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Hut Trippin in the Queyras : Day 1

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:

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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 had 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 bridges with no sides!) for a slice of pizza.

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The Bridge of No Sides

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!

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Approaching the lake. What a backdrop!

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.

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Feet up! Who knew riding snow was so much fun!

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!

lesfontsIt 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.

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Just about to climb up and over the snow at Col du Malrif

Read about Days 2 and 3 here!

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

Mini Feature in IMB Mag

We had our friend Anthony Pease along for a guided ride back in July, and one of his shots was featured in IMB Mag a while after.. what a stunner! It was taken on one of the classic Les Arcs trails – a scenic yet exposed and techy challenge known as La Varda or Sketchy Dismount, depending on who you ask!

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Legally French!

Hoooooray!!! Today I found out that I can legally work as a mountain bike guide in France. Sooo excited! I can’t wait to be able to show people super rad trails again. Here’s a little story about the process.

I’ve been guiding in France on and off for the last few years, first in Morzine in 2007, then in Les Arcs and on the Trans-Provence route. In 2007 the Haute-Savoie (of which Morzine is a part) finally decided that they didn’t want British guides working on their patch, and arrests were made. Over in Les Arcs (part of the Savoie) it took a little longer for the authorities to notice/make a fuss about it, approximately another 6 years in fact. Initially it seemed like there was no solution and the safest thing for most of us was just to stop guiding rather than risk a hefty fine or even prison. However, with the help of Sam Morris at BikeVillage.co.uk that has now changed. You can read the full article here, but suffice to say that it is now possible to take an equivalence test to prove your abilities. If you pass, you’re able to legally work as a mountain bike guide in France.

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I did that exact test last week and really enjoyed it. I was worried my french wasn’t really up to scratch, but as soon as I was having to use it loads more than usual I found my confidence increasing.

I got off to a good start, being one of only 3 people to pass the navigation and bike-handling tests on the first day – the navigation caught some people out, but I guess using an IGN map (France’s equivalent to our British OS maps) for the first time in a long time isn’t easy. The next day we were tested on incident management which involved a first aid scenario and calling the emergency services – in french of course. I’d spent a few weeks revising body parts and phrases, although in the end I didn’t really need them – turns out my french is a lot better than I give myself credit for! It will certainly be useful for the future though – to date I’ve never needed to call the emergency services whilst guiding, but I’m sure my time will come.

The final element was to be teaching some 7-8 year olds about balance on their bikes. Initially I thought this wouldn’t be too bad, till Sam reminded me about how they have a really short attention span! I got a load of really useful phrases from him to keep them in control, and the session got off to a good start with me definitely in charge. It was pretty hard as I was showing them stuff and trying to explain stuff in French, and when they messed around a bit, it felt almost impossible to just look up from the kid you’re helping and shout across to the one messing around to stop it – whereas in English it’d be something you wouldn’t even think twice about. I got lots of feedback from the assessors afterwards, and the general line of questioning was about what I could’ve done to make it better. I wasn’t convinced I’d passed this element to say the least! But at last, I could just go home and not think about it any more.

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Even though I’d quite enjoyed the whole thing, it was undoubtedly quite refreshing to have a few days focussing my mind on other things. Then yesterday night I heard a few of the others had had their results. Where were mine!! Today I got the answer… I only flippin went and PASSED! Still can’t quite believe it, but it’s super cool!

So there we have it. If you want to guide in France, there is a solution! Oh, and I PASSED!!! Wooo hooooo! First female British guide to have taken this new equivalence test and passed. Hoooooray!

Where do you want to go?

Just a mere 9 years after getting my first guiding qualification, I’m very proud to be able to call myself a British Cycling Level 3 MTB Leader. That means I can guide people on mountain bikes anywhere in Europe (with the exception of France, for now. More on that another day), and for us Brits, it can be described as the gold standard in guiding. Hooray!

I actually did the training for the old Mountain Bike Leader (MBL) qualification right after my first season in 2007 but life took a different course for a few years so I never did the assessment.

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Fast forward to 2011, and I was back in the mountains working as a guide, and again in 2012, 2013 and 2014.. Not surprisingly my experience and quality as a guide now well outstripped my original qualification! Then last summer I had the opportunity to go on the training course for the new MBL equivalent, the British Cycling Level 3 MTB Leader Award. Bit of a mouthful eh!

The training course with Cyclewise was brilliant. Even after all the summers of guiding I’d done, I still got plenty out of it and went away with some good feedback and a few cool new things to think about. Of course, it was also enhanced by the chance to enjoy some good riding and banter with Rich & Craig, Cyclewise head shredders.

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The months ticked past until last weekend it was time to head back to the Lake District for assessment. I took the opportunity to spend a few extra days riding in the area as being based in France, it’s become a rare treat. Luckily the weather was well and truly on point, so much so that by the end of my new bike’s first week, I’d covered over 200km on it!

Saturday rolled around and I was quite nervous entering the classroom where we’d start the weekend. I knew I could do the do, but was worried about making some sort of silly elementary mistake which would result in a fail. First up was checking mechanics skills, luckily one of my strong points as I’ve always done all my own bike maintenance and fixing. Just what I needed to help put me at ease.

