Well, it’s been a mint week riding my bike in Engadin St Moritz, with a crew of other bike-loving ladies! We’ve talked about everything from suspension to farting, ridden some great trails, eaten some delicious food, and above all I think we’ve all come away with a whole bunch of new friends.
We were in St Moritz (yes, the famous ski resort in Switzerland) for the second annual Women’s Bike Summit. Last year was good, but if you ask me, this year was even better! We had some great skills sessions, including bike maintenance, suspension set-up, skills coaching, and some behind-the-scences coaching tips and tricks for those of us involved in actually delivering skills coaching.
The weather wasn’t quite so kind to us this time around but we didn’t let it get us down. At least it wasn’t raining! It was just a bit chilly with some snow around up high. We kept warm with a little extra pedalling and some tactical route choices by our guides, who took us down to Poschiavo on the coldest day, known as “Little Italy” for it’s great food, coffee and gelato. It was also quite a bit warmer, and I almost got sunburnt before quickly slapping some sunscreen on.. oopsy!
One of the highlights for me were the photo workshops with Sam Dugon. I took my SLR this year so that I could get involved. I love photography but I have huge swathes of time where I don’t get the camera out, so I always forget what I learnt last time. We were treated to a ride down Val Bever, where the scenery is so amazing that I’m not sure you could actually take a bad photo. We had some good clouds in the sky, not too much harsh sunlight and everyone was wearing bright clothes. British girls may like to moan about manufacturers making things in pink on the various forums, but I can tell you, European girls seem very happy pinking themselves to the max! It isn’t exactly a bad colour to be photographed in either.
We also enjoyed an extremely polished talk on mental training from the very inspiring Anne-Marie Flammersfeld. She is an ultra-trail runner, and the world record holder for the fastest ascent up Kilimanjaro and back. She gave a very interesting talk on the power of the mind, covering things such as focus, relaxation techniques, and how to actually practice mental training. This is something I’ve always been interested in, and it was encouraging to learn that I’m on the right track with the way I use my mind to keep on pushing up tough climbs on the road bike, for example.
Another highlight for me came on the morning of our first day. Specialized Ambassador Maria Frykman had come all the way from Innsbruck, and gave us some valuable information on how to help beginners feel more comfortable and confident riding their bikes. Whilst I don’t often guide beginners, I am really pleased to have been able to take away some very useful tips to help the people I guide to become even better riders.
Above all, I really feel like I got to know some great women this week. Everyone was so happy to be out riding with other like-minded women. There is definitely a different vibe when you have a group of ladies riding together. A collective stoke when someone nails something you know they will have found hard or challenging. A collective sense of achievement when the whole group has finished a tough ride. It seems to me that we tend to expect male riders to nail challenging stuff, and to finish a tough ride, these are norms, and they don’t get any praise for it. I like that within a group of female riders you have these responses. I guess we’re all just wearing our hearts on our sleeves a little more, we’re more vocal about cheering for each other. I could probably chatter on about that for a while without drawing any real conclusions, but instead I shall just say that if you’re a female rider reading this blog, you should really come along to the Women’s Bike Summit next year! You’ll ride in one of the most beautiful places around, learn so much, and make so many new friends! I couldn’t recommend it more.
Thanks to Laura, Daniela and Tina for the group shots just here ^^ 🙂
[You can find the first instalment of this blog here and the second, here]
Day 4 was the day of the first puncture, and it didn’t even happen in anger! Actually, it was a bit of a mystery, a slow leak that seemed to emanate from the valve. Not long into the morning’s 12km climb, Pease and David stopped to try and sort it out. Rob and I continued, wanting to get the climb out of the way before it got really really hot (it was already quite hot after all). Along the way we were passed by some bikers on an uplift. This is only worth mentioning because they were in one of the new 4×4 Pandas, towing a great big bike trailer! Flippin’ brilliant! Ultimate uplift vehicle?? Maybe… if you had two to fit everyone in.
We were on our way up the road towards the Sommet Bucher, seemingly very popular – we saw quite a few other riders, from middle aged folk on aging XC bikes, to more modern enduro style bikes and riders. Pease and David caught us up and we carried on up to a lovely little clearing with a fountain to refill our water bladders and take a well earnt rest. Today’s lunch treat was baked goods from the local boulangerie, and it was difficult to resist eating all of it at once!
