No Place Like Home. 008. The Final Installment
Get off the bandwagon and put down the handbook
I think I left off the last report half way to Andorra, you might be thinking; why bother, you’re in the French Alps, just go hit another French resort. If you were thinking that then the ethos of our whole trip has gone right over your head. We wanted to ride ski lift fed downhill in our sixth country in 2 months. Besides if you’ve seen earthed 3 you probably want to go. The whole principality of Andorra sits way up in the Pyrenees. Once up in the mountains again, and our lengthy conversation on the drive up about the medical implications of our spending the majority of 2 months over 1500m had subsided we were greeted with yet another riding environment.
Top quality sticker placement, lads!
I think areas of characteristic flora, fauna, and climactic conditions are called biomes in ecological circles. For the sake of the point I’m trying to get across let’s call characteristic areas of riding terrain 'rideomes'. The Swiss rideome for example was almost always through well manicured rolling hillside at some stage. The trees in Italy always seemed more widely spaced than other areas, French tracks tend to stick to the ski pistes, flirting with the trees either side but never truly independent of it's sun scorched winter cousin. We could see before we even reached Soldeau that Andorra was different again. The soil and rock didn’t have that recently glaciated look that much of the Alps does and the woods looked... less vigorous, they still blanketed the hillsides but looked older and drier... wrinklier.
We spent a good deal of time when we finally got to Soldeau driving what eventually ended up being half way around Andorra looking for wheel bearings for Ali who had neglected to replace the already old ones in his front wheel before the trip – idiot. We didn’t find any so once we we're parked in the corner of a huge expanse of gravel at the edge of town and Ali busied himself with deciding which 2 of his 4 knackered bearings were most likely to make his wheel go round I wandered down to one of the huge fag and booze emporiums they call a supermarket. I got back 2 hours later, fairly pissed having tried every free sample in the shop – gypsy charm, 60% of the time it works every time.
Once on the hill the next day we sampled the blue and red runs on offer but I became increasingly irate at not being able to find the start of the black run clearly marked on the map. We became separated while I was sniffing around for this elusive black so I took my sweet time going completely ‘off-piste’ until I found it. What I found had to be it, but I kept getting lost or meeting signs/trees across the track warning me off. It was only when I looked back up the hill from the bottom that I realised they had ploughed up the mountain through various sections of the track to make way for a new chair lift – bummer. Ali was skeptical when I explained this theory to him but as I persevered in riding this, albeit punctuated delight I came up with my own way down, which as the day wore on and I memorised the route became very enjoyable.
Sure some bits were missing but in their place was hellish steep bulldozed mountain perfect for some raw flat turns. You could recognise some turns from earthed but others simply were not there anymore. As a result of my insistence on riding this track while Ali perfected the less technical reds we spent much of the day apart with the exception of an hour on the upper slopes knifing the berms on parabolica 1and 2.
These tracks were great, whole runs of dry, fast, dusty berms are always going to be, but the top chair was so cold we couldn’t take more than an hour. I coaxed Ali into following me down my black track at the end of the day and it was pretty obvious those mental notes of mine were paying dividends when I hooked up a perfect run top to bottom. Perhaps the concentration required to link each section together avoiding the warning signs and picking the right point to break off the bulldozed section back onto the track with confidence and speed took my mind off the job of actually riding my bike, a task which is often my undoing at UK races. I felt fast by my own mediocre standards, at ease with the task to hand, able to put into practice everything innately learnt over these months of riding, definitely one for the scrapbook.
We moved on to Val Nord that night, the ski area comprising amongst the other villages; Arinsal, home of none other that Cedric Gracia. We didn’t actually know which village had the lift that fed the tracks so we went to Arinsal – to ask Cedric obviously. We arrived at a 4x4/trials jam going on at the edge of town so we hung out with the beer swilling Andorrans heckling 4x4 drivers as they punished their beefed up landies over upturned skips, dump-loads of jagged rocks and crowd spraying mud bogs. All good fun, and we found out that we were in the wrong place for the dh tracks.
