Why did I choose gravel bikes?

I love the freedom of roaming on any given mountain-side that mountain biking offers. You just look at a mountain, find a trail and go explore. Even though you spend hours studying a topo map, there is always the uncertainty of the trail being cleaned, some farmers decided to park his livestock up there or nature taking back its rights which will make for a good laugh afterward.

While I enjoy riding the road bike on the smooth paved roads, the safety of knowing that you can be easily rescued if you get stranded is comforting and knowing at what time I will be back home is reassuring. I feel myself a little restricted though, sticking to the pavement, on what I can access and it feels less of an adventure than when I ride my mountain bike.

Living close to the border with Italy, I have discovered the Alpine line or Little Maginot Line: it is the fortified sector of the Maritimes Alps where every mountain top by the border has a fort at its top to prevent the Italian invasion during WWII. To access those forts, dirt track where built – those roads could not exceed the 8% grade, otherwise the horse carriages or truck carrying the ammos and canons would have slide back down. All these roads and forts have long been decommissioned. They are now unpaved and a perfect playing ground for gravel bikes.

What makes gavel bikes also appealing to me is that you do not need a specific bike to try it out at first or even to carry on doing it: go either for your road bike with slightly beefier tires, your cyclocross bike will do too, and even an old MTB with sleek tires can do the trick. I am no die-hard roadie but a MTBer thru and thru who likes to put some kilometres on the tarmac from time to time. I do not see the point of having a road race geometry n my bike when I have no use for it.

A more “relaxed” geometry that will be closer to my MTB geometry made more sense. That is why the lower BB, longer wheelbase and longer top tube of my Genesis Datum fit me like a glove. Setting it up more like a MTB than a road bike, with disc brakes (with the long and steep descends around home it was a no brainer) as rim brakes look cookie, and a 1x11with a 44T narrow/wide chainring and a clutch (MTB) rear derailleur, to avoid any chances of having the chain dropping.

If I am in riding a mixed terrain kind of mood, I will slap my aluminium wheels on with an 11/42 cassette and 35mm Schwalbe G-one Allround tires while if I go full roadie, I will go for the carbon wheels with 11/32 cassette and 30mm Schwalbe G-one Speed tires.

My favourite loop is like a gravel sandwich with buns of road. I call it my Tour des Cols, as I pass Orme, Ablé, Braus, Farguet, Ségra, Banquettes, Castillon and St Jean. It can be done both ways but I favour the counter clockwise option. Starting from Sospel, you take the winding Gorge du Piaon road to Moulinet where you will pass the loveliest perched Chapelle of Notre Dame de la Menour. It is a nice 12km of road to warm up and spin the legs before attacking the dirt road. Once in the village, you get onto the Beccas track for 15km to reach the bottom of Col des Cabanettes and the road which will take you to Col de l’Orme . Effectively, you are not far from the road but this valley seems so far away from civilization that it is an absolute breath of fresh air and gorgeous scenery. Between there and Braus, you will be on and off road for a handful of kilometres at a time and mostly in the forest but you will have your first pick at the Mediterranean Sea. Col de Braus to Col de Ségra on the dirt road may be the easiest part of the loop. While you have a punchy climb before attacking the last stretch of dirt road that will take you around Mt Ours, from col des Banquettes to col de Castillon and all its Forts. You finish by a nice descent to Sospel by Col de St Jean on the road.

Full loop here:

https://www.strava.com/activities/1010268986/embed/fbd859afc27bea40123fa83eef8b124f60494f74

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Village of the Damned

The Legend goes that in the 14th century, Queen Jeanne the 1st of Naples who was on the run with her children after being accused of poisoning her first husband, Andre of Hungary, found a hiding place in  her Castle in Rocca Sparviera. Nestled on the top of a 1100m mountain, with a impregnable view on the surrounding valleys.

Local villagers holding some sort of grudge against the Queen and her entourage, as they already had a hard time feeding themselves, helped out the Hungarish spies who showed up in pursuit of Queen Jeanne and brought subsistence.

On Christmas eve, Queen Jeanne went to mass in the neighbouring village of Coarraze. When she got back home, she found her children served on platters on the table.

Heartbroken, she fled the village the next day and curse the village and its inhabitants: “Un jou vendra que aqui non cantéra plus ni gal ni galina”, which could translate to “A day will come when rosters and hen will stop singing here”.

Either a damnation or a coincidence, the village got fully abandoned by the 16th century after a series of earthquakes shook the village and the spring ran dry.

Since then Sparrowhawk’s Rock (literal translation of Rocca Sparviera) has been nicknamed the Village of the Damned.

With this story in mind, we planned a 30km adventure that would take us from the medieval village of Luceram to the village of the damned and loop back. The ride can be started from different point and you can make it as long or as short as you want. We made it a mini-adventure to fit in half day as it was on trails we had never been before and if we were to get a bit lost it would not be too bad.

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Heading down to Rocca Sparviera

Here is our route.

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Riding through the Village of the Damned

It was indeed a pretty gentle ride at first climbing wise, the descent got a bit technical as we approached the village. We actually did spend an hour exploring the ruins and enjoying the view before heading back. You can definitely imagine how arid it could have been on the top of that crest with no spring water.

