So far summer has been here, there and everywhere, sometimes even with a shower or a night indoors sneaked into the gaps, and only the odd moment of access to the internet and all the other things that don’t come included with life in a van. On the whole, it’s been pretty pleasant!
Rounding out May and kicking off the summer was the much-anticipated EWS at Tweedlove. The world’s bets piled into the Tweed Valley to give a surreal atmosphere to woods that are usually stiflingly silent. It would be hard to add any original praise to what was recognised all-round as a huge success for the valley. Three days of practise and two days of racing – around 1,500m of climbing each day and a total race time of over 40 minutes for the world’s fastest. It was technically and physically savage, and a whole step above what has been seen in an enduro race in the UK before. With special edition ‘endooro’ facial hair in place, I had a good two days and ended in 76th place among the 400 strong pack. Word has it that the EWS will be back to Tweedlove next year so better get training!
Just a couple of weeks after Tweedlove, me and a fully loaded van made the trip to the Alps for EWS round 3 at Valloire, in the Maurienne valley. This was an area that I hadn’t visited before, but after getting there a few days early I picked up a map and got busy exploring. What a place! The lines on the map looked like seismograph readouts, and translated into hours of switchbacked descending in forests that looked pretty free from tyre marks. It was almost a shame to have to leave the hidden walker’s paths behind and head to the big mountains for the business of racing. This was a total sea change from Tweedlove, with untamed mountainside having been taped into a course that became at times too testing for both riders and bikes. I didn’t find it easy in practise to get on with the fast,rough ‘non-trails’, but come race time there was the constant, teasing sight of the rider in front as we were released with only ten second gaps. Despite almost all of the climbing being lift-assisted, the 15 minute+ run times were draining, and the compulsion to catch and overtake the rider on the horizon meant that it was impossible not to give each run everything in the tank. My difficulties on rougher trails were reflected in my placing 131st after the first race run, but by the end of day one I got into the swing of things and had moved up to 80th. All weekend riders had been falling to punctures and crashes, and my luck didn;t hold out either. Early in the second last run of the weekend I punctured and damaged a rim, putting me out of the race, but not without a lot of lessons learned and a great impression of the area.
Annie joined me in Valloire, and following the disappointing end to the race we drove North to Chamonix and managed to squeeze in a day riding with friends Adam and Jo before starting a three day alpine mountaineering course run by the Conville Trust. The Conville Trust give financial support to young people looking to learn how to move safely in the mountains beyond those found in Scotland, and with only minimal cost passed on to us they made some potentially lifesaving skills instruction super affordable. There are only a limited number of course places made available each year, but luckily we both got a place on the same course. Meeting the guides at the Argentière campsite on the first morning, we ran through the basics of kit requirements and plans, and then cracked straight on up the Flégère lift to the snowline. Our guide was Richard Mansfield, a British mountain guide based in Les Houches, and we spent the three days looking at alpine rope skills, crevasse rescue and most importantly getting out on some routes above the valley. The photos speak for themselves, and both of us would recommend applying for one of the Trust’s courses if you have an interest in alpine mountaineering but want to tap in to some massively experienced advice on how to keep safe in the high mountains. If you’re interested then there’s more information to be found here:
Storms and an unseasonally low snow-line stopped our plans to stay in Chamonix to try some routes, so the obvious choice was to head through the Mont Blanc Tunnel to Italy, and then over the Col du Petit St Bernard to Bourg Saint Maurice and the lovely Bikevillage trails. The end of the trip mostly involved cheese, riding and sunshine, all with extra cheese. One of my favourite rides from the season I spent there in 2011 was ‘The Italian Job’ – a sun-soaked, off-road climb all the way from the the town back to the top of the Petit Saint Bernard at 2,200m. Knowing that it was our last day of riding, we made the most of it with a hot chcocolate in the sun on the Italian border, before spending the afternoon descending through hot pine woods beneath the col. All too soon we were back on the road north to the Channel, but the Maurienne in particular is going to be receiving a return visit, armed with a map, in the near future.
For now it’s back to work! I’m currently writing from Ballater in the Cairngorms, where I’ve been guiding for Go Where Scotland with the friendliest bunch of Swedish mountain bikers you could hope to meet. It’s all good as long as there’s good riding!