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Provence Posing

Early spring road trip with Team NL

The Dutchies had work to finish before they'd start the mammoth 14 hour drive from under the sea to herb filled mountainsides.  Work for us guys in the Alps is more seasonal & temporary, as it is for some Easyjet pilots which meant that the native English speakers left for 'The South' a day earlier.

Digne les Bains was the rendezvous location for Saturday night but this meant going so close to Gap and Lac Serre Poncon. The lure of a trail in the Haute Alpes (the northern most department in the Provence Alpes Cote d'Azur Region) was too much. 3 of us wild camped lake side with giddy excitement for what lay ahead. Rob & Ben knew each other from ski touring & paragliding, but had never ridden together, nor had Ben ever met team NL.  Rob and I briefed him on the impending fun.

In the morning, a classic was called upon to give Ben his first taste of Southern singletrack. Mont Colombus, and a few hours later after spinning up we had arrived with views back up north into the rocky peaks, and views south, into the very large rolling hills. We shredded over 1000 vertical metres of pristine singletrack, brushing wild herbs de Provence lining the side of the perfect singletrack in loamy pine needle filled forests.  Arriving back at the vehicles, handily parked at a local supermarket we stocked up on cheese, saucissons, snacks and beer. And this is basically how it continued for two weeks...

From our trip to Digne last year we had began to get a good feeling for the area. The Terre Noire was terrifying, but it was calling us back with its unique surface and landscape.  However we weren't about to let Team NL drop into those trails as there first alpine descents of their 2017 season so we chose a classic red graded XC VTT route.  The climb was very French and tough, and the singletrack was as good as you'd except in Provence.  A good warm up before we did our first of many bonus climbs to get more descending in.  It was worth it as we found freshly cut and bedded in "enduro" delights back into the valley.

The following day it was time for Terre Noire.  Tyres were checked, cheese was packed and baguettes were bought...

We could see on the forecasts that there was some rain coming in.  A friend of mine in Finale reported slick trails, whilst stories of snow into the valley floor of Chamonix reached us.  We just slept in longer on the campsite, did some bike tinkering, drank coffee and ate cake before visiting the local Decathlon superstore.  It was the last week of April, and despite being south, we were still in the mountains where anything can happen.  The following day we were ready to go hoping for hero traction rather than skittery wet rocks and roots. There was a mixture...

Our Easyjet pilot friend was leaving after week one, sometimes he has to work. This meant the comfort of camping with a VW caravelle was going too.  As a final morning ride we chose to head back into the Terre Noire area looking for another zone that we had heard about.  Upon reaching the zone we whooped and screamed our way along, and down more grey goodness...

After saying our goodbye's it was time for the remaining team of four to set of eastwards to Sospel.  Over 3 hours later after a stunning drive through various types of southern terrain we reached our campsite.  The south really is remote and deserted in many places compared to the busy northern Alps.

Climbing up to Ze Holy Trail the anticipation was high.  On our last trip here this was the real stand out trail of the area.  Upon reaching the trailhead we decided to go a little further to visit the old World War 2 remains scattered around the hillside from years gone past when the boarder was fought over.  The size of the machine gun turrets were incredible to see.

We had our own (trivial) battles ahead down the tech and flow fest that is Ze Holy Trail.  Unfortunately the trail had seen more  wild boars than it had bikers and it was not a fast descent.  Disappointingly we pushed back up to get onto a flow trail that would hopefully restore our spirits and luckily it did, that and the cold beer at the bottom.

Part 2

Leaving Sospel, like the previous trip, with mixed feelings.  There area has huge potential, but its so hard to know whats in condition without paying for the knowledge. Other areas seem to deliver better results.

Excitement levels were still high as the tour headed into the Ligurian mountains less than 1 hours drive from Sospel.  It felt different arriving into Italy.  The tree's, the colour of the soil, the sea view and the anticipation of PIZZA!

The next few days were spent exploring the delights of Dolceacqua finest trails and cafes.  All the trails have seen a small ammount of shovel work.  A jump here, a few drainage channels and small berms are found on most.  Nothing to make them feel like a sculpted bike park, but enough to give great flow and technical challenges.  We didn't find a single braking bump over the two weeks, even on the trails closest to Dolceacqua village centre.  Its no Finale Liguria, no shuttles for us, all pedalling, every day.   

During the two weeks I was away I heard of 3 separate groups visiting Finale.  For the majority of the days on our 2 week trip we would not see any other mountain bikers.  The most was in the Terre Noire day 2 when we saw 6 riders! Being able to enjoy quiet lunches with mates and shred wonderful singletrack with breath taking back drops is something you can't always get in Finale Liguria, the UK or Northern Alps.

Rumours over the years of this quiet place called Molini with no trail maps had finally caught our attention and part of the reason we came to this area of Italy.  We found one gps trace on a French VTT site.  One problem, it had 2000 metres of climbing.  Feeling confident a well paced cappuccino fuelled climb started.  Frequent stops due to the humid weather kept us reasonably fresh and we crossed over from the dry Mediterranean landscape into a deciduous leaf filled valley.  Disappointingly, the hype reminded us of Sospel.  The trail we descended into Molini had clearly been ridden a few years ago by bikers, but not recently.  To make matters worse, on our second climb of the day we saw a well ridden trail cross our road ascent several times, and then it started to rain.  The climb didn't seem to want to end.  Soaked, we stuffed our faces with chocolate and put on our jackets.  Luckily despite being thoroughly wet the descent was a real belter!  It restored some hope for Molini, as did the €7 pizza that evening in Pigna.  With more storms forecast for Molini & days running out we stayed nearer the coast to get some sunshine for our last couple of days.

For our Grande Finale of our two week trip we'd been told about linking up the final section Alti Via Ligurian Alps by Alpsmountainbike owner Martial who we'd met on our campsite.  45km.  1500 metres of climbing.  3000 metres of descending.  Summit to Sea.
Read about that in my next blog piece...


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