On the last evening of each trip, proposals for the destination in the following year are heard and voted on. Volunteers usually step forward to offer to explore the preferred location and report early in the year on the outcome. If judged ‘doable’, the date, depending mainly on the most suitable weather conditions, is finalized in March and the announcement made. Strict rules apply as to who of the 30+ names on the list (boys only, because boys behave different when girlsare around) may join as logistics generally only allow a maximum of 24 participants. Seniority (number of previous rides) as well as the earliest commitment documented with a transfer of non-refundable fees are the criteria.
After almost a quarter of a century, predominantly covering the slopes in the Himalayans and the hills in Asia, the 25th anniversary ride was meant to be special one and the first time to Europe, exploring Spain’s Basque Country of the Pyrenees under the slogan ‘Making Basque Great Again’. The Basque country as it stands today is known as ‘The Autonomous Unified Basque Country’, consisting of the North and South Provinces. The North is controlled by the French and the South by the Spanish. Initially a little reserved towards foreigners, the locals are very proud of their identity and have their own Basque national flag. Basques have fought for their land, their culture, and their pride. Their traditions are alive and flourishing today. The widely spoken Basque language is a language with no known linguistic relatives as it is unrelated to any of the other languages of Europe.
Only a few members of the original group presently still live in Taiwan since some have returned to their home countries, mainly the US, or have found new opportunities in China or the Asian region. Thus flights carrying the bikes touched down in the northern Spanish city of Bilbao from all over the world. In order to get acclimatized and check the equipment, a ‘warm up ride’ in the little known desert of ‘Bardenas Reales de Navarra’ was staged before getting into the mountains and onto the Basque highlands.
On day 4 of the trip, a long valley ended at a very steep, grass-covered slope which was not rideable, requiring an ascent by serous pushing of the bikes uphill for almost 2 hours. Reaching the top of the ridge we were surprised by a low 2-wire fence indicating the Spanish/French border. After lifting the bikes over and enjoying the far view towards the French peaks, we enjoyed a long, bumpy downhill finally ending up at an asphalt road only to start a steep serpentine uphill to the Col de Larrau (one of the passes on the 2007 Tour de France) and returning back onto Spanish territory again. Weather can change fast from calm and sparkling sunshine to heavy wind and horizontal rain. However, we were lucky most of the time as we got caught in the misty rain only once. The overall pleasant fall temperatures and the low humidity contributed to the enjoyment of the daily rides. The favorable climatic conditions, however, did not ease the pressure on some softer body part caused by the extended hours in the saddle.
Although the rides were a challenge, no bike breakdown was recorded. Even the number of punctures was below average. Most importantly, besides a few minor bruises caused by some spectacular stunts ‘over the handle bars’ no serious accident occurred.
The final day was a stunningly beautiful ride on the cliffs above the Atlantic. The far view into the Bay of Biscay with the white sands of the distant French city of Biarritz in the North, the contours of the Pyrenees towards the north east, and the dark blue waters with white crests washing the coast of northern Spain below us was overwhelming. Ending up in the old historic part of ‘San Juan’, a small fishing village outside San Sebastian, where the waiting beer was cold and plentiful, was like a ‘grand finale’. While enjoying the local amber brew ‘Keler’ all reflected on another memorable week of physical workout and enjoyment in a very scenic, diversified, and interesting part of the world; celebrating unique brotherly friendship. ON ON to more foreign shores in the upcoming years!
While the majority of the rides followed animal trails, we also came across some well-marked and popular walking trails with numerous enthusiastic trekkers. These were pilgrims on the ‘Way of St. James’, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It leads from France through northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela over almost 1050 kilometers and thus is part of the ‘First Cultural Route of Europe’. Many of the small villages we passed boasted churches and monasteries dating back many centuries. One is Roncesvalles, which offers a special daily pilgrim’s mass. In addition, it is a symbolic place, whose fame crossed all Europe in the Middle Ages due, above all, to the songs about the deeds of the figure of Charlemagne and his nephew Roldan in the epic battle of Roncesvalles.
Cobblestone pavements in the narrow alleys of the villages were lined with rustic houses decorated with beautiful flowers in front of their windows. Compared to earlier trips where simple homestays, dormitories, or tents hosted the group, this time cozy family guesthouses provided comfortable shelter during the nights.