There are a lot of places in the European mountains that, while known for snowsports, so far remain undeveloped for mountain biking. Barney goes off-the-beaten-uplift with his family, to find marmosets (sorry, he actually found marmots – Ed), churches, roadies, and singletrack.
It’s always something of a pipe-dream for those of us who are into mountain bikes but have also been graced with small children – a holiday that can balance entertaining tots with a spot of mountain biking. Of course, for many folks the idea of taking your kids on a mountain biking holiday might be somewhat less preferable than a cheesegrater pedicure to the strains of Celine Dion, but perforce, if you have kids then at least once or twice you should attempt to humour them by taking them somewhere nice. You know, so you can admire the scenery and enjoy the beach in the brief moments between ice-cream overconsumption and prodigious vomiting.
Any attempt to escape in such circumstances is usually done covertly, perhaps with a large floppy hat and dark glasses, as you slope to the bar and pretend, unsuccessfully, that you’re one of the locals while your other half tears their hair out.
But, gentle reader, there is another way! So metaphorically put the kids to bed, throw a couple of Sangrias at the other half as a peace offering, and come with me. On holiday. With my kids…
Yeah, it seemed like such a good idea at the time. Eurocamp was keen for someone to investigate the possibility of their cabins from a mountain-bikey perspective, and we thought it’d be fun to take the kids along too – what could possibly go wrong? The issue now became how to get two small children, an understandably sceptical wife, luggage, bikes, enough tools and me there without the aftermath resembling something from HR Giger’s previously unseen mashup between Alien, Saw and Playschool. How easy is it to sneak a ride or two in when the kids are there? Can it be done without discord and marital strife? Can five year olds really rip like Brandon Semenuk? All or some of these questions will be answered!
Eurocamp had generously generously suggested a choice of venues, two of their more mountainous resorts. One in Switzerland and the other in the French Pyrenees, both popular with roadies, but which might also fit the bill from a mountain biking perspective. The Swiss one had many advantages – it was slightly closer, for a start, which is always going to be a factor when you’re travelling with two small children – but the main issue was the fact that apparently that region of Switzerland is rather – uh – inflexible when it comes to mountain biking on the local hiking trails. In many mountainous areas of Europe, there’s a certain amount of lassitude afforded to bikes in the mountains; in others, the rules are more abundant and enforced somewhat more vigorously…
Luz St Sauveur is well-known in roadie circles as a good base for both the Col de Tourmalet and Hautacam HC category climbs – there’s clearly plenty of potential for some fine mountain biking, and Eurocamp’s Airotel Pyrenees site is a mere few hundred metres from the site – perfect. In the next valley over there’s a mountain bike park, and it’s close to Lourdes, for a spot of Hot Downhill Action. So the Pyrenees it was then!
Frozen at 35°C
Getting there, though… Now that’s something else. We elected to drive to Dover, catch the ferry to Calais, overnight at Eurocamp’s site in the Loire Valley and carry on the next day. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that this wasn’t perhaps the best move – the temperature was in the high thirties by the time we eventually got to the Loire Valley in the early evening, and the kids (two and five – kids are such excellent travellers at that age, no really) were more than a little crotchety. Our youngest got heat stroke on day 2, and frankly there’s only so many times I can hear the entire soundtrack to Frozen (thank god for in-car DVD players) before my brain turns to puree and I have to decide which ear to Let It Go from. For the record, no, I do not want to build a bloody snowman.
So, eventually, we wearily arrived in Aoritel Pyrenees and unloaded our stuff. We were staying in one of the mountain lodges – log cabin style affairs that sleep six in two bedrooms and a couple of beds on the mezzanine – which the kids immediately bagsied. Kitchen, shower, barbecue, and not too far from the pool. Ace. We hit the town for a spot of food, and to see what was what from a riding perspective.
My first day was spent covertly assessing the lay of the land while pretending to be Family Dad. We took a wander around the centre, I bought a couple of maps, found out where the bike shops were, and left wifey and the kids sampling cured sausage, cheese and coffee/pop (delete as applicable) while I explored.
