Tales of Adventure and Humility
My adventure with Basajaun has deep roots, immersed in legend and challenge. This journey unfolds as an 800km unsupported gravel adventure with a staggering ascent of 16,000 meters, set against the backdrop of the Basque Country in Spain. Basajaun, a word that evokes images of dense forests and wild lands, takes shape from the majestic beauty of the forests of Urbasa and Irati. From the lush woodlands, the route descends from the arid and desolate plains of Bardenas Reales, ascends along the banks of the Ebro River, and encounters the Sierra de la Demanda, a mountainous massif in the “Land of Cameros”. It’s a captivating saga that immerses participants in a relentless test of resilience against the untamed landscapes and dramatic elevation changes that define this remarkable expedition.
The challenge of Basajaun arises as preparation for my audacious undertaking this year: the Transiberica. It is a daring unsupported adventure of >2500 km across the Iberian Peninsula. I decided to take on Basajaun with Toni Calderon, a friend I met during last year’s adventure called “The Capitals,” organised by the Pedalma group. On that occasion, we secured the first and second places, respectively, but our synergy and shared passion for challenges pushed us towards the couples category of Basajaun.
My decision to participate as a pair is not solely based on the goal of winning but also on the opportunity to experience this journey in tandem with Toni. As I venture into this category for the first time, my partner’s presence guarantees me more significant serenity and support along the route. It’s an essential step towards preparing for the Transiberica, an even more massive and demanding adventure.
With the excitement of beginning, I fly to Barcelona, where Toni welcomes me. We spend a night in his hometown, Mont Roig del Camp in Catalunya, before setting off in a car towards Vitoria-Gasteiz. The atmosphere in the city is electrifying, with familiar and new faces, and the anticipation of the imminent adventure fills the air.
My physical preparation has been intense, and I feel ready. However, I’ve learned not to hold rigid expectations and to keep an open mind, ready to face any challenges the road presents. My mind is focused on the goal of winning the couples category, but I’m aware of the importance of remaining flexible.
Just as every great adventure requires thorough preparation, the eve of the race is crucial to ensure everything is ready: nourishing ourselves adequately, getting the right rest, and making sure the bikes are impeccable. However, another equally vital aspect is enjoying the moments spent in the company of people who make these experiences truly unique. The shared energy, human connection, and warmth of relationships intertwine with the adrenaline and excitement of the adventure, creating an unforgettable mix that is the very soul of what we face.
The dawn of race day brings with it the energy of anticipation. We wake up, have breakfast, and dress for the epic start. But at the beginning of this new chapter, reality presents itself with an unexpected twist: my hydration pack starts leaking. Without alternatives, I confront the situation and set off with a plastic bottle, an essential element for tackling stretches of the route without replenishment points. Outside, the rain makes its presence felt, adding a dose of uncertainty to the excitement of facing this challenge larger than ourselves.
We drive to the starting point, and the anxiety grows with every kilometre that draws us closer. The mind starts flipping through every possible concern, seeking any excuse to step forward and amplify the doubts. However, it’s in these moments of uncertainty that the foundation of our resilience is formed. The courage to face challenges despite inner fears gives this adventure depth and meaning.
To the pounding rhythm of the txalaparta, which marks the beginning of this epic challenge, the adventure starts and with every pedal stroke, my mind shifts from thought to action, and concentration takes hold. The beats of our hearts merge with the captivating sounds of the traditional Basque instrument, creating an atmosphere full of energy and anticipation.
The race comes to life in the first 30 km as we enter the Urbasa plateau. Technical and steep sections tighten us into a group of around fifteen riders led by the favourite Mattia de Marchi. During an incline, Mattia accelerates, causing the group to fragment, leaving me in an intermediate position between the front and Toni to help him close the gap. After conquering the ascent, our spirits high, we plunge into a downhill, the wind rushing past us. However, as I prepare to pedal, an unexpected obstacle emerges, a sudden, disconcerting resistance. Looking down, I see the cause: my chain is knotted around the crankset. Toni and I halt, instinctively reaching for the tangled links, hoping to free the chain with our bare hands. The truth quickly becomes apparent the only solution is to disassemble the chain, employing my quick link to restore it. Regrettably, the chain’s excessive bending complicates matters, causing gear shifting to falter unpredictably.