We cruised down to the correct town and spotted a suitably grubby out of town car park with some reels of over-head cable to hide behind. It later turned out that this car park was the finish area for all the tracks – which was nice. The next day didn’t start well when my cash card was rejected and then when we got to the front of the que for lift passes were told we needed our passport numbers! I think Ali could see I wasn’t ecstatic about living on 15 euros for the next 6 days so he rode back up to the van and got them, cheers dude. Ali bought two 3 day passes and we headed up, by this point it was midday and hotter than an Iraqi steel works, your helmet is full of hot sweat when you put it back on at the top of the lift – moan, whinge, moan. There are a bunch of tracks, but the money shot is the ‘track Cedric’ and the ‘Anne-Caro track’ I’m not sure how much input either rider actually had in their design what with there being zero jumps on Cedric’s track, but hey. Both these tracks are rough; if big loose rocks overlying bare bedrock in places are your thing then you’ll be in heaven. I was initially unimpressed and took a fair bit of stick when I said I felt unrewarded for the amount of effort I had put in just getting down my first run. This later turned out to be because I had barrelled down the roughest fire road of all time and skipped the top minute of the Cedric and subsequently could barely hold on for the rest of the run.
By the end of the day Ali and I were racing to the car park taking one of either of the tracks each. In doing so we managed probably the most sweat soaked, gruelling couple of hours of downhill, swapping tracks over and over hoping whoever was on the shorter Anne-Caro would make a mistake and the other, on the longer Cedric could claim a victory and eternal bragging rights... neither of us buckled (I did think I had it when I had a sniff at a dust cloud on the bottom section common to both tracks, annihilating the whole section as best I could only to pass some euro was scant conciliation when I was practically hallucinating with exhaustion in the car park with Ali laughing from his deck chair).
The one track each approach was also pretty sensible when you consider the dust. These tracks are fast and very loose when you do reign it in for a switchback you have to get on the gas as soon as possible or your own dust cloud spills over the edge of the track into where you’re heading – nuts. There is a third quality track used in the maxiavalanche series, longer than the others but weirdly it seemed steeper a lot of the time? Other than clipping a tree with my little finger in the afternoon and sitting out the last hour day one was great. Day two was more of the same. We messed around in the wood park and on the short tracks at the top of the hill to conserve some energy in the morning, then got down to business in the afternoon. I’m pretty sure neither of us said ‘last run’ as we wearily set off from the lift station in the ochre glow of the Andorran afternoon but I was certainly looking forward to getting out of my soaked riding kit at the bottom. I wont enter into a discussion on chaos and coincidence but it’s funny how things work out. About half way down the maxiavalanche track I ploughed through some of the dry woodland debris on the track, a short branch whipped up off my front wheel, through the spokes and jammed behind the fork legs. This freak incident just happened to occur at the top of a steep chute into a ninety-degree turn. As you can imagine I left the bike pretty sharpish, even now I can recall the instant feeling of terror when I realised I’d spent enough time falling through the air to compute what had happened and where exactly I was going to land.
Non-premeditated (does that make sense?) crashes should happen so fast you don’t know what’s going on. I landed on the flat ground of the turn at the bottom of the chute, having ejected from the bike at the top. I didn’t slide, tumble or bounce, I just hit it really hard. Ali had gone first and I’d left ample 'dust-time', after a while lying there I gathered up my bike and laboured to the car park. For the next four or five hours I was just a passenger. I sat in a deck chair unsure of pretty much everything except the fact that I was concussed. (Huge love to Jo who did a little internet search on my behalf to find out which painkillers were safe to take with a swollen brain: ibuprofen - good, aspirin – bad, in case you ever need to know... thanks mate sorry about the dramatic text message but nobody else was getting back to me).
So that was trip riding over for me. In the battle of mind over body that was the noplacelikehome tour the body had finally found a way to defeat the mind, but I’m not bitter the penultimate day is as good a time as your gonna get. Ali rode alone or with some car park acquaintances on the last day while I sat and typed nplh007. Another hit on the head could well have been curtains and nobody likes that. Just for the record, despite typing up the previous week’s action during the day I’m blaming the concussion for my lack of skills in taking spare batteries for the camera up the hill that afternoon… hence the lack of Andorra shots – sorry, I’m not a professional journalist (most of the shots in this issue are ones that never made it to previous reports for one reason or another).
We set off for home at seven in the evening after Ali had packed his stuff from the last days riding. After driving well into the night we holed up in a little town for another midnight barbeque. We then drove all day the next day to another little town. Got up, and drove all day the next day and made our ferry with about 5 minutes to spare, damn we are good! Anyone who knows me knows I hate waiting around; we planned that euro exit honest.
