The trip so far
Day 8 numbers and route map
Distance - 54km Ascent - 2877m Descent - 2695m Highest Point - 2584m, Col De Crousette
Every time I remember this day it is remembered as a day of almost pure descending, quite possible the best day ever on a mountain bike, it felt like we were riding downhill for mile after mile after mile of just never ending singletrack of every type imaginable.
I guess the descending really was good if that is how this day has stuck into my head because looking back at the photos and the numbers it reads as if we did almost as much uphill as we did downhill - 2877m of descent and 2584m of ascent!
When I look at the first photo from this day and remind myself of where we camped, I realise that most of the climbing was done in the morning, which is possible another reason I had forgotten bout it. We camped quite low in the valley just above Roya, the day before we were originally aiming to get ourselves over the top of the col and past Mt. Mounier to give ourselves slightly shorter days towards the end of the trip, however we were running on fumes and had to concede we wouldn’t be able to tackle the Col de Crousette until today.
We got ourselves up maybe a little earlier than we had been, but not too much of course, we wouldn’t want to strain ourselves in the morning. We actually had almost 1000m of climbing to do, 99% of which turned out to be hike-a-bike so it was a long hard trudge to the top first thing in the day.
A little over 30m after beginning we came past an old stone building beside the path with a large sign painted on a sheet hung outside, it felt a little out of place. The sign translates to ‘angry shepherd, no to the wolves’, we stopped here for a little while to fill our water bottles and after a minute or so a little puppy came running out to greet us, closely followed by said shepherd, after a little chat (and some difficulty understanding his strong local accent, farmers always have the strongest accents wherever you go) it transcended that the french government had reintroduced wolves to the area and they were killing his sheep, clearly an unhappy man as his lively hood was being eaten week by week and stopping it was out of his hands, we could understand his frustration.
We took quite a while to hike to the top of the pass, we arrived to find some hiker friends we had made on the previous day sitting eating lunch, clearly they were more morning people than us and had passed by our camp while we were still asleep this morning, we wondered how many others had done that too… and how many wolves had done so in the night…?!
As we neared the top we could see dark dark clouds in the mountains we had left behind, we had been so lucky with the weather so far we hoped this wouldn’t catch us, we hurried on in the hope we could keep ahead of it today if we kept up some pace.
It turned out the top of the col was not the top of the col. The top of the Col de Crousette gave way to a little sting in the tail, another 100m climb led us up to the Sièle Vallette.
Once here though, the view opened up to an incredible sight of winding singletrack as far as the eye could see.
As much as we wanted to stay and admire the view as long as possible, it was also super exposed and windy up here, so we donned the kneepads quick sharp and headed off down the trail. Only 100m in and we just couldn’t resist the perfect photo opportunities, a quick stop for each of us to take a series of photos of each other tearing down the trail, then we off! How many KM of singletrack we rode I don’t know but it felt like it went on forever…
That tiny village in the centre of the photo above is where we ended up, in marmot land.
Ever since a trip to Châtel in the alps when I was 19 i’ve had a thing about marmots, i’ll put it down to my friend Byron who came, he was (and probably still is) totally obsessed with marmots, therefore its always an exciting time when I spot a marmot nowadays. I think i’ll always remember this little village and this day for the day I accidentally ran over a marmot with my bike, poor little guy. We were just riding along a pretty casual little section of trail, sort of alpine meadow, gentle gradient, old little tumble down dry stone walls, when as we crested one of these little walls into a new field a marmot ran across my path! He let out one of those loud squeaks marmots do and managed to scamper away from the trail, luckily I was sort of half unweighted on the bike as I rode over a bump in the trail (which was not another marmot!) and managed not to properly run over him, probably more of a heavy petting on his back… with my tyre.
After collecting ourselves from a feeling of half shock, half fits of laughter, half terrible guilt for partially squishing a marmot we carried on along the path to a short and sweet uphill.
The only uphill section of this 2100m descent was a short push up that would takes us onto the alpine meadow of Les Portes de London.
For some reason today was the day we saw all the wildlife. Running over a marmot, a rather aggressive caterpillar that swung for Jan as he poked it with a piece of grass (no wonder), and a lizard that was trying to bury himself in the hard, dusty ground whilst keeping one eye on us.
