'There are hills in them there mountains' - Bike Magic

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‘There are hills in them there mountains’

Me and my poo.

Sliding head first through a pile a pile of cow dung cannot be considered a good omen for a full week of mountain biking. It was the first proper day of riding and I had done little more than a hill climb. First technical bit and I was on my arse – with an audience. Pyrenees 1 BM 0.

Earlier this year Bikemagic, Specialized and friends had tackled the Atlas Descent in Morocco. Now we were in the Pyrenees with our site sponsor and good friends Marin, checking out some of the best singletrack that the Pyrenees had to offer. Marin had generously offered the use of their ’04 test fleet, meaning that 8 riders had the chance to try out Marin’s latest bikes on some exciting and flowing Pyrenean singletrack.

Luchon – a much needed after ride beer.

A friend asked me why the BM trip was going to take place in the Pyrenees. He thought the Pyrenees was a great road destination, with it being littered with famous Tour de France climbs, but knew little about any world-class singletrack. Well, it turns out that the Pyrenees is a pretty well kept secret in the world of all mountain riders. The masses tend to head to the alps in their droves with their full suss rigs and the abundance of chairlift assisted rides. Meanwhile I have found my own little piece of mountain bike nirvana and it is centred around a small town called Louchon about two hour’s drive south of Toulouse.

Marin had been generous with the use of their bikes, we had a couple of Attack Trails and Mount Visions, a Wolf Ridge, a Rift Zone and a couple of Whyte 46’s. As usual when riding something new on fresh trials it is hard to tell how much of it is the bike and how much is the trail. For most riders it almost took all week to find that they could push their boundaries a little further than they normally would. Every one seemed impressed and the bikes did the job without a fuss and it made everybody’s life a little easier by your bikes being there.

The trip was run by Exodus and they have been doing it exactly this way since 1998. When most people consider their next riding trip, Exodus may not be a company that first springs to mind. They have been enormously successful with the walking market, but many may think they are far to ‘large’ to understand the zen of good singletrack. This couldn’t be further from the truth as the quality of the riding is determined by the guides, and they have some of the best we have met.

On arrival in Toulouse we were met by our guide Oliver ‘Olly’ Townsend, a former pro elite racer and Exodus’s most experienced bike guide. From our first impression we had no idea of the horse heart beating in that small chest of his. After the collection of multiple Marin bike boxes, we were loaded up and enjoying the beauty of the southern French countryside.

Some basic instruction goes a long way.

Luckily we didn’t have a single problem with any bikes being damaged in transit (thanks BA – and they even let me on the lane with two bikes). So after everyone received a quick lesson in basic bike assembly, Olly offered up something he usually doesn’t – a Saturday afternoon ride. He took us out for a few hours to introduce us to the area and give us an impression of some of the climbs we would be riding throughout the week.

Ahhh – Sun on Singletrack

I could tell straight away that Olly was more than just a set of lungs by the way he would head into the hairpins with a nice two wheel drift. He had been guiding in the area for eight months and with this being his last trip here for some time, he obviously wasn’t holding anything back. The steep nature of the mountains in the Pyrenees means that switchback riding is par for the course and early on we took some time out so Olly could run through some of the techniques of riding these trails. These early skills sessions were going to prove beneficial for the riding that was coming up later in the week.

The Bikemagic crew was made up of a great bunch, there was Brad, Neil, Caroline, Guy, Nick, Richard, Jon and Gayle. There was also Liz, a new guide on training. Right from our first meeting in the wee small hours at Gatwick airport we all got on great and this continued until we had to say our goodbyes, again at Gatwick. These guys were a real highlight of the week and it never ceases to suprise how easy going mountain bikers are. We all had different backgrounds, different riding levels and different fitness levels. From ironmen to rugby players to marathon runners, everyone had a good reason to be fit and enthusiastic. And even though a couple hadn’t ridden in this type of environment, they tackled it with a great attitude and this ensured we all rode to the best of our ability (and some of us even beyond it).


As my reputation for putting myself in harm’s way started to grow (first the cow poo and then a fast crash on day 3 which put paid to my front wheel and a set of bars) we instigated the CC (crash club). This proved to be a very successful club with our taking new initiations on an almost daily basis. As an old sage once said, if you are not crashing you are not riding hard enough and some of us were trying really hard. Neil took his dedication to new heights when he managed to crash and puncture his arm on exactly the same rock – twice. Richard left his triathlon roots behind and by the end of the week was found hanging from a tree after coming adrift on a nasty set of roots. Gayle let out the most unfeminine of words after a knee to the stem, and then soon after with a pedal to shin. Brad must have become the crash king just on one down hill section alone. A tight switchback section on downhill day must have put him into double figures.

The types of the trails the Pyrenees have on offer are varied depending on where they are. Over the week we experienced them all – Tarmac, 4WD track, rocky singletrack, shale singletrack, dry dusty hard packed singletrack, earthy rooty singletrack – as you can imagine plenty of singletrack. Even though I would love to go through them all – here are the best bits.

Number 7 – heaven on earth.

The Number Seven Trail.

We’re talking natural swooping singletrack with leaf debris and concealed rocks, tightening corners and smooth drops, tiny tricky climbs and the infamous log steps – watch your elbows. It was bring-tears-to-your-eyes singletrack missing one thing only – more of it. This was a popular favourite of the week, andI had the feeling of being completely dialled for the first time in a long time.

