At the last round of the UK Gravity Enduro 2015, my husband and I won a holiday for fastest couple of the day. It was a week long, all-inclusive Enduro training camp in the Pyrenees. We were so excited - what an amazing prize! All we needed to pay for were the return flights.
Being in mid-April, we were a little concerned as to what the weather would be like. Would there still be snow in the mountains? We arrived in Barcelona to blazing sunshine! Following our prolonged wet winter, I was happy to spend some time chilling in the sun waiting for the transfer bus. We were soon on our way to the chalet “Mouli del Riu” within the hamlet of Le Mouli, on the edge of the village and ski station of Saint Pierre dels Forcats. Luckily it is well known that this area has the highest sunshine record in the whole of France. We built our bikes on arrival then enjoyed a delicious 4 course meal with drinks and wine.
Day 1 was predominantly downhill starting from the chalet. A chilly start but we soon warmed up as we headed down the valley. The trails were amazing – dry, dusty and rocky tech with loam and rooty forest sections. After a quick coffee-stop outside the local thermal baths we headed off up a steep climb joining onto a loose rubbly fire-road. We were very surprised to get passed by a Renault Twingo, sprayed in multi-splash paint, carrying a double mattress on their roof. Needless to say it got stuck! A super fun descent lead us to our packed lunch then a long steady climb before a fantastic long descent; mainly rocky tech with steep sections, exposed ridges and tight, twisty switch-backs. We finished at a café for a drink before we were taken back to the chalet.
Day 2 started further down the valley and was an enduro loop used at one of the local races. It was a lot warmer here as we were considerably lower than the accommodation, which sits at 1500m. None of us Brits on the holiday were used to the heat seeing as it was still freezing at home, and the long ascent in the middle of the day in the direct sun was a shock to the system. We all crawled into the shade at the top. The descents were ace, full of technical features to keep you smiling the whole way down. You had to take it easy on the blind bends though as it was so exposed in places; you might just head off the side of the cliff if you didn’t brake in time!
Day 3 was an uplift day. We rode the local trail just behind the chalet a few times so we could improve on our lines. Then we made a long descent down the valley before stopping for lunch. Afterwards we focussed on 1 descent with van uplifts. Our guide, Ian, hung his go-pro in various trees and filmed and photographed us coming down technical sections. Later that evening we watched the clips and he provided some advice on our body positioning.
Day 4 was rest day. We took the uncovered tourist train down to the fortified town of Villefranche-de-Conflent. This mountain railway (the highest electrified train in Europe) is a spectacular journey with stunning views the whole way. After lunch we headed back up stopping off at the thermal spas. The area is famous for its thermals where the water comes out of the ground at 40 degrees. A great relaxing rest day!
Day 5 we attempted to ride a trail that was accessed by going through a shooting range. Unfortunately, they’d changed the opening times and it was shut but our guide had an amazing plan B up his sleeve and showed us some more awesome trails. In the afternoon we were the first group to try out a new trail he’d recently found with huge views, techy terrain with some fast flat out sections too.
Day 6 was another enduro day. We headed up towards the ski resort from the chalet. The trails were in the forest so were loamy and rooty. However, there were still patches of snow around so there were a few sketchy places and we ended up pushing through deep snow on the transitions.
Ben, from MTB Strength Factory, had come on the trip to give us advice on training and nutrition. Before every ride he would lead a series of warm up exercises to get our muscles warmed up before we started a long day on our bikes. Then in the evening after hot showers, we would have a stretching session. After our 4 course evening meals we would be given a talk by Ben on one of his subjects, these would include Sprint training, Recovery and Nutrition which proved invaluable advice for me as I knew I was never eating the right foods at the right time on race day.
Altitude Adventure is owned and run by Ian and Angela. Their passion is mountain biking and they offer a variety of holidays to suit all needs. They also run their chalet during the winter to offer a base to explore the local Pyrenean ski resorts. The food was delicious – a continental breakfast, a packed lunch, afternoon tea and cake and a 4 course evening meal. We really had a fantastic holiday. Awesome trails, great guiding, lovely food and superb hospitality.