After a short while we decided we’d better head on as the weather forecast was suggesting storms later in the day. After a short push, we came to a fun undulating section and a very rideable piece of ever-so-slightly-ascending singletrack to the Col de Fromage. The landscape up there was incredible. All around us were high peaks, and beyond the col in the distance, even more layers of mountains, higher than us – still clad in the tatters of their winter coats. In fact, that is one of the striking things about the Queyras area for me. Up high, you often can see many many mountains. Lined up in rows, ranges stacked one behind the other. That’s quite a contrast to the views I’m used to up in Les Arcs. Here we can only really see one line of mountains at a time, because those behind are obscured by our high peaks.
Second lunch at the Col de Fromage was despatched quickly, and there we met another rider who was coming the same way as us. On a solo mission, he darted off ahead and we only saw him once more after that. We were heading round to the Col des Estronques, and last time David and I did this, we dropped too low and had a lot of extra hike-a-bike. We made sure not to miss the junction this time and traversed round the hillside with only a little pushing. I was pleasantly surprised when all of a sudden we were at the signpost telling us it was only 0.6km to the col. Yippeee!
Just like last time, it was blowing a hoolie at the top, so we didn’t hang around for long. This trail is quite loose and rocky up top and bottom, but with an absolutely fantastic middle section in a larch wood. I have to be honest and say, even on a second ride, that I am not too keen on this descent. If we could just leapfrog straight to the woods and straight to the bottom afterwards, that’d be great. However, I was in the minority as the boys absolutely loved it the whole way down.
We popped out on the road just below St Veran, and now had a pedal up into the village to reach Les Gabelous, our accommodation for the night. The sky was looking more and more ominous but still no rain just yet. I spotted a sign for the gite, but it looked like the pedestrian access, so we kept on going. Reaching a hairpin, we had a moment of uncertainty and were about to roll down when we spotted another sign. At that very moment there was a huge clap of thunder and some very very big hail stones started to fall. Immediately everyone sprinted as hard as they could up the hill and into the garden of the gite, hail getting harder as we did so. Throwing the bikes to the ground, we got indoors as quickly as we could! Talk about absolutely perfect timing. High Fives all round. Another wicked day had come to an end, and our accommodation for the night was brilliant. It was a quaint old place, a bit of a rabbit warren in fact. Full of character, it was quite easy to get lost! Beers were swiftly ordered up, the games collection consulted, and a most competitive game of Uno kept us occupied until dinner. If you’re going to St Veran, I would highly recommend a stay at Les Gabelous.
The next morning we were away early again, as more storms were threatened that afternoon. We had a fair bit of ascent on the cards for today, first 300m to gain on a road, then 500m pushing, followed by another 300m of hike-a-bike. However, this day also promised to be the best day of the trip – the final descent is well renowned, and I for one was keen to see what all the fuss is about.
Getting the pedal out of the way (and passing an old bronze mine – complete with abandoned generators), we were soon on the footpath up to the Col de Chamoussiere. This gentle ascending trail was more of a push than a carry with many short rideable sections. It seemed the week’s activity was catching up with me as my progress was very very steady and the boys were well ahead! Nevertheless, with the beautiful valley and pretty streams to admire, it was a very pleasant morning. Finally reaching the col, an absolutely stunning view awaited. Pease had set the camera up to get all four of us in shot on a small ridgeline with an incredible backdrop. It had been difficult to establish exactly what our next trail would be like because the contour lines on the map were obscured by the scree also drawn on it.. now was the moment of truth!
I explained to the others that we’d shortly be hooking a right to climb back up to the road. At that moment we spotted the refuge d’Agnel in the distance, and someone suggested that actually we may as well go down there for a coffee and ride up the road – it’d be just as easy. A coffee??? OOOOH YES PLEASE!
Now this trail may be one of those marmite trails. I didn’t get the impression the others liked it much, but it was rather stop-start due to sections of snow that needed crossing. That always ruins the flow a bit. I personally thought it was mint, and I’d certainly like to give it another go without the snow. It was a little undulating to start with, with some great rocky techy challenges. The final section down to the refuge was an absolute delight. So fast. So flowy. SO.MUCH.FUN! We were buzzing!
