Hut Trippin in the Queyras : Day 4 & 5

[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.

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Moody sunset after the storm

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!

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In the big mountains

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!

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Love or Hate?

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!

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! mtnbikeguide@gmail.com

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Finished! What a week!

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!

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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