The section of trail down below the refuge was very different from the open section up top. It was cut sharply into the hillside for most of the way, evidently the original trail up to the refuge from the valley below. The first section being rather steep and rocky and unrideable in places as it switchbacked down the gulley, it then opened up into a shallower gradient with less rocks where you could really get some speed, into a section with huge exposure and big drops down below and finally into another meadow with a big view down to the valley floor.
Now if I said I had a thing for marmots, when goats come into the question you can forget about marmots, I love goats! Therefore the above moment and ensuing photo is one of my favourite moments on a bike and one of my favourite photos I have taken, as we came down the trail near the refuge we were met by a herd of goats making their way up the trail, as we rode down it felt as if we were herding the goats on our bikes! Such a funny moment.
Following the meadow was a long section of fire road leading us down to the village of Roure where super tight streets, staircases and corners lead the GR5 onwards and downwards through the houses.
It was rare than Jan specifically requested a photo, but on this occasion he had come down the road and found a cool little section to jump off, afterwards he called to me if we could take a photo there. This was the result…
This was without doubt the best descent i’ve ever done on a mountain bike (disclaimer - I love technical trails)! We had just descended almost 2200m almost all of which was singletrack, and every type of it, from open alpine trails with vast views up top to steep technical sections, fast trails through the pine forests to centuries old trails leading up to the mountain village. The mixture of high speed sections and the slower technical ‘i’ll be happy if I can just ride down this’ sections was awesome and the fact that it felt like we spent most of the day descending was amazing. It also felt like this descent had been full of character, having been able to see so many miles back into the mountains with the storm in the distance to passing the mountain refuge down at the tree line, to herding goats on our bike and getting to ride down the ancient mountain pass that felt as if it has been eroded by millions of footsteps over the years. It was definitely the best descent i’ve ever ridden and I will be back again to do it!
Looking back in the photo below is only the last 500m of the trail, the old access path up from the village in the valley floor, St-Sauveur-Sur-Tinée, up to the village of Roure, in the top left of the image.
We had not stopped for a proper lunch yet since we had basically run out of food bar a few snacks here and there, we found a little boulangerie in St-Sauveur-Sur-Tinée and stocked up on many bready snacks, found a café full of old men, bought a coffee and settled down in the town square to gather ourselves.
We got the map out and had a bit of a moment of realisation… There was still a lot to do!
The following day was our last day and we were supposed to ride all the way down to Nice, then along the coastline to my friend’s mum’s place who had kindly let us stay the night before heading to the airport, all before 19:00. Eek.
To achieve that we decided we really had to get another big climb done today, we were sat in St-Sauveur-Sur-Tinée at 500m and had to get up to Le Caire Gros at 1900m, we agreed we would just spin up the hills slowly but surely and we would get there at whatever time we would get there.
We chose to take the smaller, gravel road up to Rimplas. It meant slightly more ascent and a little descent but it was shorter and we would avoid the busier road that had a lot of tunnels. Once we reached Rimplas, a village which claims to have the best water in all of the alps we could see the climb up to Le Caire Gros, a much bigger climb than we had anticipated, even after having looked at the map.
The road to the top of the pass was long and with many stops but we made it before the sun had dipped below the horizon. Ok. We were totally worn out but only 400m left to go. The problem was that we were going to loose the light soon, the first time this had even been a vague concern on our trip so far, so despite wanting to stop for longer rests we had to keep moving.
We pedalled on around the hill and into the ski resort of La Colmaine to be greeted with huge wide access roads for the ski station heading up the mountain sides, a long time since we had seen one of these. This was a slog, and probably the hardest part of the whole trip.
We ended up hiking through the last section of woods almost in the dark, it really was dusk by now and we were racing to get to a camp spot so we could set up the tent and make some food before it became completely pitch black. We didn’t have any lights since Jan had lost his head torch somewhere along the way in the last few days…
We made it with enough light to tip toe around squinting in the dark and trying not to fall over rocks while we half put up the groundsheet and tarp, it didn’t look like it was going to rain anyway, and made dinner in the dark, just being able to see the outlines of our pots and plates.
Food done. Knackered. Bed time.