The most amazing mountain passes by bike
Hop on your road bike to climb some of the most famous mountain passes around the world
During these times of mobility restriction and the pandemic, it is a good moment to take in our environment close to home, plan ahead for future routes or enjoy the memories of our past trips. In my case, it all dates back to 25 years ago. Since then, many years have gone by in which I have accumulated countless memories all over the planet, among them, these great routes by bicycle in five magnificent mountain ranges: the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Atlas Mountains, the Andes and the Himalaya. I am Mikel Bringas, also known for the Bizibidaia project. Would you like to share my memories with me?
My first great crossing along mountain ranges on the planet. Following the typical route based on the book “La Travesía de los Pirineos en BTT” (The crossing of the Pyrenees by MTB) by Jordi Laparra, I was determined to cross the Pyrenees by Mountain Bike thanks to the well-known route that joins the Mediterranean Sea and the Cantabrian Sea. Jordi Laparra, Alfons Valls and Jaume Bonaventura, were the three pioneers to carry out this trail at the start of the 90’s. At one-thousand kilometers, this trail is now a classic for the more experienced Mountain Bike lovers.
As for myself, I divided this trail, also known as the Transpirenaica, into three parts. I completed the first stage in 2003, headed out from Llançà until I reached Planoles. It was one of the hardest stages given the fact that my wife Rosa and I decided to do it on a tandem bicycle (a bike built for two people). Not at all recommendable! Having learned our lesson, 9 years later, I continued the trail starting from Planoles and going all the way to Jaca, a town with so much history truly worth the visit. In 2018, I finally pedalled the rest of the trail until Donostia. In this city, also known as San Sebastián, one simply cannot miss out on a visit to the beach “La Concha”, Mount Igeldo or the “Peine del Viento” (Comb of the Wind), one of Eduardo Chillida’s steel sculptures encrusted into the rocks which is often lashed by the Cantabrian Sea.
The Pyrenees, needless to say, left me dreaming of other mountain ranges and I learned three paramount lessons: the importance of weight when there are hills, the infinite trails that exist in places close to home and the technical trails that I do not enjoy one bit.
With the thriving dream of following some of the mountain ranges the planet has to offer, I found my great challenge in the Transalpina en BTT, a book written by Enrique Antequera. It is likely to be the most famous Mountain Bike trail in Europe: The Transalpine. Our itinerary (link to the trail) started off at Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a German city near the border with Austria. Over 400 kms long, going through Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy where we finally reach the Lago di Garda. This glacier lake is at the foot of the Alps and it is the largest lake in Italy.
I did this trail in June 2018, a time of year in which I barely crossed paths with anyone else, keeping in mind that the ski stations are closed and the summer season had yet to begin. Nevertheless, that is when I first encountered the revolution of electric bicycles. I remember how while I was going up the Passo di Mortirolo I could hear a woman coming from behind me singing gleefully. Not long after, here was this friendly elderly lady cyclist passing me by with her husband following behind by car. It made me happy to think that all this new technology will allow me to stick to my passion for cycling for many more years.
Lastly, how could I possibly forget about all the green landscapes that I found so easily in the Alps and that I liked so much. Around the Engadine Valley, everything was so tidy, so perfect that I felt as if I was pedaling in a dream. I don’t normally re-visit places, but with the beauty of the Alps, it’ll be hard not to.
In the Atlas mountain range in Morocco, there are numerous possibilities to do interesting trails by bicycle. In September 2018, I chose a less touristy trail (link to the trail) and I definitely hit the jackpot. With the starting and finishing point in the city of Marrakech, I covered a stretch of over 450 kms where I could take pleasure in a circular bike route among the villages of the Atlas Mountains. This time it was nearly all done on asphalt.
The unforgettable ingredient of the trip was the hospitality I received in a Berber family’s home. At the end of most stages, I could easily find lodging, but there was one occasion that there was just no place to sleep. The stage was long and it was the hottest day, I’d say it was somewhere around 40º Celsius. Even the local people were saying that it was hot. So you can imagine how hot it was for me! They told me that the next lodging was about 30 kms from where the stage had ended, so I gave in and went to ask at the local government office where I could sleep. They made a photocopy of my passport and recommended that I asked anyone from town for a place to sleep. Suddenly, the president of a local union appeared and invited me to his home to spend the night. It ended up becoming a story that is as rich as it is pleasant. I’ve never been the handy type which was made evident that night when I had to make balls of cuscus at dinner, bringing laughter to their grandmother and everyone else.
Bordering the whole Pacific Ocean coastline, the Andes mountain range goes on for 8,500 kilometers along the western South American coastline. It is the longest continental mountain range on Earth, which crosses through Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Some Of the highest volcanoes on the planet are found in this mountain range.
