The trip so far
Day 6 numbers and route map
Distance - 32.8km Ascent - 1569m Descent - 2383m Highest Point - 2667m, Pas de la Cavale
We climbed out of our sleeping bags and out from under the tarp in the morning… wait, no we didn’t, the weather was so good we didn’t even use the tarp! We awoke and opened our eyes to be immediately greeted with a layer of bright blue sky stretching as far as we could see in every direction. That is more like it. It was a great feeling to have such a view as soon as we woke up, to be perched up there on our mini plateau come nest in the grass above the valley below, we had a majestic view looking up and down the valley and the first thing we had to do that morning was go downhill! The downside was the fact we were descending on an empty stomach, we hasn’t brought enough food for breakfast today as we thought we would make it to the village of Larche in time, fortunately it was just in the bottom of the valley below and required us rolling down from our perch to the valley floor to find food.
Riding without food clearly has its disadvantages… about halfway down the trail we crossed a grassy field where the trail was only half worn in, grass plus the slightest bit of morning dew equals one slippery runway. I had ridden first and had a ‘moment’ when stopping to watch Jan come down by the French and Italian flags, I looked back and tried to signal to him not to come in too fast, it didn’t work. Jan came in hot and ended up skidding all the way with only the concrete of an old WWII bunker bringing him to a stop, luckily I had the camera ready and caught the action.
The two flags flying side by side were another reminder of the history of the area we were riding through and of how close we were riding to the border (visible in the background of the flag photo), the flags side by side clearly signifying the harmony these countries live in in modern times compared to the centuries past. For the rest of the day we met many Italians who like to come over to enjoy the national parks of the French Alps.
We were warned that there was nothing in Larche but we hoped we might at least find some kind of cafe. There was one place which seemed closed but maybe open? We weren’t sure, we wondered in to what seemed like a bar that might have closed down years ago were it not for the doors wide open and the tables outside, finding a man away back in the back kitchen of the back kitchen, he agreed he would make us a coffee and a sandwich but all in good time…
We waited a long time for our sandwiches and for the time taken we were expecting something magnificent, I must admit they looked like they had some care and thought put into them, not simply a ‘croque monsieur’ (dry bread with some ham and cheese inside to you non frenchies) but a layered beast with several fillings, salad and sauces. Anyway i’m rambling about sandwiches when you would rather look at nice photos of hills and read about our riding escapades! Onwards and back up the pass.
We rode east out from Larche along the roads and soon found ourselves faced with a problem, quite a big problem. We arrived at the beginning of the trail that would take us up Le Pas de la Cavale, a big pass that heads up towards 3000m, but also the edge of the Mercantour National Park. It turns out you are not allowed to ride your bike in this national park, there were signs telling us so and not just a little 10x10cm bike with a red circle and a line through it like you might find in the UK but a full board of instructions and warnings. We were in two minds about what to do simply because we had not planned for this, our maps were so large scale that they did not show us a way around to avoid the park and not end up doing miles and miles on the road. We had chosen the GR5 specifically because it meant we would not need to carry 100 small scale maps and be constantly checking the route, it was a well sign posted route with a defined trail the whole way meaning we would just need a couple of large scale maps to check where towns and villages were and our overall progress. So do we risk riding who knows how many km on the road guessing our way through the mountains or do we risk riding through and being told off.
There were many people nearby and many people on the trails, we asked some of them about it and actually nobody seemed even to know about it and no one even seemed concerned about us taking our bikes along the trails, more along the lines of ‘you want to take your bikes up there?!’. In the end we decided there would be enough times that we would cross roads and villages that if we were told we shouldn’t be riding here then we would abandon the trail and use the road. We actually ended up chatting to a lot of people along the way about it, french hikers, foreign hikers and even locals all of which didn’t seem to know anything about mountain bikes not being allowed in the park and all of which were really enthusiastic to hear about our trip. Even though we knew there were parts we should not be riding through we took this as some kind of reassurance and were able to enjoy the ride. Anyway we didn’t even do any skids and the trails were dry so no damage was done and anyway others have told me mountain biking is officially banned on any trail under 1.5m wide in France so who knows what is right and wrong? Can we just claim the ‘we’re foreign, we didn’t know’ card?
