Singletrack Magazine Issue 116: Spineology

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Pete Scullion takes on an alpine ridge ride with the most serious of consequences, and the greatest of rewards. 

Words & Photography: Pete Scullion

Above two and a half thousand metres my body starts to wonder what I am doing to it. I was used to this by now, after a long week chasing Ben Jones and his pals around the French-Italian border. We’d topped out only days previously on what Ben held firm was “the best trail in the world”, and, while it certainly had everything you could want from a trail, including a spent 8in artillery shell, there was one trail that left me utterly speechless before we’d even turned a pedal.

After a long, sweaty climb out of the valley below, switchbacks making this tough ascent only marginally less hard work on tired legs, I could see Ben, Nash, Rich and Kate beckoning me from a tall spine of bright white limestone. The stone here looked almost like icing, nothing like the limestone of the tall, jagged peaks above. “You’ve got to see this,” insisted Ben. Ben had been here before though, I thought to myself… this must be something very special. As I made the last few steps to the summit, a cool two and a half kilometres above the deck, all I could see was a narrow ridge, pockmarked with sinkholes of all sizes. What really drew my eye though, was the thread of singletrack that wound its way delicately between them. 

In places the ridge widened, but only relatively, and moved away from the lip of a cool, dark sinkhole but, for the most part, handlebars would be wider than the terra firma beneath them. Being big fans of massive landscapes and even bigger skies, it was some time before we were moving. The boney nature of the ridge ahead gave panoramic views as far as the eye could see. Glaciers could be seen twinkling in the hot September sun, and the 1,600-mile drive here didn’t seem quite so ridiculous now. 

The holy trinity: ham, cheese and Haribo.

Our journey to this pinnacle of trail perfection had started an hour or two earlier, after first collecting, naturally, the French staples of ham, cheese and Haribo. With the essentials on board, we began a hikeabike climb that would take over an hour from where we were nestled in the base of a deep, narrow valley. Above us we could see eagles circling lazily on early afternoon thermals and hear the ‘cheep’ of marmots echoing off the bright white limestone. 

As anyone who has ventured beyond the bike parks in the Alps to some hiking trails knows, there is plenty to distract the mind from the upward slog – especially as the air thins and the body’s cry to stop becomes stronger. Butterflies of all shapes and sizes flit between alpine flowers and sweaty arms when we stop to wheeze more oxygen into the lungs. The eagles that looked big from below, seen now from our lunch stop, were massive – large enough to whisk me off the mountain without too much effort.

Washed out and rutted is the walkers’ path that led us ever higher, and being not much over the five-foot mark, I was struggling to get the bike high enough to clear the ground. As my company strode ahead, I was left to swear at myself for maybe burning the candle at both ends a touch too hard, knowing how much I struggle at altitude. Ben, Rich and Nash were clearly not that fussed, soon making themselves small silhouettes on the horizon.

We’d ridden plenty of the kind of Alpine nonsense that you’d expect away from the bike parks. The stuff a guide like Ben has discovered over the years. Everything from refuges to mountain passes tickling the three-kilometre mark in low cloud, following in Hannibal’s footsteps into Italy, riding high across the valley gazing at Pila Bike Park without a lift in sight, but all eyes were on this one. Of everything we rode that week, there was a nervous excitement about this trail. From what I’d seen before the trip, this was very much justified. I wasn’t quite prepared for the reality, however.

Lunch me.

With a typical French alpine lunch dispatched, the way ahead was one of caution, restrained excitement similar to a rodeo bull about to be let loose. It’s hard sometimes to gauge what a vertical kilometre might be, but in some instances air of that height was all that greeted us in the narrower parts of the opening stretch. As wheels started to gather momentum, it was difficult to know where to put our eyes. Thin air for two-thirds of a mile to the right – to the left, a sinkhole you couldn’t see the bottom of, and about 40 centimetres of the most exquisite singletrack dead ahead. Even when vision was fully focused on what was ahead, rather than the imminent dismembering on either side, the bleached stone stung the eyes in the afternoon sun, making the going that little bit more stressful. 

That aside, it wasn’t long before all four of us settled into a rhythm and forgot what the others were doing, happy to navigate this dry, firm, grippy ribbon at our own pace, knowing full well the consequences of a wrong move. Being dead is overrated. I barely took time to look up and see Mont Blanc towering in the distance; the trail ahead demanded my full attention, both for the repercussions of a mistake and that I couldn’t quite believe a trail as good as this really existed. 

The opening few corners lulled all four of us into a false sense of security. The first four hairpins dropped our height slightly, offering the usual alpine fare of a buff, dusty rut open to high speed, before skimming a long bench cut. That’s the last time I wasn’t on the brakes for some time. As the bench cut fizzled out, it was one hundred per cent concentration from here on, for what seemed like forever. 

Look ahead, but mind those pedals.

By far the greatest fear was to clip a pedal. Coming to an unscheduled halt here, where there was little ground either side of your grips, and in some cases none, was the holy grail of brown trouser moments. Gear choice was crucial. Easy enough to get the bike moving again, but not so easy that you were spinning out. Hard enough to stab a crank when required, but not enough to have to pull on the bars like a lunatic to keep things rolling. Keeping it in your pants was very much the order of business.

