A busman’s holiday

Q: So what do mountain bike guides do at the end of the season when they’re worn out from riding bikes for months?

A: They go on a mountain bike holiday!

And so boss Doug, sometime guide Carlos and I set off for a week’s R&R in north west Italy and SE France, biking. It was to be a 2 base holiday, the first part with Riviera Freeride in Molini di Triora (purveyors of fine uplifted DH focused holidays) and secondly with the Trans-Provence team in Sospel. Trans-Provence is one of the world’s greatest mountain bike races, and owner Ash guides on the same trails when not organising and running the race.

We set off from the Basque country early (ish) on Saturday morning, intending to drive the whole 1,000 km in a oner, and so we did, passing Carcassonne, Toulouse, Montpellier, Marseille, Monaco and Nice on the way. We met our traditional road-trip biblical rainstorm around Marseille which dragged the journey out a bit getting us to our hotel in San Remo about 7.30pm…

Doug taking his turn at the wheel of the Vito
Unloading in the remarkably bike friendly hotel

We elected to stay in the city of San Remo rather in Molini itself as the mountain village can be a little ‘quiet’ in November. We were booked by Riviera owner Ady into a really rather comfortable hotel. Soon after arrival, we were sampling its excellent food and wine. The hotel also had a heated lock-up for storing bikes and drying gear, which was going to be needed after the first day’s riding!

Dinner in San Remo

An early night was had ahead of the first day’s riding. Ady and Rich collected us from the hotel in the morning and gave us a solid day of shuttling the trails above the city. These trails were sandy, super steep, super rocky, super wet (and a LOT of fun) and many formed part of the local SuperEnduro scene. I was riding (some of the time) my TR250, but was crashing a lot (I mean a LOT). Having said that, despite the bruises to body and ego, it was an amazing day’s riding with a real sense of achievement from having conquered some real challenges. We sessioned all the trails twice and ended by riding from the top of the hill, through all the singletrack and then onwards for some urban DH through the old city of San Remo all the way to the hotel. A really memorable ride! This video shows what some of the trails are like (when ridden by a pro in the dry!) http://www.pinkbike.com/video/285858/ or check out the Marco Bugnone section of the MTB movie VAST.

A soaking wet trio retired to the hotel for hot showers and more local food and wine…

A chilled Carlos as we wait for the fun-bus outside the hotel
Let’s do it!
Guide Rich, Carlos and Doug about to drop into more Italian steep rockiness

Day 2 and we headed up into the mountains and  Molini to ride Ady’s ‘local’ trails around the village. An ‘interesting’ busy commute through back street San Remo and 30 minutes later we were having another storming Italian coffee in Molini ahead of the day’s ride. For the next 2 days we were joined by 2 French DH riders, and the group of 5 got on really well. I crashed even more today, even after changing to the trusty Nicolai. The trails were still slippy  after Saturday’s downpour, which combined with the steepness and technical challenges made for a tough day for me, but again at the end of the day we’d all had a great time. The trails were really variable, some rocky, some rooty, some super fast and some super techy, but none demanded any less than your full attention. My crash count was again the highest, but everyone had their offs!

The highlight trail was Bellender, apparently one of Dirt magazine’s favourites. A long trail with stunning views and superb singletrack.

One of the stunning viewpoints from Bellender

High above Molini

Day 3 at Molini was again centred around the village with some new trails and some repeat trails. By now though the ground was drying out and I was able to stay on the bike a lot more. Finally able to hit the the hills with more confidence I thoroughly enjoyed hitting ‘Fantasy’ a second time with decent speed. A memorable run!

Midway through the afternoon, we were all exhausted and needed to pack up to move on to Sospel – only an hour away. So having said our farewells and heartfelt thank-yous to Ady, Jo and Rich (as well as our new French friends) we treated ourselves to one last Italian macchiato and got on the road.

