The Burrally and Spain’s Remarkable Rights of Way
Spain is nothing less than a dirt-touring utopia, especially in Valencia, where the Burrally showcases the country’s abundant beauty, the richness of its culture, and its extensive network of gravel roads. Cass Gilbert reports in from his time along the route and celebrates Europe’s remarkable rights of way…
A short while ago, I shared images from a ride through the Parque Natural de la Serrania de Cuenca, as knitted together into the beautiful Montañas Vacías bikepacking loop. But it was another route – the Burrally – that originally drew me south, away from a cold and wet winter in the UK. And it’s one that also deserves praise!
Like Montañas Vacías, the Burrally is inspired by the longstanding Torino-Nice Rally, a yearly gathering that sees an assortment of riders, aboard an variety of rigs, work their way across the cols and stradas of the Alps to the calm waters of the Mediterranean. It follows a make-your-own-adventure style format, with a number of alternates to suit your temperament – and that of your bike.
The route runs the entire length of Valencia, in southeast Spain; it’s almost 700 kilometres long and boasts more than 14,000 metres of altitude gain. Like both Montañas Vacías and Torino-Nice, it’s very much a labour of love that’s constantly being adjusted and improved: “Some not-so-cool parts are being replaced to make it even cooler.” Ridden in mid-April, most Valencians who complete it do so in no more than a half dozen days, riding hard and sleeping rough. I, however, had given myself a whole two weeks to really enjoy the area and allow time for side trips. After all, like other rallys, the Burrally is not a race, even if those who tackle it prefer to pedal fast, tending towards all-road, gravel, and cyclocross machines. Think lightly packed, immaculate Legor Ciclos or Belle Bikes on the lineup grid, suited to the route’s 50/50 road and off-road ratio. The Grand Depart, so to speak, is limited to 30 but sometimes sees just a handful of hardened riders.
In contrast to such light and svelte precision instruments, I’m more of a ‘mountain bike and fat tyres’ kind of a guy, though I did shod my steed with fast-rolling Schwalbe G-Ones especially for the occasion, hoping that they’d make short work of pavement without shirking any bonus dirt road detours I hoped to unearth.
The Burrally website is pared down but contains the route itself, a set of how-to logistics, and most importantly, the ethos of the ride, including the sage advice: “Don’t get mad with training, heart rate, watts or nutrition. If you’re offered pork-loaded local food, grab it!”
I asked its organizer – Valencia-based Luis Cordon – how he felt about riding the route outside of the official start date. Not only did he reply promptly with warmth and enthusiasm, but he also offered me a spot to lay out my roll mat in his office, despite a brand new arrival in his family: “I’m afraid my eight-week-old baby makes it hard for anybody to stay at home!” As for the route, it’s a conduit through which he aspires to show others the beauty of his Valencian backyard. I’m continually impressed by the community of bikepackers who develop such events, and like my adjoining post, this photo essay is intended to celebrate the energy that’s funneled into creating them; be it initial route recon, the inevitable updates, or fielding the questions that follow.
In the case of the Burrally, its name alone feels especially appropriate to both the physical challenges of the ride and the way in which it aspires to capture the essence of this area, too. “The first part comes from our local language, Valencian, similar to Catalan. ‘Burrà’ is a kind of slang word that refers to something crazy, uncommon, or beyond what should be normal or difficult. It can also refer to a huge ‘amount’ of something. For example, ‘a lot of kilometers’ could be ‘una burrà de kilòmetres’ if they are really a lot! In Spanish, ‘burrada’ is also used with the same meaning, and it obviously comes from ‘burro’, the animal. I guess this is because a donkey could do unexpected, dumb, and crazy things!”
And so I set off, very much a donkey on my setup. First by train north along the coast and then east into mountainous Sistema Ibérico, past the hilltop town of Morella, parallelling the coast south. I spent my days riding alone and I was happy to do so. Although lone touring always takes me a few days to ease into, it remains my favourite time to really reflect on life and my place within it; to shuffle my thoughts into a sense of purpose. When I was in the saddle I rode hard, but I never fought the urge to stop and explore if I found somewhere I resonated with. I plundered small grocery shops for figs and other fresh fruit, stockpiling supplies before their inevitable siestas. I picnicked in village squares and filled my water bottles with mountain water. I paused in refugios, inspecting the mementos left by others who were also drawn there for reflection. I pitched my tent discreetly behind dry stone walls or in olive groves. No one disturbed me… and I disturbed no one.
