Sunday 06 October 2019 – Quillan, France
This was an outstanding Mountain Bike Event on the mountains on the edge of the French Pyrenees with 380 mountain bikers, outstanding landscapes, incredible views (when it was safe enough to look) and a fantastic atmosphere. The event organizers did an excellent job of course planning and there were sections of course for all interests from lung busting ascents to technical descents and fast plateau and forest trails.
It wasn’t a race, but some riders clearly raced against their club buddies when the course allowed. Passing on some of the singletracks was simply not an option most of the time.
Three courses to choose from
. . . all pitched at challenging and technical. Everybody followed the same route with one add-on for riders on the 35km blue route and three add-ons for riders on the red, 50km route.
- 50km / 1600m Climb & Descent*
- 35km / 800m *
- 18km / 400m *
Aside from the excellent trail features, one of the things I liked very much was the choice. Everybody started on the 18km green route and after that it was a matter of preference to stick with red, blue or a mixture of the two. I didn’t once realize that I was one of 380 other riders and that was probably because of the staggered start times for the route people chose to start with.
The terrain in this part of the Pyrenees covers three types:
- Loose shale
So, I chose a tire pressure that was minimally softer than maximum on cross country (XC) tires and only noticed loss of traction once on the way up a very loose climb. That was rider error, not the tires 😊
The route started out ‘peacefully’ with just a couple of hundred meters of climb on firm gravel trails. It was a little worrying to see some folks struggling with this and especially because I knew that things wouldn’t stay quite so simple.
Enter the first technical section and a steep climb over a kilometer on a surface that might be best described as iced, melted chocolate. Probably more accurately described as wet clay thanks to the drainage from the higher slopes. This took plenty of effort and a lot of concentration on technique to keep traction. So much so that when a sudden sharp left turn onto a singletrack descent through the trees appeared, a lot of riders passed it and had to turn around.
Read The Trail
Apart from some pretty narrow tree gates the first 300 meters were just a little technical thanks to the very narrow stream bed we followed with its collection of roots and rocks. Reading the trail was crucial, as was listening to what was going on ahead. A lot of screeching brakes and the why of that became apparent when the stream disappeared to the right and the trail became a slick muddy mess. Scrubbing my speed was a challenge and my right arm caught an electric fence just before the hill leveled out as the trail passed a mountain meadow. I won’t print what I said here, censored. The fence looked like a trail marker tape, that’s my excuse.
Still recovering from that little shock, I flew around the next bend to be met with a steep rocky climb and some struggling riders ahead. Brain into overdrive, I needed a gear that would enable me to keep traction but not so fast that I would catch the riders ahead because there was nowhere to pass. I caught them too easily and they were moving very slowly so, when I hit a particularly steep section and unable to apply extra power, couldn’t unclip from the pedals, I did a slow-motion fall to my left and lay for an instant looking up at the trees. Now I had no option but to get up and run, the trail was too steep to remount.
I forgot all that in an instant when I reached a rolling plateau with stunning views and a double trail perfect for passing and recovering from the last few minutes. A lot of riders took advantage of the photo opportunities at the viewpoint, I decided to take my own advantage and pointed my bike to the next downhill section. The course organizers had kindly warned of “Technical Trail Features” (TTF). They hadn’t done this so far; fun ahead (First red only section, top left of map).
It looked like it had been raining rocks and there were more drop-offs than I remember as the very narrow trail twisted and descended toward the valley a long way below. The TTF sign failed to mention the three hunting dogs that had lost their way and decided to share the trail. No amount of whistling and friendly persuasion moved them but the finish of the green 18km route was only a couple of kilometers away.
Mountain Bike France
Let’s talk for a minute about route color coding. In France, mountain bike (VTT) routes are split into 4 categories:
- Green – Very Easy
- Blue – Easy
- Red – Difficult
- Black – Very Difficult
As all classes followed the same route for the first 18km, there was no way this was a green and that was evident by the amount of difficulty some riders were experiencing and I guess some of the 18km riders signed up based on their experience and limitations. Naturally, I assumed that my chosen red route was going to be challenging as a green rider may be forgiven for thinking that they would be able to cope with the route.
I have come across this before on Aude Pyrenees Blue Routes 22 and 23 and up to me I would mark them as red routes even though some sections were comfortably blue.
Take A Break
Back at the start, or finish of the 18km route, riders (including me) were tempted with coffee and healthy snacks. A perfect 5-minute break before setting out on stage two and a progressive climb from a smooth lane into a forest on the outside of Quillan town. Simple enough until the red left the blue route onto a lung busting, I feel sick, ascent.
Riders could easily be forgiven for thinking they were on the wrong route because of the lack of tire trails. As it turned out, most of us had no option but to walk, including electric bike riders. Once up though, the trip around the mountain was outstanding and the descent worth every bead of sweat.
I’m not going to recount the rest of the route, apart from outstanding views when it was safe to look, this was a challenging route for all, waymarked beautifully and well organised. While it may well have been off-putting to some, this was mountain bike heaven.
In future posts, I will look at the bikes, skills and fitness levels necessary for taking on a ride like this.
If you have any comments or questions
. . . please leave them below and I promise a prompt response.