“How much money have you got on you”, gasped a very sweaty Dan, as an empty uplift vehicle rumbled past us.
“If it comes back up, I’m going to flag it down”
They must’ve known that we were only able to cobble together 20 euros between us, as it never did reappear, leaving us to pedal the rest of the 18km, 1200m elevation climb in the baking sunshine.
Despite the fact that we’d been battered by heavy rain and marble-sized hailstones on arriving in the Spanish Pyrenees the previous evening, we’d awoken to glorious sunshine, which seemed to be getting hotter and hotter, the closer towards it we climbed.
The clanging of cowbells from grazing cattle provided some encouragement by evoking a race atmosphere, and being chased by dogs for a while certainly helped to spur us on, but our main motivation came from promise of “one of the best descents you’ll ever do”.
This bold assertion had been made by a couple we’d been riding with in the south of Spain the previous week, and they’d been so effusive that we changed our plans in order to stop off at town of Benasque on our way home, so we could check it out for ourselves.
Integral del Gallinero is the most challenging route marked out by the local mountain biking association, Puro Pirineo, covering a distance of 35km and total elevation of 1580m, and consists of a huge slog of a gravel road climb, which is rewarded with an absolutely superb long, varied and technical descent.
The route starts in the village of Castejón de Sos, with a tarmac road climb, before turning onto the long gravel track that leads to the start of the descent, at 2,100 metres. As we discovered too late, it is possible to get an uplift to the top, although you may have to hire a guide for that luxury. I quite like to earn my descents by getting to the top under my own steam, but even I was craving some assistance up that relentless climb, particularly in the intense heat. We did at least have plenty of time to enjoy the absolutely stunning scenery that surrounded us, and once at the top, we paused to take it all in, and have a well earned rest, before embarking on the descent that bore so much promise.
The start of the trail is tucked away behind an old farm building, and it wasn’t for a small waymarker, you’d never know that this unassuming pasture gave way to such singletrack gold.
After a nadgery little drop in, the descent begins with a long stretch of flowing alpine singletrack that traverses the open mountainside, before hitting the tree line, where it becomes increasingly rocky and technical. After picking your way down some pretty tight, rocky chutes, the terrain opens up again before you arrive at a massive expanse of red rippled rock, resembling how I’d imagine the surface of Mars to be. With no obvious route down, it was a case of choosing a line and hoping for the best. Fortunately we rejoined some semblance of a trail at the bottom, and one of the route’s periodically placed waymarkers reassured us that we were still on the right track. From here the red rocky trail began to weave, once more, through the hardy trees and shrubs that were somehow managing to flourish on that arid, rocky terrain.
By this time, we’d already been descending for quite some time, but it was clear from our elevation, that we still had a long way to go. The abundance of tech was pretty energy sapping, so it was a relief to hit a fast, flat out stretch for some respite before entering the thicker forest for yet more tech, but of the steep and rooty variety.
In the distance we could hear the clanging of cowbells, which was getting progressively louder as we negotiated our way down the knurled chutes through the trees. No longer was the terrain dry and loose as it had been higher up, but slicker, with a disconcerting abundance of a substance more potent than mud.
It wasn’t long before we encountered the culprits. By the time they came into view, the sound of the bells was deafening, as the bovine brutes lurched down the steep trail with surprising agility. They were so focused on their own descent that they barely seemed to notice our arrival at the back of the herd, so we plodded down slowly beside them, in the hope that we may be able to pass before too long. As we weaved our way through the massive lumbering beasts, it soon became clear that this was a much bigger crowd than initially anticipated, and after losing sight of Dan amidst the chaos, I decided to drop back and wait for them to get ahead, rather than risk being crushed to death.
Eventually the sound of the cowbells became fainter, so we continued our descent, but it wasn’t long before we caught up with them again. We continued in this stop-start fashion for a while, until eventually the farmer who was calling the shots steered his obedient herd off the trail and on to an adjacent fire road.
Relieved to finally have the trail to ourselves once more, we continued on our way, enjoying an uninterrupted, and splatter-free descent. From here, the trail adopted more of a trail centre feel, with flowing singletrack punctuated with mad made hits and corners. After such a long and tech-heavy descent, it was great just to let go and trust the trail.
After what must’ve been well over an hour of descending, we arrived at the village of Bisaurri, from where a short climb led us to the final, bonus section of descent through a dense oak forest, back to Castejón. Having made it all this way without any technical hitches, Dan managed to put an impressive tear in the sidewall of his tyre on a tight rocky chute right at the end, and by the time he’d fixed it we were well and truly ready for beer.
As we sat sipping a nice cold Estrella in what appeared to be the only bar that was open, we reflected on what had, indeed, been the best, and most eventful mountain bike ride we’d ever done. Yes, the climb had been a killer, but worth every ounce of sweat for that endless decent, which seemed to take in every type of terrain imaginable. Had we not already extended our trip by a day that we didn’t really have to spare, we’d have stayed and ridden it again (using the uplift!) but as it was, we had to hotfoot it back to the UK where real life beckoned. However, having had a similarly brief and tantalising stop-off in Aínsa on the way down, we are most definitely planning a trip back to the Pyrennes to spend more time in this mountain bike paradise.