Montanas Vacias, Ernesto Pastor, and his Surly Ogre
Ernesto Pastor crafted his revered Montañas Vacías bikepacking route with an unusual level of care and dedication, and it now draws a steady stream of bikepackers to Spain’s remote interior. In this Rider & Rig feature, we examine his motivation behind the project, its local impact, and his trusty Rohloff-equipped Surly Ogre’s role in experiencing and documenting the landscapes he calls home…
If you’re not from Spain or haven’t browsed bikepacking routes in the Iberian Peninsula, you may be unfamiliar with the city of Teruel. It’s a small provincial capital in the northeast, far removed from metropolitan and Mediterranean Spain. Besides attracting a small number of tourists with its Mudejar architecture, the province subsists mainly on the meager yields of the rocky soils. A lone bastion in the badlands, it’s a natural water stop for the faint and fading trickle of bicycle tourers going north and south on the government-funded Camino del Cid route.
Over the last few years, though, the trickle has picked up into a steady stream, with dusty bikepackers becoming a common sight in the central Plaza del Torico with its stately fountain topped by a little bull. Though neglected nationally, Teruel has recently developed into an unlikely crossroads of multiple major bikepacking routes. Having arrived via the gravel roads myself, I had a date by the iconic fountain with Ernesto Pastor, the heart and brains behind the magnificent Montañas Vacías bikepacking route project, which has been responsible for a significant part of this resurgence.
Smiling Ernesto came up and hugged me like an old friend. We sat down in one of the nearby bars, and he ordered us both a cafe con hielo to counter the unusual April heat. He started by needlessly apologizing for not saying hello last year when—unbeknown to both of us—we intersected at the Venetro Trail event in the Dolomites. We’re both a bit reserved in that way. He goes on to quiz me on which path I took into Teruel, following the story of my ride through the Maestrago region to the east with a gleam and interest in his eyes as if I was telling of a faraway land, though he certainly knows all the dirt roads and unnamed passes like the back of his hand.
Ernesto is a local anomaly. In rural Spain, young, talented folks escape to the big city as soon as they can. Yet he chose to return once he got his degree in telecommunications engineering. While his peers competed for jobs in Madrid or Valencia, he took an unfillable position in the local government in Teruel, not far from his hometown, a few mountain ranges to the north. But his motivation was not only personal. “I wanted to come back to see how I could help,” he explains, talking about the chronic brain drain in the region. And 15 years later, he’s still here and happy. “Now I can’t imagine living in a bigger city. Sometimes even Teruel is too much,” he says with a chuckle.
He and his partner spend most weekends roaming the endless gravel roads that start right at the city limit. But before he got into bikepacking, Ernesto was a road racer, wrapped up in the world of performance and competition. Faster, further, lighter. He finally hit a wall when he sustained an injury. “I was suffering mentally and physically, but I didn’t know it for a long time. I think many in that space don’t,” he says. He got better when he left that world behind, and he has a broader outlook on cycling now.
Five years ago, there were nearly no bikepacking routes in Spain, despite having all the building blocks at hand: incredible and varied geography, rich cultural history, and extensive public doubletrack networks to connect it all. Even Ernesto couldn’t appreciate the natural treasures of his home. He describes it as a kind of typical Spanish lack of self-confidence that’s especially prevalent in these neglected interior regions. Inspired by the Torino-Nice Rally and other similar bikepacking routes, he set out to create what has grown into the extensive Montañas Vacías project. He sees it as giving back to the bikepacking community that has given him so much.
While the surrounding landscapes are stunning and naturally worthy of appreciation in their own right, to Ernesto, bikepacking also takes on an important political dimension. Depopulation is the perennial issue that frames all local politics and drags on the stagnant economy. Since a big part of his day job lies in connecting the rural villages, he’s familiar with every last hamlet and the few folks who still live there. “Of course, many don’t want anything to change, but if nothing changes, the villages will soon be dead”, he observed. The trend is clear, but it’s a complex issue, and there are no grand solutions that everyone agrees on. Villagers are stubborn, and the politicians in Teruel and Zaragoza keep failing to meet their promises, decade after decade.
Montañas Vacías represents a small but hopeful boost to the far-flung villages, where shops and bars change ownership or even close for good every year. Ernesto hopes it’s an opportunity for the region to find its deserved self-confidence as bikepackers arrive from far away. His roots run deep, and with Montañas Vacías, his thoughtful articles, and beautiful hand-painted maps, he’s extending an invitation for bikepackers to come and experience the quiet that lives deep in the pine-covered mountains and the subtle vitality of the villages that deserve to be known. The GPX file is there if you want a line to follow, but beyond that, Montañas Vacías is an invitation to explore a diverse region and fall into the flow of the land.
Within five short years, the route has become a visible phenomenon. Just in the time we talked in the bar, five bikepackers in two groups had rolled into the plaza and filled their bottles in the fountain. “I could sit here all day and watch this”, he says happily. “When I see it , I want to cry. I never expected this to be so successful.”