The Tet Valley, in the Pyrénées-Orientales region of southern France, has the feel of a place lost in time. Scattered with abandoned villages and ancient forts, it's as if humans have progressively given up on these harsh mountains over the centuries. Many of the settlements that remain are perched high on steep mountainsides where they were originally positioned to defend against foreign invaders. Although the villages now have road access – the scariest cliff-edge roads you’ll ever drive on — historically they were only accessible via a network of packhorse trails. Last year, on a trip to Punta Ala in Italy (MBUK 306), we discovered that these routes make great mountain bike trails. This is because they follow the path of least resistance – not too steep, not too flat and, importantly for a flowing trail, not too tight in the corners. They’re also filled with natural berms and rock gardens thanks to centuries of erosion. Nine years ago Ian Pendry and his wife Angela stumbled across this forgotten Pyreneen valley and came to a similar conclusion.
Armed with a chainsaw and axe and with the blessing of local villagers, Ian, Ange and a crew of local riders set about clearing the ancient trails through the mountains, many of which had been impassable for centuries, to create a unique backcountry mountain biking experience. The result is some of the best singletrack on the planet. What makes the mountain biking in the Tet Valley unique is that it combines the coastal riding and weather (300 days of sunshine a year!) of Italian spots like Finale Ligure with braking-bump free high-alpine descents to produce the best of both worlds. We were blown away by our visit. Tet offensive Riding out the back door of the Altitude Adventure farmhouse we were straight into our first descent of the day – Saint Pierre to Olette via St Thomas les Bains, aka Indiana Jones and the Ridge of Doom. It was a baptism of fire as we wound our way down hairpin bends and along loamy forest paths that probably only a few hundred mountain bikers have ever had the privilege to ride.
After five minutes of rapid descent our guide Ian pulled over to the side of the track, flatteringly assuming that we might want to take the lead so as not to be held back. Ian was super-fast and not many would be able to put time into him on his own singletrack. Like all not-so-humble pros with a reputation to uphold, we acted nonchalant, as if to imply, “Sure we could go way faster if we wanted to, but we’re happy chilling”. But I could tell from my brother Sam and our Pro Ride teammate Joe Rafferty's faces that they were really thinking, “I’m pushing to keep up with this crazy dude and no way am I taking a blind lead on trails that at any moment will probably be exposed to a 100ft ravine or some other feature worth knowing about!” We continued on down and the track plateaued in some loamy pine woods, providing a welcome opportunity to lay off the brakes and deathgrip the bars as we hurtled onwards. After a kilometre of high speed, relatively simple trail we shot back out into the open. It was as if within 20m we'd been teleported to a totally different hillside – the loam ended, the gradient steepened and we transitioned into an arid, rocky landscape. We could see Ian adopt the attack position as he disappeared round a blind bend so we did the same, braced to take on whatever hidden dangers lay before us. Chill time was over.
Split-second switchbacks Hurtling down a cascade of rocks we were thrown into a tight right-hander followed by a loose left-hand natural berm. Then it was right, left, right and back into a gnarly rock section, trying to keep our speed under control while maintaining enough pace to let the wheels skip over holes. A rocky traverse was followed by a succession of switchbacks so tight that the only way to get around was to set up on the brakes, then flick your hips and let off the brakes at just the right moment. This proved risky though, with a split-second difference in timing deciding whether you were left feeling like a hero or folding the front wheel and eating dirt! Sam was smashing the switchbacks with almost mechanical precision, leaving the following riders in a hail of roost. When the trail finally ended we were pumped. Cue high fives, fist pumps and repeated exclamations of “That was sick!’. Waiting at - the bottom was our shuttle to take us up to the next descent. The uplift road was mental. Just wide enough for a car, it skirted a near vertical hillside, sometimes with a scattering of trees for protection and sometimes nothing at all. Wondering whether anyone had ever gone off the road, we were soon given an answer in the form of an old car hanging perilously in the trees.
The roads may be sketchy but they’re so efficient at climbing the mountains that we soon arrived at the next trail. Named the Descent to Olette and 12km in length with 1,3oom of vertical descent, it’s one of the better known routes among local mountain bikers. It was completely different to what we'd ridden so far – a broad, sandy packhorse trail with gentle bends, naturally bermed corners and super-rocky straights. This was one of those tracks where there's no natural speed limit and the faster you go, the better it rides. Joe was totally pinned through the flat turns, two-wheel drifting around every bend. Bombing down a 400m rocky straight dodging boulders and navigating small kinks in the path, my Santa Cruz Nomad was in its element. It was a battle between the bike tempting me to go faster and a voice in my head saying: “If you come off at this speed you’re going to be in a world of pain!” When we finally got to the bottom Ian told us we'd only ridden the bottom third of the trail because the top two-thirds were still above the snow line. After three days of solid riding, encompassing terrain from the snow line of Saint Pierre all the way to the smooth beachside Valmy trails of Argelès-sur-Mer, Ian said we'd ridden fewer than five per cent of his tracks. We’ll be back!
