In late April, Ryan le Garrec rode his bike from Madrid to the start of the Border Bash Aragon, a gravel camp in the Aragon region of Spain. The event is not a race but simply a way for riders interested in camaraderie and sharing big days to meet in a beautiful place. Along with stories about a few characters he met at the bash, Ryan shares words from the organizer on the event’s intent, and Ryan’s own perspective on these “non-race” events.
If I understand anything about Ondrej Vesely’s concept for the Border Bash, and the use of the word Border, it is probably thanks to a fisherman that I met while filming FAIL 8 and something he said:
“There’s no border, it’s just the dream of kings and lunatics that got us here.” He said: “I live on La Raya (the border), my wife was on the other side, we’d meet for lunch in Portugal, she’d come for siesta in Spain.” He said: “The sea cannot separate us here, it’s way too small and the sea never wanted to separate anyone.” He said: “I dunno, maybe I’ll catch something again and then go home.” I said: “I am going to the other side now.” He said: “I ll meet you there, maybe, again, on the other side.”
THE BORDER BASH ARAGON
The Border Bash Aragon was a three-day gravel camp that took place in Spain’s northeastern corner, snugged up to the southern border of France. For the first day, riders shared in a “blind bash,” a 52km social ride. The next day offered riders routes ranging from 40km to 115km, and the weekend concluded with a “hangover bash” of 40km.
It wasn’t a race and nobody got a number. Instead, Staffan from Ass Savers designed some really cool aero number plates where you had to write your name “cause you are not a number!”
There were no trackers to follow our progress and the Komoot gpx routes came with four cheat codes in case time was not your ally that day and you needed to cheat it.
That being said, time wasn’t taken too seriously; everyone was chill enough that the event even started with a half-hour delay. “Estamos en Esapana aqui amigos!” The Spanish dude claimed claim and then he tried to put on his mudguard lamenting “Some of us never saw mud in their life…” …“The clever ones” I say!
This is not a race.
There is something crucially important nowadays with events as laid back as the Border Bash camp. Gravel is getting more and more competitive and the essence of it can be diminished sometimes to gels and shaven legs and brands getting in your face a little bit too much, but Border Bash is of another breed, a grass roots brew that you can sip with friends at sunset not worrying about tomorrow’s troubles.
I don’t think I have ever been to an event that represented so well everything I love about cycling. Traveling, nature, friendship, a bit of riding, and a bit of hard riding eventually! And then there is a camp and that is probably the best ever part of it. The camp was surreal: wooden cabins, an amazing bar with punk concerts on Saturday, a restaurant serving large portions and is vegan tolerant and has enough wine for the big Frenchman who rode already 500km to the event and doesn’t really care what time he will have to wake up tomorrow.
“In the past, I used to invite friends from the cycling industry to join me in exploring Bohemian-Saxony National Park, which is located on the border of Germany and the Czech Republic. I wanted to introduce them to this beautiful place while spending quality time together, cycling during the day, and sharing stories over a delicious meal at night,” explained Ondrej. “Over time, the idea evolved from a credit-card bikepacking trip with a small group of international friends to a public gravel camp that anyone could attend. My goal was to share this amazing place with more people while maintaining the sense of camaraderie and leisurely pace that I valued. Unlike racing events, which left me feeling empty and disconnected, Border Bash is a multi-day event that allows participants to overcome initial shyness and make new friends. I know it may sound cheesy, but I truly believe that cycling brings people together!”
It didn’t take long to make friends. We had been riding from Madrid together with Sjors, taking the Camino Del Cid all the way from Madrid to Huelva followed by a mere 30km ride from there to camp which felt like an eternity. (I had completely destroyed a bearing in my wheel and it took us 500km to diagnose that the sound wasn’t coming from my bottom bracket…)
I am still trying to figure out how Ondrej managed to attract so many nice people. Or, maybe at the true essence of cycling and gravel, are a bunch of actually alright people, with friends and destinations in common—be those races or natural parks—and no matter our level or speed we all share very common values and love the bike, period. So when an event organizer puts his soul into it and the wish to make an inclusive event, that comes through in a really organic way. And Ondrej has definitely put a lot of soul into this event.
Among all the people I met were grand racers and slow tourers, some I took more time with and discovered a bit further. Here are four of them:
James and Simon were the first two kids I met. They’re kids in the best sense of the word, dreamers who seem to be constantly happy and playful. But they’re also bright kids, the kind that give you hope for the future of the human race! Both are working for BYCS, an Amsterdam-based non-profit that seeks to grow cycling culture in cities worldwide.
