Escape Route: Sierra de Guadarrama
To quote Bjork, “It’s all so quiet.” Craning my neck to better view the clutch of griffon vultures circling overhead, my shoulder relax and a deep sigh escapes my throat. Just a two-hour flight from London and a short hop from Madrid and the world of work and every day stress feels so far behind. We’ve a whole mountain to ourselves and it’s heavenly.
The Sierra de Guadarrama, just 50km to the north of Spain’s bustling capital, is a 24,000 hectare playground filled with jagged peaks, juniper groves, Scots pine and Pyrenean oak forests. Recently designated a National Park, it’s home to an extraordinary array of wildlife including wildcats, boar, ibex, eagles and even wolves, in fact it’s so densely populated with creatures that its animal inhabitants represent 45% of the overall fauna of Spain. But even more exciting than its ecological diversity, the remarkable tranche of land is absolutely filled to bursting with scarcely ridden singletrack, and of course that’s why we’re here.
Our aim is to pack as much riding as we can into a weekend; a whistle-stop tour made possible thanks to cheap flights and Madrid’s transport links. To get the most out of our short trip, we’ve enlisted the help of local guide Emilio from Black Town Trails, as well as Santa Cruz rider Iago Garay who grew up riding the area with his dad and still lives nearby.
Fresh from the airport, we waste no time in getting in the saddle, beginning with a short but technical climb out of Hoyo de Manzanares, a small town in the Regional Park of the Manzanares River Upper Basin. We pedal our way past low trees overshadowed by the huge granite boulders that are a symbol of the town, trying to persuade our sleeping quadriceps to fire up. Soon, heavy breathing and the odd wheeze punctuate the silence; the Sierra de Hoyo is not an especially easy first ascent and these are not manicured trails.
Invigorated by the climb, I follow Iago up and over the grippy and abrasive rocks and through sandy canyons filled with loose boulders to one of the highest points in the area, the Mirador de Hoyo. The views are spectacular. The landscape somehow reminds me of a spaghetti western, but actually forms part of a network of trails in use since medieval times by shepherds and their nimble footed herds moving between Segovia and Madrid. With so many different tracks and no clear lines, it’s a short but intensely fun Freeride paradise, which we make the most of in the sun. Never once seeing another rider or even anyone on foot, when we reach the bottom we run short laps till we tire and grow hungry. Hastily assembled sandwiches in the back of the van see us through to our next destination, San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
Lying at the southwestern end of the Sierra, El Escorial is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in the 16thcentury, the site at the bottom of Mount Abantos ishome to a royal palace, a vast monastery, and one of the best-stocked libraries in the world. Everything is on an immense scale and as impressive as it was obviously intended to be when commissioned by the King of Spain.
We walk through a vast square in front of the monastery, an icy chill sweeping through the town – it’s still early in the year and this part of Spain doesn’t warm up as quickly as the Costas. Thoughts turn to food and drink, as they often do on riding trips. Iago has foreseen this happening and whisks us off to experience a regional favourite, churros and chocolate. We happily dunk strips of hot fried dough into thick, silky hot chocolate then pile back into the van for our short journey home to the Black Town Trails lodge.
The next day dawns and we make short work of our porridge and eggs, keen to explore another part of the National Park. From our base in Collado Mediano we’re in the perfect position to explore the vast networks of trails that begin right outside the door and extend for many miles in every direction. Over coffee, I quiz Iago on how many kilometres of trails there are to ride in the vicinity. He looks confused. “The trails are unlimited. You can ride everywhere,” he chuckles. “The climbs and descents are as long or as short as you want them to be,” adds Felix.
To get a good overview of what’s on offer we jump in the van and drive to one of Emilio’s favourite spots, Moralzarzal which is also home to Iago’s ultra laid back Enduro Fun Festival which takes place the next day. We’ve been told that the terrain in the area varies wildly from one place to the next and when we emerge from the van we’re duly greeted with a vastly different landscape to that of yesterday. True, the rocks are still present, but rather than a sparse, somewhat desert like expanse of canyons and boulders, Moralzarzal is densely wooded with loam, mud, sand and smooth rocks to navigate.