Most people are perfectly capable of taking themselves off for a walk in the countryside, but have you ever considered what you might be missing?
Do you sometimes wish you could find out the origins of a church you’ve passed, or be able to name that familiar wildflower and butterfly? Or more seriously have you ever got lost, got caught out in a thunderstorm or after dark unintentionally? All the more reason to hire a qualified guide, an International Mountain Leader (IML) or ‘Accompagnateur’.
An IML’s job is not only to keep you on the right Mountain Guides and Left Handed squirrelstrack, but also to animate your walk. They ensure your outing will be suitable with the current mountain conditions and is a suitable and safe itinerary for the walkers. Their training is a rigorous process based on experience in the hills and mountains, balanced with a knowledge of the environment that they are in. Their role as your guide is not only to provide you with confidence and ensure your safety, but also for you to go home having been entertained and enlightened about the area you were in.
You may have your favourite walk locally to where you live, but why not go further afield, when you’ve got family or friends coming to stay for example? Get out and up into the mountains and explore new areas of the P.O . You can do so with expert guidance and knowledge of the local guides.
Over the coming winter months you can discover a whole new Mountain Guides and Left Handed squirrelswinter wonderland. Walking in the snow really does highlight how much wildlife surrounds you. Your guide will be able to show you tracks and other animal signs. The winter scenery really can be brought to life by those ‘in the know’.
How about trying out more than just an ordinary walk? Snowshoeing has become a popular pastime of the French ‘randonneur’ (walker) It may sound like strenuous exercise to some, but really can be as relaxed as you like. Historically, wooden shaped rackets with a rawhide lattice were attached to your shoes to distribute your weight over a larger area so your foot didn’t sink completely into the snow. Nowadays they’re made of lightweight metal or plastic with a ‘claw’ that digs into the snow to give you security and grip. With the aid of walking poles it’s easy to master the technique.
Did you know you can tell if a squirrel is left or right handed just from the way it has eaten a pine cone? The difference between the way a finch or a tit eats a hazelnut? How to tell the difference between hare and fox tracks in the snow? An IML can tell you all this!
We were climbing, still climbing. It felt like we had been climbing all day.
It was now 6:30pm and we had been riding since 8:30am.
People always ask us what we do with our time off. We explore, we answer. We test trails and ideas. As guides you are only as good as the trails you offer. So there we were still heading up at 6:30pm into the mountains on a new trail, heading for a pass through the ridge facing us and hoping to find a classic descent.
We started the morning at the foot of Canigou, day two of a three day test ride. Our aim was to ride from the summits of the Pyrenees to the sea. Since then we had climbed for three and a half hours to the Col de Cortalets, half descended one path to re-climb and descend another, half on the bike half carrying (not good after all the effort), been amazed by the kindness of the peoples house we had knocked on in the desperate search for water, climbed some more, discovered an amazing abandoned iron ore railway high in the mountains and an incredible single-track descent into Amelie le Bains.
Now we were en-route to a tiny hamlet on the French Spanish border famous as the crossing point of the last remaining Presidents of the Spanish Republic escaping at the end of the civil war in 1939. Las Illas was our destination and it was proving elusive and distant. Firstly we had to get over this Col and it was breaking us. The day was turning into a true epic.
Our group was small, always best on exploration trips. It consisted of two great friends of ours, Ian Mills and Manolo Herencia. Millsy is a guide and trail whippet, a friend from way back and over for a holiday. Having had his own guiding company in Chamonix for five years he knows the value of exploration and like a true trail junkie he can't get enough. Manolo is a local. Born and bred in the Pyrenees Orientales he is a true mountain man and a good friend. Wiry, tough and always smiling, a good guy for an epic. Angela and I live here permanently. We run our business based on the quality of our trails and our knowledge of the area. This is our life, love and business. We are passionate about the mountains and with our two girls safely in the hands of their grand parents we had the time for more exploring. So, when people ask us what we do with our time off, we smile.