Olly’s trail (for lack of a better name).
After a monstrous 8km climb (I think) on grass and in granny gear – yes it was as painful as it sounds. -we were on top of the world looking over our domain and also the singletrack that was coming after lunch. Half an afternoon down this alpine singletrack, and one tacoed wheel later (I thank you), were were heading into what was to be one of Olly’s top 5 trails in the world, and this man has been a few places. This was a fast piece of swooping singletrack with slightly off-camber corners, small tree root lips and big ring run outs. As he said himself, if you weren’t smiling at the end of the trail you had no soul as a mountain biker, I tended to agree with him. This trail also caused some heart stopping moments two days later when we repeated it and found two moutainbike tourers had parked their bikes in the middle of the trail as they camped in a nearby field. ‘My trousers feel heavy’.

Tour de France – here we come.

Col de Mente
Wednesday was meant to be a rest day, but as there was a guide in training and so many trails to be seen, we had the option of riding a Tour de France climb on the road. Many of us were already tired from the four days riding that had gone before, but a TdF climb was too much to turn down. The climb was the Col de Mente and was a 11km long 1,000 vertical metre accent. After climbing on loose fire trails and singletrack, tarseal lets you get back to pure blank mindset of mountain climbing. We were told beforehand that ‘The Pirate’ Pantani had climbed this same climb in 35 minutes- it was already his fourth climb of the day and wouldn’t be his last. Olly had done it in 45 minutes with everything hanging out. On this sunny Wednesday, some of us were able to get up there in about an hour with the slowest of us putting in a still very respectable 1 hour 15. We encountered various roadies on the way up that wished us luck in French, some of us re-encountered our breakfasts but overall it was great to see just what the pros throw themselves up at such speed. This was just the start of the day with still many hours of singletrack and ancient horse tracks to be enjoyed. It did seem fitting however that on TdF day we ended with a road sprint back to the bar. Unfortunately no polka dot or green jersey for me.

Shuttle runs on Thursday
By Thursday, most of us had already been riding for 5 straight days and had sampled the variety of trails that were available. With this experience in mind we were on course for a day of shuttling in the Exodus van. Normally this is day for the Superbagnes Gondala, but unfortunately that was closed for maintenance. The flexibility of the van gave us the opportunity to attack some trails we had already ridden. Any trail where you only have to go down (and not up) is welcomed by me and with the prior knowledge of the trails that were on offer, we got to really let loose of some really fantastic riding. This also gave Neil the opportunity to face his demons and eventually crash on exactly the same rock section in exactly the same way – don’t worry about it mate, I always thought arms were overrated anyway.

Epic climbing – on grass.

Number 6
Number 6 was the first track we rode and one of my favourites of the week. Earth – real earth – was the surface on offer with plenty of little lips and more switchbacks than you can shake a stick at. For me this was a real highlight of the week. Kinda like loosing your MTB virginity all over again – you never forget your first.

The goat track

Again, another optional trail, nice and steep, technical, twisty, rocky and slick. Enough said. For many who hadn’t been on this type of singletrack before, this set the new standard, and after this a lot of other trails seemed, well…easier.

Sunn Chippie trail

This so-called trail apparently used to be the training ground for world champions Anne Caroline and Nicholas. It is tight, rocky and fast. What makes it surprising is that as the story goes, they would race this track two-up. Apparently they would ride up the banks of the trails to get past. It is not a full length downhill trail, or as technical, but obviously a favourite of the team and easy to see why.

Olly IS the stairmaster

The Stairmaster

Near the end of the week we were taken to a top-secret village location with a set of old paved steps. Olly then threw down the gauntlet and offered a ‘special’ prize if anyone could climb the steps. Many tried and failed. Olly then put us all to shame by riding them all smoothly on his first go. I think ‘guide’ is french for ‘show off’.

One highlight of the week that cannot be forgotten was the two cooks, Simon and Mel. These two magicians would ensure that after each ride we would return home to fruit cake, chocolate cake, coffee cake, orange zest cake, fresh biscuits as well as hot tea and coffee or cold beers. This was all be just a preview of what was yet to come each evening. Over the week we ate like kings. I don’t think I have ever eaten so consistently well. We had quayle, fresh trout, roast duck, braised beef, and that’s just to name some of the best. All meals were three courses with usually a salad for a starter, with the likes of crumbed mushrooms or cheese and bacon tart. Desert was just as fantastic, with cheese cake, individual pavlovas, chocolate moose. Even when a call was made for trifle they searched high and low to see if they had all the ingredients to make it – unfortunately some could not be found in southern France, but 10 out of 10 for effort.

Neil second time lucky.

In the Exodus cycling brochure or on their website, this particular trip is only credited with about 100 words to describe what is on offer. They also give you a basic breakdown of each day. What this doesn’t do however is give you a true feel of the epic nature of some of this singletrack. Olly had gone to great lengths during his time there to investigate new singletrack and study the maps to better link up some of the best trails with as little tarmac as possible, and for this the riding was no less than fantastic.

On the last descent.

This trip is currently rated as Grade D by the exodus standards and they say that you need to be a fit intermediate rider. There is no super technical riding but it is all about how hard as you want to push yourself. Ideally you want to love climbs just as much as you love the descents. But know one thing, after a week of climbing and riding in the Pyrenees you will return home a new rider. You will have been built faster, stronger and fitter than you ever were before.

Thanks to exodus for organising the group trip and and thanks for Marin for letting a bunch on numptys thrash their bikes in the mountains. It was appreciated.


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