Arriving at 11.45, we had 15 minutes to wait before the refuge opened. Bang on 12, the guardian came out, and we got those coffees ordered. Strong and dark, they got us pepped up for the short road ride to Col d’Agnel. The guardian asked where we’d come from, and when I told him, it turned out that he’d seen us coming down and thought that we were trail runners. Really fast ones. 😉
Col d’Agnel is right on the border between France and Italy, and is the second highest road pass in France (behind Col de l’Iseran, up above Val d’Isere). As you can imagine, there were plenty of cyclists up there taking photos next to the very cool retro border marker. We found ourselves an excellent spot for lunch and tucked into the sandwiches made for us by the ladies at the Gite Les Gabelous. They were delicious! Even so, when I pulled out that bottle of Andalouise sauce I’d been carrying around all week, no one turned it down. YUM YUM YUM!
Lunch with a two-way view
Keeping an eye on the sky, we could see dark storm clouds building, and decided we’d better crack on. The final 300m ascent in the whole trip – YES! Just above Col Vieux, we were stood atop the final descent. We couldn’t even see it all – stretching a long long way down the valley ahead of us, we could only just about make out the trail disappearing off into the distance.
Pretty quickly we found ourselves riding down a trail masquerading as a river. Whoever was in front of me was going quite steadily – perhaps so as not to get too wet and muddy, but there was no avoiding it. I over took and got on with it – after all, more speed = more fun! There were some patches of snow to negotiate, and we just barrelled into them hoping for the best.. All good! We passed two beautiful lakes, so still, perfect reflections of the big clouds above. By now I had Rob ahead of me. Rapid on a bike at the best of times, he was hitting stuff super-fast. Keeping up as best I could, getting a bit loose here and there, it was awesome. Fast fast fast! Past the second lake the trail became better than ever. I can’t even really describe it! We were just going so fast. Remember those times smashing a trail with your friends, everyone whooping and hollering, just having the best time?! It was like that. Smashing turns. Ooooh, a bit of a moment! S’ok, rode it out! YEOWWW!
Many many minutes passed. Much fun was had. But it couldn’t last forever, and with one final jump off a bridge we were done. What a trail! What a week! So many great trails! Beautiful views, tasty food, good beer, what more could you want from a holiday! We will be back! Want to join us? We’re running holiday weeks down here as of September 2017 and we would love to show you some of the best trails we’ve ever ridden: get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org
[You can find the first instalment of this blog here]
The next morning everyone else at the refuge got their march on at around 8am and we suddenly found ourselves all alone. Feeling like the faffers holding everyone up, we got ourselves outside and eventually left around 9am. The sign post said it was a mere 3.2km to the Col de Péas, our high point for the day. We set off what turned out to be one incredibly beautiful valley. There were a lot of stops: there was a lot of valley to admire. It wasn’t long until we were enjoying lunch at the top, where we met the two young chaps some of us had crashed in front of the day before. It turned out they were heading in a similar direction.
The trail down the other side stretched out before us, and the finger-post said it was a whole 7km to Souliers, our intermediary destination. Oooh.. that’s quite far! After our lake-fail on Day 1, we were dead keen to find a lower lake to cool off in, and as luck would have it, there was one at 1800m. This could be it! It was only a smidgeon off route, so with high hopes we set off. Less rocky than yesterday’s trail, there was some serious speed and flow to be had from this one – it was mint! We passed the old ladies again, and I got another round of applause. After what seemed like quite a while, we came to a junction. Aha… some uphill – well, it was more of a traverse actually. But it did go up hill. What’s the best thing about traverses halfway down massive descents?! It’s the fact that you get a moment to look around you, and really appreciate where you are. We took the opportunity to drink in our surroundings, flopping into the grass for a rest and a dose of the outside world – coming into a pocket of phone signal, Rob and Pease were suddenly bombarded with messages from home after our foray into the back of beyond the day before.
A few minutes later and we were off again, the trail descending swiftly towards a larch wood. I love riding in larch woods! Yippee! This one was great. The trail snaked its way down the hillside, interrupted every-so-often by a switchback. It was so much fun that once we really got started, there was definitely no stopping for any photographs or to see where anyone else was. Rob and I pinned it from top to bottom!
We were now within striking distance of the lake, and with just a little excitement about a swim on this very hot day, we pedalled the 5 minutes round to the appropriately named Lac de la Roue (roue = wheel in French). How disappointing it was to find that it was full of reeds – there’d be no swimming in this one. Foiled again. All the same, it was a lovely spot for second lunch so out came the sweaty cheese, questionable ham, some “team sausage” and a bottle of Heinz Andalouise sauce that I’d been carrying for a couple of days. Yum yum 😀 . Afterwards we returned to Souliers for a coffee. And who should we see when we got there? Yep, the old ladies again! With a wave of greeting we had a quick chat and learnt that they would be staying there for the night. I have to say I was a little sad that we wouldn’t be seeing them again as I’d enjoyed seeing them on our journey so far, sharing mutual “félicitations” for our achievements on the mountain.