The route was wonderful; roads were invariably empty and surfaces a veritable delight for a fast and light gravel bike. But as much as I was enjoying myself, in the medieval town of Chulilla, I decided to peel away from the Burrally and head towards Cuenca, for a taste of the Montañas Vacías ride. Not that it was an easy decision. After all, the views were breathtaking. The nights were warm. Food was abundant. Life was good! Truly, we are blessed with so many gorgeous, curated rides to choose from.
For sure, the Burrally had bewitched me with its showcase of quiet, whitewashed villages and sweeping ridgetop views. But it had also reminded me of an integral part of outdoor life that we sometimes take for often granted in Europe, especially when gazing longingly upon the vast and cinematic landscapes of the American Southwest where I now spend much of my time.
The Spanish call it “Servidumbre de Paso.” I know them as rights of way, historic pathways that were first used to move livestock to and from seasonal pastures. Throughout Western Europe, such connectors course throughout the land. Sometimes they’re just thin veins of rocky trails and at other times they’re more established doubletracks that skirt farms, wiggle through vineyards, or cross fields, linking small towns and villages together.
Perhaps because of all the time I’ve spent in New Mexico because as I rode, I found myself appreciating these easements all the more, marvelling at the countryside access they afford to anyone willing to lace up their hiking boots or bounce by on their bike. It struck me as ironic that as generous as public land may be in the US – in terms of sheer surface area – connecting these parcels can be a surprisingly frustrating task. Which made me wonder: does living within an abundance of space create such a disconnect with our neighbours that we become hellbent on keeping them out? Somehow, the notion of affording safe passage to those walking or riding between two points seems so natural, yet the chance of it happening feels a dimension away.
It was perhaps for this reason that as much as I was enjoying the Burrally, I became dedicated to weaving in any rough and tumble alternatives that I could find. The route is designed around skinnier tyres than I was running but I couldn’t help but feel that the roughly cut, indirect dirt roads that surrounded – shown in such enticing detail on my IGN map – were too good an opportunity to pass up! So I edited out pavement where I could and on longer stints and I dived onto trails to shortcut descents. In my mind’s eye, I danced daringly from one to the next, rocks spitting out of my tyres and arms broad across my handlebars, to emerge in a puff of dust ahead of a chasing pack of perfectly groomed roadies, like a scene in a James Bond car chase.
Indeed, where in New Mexico I’ve come expect my advance to be thwarted regularly by my twin nemeses – the five bar gate and the barbed wire fence – Spain proved to be the complete opposite. For two weeks I rode carefree, covering more than a thousand kilometres on caminos rurales that curled around old farms or cut through community land. Not once did I see any of the aggressive signage that describes, in sometimes frightening detail, my likely fate should I commit the ultimate sin of hopping a fence in the US. Instead, dirt roads forked in every which direction, as did footpaths, historic hiking routes, and goat trails. I took full advantage of all of them when I could. Europe may be teeming with people, but in southern Spain at least, it felt like the options to roam were near limitless.
So, it’s perhaps little surprise that I returned to the UK invigorated by not just the richness of Spain’s cultural and geographical diversity but also fired by the belief that this land is amongst the finest places to dirt road tour in Europe. I fully intend to return and finish this beautiful route when I can and dig deeper into the country’s Servidumbre de Paso as I go.
The Burrally Bikepacking Route (and bonus dirt version)
You can find out more about the official Burrally route on the map below or on their website. Luis plans to move the format of the event to one where bikepackers can ride anytime they want and hopes to update the route regularly and add in more gravel.
You can find my version here – running from Vinaros on the coast to the medieval town of Chulilla – that includes some bonus dirt, some of which is more suited to an mtb setup. From there, I tacked my way towards Cuenca to connect with the Montañas Vacías route – here’s my adjoining report.
If you’re headed to the area, be sure to check out our archives for more riding inspiration in Spain, including the Altravesur, which also ends in Valencia. For those who wish to learn about the history of the rights of way movement, this fascinating 99 Percent Invisible podcast offers an interesting insight into how they were fought for in the UK.
Make sure to dig into these related posts for more info...
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