SUMMER / 2014
Every trip should be full of not-knowing and a little bit of guess work. Take this as a friendly reminder to take off and get out.
Our plan was simple: We wanted to experience a mountain bike trip that was all about getting out there, getting lost and getting it done. We’d all become accustomed to familiar trails and perfectly maintained bike parks. And usually, even when we ride new trails, we have locals along, keeping us from losing our way and often showing us the best lines.
The goal here, though, was to find old-school adventure on rugged terrain in a completely unfamiliar location.
This was about using our mountain bikes to get us from point A to point B in a limited amount of time and with minimal support. Bad weather, poor directions, bruised bodies and battered bikes — none of this was going to stop us.
In the end, through the suffering and rain and cold, through the minutes and hours of uncertainty, we experienced a lot more than we’d ever anticipated. And we’re all a bit richer because of it.
The sun was setting, and so was my mind as I battled the 20 hours of travel. We arrived at Auberge col de Brouis.
The endless switchbacks and tunnels disoriented our sense of North, South, East & West.
We’re not fully sure what we’re getting into today, even over breakfast we didn’t fully digest the map and instructions. All we really know for sure is that between now and tomorrow evening we’ll be living out of our riding pack. Looking at the map, the rifugio we’re staying at tonight is a long way from here, so I’m guessing we’ll be getting some shuttles in between.
The only advice our guide Ash left us with last night was to stay away from the Pyrenees Mountain dogs that guard the sheep in this region. So when Lyle was attacked this morning, everyone suddenly took Ash’s warning a lot more seriously. Lyle is shaken, but ok. His kit is ruined though. Hopefully we don’t run into any on the trail.
Two minutes into the ride and Lyle is on the ground. His derailleur hanger is broken. He’s having a great morning.
We repair his bike and press on, but with one wrong turn we’re headed back up the trail and debating on how to read the map.
We came across a ruined home, fully strangled in millions of vines. I have never seen anything like it — it must be ancient. A long descent meant we had a 10-minute, on-the-shoulder hike-a-bike out of the ravine. It was gnarly in the 90-plus degree heat. There was an overhanging-certain-death corner above Breil-sur Roya that snuck up on me. I survived. Tyler made it look easy.
We came here to get lost, but I hope that we’re only lost in theory—not reality.
When our driver pulled over to double check his map everyone piled out to get their next Instagram. Far below us were the never-ending switchbacks that travelled up to Col de Tende. Instead of taking this road, we crossed under the mountain in a narrow single-lane tunnel, and then travelled up to the Col via the Italian side, which offered vehicle access to the ridge. After the hour long drive, this would be where we get out. We were dropped off at a monstrous Castle on the edge of the mountain.
At Fort Pēpin we crossed an exposed snow bank, which spanned at least 200 feet. One wrong step and a 1000-foot slide lay below. After Lyle’s luck earlier in the day, all eyes were on his safety.
High up the Liguria border ridge road, we realized we were 9 kilometers into our 4-kilometer ride — and nowhere close to our destination. The view distracted us from this reality of our situation. And this was the point where the sun disappeared.
I’m not normally one to panic, but I began taking a mental inventory of everything in my bag in case we were forced to overnight in the alpine.
I can’t believe how last night turned out. We just kept pushing on through the snow until the road turned back downhill. We followed it all the way to the ridge above the rifugio, where Tyler ran into Eizo the innkeeper who was ready for a midnight rescue. I couldn’t tell whether he was surprised, relieved or angry. Either way he prepared us amazing risotto.
We discovered that our shuttle driver had dropped us off nearly 10 kilometers from where he was supposed to have dropped us. We added to that by taking a wrong turn…or two. I’m okay with this; we experienced an incredible ride, no matter how lost we were.
Eizo helps Tyler translate the set of directions onto our map. They seem easy to follow, right? The rest of us pull on our damp gear while drinking bowls of coffee for breakfast. Yes, bowls of coffee. Welcome to Italy.
We climb out of the rifugio, straight onto the military road along the French-Italian border.
From the top we see the route we had taken from the forts into the mountains. It seems so far away.
We were given three options for our afternoon route to Rifugio Franco Allavena, and after our experience on the first day, we chose the quickest. It’s the first time that we arrive within the suggested amount of time. The closer we get to the rifugio, the trail becomes rockier, and the fog turns to light rain. It’s the first time we’ve seen any ominous weather.
Ramon the innkeeper was pleasant and the Rifugio was large but empty of guests.
The three-minute shower was a roller coaster of hot and cold. He served us linguine, pheasant, salad and pomme frites. Large Morettis all around.
After two days of late starts, we realize there has been no suggestion of when we should actually start our rides each day. Today we’re beginning early, maybe 9:00 AM. Outside it’s cloudy with no rain, but the thunder in the distance is unnerving. The route today looks to be the longest that we’ve taken so far. I’m itching to get back out there, the riding yesterday was so different from anything I’ve ever experienced on my mountain bike.