Up until now, my background research told me that all of the trails we were to do were rideable, but next it was a jaunt into the unknown. Someone had pointed out a good trail to us, but the access route was simply a possibility… it crossed a scree slope on the map, so how rideable would it be? We smashed down the road for a little while, and quickly discovered that there was no need to worry – someone had made the trail into a great big fireroad! Reaching our final trail, we were rewared with long fast straights interspersed with some very rideable hairpins. Once again there was no stopping – just tooooo much fun! And when we popped out on the road below, we had a great view of the chateau itself. Spot on! Day 2 done and dusted… well apart from the 300m ascent back to Arvieux in the hot hot afternoon sun. Ooosh, that was a horribly sweaty schlep back up the road!
Our gite d’étape this time was Le Teppio. This crazy little house (with some crazy kittens including one who fell off the balcony and amazingly didn’t die) had a trail going right form the garden! How cool was that!
After dinner we hung around looking at local tourist paraphernalia for a bit, and then we noticed that David had disappeared. He wasn’t downstairs and he wasn’t upstairs. Hmm. By now it was dark, so the rest of us got on with going to bed and were just about to turn the lights off when he returned with news of a possible trail to ride the next day – and thus avoid losing some height on the road. I handed him the map and we had a look. He’d found a trail I’d decided against because it had a bit of hike-a-bike in the middle of it and I thought it’d be better to just pedal up the fire-road alternative. Thinking about it though, avoiding a slog up a fire road in the hot sun sounded much better and so guiding duties were momentarily passed to David.
The next morning we got away about 9.30 again, and set off on David’s discovery. There was a little climb to begin with and then we came up to a junction just in front a group of walkers. We’d been about to have a faff, but upon spotting them it was action stations! Go go go! We found ourselves riding along an awesome little balcony trail alongside an old water race. It was an absolutely great start to the morning, warming the legs up nicely just pottering along through the woods until we reached the uphill section.
For an ascent, this little piece of trail was sublime. Not because it was rideable, but because of all the dreams it evoked within us. It was a beautiful wood with the trees spaced just enough for grass to grow bright and strong, and shafts of sunlight to sneak through the branches high above. “Hey, this wood would be awesome to ski down in winter!”, “whoa, check out the flowers!”, “ah man… this’d be awesome to ride down”. It was rideable in places, eminently pushable too, and refreshingly cool in the shade from the sun. It didn’t really take long to reach the high point and we agreed we’d traverse round to meet the fireroad “carefully” so as not to faff putting knee pads on. And so it was, until we got to a set of switchbacks with an incredible view over a big scree field. There’ll be some photos here then! Pease got into position with the camera and we donned our knee pads. Each corner held its own challenge, and I think only Rob successfully negotiated the first one.
Crossing the scree field, we quickly came to the fire road that would lead us up to the Col de Furfande. David and I have done this ascent before. Last time we ended up pushing up the final part because it’s just that bit steeper than even a 30-42T gearing seems best for. I’ve got one of those XT 11-46 cassettes this year, and thought I’d definitely be able to pedal up this time. Wrong! Perhaps it was the extra weight in my bag, or the previous two days catching up with me, but it was definitely more efficient to put one foot in front of the other rather than weakly grinding my way up to the col. On the upside, I found some trail treasure in the form of a neatly folded 50 Swiss Franc note… so neat and fresh that I actually couldn’t believe it was real! David and Rob managed to pedal the whole way – well apart from the bit where they had to push around a couple who had managed to get their small 4×4 stuck in snow (and now partially hanging off the edge of the track) just below the col. Oh dear. Hopefully they got the car back onto the track ok! Pease was a while back but bearing in mind he had a whole bag of camera gear plus his normal stuff, that was quite understandable.
There was a cold wind up on the col so we didn’t dilly dally for long before dropping into the fast and flowing trail round to the Refuge de Furfande, where we’d be stopping to eat.
