Trail Gold in the Maritime Alps

I was recently asked what fascinates me most about mountain biking. My answer: the places my bike takes me.

Years ago I ended up in Graz, Austria because of bikes. Heard of it? I hadn’t. This amazing city full of gothic looking architecture was a complete unknown to me. There were also some sweet-ass dirt jumps and a super-gnarly downhill track – that’s what I was there for. 2003 European DH Champs.

Four years ago, I lived in the little mediaeval town of Sospel for an extended summer. That was because of bikes. Just before I left, I discovered the top of the Roya Valley, just inside the French-Italian border near Limone Piedmonte. Ever since then, I’ve really wanted to get back for a proper explore. Last week, we did it!

We were actually on a two-fold mission: visit a friend who works as a guide for Finale Freeride, and test out our nearly-finished Sprinter van conversion. So whilst David made some final “working” touches to the van to enable us to use it, I got to work on the maps, as our route to Finale would take us down the Roya Valley. It’d be rude not to stop for a few days and actually get down to some exploring this time.

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The van at lunch in Larche

After a few evenings well spent researching routes via the internet and the IGN map, plus some reference to Greg Germain’s excellent VTOPO guide book to the area, I had a plan. To say I was really looking forward to it was an understatement. That may partly be because of my slight obsession with maps of course.. an evening spent scoping trails on the map, glass of red in hand, is an evening well spent in my eyes!

Day 1’s plan was to head up to the Baisse de Sanson – a saddle on the ridgeline between France and Italy – head south a bit and drop back down towards La Brigue. I saw that it was 1000m of ascent to the border, and only cursorily glanced at the rest of it… you know what happened next! Yes, we got to the saddle, and it wasn’t the top. Ha! That’ll teach me. It wasn’t much more to the “top”, well.. another 300 height metres to gain, but you know how it is. When you thought you’d reached the top only to find that you haven’t, it’s a bit tedious.

We trundled on up an old bumpy military road, past old fortifications, with some big ominous clouds rolling in above us. The final push was just that, a push, but at last we had made it! 2,135m above sea level with the clouds now starting to shroud our summit and us in fog. Needless to say, we didn’t hang around too long up there, and blasted down the dead-straight super-fast trail in front of us. Dropping down that first bit we came to our first junction where it was less windy, less cloudy and a lot warmer. Time for second lunch!

As we ate, I wondered whether all that effort was going to be worth it. The trail was wide and grassy, and I couldn’t see much further than the first 150m or so. Would it stay like that? Featureless and bland? Or would it become horrifically technical with unrideable corners? Or maybe, just maybe, had we struck trail gold? Only one way to find out! Gopro in position, we set off. That grassy opener quickly disappeared into a proper trail with proper dirt… good good good! Oooh and now we’re going really fast! CORNER!!! Yes, switchback, you guessed it! Losing a fair bit of height now, don’t wanna fall off the edge, it’s kinda narrow! Going fast! Ahhh nooooooooo! CORNERRRRRR, I cant stop!!!! I look back, David is barrelling towards me, he can’t stop either! Something clicks and I step forward. He misses me by a gnat’s whisker! Phew! Ok.. we better calm it! There’re sure to be plenty more of these ‘ere switchbacks, plus there is some exposure to be careful of, and all sorts of cheeky little pinecones and twigs on the trail just waiting to give someone a run for their money. So in a slightly more respectful manner we continued, revelling in the glorious dirt beneath our tyres, the sympathetic switchbacks, and the fantastic photo opportunities the trail afforded us as we made our way down. So so good!

Finally at a big junction, we ran out of trail. Sad to be finished on that corker, we had to find something new. During my research I’d found a few old race stages and had marked them on my map. We noticed that one of them would pop us out directly by the van – i-flippin-deal! We just had to traverse round on a fireroad to a vague position on the map and find the drop-in. After a few minutes of gentle descending we wondered if we’d gone too far, but never fear! This is just the type of situation where the magic watch comes to the rescue. I asked it for a grid reference. We were all good. A little further and there it was, we have a trail. Only question was should we go straight on or right at the very first possible junction?! We chose right, and right we were – cue wickedly fun trail, swooping corners, fast sections, REALLY cool rock sections that really kept you on your toes coming in hot. What a mint stage that would’ve been in the race! We popped out on the road and momentarily started riding up hill until we realised we should be rolling the mere 20m down to the van. Kaboooom! The 1300m ascent long forgotten, that was one helluva ride back down. Day 1 in the bag.

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Out of the woods and onto a ridgeline. This trail was so varied!

We were travelling with the dog on this journey, and one of the tests of the van were whether or not he could safely be left on a hot day. We’d fitted a roof light and an extraction fan to ensure that the air was kept fresh inside. Insulation throughout the van would slow down the greenhouse effect normally experienced in a car or my old van too. We were really pleased to get back and find that he was being kept cool with a combination of being parked in the shade and the fan happily spinning around on a low setting. Nevertheless, he is a trail dog (albeit an aging one, so small rides only), so we decided that the next day we’d do two mini-rides so that he could come with us on one of them.

