Each year the pristine mountains paths of the Spanish Pyrenees play host to an intrepid gang of trail riding treasure hunters. Zig zagging their way across unspoilt gravel and dirt roads, these hardy riders shun modern GPS trickery and rely on good old fashioned maps and compasses to search out hidden check points nestled in the mountain valleys. They are of course all taking part in the V.I.N.C.E.. The Visually Inspiring Navigation Challenge Event hosted by non other than trail riding god Austin Vinceand world adventurer Lois Pryce.
This year, new TRF member Simon Hodgson geared up and headed south to Berga, Spain to find out just what it's like to experience trail riding paradise.
This is an off road orienteering event.
The event takes place over two days. There are two options, the twin shock event, for, as the name suggests, bikes with twin shocks or, The VINCE, for any other type of off road orientated bike. More importantly, as the name suggests, this is a navigation challenge, SAT NAVS are BANNED, this is about good old fashioned map reading.
It is an off road orienteering type event. After you have signed up and paid your money, (about 8 weeks prior to the event), you will be sent a package. The package includes maps and detailed information about the area you are visiting and the routes you can choose to visit. On one map it shows the locations of check points, at each checkpoint you will find a metal plaque attached to something like a tree or signpost etc. You must record details from these plaques and then move onto the next checkpoint.
The idea is to find as many as possible within the time frame of 12hrs each day.
It is down to you to examine the maps and consider the locations and potential difficulty ratings, to decide which checkpoints you are going to aim for. The winner is obviously the team who has visited the most checkpoints. Teams are made up of between two and four riders, the minimum of two is for safety reasons. You can sign up for the event as a lone rider and Austin will partner you with another team of similar ability. Accommodation this year was an upmarket camp site where you could either bring a tent or stay in one of the many types of other accommodation, from caravans to chalets. Each year the course and locations are changed to make this a challenge even for returners. Next year the accommodation will be a hotel.
I managed to find a friend to accompany me this year and it should be noted we are both novices in the world of off road riding.
Austin preps the 'navigation package' back in Blighty
I received the package and I must point out that many hours were devoted to studying the maps and selecting not only the routes you intend to ride but how you are going to access the maps whilst riding.
Obviously, using the massive O/S is not an option. In our case, I attached a piece of plywood to the handlebars of my bike and used bull clips to hold individually printed pages of map for each section. I also had a compass in my pocket that was easily accessible to confirm we were heading in the right direction. (Not so, in many cases). Your ability to read maps is essential, especially as a rider, and not, as is usual, a walker. The maps you receive are Spanish, and although they have a legend they are not as comprehensive as the good old UK O/S maps, again time is needed to translate.
The bikes used at the VINCE, range from small 200cc trail bikes to the GS1200 and KTM990.
It appeared to me the most common choice was the 350 to 450 range, xr400's were popular. As for me, I had an old xl250r jobbie which was OK. The terrain and locations make it essential to carry sufficient tools and parts to manage punctures and bits falling off etc.
On the Friday before the event everyone meets in the bar and Austin makes his welcome speech and more importantly updates the teams with any changes to the maps or access to points that may have changed. He also emphasises several extremely important facts that any perspective rider MUST carefully consider.
Proper navigating, not a GPS in sight
This is Northern Spain, the area is massive, you will be travelling far from any towns or occupied buildings, some of the trails are tough.
There are no Marshals, No St Johns Ambulance, No back up cars, No flying doctors. You are out there with your buddies only, if you are a twosome and one gets injured you will have to leave them and maybe ride on a route you haven't planned in order to get help and that may be hours away, or you may have a phone signal but will you know how to call for help and accurately give your whereabouts to a non English speaking operator. You can in places simply ride off the edge of a mountain.? Do you really want to do this??
Tough words when we are all used to motor sports events and the speed at which assistance is always available, but he is right to emphasise this. A good time to mention the need to carry, in addition to spares and tools, a first aid pack and knowledge on how to use its contents, (learn some basic first aid and understand the symptoms of heat stroke and the rehydration process). I only mention this as at this event the temperature was well in the high 30's, couple that with riding in protective clothing and there were a few including me who suffered the effects of heat.
The riding itself covers the complete range, from gentle undulating car width dusty gravel roads, to single tracks, through woods and fields and in the mountains, steep, rocky, very loose cobblestone paths, which for the novice like me was challenging but achievable, albeit at a slower pace.
There are rivers to cross and a mountain path referred to as "Heart Attack Hill. A mile long, extremely steep path for the thrill seekers. The vast majority of riders seemed to cope extremely well throughout both days. There were riders of all ages and gender taking place and at the end of each day, over food and copious amounts of red wine, we all could reminisce over the day's events. At the end of day two, after dinner there are the awards ceremony, for the top three teams. The spirit of the VINCE award, and, The Snitch of the VINCE award (Not awarded this year, no one put forward).
If you are a novice or seasoned trail rider it probably doesn't get any better than this, two days off road riding in The Pyrenees. Make no mistake, the views are exceptional.
This is an extremely attractive part of the Pyrenees to visit, the lush forests, lakes and just all round fantastic scenery. Would I go again, Yes, most definitely. There are only 70 spaces for next year's event, 66 riders attended this year and from speaking to most of them, they will be coming back for more.
So the two days of riding, each start at 08.40 and finish at 20.40. Points are deducted if you are late back! Austin will sit patiently and greet you as you come back and furnish him with details of the points you have earned during the day, these are later checked against the checkpoint cards you completed.
What would I do differently? Join my local TRF and getting in some more practice and experience and get fitter!