We really took our time about lunch, this was a holiday after all. Panachés, omelettes, coffees – why rush? In fact, if it wasn’t for the descent awaiting us, maybe we’d never have left. I’d quite happily have stayed admiring that view for a long long time, and I think the guys would have done too.
It was both reluctantly and excitedly that we eventually left – the trail was clearly visible, a serpentine ribbon flowing down the hillside just calling out to be ridden. Once again we were not stopping here for photos – there was much too much fun to be had! Suddenly the trail dropped away more steeply and we were presented with a whole bunch of switchbacks swiping their way backwards and forwards across the hill. Pease slung his backpack off and grabbed the camera – this needed some photos! After a few goes trying to get rad around one corner in particular, we continued. The trail became rocky and exposed, with good line choice absolutely critical – going over the edge here would not be a good idea. It was brilliant! Picking a good line on a moment’s notice is just the best! Perfectly timed, the trail became less steep just as we started feeling like we could do with a rest, and continued more gently now around the hillside. We met another group of walkers and one lady stopped to have a chat with us, telling us proudly that two of the group were 88 years old. Wow! I told her I hoped I’d still be out walking at that age. Privately I thought how nice it was that the walkers in this area seem a lot more open to mountain bikers – friendly and almost welcoming. They’re not bad in the Les Arcs area, but I wouldn’t call them friendly. Just tolerant. The attitude in the Queyras was most refreshing.
Carrying on we finally reached the road for a gentle pedal to Ville-Vieille and our accommodation for the night, Gite Les Astragales. More local beer, and there were games at this one! Tonight’s fun (after an excellent dinner) was a brilliant few rounds of “redneck” Jenga, whatever that is! Some strange new version invented by the boys… just look at that very precarious tower!
Last week we went off on an adventure. Lugging our bikes up and up and up, we got hot, sweaty and hungry. The reward? Some of the most excellent singletrack in all the land!
The Queyras Regional Park is an area in the Hautes-Alps of France. I’m going to stick my neck out here and suggest that very few non-French MTBers will have heard of it, let alone know where it is. So if you’re still reading this, perhaps you’re scratching your head asking “where on earth is she on about?!”. Here’s a handy map:
Got a vaguely better idea now? Yes? Ok. Good.
If you’ve been for a little look around the rest of The Inside Line website, you may have noticed that we’ve said that the Queyras is our new favourite place to ride. Trails of sublime quality with fantastic scenery all around you. Perfect. And what better way to discover more of the area than with a point-to-point ride? So that’s what we did. We invited a couple of friends – Rob Forbes and Anthony Pease – to come along too.
In the Spring, one must be patient for Winter’s failing grip to at last give up, and so we waited until mid-June. Until the 17th in fact. With accommodation booked, bags packed and bikes ready to go: our Day Zero finally arrived.
Our first little bit of excitement came quite early in the drive down. The relief of arriving in St Michel de Maurienne at 4.48pm, less than 15 minutes before they closed the road up to the Col de Galibier for a time-trail race, was palpable throughout the van. Phew! Any later and we’d have had to wait at least 2 hours before we could continue to our accommodation for that night which was still a fair way to go. Just before Guillestre we discovered a pizza van, a van so popular that we had to wait almost an hour for our order to be ready. Whilst we waited, we visited at a fort, saw the Hand of Titan, and stood in the eye-socket of the Angry Face, a rocky outcrop that really did look like an angry face! Our pizzas were finally ready and when we opened to boxes we realised we really didn’t need one each. They were huuuuuuuuge! We all agreed: that’s lunch for Day 1 sorted then!
The following day we drove to our start point in Abriès, bikes out, bags on, helmets in position: WE ARE GO! Day 1 took us over the Col du Malrif and down to Les Fonts. The catch was the 1300m of ascent, 800m of which would involve carrying the bikes on our backs. Or pushing. Previously David and I had done the ascent to the Lac de Laus, so it was nice to be able to mentally compartmentalise each part of our climb. Section 1: the pedal to the Bridge of no Sides (this became its title for the rest of the week, despite the fact that there are loads of bridge with no sides!) for a slice of pizza.
Section 2: the carry to the lake. There we planned to go for a swim. Section 3: the final carry up to the col. We seemed to reach the Bridge of No Sides in double quick time compared to last time. Our first slice of pizza was quickly despatched and we didn’t hang around long before commencing the hike-a-bike of section 2. There was the lake to get to after all! After an hour and a half of solid plodding, bike perfectly balanced on my back (yes, look mum, no hands!) I arrived at the lake. The boys had all beaten me to it and I was informed that it was waaaaay too cold to swim. Nevertheless I got my socks and shoes off super-fast and paddled in. They weren’t wrong! Almost immediately I had leg-freeze. Ooof!
