Singletrack Magazine Issue 118: No Mercy In The Mountains

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Backcountry Tour of the Pyrenees? 

You can’t handle the backcountry tour of the Pyrenees!

Words & Photography CHIPPS

It took less than a hundred metres of gravity-assisted descending for my brand new rear tyre to die, to give up its air as it gushed sealant over my head and quickly sat the rim ungraciously down on the ground. It was the first morning of the first day of my ‘end of the season’ holiday in the mountains and I was already beginning to suspect that I was in for a hard week.

The slash to my tyre, ironically next to the ‘Reinforced’ logo on it, was unpluggable, so I banged a tube in, while marvelling at how viciously sharp the rocks were on this mountain top. And we’d not even started our descent. I had simply ridden over a smooth meadow, dotted with small rocks. If this was a taste of the week to come, then I was in trouble. 

In theory, this trip had all the ingredients of the perfect week off. By mid-October, you’d hope to be in great shape, having spent the summer riding bikes, honing your trail skills, becoming one with your bike and fully dialled into the shock and tyre pressures that work for you. 

As it was, the three of us arrived at Barcelona Airport worn out from a year of ‘too much going on’. Even the first morning hit us hard, as an overnight water stoppage at our hotel had turned the tap water into the kind of virulent germ-breeding ground that your parents warned you about drinking when you first went abroad. And so we lost Beate to being pale, dizzy and pukey for the first transfer day, only reviving enough to test-ride her newly built-up, newly bought Orange Five around the car park for five minutes before dinner. 

My pal Nick and I had been lucky enough to have spent the previous evening drinking beer, rather than the water, so we’d fared much better, and were well enough to scarf several rounds of tapas on our mid-drive stop on the way to the Mouli del Rui, the base of operations of Altitude Adventure. 

Deja vu with a vengeance.

I’d been on a few trips with Altitude Adventure previously, both as a writer/photographer and as a paying client, so I mostly knew what to expect. Ian and Angela Pendry, the British couple who run the company, are both experienced riders and qualified mountain guides who’ve spent a dozen years living in the Eastern Pyrenees, just on the French side. They’ve spent the last decade scouring the hillsides for trails, often cleaning them of brush and fallen trees to make them rideable without dumbing down any of the technicality of the centuries-old trade routes (both legal and not) that criss-cross the Pyrenean range between France and Spain. 

The Backcountry Trip nips over to Spain on its first day and remains there for much of the week, using suitably ancient tracks that link up long-gone villages, chapels that have since gained tarmac access, and old smugglers’ routes. None of which were built for bikes, which is what makes them such a great challenge to ride. 

The online brochure states: “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 trip is not for inexperienced riders.” And while I wouldn’t (or couldn’t if I tried) say that I was an inexperienced rider, I was definitely mentally and physically unprepared for the week ahead. 

It’s not meant to be like this.

If you did this trip in the summer, you’d spend Saturday travelling and putting your bike back together, then you’d spend Sunday riding from the Pendry’s place, dialling bike and body into the unfamiliar terrain and soaking in the scenery. Then you’d head to Spain the following day for the chairlift to the top of the La Molina resort and the long, technical descent into Spain. 

Due to our trip being the last of the year, it was rather unique in plan. The ski resort only opens on weekends in October, so the La Molina part of the trip (which was essential in getting us over the mountain and down to our base in Spain for the week) would have to be on the Sunday, the day after our arrival. That meant that our sighting-in, warm-up day, was actually one of the hardest, most sustained descents of the trip, dropping 2,000m in height over 25km. 

Some people go on holiday to relax completely; a ‘read a book by a pool and unlimited drinks’ kind of holiday. Most people I know, however, go on a mountain bike trip to be challenged and invigorated by the terrain to a greater or lesser extent. I’ve been on weeks where the bus back to the airport at the end is a silent scene of exhausted devastation, as riders have made the most of every single mile and spent every single calorie… and some. Other trips have been more like a springboard, where riders come in with average British fitness and skill and over the course of a week of tougher and tougher riding, emerge strong and re-energised, full of new-found mountain skills, ready to ride hard on their return. 

After a long year and a frenzied period of work leading up to my trip away, I was ready for the latter. My soft, tired body got the former. I was ready for a week of slightly steepening pine-scented trails with wide switchbacks and forgiving loam, all played out under a warming sun. I got an incessant rocky onslaught in changeable weather. 

To be fair, I asked for it, and I went into the trip knowing the terrain, but that didn’t mean I was ready for it. 

Tripods at dawn.

From the first loose, rocky descent after my tyre repair, I was riding hesitantly and already in over my head. Even though I’d ridden this first descent on a previous trip, it had come later in the week, when my fitness and confidence were very much on the rise. That first day’s riding felt like I’d been roused from a deep sleep under the duvet by someone shouting ‘Quick! Get on your bike! We need to ride to the bottom of this rock garden! Aargh! Quick! Go!’

And it wasn’t going to be getting much easier. The second day took the recipe of the first, put all the rocks into a crusher and ladled them over an equally steep trail. The weather though, early on in the trip, was stunning and certainly one reason why everyone was on this week – hoping to catch that last gasp of summer before returning home to the dark and cold. The scenery too, was epic in the true sense of the word. 

It can be hard to take in the scenery though if you have to concentrate on the rocks in front of you, and my unfamiliarity with my bike wasn’t helping. I was beginning to regret bringing the ‘big bike’ – the 150mm travel machine that I keep in the shed for those days where I take on the big mountains of the Lakes and the Alps. Most of the time I’m happy riding around on a 130mm trail bike and the jump onto the slightly bigger bike felt odd down to the fact that I was riding unfamiliar terrain on a bike I just don’t ride very often. Perhaps I should have stayed with the bike I ride every week, so at least one aspect would be familiar.

