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!
Jonny Richards reports on Font Romeu and the Neiges Catalanes area... "If you're bored of queues, bend-over prices and hellish transfer demands of the French Alps, this historic area might just be the answer". "The friendly helpful locals are the antithesis of their alpine compatriots". "This resort encapsulates all that is good about the Pyrenees, with deserted pistes, more sunshine than any other French ski Destination (over 3000 hrs last season) and a town centre packed with more old school charm than Nigel Havers. In tweed."