After lunch it was navigation test time. I don’t struggle with this, but in a pressurized situation, you know, a bit like the test I was on, I’m slightly lacking in confidence. Fortunately a few very intensive days of nav practice beforehand had helped with the confidence and I took us to all the right places!

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By the end of Saturday I’d gone from feeling a little nervous and apprehensive to totally looking forward to Sunday’s riding. We’d ridden some excellent trails and seen some stunning views and there was only going to be more of the same.

All day Sunday was spent guiding. There were three of us on the test and we had two real life folk to guide, one of whom was a local lass called Rachel who I’d read about and was really excited to meet – I still rarely get to ride with good female riders, and feel like I’m totally missing out on everything going on in the UK, like the Hope Tech Women’s rides for example.

This bit I was not at all concerned about, just needed to be on my best guiding behaviour. There were one or two things which I could’ve done better (and being knackered after 5 days on the bike definitely did not help, there was some mental fortitude required to look more energetic than I felt on Sunday!) but I got some really nice feedback from our guinea pig clients, Rach and Giles, both directly and through our assessor Rich. Happy days 🙂 .

So that’s it! I passed, and I’m really excited that I can take people biking in rad places now without having to be working through a chalet company… Where do you want to go??

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I love ski-touring!

I went on a two-day ski tour last week! Alright then, I hear you say, what’s so great about that?! Well, it was the first time I’ve done a two day ski tour, and I loved it.

Last season I did a couple of day tours, consisting of a morning of ascent and then descending back off on what was relatively uninteresting terrain. So last week’s plan had quite a few new facets compared to what I’d done previously: an overnight stay in a mountain refuge near the Cormet d’Arêches in the French Alps, a couple of cols (mountain passes) to cross, and a much more interesting descent. Add into the mix the fact that I devised the route myself and that we were passing a second refuge for lunch on the second day, and the scene was set for a whole bunch of new experiences.

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Our home for the night - Refuge de la Coire

Staying in a French mountain refuge in winter is like going bothying in the Lake District or Scotland, only better. There are cooking facilities, a huge stack of dry fire wood, chairs to sit on and even a cupboard full of Crocs so you needn’t stomp around in your ski boots making a racket and a mess all over the floor! The sleeping arrangements aren’t too bad either – mattresses and blankets – all you need is your sleeping bag liner and your ear plugs just in case there’s one of those dreaded snorers in your room!

My friend Julia and I toured up during the early afternoon on day 1, arriving just in time to enjoy a gin and tonic before the sun disappeared behind the mountain – although the clouds were trying to hide the sun from us prematurely too! Of course we’d had to carry this refreshing delight up with us, but it was worth it.

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Two goons enjoying a mountain G&T

We passed a good evening practicing our french on a young Parisien who was exploring from the refuge each day and waiting for the arrival of a friend the following day. We managed a reasonable night’s sleep, despite the efforts of the Dutch chap who’s friends had obviously banished him from their room to keep us awake with his snoring. Next morning it felt like the trip was really beginning as we left behind the familiar landscape around the refuge.

The weather was stunning and it was just superb to be out in the mountains with no one else around. We experienced a few challenges quite early on – a very undulating traverse, and crossing some avalanche debris – much easier to say than it was to do! After that it really was just the most perfect day. I was enjoying the ascent much more than ever before, loving seeing the winter version of mountains I’ve seen in summer, and comparing the terrain with the map – it’s cool to match up what you see with what the map says and invaluable in enhancing your navigational skills.

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Around lunchtime we reached our second refuge of the trip, Refuge de Presset. This refuge was completely rebuilt 3 years ago and is more like an up-market youth hostel than a mountain refuge. One day I’m going to have to go and stay there, it was so nice! The two hostesses (called guardiennes in french) were very welcoming and cooked us a fantastic omelette consisting of the local speciality cheese Beaufort, bacon, onions and potatoes. YUM! The view was just incredible, we couldn’t believe what a fantastic spot we had for lunch.
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What a view! The Pierra Menta dominating.

It was so sheltered and warm on the sun terrace that we really didn’t want to leave, but it was time to find out whether the descent consisted of a freeze-thaw impossible-to-turn-in ice crust, or soft spring conditions.. I don’t think anyone likes the former type of skiing, and I for one was certainly a little tentative in the first few turns wondering what it was going to be like. To our delight, the sun had been busy softening things up whilst we were enjoying lunch and we had excellent spring conditions for almost all of the 1000m descent. It was so much fun! We couldn’t get the grins off our faces and even the final part returning back to the van which involved quite a lot of “combative skiing”, as Julia put it, stepping over bare patches and poling, couldn’t induce a sense of humour failure.

I can’t wait for the next tour into new territory, and I definitely can’t wait for the next overnighter! It’s been a bit greyer here lately and the warmer temperatures are not being too kind to the snow on the southern aspects so how much more I’ll get to do I don’t know, but I think the memory of this trip’s going to carry me through. I thoroughly enjoyed myself!

If you’re a budding ski tourer like me and you’ve not done a two-dayer yet, you definitely should! I’m quite sure that you’ll love it.