We had started the journey from our base at Saint Pierre dels Forcats the day before. Sitting at a height of 1550m in the Pyrenees we have a view down the Tet valley to the sea. It had always seemed like a good idea to try to link a bunch of epic trails from the summits to the sea. A route was planned and the gites booked. Three days of trail riding and we should arrive at the coast.
Day one was no picnic. An early start and some fantastic flowing and technical single-track lead us down to St Thomas. The welcoming hot springs were passed and we climbed for the first time in the morning cool to pick up the sinuous path descending through the scrub to Olette. A quick coffee and chat with the friendly bar owners saw us heading up again with the memory of them shaking their heads at our plan and refusing our money for the coffees. They really did think we had lost the plot this time. A two hour grinding climb in 35degree heat saw us up onto the valley ridge again and lunch was taken facing a magnificent view of Canigou and next to a refreshing spring fed cattle trough. The afternoon passed in a blur of twisting rocky single-track and a huge descent which delivered us to Villefranche de Conflent nestled at the foot of two valleys. A cool beer was followed by a last road climb to our first overnight stop in the pretty mountain village of Fillols. Day one was done and the trip already had the makings of a classic with 52km ridden, 1520m climbed and 2310m descended. Not a bad days work.
So here we were at 6:30pm and still climbing on a seemingly never ending mountain pass. The problem was that we needed to get to Las Illas to keep our places in the gite and in time to eat in the restaurant. Small mountain restaurants are notorious for closing early on the French side of the border.
Ange and Manolo had cracked. They were all out on their feet, so Millsy and I were dispatched to get there and order food. We rode into the evening, through the changing forest. Pine was replaced by oak and beech, but we barely noticed in our fatigued state. The descent to Las Illas was cruel. False flats ground us down, but we had arrived at last. Some quick begging gained the others enough time to arrive and shower and so two very tired bodies rolled in at 8:30pm knowing they would at least be fed. Banter at the meal was minimal, questions referring to who's stupid idea the days stage was softened with the realisation of achievement after a few glasses of the local red had eased the muscle ache. We would sleep well.
Stats of an epic day- 83km of new trail discovered and ridden, nearly 3500m of climbing and descending including one partial descent re-climbed as it became evident it was impossible with bikes!
And so, on to the last day.
Another scorcher. Tired muscles were warmed up with a steep climb into the beech forest and on towards the border crossing town of Le Perthus. We rolled on, past the Roman and Napoleonic forts into the border town, showing how important this passage was and still is. Leaving the town behind our last major obstacle faced us like a wall. In the growing heat of the day we wound our way up through oak scrub and back into beech and pine to the Col de Ullat and onto the Alberes ridge. The Alberes ridge marks not only the border between France and Spain, but also the final projection of the Pyrenees into the Mediterranean sea. With a spectacular path running along the ridge at 1000m it offers views over the plain of Perpignan and for a vast distance up the curving coastline. This path leads you onwards until you seem to be out over the sea and it lends itself to offering a number of spectacular final descents to the coast. We had elected to test the path down a long ridge, past the "Tour de Macana" and down to exit at a spectacular chateau and vineyard at Valmy. This final two hour plunge had us twisting and turning on superb technical single-track until it deposited us at the chateau and only 500m from the beach.
After a leisurely swim amongst the slightly bemused beachgoers we retired to the shade of a beachside bar for a well earned cold beer and the inevitable questions from the inquisitive barman. The French really do love their cycling!
You can follow in the efforts of our exploration. Altitude Adventure offers the "Summit to Sea" adventure trip as part of a week long holiday. The trip now take 5 days allowing a bit more time to discover the magnificent scenery and enjoy the amazing singletrack.
Jeremy Wright gets an insider guide from Altitude Adventure to the little known Neiges Catalanes in the French Pyrenees... " The real beauty was in having such knowledgeable hosts. Whether pounding down the longest off-piste route in the Pyrenees at the Espace Cambre D'Aze, relaxing with a flask of hot chocolate and rum in natural hot springs, or searching for wolf tracks as we snowshoed behind the hotel, we always felt we were being let into a special, secret world."
"Unlocking a secret world" by The Daily Express
Mouli del Riu, 66210, St Pierre dels Forcats, France.