall he wanted to ask about at the BMW dealer before heading back to Flix where we started this circular ride.

In total, we covered over 400km that day, which the KTM managed on a single tank of fuel. The day took around 9 hours, but we stopped for quite a while to have brunch with another friend, plus several photo stops. Its a journey I will do time and time again, because the landscape changes with each season, but its also a lovely route in and out of the low Pyrenees, whichever way you do it.

I have since written another post about a six day guided tour of Catalunya which I did in September, when the weather was much better. The tour incorporated this road and also the TV-3301, which is covered in a separate article.