ALPINE SINGLETRACK EXPERIENCE
In September Simon and I traveled to the pretty little Alpine village of Landry, France for our first experience of backcountry singletrack mountain biking. Normally, I’m the first person to scoff in disgust at the mere mention of the term ‘package holiday’ but in this case, taking into account our lack of big mountain experience of any kind, this seemed like the sensible option.
We chose to stay with Bike Village, a small company run and owned by a couple, Sam and Lyndsey. The package offers 7 nights’ accommodation in a homely old French farmhouse, complete with authentic wooden beams and 5 days guided mountain biking. Most importantly though, it also included breakfast, 2 lunches and a beautiful 2 course home cooked meal on every night except Wednesday (staff and biking day off.)
Now for the important bit – the biking. Basically it was all awesome! It started with what felt like a tester day. At first it was deceptively easy, short climbs, an easy traverse then just as you start to relax BAM big climb to test you all out! This began a recurring theme to the week where Sam or Chris, another guide, would give you a guesstimate, (blatant lie) of how long this climb would be. I won’t lie to you, they were all long and tough but, unquestionably worth every grueling pedal stroke just for the view alone, always remember what goes up………. Must come down! The first proper downhill of the holiday was a bit of an eye opener, with a steep rocky start demanding quick line choice, followed by a sketchy exposed section that was worryingly loose under tyre. Cleverly topped off with a fast loamy finish to boost your confidence back up. So much so we even partook in the optional extra loop they offer to accommodate the real keen ones.
The second day they split us into 2 groups depending what riding you preferred, we chose extra climbing for tight and technical trails, the other group went for a fast and flowy shorter day. After a long switch backing climb we reached our first real challenge of the holiday, a technical traverse that saw even Sam carrying his bike at times, apparently hopping boulders as tall as his bike was beyond even him. All along this path we watched the tiny trail we aimed to ride down get steeper, the switchbacks tighter, the shale looser and my butterflies went into overdrive. Creeping down there, hands firmly clenched on the brakes, I had some seriously sketchy moments but with Mr Smiley Sam yelling “Look up!” – Invaluable advice – we all nailed it making for a happy gibbering wreck of a group for our alpine meadow lunch. The weather Gods were evidently less impressed as we were treated to an impressive display of temperamental alpine weather. Cries of “Retreat!” accompanied our warp speed dash down the fire road to the shelter of the nearest overhang. Alas, we were too slow and received a full drenching. 5 minutes later – dazzling sunshine! Restocked on trusty Jelly babies, all spare layers donned, full cheery banter mode set, we began our next descent. Steep trails, wet roots and boulders and the odd vertical descent down a slick field allowed for some awesome snaky sidewaysness as my death grip on the brakes did nowt to slow my progress at all. In-between the yelps and shrieks it all made for a high grin factor.
Day 3 saw us all take on the notorious Magic carpet ride. Already well warned by the 2nd year guests we were well prepared for the hard slog of a pedal up followed by ½ hr of clambering hike a bike. Though testing at the time, words cannot describe the sense of achievement you feel to reach such a secluded spot, accessible only by foot, bike or hoof. The superb lunch spot ensured sandwiches tasted all the better looking back down to the hut where we began.
Re-energised we opted for the extra 20 minute climb to the summit. This was an experience in itself as the route was a tiny goat path along the ridge with sheer drops on each side. A set of tight switchbacks led to the start of the rides namesake – the Magic carpet. This is the sort of path all bikers dream of, a sliver of hard pact, smooth mud singletrack snaking its way through the meadows until it eventually entered the forest far in the distance. One of the best things about this day was the sheer variety of riding styles it demanded from you. The next section was rooty madness, into vertical ice rink meadow sprints, then moss covered tricky forest paths. A favourite part of mine that featured in many days was the back alley dash down little grassy paths dissecting the winding roads into villages. The guides always know where the little kickers and drops are, so racing to keep up with them became an excellent game. The feeling of joy you get from playing like a child bouncing round on your bike is a huge part of WHY we all love hurtling down mountains on these death-traps I’m sure.