Sospel may only be an hour away but it feels very different to Molini and San Remo. Both spots are very beautiful in their own way, but there’s no confusing the two. Mr. Trans-Provence, Ash Smith had booked us into a local auberge run by a British couple. It’s a bit ‘basic’ but more than adequate and we were treated to more Italian cuisine on the first night. Home made lasagne and chips – UK styley!

View from my auberge bedroom of the town of Sospel

Day 4 in Sospel started in bed for me. My battered and bruised body needed a break, so I had a lie in, while Ash took Carlos and Doug for a pedally ride in the morning. I joined the guys after lunch for some uplifted runs down the super fun tracks that lead down off the hill into Sospel. Very different in character to the Molini trails, these were less technical but just as much fun. Super fast in places but featuring the staple of the Trans-Provence – lots of switchbacks! The hills have a split personality in the area. The North facing hills (to quote Ash) have lush green surroundings, loam and hero dirt; the South faces: scrub and loose rock giving that unmistakeable Mediterranean feel.

Day 5 was  to be a big day. We were to drive up the famous Col de Turini and take in 2 special stages from the Trans-Provence race and end up back in Sospel. For this ride and the next day we were to be joined by a team of Norwegian journalists out here testing a bunch of 29er and 650b bikes. (A short video of their riding with us is here: https://vimeo.com/54142340 ). It was a memorable drive in the trusty Vito up to the top of Turini. Monte Carlo rally roads combined with epic views. At one point we had to stop and get out just to look at the majestic views down the valley over the clouds towards the Mediterranean. Ash put it best – “That’s the most amazing view I’ve ever seen, not in an aeroplane!”

I think Ash got it right!

A ride as stunning as the views followed. Some climbing, but a LOT of descending. All I can say is, do yourself a favour and get out there and ride the area. There are some difficult sections, notably the trail named “Death-tech” but the majority is challenging but great fun. I’m sure I won’t be entering the race though. As Ed Oxley put it, the trails are fun to ride but tough to race.

Yet another coffee – this time at the top of Turini
How’s this for a trailhead?
Let’s go!
Sublime singletrack

Unsteady UK rider
Norwegian Pro
One of the trickier sections

Ash had planned another ride from Sospel in the afternoon after the morning’s 2 stages but with time pressing us after a delayed start, we called it a day in preparation of yet another big day to follow…

Day 6 was probably the most memorable of the holiday. It started with a 45 minute drive up a rough firetrack in the Vito, followed by an hour’s climbing on the bikes to the summit of Gramondo which is perched on the French/Italian border. From there we rode all the way down from the 1600m summit to the coast in Ventimigllia. Another day of unbelievably stunning views and equally unbelievably stunning natural deserted singletrack

Unloading at the top of the uplift – Carlos the silverback gorilla!
Another amazing trailhead
Norwegian pro photographer – Kris
Ash and Doug (and Carlos)
En route to the summit
Summit of Gramondo

We had to carry our bikes on our backs to the summit. I was tempted to leave my bike 100m below the summit and walk the final (very steep and rocky) part. Thankfully Doug and Ash put me straight on that one and I took it all the way! Riding from the very top was special.

Which way to the sea?
Ash on the summit
Doug modelling some stylish singletrack
Kris snapping away
Nearing the bottom. Doug leads Carlos.
Reward for all that carrying
Happy mountain bikers
Dinner at the auberge. Curry! Red hot too 🙂

The final day 7 was spent with a pedally ride in the morning up and over into the next valley with a train ride back. My legs were pretty much gone by now and the climb took me a lot longer than it should and we so nearly missed the train back. In the afternoon Doug volunteered to shuttle Carlos and me up the hill in Sospel to have a final couple of runs. The last run of the day was a super high speed blast down on my beloved TR250, using the famous trail where Fabien Barel had his nasty accident a few years back. Needless to say I took the chicken run around the big drop where he crashed, but it was still a highlight of the holiday to session the run a couple of times.

A final meal in Sospel on Saturday night at a Sicilian restaurant where we were joined by Ash marked the end of a memorable week. Tiring and exhilarating in equal measure, and certainly some riding and views that will stick with me for many years to come. I will surely return…