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.
Ben Plenge for those of you not in the know is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the top fitness coaches in the business. Ben trains many of the UKs top young riders including Chris Hutchens, Veronique Sandler and Charlie Hatton amongst a host of top riders. As an integral part of the Enduro Training camp Ben organises the mornings warm up, the evening stretch session and daily talks on a variety of subjects from strength training to nutrition. Some of the best and most current training advice on the planet....
Rider protection normally used for racing is recommended. For these trips we recommend all riders have a high level of natural mountainous singletrack riding ability plus understanding of Bike Park riding and wear rider protection. Full face helmets and back protectors are obligatory in the bike parks. Trail riding protection is strongly advised for natural trail days. This trip is aimed at those already racing or those who wish to race Enduro.
Full face helmet recommended for when practice racing on the Enduro circuits
Come and join us riding in the spring sunshine on dry trails to give your season the perfect boost.
Profit from our extensive race experience in your preparation for the coming season. With Angela having over ten years racing experience on the XC world cup circuit and Ian having raced at a World cup level in both XC and DH, plus having been the Scott UK team manager for 10 years you can gain hugely from our knowledge base.
Ben from The Mountain Bike Strength Factory is one of the best fitness and strength coaches in the business. He will be giving evening talks on physical preparation, fitness and strength training, nutrition and much more.
We know the local Enduro scene as well as anyone as we still race in the the Catalan Enduro series, the MaxiAvalanche and the Regional Enduro Trophy series. We spend the week riding on two of the local Gravity Enduro race circuits used in the Pyrenean Championships and on other carefully selected trails sure to get your speed and flow going.
Not sure if this is the right area to get yourself up to speed? This is the region where some of the fastest Flying Frenchies from the Enduro World Series live and train, so expect those Strava KOM's to be hard to get. On the other hand what better way to see how you are progressing!
Friday. Arrrive Barcelona airport. Pickup and transfer to "the Mouli"
Saturday. Acclimatisation day on the local trails. Expect long descents with lots of technical riding. Stretching session. Evening talk by Ben.
Sunday. Switch countries to Spain for some classic Enduro trails in the sun. Only a short drive but well worth it! Stretching session. Evening talk by Ben.
Monday. Video analysis day. We will ride a series of Enduro trails and video critical sections to help you improve your trail flow. Stretching session. Evening talk by Ben.
Tuesday. The Pain Train.... Need we say more. Fun and frolics to put the pressure on! Stretching session. Evening talk by Ben.
Wednesday. Some loooong drops to work on that endurance. Stretching session. Evening talk by Ben.
Thursday. Mini Enduro. Shuttle runs with some timed sections to spice things up :) Stretching session. Evening talk by Ben.
What a week, frankly one of the best experiences I've had since starting mountain biking. The Enduro training week proved the perfect blend of fun, holiday, testing trails and a great group. Attitude Adventure put together a week of trails and slick organisation, that I am still getting the buzz from. Ben at MTB Strength Factory proved the icing on an already great cake. His pre-ride flexibility sessions, energy and passion on the rides, pre-dinner stretch sessions (a real benefit and always a laugh) and after dinner talks about energy management, recovery, nutrition etc. I found massively insightful. I would not only recommend this week to anyone who is serious about Enduro racing, but I have already reserved a place next year. Great stuff, well done. - Keven
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.