The bridge to nowhere

The town of Riba-roja in Spain is virtually at a cul-de-sac when it comes to road connections.

The C12 is a main road that leads up the river Ebro past Ascó, with its two nuclear plants, and reaches Flix, which a decade ago infamously made the news when it was revealed that the chemical plant there had been polluting the river with highly toxic mud, prompting a cleaning operation from which a dike built to try to contain the mud is still visible today. From there and to the north, the C12 eventually leads to the motorways connecting Barcelona and Madrid, the AP2 and the A2. To the northwest, a narrow road follows the river and the tracks from the Tarragona-Zaragoza train line up to Riba-roja.


The nuclear emergency plan for Tarragona, PENTA, called for an evacuation path to the north in case of an incident in the nuclear plant of Ascó. Flix has the C12, but the town of Riba-roja has nothing else than a narrow winding road leading west up the Serra de la Fatarella mountains, where driving faster than 30-40 km/h is impossible, meaning that the only escape route for the people of Riba-roja is to double back towards the nuclear plant to Flix to take the C12.

In order to solve this safety contradiction, a new road was planned. It was to cross the river Ebro at the far end of town and then lead north to Maials, from where main roads connect to Fraga and Lleida.

In 1997 a new bridge was opened. At a cost of 800 million of the old pesetas, it span 350 metres across the river Ebro to… nothing. Absolutely nothing was built on the other side of the river, meaning that the only practical use of the bridge was for the farmers to cross the river and easily access their fields on north bank without having to drive down the river to the nearest bridge in Flix. Handy if you live in Riba-roja and your apple trees are on the other shore, not so handy if you want to get the hell out in case of a nuclear meltdown in Ascó.

I had driven past that bridge several times, but as my route always took me to the small road up the Fatarella mountains, I had never paid any attention to what was at the other end of the bridge, until some months ago I heard about it on the news. Being the curious type, I checked out some maps and decided that the next time I was in the area I would cross this bridge to nowhere and see if I could somehow connect to Maials and then on to Mequinenza without having to go all the way around to Fraga. On the maps there seemed to be a network of paths and dirt roads on the other side of the river, the kind of thing that connects different farms and crop fields, so I figured that if I found the right way through them, I could make it.

So a few months later, here I was, on the northern shore of the Ebro, looking back at the bridge I had just crossed and taking some pictures of it for the blog. Standing under it, I fully appreciated what a huge thing it was, and what a huge waste of money it had been to build it and not finish the road connection on the other side.


To my surprise, the road did not immediately end after the bridge as I had always heard, but it went on for about 500 metres where a road sign warned that the road was unpaved from there on. Strangely, it was not, it was just really bad tarmac, the kind that disintegrates into gravel and a bit further down the road I saw a sign that confirmed my suspicions that it was possible to connect to Maials – a sign that read ‘Almatret’ which according to the maps was a tiny village in the middle of the maze of dirt roads I had seen before.



But things were not going to be so easy, after some kilometers of narrow desert road, the tarmac ended, and from there on it was only a kind of fire service road, the kind you need a proper four wheel drive to negotiate, not a car. I made my way carefully, as I was alone, on a heavy bike and with no phone signal on a road that barely anybody seemed to use.


The path became steeper and steeper as it moved away from the river valley and up the mountain, and I was wondering how much further I would have to go before I found the village or things became too complicated and I had to turn around and go back to the bridge. Fortunately, the path seemed to have reached higher ground and it leveled off. In front of me I saw a farmhouse with a regular car parked in front of it, which meant that the road ahead had to be easier.


It was. A few corners later I found good tarmac again, a road starting just outside the village I had been looking for. In the centre I asked an old shirtless man with a great round belly whether it was possible to connect to Mequinenza from there. I was glad to hear it was, and listened carefully to his directions, trying to remember the details. I left the village on a good road, heading for Maials, which I imagined was the road to which the bridge had to connect someday.


There I was supposed to turn off to the left and find a dirt road leading to a place called La Granja d’Escarp. On the GPS the dirt road I was supposed to take seemed to be one of many between Maials and where I wanted to go, so before I got to Maials I decided to take a chance and turned into the first dirt road that looked in good condition.

