I was always of a singletracked mind. Riding mountain bikes in England usually turned the bars toward hidden technical trails like a water diviner finding a stream. That was what the bikes I owned sought and the language their build spoke. Fast, light, not cheap – picked three. Off road was always the calling, from the BMX enabling a different route home from school every day through the hard and soft tail MTB to the ever growing tyre clearance a road bike would allow enabling additional viewpoints to an efficient loop of tarmac speed. My memories of riding here off road are fleeting but treasured.
A ride after emigrating here generally started with the first of many pictures of a bike against a wall or tree or kitchen window in a typical day.
Usually headed out later than planned, the offroad trails I started to map and loop begin a few hundred metres outside our village and wound their way towards the Mediterranean in one direction, the Black Mountains in another and the Pyrenees in the opposite direction.
Stopping before even leaving the village for a barn door pic and a faff seemed fairly routine.
Climbing out of our valley that’s at about 200m elevation reveals the first glimpses of the Pyrenees, but before those comes the red rock. An dry, earthy map of trails stretching out like geographic tendrils somewhere exotic and far away that make me imagine what Australia or South Africa might look like.
We used to walk Cadence Ridgeback on many of these trails. She was a downhill dog though so would choose the path of least resistance where my drop bars would want to go the other way.
Cycling’s ability to make, maintain and reconnect with friendships continued as much living somewhere sunny and dry despite my fear it might not and riding these hills with friends is a cherished privilege, though I always liked riding solo. It’s been a place for escape, creative thought and rare periods of silence from my over active gob.
Dry, dusty switchbacks like alpine roads without any cars and a surface that crumbles under tyre is what a British offroad bike dreams of as it’s annual holiday and mine was acclimatising to as an immigrant.
Looking north. Ten kilometres in and not a single person encountered was to paraphrase a sheep, “This is Why”.
Having dabbled in road bikes in the late eighties but been carried away by to the new sport of mountain biking I had been largely ignorant of cyclocross, the idea of running around a Belgian field in the rain with a bike over your shoulder never appealed but then seeing friend and pen shepherd Jo Burt appear on a Bianchi Cyclocross bike one winter’s day while ‘modelling’ for a MBUK shoot on the open vistas of the South Downs opened my eyes to what could be.
Back then mountain bikes were growing legs and suspension ability, increasingly leaving earth and taking off where possible. Mountain biking was landing hard and leaving my kind of riding feeling a bit lost on the flat in the woods of old at it’s humble speeds. To me the appeal of mountain biking had always been opening the door to another more natural habitat less seen and usually seen alone.
Gravel riding as a term seems more appropriate as a marketing one liner than the feeling of a branch of cycling culture – I’ve long thought it was probably just mountain biking before the comfort years.
As the only drop bar in the village that day, what Jo was embodying evoked memories of bumbling over rough ground in 1987 on a bike built around traditional road geometry, on amber walled balloon tyres without enough knobbles, gears that would go up anything and could get you into trouble that the poor brakes couldn’t get you out of – but with a wide grin at it even being possible at all rather than the grimace at it being a backwards step in comfort, control and speed. But I suppose as easy descriptions go, Grav does make it simple to interpret in many ways. It all boils down to a one liner usually doesn’t it. And how cycling loves a +, I’ll dub these rides here as Grav+.
Re-entry to the inhabited world provided barn doors before long – in fact before humans. In 500years future generations will ponder the need for so many barns here I imagine. That and what a speed hump is for.
There’s very little in the way of coffee stops or supply posts in rural France. Regularly a riding partner over from the motherland would be amazed at both how little chance of water top up there was (cemeteries are good if you trust the taps – which I don’t), and how I would go a whole day on one bottle – something that surprises me too looking back.
Crunchy ground would turn to hard pebble, turn to flowing water. On a 40degree summer’s day after 75km of dreamy desolation with the sound of cicadas rather than cars, jumping into a clear, cool rockpool and restarting the temperature guages for the last ten km home became a joyful ritual for shiny roadies’ legs on a wilderness break.
No idea on the flags but always alert to a potential backdrop, it made a change from a barn door.
My time here riding off road was cut short in it’s infancy. I managed a handful of rides before my life changed in the pull of a brake lever on a nearby road col. So I barely scratched the surface here.
I miss cycling so much. It’s at the core of who I am. But as ever – post accident – I’m of the mind it’s better to have ridden and lost than not ridden at all.