The morale takes a brutal hit, but aware that over 700 km remain, Toni and I remain determined. We don’t let ourselves be intimidated by the leading group but continue with perseverance and resilience. Toni says he doesn’t feel strong and struggles to keep pace. I advise him to find his rhythm while I try to gain ground alone. I cycle with Toni’s shadow behind me for several kilometres. However, on an uphill stretch, my chain snaps; a fellow participant generously offers me his only quick link, allowing us to continue. In moments like these, the essence of “adventure racing” like Basajaun emerges in all its magnificence. While each participant strives to finish first, it doesn’t deter a strong sense of community and camaraderie among those who share the roads, trails, and challenges. It’s an indelible memory that will stay with me—a shining symbol of how passion for adventure and human empathy can intertwine, creating moments of sharing and support that surpass the competition itself.
Undoubtedly, after the harsh blow the chain has endured in less than 100 km, we’re keenly aware of the significant risk of being stranded. The tension at the heart of the challenge is heightened by the realisation of our equipment’s limitations and the need to address every issue creatively and resolutely. The compromised chain becomes a symbol of the unpredictability and challenges of the course but also transforms into a powerful incentive to test our resilience and adaptability.
The adventure continues, but destiny seems to have more challenges in store for us. During a descent, I encounter my first rear tire puncture. Despite attempts to salvage the tubeless setup, I have no choice but to switch to a tube. Just at that moment, a call from Toni reaches me: he has broken his derailleur hanger. The absence of a spare part, unfortunately forces his withdrawal. His exit from the race triggers doubts about the journey’s continuation.
When you embark with a clear objective, recalibrating your mind and intentions towards a new path is often challenging. Over the phone, Toni encourages me to continue, to seize the opportunity for training ahead of the Transiberica. I remind myself that I’m already in Spain, and since I am already on the track, I decide to carry on with the dance.
This dance leads me through the night, immersing me in the deep Irati forest. Once atop the highest Pyrenean mountain of the route, the path seems to vanish into the surrounding darkness. Fortunately, I encounter two fellow adventurers, and together with our lights combined, we navigate through this intricate route that seemingly lacks a clear direction. We find ourselves as three points of light in the darkness, walking with our bikes on our shoulders. At times, the path appears interrupted by the abyss of the mountain. Eventually, the path reappears, and the bike ride continues. I feel attuned to myself and the surrounding environment, so I pedal through the night. I’m completely immersed, and this is the true beauty of the experience: being completely enveloped without distractions or thoughts. It’s as if life depends on this moment and the sole purpose is to keep moving forward, following that luminous arrow on my Garmin screen.
Thoughts of the past dissolve, as do worries about the future. I find myself entirely present, in the here and now, as the bike glides beneath me and the surrounding darkness wraps me in a protective embrace. This is the essence of this adventurous experience: the ability to fully live in the present moment, surrendering entirely to the road ahead.
As dawn breaks, I find myself approaching one of the most critical sections of the challenge: the Bardenas Reales desert. With temperatures soaring above 40 degrees Celsius in the middle of the day, it’s crucial to tackle this segment in the morning to avoid the scorching heat. After refuelling in the village of Melida, I prepare to take on this surreal landscape. Although the temperatures are around 28 degrees upon arrival, the stark whiteness of the surroundings induces an intense sensation of thirst unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
By this point, I’ve been riding for over 27 hours without any sleep, and the situation feels surreal. Moments of fear and doubt creep in as I contemplate the consequences of a mechanical issue in this barren expanse. I can’t help but envision myself walking like a Bedouin in the desert for hours on end. The area’s vast beauty pulls me back to the present, where I become entranced by the landscape’s allure. It takes me over 2.5 hours to traverse this challenging terrain, and as I exit Bardenas around noon, I feel relieved that I’ve managed to escape the peak heat. However, my relief is short-lived when I realise that the heat has just begun and extends beyond Bardenas.
Stopping at a shop after the desert, I refuel and casually ask a lady, “How hot is it here?” She responds with indifference, saying that this is just the beginning. Her nonchalant answer instills a sense of foreboding for what lies ahead. Despite this, I maintain an attitude of detachment and press onward. In a nearby village, I stumble upon a bike store where I purchase a new chain to eliminate, or at least minimise, the possibility of another chain-related issue.
I continue along flat gravel roads before the terrain inclines again. A prolonged ascent with rocky terrain slows my progress to a crawl, and the absence of shade only exacerbates the challenge. My Garmin registers a temperature of 42 degrees Celsius, a relentless heat that persists for over an hour and a half. As I reach the summit, I’m utterly exhausted, with pain coursing through my entire body and a growing sensation of thirst.