Like Green Laning, but bigger and better and with no gates
Austin and Lois scout out next years trails. See you there...?
Has Simon wet your appetite for Pyrenees adventure? We caught up with the man himself, Austin Vince to find out more.
Hi Austin. It sounds as though this year’s V.I.N.C.E. was a real success. Simon certainly enjoyed himself. Could you give us a bit of a background to how the whole event came about? Was it a case of waking up one day and thinking 'right I'm going to put on a Spanish navigation event' or was it a response to something?
Lois Pryce and I have had tremendous fun together on our trail bikes. What is little known is that back in 2005, Lois gamely agreed with my suggestion to spend our honeymoon in the Catalan Pyrenees trying to create a brand new type of m/cycle event that was based around map-reading.
When the wedding reception hangovers cleared, we loaded up our throw-over panniers and headed out to Spain. I had discovered that under recent EU subsidised ethnicity enactments, the whole of Catalunya had been re-mapped in Catalan rather than Spanish. The resulting maps were the best in the world and revealed a myriad of trails (that hitherto had never appeared on a 1:50,000 map) criss-crossing some of the most beautiful mountain scenery on this planet. Every morning at breakfast, we pored over the maps and crudely highlighted that day’s reconnaissance with a felt-tip.
Amazingly, we had fluked and chosen the sheet that covered the Pallars Sobira district, centred on the canoe-crazed community in the little town of Sort. Curiously, the density and access to trails in Pyrenees is hugely inconsistent. Some areas offering only cul-de-sacs and locked gates. Luckily for me and Lois Pallars Sobira is a goldfield, and off we tootled, Lois acting as photographer and wordsmith whilst I screwed the little home-made dog tag I.D. plates to signposts and fence railings.
After six blissful days of newly wed dirt-bike map-reading euphoria we had laid out 32 checkpoints and scouted 200 miles of trails. Thus, the first Very Interesting Navigation Challenge Event (The V.I.N.C.E.) was born, and we lived happily ever after.
I'm guessing that something like this really doesn't organise itself. What goes into making sure that everyone has a good time?
The essence of the event is that I want you to combine the thrill of trail-riding with the warm glow of successful map-reading. This means that I have to ensure that the checkpoint booklet that I send you is pin-sharp accurate. I need the riders to navigate themselves over 100s of miles and that means every single trail I send you down MUST be pre-ridden and proved, immediately prior to the event. If there’s a locked gate or an angry farmer, then I need to make certain I am not sending you towards it! Although the checkpoint booklet is generated on a computer, it is essentially a hand-built artefact. It takes about 4 weeks on the trails and then 50 hrs in front of a computer to create the booklet to the required standard. The notes, which catalogue any errors on the map (and there are loads!) takes about another 15 hrs to compile. Every year it’s a new booklet so I have to start again every 12 months!
You seem to be quite rigorous in your safety briefings. Is this something that riders should be worried about?
I am not big on safety. Not because I am reckless but because if you are serious about safety, you wouldn’t go dirt-biking in the wilds of the Pyrenees with no safety back-up save your team-mates. If you don’t think you could be badly injured or killed in such a rocky cliff-edged area then it’s YOU that is reckless. Doing this event is far more dangerous than simply staying at home watching TV. I am keen to create an event where people take responsibility for their own destiny. Tow-ropes, cell-phones, first aid kits, that’s all down to the riders, not me. Everyone knows that for 12 hours a day, their team are on their own. This is healthy, challenging and righteous. If you want a guarantee that nobody will get hurt then you absolutely must not attend. We haven’t had a fatality yet but we could, it’s possible.
Simon has given a pretty good account of what to expect in terms of the riding. It seems as though you work quite hard to create the right energy too. What are you hoping that V.I.N.C.E. veterans go away with?
I created the V.I.N.C.E. because I knew that self-navigation in world-class scenery is exciting and fulfilling. However, there was another reason; I was sick of attending enduros and being beeped and shouted at by better riders trying to over-take me. Naturally, I am not much of a dirt-biker and I was always at the back but I was heart-broken that I could attend an enduro and instead of making new friends just felt terrible about myself. In the paddock, everyone kept to themselves and it was all about tricked out bikes and ‘winning’. I wanted to create an experience that was all about ‘being there’ and taking part. I am a Corinthian, I despise the drive for victory and find the ‘’win, win, win’ thing extremely sordid and unhealthy. I wanted to create a dirt-bike event that was like a private party. We have three rules at the V.I.N.C.E:
1) If you really, really, want to win – you shouldn’t be doing it.
2) You have to buy a stranger a drink at the bar each night.
3) You have to sit next to someone new at each meal and engage them in conversation.
If you leave the V.I.N.C.E. having come last but with a few new friends with whom you might connect up with, on a trail back in the UK, then my good man, you have won...
Finally, why Spain? Could you do this back home in the UK?
It’s possible in the UK but simply not as good. Nothing like as good actually. The density of legal trails (about 400 miles) that you find on a SINGLE sheet of a Catalan 1:50000 map means that you can create a checkpoint network so rich that no two teams will ever encounter each other. With an enduro, you are always following the tracks of the guy in front. At The V.I.N.C.E, your team is on its own in the mountains. If we did it in the UK I think there would be too much chance of teams following the same routes. Also, the weather is 99% guaranteed perfect and the mountains are amongst the most beautiful in the world. The Pyrenees are staggering!
Find out more or sign up to next year's V.I.N.C.E.here
This article has been sponsored by Austin Vince. All proceeds go towards helping the TRF conserve Green Roads in the UK. For more information about advertising with the TRF click here