My goal for this trip was “Don’t Die!” But, when you get the chance to ride the best bike trails in the world, with some of the best riders, what are you going to say? For me, it wasn’t going to be “no,” even though I wasn’t in shape and in no way a good enough rider.
A couple years ago, I moved to Los Angeles and gave up road bikes. The roads here are in scarily bad shape from all the earthquakes and the car drivers are even scarier. But man, I missed riding a bicycle. So, this year, I gave myself the goal of figuring out mountain bikes.
“What’s the guessing on how long it’ll take you to break your arm this time?” A friend texted me. Honestly, I figured it’d be about three months. Off the road, I might not run the risk of being splatted by a mobile phone-wielding driver doing 75 in a 30, but there are plenty of cacti, rocks, precipices, and rattle snakes, as well as my always-present and always-impressive clumsiness.
So, I got a bike and started pedalling. Or I should say, I got a car, got a bike, then started pedalling. It turns out LA isn’t the rider’s dream I’d been expecting. All the parks in the city are closed to mountain bikes, so all the trails that are available mean throwing a bike on top of your car, then sitting in traffic for an hour or so to reach them. So this time my hobby was going to be a case of one more car, not one less.
Riding a mountain bike was much harder than I remember it being. Not only are the bikes heavier, but traction is an issue off-road, so you’ve got to manage that while twirling away in a granny gear, heart rate soaring. And the other thing about Southern California trails that’s a real bitch is that nearly all of them start with a massive climb; you ride out of the car park, up a hill, then supposedly enjoy the ride back down. If you can still use your lungs.
So training maybe didn’t progress as fast as I thought it would. But, of course I talked a big game about the whole thing to all my friends. And then in July one of those friends texted to ask if I’d like to come with him to the Alps for a week, his company would pick up the flights and hotel rooms. And I had to give him a yes or no right then, because this was all last minute. So, “yes”. Fuck.
That company is Mission Workshop and, full disclosure, they flew me to Nice, put me up in a shitty hotel where I didn’t have to share a room with my buddy because he met a local girl the first night there, and all the guys did a really good job of not making fun of me too much.
They are friends with Ash, the guy who organises the Trans-Provence race, one of the most difficult and certainly the most scenic mountain bike enduro race out there. The idea for this ride was to re-trace much of its route with a bunch of friends. Ash has lived in the Alps for most of his life, so knows the trails there better than anyone else and has made a business out of discovering new ones. That means we’d be riding a mixture of goat tracks, hiking trails, ancient Roman paths that Ash finds on old maps and, well, pretty much anything a mountain bike could roll down.
If you haven't got the impression that I was intimidated yet, then do. Especially when I was told I’d need a bike with 160mm of suspension travel to be safe. The Cannondale Trigger 2 I had been riding “only” has 140mm, so I had two weeks to find a new bike to borrow that was more downhill-capable. Giant had been making noises about wanting coverage, so a quick call to them resulted in an offer to stop by HQ and figure something out. That intimidation must have been apparent over the phone, because I walked out of their office with a Reign Team 0, “Pretty much our factory enduro race bike, just with some different components dependent on which riders have which sponsors.”
A few beers into the first night there, I broached a subject that had been worrying me. “So, uh, there’s not gonna be much climbing, right?” Ash looked at me, frowned, and said, “You’re still going to have to pedal your bike.” I wasn’t sure what that meant, but tried to look confident.
We were riding around the divide between the north and south Alps, near France’s highest city, Briançon. That sits at 1,380 metres and we’d be riding trails at 3,000 or more. A lot of that was handled by hopping in a van, throwing the bikes in a trailer and figuring out how high we could get using roads. Often, that was pretty far up there, but a lot of the time it wasn’t very far at all.
I learned a new term on the first day of riding, “hike bike”. Got terrain too steep or too challenging to get a mountain bike up? Just hoist the bike onto your shoulders and start climbing. That part was easy; it was the miles-long riding ascents up to the cols (or “shoulders”) that really hurt. Riding with people like racer-turned-photographer Sven Martin and his pro-racer wife, Anka, my days spent blogging from my sofa really became apparent.
Those two were incredibly patient and understanding, taking the time at stops to show me a better angle for my saddle or levers, or to tell me I was doing a good job. That meant I quickly learned to trust them, which may have been their strategy all along. Once the descents started getting close to vertical and covered with loose rocks, Sven would point out the line, tell me to get as far back as possible, than just hang on. So, that’s what I did, for most of the trip.
The thing that saved me was that a photoshoot was involved, with both Sven snapping photos and Sam Needham shooting video. So, the group would stop every 15 or 20 minutes and do a bunch of camera passes. That was enough time for me to catch up, assure everyone that I wasn’t dead, grab a sip of water, then take off after them again.
All five days pretty much went like this:
Ash: “Don’t worry guys, it’s only a 300-metre climb.”
Me (two hours and 10km later, out of breath and walking my bike): “No, don’t worry I’m fine, just stopped for a breather.”
Sven: “So what you’re going to do is aim towards that rock there, get back and hold on tight.”
Me: “I’m pretty sure that’s a vertical cliff!”
Ash (frowning): “Right, enough of that, let’s go.”
Because the Alps are incredibly permissive to mountain bikes and you can ride pretty much everywhere, a lot of the trails we were on had hikers, too. Mountain bikes aren’t a terribly common sight there, but everyone we passed had a very positive attitude about what we were doing. They’d see the fast guys coming, step aside, and applaud as the jumped and slid past. Then they’d start hiking again, I’d come along 5 minutes later at half the pace, and entire French families would make fun of me for being the slow guy. Grandpas, grandmas, parents and children, every single one of them had something smart to say.
Finding yourself as a neophyte rider in the kind of terrain you see in these photos was, predictably, incredibly intimidating at first. But, I’m nothing if not people pleasing, so following Sven’s advice, staying loose and letting an amazingly capable bike do what it was designed to do got me through it. Stuff that I was walking the bike through on day one, slowly turned into stuff that I would at least try to get down, if not stuff I was semi-confident at.
On the last day, we descended a dry river bed something like 1,800 metres down, vertically speaking, over a couple hours of riding ('20 minutes at race pace', explained Ash, after). The bed was filled with boulders and steps and loose rocks and a shepherd with about a thousand head of sheep. Sven was riding ahead, having too much fun to hang back and tell me it’d all be OK, so I just adopted that attitude, looked way ahead and, somehow, actually enjoyed myself. There’s nothing like trial by fire (or mountain) to pick up new skills quickly. This one trip rocketed my riding past where I’d hoped to be this year; I’m actually not terrible now. Not good, but not terrible. And I’m not dead. So that’s a success.
There’s a lot more in a five day mountain bike trip than can be covered in a single article. So, over the next couple weeks I’m going to break down the skills I learned, the trails we rode, the people I did it with and the gear we used. Just wanted to get the ball rolling by making sure everyone was on the same page how bad I sucked. Stay tuned.
This article originally appeared on Indefinitely Wild, Gizmodo's blog on adventure travel and the gear that gets us there