French road trip. Riding the Gorges du Tarn.
Riding the Gorges du Tarn
When someone offers you a few days riding with a random French man in the middle of nowhere, a 13hr 800 mile drive away, who would say no? My buddy the Brighter cyclist gives me a call. He Said “I met a random French guy at Chicksands today. He was on his way back from Fort William and we ended up riding together. Well, he’s invited us to come be guinea pigs for his new company Enduro Session. It's in Millau for 3 days of Enduro stages set to be in the world series next year.” Before he could finish explaining I interrupted “F*** it lets go.” “Roooaaaddd Trrriiippp!”
A few weeks and some grovelling to the wife later, it was on; The ferry booked, Youtube researched and the excitement built. Three days of big climbs and long descents lay ahead. Packing consisted of putting every spare I could find in the garage into a bag and hoping for the best. I tend to punish my bikes with my lack of skill and over ambition of speed, so it was important to prepare for the worst and hope for the best.
Day 1 - The drive.
Day 1 consisted of Driving, driving more driving and service stations followed by more driving as the sat NAV’s Irish twang rings out “please leave the road in 420 miles….” But eventually we got there, and like true Brits we quickly stashed the bikes and headed out in to the night to find the nearest boozer for a pint before bed…
5.30 am a bottle of vodka later and a stumble around town to find a fast food joint that handed food out through iron bars and then it was time for bed.
Day 2 - Lunch – French style.
The next day we wandered down the twisting lanes of the ancient town of Millau to find sustenance. A brick of beef and bottle of red helped settle the hangover for everyone, bar Martyn whom was a little “tired” from the night before and needed to have a nap.
While preparing to dog pile on the napping Martyn, Scott interrupts me, waving a pamphlet for the local bike park. Pads on, kitted up we ride over to an amazing backyard playground of Duverbike Millau.
After wearily watching the local kids shredding, pulling huge suicide tucks and floating 360’s, in our post lunch coma, we gingerly roll into the beginner line.
The park is everything I would want if I had a large backyard, a few mates and a digger. It catered for all levels from small rolling pump tracks to 15ft step downs and huge doubles. A bikers playground. A maccy d’s and sunset over Norman Fosters stunning viaduct concluded our day.
Day 3 - Baptism of fire
We meet Philémon of Enduro Session’s at 8am right outside our hotel. Unexpectedly a bottle of Irn Bru appeared heralded by a Scotsman and two cousins, who would be joining us. We loaded up the van and left civilization, heading into backcountry, up a large gorge with sheer cliffs each side. Excitement shifted slightly to fear and anticipation, as we look up at what we’re about to ride down.
Stage 1: We kit up, pad up and tweak a few air pressures, all quietly nervous. What are we about to ride? Will I survive? We start along the fire road, traversing across the plateau to warm up. The gradient increases as tyres roll into dry rocky open terrain. The desert like conditions, nothing I’ve ridden before. Loose rocks move under tread as the speed and brakes heat up. Grins widen the faster we go. The trail tightens to single track, elbows brush trees as I drop to flat. Suddenly stage 1 is done as we reach a mountain road. I Ditch the pads and we begin the spin back to the top of the plateau.
Stage 2: was a rockier affair, tighter with bigger rocks and one poorly placed tree stump. Tyre levers appear as Scott now known as Chavelle Rouge (don’t ask), has a blow out and Mark decides to have a closer look at his saddle during a collision with a stump, kicking him off the back of his bike and the saddle hits him in the face.
Steristip and puncture patches later the grins return as we fly down the French twisting path into the belly of the gorge.
Stage 3: Cheese and ham baguette fueled us up for the climb. The French dairy rocket fuel made drafting unwise but we reached the summit. The climb was steady but very manageable. Switchbacks provided the theme of this stage. Increasingly tight, increasingly steep. Endo turns and skids turned into more frequent foot dabs and pure desperation to make some corners. The long wheelbase bikes struggled the most a small line choice error cost dear. As we enter the depths of the gorge where loam scattered the turns. Knuckles turned white, forearms burnt. Brakes faded glowed red then blue. The switch backs ceased firing us into off camber scree fields littered with rocks and drops.
My front wheel dropped, I fight the bars but it's too late the camber carries it away from me and I go down.
I rolled and tried to tuck my arms in. Over my shoulder I roll again before a large rock, the big jagged one I wanted to stay away from, met me and stops me dead.
I move each limb in turn; nothing broken. Lifting my head, I look for my bike, it had slid a further few meters down the slope. I make it to my feet, then to my bike. It looks ok. I’ve got away with it. A few cuts and I'm gonna be sore in the morning but I’m still not at the bottom. I slowly swing my leg over my frame, shake my head and get on the pedals. I get to the bottom shaken, battered but alive and still riding.