James: “I used to try to resist cycling taking over my identity, but in the last couple of years, [with] mounting evidence against me, I’ve given up. I organize weekend cycling trips out of Amsterdam under the guise of Platte Gang; I volunteer with a cycling solidarity organization called Thighs of Steel while working at BYCS; and bicycle touring manages to permeate most of my time off. My distaste for mainstream cycling culture probably comes from the same place, and so I was wary of joining an organized event like Border Bash, but was pleased to find an ethos I could connect with in terms of (in some but not all ways) inclusivity and energy.”
Simon: “Bikes take up a LOT of my mental space and time, I’m happiest outside and in spaces infused with solidarity and love. I’m very happy to be living back in my hometown of Barcelona, my grandma Otilia is a nutter in the best way possible and I love hanging out with her.”
James: “Yeah…later this summer, from Milan to Athens, although it’s a bit different from a regular tour; this trip is one half of a larger one organized by Thighs of Steel. We’re a rag-tag (but surprisingly well-organized) collective of people who love cycling but hate xenophobia. This big summer ride is our main thing: cycling from Glasgow to Athens each year, with over 100 people joining for a week each to ride in solidarity with our cause, and also fundraise for initiatives supporting people on the move (displaced, asylum seekers, refugees, migrants) throughout Europe. We’re also proudly not your average cycling group, with a 7:3 women: men signup rate, a rule of waiting at the top of hills, and generally quite a lot of weirdness. You can find loads more info on the website if you’re interested in donating or signing up next year.”
Ondrej was very warm to us because we had been riding most of the way to get there, we were ashamed that we had taken a bus from Lisbon to Madrid for lack of adequate time. In retrospect, I totally get that we were in some way representing the whole essence of the event. Our no-fly kinda attitude (easy when you’re less than 1200km away) was very on point.
I always say you can’t get it wrong in Spain when it comes to routing. But you can get it especially right and incredibly tight, which we managed to do. The area we were riding in felt like a mix of Tuscany and the Grand Canyon.
When looking for food and drinks, we managed to find a cafe that didn’t serve coffee (the machine was “tired”) but the social club was happy to let us in for a coke and beer, while our eyes relaxed in thousand-yard stares at the dead boar’s faces on the wall next to soccer cups that probably fought over by teams of bakers and butchers against fisherman and lumberjacks. We looked at them sitting there smoking and they looked at us standing there sweating. Against all expectations, this is also where we met up with the very fast riders doing the very long gravel ride. They also came looking for the coffee and their hopes were broken when I told them they would only get liquor or a bottle of coke, at best. We all decided this was very much fun but the menacing skies suggested we head back to camp asap for the real party there.
Meanwhile, I had a bit more time to talk with Alba and Richard who I’d been following on socials for years—their films are quite the tease when it comes to bikes and travels!
Alba is a high school teacher and Richard is a professional firefighter and when it comes to being unassumingly cool, I think these two win that award. They told me about their years competing on the bike and in triathlon. Then, in 2014, when they decided to spend three years traveling the world on two wheels. After such a rich time living on the road they, inevitably, did get back to their jobs and decided that from then on they would still travel and explore the world, but in a different way by taking shorter trips but keeping the same spirit. In short, enjoying the outdoors and living a simple life.
Richard also won the last edition of Further Perseverance which, as the name might suggest, is probably one of the toughest ultra races ever conceived “You’re lucky to ride your bike on Further, it’s a little moment in time that sparkles cause most of it you are hiking, pushing, struggling and wondering why the hell you are doing this….” is how someone once described the race to me.
Down the road on the way back, the menacing clouds opened and when it rains here, it pours. Stefano and I tried hiding under trees so I could throw my camera in his dry bag. The man from Zurich—with the sweetest Italian accent and the excellent Broom Wagon Podcast—was among the ones leading our groups with a nonchalant ethos and dolce vita attitude. Others included Tristan and Belen the expert cruisers and homeless bike tourers whose constant life on the road has taken them from Baja Divide to Kyrgyzstan, and has made them savvy enough to be able to find a coffee grinder and beans in the middle of a desert. With this bunch, the rest of us immediately got the brief: it’s all about the camaraderie from now on so we went for the longest stage of the day; it seems the will to party back in the dry had transformed us in real Sunday cyclists!
This event is the kind of thing I find myself drawn to more and more: a healthy party on wheels in an amazing location, organized by wizards who’ve invited lost and found souls, and the whole concept is saturated with good food, good wine and a good mood.
I’ll see you there next year.