He invited me to stay in the guest area of his home, which he used to make available on Warmshowers. He can’t offer it anymore as the number of cyclists passing through Teruel has grown to be too much. Through our conversations, he transmitted a love for his region that swayed me to scrap my plan to circumnavigate the entire Iberian Peninsula; you could spend a lifetime exploring just the many sierras around Teruel.
Calm and unrushed in person, Ernesto is nevertheless a busy man, constantly switching modes to give his all to his family, purposeful job, and ambitious bikepacking projects, and so we had had no opportunity to ride together on my first pass through Teruel. Drawing large loops north and south, I tracked sections of the routes he laid out, lingering in the pine forests of the Montes Universales and by the azure lagoons of the Río Tajo, cementing these ranges as my center of gravity in Spain. I repeatedly returned as spring gave way to summer, and at the very end of my tour, I joined Ernesto and five of his friends from all over Europe to finally ride the full route by the book.
This piece is filed under the Rider & Rig section, but perhaps “Rider & Route” would be more appropriate. Or even more to the point, “Rider & Region.” The bicycle is important as the bridge between the rider and the landscapes, but ultimately—ideally—it becomes transparent, a conduit to the experience. As a route designer and bikepacking steward of the land, the bike is key for Ernesto to ground his ideas in place.
And indeed, his blue Surly Ogre is a rather unassuming machine. Sure, keen eyes will trace the clean lines and notice the Rohloff Speedhub in the rear wheel that eliminates the need for a typical derailleur. But Rohloff Surlys aren’t uncommon, and the rest of the bike isn’t anything particularly rare or high-end. Purpose-built for the rugged terrain of interior Spain and adorned with personal touches, Ernesto’s is an honest bikepacking rig.
Ernesto’s Surly Ogre Build Kit
- Frame/Fork 2021 Surly Ogre
- Rims Brave
- Hubs Bitex (front) / Rohloff (rear)
- Tires Maxxis Crossmark II EXO + Tannus Armour
- Handlebars Jones H-Bar SG Aluminium
- Headset Tange Seiki Technoglide
- Crankset TFHPC 170mm 36T
- Pedals Shimano M540
- Cassette Rohloff Speedhub 500/14
- Brakes Shimano XT
- Shifter(s) Rohloff
- Saddle Velo (Unknown model)
- Seatpost PRO LT
- Stem Ergotec WH5202
- Front bags Bikepackid Riñobag
- Frame bags DIY custom bag
- Rear bags Apidura Expedition 17L
- Accessory bags DIY custom and Alpkit stem bags
- Lights Exposure Strada 1200 (front) / Koma (rear)
- Other accessories Garmin Etrex 30x
The custom Ogre was his attempt to break out of a spell of chronic upgraditis. Finding himself switching groupsets and frames practically every other year, the sustainability of a long-lasting drivetrain—both for the environment and his bank account—seemed extremely compelling. “I heard from a friend who had a Rohloff on three different bikes over 15 years and thought that sounded perfect,” he recalled. In 2021, he had the knowledgeable crew at Espai Bici in Barcelona (a mandatory visit for any passing bikepacker) build him his vision of the perfect all-terrain bicycle for exploring his vast backyard. A steel frame with a Rohloff drivetrain and Shimano XT hydraulic brakes; it’s practically a bike for life.
Shod with fast-rolling 2.2” tires and a comfortable Jones Bar, the blue ATB is perfectly geared for roaming the caminos rurales in the high and dry sierras of the Sistema Ibérico, where the conditions run the gamut from excellent graded gravel roads in the canyon of the Río Tajo to brutal exploded rock on the Javalambre plateau. Having ridden my fair share in this mountainous terrain, I can confirm that wider tires than you might think of when you hear the word “gravel,” comfortable handlebars, and easy gearing are highly recommended.
The weather in the mountains is unpredictable, and afternoon thunderstorms may turn the clay into concrete that eats derailleurs for lunch. The comparison with Lapland in Scandinavia is apt, as the nearest bike shop is usually hundreds of kilometers away. Ernesto is a fan of the Rohloff’s reliability and praises its low maintenance.
Ernesto’s gear selection for this trip reveals how conscious he is of how even small actions affect others’ behavior. The dry pine forests are a delicate tinderbox, so he brings no stove. He snacks instead local chorizo, cheese, and bread, relying on the bars for warm food. More than once, we find ourselves in front of closed doors—variability is part of Montañas Vacías. It curbs entitlement and ousts the myth of autonomy. The rest of his minimal kit lives in a mix of readymade bags and ones he sewed himself. His camera he keeps close at hand in his Quercus hip pack, which was sewn by his friend Alex in Valencia, who also joined for the group ride.
An engineer, a gearhead, and a chronic dreamer, he’s enthusiastic about discussing the merits of various components. But, in the end, the technical details of his bikepacking rig fade into the background as he flows through the landscapes and towns that he keeps rediscovering through his riding and art.
