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.
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."