Luz is used as a base for many people who are climbing the Tourmalet, so the place is thick with Lycra and the (mostly) middle-aged men inside of it. It was a surprise to see so few mountain bikers. The proprietor of the first bike shop I wandered into looked at me with Gallic incomprehension when I tried to ask for trail advice in my haltering French, and he pointed me to the tourist information building in the bus-station, which did, in fairness, have a selection of pamphlets they were inexplicably unwilling to let me have, and eventually I found my way to the Motherlode.
Ardiden Vélos, on the main street towards Lourdes, is run by a British couple, Matt and Nicolette Collins. They largely deal in a range of rental road bikes for folks who wish to tackle the Tourmalet or Hautacam but have neglected to bring their own riding iron with them. They do rent a few mountain bikes, but – much to my surprise – the demand really isn’t there for many. They were extremely helpful and knowledgeable, however (Matt in particular is a mountain biker himself), and pointed me towards Clement, a keen MTBing employee of the shop, who offered to show me around the next day.
Let the riding begin!
So at half eight the following morning, I hooked up with Clement, and thus we started the first of a couple of hellishly long climbs. But such is the way with mountain riding in many areas – this particular region or France is festooned with skilifts for the winter months, but I was informed that each one costs several thousand Euros per day to keep open. That unquestionably requires quite a lot of daily ski-passes. And it’s something of a catch-22 situation – without gravity-keen (or lazy, like me) riders there to pay for the lifts in the summer, there’s little incentive to open them. But without the lifts, there’s little incentive for riders to visit in far greater numbers.
Still, it’s good for the fitness to hit the odd climb. And this was definitely one of those. Most of the way up the Col de Tourmalet, as it turns out. Clement and his taut French buttocks carving away lithely up the hill; me and my flaccid British ones pillowing away somewhere further back. And after about nine years of climbing, once we turned off the main road, there was yet more of the uppy stuff to a (closed) ski station, and then a little more once again. In this way – the HARD way – we gained a substantial amount of altitude. The views are spectacular, of course. But what of the riding? Well, the proof of the particular several-trillion tonne stone pudding is in the trails. And they are really rather sublime, as you’d expect.
It’s always fun to watch a local carving their trails, and Clement is no exception. He’s clearly rather talented, despite this being his first time on a bike in six months thanks to a broken collarbone, as he effortlessly drifts his Lapierre around corners as I try to follow his lines. On some of the more damp technical sections he’s noticeably more skittish than I am on my redoubtable SantaCruz Hightower, and during a brief pause I cop a feel of his tyres. They’re pumped up drum tight, which also goes a little way to explaining his driftiness. I’m honestly not sure I could ride around a corner with tyres that solid; my respect for him only increases – but there’s no way I’m putting any more air in mine. He’s great fun to ride behind though. It’s rather like trying to emulate a ballet shoed dancer with a pair of steel toe-capped numbers. It’s never going to be pretty, but it’s fun to try. And it’s a lot safer if scaffolding falls on your feet.
We eventually exit, whooping, at Baréges (site of my first ever foreign mountain bike holiday in 1990 – Chipps), and decide to ride back up the road for another run along some different trails which will drop us much closer to Luz. These ones are rather more technical, and to my mind even more fun – many more precipitous switchbacks, some hilariously steep chutes, more blistering singletrack. We shoot through small mountain villages, dart off down almost imperceptible snickets (still laudably signposted, mind you) and find ourselves back in the town just before 2pm, to finish off with a quick beer. It’s hugely satisfying, and I’ve got the whole afternoon to re-build the Brownie Point collection to the point where I can close off again.
The afternoon is spent taking the kids swimming at the pool at the Airotel – because we were staying in the off season (May), two of the three pools (the outdoor ones) were closed, which just left us with the one, large, heated, indoor pool, which we had to ourselves – hardly a sacrifice – and potter around the town again.