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Matt Wragg in the front of the lens

Mini adventure in Paillons

It had been forever since Matt Wragg and I went on an adventure together, due past end of season injury, work, different training regimen, illness, you name. We simply did not make time to enjoy each others’ company on a day-long ride. We put it right this week and I took him on a mini Trans-Paillons ride.

 

 

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 From Col de Ségra to Ongrand by Matt Wragg.

 

Our sole objective was to get from Sospel to Peille on time to catch a train home so we did not have to pedal our way home – which is easily doable if you leave early enough, have the motivation, bring enough food and have enough daylight. So not that day!

 

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Downtown Peille by Matt Wragg.

 

I took him on a ride I did once a few years ago, which means I was not 100% sure of the topo of the trail, how much climbing we would have to do, how technical it would turn out to be, if the trails were still maintained. Plus this time I forgot to put the map in my bag but knowing roughly that area, it was not too life threatening if we were to get lost.

 

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Waiting to catch the train by Matt Wragg.

 
That is why Matt calls going on a exploring ride with me is an adventure! And we did not get lost on that route,even though we missed a turn and skipped a bit of signletrack. We got to Peille with a little over a hour to spare before catching our train and plenty of time for a quick lunch. We have had enough time to had an extra track to our ride which is always a bonus.

 

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 Hopping in the train to Sospel by Matt Wragg.

 

I am looking forward to more of these mini-adventures as we get our riding in-sync.

Datas from the ride

Summer update

Quite a lot has happened since I last wrote an entry, the last one was right after I got back on a bike at the end of May, so over 3 month ago: I’ve been mountain biking since the end of May (less than 2 month post surgery), pretty early apparently for someone with a “zombie knee” aka a cadaver tendon graft to replace my anihilated ACL. I’ve also had the bright idea to start racing again since mid-June, of course without my surgeon knowing about it (apparently athletes know better – NOT!), not only at national level, but what better than do 2 Enduro World Series and the Megavalanche, just 3 month post surgery. And I got back on my Leprechaun (Santa Cruz Blur TrC) in August.

So yes, this year has not been going as expected: I lost all my fitness and confidence on the bike after the surgery and I just got the latest back in the past 2 weeks while the fitness is coming back slowly but steadily. It is definitely not how I was imagining my season unrolling back in Januray but it’s undeniably part of the game: you got ups (like my North American Enduro Champ title last year) and you have downs like this year. You got to learn from those downs to come back stronger and have bigger ups than before.

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Even though I was not ready for the Mega, that race will be the peak of my season in term of learning experience: such an ecclectic terrain and your fitness and riding abilities are constantly challenged. The snow bit (still 2km) was probably the scariest terrain I rode in the past 2 years: super steep, icy, no grip whatsoever and above all I kept thinking “I can’t fall on my knee, it’s not fully healed yet”, over and over again.

I then took over a month off from racing, to finally let my knee properly heal – try to be a reasonnable adult. During this month off from racing, I spent a few weeks travelling in France: Sospel (above Nice by the Italian border), Normandy and Haute-Loire, so I could visit my family and friends. I got to enjoy gorgeous sceneries, old stones and wonderful areas.

This month off was definitively beneficial for my confidence on the bike and to help my knee recover but not so much in term of fitness. So, when I got to the EWS #3 in Val d’Isère, I wasn’t ready for it at all with all the XC and light riding I’ve been doing. The trails were awesome, a bit of everything and some pedaling as well.

 

Pays d’Auge, Normandy

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Le Chambon sur Lignon, Haute-Loire

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A little travelling around France (in the train and by the Italian border)

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Val d’Isère

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Sospel, Alpes-Maritimes

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Post-surgery update #3

8 weeks separate my knee from surgery. It has been quite an interesting journey so far and this is just the beginning. Morale has been on a rollercoaster, going up and down depending on how recovery was going but my main moto has been “babysteps” as I had to be careful not to rush into working out too hard and letting my knee heal properly.

I’ve been able to workout more and more with my knee bothering me less and less: swimming, muscle reinforcement and hiking.I’ve been having full extension for only a week and since last friday over 120° of flexion.

One of the fun way to get more flexion was putting my skateboard under my desk at work and go back and forth, so my knee got more flexion little by little.

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But the most stoked I got is when I went on my second post-surgery ride a couple days ago, my knee didn’t even swell. I tried to ride 10 days ago but it was too early and my knee wasn’t ready: not enough flexion on its own and I forced too much on it, which lead to a swollen knee for 3 days. I chose to use flats, so it would be easier on my knee at first.

 

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My goal is to built some miles and resistance, on the road, in the next 10 days and get on the dirt once I feel confident enough and my knee is strong enough to handle it. First race is planned mid-June, a couple weeks before the Enduro World Series in Val d’Allos, so I can get a first feeling of how much far back on my training I’m before D-day.

Post surgery update #2

Time is starting to fly again: 8 physio sessions, 2 post-op check-ups with the ortho surgeon and now 3.5 weeks have passed since surgery.