It takes a while for it all to sink in. That run was immense. The trip was made. Day 1 and I was sold on Millau.
A set of steps down to our accommodation led to patio area with views into the valley. The river below provides a chorus to our celebration beers before we set about repairing the various damage to each of our bikes. The brighter cyclist and Irn Bru hero ( I think his name was Carl) are busy re-indexing gears, aligning mechs, that had kissed rocks, and general mechanic wizardry. We conclude the day sat around the fire eating copious amounts of Philémon’s home made lasagne and a glorious amount of cheese.
Day 4 -
A breakfast consisting of more home made goodies, jams, honey, bread and large bowl of coffee sets us up for the day.
I make a last minute decision to change to flat pedals so change my shoes and we head off. We drop down a flight of steps before a half hour ride into the nearest town.
The trails today are very different from yesterday. The trails have been ridden more making them more obvious. All this meant that we hit them much faster, being able to see further down the trail brought confidence and we’re not hovering on the brakes so much.
The only thing disrupting the flow is an odd collection of punctures, we blow through 7 or 8 tubes. Irn Bru’s wizardry was showcased once again as he managed to deflate his tyres just by looking at his bike.
Each stage somehow brings a new type of terrain. The ripped French countryside, with the knowledge of our native guide delivers some of the best riding I’ve ever experienced. You can see why the enduro world series is coming to town in 2017.
We end stage 3 with a collection of steps into a local town for an end of day beer. A couple of swift ones and a lot of chat about which cliff we nearly fell off and how awesome we were and which bit was best, we mount up to ride back to our accommodation. A few pedal strokes later, disaster struck our guide manages to sheer a chain ring. A few minutes of pondering and a plan is formed. I get my diesel engine legs going and much like the tour de France we brits tow the French along to the nearest point between the road and our accommodation. Now we just have to cross a river and hike up to our temporary residence 150m opposite us across the gorge.
The bikes are ferried across on a small boat and we swim the clear, cold waters before congratulating ourselves with a few more beers.
Day 5 – Does it have to end?
After a repeat of yesterday's breakfast and a frantic search for some toilet roll, we packed our bags before heading out back to the same town as the day before. Our guide meets us on a borrowed bike and we head up the opposite side of the valley to day 4. My bottom bracket is now totally destroyed. The crank arms had developed 5mm of play each way. I’m not sure if it was the bike park or I hadn’t noticed it before left home.
We start with a deep rutted run, short and sweet, but line choice made all the difference. The low bottom bracket of the Specialized didn’t make it easy but speed and flow was the reward for good decisions. White knuckles and clipped pedals the stick.
I was riding with massive confidence now. Philémons flow was rubbing off on me, better line choices, more speed and the fun factor, I was getting faster and faster.
The next run was like the Forest of Dean, just 10 minutes long before it opens up to long traverses down the face of the gorge. It’s awesome. We race down to eat our lunch by the river, skim stones and reflect on just how good the riding is here.
The realization the next run will be our last starts to dawn on us. No body says the cursed words “one more run” but it is in the back of our minds. We spin up the climb in much the same way as any of the others, low gear, low effort, chatting, pulling wheelies and taking the piss out of each other. Philémon talks about some of his plans and the different type of rides he will offer under Enduro Sessions. I hide my envy, pad up and let off the brakes. This run is flat out fast. Gripping the bars, making a conscious effort to not touch the brakes faster, warp speed, tunnel vision; Switch back. Slam on the brakes, drop the heels, foot out, slide and back on the pedals warp 2 Mr Scott…
The run finishes back at the river we had lunch at. Brakes ping as the heat struggles to dissipate, what a rush. The excited babble grows as we wait for each rider, each grin bigger than the last. What a run, what a trip.
We freewheel to the pub to celebrate as the sun starts to disappear.
The drive home is painfull. Days of over indulgence in rich food and cheers turns the car into a hot box/gas chamber of flatulence. The carefully packed car on the way there is a jumble of chuck it in. Traffic sucks. And most importantly the uncertainty of when I can ride big mountain trails again dwells on my mind.
I would just like to say a big thanks to Enduro Sessions and the Brighter cyclist enabling it all to happen. The trip was spectacular and the level of riding was just right to push my skills and the size of my balls (Danny Hart reference). I am still amazed at how such a small area can host such a varied amount of runs and conditions. Loamy switch backs, to rocky open hill side within a few miles of each other.
So in summary; if a random French guy invites you to be a guinea pig tester for his new tour company? Say yes. It could be awesome….