A couple of beers on the 5 hour ferry journey should have been ample time to conjure some thoughts for a conclusion to this epic. It wasn’t: in fact I’ve been home for three weeks now and haven’t been able to sit down and type this. Your average gap-year traveller will tell you they were miserable when they got home, experiencing the comedown after months of seeing things they’ve never seen before. We only travelled for 2 months, and there aren’t many new things to see inside the same van during that time, I think the reason it’s taken me so long to write this is something only you and I as riders could feel. The Alps are an amazing place to ride your bike, I see no way that we could have immersed ourselves more completely in what we set out to accomplish. We covered 4558 miles across 9 countries, rode downhill bikes from the top of ski lifts in 6 of those, a total of 18 resorts. There could have been more but between us we had 13 stitches, surgery requiring an overnight hospital stay in my case and various hic-ups along the way. Whilst 'travelling' has become almost a rite of passage in modern society something has become lost in its commercialization. Why are you travelling? Soldiers’ travel to go and fight in wars, scientists’ travel to make discoveries, and my Mum says she travels to experience places and moments in history, which apparently helps her to be a history teacher.
Having travelled to ride a downhill bike, travelled with a purpose, I feel I can now recognise the distinction between travel and adventure. To coin a phrase for two months we felt the spirit of adventure, something that burns inside you, pushes you further and fuels your perseverance. Since the trip ended it’s taken me a while to adjust to not living to ride my bike, for all that time away eating, drinking, driving, even resting was for one purpose only. I’ve spent at least half my evenings after work up in my local woods track building in these last three weeks. I realise now that those couple of hours each day have been a side effect of the trip, the dying embers of a fire that burned so fiercely, for those couple of hours I’ve been living to ride my bike. It’s not the travelling, the people and the places that I miss. The scenery, however secondary to the riding it may be was relentlessly breathtaking, vast landscapes and intimidating giants of rock and gravel go hand in hand with our sport and they complement each other in so many ways. The people you meet in the mountains have a special camaraderie, a willingness to help you fight with those ever-present giants. Riders in car parks across Europe exhibit this quality in its purest form; you’re all there to pit yourselves against the mountain, if you’ve come a long way to do so they respect that and it shows. This was one of the aspects that continued to amaze me throughout the trip and probably didn’t warrant the amount of coverage I gave it in so much that I was writing for a downhill website and not a travel show but it has to be experienced to be believed. It’s none of the things I wrote about in those reports that I miss, it’s something more powerful, something that you can only feel on a road trip living every minute of your day to ride your bike.
Far from claiming to have started a revolution a few people have emailed me to agree with my opinions on Morzine and Les Gets, some of those people visited the Portes du Soleil as part of short road trips and knew what I was trying to get at. Other people have just emailed me a short run down and a couple of shots of where they went this summer. More riders are starting to see the full potential of our sport; there are so many places to ride, we’ve got it good and it can only get better. If you can find the time to take a longer holiday, hell save up your 21 days – that’s the hardest part done, and go ride your bike in the Alps. We didn’t pay to park our van once; I’ll concede that a road trip is infinitely more difficult to organize and undertake than a chalet holiday but I challenge you to sit down with a beer and read all eight issues of noplacelikehome and see if you’re sat in a French bar surrounded by British riders next summer.
thank you: Everyone at Pojhorie bike park Slovenia, Pasta, Max and Karina in Halstatt – no more sun for guys, Josef the gas man, Lee – hope your iDH is everything you expected, Bergstols magazine, Sandra – we should have kept your mug Ali lost his, Nadia Latka, Everyone in Diemstigtal – sorry about the blood in the office, my anaesthetist – how was Canterbury, Tina, all the boys and girls from the UK, Bren and the whole entourage, The sickrider society (sickridersociety.ch) – I will email you eventually, Corrado Herin, Henry Charriere, Georgie – OK it might have been me that couldn’t stand up but I still blame you for l’igloo, The ‘Wolf’ family, the Tignes massive – Jess, Ally, Lucienne, and Jaun the skinsuit. Oh and my Dad for believing us when we said what we wanted to do and just getting on with being the most help possible, no questions asked.
If you want any advice on where to go, what to take, anything road trip related you know where we are. One tip I can give you for free from personal experience is take your driving licence with you, failure to do so will result in way more stress than is necessary – idiot.
Thanks for reading
noplacelikehome06 -@- hotmail.co.uk
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[ Pila, Tignes and Les Arcs 08 ] - posted on 30th March 2009 by John Wootton.
[ Pinning the Atherton Gap ] - posted on 11th August 2008 by Phil.
[ Trig does Benalmedena, Malaga, Spain ] - posted on 1st January 2008 by Trig.
[ Trig's Alpine road trip ] - posted on 16th November 2007 by Trig.
[ No Place Like Home. 008. The Final Installment ] - posted on 9th October 2006 by Trim (and Ali).
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