In front of me, I have a map. Now I’ve always been fascinated by cartography in the same way that grot mags would capture my attention when I was a teenager*. The symmetry holds; I would peer at the pictures, get quite excited without really knowing why, and have absolutely no clue about what the hell would happen next.
Cracking it open shows vertical delights, hidden clefts, unconquerable summits and sun warmed valleys. I’m back to the map, what the hell are you lot thinking? The area 40ks north of Perpignan is known as Le Ganigou which sounds both medical and painful – it was nearly both. 12 routes radiate out from Vernet-les-baines – a rural town where ‘Allo ‘Allo must have been staged – increasing in severity from greens to clean, blues to cruise, reds to roost** and blacks to crack.
As ever, we chose the hardest route intending to dispatch 6000 feet of climbing over 40ks wth nothing more than a pack of sandwiches and an Olympic class hangover. And, again in the long tradition of giving up, a mile later – all of which was pitched nearly to the vertical – we ran away scared.
“Red route then lads eh? Best get ourselves warmed up first eh? We’ll crack that bastard tomorrow? Right?” Yeah, right. The next four hours were spent mostly getting lost, getting sun burned, getting backdraft hangovers***, getting laughed at by the French and pushing. The downhill sections swung between steep, loose and wide and steep, narrow and rocky. At no point did steep ever leave this holy trinity of going downhill fast. And a bit frightened.
Uphill was – as I may have mentioned – pushing, sweating, grunting and lying supine on the saddle waiting for double digit heart rates and single digit vision. Still, the final singletrack back to Vernet was the dusty jewel in this twisted crown. An initial run in was a steep hairpin immediately switching to baby-head rocks which needed speed and balls to surf like a wheeled jetboat.
Just when you were getting all cocky with rocky, the next challenge were alternating, blind and steep, root-strewn hairpins. Bleeding speed in the manner of “don’t make me lock up and bleed“, I faultlessly dispatched them in a new school manner of “spanners: bag of”. The reward for staying upright was a kilometre of insane trail which took hold of your adrenal gland and squeezed it unmercifully for the next three minutes.
Dave has better lines that me, because he is a shitload younger, a sight braver and *curses* noticeably more skilled. He’s also currently dependentless****, so his dust became my track. Hardtails rule here, so fast to change lines, so easy to manual over portentous rocks, so laugh out load carvey in corners. Drop your elbows, swap stiff muscles for leggy suspension, don’t even flick the brakes and have summer riding hammered into your brain by every bump in the trail.
It doesn’t happen often enough but when it does, riding like this is better than almost anything else. There are no limits, there is no fear, nothing is difficult, fast is easy, everything is possible, timeshare skills come on line for 60 seconds and now you can manual, bunnyhop and – even for the briefest moment – hip jump in SPD’s.
We rode it twice more over the next days and never made the black. But we’ll be back, no wiser, probably no more sober but with better excuses. I have so many long memories from this shortest of trips; nailing the steepest trails, drinking beer in out of season rural villages, Simon coming back from the dead on the first day, falling off, pointing and laughing at others doing the same, taking the piss, laughing till it hurt, long days, big nights, great friends.
Our friends Si and Sarah, who have swapped a somewhat hedonistic London lifestyle for rural bliss in a place perfectly sandwiched between the sea and the mountains, are very lucky people indeed.
More so, because we’ve left 😉
* For my younger readers, this was the like the Internet in paper form. Sticky paper, if I remember rightly.
** Forgive me the freeride lingocrap(tm) on the grounds of exceptional alliteration
*** The best way I can think of describing “the second chewing” of food and water.
**** Probably. We’ll leave it there should we Dave?