The first part of the park was the Pas de la Cavale which was a long long climb up to 2650m, most of which ended up being a push so we weren’t riding anyway. Looking back and considering the length and elevation of this pass i’m quite surprised we managed this pass followed by another two in one day, some epic climbing and some epic descending, we basically rode down some cliffs but more on that later.
Climbing up there were a lot of people and as seemed common along these types of cols they were all congregated around the highest lake on the trail before you reached the top. it seemed the thing to climb to the lake, chill out a while, have some lunch and then summit the col before heading back down. This time however we left behind the hordes of tourists by the lake and found few people towards the top, perhaps the distance you had to hike had something to do with or the rough and rugged landscape of the last few hundred metres before the top put people off from going all the way.
The top of the col was definitely one of the more ‘epic’ moments on the trip, the combination of the big climb we had just done, the steep drop giving an uninterrupted view far into the distance and the fact we could see the white ribbon of trail meander and doge its way through the green alpine meadows made this point feel significant on the trip, it is one of the sections I remember most even now, nearly 9 months on.
We sat at the top and had some lunch joined by several passers by and a couple of chamois nearby, we also made friends with a big group of ‘older’ (careful what I say now) ladies who were ever so excited to chat with us and see what we were planning. The kind of ladies who love a good flirt with some twenty something sporty types and who had no idea about mountain biking, thinking we were crazy to be doing what we were doing and couldn’t believe we were riding the whole GR5 on our bikes. Of course, we loved the attention and i’m sure they did too, they were making their way onwards in the direction we were having finished their lunch before us but we assured them we would see them again at the bottom for another gossip!
Descending off the top of the pass was one of the most memorable pieces of trail that I have ever done! It was scary, it was exposed, it was steep, it was rocky, it was epic, it was technical, it was in an spectacular landscape and i’ll say it again, it was very exposed and scary!
Since we had sat for lunch at the top of the trail we had had plenty of time to check out the top section and the steep drops that flanked it, we realised it was the kind of thing that if you put a wheel wrong to one side then you were not stopping for a long way, if we were going to ride it then it was a case of riding it a snail speed and just staying safe rather than trying to ride it with any speed. Thankfully for the top section that had the worst exposure there was a good gap to the side of the trail before the mountain side dropped away. Me being prime camera man made Jan go first so that we could get some good shots and actually in the end we only rode small sections at a time and stopping or photos often and to exclaim how cool it was to have ridden the last 20metres and not fall off the edge! It was just too good an opportunity to miss to get some fantastic photos with the skinny trail working its way down what looked like a cliff when we looked back at it and the huge backdrops behind.
We rode 3 or 4 switchbacks winding through the black rocks of top of Le Pas de la Cavale barely daring to let the brakes off and let the bike go. The last switchback took us across a large scree slope which turned into quite a challenge having to ride across a carpet of football, more like rugby ball with the awkwardness of it all, sized rocks. To arrive at the bottom of this section without having fallen off was a relief and to look back at it was pretty exhilarating scanning the rocks to find where the trail had wounds its way through the crags and rocky outcrops.
For once I feel like the photos do the trail justice.
We were happy to make it down that section!
At the bottom of all of this Jan needed to go for a cool down, to be honest we both needed a wash but my adversity to cold water meant I still couldn’t even bring myself to go for a swim even if I did probably smell like boot of your car does after you’ve left some wet knee pads in there from the last ride. I chilled in the sun and had little snooze at the side of the trail while Jan took himself off over the hill to a lake we had spotted from higher up.
Jan clearly had a good splish splash in the water and nearly 45 minutes later returned so we could entertain ourselves with another 3km of descent!