Everywhere we go we’re passing unnatural history — there are ruined castles and military infrastructure everywhere. It’s eerie to think about the things this region has experienced in the last couple millennia. Although without the world wars, many of the roads and trails we’re gushing over wouldn’t be here. Everyone’s digging into the Nutella and bread — hearty breakfast for hearty rides.
After two solid days on the legs, everyone was starting with dead thighs and sore calves. The road back out was 45 minutes of solid, gravel-road climbing back to the upper ridge that we would follow for much of the day.
According to the directions, this was the ride that would also give us the most exposure, as we rode knife ridges. The directions warned of black “mineshafts” that are on the edge of the trail. They are apparently bottomless.
We crossed back over into France. This was where the exposure began — and so did the rain. It hammered down as we ascended along the ridge line border.
We didn’t even stop to throw rocks into the mineshafts. We just kept moving…
Eventually, in the shadow of Mont Torrage, we found an overhang. Lunchtime. Joining us under the overhang was a group of sweat-pant-clad, wine-drinking Italians. They were underprepared for the weather, but I was jealous of their vino.
At this point we knew we were looking for Marker 437, and we were told that it might no longer be there. Because of this, we spent a solid hour terrorizing cows, riding through their shit and, of course, ruining our now soaking wet lifeline, the map.
In the process we stumbled upon a battlement set on the peak of a knife ridge. I can’t even imagine sitting up there during the war — so exposed. We backtracked a bit and found our trail.
Towering cliffs above and below. We dropped almost 2,700 feet in no time at all. The trail was relentlessly steep; we were on the brakes forever, but the coffee in Fanghetto was getting closer by the minute.
Twelve hours in the very wet saddle, 4,100 feet of climbing, and 25 miles, but we weren’t finished yet. At the café, we received our next set of instructions.
As the sun disappeared we dropped into the dark trail. Unlike the trails we have ridden this week, this trail is months old, not centuries. It had loam, lots of it. We were squinting to see where we were going for almost 20 minutes before riding into a creek bed.
There was two things waiting for us at the creek bed: Ash, and a million fireflies.
Tonight we are going to camp on top of the mountain above Sospel, we’re going to have a campfire, which we can hopefully dry our shoes in front of—I might be getting trench foot at this point.
Last night was surreal, as we slept beside a monstrous battlement. Far below us were the lights of Sospel, where Ash had taken us in for dinner at his home. We had a roaring campfire, and I piled up my soaking-wet gear as close as I could get it without it toppling into the flames.
My shoes and chamois are dry, my socks and gloves are fresh and, apparently, breakfast this morning will be at the English hotel in Sospel — sausage, eggs, bacon, ham, beans, toast and Wi-Fi. I plan on three helpings of each.
The trail we’re riding this morning is right out of the campsite and straight down to the restaurant. Later this afternoon, we plan to descend all the way to the warm Mediterranean. It doesn’t get much better than this.
We climbed to our final descent, where Ash joined us. On the way up we acquired a new friend: a Pyrenees mountain dog who had decided he liked Ty and followed us. Lyle was unimpressed.
This descent might have been the rockiest of the trip. My hands are really sore as I write this. And it was long, really long. While we were in the sun, it was cloudy below us, obscuring our view of the Med thousands of feet below.
Near the bottom of the trail, we passed through an abandoned mansion on the hill. The view from the balcony was incredible. How this house hasn’t been repurposed or restored is insane.
At this point, even though it looked like we were close to the sea, we were still so high above.
Menton was our final terminus. We all put our legs in the sea. Band Aids and garbage floating everywhere. Gross, but fuck it, we didn’t care about that.
We rode so much today. It was amazing, just an amazing end to our adventure. The clouds finally cleared as we neared the sea and entered back into civilization. It was strange: Suddenly the sound of traffic on the highway was irritating, and the cabanas and crowded beach felt claustrophobic. Unfortunately, It didn’t last long though, as my body reacclimatized to the city life. That brief moment, though, was a feeling I won’t soon forget.
While we were only truly lost once, I felt lost in time the whole week. Every day we rode something different, experienced something new, or saw something that was incredible. The history that we were able to see along our routes was just surreal; never in North American could we even imagine to see, let alone explore, some of the bunkers and castles we were able to venture inside.
I feel incredibly lucky to have had the chance to take my mountain bike across the ancient roads and trails of the Alpes-Maritimes. It’s humbling to know how hard the people who built the trails and roads must have worked, creating lifelines through incredibly rugged terrain. I am sure they could never have imagined the type use that we got out of them this week.
We’re back at Auberge col de Brouis for the night. I am going to finish this beer, and then pass out for at least 12 hours. I am sleeping in tomorrow.
Words by Ross Measures.