Pressing forward, I encounter a flat tire, adding to my weariness. The heat intensifies, and my thirst becomes more insatiable, yet there’s no sign of any villages or towns to quench my need for water. Eventually, my GPS displays the approach of a village, spurring me to summon a final burst of energy to reach this haven of respite. As I arrive in the village, a car pulls up simultaneously, carrying three elderly occupants—a man driving and two women. Despite my dirt-covered appearance, bloodshot eyes, and trembling demeanour, I muster to ask them if there’s a hotel or a place to rest. They seem taken aback but kindly inform me that there’s no hotel, suggesting I seek refuge under the church’s arch. They offer me a blanket to lie on, providing a softer surface to rest upon.
I accept their offer of rest but insist on taking just 30 minutes. During my short respite, the elderly couple extends an unexpected gesture—they offer me a shower. As we converse, the focus on competition momentarily dissipates, and I’m reminded of these people’s genuine beauty and kindness. This is the charm of adventure racing: it seamlessly intertwines with everyday life, allowing for these chance encounters. People become unwittingly enmeshed in these adventures without even realising it. The rest and refreshing shower invigorate me, rekindling my readiness to confront the challenge anew.
Back on the road, I encounter two fellow riders, and we join forces, riding together for a stretch. We tackle a significant ascent before pedalling into the sunset en route to another town. The sense of rejuvenation quickly wanes, replaced by the realisation that my rest was insufficient and the scorching heat has taken a toll on my body. A perplexing contrast emerges when the two riders feel cooler temperatures as the day winds down while I experience intense heat. Uncertainty clouds my thoughts, questioning whether they are mocking me, which stirs frustration and suspicion toward these riders.
I decide to pause and share a hot meal with them, hoping that consuming calorie-dense food might replenish my energy reserves. Eventually, they retreat to a hotel to sleep while I resolve to push on through the night. As darkness envelops the landscape, the relentless feeling of heat persists. Slowly, I realise that the symptoms I’m experiencing might indicate a heat stroke, a stark realisation that underscores the physical challenges I’m grappling with.
I crawl forward, painfully aware of my slow pace. I also notice that my back wheel isn’t spinning smoothly on its axis; it oscillates slightly on the frontal plane, causing even more energy to dissipate through the wheels. I took another break, recognising the need for rest and hoping to recover. Due to my challenging conditions, I choose to stop at an altitude above 1000 meters, seeking cooler temperatures. I settle on the ground, using my down jacket for comfort. However, this choice proves impractical as the cold quickly sets in, leaving me shivering and unable to rest, despite my overwhelming fatigue. This peculiar state persists for over 40 minutes, during which I find myself in a state of half-sleep, half-awake limbo. Drawing on my last reserves of energy, I attempt to address the tire issue, only to discover a thorn embedded in the tire that poses a potential threat to the tube. Relying on my final spare tube, I resolve the tire problem, but the challenge of the wheel’s irregular rotation remains unresolved.
Fully aware that I’ve run out of spare tubes, I approach the upcoming descents with the utmost caution, proceeding slowly and standing on the pedals rather than sitting on the saddle, preventing overloading the back wheel and reducing the risk of pinching. This requires intense concentration, making the descents less of a recovery and more of a challenge. However, my worst fear inevitably becomes reality: I pinch my last remaining tube. With a composed mindset, I realise that my only option is to walk, hoping to reach the nearby village. Thankfully, I spot three people in the distance. I embark on a 20-minute walk to the village, but there’s no one in sight upon arrival. I start to wander, questioning if there were people there at all. At this juncture, two choices emerge: wait for another rider who might have a spare tube or call a taxi. Knowing my friend Bruno is an hour behind me, I reach out to him. Although he has a tube, we both conclude that continuing without a spare tube or tubeless setup could lead me to the finish line or leave me far from help. I decide to call for a taxi and scratch. My Basajaun journey concludes at the 580km mark. I travel back with the taxi driver for over two hours to Victoria, just in time to witness the second rider’s arrival.
As I reflect on the challenges, triumphs, and humbling moments of my Basajaun adventure, the profound lesson I carry with me resonates deeply. The audacious mindset that initially fueled my determination to conquer every obstacle, to stand against the oppressive heat and deny the need for rest, was not just a reflection of my passion for the sport but a mirror reflecting my own ego’s desire for dominance. Yet, amid the vastness of the universe and the grandeur of the natural world, I realised I was but a fleeting presence – a mere speck in the grand tapestry of existence. The nature surrounding me, with its untamed landscapes and unpredictable elements, stood as a powerful reminder that arrogance could be quickly humbled. This journey has etched into my consciousness the significance of showing reverence to the forces that shape our world, acknowledging that true strength emerges from a place of respect, humility and the acknowledgement that nature’s wisdom surpasses even the boldest aspirations.