There’s plenty of other stuff to do – from wandering round Templar churches (the region is festooned with stories about the Templars, of course) to molesting tame marmots in nearby Argèles-Gazost, and of course there’s always Lourdes nearby if you can handle the impressive number of tourists, pilgrims and Catholic souvenir tat. Or if you just want to steal a go on the World Cup track.
And what of that bike park in the next valley? Well, Cauterets boasts quite a few trails for a variety of riders, but once again the two lifts weren’t open. They’re only open for a few weeks from early July to early September in fact, again as there isn’t the traffic to open them for longer as lifts are so expensive to run.
And honestly, the area doesn’t seem to need the trade, as it’s full of roadies during the summer months in any case (if it’s your bag, the road riding is excellent, as you’d hope), so it doesn’t really commit to promoting the trails. That said, rumours abound that the Powers That Be are going to have another push at promoting mountain biking in the area, so watch this space.
If you fancy heading out for a spin with the family, there’s a disused repurposed railway offering all the flat tarmac you could wish for with a couple of little people in tow. We headed towards Lourdes from Argèles and were rewarded with spectacular views, smooth tarmac, quite a bit of OAP company and the odd café stop. It’s a fun way to spend a day, but if you’re riding with proper littluns it can get a bit exposed if the weather’s hot.
Overall, I think I managed a ride of some sort on three out of the five days we were there. The mountain biking is hard work, technical in places, fast as you like in others, extremely quiet and very rewarding indeed. The food is awesome, the location superb, and the views awesome. The kids had a great time (the marmot wrangling was apparently a highlight), my wife enjoyed herself and I’d chalk it up as a great success.
So was it worth it? Well, given that we’re looking at returning as soon as we can, I’d say yes. This sort of accommodation – a decent cabin, not far from the centre of town, with enough space for the kids to run around, and pools and what have you on site? Perfect. There wasn’t a moment when any of the family was bored, even when the selfish decided to escape from it all on the bike. The only thing I’d look at doing differently next time would be the travel. My two kids suffered on the way down (although the way back was easier, as it was cooler), and I think I’d look at getting the boat to Bilbao next time. It may be pricey, but I think it’d be worth it.
We stayed at the Airotel Pyrenees, a ten-minute walk from the town. This Eurocamp site has a wide range of accommodation, from bare campsites, through safari tents, mobile home style cabins all the way through to the mountain lodges which we stayed in. Each unit accommodates up to six people. There are two outdoor pool complexes, one with a couple of water slides, and one indoor pool with a sauna and Jacuzzi – this last was the only one open when we visited in May; the others are open from the middle of June when the temperature heats up. There are also a couple of playgrounds for the kids, and a small climbing wall. We’re told there’s also a disco from the beginning of July to the end of August, and other entertainments besides – but if you get there off season as we did there’s plenty to do in the town itself, as we found.
There’s a small shop selling bread and essentials on the site itself if you’re so bleary-eyed in the morning you can’t bring yourself to walk a few hundred metres to Luz, and there’s also a laundry for washing those foetid cycling clothes and whatever the kids may have thrown up on. There are even irons available if you really need to maintain those knife-sharp trouser creases when you’re on holiday…
For more information, see here: https://www.eurocamp.co.uk/campsites/pyrenees/py011-airotel-pyrenees/ataglance.html
Bike shop – Ardiden Velos bike shop: http://ardidenvelos.com Road and mtb rental, local knowledge and lovely English speaking staff.
Restaurant – Le Txoco: http://www.letxoko-luz.fr/en/ It’s a bar, restaurant, pizzeria and bowling alley. What more do you need? Try the Tartiflette Burger – omnomnomnom. There are loads of other restaurants, of course, and places to drink and eat cheese and buy cheese… cheese…
Marmot molestation came courtesy of the Parc Animilier Des Pyrenees: http://parc-animalier-pyrenees.com – a totally non bikey, but very entertaining zoo. Marmot feeding/squeezing is a highlight if you’re small I’m assured.
There’s a Carrefour supermarket nearby if you’re cooking at your cabin, as we did frequently.
Barney’s accommodation and ferry crossing were provided by Eurocamp.