The whole area is liberally sprinkled with singletrack, all of it accessed by an easy climb up a fire road. At the front of the mountain directly above the town, several clearly defined tracks twist their way through the pine trees. The ground underfoot keeps us on our toes, switching between slop, loam, grit, rocks and mud every hundred metres or so. By the bottom we’re grinning from ear to ear.
Yesterday’s chill has persisted and it’s snowing slightly – something I hadn’t bargained for when I came to Spain – but though seriously underdressed, we’re unperturbed by a few solitary flakes dancing around our heads. We pedal around the mountain and up to the top, a 30-minute easy ascent up to around 1300 metres, which has the dual benefit of warming us through and allowing glimpses of the vertical peaks rising in the distance. I’m told the Spanish word ‘sierra’ actually means ‘saw’ which makes sense when I see the jagged teeth of the range.
Nearing the summit, we drop over the back of the mountain to enjoy a long trail with about 1500m of descent that plows straight over slab rock, between tight trees and across open meadows to finish up weaving between the blackberry bushes from which Moralzarzal derives its name. We can’t resist adding in a trail nicknamed Trail to Hell,’ which winds up being nothing of the sort, unless your idea of hell its blasting down some flowing singletrack through abandoned quarries.
Limbs loudly complaining about the thrashing we’ve given them over the last couple of days, we call time on riding and roll down into the town of Moralzarzal, immediately below where we’ve been riding. It’s a fairly traditional town complete with a bullring, in fact the town is fairly well known for its town’s weeklong fiesta and encierros, or bull runs each summer – something I vehemently object to. Thankfully, our destination is not the bullring but a Tapas restaurant just behind, where we enjoy a fantastic meal washed down with some good Rioja.
A restorative sleep later, we’re sufficiently recharged to give Iago’s Enduro race a bash before flying home. Unfortunately, the weather has taken a turn for the worse and the snow has meant one stage has been cancelled. Felix personally apologises for the weather, telling me “it’s very unusual; that the weather it generally so good that I don’t ride if the sun is not shining.” Unperturbed, we slither down a couple of extremely fun, smiles emblazoned on our faces. We’re happy to be riding rather than stuck in the office, so snow or not, no apologies are needed.
The local – Iago Garay:
“I’m, not here that much anymore but I love to ride here with my Dad when I’m back. Although he steals my bikes when I’m away!”
Local rider, Iago Garay grew up around an hour away from the Sierra de Guadarrama, heading away from the plains and into the hills with his Father as a young boy. Now travelling the world racing Enduro for Santa Cruz, when he’s home he bases himself twenty minutes from both the mountains and the city to enjoy the best of both worlds. For Iago, there’s no place like home, not least because he often has the whole place to himself – the Sierra de Guadarrama has yet to attract riders from the rest of Spain.
“No one except locals ride here,” says Iago. “People think of Madrid as a flat place, and yes, it’s flat, but half an hour away you have magic mountains. People do come to ride La Pinilla, the bike park that my father used to manage, but they don’t really come here; it’s just us, the hikers and runners and the horse riders.”
One event that does see crowds flock to the area is Enduro Fun Festival, organised by Iago and his father. Now in its third year, the three event series provides a positive and friendly initiation into the world of racing, with tracks that are designed to be manageable for all levels of rider and a strong emphasis on fun.
Though home to hundreds of miles of singletrack, the Sierra de Guadarrama is little known outside of Spain where it’s a much-loved destination for the inhabitants of Madrid. The terrain is hugely varied, with ample scope for long days in the saddle exploring far flung corners of the range. The locals have shaped the odd trail, but the vast majority of routes are entirely natural and untouched.
Just over the other side of the Sierra de Guadarrama, La Pinilla Bikepark has a chairlift and a wide selection of trails and jumps. Open throughout the summer, it also opens at the weekend in Winter, weather dependent.
Travel: Many low cost airlines fly to Madrid, with flights costing from £30 and taking around two hours. It takes 40 minutes from the airport to the Sierra de Guadarrama, mainly on fast moving highways.
Accommodation: I stayed with BlackTown Trails, who offer holidays all year round from their base in Collado Mediano. Five nights accommodation in the four star BlackTown Chalet costs 795 Euros. The price includes four days guiding, all meals and airport transfers. All levels of riding can be accommodated.
All photos by Ben Winder & words by Juliet Elliott.