"Red, rosé or white?" asks the waiter, as we struggle to take the gloves off our frozen hands. "Red’s good" we say, more into the hot food than the famous Rioja. After a frozen descent from the mountains of La Demanda in sub-zero temperatures, blood is finally coming back to our limbs in this small and cozy restaurant...
Words, video and photography by Marc Gasch
GRAVEL & GRAPES IN LA RIOJA
Tapas, pinchos, perfect gravel roads and the world’s best wine
The idea of doing a gravel trip in La Rioja was forged about four years ago, when my friend Fer Canals and I rode a mountain bike race in the beautiful area of the Ezcaray mountains, and realized that full suspension was not necessary to enjoy those trails. Last year we started thinking about a pure gravel route in La Rioja that would combine the best the region has to offer: perfect gravel trails, tapas, famous gastronomy, high mountains…and the world’s best wine. Coming from a family of winemakers, Fer decided to include a couple of extra visits to a vineyard to learn how it’s made and to me, as a red wine fan, that sounded perfect. For the full experience, we decided to do the trip when the grapes are harvested, at the start of autumn. This year, growing conditions in La Rioja were ideal and the harvest, especially in the plain areas, was early so we had to bring forward the trip. That made the plan even better, as the harvest would coincide with the celebrations in the capital, Logroño, for the San Lorenzo big party!
STAGE 1: LOGROÑO TO EZCARAY
Bikes ready, hotels booked, and we called our friend Marcel Batlle to join us. For a foodie and cyclist like him, it was probably the best call he can have had that week. We decided to start in Logroño and make our way up to Ezcaray, where we were going to be staying on the famous Echaurren hotel, a trademark in the village and a Michelin-starred restaurant. Staying in such a cool place obliged us to carry some extra clothes in our bikepacking packs, so the plastic flip-flops stayed at home...but it was worth the extra effort. The first stage of our planned route, from Logroño to Ezcaray, also had a special flavor. For most of its way it follows the world-famous Camino de Santiago (Saint James Way)—we needed only follow the ‘scallop’ signs that mark the route (and the groups of peregrinos trudging along with huge backpacks). The Camino de Santiago is the pilgrimage route to the shrine of the Apostle St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in Galicia. For some, walking the Camino is a 3–4 week holiday, but for others it is still a form of spiritual retreat. There are a few variations on the original 750 km Camino route, and, as you can imagine, we already talked about doing a 3 day XPDTN3 trip next year ourselves...
Grape harvest was starting and the fields were gorgeous
Once we deviated from the Camino de Santiago route, our track started winding through vineyards that grow all along the Ebro river valley, gradually gaining some altitude as we approached the mountains of Ezcaray in the background. The air is clean and the temperature 25°C, and we are rolling at a good speed…only interrupted by the obnoxious photographer's idea of shooting pictures and video every 5 minutes. A couple of extra stops to visit old monasteries and feed on tortilla de patatas and we can start noticing the changes on the landscape. Soon we climbed our first real pass, and our friend Fer signals our destination a couple of valleys ahead. That is where amazing food and winding gravel singletracks await us.
Old monesteries and churches wait for you along the route.
A few hours later, we reached the highest point of stage 1, stop for a drink and some nuts, and put our Gabbas for the long descent to Ezcaray. We were not prepared for this. An amazing singletrack winding down the mountain, dirt and rocks hidden by the autumn leaves already falling down in the area. Explorers screaming of joy and giggling as we put the Exploro to its limit, even jumping a couple of unexpected steps with a nice composure for a gravel bike, I might say...We were afraid the singletrack would finish suddenly, but it kept going and going forever. We even had to stop to recover some braking on our tired fingers. We crossed paths with some hikers, who didn’t understood what the hell where we doing there with ‘road bikes’. A 5 minute conversation to get them into the ‘gravel’ world, and one of them is already saying that the Exploro would be the best bike for the place and terrain where he lives. Turning hikers into gravel riders. Job done.