Bad idea. I went into a maze of dirt roads that only deteriorated until they turned to small paths no matter which one I took. None of them seemed to lead anywhere, least of all the village I was trying to find. Not wanting to double all the way back because I had had to take the bike across some nasty bits of path, I followed the map the best I could to get back to the main road just past Maials.

To my delight, before I got there the dirt road led to a paved one and a bit to the west I came across a sign that pointed to La Granja d’Escarp. This was the road I had been looking for, I should have ridden past Maials instead of turning into the dirt roads before.


Even though it was paved, it was little more than a dirt road with some tarmad on it, but it was way better than the paths I came from. After riding down a gentle slope for some kilometers, I arrived to La Granja d’Escarp, on the shore of the river Segre, which I followed south for a short while until it connected to the Ebro and I found Mequinenza.


It had been an exciting ride, but I could not imagine that the route I had followed on dirt roads would be much help in case of a nuclear emergency, no matter how big the bridge was. Fortunately, the reason I had heard about the bridge on the news was that a project to complete the road had finally been revived and terrain and the environmental studies needed for the approval of the project carried out. Let’s hope Riba-roja is not in a cul-de-sac for much longer.

Wrong keys

Day 1 – Saturday 28th March – Barcelona to Villarroya de los Pinares (415km) – [MAP]

It was 8 am on Saturday morning and loading the bike was taking longer than expected… Besides my stuff I had to carry Nat’s riding suit, boots and helmet, and I had also decided to take my camping gear just in case, as I had not booked hotels or hostels for every single night. My bike sleeps in the street, by the main entrance to my building, so I could not put everything on it the night before and just get up and ride away. By the time I was done, I was already late to meet my riding mate for the day.

A friend of mine had recently bought a V-Strom and we had talked about doing something together for Easter, but he only had four days off, so I suggested riding together on the first day all the way to a house my family owns south of Teruel, and then he could ride back to Barcelona and I would go on to Hervás, on the other side of Sierra de Gredos.

We arranged to meet at 8 o’clock and I got to the meeting point about 20 minutes late… to find that he was not there! I checked my mobile and saw that he had called me and sent a text: he had forgotten some parts of his new GoPro camera and had gone back home to get them. I had also just got a GoPro for my birthday, and unlike the one that was stolen on the big trip, this one came with a WiFi remote that I had mounted on the handlebars so I could record while riding without having to reach for the camera and risk crashing, and I was looking forward to trying it on this trip, so I could hardly blame him for going back to get his.


In the end we set off at about nine, a bit later than expected, but no big deal, we had a place to sleep that night and the whole day ahead of us. I have to say that I had been a bit overoptimistic in planning the route, and the initial idea of riding only secondary roads all the way down seemed a bit too much now, especially since I was not riding on my own and we would be stopping quite often to test the cameras, so we decided to skip the bit that was closest to Barcelona (we could do those roads any other weekend) and take the coast motorway to get to the interesting bits faster.

Oh, did I regret that decision… Not only was the motorway tremendously boring, but on that particular day it was also very windy, and we had a couple of scares when sudden gusts of wind almost blew us off the bikes. We made it to Reus in the end, and from there to Flix to start the first interesting bit of road of the day.

Past Flix there is a road that goes to the town of Riba-roja, first along the reservoir that carries the same name, and then up the hills where some of the decisive battles of the Spanish civil war were fought. It is a small winding road that nobody takes, and after the long slog of motorway and with the wind already gone, we finally started having fun. Once the road reaches the top of the hills there is a small dirt road to the right that goes to the remains of some tranches built to defend the area during the war. It seems that a lack of coordination and bad intelligence meant they never saw action, even though the fascist troops broke through the lines nearby. The place is well worth a visit, not only to see the trenches but also to admire the views over the reservoir.

We took turns to ride in front and record each other, and I was happy to see that my setup was working well. I first tried the camera mounted on the topcase to record myself from the back of the bike, and then I mounted it on the helmet, which I preferred, because it gave me more flexibility to point it different ways. It was on one of the stops to check the cameras, while I was waiting for my friend to change the position of his, that I checked my tank bag and realised that I had taken the wrong keys to the family house.