Just when we all thought we were done after a brief second lunch we were off again on one of Sam’s optimistic traverses through the valley along to where we would catch the train home. What could surely have been a pleasant scenic pedal turned into a mad race as someone told our ‘racing roadie’ fellow guests and beer loving guide Chris there was a pint at the end – pfft they vanished down the trail. Admittedly the following cold pints sat in the sun where a suitable end to a perfect day.
Wednesday – well-earned rest and sports massage day.
Despite being fully recuperated the 5th day was a real test of your metal as it didn’t just rain, it poured – all day, relentlessly. The only difference throughout the day was that in the afternoon the raindrops where bigger so you got, if possible, even wetter. The morning was spent traversing on paths so narrow that the trick to success really was to not, under any circumstances, look down. The combination of; slick boulders, shiny roots, frozen fingers and toes, approximately 2 meter visibility and the actual river running down the path made for somewhat challenging conditions, requiring acute levels of concentration for survival. I found once you’ve accepted your drenched and embraced your new bog monster styled appearance, it was unbelievably fun. It opened up a whole new kind of riding madness which, as I exchanged wild inane grins with my fellow bog monsters, was fully embraced by all.
Our final day saw a rather damp and chilly start when we arrived at our drop off point, an après ski café just over the Italian border, to find temperatures of only 1° and the snowline a mere 25 metres above us. After partaking of 1 rather fine, typically rich Italian hot chocolate a tactical retreat was called 200 meters back down to the nearest ski resort. A steady traverse to back above Bourg allowed time for the skies to clear before we found ourselves spinning back up the climb from the first day, by now a fairly ordinary feat. Massive satisfaction was then had as we flew down the rocky switchback descent that was such an eye opener for me that first day. It was so rewarding to see the huge improvements in all of our riding from the expert tuition and advice plus hours of everyday riding. The feeling of really being in tune with your bike and pushing to ride at the very edge of your limits, rather than just clinging on for dear life, has to be one of the best adrenaline rushes there is. So much so our little group of diehards even opted for an extra 45 minute climb back up the mountain to catch a few more trails. I’m not sure if the aim here was to test, or bash back down, our new found confidence but those last few descents certainly had gnarly plastered all over them. Practically perpendicular with narrow gullies sucking you in, denying all line choice as you teeter round switchbacks only to discover a huge unavoidable drop off demanding you commit or crash, they pushed my limits and some. Equal parts terrifying and thrilling, I for one was super stoked to even be able to ride down that at all something I never would have even contemplated at the start of the week.
With a ridiculously high 75% return rate its clear to see BV have got a good thing going here. So what is so special about them? In my opinion it’s down to 3 things,
ATMOSPHERE – From the moment you arrive you feel it. The whole farmhouse and the rides have this great laid back, friendly vibe. It feels like all the guests and the guides are just hanging out together and going for a pedal. The guides were all helpful, chatty and gave great banter –Thumbs up!
RIDING ITSELF – No bike parks, minimum roads and hardly another rider insight. The huge variety of riding sang of years of research and planning. I particularly liked how they split the group and then picked routes to suit each, so you were all tested but within the limits of your skill level – just!
SAM HIMSELF – The guys a bit of a legend really. You have to admire any man who can turn his hobby into a thriving, successful business and then still just have to just go ride his bike in the mountains everyday to make it succeed – winner! On a more serious note I believe it is his obvious passion and enthusiasm for biking and the area he rides that shines through, the man is permanently smiling. A fountain of knowledge, always happy to help Even on his day off he spent half an hour in his garden teaching me and Hebe to bunnyhop. His approach to tuition through a firm understanding of the basics is what saw us all progress so much. He’s pretty quick with the witty jokes too.
If you love to ride, love the wilderness, love a sweaty climb, love a laugh and some banter and love to scare yourself half to death, you will love Bike Village. One things for sure, like so many others before me, I will be back!