We arrived at the bottom just in time as who should we meet? Only our ladies from lunch at the top, we came flying through the meadow to be greeted by our friends lined either side of the trail cheering and clapping as we rode on through, why isn’t the end of every descent lines with ladies cheering at the bottom?!
After all that excitement we got ourselves back into a more steady pace and headed back up for the 2nd pass of the day, Le Col des Fourches, a good section of it was rideable with the last 150m or so turning into steep switchbacks which required a bit of pushing and carrying.
At the top lay an old abandoned village and a great view back over our latest descent. Empty buildings and in this case an empty village are the kind of places that get me excited, thinking what kind of things you could make out of the old buildings, what you could turn it into, wondering who owns it, how much it would cost to buy it because you know, it’s empty and clearly not loved any more so the owner would probably just sell it for next to nothing right? And you could buy it with your savings, do it up and make it some kind of mountain biking holiday village surrounded by awesome trails and uninterrupted views…. etc etc… anyway, daydreaming… it happens a lot.
We headed on down into the valley, but not before stopping for some photos of the goats at the top, I love a good goat photo! The trail headed straight down the hillside cutting over the road which zig-zagged much more lazily down the valley. This must have been the old path originally used to walk over the col as it was lined with old stones and almost felt ‘paved’ in places, although time and erosion had clearly taken its toll with the stones lying uneven and buried for most of the way making some very awkward sections. Jan later found out as he went head over heels into a ditch, meaning he was very grateful to arrive at the cafe at the bottom to reenergise. I must point out that at this point that I’ve made a point of writing about almost every time Jan fell off, however I also fell off many a time! Just I was the one taking the photos most of the time so it was only ever Jan who was captured on film on the floor, sorry Jan.
We stopped at the cafe in Bousiéyas which I would highly recommend if you are ever passing, whether it is by bike or by car (over La Cime de La Bonnette), it is such a nice setting inside a very old building with interesting little benches on green grass terraces help up by old dry stone walls, the cakes are great too and they let us charge out phone/camera!
After a tart and a coffee we headed off for one more pass to finish off the day, in our heads it was more of a ‘lets just get to this place to get some extra miles in today’ rather than having looked at the maps and decided the trail looked good meaning we didn’t really expect too much. Once up the other side of the valley and sitting at the top of Le Col de La Colombière however, it was a different feeling. The views from here were amazing, looking down towards the village of St-Dalmas-le-Selvage with the evening light coming over the mountain tops, the greenery of the forest and fields below was emphasises even more by the dry, rocky start we had had to the day. Again with the trail we didn’t really expect too much but it turned into something amazing (I think even the word ‘magical’ was used!), almost the whole way down the trail remained only just wide enough for our tyres, only 30cm or so wide hugging the mountain side tightly following the contours around into the sunlight.
The bottom of the trail turned into a few rocky flowy rocky section with some interesting little technical parts to hop and jump through thrown in for good measure, it felt like it was one of the old paths that were built to access the village, riding down into the village on this tail in the almost golden evening sunlight felt like a fine way to arrive. Today had certainly delivered with the descending and the views and by now we were ready for dinner and a rest.
After a couple of laps of the village scoping out a camp spot we spied a flat field on the other side of the river away from the houses, we managed to find a spot kind of hidden from view fall the village and set up tent. Dinner time called and we had not managed to find shop to buy food so we opted for spoiling ourselves and eating out. We opted for the quiet looking pizzeria as a pose to the busy, touristy looking restaurant in the main square and i’m glad we did, it might have been empty but it meant the owners had much more time for us and were chatty and happy to hear about our trip, they also allowed us to fill up on bread and butter while we waited for them to cook our pizzas. We sat with our food in the square in the centre of the little quaint little village, compact and a maze of tiny streets barely wide enough for a car, full of character, it seemed like a great end to a great day… on second thoughts a second pizza each made for a great end to a great day.