It was my second or third time on some sections of the route, but riding alongside Ernesto, I learned way more than I could glean from the surface, signs, and my personal web of associations alone. He knows where the vultures like to soar and how one town’s mayor can’t stand the next. Though generally a slightly shy, introverted guy, he gets over it to find out from the bar owners, shop clerks, and people who recognize him in the streets what they think about the small yet steady stream of cyclists coming through. Sometimes he reveals his identity, but often he just listens to them as they speak unfiltered. And they invariably have a lot to say. It’s their village, after all.
Despite having trained as an engineer, Ernesto doesn’t measure Montañas Vacías’ success in numbers. He cares deeply about how the visitors are perceived. If bikepackers are visible in Teruel, their presence is certainly felt in the more remote communities. “I want to know that I haven’t created a monster. I don’t think so, but I need to make sure”, he says. This bikepacking trip was an informal impact evaluation—closing the loop.
Mmany vital offshoots have sprouted from the route. Surya Bikepacking in Teruel undoubtedly deserves to be mentioned above all others. Hearing of Ernesto’s project, his friends Israel and Christina moved their lives from Aragon’s capital of Zaragoza to open the combined bike shop and yoga studio in Teruel. It’s a cozy cycling oasis that, almost unbelievably in the relative desert of rural Spain, offers all the bike parts, camping gear, and repair services someone on tour might seek, though maybe not always from brands you recognize. The two angels routinely move mountains to get folks fixed up and back on the trail.
And all along the relatively remote route’s 680 kilometers, various owners of shops, casas rurales, bars, and bakeries have stepped up to support visiting bikepackers. Coolest of all, I think, are the caches, called MV points, that contain tires, tubes, and basic spare parts for bikepackers in need. Self-made signs indicating the route and points of interest have popped up like mushrooms—physical proof of the route’s acceptance. Bikepacking won’t single-handedly save the region, but Montañas Vacías can be a tiny piece of the puzzle.
Uniquely, Ernesto brings a broader perspective than the folks in the villages or government officials eager to piggyback on Montañas Vacías’ grassroots success. To them, it may not matter by which mode of transport their patrons arrive, at least in the short term. But it’s not clear that the sensitive landscapes could sustain dramatic increases in visitor numbers, especially if they were to be motorized. The infrastructure to handle it is not in place; the intrinsic—and in Europe exceedingly rare—qualities of peace and solitude would be drowned out. In the empty mountains, we find the challenge of ecological conservation in a microcosm: balancing access—and thereby interest in its continued existence through use—versus restriction.
As a mere citizen, Ernesto doesn’t have the power to impose restrictions, nor would that approach align with the project’s philosophy. Montañas Vacías is an open route on public ways through vast landscapes that were roamed freely long before bicycles existed. Instead, he’s working to positively define the project’s philosophy through his steady output of writing and art, in which he centers leaving no trace and respecting nature, people, and places. “Better visitors, not more,” is the mantra he repeats, and he counts himself as one. New routes capture his imagination, but he dedicates much of his time to maintenance that keeps Montañas Vacías true to its values.
It’s fair to say Montañas Vacías has inspired many local route projects all over Spain. There’s the Montsec Loop that spans into Catalunya, Rodera originating in Valencia, Fera on the edge of the Pyrenees, La Demanda in the eponymous mountain range in La Rioja, Cabañas y Estacas in Cantabria, and Al-Ballut in Andalucia, just to name a handful. They share with Montañas Vacías a strictly local scope, looping through the route author’s homeland instead of traversing long distances from A to B. The projects form self-contained route networks with many built-in variations and shortcuts that keep the experience accessible, flexible, and fresh, thereby encouraging revisiting and rediscovering the regions as opposed to checking them off as done. And they feature beautiful maps that inspire engagement with the land.
I’m merely sketching out my impressions of Ernesto’s work and its reach, all refracted by my own associations and state of mind at the time and limited by my position as an outsider. There are so many more layers to the remarkable project. I hope we’ll get to benefit from Ernesto’s own conclusions on the local impact of his route in the future, which are certain to be far more informed and detailed than anything I can offer.
The bikepacking community is uniquely enriched by the distinct paths Ernesto paints, not just in the obvious terms of his wonderful routes but even more so by exhibiting the heights of involvement and sense of responsibility for one’s home that can be attained by way of the bicycle, pen, brush, and camera.
The stunning beauty we outsiders ascribe to the desolate mountains may actually obscure the deeper message of his project. “I thought this landscape is boring and always dreamt of being elsewhere. Bikepackers coming here showed me what we have, how special this is,” he tells me with emotion. With Montañas Vacías, he shows how volunteering attention and loving work into the places we inhabit can broaden our awareness and transform not only our own perceptions but also those of others, meaningfully and usefully changing lives and places in the process—and how bikepacking can be the process for getting there.
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