I will start this life change with a small but poignant mantra… As much as one should never judge a book by it’s cover, they should always judge a country by it’s tea bags.
You know when people say ‘it seemed so simple an idea’…This was actually a complicated one that somehow panned out simply. Sell house. Point car south. Turn right at the bottom of France. Unpack into new life. Wake up, go riding.
There would be hurdles and snags of course but that basic premise seemed to just unfold. The removals lorry took almost everything, leaving the three of us (Sarah, Cadence Ridgeback and I) with an overnight bag each and a boot full of the titanium from the household bike fleet packed up into every nook and cranny of a 110 Defender – neither renowned for their efficient use of interior space or fuel. The next thousand miles was punctuated every couple of hours with a refuelling stop and that gradually increasing warmth heading south brings. We’d been visiting the region we would eventually move to for 15years, but as if by fate the last year as holiday makers we got double booked and had to change regions last minute. Our holiday rental had been handed over by the house owner in a Citroen Ami which was my first memory of a family car. A conversation about the better years of chevrons led to discovery of a family connection with some of the natives. Suffice to say being told you were remembered aged 6 at someone’s house in Kensington, while queuing in the post office in a small rural French village seemed enough of a sign.
But it was the riding that made the difference here. I was a mountain biker at heart and that meant riding through the ages when mountain bikes evolved from road bike geometry, then components were designed pretty and colourful but so light they snapped and finally the era that mountain biking left the ground and me with it. Which turned out to be when I found a cross bike on local MTB trails was all the mountain bike I wanted on the South Downs of Sussex. But with the exception of lusting after road jewellery in in the late eighties, I never dabbled in the roadie world. There were two camps and mine was the one in the muddy field rather than the one from the Surrey cafes. Until I moved to where hilltops were called cols, then it changed. But everything changed with it.
I never imagined riding a hundred miles over varying landscapes, through sleepy villages and up 3rd category climbs could mean seeing perhaps as few as five cars per ride. After the traffic jams and racetracks of south eastern England, suddenly road riding seemed to make sense here. And so I waxed my legs for fashion, wore lairy socks and could finally justify white shoes that would indeed still be the same colour months later. Being a photographer by trade meant there was ample opportunity to ride – read: little work. And I was getting really fit climbing 2000m per ride every few days. Our vague idea of having a ‘house for friends and bicyclists’ started to look sensible if I glanced my own Instagram feed. And then one day I realised I hadn’t ridden a mountain bike for 4years. So I ventured off road here and instantly realised how much I’d been missing.
One has to be slightly careful off road here as for half the week, through half of the year (the better half) it is national hunting day. And that means blokes in Toyota Hiluxes raging across fire roads and lurking in shrubbery with rifles, firing at anything that moves in case it’s a wild boar. There have been enough cases of walkers and mountain bikers being shot to make me think twice of riding on a Wednesday, Saturday or Sunday in the proximity of a bunch of fools that have to wear hi-vis orange by law so as not to shoot each other! Indeed one day I was walking the dog forgetting it was a Wednesday but habitually donning an orange bike gilet when a guy standing on an overlooking rock face told me I was lucky I was wearing orange so they knew I wasn’t a boar and wouldn’t open fire. I started thinking that If that was the level of one’s visual recognition in these parts, it seemed only sensible to give them a rifle to share their bottle of wine with at lunch, surely?!
These dog walks uncovered seemingly endless dry, dusty, deserted red rock fire roads and singletrack and became mountain biking recces. Like the local tarmac these tracks were not rained on for months but had even less traffic for half the week. And so I decided to start exploring some of the surrounding hillsides and forests stretching from our tiny village of 25 people out to the Pyrenees and the Spanish border on a cyclocross bike. Now I’m from an age that thinks gravel riding is essentially mountain biking before the comfort years. Road geometry, skinny amber walled tyres without enough knobbles, not enough gears and suspension meaning how flexible your joints are.
My grav bike wasn’t even a grav bike. It was my wife’s cyclocross bike because it was a tad smaller than mine with enough clearance for a 38mm tyre…just. But the first time I came in from a hundred kilometres on the pedals with it (roadie metric conversion happened automatically on emigration) the enduring memory is of Sarah saying that I was beaming with a cycling smile she hadn’t seen since I last went mountain biking. It wasn’t climbing face, sprinting face or pain face, it was just joy. And I realised I’d forgotten what simply having fun on a bike was even like.
Routes started mapping out in direct lines to famous Cathar castles inland and the mediterranean coast alike. Friends would ride up from not too distant Girona off road in 8hours, stay the night then gun home on road in 3.5hrs the next day. The possibilities started to present themselves as the road riding secret of southern France revealed it’s flip-side as an undiscovered off road paradise with deserted trails and refreshing dips in river rock pools every ride.
As Instagram can do so well I was presented friends made of gravel that would appear at the door liveried up. Ex Specialized Americans from Morgan Hill living a couple of valleys toward the Pyrenees in a small medieval village that also housed former CX world champ and pro team boss cycling couple Helen and Stef Wyman, all became close pals that would tread the red rock trails with me and share their route treasure finds over imported tea.
Long days of dry earth climbs, technical switchbacks and flowing forest paths under welcome shaded canopy would become the norm rather than big ring spinning until the next village with a sign on the door of the closed cafe reading ‘We’re tired – not open today’. That wonderful feeling of freedom and intent at turning off a road and heading into the nature had reawakened my cycling soul and the craving for bigger tyres and lower pressures had already mapped out the blueprint of my next bike. It would be built by friends in Colorado, be made of titanium, have proper brakes and proper tyres with proper clearance, but in the spirit of John Tomac, still have daft handlebars for riding off road. I had found my cycling spiritual home and it was coloured a Mars like red.
The red planet became a destination of sorts for friends that ride bicycles who would fly over, clip in and drop out with me. I have a handful of good memories but it seems few #baaw photographs of life on Mars with friends. As mentioned I came to road riding late except for a brief flirt with an ’88 Peugeot Perthus Pro, instead growing up with mountain biking the year before in 1987 and the dawn of indexed shifters. As if in reverse order, having come late to getting off road late here, most of my planned routes into the mountains in front of us lay waiting to be discovered before my life changed for good in a split second.
And so it was that my riding went full circle before it stopped. Not long after discovering these hills’ bounty and re-discovering my bike mojo I reasserted my (already experienced) opinion that one of the best life saving inventions human kind has come up with is the helicopter. On July 21st 2018 I went from a corner on a local col to a two month coma in the pull of a brake lever. A year of living in a hospital later I learned how miraculous it was I should have survived and subsequently the minimal chance I would ride my bike again. In fact to just be able to walk to this computer, sit down and write these words was so considered so unlikely it was barely a percentage chance.
Now the future here is uncertain. Will we host cyclists at a large French house in the shadow of the Pyrenees? Will they share my undiscovered paradise? Will I feel comfortable other people coming to ride these roads after my having lived through the last two years? These are questions I can’t answer yet but hope along with perspective has already proven to make the difference to me through this experience.
I know how lucky I am to be sitting here with a proper cup of tea writing about bicycles at all but also how fortunate I was in the first place to have unwrapped a Muddy Fox in 1987 and turned left up a path that led me to this place I now call home. The red red rock of home.
First published in Cranked Magazine
©Augustus Farmer 2020