We spent some time there enjoying the rest of our pizza and the stunning surroundings, feeling mildly jealous of the family who’d used a couple of lamas to bring their picnic/tents/children’s toys up with them! Setting off around the lake, I was last and passing a large group of walkers, I got a round of applause and a “félicitations!” as I passed! This was not to be the last time… and upon checking with the boys later, it seems this treatment was reserved only for girls 😉 . Pretty quickly bikes were on our backs again for the relatively short ascent up to a very snowy looking col. Behind us, the group of walkers were hot on our heels, and naturally we were keen to stay ahead of them. As we reached the snow, we noticed that they’d all stopped to watch our progress up and over the cornice: Ok! The pressure’s on! No one fall now! Luckily there was a good boot-pack and gaining the top of the col was relatively easy. Hoorah!
Whilst we readied ourselves for the descent, the first of the walkers reached us. Imagine our admiration as we looked round to see two women, probably in their late 70s or early 80s, making short work of the snow, well ahead of the rest of their group. Chapeau! I do hope I’m still messing about in the big mountains when I reach their age. They were a little flabbergasted by these crazy mountain bikers who’d carried their bikes all the way up here, and so we were requested to pose for a picture!
Now to the descent. There was some snow. Actually, there was a quite a lot of snow. Looked like we were in for our very own 4-rider version of the Megavalanche! We made our way down the first few loose rubbly turns and then David took the plunge off the rocks. He managed a few metres before his front wheel dug in and he was off. It was deep and soft! I watched as Rob headed out to the right in search of thinner snow. He didn’t find any but he did do a brilliant tripod job, weight right back, and got a fair way down. I had a right giggle managing to keep both feet up and weight right back, my bike kept going surprisingly well, with only a few stops to knock the heavy snow off the wheels. Pease got royally stuck at one point, actually having to dig the front wheel out – no amount of pulling would release it from the snow! We reached some dirt, only to find that it was so full of melt water that it was more like quick-sand! Sinking in with every step, we ran quickly to firmer ground and carved our own turns down onto a proper bit of trail.
After a brief pause, Rob set off hopping and poppin like a spring lamb, with David in hot pursuit. I tacked onto the back and followed down – this rocky, tech-flow trail was really quite good fun! It wasn’t that steep, but just enough gradient to keep us going. There were some great sections right alongside the river, and some cheeky little “up’n’overs” that kept us on our toes, trying not to get in the way of the person behind! Near the bottom we passed a couple of young chaps, and promptly fell off right in front of them – well, I think just David and I did anyway! The embarrassment! Haha! And at last, we rolled into our refuge for the night, the Refuge des Fonts. We were given a warm welcome and the option of a couple of different rooms. Compared to the refuges I’ve stayed at in the Savoie (usually in winter to be fair), I was struck by the cleanliness of the place, and the fairly “recent” looking beds. Nice!
It was only 4 o’clock so the boys got straight to work on the beers. To their delight, there was a plentiful supply of a local ale, La Tournante. Blonde, Ambrée, a Genepy flavoured one, and more – plenty of variations for them to try. About an hour later the old ladies arrived and glasses were raised, saluting one anothers’ acheivements that day – they told us they’d made short work of the snow, following in our tyre tracks. Good skills! That evening we enjoyed an excellent 5 course meal (if you count a plate of lettuce as a course anyway!), before heading off to bed. Day 1 done and dusted. Reflecting on the day, I’d definitely enjoyed it, but I felt ever so slightly short changed – for all of our effort that morning, we’d only had one descent. It was definitely a very fun descent, but I just felt like I wanted more. I fell asleep wondering what tomorrow and the rest of the week would bring.
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.
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!
Wide and grassy up top – what did this trail hold in store lower down?
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.
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.
Messing about on the way up to the trail
Doggy drinking time. He doesn’t actually touch the bite valve with his mouth, that would be grim!
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!
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? 🙂
Wow, really feeling like she’s hit the big time now, Emily is wellllllll pleased with this great little interview on Pinkbike! As part of the “Getting to Know” series, it’s a nice little insight into how Emily ended up where she is now.