On this particular occasion, I had the pleasure of pedaling side by side with my family (more about them and family cycling vacations below). We followed a trail around Quilotoa. One of the main attractions in this area is to see the volcano crater the town was named after. You can even go inside a lagoon in the Quilotoa Volcano by canoe! We were able to do it and it gave us a completely different perspective.
Although my son had a few minor problems, we adapted quite well to the altitude. Yet, to get over some of the tough climbs, we occasionally depended on the help of buses, which are quite easy to travel in with bicycles. The real enjoyment came with the downhills. Particularly, those downhills that brought us down to the coast, 60 kilometers straight down non-stop. At the top we made sure to put on all the clothes we had to stay warm and once we got to the bottom, we ended up in bathing suits. We went from the high Andes to tropical vegetation in a matter of hours.
Along the whole trip, we also did some hiking. Our destinations were Ruco Pichincha and the José Ribas Refuge, in the Cotopaxi Volcano, at nearly 5,000 meters above sea level. By the way, we’ll always remember the hot chocolate at the refuge as the most delicious we have ever had!
To conclude my trip down memory lane with one of the magnificent mountain ranges on the planet, the best possible destination is the Himalayas. To be more precise, the trail HimalaJo! (link to the trail). “Khardung La,” known as the highest mountain pass in the world where you can still cross by a motorized vehicle, is made up of 580 kilometers by bike starting at 1,086 m and finishing at 5,390 m. The trip itself was a family gift for my 50th birthday and I wanted to prove to them that I was still in shape. It seemed like a difficult goal so I went about it respectfully, but it turned out better that I expected.
From Hinduism to Buddhism, this cycling trail presented a unique opportunity to contemplate various cultures. On one hand, on a clear day and a dreamy end to the trip, I could admire the Karakoram mountain range from Khardung La. The Himalayas didn’t only offer me pleasurable moments, it also led to deep personal reflection. I could observe how so many of us must improve our habits in an effort to preserve the environment. We have to understand our leading role in taking care of the planet and collecting all the waste we produce, especially plastic. Taking care of our planet is our job, and every effort makes a difference no matter how small.
At first, Rosa and I began organizing our vacations by bicycle as a couple. Later on, our children Eki and Lur were born to form our family squad.
Our first family vacation by bicycle was compiled and published in a book titled Euskal Herria en Bici, back in 2006. On that occasion, we experienced what it means to go by bicycle in the mountains. For instance, going up until the Colado de Elorrieta on a tandem bike, two carts and a child is an unforgettable effort. Three years later, we went on a bike trip across Europe. We went through France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria and Holland, following along with the book Norte Salado Sur Dulce (Salty North Sweet South). By then we were the four of us and it seemed that things worked quite well, so we were motivated to follow the same path.
Keeping on with our family adventure, we decided to head for New Zealand at the end of 2010. In Oceania, we found very nice accommodation with some local families, thanks to the hospitality association for cyclers Warm Showers. Years later, we welcomed four of these families into our home. What a great joy! During our trip by bicycle through New Zealand, where we stayed for three months, we covered the two large islands and we realized that it wasn’t only a country to get to know, but also that living there is lovely. It’s a place with all of society’s modern advances and where nature is always nearby.
A couple years later in 2014, we grabbed out bicycles and headed for a trip to Senegal and Gambia. This is a place that is really worth a visit and offers valuable educational lessons. It’ll be hard for Eki and Lur to forget things like sleeping in villages without water or electricity, or the fact that all the children wanted to play with them and touch Lur’s straight hair or the experience of making a ball out of old rags. The Senegalese and Gambian coast seemed like the right place to get to know Sub Saharan Africa in a family atmosphere. Rosa was hit by a car in Gambia. At first, we were in shock since she was in a lot of pain and we had no idea if it was serious. Luckily, she was better in just a few days and back to pedaling on the bike.
The following year, far from Africa, in Iceland (link to trail), we got to know the force of nature up close. The weather made the trip hard, but pedaling alongside great friends like Imma, Iñaki, Lur and Xabi gave us courage to confront the difficulties. Iceland is a very special place as far as the scenery goes, which attracts more and more people. Cascades like the “Godafoss” (The Gods’ Waterfall), “Skógafoss” (The Forest Waterfall) or “Svartifoss” (The Black Waterfall), as well as geysers like “Strokkur” or “The Great Geysir” (the Great Geyser), which are must-sees if your in this northern country.
Traveling across the five magnificent mountain ranges on the planet and family cycling trips are some of my countless memories from around the world, an incomplete journal of stories. We hope to cross paths with you one day!