Calling Central Casting.

The team on our trip was also unique and varied in its slightly artificial make-up. Our group resembled the cast of a mountain biking whodunnit, such was the unlikely mix. We had a father and son; the son’s mate; a Swiss blogger (and Instagram sensation), apparently with her own photographer in tow to record the awesomeness. There were a couple of doctors from Scotland, who were a couple. There was a bike journalist (ahem) with a friend and girlfriend, only one of whom was actually supposed to be working. Shepherding us, we had the uber-competent mix of Ian and Angela, ably assisted by Adrien, a French mountain bike guide straight from Central Casting, all tanned limbs and rear-wheel-happy riding style. And finally, on shuttling duties we had Steve and Nicola, a retired-early British couple who appear to trade shuttling services, trail finding and sage wisdom for a perpetual mountain bike holiday lifestyle. 

The week that Ian and Angela offer is relentless, pitching day after day of hard riding and netting you 12,500m of descending over six days. When is the rest day you ask? There is no rest day. There’s no time, because there are descents to ride and rocks to be ridden. 

Dealing with the paps.

While having two photographers on a trip can be a right pain for those holidaymakers who’d rather have more swooping trails than getting a perfect photo, it did mean that Ian was always looking out for angles. On one morning’s shuttle, the white karst ridge we were due to ride that afternoon was lit with a spooky light while the mists were quickly burning off the countryside below. Plans were suddenly made to ride this trail now while the light was perfect. And then we’d come back and ride it again that afternoon, which we did. Having that pre-ride knowledge of where the trail went helped enormously and everyone’s riding was smoother and faster on that second run. 

Sometimes, though, nobody loved the photographers. Some days we carried full camera bags, which makes ‘spirited riding’ a little hard, due to the weight and sheer expense of the gear on your back. And so the other riders would have to wait. That was often forgiven, like you do when one of the group is just having a bad day and needs to back off on the speed a little. Other times, however, where riders had to wait for the photographers to set up for ‘the shot’ and then wait again as jumbo lenses were stowed away, well, we weren’t that popular.

And then it rained.

Hey, it was October, after all. And it rains in the Pyrenees in July too, so what did we expect? It’s not like we were in Morocco or Nevada. Unfortunately, it coincided with a day that started with a fair chunk of sustained climbing, a good proportion of our 4,000m that week. The descents too, were grassy, greasy singletrack that then traversed limestone rocks. Not the ideal conditions, but several of the riders impressed with their ability to keep things upright.

After a reviving coffee and sandwich break, we headed back up the mountain for one of the high points of the week (judging by the photos anyway) – the Red Earth. It seems that every European mountain bike trail mecca has its own version of terrain rounded by the elements, with a flattering tennis-court grit surface that encourages skids and slides while heavy metal blares in your mind’s sound system. That wasn’t quite to be that day as high winds and low temperatures made forward movement more important. An impromptu photo session with the Instagram sensation caused a rift in the group and we split into two – those keen to keep riding and those keen on looking fabulous to follow with one of the guides. 

I always feel a little cheated when it rains on a foreign trip. After all, everywhere that isn’t the UK is always sunny, right? Otherwise no one would ever need to go on holiday. Given that we all had all of the right rain gear and it wasn’t actually snowing, things were actually not worth grumbling about. Perhaps it was just that I’d had to swap bikes for the day with my girlfriend, who argued that my new, albeit patched up, tyres were grippier than her ‘whatever was in the shed at the time’ specials. Turns out she was right and my on-trail confidence took another dive. Especially as we got back to the Altitude Adventure base that night and I had to permanently surrender my front tyre to her. 

To add to my self-inflicted woes, my super-cool riding glasses were fogging up every two minutes, leaving me to ride the last technical descent, glasses in mouth, virtually blind and wondering why Ian was standing on a random corner. Turned out he was there to stop riders taking the wrong line and plummeting to their doom, which my tyres appeared to want to do, but a lucky slide put me back on the right course and back to the van for a shell-shocked ride back up the mountain.

Under the duvet.

The following day didn’t look much better and while most of the group went on a half-day excursion in the rain (but under the tree cover this time), I quite happily gave myself a rest day and read a book. While I missed a fun ride, it did mean that I was ready for the final day’s riding. 

The sun came out, the trails were technical but predictable, and the views were stunning. Finally I was getting a bit of that big-mountain mojo back. The mist burned off the valley below and we rode long, lazy switchbacks that increased  beautifully in technicality. We rode a narrow line of perfect singletrack as we followed a ridgeline into the valley below and the promise of lunch, a coffee, and a sit in the sun. 

The fun continued in the afternoon with more dry, rocky problems to conquer and a final, flattering trip to the valley bottom before breaking down bikes and a last four-course meal at the hotel. 

It had taken a while. Well, a whole week, but I’d finally reached that mountain bike holiday nirvana, eating food with new friends, talking about rocky near misses and perfect trails and with that deep tiredness that only comes from doing nothing but riding your bike on tough trails for a week. 

Could I handle the Backcountry Adventure now? To be honest, not really; I prefer my holidays a little more on the smooth and flowy side. However, having a holiday that you have to train for might be just the inspiration I need for next time. 

Chipps’ accommodation and guiding was covered by Altitude Adventure.

For more information visit altitudeadventure.com

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