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