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.
Altitude Adventure is based in the ski station of St Pierre dels Forcats (altitude 1550m), just across the valley from Font Romeu, in the Neiges Catalanes ski area, one of France’s well-kept secrets. With over 300km of pistes, 8 snowparks, a variety of off-piste to suite all abilities and 288km of cross country skiing this area has everything you need for a great ski holiday.
We provide comfortable and spacious accommodation for a classic chalet style holiday in the French Pyrenees. With a lack of large hotels and commercial tour operators the area is superb for those looking for a different style of ski holiday. Outside of French school holidays the whole area is amazingly quiet giving fantastic un-crowded skiing.
The Neiges Catalanes lift pass covers all the 9 resorts in the Cerdagne and Capcir valleys, or individual resort lift passes can be purchased daily. Equipment hire can be arranged locally.
Home resort to the “Mouli” the 4 person chair is only 300m away. Between the villages of St Pierre dels Forcats and Eyne rises the Cambre D’Aze mountain. This area holds piste skiing that (although not the biggest) is widely regarded as the best in the area. The area has 25 pistes with 2 blacks, 7 reds, 4 blues and 12 greens. Off-piste is mainly in the trees and requires a reasonable level of competence. See their website.
Font Romeu, Pyrenees 2000
Font Romeu is the most famous town in this area. Bright lights, big city it isn’t, but it retains more charm than your average alpine resort whilst providing all the amenities that you need. The ski area is linked to the resort of Pyrenees 2000 and gives meaning to the phrase “intermediates playground” with 8 blacks, 8 reds, 9 blues, 9 greens and a snowpark. See their website.
This is a great ski area with plenty to keep all standards of skiers and boarders interested. The station features good shopping and amenities in the village whilst the pistes are well developed and cared for. There are 2 blacks, 16 reds, 5 blues, 6 greens and a huge snow park. The off -piste in the trees is challenging whilst never being far from a piste. See their website.
A really nice little station a couple of minutes above the village giving good intermediate skiing and boarding, with fantastic off-piste in the trees on the upper section. Formigueres features 1 black, 6 reds, 8 blues, 4 greens and a small snowpark. See their website.
At the head of the Capcir valley above the village of Rieutort sits this station. See their website.
A small station with a couple of pistes and a snow park. On the opposite side of the road is the small airport which is one of the sites for snow-kiting. See their website.
The furthest station from us covered by the area pass, Porte is on the French side of the pass to Pass De La Casa in Andorra. A good variety of pistes are on offer in a spectacular setting at the head of the valley. It offers 3 blacks, 4 reds, 5 blues, 5 greens and a good size snow park. See their website.
Spain and Andorra
Not included in the Neiges Catalanes pass are the Spanish resorts of La Molina and Massella and the Andoran resorts in the Pass De La Casa area but which are all in day trip distance (with a small fuel charge) if you run out of things to do!!
Here come the girls! Ella and Shawna (9 and 7yrs) show how it should be done in the trees. (published 24th Nov 2009)
Depending on flight times it is sometimes possible to ride on the arrival or departure day.
Wednesday is a day off from guiding. Clients are welcome to make the most of our home "Enduro" tracks, built by ourselves and waymarked for your pleasure right behind our base at "The Mouli" or you can use the day as an opportunity to try canyoning, via ferrata or just relaxing in one of the local hot springs!
10% discount for bookings of 8 or more riders.
From 2018 onwards the format for our "Adventure Trails" trips have changed a little. We have taken the best of the old "Adventure Trails" and blended it with the best of the old "Gravity Enduro" trips to bring you this new and awesome format. Enough climbing to remind you that you are "trail riders" but with more uplift than before to get even more value from the incredible trail network and mountains that we have available to us. Not a shuttling holiday, just more access to bigger and better descents!
This area which takes in the Cerdagne and Capcir valleys is singletrack heaven and lends itself perfectly to classic trail riding with about 400km of marked VTT trails and endless unmarked trails - that's where our local knowledge comes in. We live here permanently and work with the locals on developing the trail network. We know routes to suit everyone from short steady rides to epic downhill adventures adventures. Due to the shape of the valleys and the height of the plateau we have an amazing variety of trails on offer, from singletrack descents of awesome proportions, alpine bike parks and all day rides which are truly epic. With singletrack descents of over 20km available to play on, you are sure to finish every day with a huge grin.
We tailor each week to the group's desires and capabilities. To get the most out of our trips we recommend that a good standard of mountain biking skills in natural rocky singletrack terrain is needed. An ability to comfortably ride red and black Welsh and Scottish trail centre trails is good, but we are riding natural singletrack! You should be comfortable riding all day for multiple days to get the most out of your trip. This venue is not ideal for beginner riders.
We recommend that riders wear knee pads as a minimum on the descents as the trails are rocky! other protection is at the riders discretion.
What we do on our guided rides is up to you. We use our transport to give you the most "funtime" we can riding a selection of the best trails in our local area. We don’t set out with a specific plan at the beginning of the week. We will make the best use of the massive variety of trails available to us to ensure that each day gives great riding and a different perspective on the area. Our aim is simply to take you somewhere you may not have found without us. We know the area inside out, where to stop for lunch, where the good views are, where the next drinks stop is. Whilst on the trails we often use our years of experience to help clients improve their riding skills in real world situations. For example if you would like to know how to really attack hairpins/switchbacks then we have the knowledge and trails to help you perfect them.
