I introduced the start of this route in this previous post. This post continues the journey but know that there is more to come because there is too much road riding and some exploration is required to develop the route further and include more off-road sections.
Starting and finishing at the Limoux Canoe / Kayak club (plenty of parking here), the first 3 kilometers follows the D129 to a right turn, signposted D229, Vendemies. We are heading for the tallest hill, slightly left of center on the image below.
Follow the Vendemies sign and keep the disused railway track to your right and stay right. After a short distance, the lane crosses the railway and the river Aude can be seen on the right. Keep riding until you see the railway crossing to your left but, keep right, down the side of the vineyard. You are looking for a left turn down a short drop (at 5.1 KM). Once on that, stay on the main trail and keep going; here’s where the fun starts.
The trail is an old route to the village of Alet-Les-Bains from Limoux which played a part in the construction of the Limoux – Quillan railway (recently taken out of service). Evidence of this is experienced by riding over hundreds of deeply embedded rocks on large sections of the route. Many of these are large enough to throw you offline if you take your focus off the trail to appreciate the stunning views and the river Aude some 50-meters below in some places along the singletrack.
This is an excellent start to a route that is soon going to climb from 200 to 750 meters a few minutes out from the village of Alet-Les-Bains.
Alet is an ancient village, one and a half hours from the Mediterranean and an hour from ski resorts. To each side of the village, the mountains reach 750 meters above sea level. A wall, with four gates, built in the twelfth century to protect the abbey and houses can still be seen today.
Watch for the outdoor swimming pool as you approach Alet and keep the pool on your left as you drop downhill into a car park. Here you will find a thermal pool and excellent untreated water to top up your supply before you head through the village and climb into the mountains. To reach the village, leave the thermal pool, keep left and follow the road until you reach and pass under “La Porte Cadène. Take care through the village; cars and pedestrians are common.
Time To Climb
On reaching the first square, take second left into a narrow street and keep straight until exiting the village walls and turn left onto Route de St Salvayre and climb for 5-KM to the hamlet of St Salvayre.
This section follows steep winding lanes with infrequent traffic and outstanding views particularly to the right. It requires effort and plenty of stamina although the surface is mostly smooth.
Notice the Pic de Bugarach (1,230 M / 4040 ft.). Back in 2012 when some people thought the world was going to end, some took possessions they could carry in the hope of hitching a left on alien spaceships. The area became so busy that local police had to place an exclusion zone around the mountain. Slightly to the right of Bugarach is the Pic de Canigou, one of the highest mountains in the Pyrenees at 2,785 M / 9137 ft.
If you want to ride close to Bugarach, local VTT route 34 is a must ride. You can download route details here. There are no official routes on the mountain and some sections would require bike carrying if you decided to attempt this busy hiking route.
Keep left as you pass through the hamlet.
Continue until you reach 43.021958 N, 2.319561 E. Look for the damaged sign in the photo below.
Here you will need your downhill skills, the steepest sections average 15% of descent, that’s between 1:3.5 and 1:4 so use your dropper if you have one or manually drop your saddle before sending it. Keep your center of gravity close to the line as possible. Weight too far back and you have nowhere to go if you lose control.
Don’t let the first 100-meters mislead you. It’s not steep and it is smooth until you reach the first right switchback when everything changes.
If you are used to bike park riding, prepare for a steep learning curve. Nature created this amazing trail and ‘challenging’ is a fair adjective and understated. The trail here on out, never gets wider than two meters and there is no evidence that other MTB riders have been here before. Only wild boar, deer and the occasional quad; boar and quads are great at rutting trails.
Water too has a dramatic effect on the trail. After a long, hot summer there was no evidence until the bottom of the trail (more on that later) but, stream flow evidence is always visible in the form of a ‘V’ zig-zagging the trail and reaching 30cm deep in places. Crossing this was not optional more times than I can remember.
A few notes on natural switchbacks. . .
- Switchbacks are very tight corners and often demand quick action. My style is that If I’m turning left, I imagine the center of my belly looking down the trail and I push my right knee in toward the top tube.
- They can challenge physical and mental skills and sudden alternating switchbacks can cause confusion leading to error.
- Rapid descent heading into a switchback takes nerve and a level-head.
- Surfaces are loose, rutted and often wet, especially in areas that see little sunlight
- Too much speed often results in running out of time to take appropriate action such as a necessary and sudden change of direction. Your brakes are not ‘chicken’ levers, use them but go easy on the front brake and don’t use them in corners. This is difficult and one of those things that affects psychological reason so, aim to scrub speed before the corner.
- ‘Foot-Dabbing’ is a crucial skill to know and use as is getting the right body position into and out of the lesser bends and switchbacks. On every turn, get the outside foot on the pedal at 6 o’clock and be prepared to ‘dab’ when necessary with the other foot.
- There are occasions going into a left switch when coming out you see an immediate right. In this situation it will be necessary to change your weight and dab from one foot to the other. This is where your thinking is challenged, especially if bushes and trees have kept you from seeing what comes next.
- Try not to get drawn into the tunnel vision that trees and bushes often create.
Fortunately, when the hill begins to level out, it also straightens out. Be mindful of two deep wet areas. The water here never dries out and there is thick clay a potter would be proud of on the bottom. It’s braking properties are superb. Although it’s only 20-cm of water in the dry season, riding through is not an option. Neither is getting around without getting wet feet.
Once you get beyond the water, stay on the trail and don’t take any but natural lefts until you turn left on the D229, direction Limoux.
In short, there is a lot to know and be able to action to enjoy the thrill of this 3.8-KM trail section. If you question your skills and abilities as you ride, it may not end well so, please ask yourself honestly, “am I up to this”? If you think not, stay on the road at the top and enjoy the buzz of the narrow lane down the D8002 to left onto D429, D229 and turn left again back to Limoux. It will give you plenty of time to practice your downhill and cornering skills.
Mountain Bike Routes in France (VTT) are rated for difficulty like ski routes. While I rate the first section of this route from Limoux to Alet-Les-Bains as a “Green” (easy), it’s not without hazards so take care to read the trail. The route changes from “Green” to “Blue” due to the challenging 8.3 KM climb (550 meters) from Alet to St Salvayre. After a further 3.2 KM, a sharp left turn leaves the road into a forest where the route becomes a steep and gnarly “Red” with stretches of “Black”. Technical skills are required. Once down in the valley on the D129, we revert back to “Green” for the final section back to Limoux through some much-needed relaxing countryside and, time for reflection.
Comments and Questions
These are always very welcome, please don’t hesitate to add your own and route variations if you have them. If you plan on visiting from out of area and need a place to stay, leave a comment and I will gladly share a few suggestions.