Beyond the easy rolling of the first few corners, this singletrack dipped and dived, and with me at least riding it blind, I needed my wits about me. Thankfully, a week of alpine riding had honed the skills and I soon found my rhythm, albeit a bit slower than the rest. When the flow flowed, there seemed to be nothing that could get the grin off my face. Dips and crests pumped well would see you at a sensible speed, given the terrain, and we’d still plenty of height to burn, so I kept the second turbo on standby for when it was needed later. 

For now, I was revelling in the ‘no pedals, no brakes’ game that seemed to suit this treacherous, yet utterly sublime trail, rather well. Every now and then I’d glance up to enjoy the view, only to be very sharply reminded that my absolute attention was required. Where the terrain didn’t allow the buffest of all singletracks to weave in and out of either the deep sinkhole or teeter on the cliff edge, there would be a line that either offered far too much risk for the reward or something genuinely unrideable. Coming to a halt here, even if planned, needed to be done with the utmost respect for the lack of ground in the immediate surroundings. 

Sooner or later I found my eye, we all did. Not that I was paying too much attention to what anyone else was doing. I’d even turned off my peripheral vision, exchanging it for hawk eyes that focused on the 30 centimetres I wanted my wheels to navigate along. Slow and steady was definitely winning the race. Despite the danger pushing my blood pressure and heart rate steadily skyward, I was definitely in my element. Technical singletrack, often slower than walking, is my time to shine. I was loving both the physical and mental exhaustion this trail was going to slap with me with that evening and, frankly, there are few things that make me tick more. 

After what seemed like forever, a new challenge was thrown into the mix. While the squeaks of marmots can be tuned out after a few days in the Alps, tree limbs and roots cannot. As we approached the tree line, the trailside was guarded by pines, offering that little bit extra to the mix, as well as adding sharp needles to the sugary stone to make a rather unique dust. Thankfully, the roots were bone dry and hadn’t been polished smooth by the successive hammering of bike tyres. 

While a rider’s eyes will naturally be drawn to the root, it was the branches snatching at our hands and arms that needed more attention. With the loss in height came more heat, and we were soon breathing and sweating heavily in the still summer air, hoping for any breeze at all.

Back up.

It wasn’t long before we were climbing again. Not as far as the opening stint and certainly not as ferocious. We’d soon made the col between the head of the ridge and the mountain that looks out towards Martigny with, unsurprisingly, trails fanning off in every direction. We kept right, aiming to gain more height for the blast back to the van. A series of exhausting steps dug in between tree roots really stung as the air thinned on us again and the body started to complain. It would all be very worth it though. As we climbed out of the trees once again, leaving the sweet, sticky, pine-filled air behind, we were met by a cooler breeze. 

The panoramic view opened out once more and, as the sun started to kiss the mountains to the west, we knew there wasn’t much light left. Our final thrust to the summit was much like the opening stint on the ridge, except we were pushing now. The spines were a little too narrow to ride along and we hauled our bikes to the trig point, exchanging high fives on making it this far, as our eyes were drawn downward by yet another seemingly endless stretch of singletrack. Just as we thought the gold was about to run dry, we found yet more to keep the smiles etched on our faces.

From our second summit of the day, things were somewhat more straightforward. In stark contrast to the madness that went before, we were met by singletrack of the highest quality. Broken quartzite now made up the surface, the grip again phenomenal, but, crucially, only a single side of the hill to fall off. Our route off this most amazing ridge was a traverse of truly outstanding proportions. Speed went through the roof, and peripheral vision only really had to deal with the lack of ground to the left. Falling up the hill was now our route out of danger, although falling left would, at least, see us hit something before a kilometre of free fall… a small consolation.

The drop to our immediate left was less of a concern relative to the spine-tingling exposure of the ridge above and we were enjoying some relentless cat and mouse antics as the sun turned to its golden hour and bathed the valley in warm orange light. Dust lingered in the still air that started to cool rapidly as the sun dwindled over the mountains on the western horizon. 

Eyes stung as the dust clouds couldn’t be avoided and airways seemed dry and heavy with this mixture of pine needles and quartzite. Breathing could wait though, as this trail just kicked up the fun a notch or three. Warp speed replaced slow and steady, despite the fact we were riding blind, grip seemed to be never ending, and the gentle traverse gave us plenty of line of sight. Trees reached higher and higher as we lost our height, and the temperature settled as we lost the light.

Classic switching back.

Nash and Ben seemed to find an extra gear and it was left to myself and Rich to negotiate some ‘classic’ alpine switchbacks as the pine gave way to broadleaves. The change in pace caught me off guard and I was back to picking my way down things, rather than blasting at full throttle. Rich had the switchbacks dialled and I soon lost him in the ensuing darkness. 

Hands and feet burning from well over an hour of probably the most involved descending I have ever had the joy to tackle, my legs seemed to make heavy work of the spin back to the van where I was met by three of the biggest grins I have ever seen. Putting the superlative nature of this trail into words doesn’t do the place justice. It’s definitely one that has to be ridden to be believed. It’s certainly one I will head for every time I return to the Alps – it really is that good. 

Not a trail for the faint-hearted, and certainly not one for chasing your mates down. If you’re a renowned crasher, maybe stay in the van. When everything works, this trail is the best. Get it wrong though, and this is one of those trails that has a serious bite. 

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