To give a flavour of what is on offer below are details of a few of our favourites.
The Madre Madness
The definitive "all mountain" epic. To give you an idea of the locals’ view of this mountain, the Madre translates as "the murderer". To us it provides an all-day ride of epic proportions. Climbing 700m on both fire road and mountain singletrack (with a couple of portages thrown in for good measure) gets us to the summit of the Madre at 2469m. An exciting "passage" gives us access to the lunch spot with incredible 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and all the way down to the Mediterranean. We then start the 25km of trail back down into the valley with over 2200m of descent to reach Olette. The trail varies from rock strewn mountainside to buff flat out singletrack on an old packhorse trail and really is something not to be missed.
Circuit of the Galbe
A classic big mountain day which defines the term "Mountain Biking". This ride has it all. Fantastic scenery, a big climb and an amazing 1100m singletrack descent. We start at the Ski station of Formigueres and climb up and over the Serra de Mauri (2412m) before descending to a well-earned coffee stop at the beautiful Refuge de Camporells. Another climb then leads to the famous Estany de Diable (the devils lake) where we stop for lunch and then start our descent. 1100m of the finest mountain singletrack you will ever ride leads us back down to the valley floor and a well-deserved beer at the bar in Formigueres to finish. An epic day out!
The Border Crossing
Possibly the hardest one-day ride you will ever do! A true epic in every sense, the border crossing starts with a very tough two hour climb followed by a portage to reach the summit of the highest mountain on the border ridge (Puigmal 2910m). That is the easy part done, now for the descent. 2000m of all mountain trail descent to test even the best riders’ bike handling skills and nerve. The trail descends for 23km back into France passing the famous mountain sanctuary of Nuria before plunging into the ravine of Llo. After approximately 3 hours of descending we bottom out at the town of Saillagouse for a well-earned beer and a van transfer back to the Mouli. Due to the nature of the descent which is at least extreme and more, we do not offer this trail to everybody.
The Border Crossing 2 Aka "The Ying and the Yang"
This trail has rapidly become our firm favourite. Only accessible when the telecabine at La Molina is working it is well worth the effort. After a spectacular uplift to 2400m we crank up the last 150m under our own steam and at this altitude and steepness this small section packs a punch. That done the stunning view from the summit of the Tossa De Alp makes it all worthwile and the knowledge of what is to come gets the adrenaline pumping. From here we fly down an ever changing trail of your fantasies. Plummeting and flowing towards the valley floor 15km below with 2000m of drop gives you plenty of time to reflect on the majesty of the mountains we are in. But just remember, it is always better to be stopped when you are admiring the scenery to avoid becoming part of it!
The Descent To Olette
Check out the video of this descent below.
This is the classic local ride with our own special trail added on to make it even better. We start the ride from "the Mouli" crossing the valley to Mont Louis and then climbing up through the Commando firing range (keep your head down!!). Once up we stop for lunch with a spectacular view across the valley towards the border ridge, before starting the descent. What a trail! The descent starts at just shy of 2000m at the Serre de Clavera and we drop 1400m (about 12km) all on amazing singletrack (including our own cleared trail named 007 as it is a well kept secret) to finish at the bar in Olette. This is a favorite of everyone and people come back again and again just to ride it.
Named after one of the local Pyrenean semi-wild sheepdogs which took a liking to one of our friends (if you know what I mean), this trail cruises up hill and down dale through some stunning scenery giving a 3ish hour ride on trail which leaves you amazed at its quality. A steady climb from the village of Angoustrine gets you up to the start of the first descent which is a technical affair weaving its way down through rounded granite boulders until your arms are as pumped as your legs. You pop out into the village of Dorres with its Roman hot baths before starting a challenging singletrack climb to the “Chapel de Santa Maria”, perched in a beautiful location overlooking the Cerdagne valley. From here we cruise on some wild singletrack past ancient farmsteads to the top of the descent down to La Tour de Carol on the pass to Andorra. This descent is a mixture of hairpins and flowing trail letting you really open it up. When we hit the bottom we pick up one of the many irrigation canals that traverse the hillsides for some exciting riding back to the awaiting van.
The Cami Ramader
Once the drovers way up the valley of Evol this trail now offers an incredible one hour, seat of you pants descending trail. The "Cami Ramader" is just the last piece of this big day out which features big climbs, amazing scenery and a heap of singletrack. We normally run this trail from an uplifted start to reduce the climbing required from 2 hours to 1, but it is still a beast of a day out and worth every ounce of sweat!
The Roca Foradada
The Roca Foradada translates from Catalan to "the rock with a hole in it ". On this day we jump in the vans for a quick hop over the border into Spain and head up into the Sierra de Cadi range. A change of rock gives us scenery made up of huge limestone cliffs littered with old drovers and miners trails. A climbing start gets us warmed up for a fun rolercoaster trail to and past "The Roca Foradada" then under the spectacular headwall of the "Cadi". The second part of the day traverses under the cliffs climbing to our high point before we connect into the highlight of the day. Over an hour of undulating then descending singletrack sees us flying along one of the spurs coming out from the main cliff and descending back down to the town of Bellver over 1000m below.
These are just a few of the trails you might try in any one week. There are many more on offer - we estimate we could ride for 3 weeks without repeating a trail!
Just a quick note to say thank you once again for a memorable holiday last week. The trails are truly amazing and the overall mountain biking experience was topped off by the fantastic hospitality you extended to us. There were a lot of glum faces on the plane home!