We managed to get out much earlier on Day 2, and were up to the start of trail number 1 within about 40 minutes. Despite the earlier start, it was hot and much sweating had already occurred. Taking a break at the top, cooling off with drinks and sweeties, we were passed by a walker who obviously dropped straight into our trail, as they do. Daaagh! 20 minutes of outdoor yoga anyone? It’s not like we were in a rush anyway, although there was homemade cake and coffee waiting for us in the van at the bottom!

This trail also featured in a race, and again it was really fast and really fun. Loads of switchbacks, mad cut lines (these enduro fellas seem to love a cut line), but we kept it pure and stuck to the original trail. This time it was David’s turn to have me go barrelling into the back of him on switchback at the end of a long fast straight. Ooopsy! Popping out at the bottom we realised we were in the little mtb skills area near La Brigue, and had a mere minute’s pedal up the way back to the van. Did I mention the coffee and cake? Needless to say that went down *very* well!

After about an hour of lazing around we decided we’d best get on with ride number 2. This was another stage in a race, but also formed part of a GR route so we wondered if we might come across some walkers, and in fact wondered what it’d be like. Perhaps a little less fast and flowing as the morning’s trail? Maybe more techy? We had a 400m climb to do first, best crack on. Mr excited trail dog was coming on this one, and he was very happy to be out with us. We had to make sure not to move too fast for him as it was so hot and offer him plenty to drink – luckily he was trained as a pup to take a drink when you squeeze the hydration pack bite valve to get the water flowing out, like a little stream from above.

We eventually got to the trail head and after getting the dog to pose for a picture and eating some more sweeties, we set off. Almost immediately the nature of the trail revealed itself – FAST! With some switchbacks – of course! I was thinking on the way down that maybe we should stop for some photos, but it was too much fun. Until we got to a great little rocky outcrop looking over La Brigue that is. It was too good an opportunity to pass up. Photos done, we continued. Fast fast fast still, suddenly it got techy.. I almost crashed in a corner, weight too far forward, bit of a drop, forks dived a bit.. saved it! Phew. But now it was more engaging. Still really good, but a little less speed, and a little more exposure. Luckily we had the excuse of stopping to wait for the dog to catch up and make sure he wasn’t getting too hot. Give him a drink. Let him have a little rest as well. At last we ended up in La Brigue. It’s such a cool little village, full of cobbled old streets, and quaint cottages. The main square is right over from the river so we rolled through and the dog wasted no time in submerging himself in the cool waters. He loves a river anyway, but never more so than on a hot day.

So Day 2 – another mint day, fun trails but a much more relaxed pace. Just as well really, as we were off down to Finale Ligure now for a few days of riding down there. If you haven’t been, you should. If you go, make sure you do the Wild Tour. Or maybe it’s called the Flow riding tour. But it’s available with Finale Freeride. The trails are in a completely different area to the usual Finale trails found on the “Classic” tour. Even the drive to the trails is an experience with some great 4×4 tracks taking you deep into the wonderful beech forests Finale is known for.

After a few days down in Finale, we headed back up to the Roya Valley for one more day of exploring before heading home to Les Arcs.

One of the best things about the Roya and Bevera valleys is the train service. When I lived in Sospel, I could pedal up to either the Col de Brouis or Col de Braus, do a sweet trail down the other side, and then catch a train through the mountain back to Sospel. Similarly, why not take the sting out of your climb by using the train. We had two options for our final day – both involved finishing lower down the valley than where we’d started. So the obvious solution was to park at the end, and take the train to the start. At a whole €3.30 each, it really doesn’t break the bank, and there is a proper bike area with hooks. A lot better than the trains up here in the Savoie!

So back to the two options: the first involved a very similar route to day 1, but greater distance and more climbing. However, the descent was described on a French website as a festival of switchbacks. David kept on asking about that trail, every time we rode a trail he asked if that was it. Do you reckon he might’ve been dead keen for that one?! I did! Nevertheless, in the end we decided to take the second option which was a ride of around 30km, with two 600m climbs. Breaking the climbing down into two smaller, more quickly rewarded efforts held a greater appeal at this end of the trip.

The great thing about the train is that it focusses the mind to get you out there bright and reasonably early. We were either on the 8.57 or the 10.44. That second one was clearly way too late, so the earlier one with the school kids it was.

We hopped off in St Dalmas de Tende, and started our pedal. We’ve driven up this particular road on previous visits, and I’ve often lamented that it was such a long way up as otherwise I’d ride up it to reach some of the trails up there. Now here we are, and I’m riding up it. How times have changed! 8km and 600 height metres to go until our first trail.

