Riding the dream
High in the French Pyrénées, self-confessed mountain bike nut Jeremy Wright and his friends saddle up for some hair-raising trails.
Stretching back in a natural hot spring, gazing up through the light-green canopy of a wooded glade, dappled by late-afternoon sunlight, this must be the ultimate recovery position after five long hours in the saddle.
Add in a slab of well-chilled beers and the murmur of convivial chat from my biking companions and you have the perfect end to a memorable day. This is the way to live, especially if you’re an off-road bike freak like me. Said to be the sunniest spot in France, with about 300 days of rays a year, this part of the Pyrénées-Orientales – close to the town of Perpignan, and just a few kilometres from Andorra – is truly stunning.
Near passes where Hannibal once marched his elephants, British expats Angela and Ian Pendry run Altitude Adventure, which lures visitors by the planeload to sample the adrenalin-inducing trails and jaw-on-the-floor beauty of their mountain-biking and skiing heaven.
Top-level mountain-bike racers – and enthusiastic surfers, windsurfers, climbers and skiers – the pair bought a run-down hotel in the hamlet of Le Mouli, on the edge of the village and ski station of Saint-Pierre dels Forcats, in 2006. Since then they have thrown their heart and soul into their business, renovating the enormous Mouli del Riu hotel – historically a mill – to turn it into a comfortable base for themselves and up to 12 thrill-seeking guests.
Even their two daughters, Ella, nine, and Shawna, six, play a part. With the flexibility typical of children brought up on an outdoor lifestyle, the youngsters quickly adjusted to the change from England’s Peak District to France’s stunning Cerdagne Valley. At weekends their two little blonde heads can be seen ducking in and out of the trees hundreds of metres up, as they take their turns clearing brush from the biking trails.
Lucky the kids know how to work, because most weeks the trails – with reassuring names like Black Dog, or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – are given a damn good thrashing by mountain bikers looking to grab themselves a tasty few kilometres of downhill.
This week it is the turn of us 11 middle-aged nuts from the Mad Dog Bikers – a loose group of friends, neighbours and general hangers-on based in Winchester, UK, here to mark the 50th birthday of one of our members. And we are just itching to try out what Mountain Bike Rider magazine has described as the “ultimate single-track hit”. For the non-bikers among you, that means the width of the trail is nice and cosy for one person riding reasonably well. A lack of proficiency will generally be rewarded with a quick plunge into a gorse bush, or nifty dive down the nearest rocky slope.
After stashing our bike boxes safely in the hold, we grab a Wednesday afternoon flight from Bournemouth to Barcelona (Perpignan airport is also nearby) then take two-hour drive up to Saint-Pierre dels Forcats in Ian’s van. On the way we catch tantalizing glimpses of the snow-capped peaks and dramatic hanging valleys we will be pedaling towards the next morning.
Ian’s non-stop commentary has us salivating at the thought of what tomorrow will bring. “Now, you see the narrow zig-zag plunging down the side of that spur? We call that the Scorpion Tail. I’m still trying to nail all the hairpins in one hit without dabbing a foot down,” he says.
We push off the next morning on The Big Stick – a ride with big ups and big downs that lasts a whole day. Starting at Mouli, we descend for 40 minutes on a single, rocky track down the south side of the Tet Valley, before climbing stiffly up to the village of Prats-Balaguer. After stopping off to replenish our water bottles at the village spring, we cruise up the incredible Orri Valley to the start of the final climb proper. After 400m of almost vertical riding, we level out at the Collets d’Avall at 2,000m, where we are greeted with spectacular vistas.
Then the descent begins, taking us back down the west side of the Coucouroucouil ridge. It’s steep for the first 3km, before we hit a more manageable single track to the village of Fontpédrouse, where the natural hot spring awaits to ease our aching muscles.
“You’re not bad for a pub group,” says Ian – his most telling comment about our standard of fitness and competence. And these words come back to haunt most of us at some point during the next three days. Sometimes as we sweat up steep, rocky ascents that seem to go on forever, or when we fight our fears to tackle a series of tight switchbacks with a handy little 30m drop to one side.
Whatever the terrain, and however frayed our nerves, we can always count on some motivation from the ever-energetic Ian and Angela, as well as 40-year-old “Crazy Frog” Pierre, their part-time guide and a full-time trainer with the French Commandos.
“Just get your bum back over the saddle, elbows and heels down, look the way you want to go and no sharp braking on the rocks,” Ian repeats like a mantra, while Angela’s quiet, steady advice is: “Don’t get fazed by people pulling away from you up the hills. Just keep your head up and keep spinning.”
Riding through arduous terrain for at least two hours during full-day outings isn’t easy, but it’s an epic way to experience the timeless beauty of these mountains.
Our birthday boy, Dave Lee, even had a trail named in his honour. A section near the top of our favourite route – the 20km downhill scream to the village of Olette – is now known as Le Dent (The Tooth) after Mr Lee took a trip over his handlebars and neatly snapped off half an incisor. His excuse was even more pathetic than the fall itself. “Lads, lads, I was just tasting the trail for you to make sure it was good.” Believe us, Dave, it’s good – they’re all good!
For more details on altitude adventure, call +33 (0)6 7823 8130, or visit www.altitudeadventure.com. prices for trips vary, but an average cost, including room, food, booze, guide, advice and a pool table, is about €70 per person, per night.