Low cloud clung to mountain sides, grey and ominous. I stepped forward, lifting one foot out of the knee deep hole in the snow it had created, placed it on the pristine white surface in front of me, slowly weighted it and waited for the inevitable sinking feeling. Each step was all the more laborious thanks to the bike resting across my shoulders, the extra weight pushing each foot a little deeper, making every step a little harder.
We had been snow plodding for a couple of hours, gradually climbing, but the Col that was our target felt further away than ever. It was only our second full day riding the GR5 hiking trail, running from St Gingolph on Lake Geneva to Nice. Already, we were questioning whether we might have bitten off a little more than we could chew. In the short term, there was little we could do, other than follow our GPS track, while attempting to pick the safest line through the deep, soft snow.
It didn’t take long for a daily routine to form. Wake, eat, get dressed into our single set of ride kit. Eat a bit more. Start riding. Upwards, always upwards. Probably dismount at some point in the climb where it becomes too steep. Heave bike onto back. Start plodding upwards. Reach col, put on knee pads, rip, whoop and giggle down a thousand metres of varied and spectacular trails. Cross the next valley, repeat. As the ride went on a ‘one col day’ was a luxury. A double the norm. Three or four weren’t unheard of. Our sense of scale changed. Any climb under 1000m felt bread and butter. Hike-a-bike went from being uncomfortable to as natural as walking without a bike on our backs.
As each day stretched on, we would begin to look forward to the next stop. We would fantasise about the first beer, a shower, a few hours of not having to make forward progress. From AirBnBs to luxury hotels to Gite D’Etapes, we once again found pleasure in simple routines. Riding kit would get rinsed in the shower and hung up to dry, ready for the next day. Snacks and beer would keep empty stomachs quiet until big evening meals, food and fatigue leading to early nights and deep sleep.
As our bodies and minds adjusted and grew stronger, adapting to the task at hand, our kit began to show the signs of the battering we were giving it. Bottom brackets creaked, suspension performance gradually deteriorated. My shoes slowly but surely disintegrated. We learned to adapt, make do and keep moving. The landscape that we passed through was always ample distraction from the minor niggles of kit. As the journey progressed, we left behind the highest of passes, each day seeing less snow that the one before. Alpine meadows were in early spring in the north, but in full bloom further south. Passing through the Maritime Alps, flora changed further, with dusty trails lined with herbs, adding amazing aromas as we brushed past.
Finally, the greatest contrast was when we rolled into Nice. After 11 days of life in the mountains, occasionally passing through small and sleepy towns, resting between ski and summer seasons, the hustle and bustle of the coastal resort jarred. Negotiating lanes of traffic to reach the beach was overwhelming to our senses. The noise felt so alien, with beeps of horns replacing the shrieks of marmots that had become our regular soundtrack. Dipping our feet into the sea didn’t bring an immediate sense of accomplishment, more a sadness that this journey was over. Our minds were already on logistics and travel – happily, it was to start the next stage of our trip, working on the iconic TransProvence race. Lying on the beach though, enjoying the sensation of having nowhere to go, even if it was just for a few hours, we began to reflect back. 650km, 22000m of climbing, 11 days. Thousands upon thousands of pedal strokes and footsteps. Countless smiles, a few tears. High fives, hugs and cold beers. Too many baguettes, never enough cheese. All of the Haribo. The best trip of my life?
Cresting a false summit, the clouds parted for a few moments, revealing Col D’Anterne directly above us, before we were once again engulfed in grey. Fifteen more minutes of snow plodding saw us cresting the Col, standing above technical switchbacks disappearing down the southern flank. Deep breaths, refocus and clip in. Wide eyes scanned the trail, aware of the consequences of getting things wrong in such a remote spot. Rock and scree eventually gave way to meadows and forests, slow speed care replaced by eyewatering thrills. These are the moments that we came for. They are the ones that have fewer pictures as we were too busy riding, the ones that passed quicker and blur at the edges. In reality, we came away with so much more than temporary rushes of adrenaline, and much more valuable. It is something that we are both still processing, and will do for a long time yet, but we are already craving the next adventure. Time to dig out the maps.
Tom wore one Kuler MTB Jersey and pair of Rise And Descend MTB Shorts for his whole journey.
He says "The shorts and jersey wicked sweat well and dried quickly once wet. They were comfortable and have worn well, despite getting thoroughly abused throughout three weeks of tough days. They’ve been crashed on, sweated in and had mud ground in. They remain my favourite riding gear, and will continue to be the first set of kit that I reach for now I’m back home."