Inhospitable yet staggeringly beautiful, a sweep of mountains and river-crossed valleys in mainland Europe has for centuries been a corridor for international smugglers.
The terrain, its rocky trails cheek by jowl with deep mud tracks, soaring snow-capped peaks and forests, made it the traditional route of choice for contraband criminals.
So when four friends chose to spirit one of the world’s most talked-about bikes back to the place of its conception, the diverse landscape simply added to the adventure. The Tramontana – named after the wind that comes ‘through the mountains’ – was joined by three Tigers on its maiden trek across the Pyrenees from Llanca on Spain’s Catalan Mediterranean coast to Hondarribra on its Atlantic west.
The gang of four racked up 1,167km up and down peaks nudging 7,500ft, and almost 75% of it off-road… a constant reminder why the booze bandits chose the route.
For that reason it’s not a trip that figures high on the bucket list of riders, except Enduro aficionados prepared to forsake comfort for off-road kicks.
But Triumph test rider brothers David and Felipe Lopez and two friends – both off-road virgins with scant technical ability – proved that with the right bike, anything really is possible.
The brothers had history on their side. This was a route successfully travelled by their grandfathers as they fled the Franco regime during Spain’s Civil War.
The modern-day conspirators, their mission to deliver the project bike unscathed to Wheels and Waves in Biarritz, attacked the first stage dressed for windless 20degree heat.
Spearheaded by the Tramontana, Felipe on a new Tiger XCX and the two trusty Tiger XCs, David described the 224km to Puigcerda as “challenging” – enough to set alarm bells ringing for less experienced riders. But he counters: “If it’s not tricky then surely it’s not worth riding. And if you’re going to ride it, then the Tiger is the bike to do it on because of its enormous off-road capabilities and comfort over distance.
After addressing a loose steering issue on the Tramontana caused by some last minute alterations, day two offered more of a technical challenge up steep trails and rocky sections to Andorra, the very heart of the smugglers’ route.
“Felipe and I stretched the bikes to near their limit on some climbs, turned round at the top and our friends were seconds behind us. They said the bikes very quickly made them believe they could tackle anything,” said David.
Days three and four from Llavorsi to Isaba took the to the peak de Peguera, swoop through a narrow path in the Garona Valley before stopping to take in breathtaking views 2,000m up between the range’s two highest peaks, Aneto (3,404m) and Perdido (3,355m).
David said: “This was the toughest day. We were up to our eyeballs in deep, cloying mud which helped our friends see that the Tiger’s traction control and off-road ABS gave them the best of all worlds.
The reward for pressing on where even the most desperate rum-runners dared soon became as crystal clear as the pure rarified air for David and his compatriots.
“Between the two peaks the snow-topped mountains seemed to go on forever. It was like being at the very top of the world. I remember thinking it was a shame that most of the riders we met –many on Triumphs – stuck to the roads,” he said.
“The final sweep through the moss covered rain forests of Navarra as the Atlantic beckoned gave the feel of an Amazon adventure and then a river crossing and steep rise reminded you of the Alps. This truly was a trip with everything.”
A final day accident when Felipe dropped the Tramontana on his leg didn’t dent the friends’ enthusiasm… only the tank of the bike which by then had proved conclusively it was more than just a project. David said: “All the bikes handled brilliantly and we only had one or two minor issues typical of such punishing terrain.
A lot of people buy Tigers as an adventure bike but many never truly explore the limits of their bike to discover its real abilities for off-road touring through trips like this. I’d say push the bike and yourself to the limit – you’ll be surprised how far you can go.David Lopez