FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS
DAVE DOES THE ALPS
First world problems, first world choices, it can be a hard knock life. Where to go for this year's traily trip?
We love going to the Pyrenees, having been numerous times on Austin Vince’s Pyrenees Up. There was talk of going to the Picos Mountains, but after a degree of discussion, research and deliberation we plumped for the Alps. In the end, the decision was mainly based on a friend of a friend of Milky's, who lives and rides around Briancon. Sebastian is his name - a chef at the ski resorts in the area. As such, most of his work is in the winter, leaving him with loads of time to travel around trail riding Europe on one of his several old school Africa Twins the rest of the year.
None of us had ridden in the Alps. Some had gone via tarmac but never on trails. Sebastian assured us there is plenty of riding available in France and across the border in Italy. He could also sort some accommodation, so travel plans were made.
Three of the guys have 250 ish bikes so they went in a van. Milky and I had bigger bikes, 640 + 690 KTMs, and decided to ride down.
We left a couple of days earlier than the van and headed to the German/Swiss border where our friends Robert & Nina live in their 300-year-old farmhouse. It is such a great quirky house with an amazing sauna. We were forced to stay for two nights before continuing on to Briancon and meeting the others at our Bijoux apartment.
Despite some online films and reports, I was dubious about what would be available in the Alps, particularly after the splendid rides we have had in the Spanish Pyrenees. However, within 10 minutes or so from leaving the town of Briancon, following Sebastian on his tatty Africa Twin, we were on trails heading up, up, up into the mountains and above the snow line. This first ride with our host was great and a portent of trails throughout the next week. Spectacular views of peaks that went on and on with clear blue sky - remember blue sky? We had a good number of routes planned both sides of the border and only scratched the surface of what is ridable. Our weather was amazing too. The trip was in June when Europe experienced that oh so brief heat wave. Each time we stopped there was a need to get into the shade, often with a small drop of something cool and refreshing.
Sebastian wasn’t able to spend much time with us so for most of the week, we were exploring. Finding new trails can be a challenge, even with GPS and half decent maps. The need to have frequent stops to check routes at junctions on dusty trails, that definitely have no signs, can slow progress. But subsequent trips along the same route make for fantastic rides. Not tearing along as there is always the chance of someone or something lurking around one of the many unsighted corners and on occasion we did come across other people, walking, cycling and riding. There were also local people driving vehicles to pastures high up in the mountains and the odd farm animal. It is easy to fall into a false sense of security, after riding for many miles along trails through forests without seeing anyone. Concentration is on the next corner and the stones and gravel, you are in your own world and then round the corner, there is a large cow just standing there gazing at you nonchalantly, chewing on some succulent alpine grasses. The cow is significantly heavier than you and your bike combined. You do not want to hit the cow.
An uncanny and eerie experience is arriving at a ski resort out of season. A large number of modern apartment blocks way up a mountain. Cafes, bars, shops, all closed, no one about, no cars, no people. We would ride through these modern ghost towns and pick up the trails that lay just beyond. Some of them are used for mountain bike centres, but many are deserted and feel decidedly odd.
As is common on the continent we received a welcome just about wherever we went. Walking into bars and restaurants, riding gear and us covered in dust from the trails, there was never any negative reactions. Two lunch stops stand out. We happened upon a hostelry offering a Father's Day lunch. There were many local people attending, all sat out on the terrace in their Sunday best. We were welcomed by the owner and treated like honoured guests. Another time a roadside bar in Italy, Saturday afternoon in glorious sunshine. Pizza, beer and the spectacle of sport bikes flying up and down the road with a variety of howling exhausts.
I have to mention the Str dell Assietta, which is part of a route that stretches from the coast near Nice, north through the Alps to south of Geneva. The Ligurian Border Road. It is an old military route, much of which is dirt trail. The section we did was a mere 20 odd miles that run across the top of a range of mountains. It was so spectacular that when we reached a restaurant and had lunch, we turned around and did it again. It is a popular route and we met a number of other riders from Germany, Italy and the UK. At one point we came across a digger clearing a landslide that had apparently happened the night before. Considering the distance from the nearest tarmac the Italian local authority must be well organised and used to the task of removing tons of rock and rubble so efficiently.
The trails and scenery are second to none in this part of the Alps and I would more than happily return to the area to further explore the tracks and trails as there are so many. You don’t need a state of the art enduro type bike. Mark was on his Honda CRF 230, which was more than adequate and at the other extreme, we saw people on Varadero's with road-biased tyres who were having a great time. It was dry, mind. If you have not been to this area it is well worth a visit, put on your list and enjoy.
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