Despite the fact that it was 9.30am, it was already hot hot hot. At least we were climbing on smooth tarmac, easier and faster than our climbs earlier in the trip. The first part of the trail we were heading to do, I’d ridden previously. It’s a fantastic balcony trail, just great to ride along, marvelling at the work undertaken to build it all those hundreds of years ago. After a while it plunges down a little way, then levels out again before presenting you with some good technical climbing. Saving energy for later in the day we lazied our way up this on foot. Passing a cottage along the way where the kitchen sink was outside, draining board replete with washed crockery. Only in this area can you rely on the weather to have your kitchen sink outside! We eventually reached our first high point, where the views down the valley were stunning. We met some walkers taking a break with their dog. They’d come up from where we were going and informed us it was steep. I responded with a big thumbs up! After a few photos by the trig point, we got lined up to drop in. One of the walkers came back over to witness this incredible feat!! I’m not sure whether he hadn’t seen mountain bikers before (surely not!), or if it was just that he hadn’t seen a girl mountain biker before, especially one who was clearly quite happy to hear it was steep! He must’ve been speechless though as we got neither the customary “bravo” nor “bon courage” from him… or perhaps that’s just reserved for the climbs 😉 .

This trail had been described as stony and loose, and sure enough it was exactly that. Really loose! Hard to keep a line with the front wheel, and there were some fairly big rocks rolling around under the tyres. I got to wondering if it was going to be a bit rubbish like that all the way down, but we soon reached a section of harder packed trail, and from there on it became one of the most memorable trails I think I’ve ever ridden. A properly built balcony trail in places, with some amazing switchbacks and really really cool slab rock, interspersed with lovely loamy dirt traverses along the hillside complete with some great little techy challenges. Just brilliant!

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Riding through beautiful villages

We popped out in the coolest little village ever, perfectly timed for some lunch. Sitting in the shade of the church, I remembered exactly what I like about mountain biking now that my racing days are 99% over. There’s no doubt that without my bike to take me on that particular journey that day, I would not have been sat in that beautiful place. I would not have sought out that village as a place to visit as I’d never heard of it. For me, stumbling across these unique places along the way is more delightful than specifically planning to visit them.

Eventually we had to drag ourselves away. There was another trail to ride, plus climb number 2. Best get it done. I had seen our second descending trail described as technical, but bearing in mind what we’d just ridden, I couldn’t quite imagine how much more tech it could be. I didn’t have long to find out – immediately our first few switchbacks were HARD! This trail was down in the trees now, nice dirt, but yes: seriously tight switchbacks to start with. Then as we continued I really got into it. It was great flowing singletrack interspersed with technical trail features which were surmountable with a quick mind and the skills to match. I love that kind of stuff. Come into something, maybe perform a momentary trackstand or dead slow roll at the top, scan, compute, execute. YES! It’s like downhill trials in my mind. Just before our next village I came to a corner which really reminded me of a corner on La Varda (aka Sketchy Dismount) here in Les Arcs. So if you’re familiar with that trail, it’s that kind of tech. Tech-flow perhaps.

Moving on, it was now time for what would turn out to be the sweatiest climb of my life. Or at least that’s how it felt. Desperate for a river to stick our heads in, imagine our relief when we found a stream complete with ice-cold waterfalls just inviting us in. Gingerly sticking our heads under, it was as cold as expected. But so refreshing! Ice-cream head in full effect, we carried on up until we reached a junction. Expecting to continue a little further, a quick glance at the map revealed we were done with climbing. HOOOORAY! Never anything better than unexpectedly reaching the top!

Our final trail had a promising start, some nice switchbacks and nice dirt. Then for a very very long time I went very fast in a very straight line. Going really fast was really good, but I began to wonder if this trail actually held any technical interest. Fortunately, it did. So much so that it had been extremely well ridden by others, with berms almost forming in the loose dirt. Actually to the point where it looked like a whole army of riders had been down it the day before. I kept thinking I should stop to wait for David, but I really didn’t want to, too many cool corners to try and rail! I was just a bit sad for the straight-lining that the other riders had done, making it tricky to ride the trail in it’s original guise, but I think we gave it a good go.

Finally we dropped out in Fontan, gently rolled down the road to the van and a well-earnt beer and to release the doggy (who was very happy in his cool van, that has definitely been a success). What an absolutely incredible day! Three quite different descents, all with their own charms and character and those unexpectedly beautiful little villages.

Now we’re back in Les Arcs, I already can’t wait to get back down to the Roya Valley. There are still things marked on my map that need exploring! Plus I’m already planning another adventure – somewhere a little closer to home this time, and probably not until September, but I can’t flippin’ wait. I love the voyage of discovery when exploring new trails, that’s the best bit.

I hope that reading this has inspired you to get out and explore. Where is your bike gonna take you? 🙂

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Loamy trail of awesomeness

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