I could not believe it… it was almost lunchtime, and we were too far from Barcelona to even consider turning back. I called my father to see if there was any neighbour that might have a copy of the keys, but there wasn’t. I told Gerard and we decided to keep going anyway and find a place to sleep. More of an adventure.

His family is from a small village in the area where we were, called Bot, so he suggested stopping for lunch there, as he knew a good restaurant. While we were having some rather excellent grilled meat we checked some places to stay that night on the mobile phones, but everything was either expensive or already full. In the end we got the address of a backpacker’s hostel in Teruel and decided to stay there.

The excellent meal took its toll, and we were feeling a bit heavy back on the motorbikes under the early afternoon sun. We rode on to the beginning of the Maestrazgo, a mountain range that extends from the south of Catalonia all the way near Teruel, and offers a maze of backroads that wind their way up and down valleys and gorges, and rises to the high plains and passes to offer excellent views. It is a very sparsely populated area, and one can ride for hours without coming across another car, which makes the area a perfect place to enjoy a motorbike to the fullest.

After riding to Valderrobres we took a tiny road up the mountain, where we switched bikes. It was an experiment I was very interested in doing, since both bikes were the exact same 2007 model (even down to the colour), but mine had done over 130.000 km and his was barely run in (he got a hell of a deal). I was very happy to see that other than a smoother throttle and clutch action (entirely my fault, I should have changed the cables or at least lubricated them a long time ago), there was virtually no difference. I remembered how many articles I had read praising other bikes “quality” and wondered where that perceived quality would be if I treated one of them like I treat mine. One difference I noticed was how soft the standard suspension was, diving noticeably under braking, when compared to mine, fitted with stiffer Hyperpro springs. Swapping your springs for better ones is definitely money well spent on a V-Strom.

We swapped again and rode on to find the consequences of the recent heavy rains that had affected the area all around us. Fields were still flooded, mud had washed over the road in many places, making it tricky to ride around blind corners, and there were rocks on the road at some points. Turning into an even smaller road that had to take us back to a main one, we came across a sign that said that the road was closed. It was only a sign, the road was not physically closed, so we decided to risk it, wanting to avoid a long detour. We took it slowly and after some kilometres we saw the reason – there had been some mudslides that covered half the already narrow road, so a car was unlikely to fit through, only a big 4×4 might have made its way driving with two wheels on the pile of mud. A while later we also saw a small section of road that had been washed away by a stream, leaving only half of it.


Back on a bigger road and heading south, I wanted to stop at a place called Santuario de la Balma, a church that had been built under a huge rock. I remember seeing it for the first time on my previous trip in that area, but there were some roadworks in the access and I could not visit it. I feared it would be the same story again because of the rains, but this time it was open.


Getting off the bikes at the entrance we almost had a shower under all the water that was dripping off the mountains. Inside church it was even worse – water was seeping through the walls and leaking from the roofs, mostly where the ceiling joined the rock face. I was surprised they had kept the place open. On the way out we stopped to play with the “guard” dog and take some pictures, and off we went again.


By now it was clear that we were not going to make it to Teruel in daylight, which was a pity, since the last part of the ride through the Maestrazgo offers sensational views of the sunset. We pressed on trying to catch some shots in the dusk light, but shortly after Cantavieja, which is about half way the night caught us. The temperature dropped fast, and at this point we were high enough to see some snow by the road. On a long, fast stretch of road, with me riding first, a couple of dogs walked out of nowhere and onto the road. I braked hard and fortunately they decided not to cross. It was a close shave, the brakes on these bikes are quite a joke and hitting a big dog at speed means a nasty accident. A bit later it was a rabbit and then some goats by the side of the road. By then I had decided that enough was enough, we were still an hour away from Teruel, it was pitch black and there was no point pushing it on the very first day of the trip. Time to find a place to sleep.

I thought it would be complicated, as there are only a few villages in the area and they are all very small, but on the second one we came across after me making the decision to stop for the night I saw a sign on the side of the local bar that said they had rooms, and we stopped to ask. The locals looked at us as if we had just landed from another planet, at that time of night and in full motorbike gear, walking into a bar where nobody but the few people who live in the village go. We got a cheap room with two beds for the night and after some deep fried local specialties, a few beers and a gin and tonic we crashed into bed.