This article first appeared in the July 2022 issue of Adventure Cyclist magazine.
On April 29, 2022, 55 women from 12 countries met in a plaza in Teruel, Spain, to begin the Komoot Women’s Montañas Vacías route together. Unlike many organized rides, we had no other plan beyond making it back a week later for the finishers’ party. Organizing women-only rallies is a direct response to the low participation of riders who identify as women at many bikepacking events. Through creating a community that isn’t typically available at other bike events, a safe, open, and welcoming atmosphere has developed among participants as a chance for adventure is cultivated. This ride is free, but registration has been capped at 50 to maintain an intimate experience and to lessen our impact on the land.
Designed by Teruel local Ernesto Pastor, the Montañas Vacías is a 420-mile dirt loop through the “Spanish Lapland,” so-called for its extremely low population density of just seven inhabitants per square kilometer, sometimes even less. The route connects medieval villages as it climbs 43,000 feet through national parks.
The route is public and the best time to ride is May through October. Pastor is motivated to bring riders and energy into this beautiful region that’s been hurt by 50 years of seemingly programmed depopulation — a nine percent drop in the past decade or so alone — that has negative environmental, cultural, and economic impacts for all of central Spain. Pastor created a wonderful resource with GPX files and route guides in Spanish, English, and French at montanasvacias.com.
Gaby Thompson and I, along with the mapping platform Komoot, are organizing women’s bikepacking challenges including this one. Next is the Torino–Nice Rally from September 9–16, and we are scouting a new route in Slovenia for 2023. Follow @laelwilcox on Instagram for information on how to register. If you can’t make it for the rallies, please ride the routes whenever you have time.
I could kiss the pavement. It’s that moment when you know everything is going to get better. Our bikes are caked in mud. It’s been raining in northeast Spain for the good part of two months — unusual for this time of year, but it seems like the weather has been unusual everywhere for the past couple of years. Dirt roads that are generally bone dry are saturated. They’re still passable, but it’s gritty. Pastor, the route designer, recommended a paved detour. We wanted to stick to the dirt. This is on us.
“Hey! Good to see you!” we all say as we join Sophie from France and Su from China on the road. They were smart. Their bikes are clean.
The 10 of us roll together, two by two. I’m in the back talking about ultra-distance racing with Sophie. She’s wearing dishwashing gloves to keep her hands warm in the rain. She won the Race Around Rwanda in March, her first long-distance race. She’s ready for more.
“I didn’t know I could do it,” Sophie said. “I passed four guys on the final day. I was okay in the heat. I just drank electrolytes. Do you do anything for swollen knees?”
“No, but maybe compression socks would work?” I said. “The first time I rode through the night, my knees swelled horribly. Since then, I’ve never had a problem.”
“Maybe the body remembers?”
Like bike touring, endurance racing is always about trial and error. There’s no single solution, but there’s plenty of time for experiments, and that’s part of the fun — finding small victories when something works.
We lose sight of the ladies up front, but it doesn’t matter. We’ll see them in the next town or later in the afternoon or tomorrow. This isn’t a race. We’re pedaling through the most remote area of Spain, getting to know each other and sharing ideas. We all have to find food, water, and places to sleep, and that’s usually where we regroup. For this week, we’re living on the bike with a rolling community of women.
The track continues right. There’s a sign pointing left to Alobras, a village of half a dozen buildings on the hillside. We stop. It’s drizzling. Rue and I detour to look for food. Sophie, Su, and Diana from Germany keep going.
“We’ll see you down the road!”
It’s a left and then another left into the courtyard of the only business in town. Riding through the gate, we see at least a dozen muddy bikes propped against the wall and fence. More friends!
We step inside and everyone cheers. It’s warm with an open fireplace in the corner. We leave our muddy shoes at the doorway with the pile. Robyn from England pulls up chairs for Rue and me. There’s a string of wet socks in front of the stove. It doesn’t smell great, but I’m grateful for the warmth and wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
Maya from Mexico is doing a lunch headcount.
“He says if we’re patient, we can eat,” she says. “He started peeling potatoes when we arrived.”
There’s a sign on the wall for Montañas Vacías and a card thanking Juan Pedro, the man making us lunch. He brings out hot chocolate and café con leche and points to a cabinet with dishes and silverware.
We set the long table, big enough to fit us all.
As we’re sitting down, three more riders come through the doorway. It’s Adéläide, Jeanne, and Inès from France.
“Just in time!” We make room for them at the table.
Juan Pedro brings out platters — a salad with white asparagus, greens, and tomatoes, a plate of white beans and onions, bread and olive oil.
We pass them around, talking, eating, and laughing.
Juan Pedro comes back with a plate of sausage links and fried eggs. He signals that they’re from the chickens out back.
He’s back in the kitchen and back out with plates of fried potatoes.
“Patatas!” We cheer and clap and laugh.
“Juan Pedro!” We cheer and he laughs.
Just a little for taste.
It doesn’t get much better than sharing meals on bike trips. Riding through rain helps you appreciate a warm fire. Getting hungry and cold gives you an appetite for a hot lunch. We all make our own decisions, but we have the support of the group. Like riding in and out of civilization, it’s good to have moments alone in the woods and then to come back together to share our experiences. Do you want to camp outside? Do you want to sleep in a refuge? Do you want to stay in a hotel? Do you want to stop for lunch? Do you want to pack a sandwich to go? How far do you want to ride today? There’s no single solution, but rather a series of light choices that direct our days. On the bike we’re present. We are exposed to the weather and the terrain. We witness beauty and reality from the saddle. It’s not always easy, but it’s never a waste of time and it’s wonderful to share this experience with a strong group of women.
Lunch is over. We clear the table while the French women wash dishes. Rue and I get ahead, looking for the next photo spot. Robyn, Charlotte, and Nic from England stay behind to wash their bikes with the garden hose.
We ascend several hundred feet and get a lovely view looking back on Alobras and Juan Pedro’s place. Rue gets off her bike and climbs up the hillside, setting up her shot. I ride back down the last switchback so I can warn her when they’re coming. We wait.
I hear talking and laughing and a speaker playing music.
We were expecting the English, but instead, it’s the Americans! Cami, Allison, and Steph with Maja from Poland and Jo from London. We haven’t seen them for a couple of days.
“Good to see you all!”
“Hey! Where are you staying tonight?”
“The next town up.”
Rue gets the shot. They fly past. We stop and wait for the English. Rue pulls out her Super 8 film camera, climbs back in the bushes, gets the shot.
“You must’ve been waiting for a long time!”
“Happy to wait for you!”
It’s just a little more climbing and then downhill to Torrebaja — well, almost.
There’s a steep pitch past the old town of Los Santos, and then we ride into town. We stop at the butcher for a bottle of wine and a bag of chips, some cake and yogurt and jam for breakfast tomorrow and the upcoming ride: a 7,000-foot climb up the Javalambre. We’ll sleep at the hotel at the base of the mountain.
We roll our bikes into the garage for safe storage and count 25 bikes — dropbars and flat bars, panniers and bikepacking bags. Half of our group is here, and half is elsewhere. Maybe we’ll find them tomorrow on the mountain. There’s a stormy forecast and there’s nothing we can do about it. You can’t control the weather. Without rain, there wouldn’t be rainbows. I’m exactly where I want to be.