On the first day, water supply was not a problem, passing by a lot of small villages
But 5 minutes after saying goodbye to the hikers, the path slowly started getting rocky and technical, a sign that the mountain side was getting steeper and closer to the village of Ezcaray. The town was also on its annual celebrations that week and we were greeted with a big party on the streets, hardly being able to navigate our bikes to the Echaurren hotel for a nice shower. While we were unpacking our Apidura packs on the floor, the conversation turned around dinner.
That was the highlight of Stage 1, an amazing trail turning into singletrack on the forest
There were big expectations about tonight's menu at the Echaurren hotel, with its famous restaurant with Chef Francis Paniego in charge, and co-directed by his brother Chefe, both a staple in the La Rioja cuisine. But it was still 6pm and you know dinner in Spain is late...so we decided to check the party and join the locals for a few beers and Tapas in the local plaza. A few glasses later, we moved back to the restaurant, where we loaded on carbs in a subtle way. No pasta-party today, but the courses were amazing, accompanied by one of the best new wines in the region, from a new vineyard called Laventura—founded by Bryan MacRobert, a South African oenologist and wine expert who moved to Spain a few years ago. After travelling to different regions of the Peninsula, he settled in La Rioja, where he creates a wine that is different from the produce of the big vineyards that dominate the area. Laventura is a small vineyard that takes pride in going back to the old methods of production, using horses to cultivate the soil and trying to stay as bio and organic as possible. Definitely our favorite wine of the trip.
Autumn was starting to show up. 1 month later and all this forest would be red and yellow.
STAGE 2: EZCARAY mountain loop
If the first day was a Waltz, the second day was Rock 'n' Roll. After a copious (maybe too much) breakfast at Echaurren, a long mountain stage was waiting for us. To pay for that breakfast, a two-hour slow climb was waiting for us just at the start of the day, gradually leading us to the top of the Sierra de la Demanda range. The day was cold and foggy, humid, and the temperature was dropping, as we got higher into the alpine. Most of the terrain here has been "modified" by timber companies who have built highways to carry the timber down to the valley, ruining some of the best singletracks in the area . For us on gravel bikes, this was not so bad, as the double track makes for faster progress, our narrow tyres flying on the wide tracks.
Spanish famous Pinchos and Tapas. Recovery food for XPDTN3
On the other hand some parts of the trails have been destroyed by earthmoving machines, with big rocks laid down in the middle of the road, making some passages very slow and excruciating. Fer was running GravelPlus wheels and tires (Nanos 27,5x2.1) and was way better equipped for the day than us. But being the good guy he is, he saw this poor photographer suffering with the photo backpack and the 700C tyres, and offered to swap wheels for the rest of the day...Viva el GravelPlus. You can swap wheels on different days to see what difference it makes, but there’s nothing like changing them on the last descent of a tough ride, when your back is tired and your hands frozen, to find out how much fat tires really help . On rocky roads there's no way back to skinnies once you go Plus-sized!
Amazing views of the valleys below on the first climb of the day
The fog was growing thicker and thicker, and one of the main attractions of this day (the amazing views of the mountain range and the valleys below) was lost. We navigate among white carpets of humid clouds from 1.200 meters all the way to the top of the 2.000 meters climb. We put on all the gear we have with us, Gabba jackets, arm warmers, but we were not prepared for this cold and humidity—and it got worse once we hit the wind blowing on the upper ridge. We lost all feeling in our feet (summer socks and shoes) and hands (summer gloves for me and no gloves for Fer, while Marcel was doing OK-ish with longer gloves). The descent to the valley was crazy. While the downhill took us back to warmer areas, the wind and speed made for a unpleasant sensation of subzero temperatures. For the first time in my life I descended no-hands at 30 km/h on a dirt road…my hands were tucked away under my armpits in a futile effort to bring circulation back.
It was starting to get cold to be playing in shorts here...