 

I had to say goodbye to my rigid knee-brace and welcomed a hinged one that helps me move more freely and doesn’t make me walk like a pirate with a peg-leg. Until I’ve built back muscles in my leg – which disappeared surprisingly fast thanks to so much time spent on the coach and not being able to use my leg – and those have to be almost equal to the one in my good left leg, I’ve to wear it.

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As the arthroscopic holes have healed up, I’m now allowed to go to the pool. Being able to swim feels so good and it helps me build muscle faster. Another sign of being on the right path to recovery is not being tired all the time and being able to go work out twice in one day: nothing fancy or anything but 1000m in the pool and some weight lifting.

 

During my meeting with the surgeon, he told me that as soon as I reach reach 110/120° of flexion I can get on the trainer again but I also need to work on my extension as well. I’m just missing a couple of degree to get full extension and not having a swollen knee really helps. For the flexion part, going from 90° where I’m now to 110/120° is apparently where the fun begins, dixit the physio!

While seating, I’ve to go back and forth with my foot on a skateboard to build muscles as well as gain some degrees of flexion.

 

I just need to remember to take it easy and not overdo it: listen to my body and rest as much as possible. Keep on eating right and icing my  knee. Soon enough it will on ly be a little bump on the road.

 

Post surgery update #1

It has been 19 days since I got surgery to replace my ACL by a cadaver graft and I got myself a “zombie knee”. It is weird how easily you can procrastinate when you don’t have much time on your hands but as soon as you are on forced rest it gets boring really , really fast.

The doctor had asked me if I wanted to take a month off work to recover and thankfully I didn’t as after 5 days of being at home, I could no longer bare it. I went back to work with my new 2-wheeled friend. This nice little treat from the hospital got us some good laugh at work.

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Ten days ago, I met the ortho surgeon for my 1st post-op check-up. The graft took really well, and everything is healing nicely. He removed the stitches and freed me of my deambulator. It might not seems like much but it was enough to cheer me up and being able to walk on my own, even though it looks like I’ve a peg leg, is pretty liberating.

I still need to be careful and wear a rigid brace to keep the knee stable. I can’t bend my knee more than 70° for the next few days not to damage the anchors of the graft.

So far I can bend it at 65° and when I fully extend it, it’s still a bit tender. I have to re-train my quads by tightening them as often as possible.

I already had five sessions at the physio rehab and I’ll be going for th third time to the gym today. I can’t wait for the draining hole from the artroscopic surgery to be fully heal up so I can go to the pool.

 

Racing season is starting and you start seeing all those race reports from Enduros, it generates mixed feeling on my part as I’d love to be part of it but on the other hand, as I’m not allowed to race until mid-June, nobody will expect me and it gives me some extra time in my preparation.

I can’t wait to be able to get on the road bike though and go for a stroll outside. I’ve been able to walk around the house without my knee brace. Those are baby-steps but it feels so good.

 

 

 

Surgery

It is hard to believe that this past week I had my first surgery: I’ve been able to go through life un-sliced for the past 18 years – when I broke my first (couple of) bone(s).

Before MTBing, the other two sports that lead me to the hospital more than once were horse show jumping and snowboarding, mostly because I was a vegan with a lot of blood-defiencies.

My mother even asked me once why I couldn’t go back to Ballet which, for her, was more feminine and less dangerous. I love to push my limits in any sports I’m doing, which means I’ll get hurt no matter what.

 

This first surgery was for an injury I’ve been neglecting since last summer but caught back to me this February. I tore my ACL in August in Whistler but as I’ve a high-pain tolerance, it didn’t bug me too much and I kept on riding. A few time over the winter I had this weird filling in my knee but thought it was just a sprain and it was always going away anyway – perhaps thanks to the muscle I had developed from riding or just because it wasn’t that bad at the time.

Moving to Andorra meant less MTBing during the winter and going back to snowboarding: in early february, we had tons and tons of fresh pow and after 3 Californian winter I was stoked to get back to my first love. I tweaked my knee again but as the pow was so fresh, it was hard to not ride it.

The following week, I went to Punta Ala, Italy to check out the possible courses of the fist Enduro World Series and did so on a bad knee, which lead to fully destroying it: fully ruptured ACL, partially ruptured meniscus, fractured tibia. I definitively did a grand slam on my poor knee.

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After meeting with the orthopedic surgeon (also, I’ve to admit that before I did the MRI, I went on racing and winning the Mondraker Enduro Series #1 in Las Gavarres near Girona, on my jacked up knee), I decided to opt for an external graft to fix my knee as efficiently as possible but also without damaging another part of my body by using a tendon or ligament to replace my annihilated ACL for faster recovery.

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I did a lot of pre-op muscle reinforcement to ease the post-op rehab and now 6 days post surgery my knee is less swollen, stitches are healing and I can put a little wait on my legs and start bending my knee.

 

My goal is to be back in the pool as soon as the stitches are gone as well as at the gym to get my base muscles back on, back on the road bike in a month for intensified cardio and I’m planning on racing the 2nd EWS in Val d’Allos at the end of June.