But, ah, the benefits of riding with a local guy. Fer suggested we deviate 5 km from our route back to Ezcaray to head for the small village of Zaldierna, where a cozy small restaurant was serving amazing caparrones, a traditional La Rioja stew made of red kidney beans and chorizo. We also heard Fer mentioning the word torrijas—a delicious dessert made of slices of bread soaked overnight in milk and honey, dipped in egg and fried on pure olive oil, a true recovery food! We couldn’t' say no, and while the idea of riding extra 10 km was not ideal at the moment, we decided it can be a life (digit) saver, and it was. The funny part of the story came when it was time to pay and we didn’t have enough money for that. We hadn’t planned to stop anywhere (there was no restaurant on our planned route) so I just had a few Euros on my backpack. Luckily for us, the owner of the Casa Rural recognized Fer from other times he had been there, so he promised to go back with the money another day. Try that in Barcelona or Milan.
Gorillas in the mist
STAGE 3: EZCARAY to LOGROÑO
After the epic second stage, the third one was supposed to be a walk in the park. We planned this one as the easiest one, being mostly downhill and flat to Logroño (at least in comparison with the previous day), and taking some spare time to visit vineyards and do some wine tasting. After saying goodbye to Chefe and Francis Paniego at the Echaurren Hotel, we loaded our Apidura bags with the few essentials we brought for 3 days on the road. It's interesting to see how different people have a different idea of what "essential" means...Of course for the photo-videographer, essential means also carrying a backpack for the cameras (3) and lenses (2), extra batteries (9) and chargers (6), etc so I always resort to the other Explorers to help me carry the spares parts, spare tubes, etc, especially when they are so fit that they get bored waiting for me all the time... We try to be self sufficient, just in case someone gets lost and needs to do some repairs on their own, but we can still share some stuff, like specific bike parts or heavy tools for the whole route. Anyway, travelling this light it's an amazing experience. Even fully loaded with the essentials, our bikes tip the scale at no more than 10–11 kilos! They are definitely heavier than when we use them at home without bikepacking packs, but even with those, they don’t feel sluggish or cumbersome. At all. Panniers are dead to me.
Caparrones bring us back to life in Zaldierna
The first part of today’s route would start right on Ezcaray outskirts, taking the Via Verde (repurposed old railway track) that winds up through yellow dry fields on the plains, and meanders through the Ebro river valleys. The Ebro is the river that makes the magic happen. Lots of meteorological conditions are needed to have the perfect climate for grapes and wine. Dry weather, a good soil, a certain temperature, and the Ebro river to water it all. La Rioja has all those ingredients and more, and that's why its probably one of the best wines in the world. Some of the vineyards around here are splendid properties, like the Marques de Riscal vineyard with its hotel designed by the world-famous architect Frank Gehry. Its "Guggenheim-shaped" walls simulate the colors and shapes of the wine bottles and have put the small village of Elciego on the world map of amazing architecture. The luxury hotel is a Michelin-starred restaurant, so if you have the time and money, you can also plan a night’s stay here.
Packing light for the way back to Logroño,
But we didn’t want to finish our route, now into its fifth hour, with a wine tasting. We settled on Campo Viejo vineyards, with its location just 5 minutes from Logroño, the end of our trip, but on an amazing hilltop with the best views of the area. The climb to the vineyard could easily be a Strava climb segment, with a few switchbacks that our legs didn’t like that much, after three days on the saddle. Anyway the idea of a plate with chorizo and queso, accompanied by some of the best red wines we could taste, made the effort worthwhile. Campo Viejo is one of the biggest vineyards in La Rioja, and while they don’t have the flashy Gehry exterior architecture, their power is on the inside. The whole vineyard and cellars are excavated under the ground, like a huge beautifully designed bunker with a greater store of bottles than I have ever seen. The walls are tall, the lights are dim and the attention to detail is amazing. Underground architecture at its best. You could easily get lost among barrels of oak hosting some of the most expensive and sought-after wines in the area. The wine tasting took place in their garden with views of the Rioja Alta mountains in the background, looking to the North, and their new sculpture in collaboration with Okudart. Totally recommended.
La Rioja. Grapes, wine and top-class gravel tracks. A perfect trip if it wasn't for the freezing cold day in the mountains...but nothing a hot plate of Caparrones cannot cure. Enjoy.
Frank Gehry signature