Wet socks, conquering black runs and getting lost: the joys of mountain biking in the Alps.
The irony that a mountain bike riding holiday usually starts by putting your bike into a car isn’t lost on me, but with more and more far flung destinations offering tantalising riding, sometimes these things just have to be done. And so it was – several times this summer – that we shoehorned the family, our luggage, followed by even more mtb luggage, into our ‘its too small, isn’t it?’ car, strapped the bikes onto the roof and set off on holiday.
First off, we managed to convince our teenage family that a holiday in The Alps was just what they needed despite the fact there isn’t a beach. And it might rain. And they don’t like mountain biking. And they’d need to travel for ten hours with a couple of bike wheels nudging the back of their heads. As not everyone wanted to ride, we divided our time between walking in the mountains, eating, swimming in the local lake, eating, shopping at the market, eating, sneaking out for an occasional mountain bike ride while they were otherwise occupied, and then more eating. Turns out The Alps can tick almost every single holiday box with aplomb (and no one mentioned the lack of beach, so we’ll let that one go). Everyone wants to go back next year.
Here’s a brief need-to-know summary of our riding adventures there:
It’s a mountain area so the weather is changeable. If it rains a lot – as it did on the first day we were there – the lifts are closed. Even in July. We rode the valley instead, which turned out to be slightly more challenging than we anticipated as the river was bursting its banks. At a couple of points the water was so fast moving and deep that we had to remove our shoes, throw them to the other side, then pass the bikes over one by one. So, take spare socks.
When the lifts are open (which they were for the rest of the week), you may find yourself using one that requires hanging your bike on the outside via the front wheel. If you value your bike, this is possibly the most stressful part of the whole holiday.
The trail maps:
Some of the trail maps are a bit hit and miss…Here’s what happened when we chose to an ride classed as XC (and which looked long and flowy on the map.) We took the lift to the top of the mountain and followed the XC trail from there. Although it was pretty straight forward to ride(we saw just the one rider dripping with blood after a fall) it certainly wasn’t suitable for the unfit (luckily not a problem for us).
When we came to a café on the mountain side we decided to stop for a coffee before descending. “I wonder how they get the food up here?” I pondered. We soon found out – the xc descent marked on the map turned out to be a road. A third of the way down it, we agreed that we hadn’t come all this way with mountain bikes to do a road ride, so we rode back up again (mid travel trail bikes – they are a wonderful, versatile thing), and followed the trail back to the lift. Now we were faced with two options – the lift, or a black run. The black run won.
The black run:
Everyone who knew me and who had ridden here before said I’d be fine so long as I stuck to the red trails. Had I known I was going to ride a black run, I would have perhaps have skipped on the nice relaxing coffee at the top and practisced deep breathing instead. But thet trail turned out to be a beautifully built berm fest, much like the trails I’d ridden in Wales or even at Swinley had the earth tipped on its axis to make them eye wateringly steep. There were jumps too, of course, though each one was easy to spot and had a rollable option next to it.
Having faith in the trail builder is always good for confidence and I was soon swooping and whooping my way down. I punched the air when I reached the bottom. It was the highlight of the week – and, like I said, further proof that a mid travel trail bike is a wonderful, versatile thing.
…And being a bit nosey:
On the last day I followed a zig zag road up from the village, just to see where it went. I’d said I would be about 20 minutes and didn’t take any water. An hour later I was still doing the ‘I’ll just see what’s round the next corner’ climb. Just as I was going to turn back, the road turned into a trail, and curiosity really got the better of me – I was on a mtb after all. So I kept going until I got to a natural spring – now in the middle of nowhere. A sign indicated that the trail went to the next peak, probably a 45 minute ride but good sense prevailed as another rider appeared, coming back down the trail, and I decided to follow him back down the valley (safety in numbers, even though we never actually spoke to each other). I’m not one for turning back though – so I’ve earmarked that little ride for next year’s trip.
Beaches, sunshine – and every type of trail you can think of (except mountains!).
The Cami de Cavalls is a 185km ancient path that follows the Menorcan coastline (so closely that at some points you’re almost in the sea). You can hike, run or horse ride around it (it was originally designed for defence and was patrolled by soldiers on Menorquin horses), or you can ride a mountain bike.
It is an extraordinary trail featuring gullies, rocks (so many rocks), valleys, wetlands, sandy coves, short, steep rocky climbs and – what goes up etc. – steep drops. It is also a constantly changing landscape: Menorca has been declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO and you experience almost every Ecosystem in the Mediterranean world as you ride. So, you are riding boulder strewn headlands one minute, then rooty trails, sandy beaches and board walks the next.
We took four days to do our trip and everyday was an adventure mostly centred around a) staying on the bikes and b) staying on the trails, most of which are pretty remote. However get yourself to civilisation and Menorcans are super friendly and always happy to point you in the right direction or help out. A special mention for the restaurant owner (and mountain biker) who put in a call to the bike hire shop for us when a tubeless tyre, several inner tubes, mobile reception and our ability to master mountain bike terminology in Spanish all failed. Restored by good will, coffee and new inner tubes, we were soon back on our bikes again.
We wish we had taken longer to ride the trail as there are so many sights to see – we all wanted to shop in beautiful Ciutadella, for instance (I am so going back there, and next time in a more glamourous outfit) – and beautiful beaches to enjoy and often we just didn’t have time to stop. We did prioritise skinny dipping in the sea though – it is beyond inviting when you’re two hours into a ride in full sunshine (note – we visited in October and the riding temperature was perfect).
There are no mountains – but there is one great big climb. Part of the coast is unsuitable for bikes and so the trail took us inland. We were warned that it was an uphill slog though compared to some of the rockier sections of coast we found it quite easy: certainly there are longer and harder climbs at home in Surrey (yes, really). Just goes to show how your skills are built according to what you’re used to riding. Note though – this is mountain bike territory only: I love this sign!!!
No holiday is complete without a souvenir, and we all came home with lovely thigh bruises having lost arguments with tricky rocky sections. Having had post-fall elbow surgery six months ago I count myself pretty lucky that it was only my thigh got a battering. I also got a lovely set of pedal bruises up the back of one leg thanks to the sections where I had to carry/push/climb the bike over rocky ledges and steps that my inner Rachel Atherton couldn’t quite rise to the challenge of.
Our trip was booked via specialists Cami de cavils 360 . They arranged our accommodation, bike hire – full sus Trek 29ers (so glad I didn’t take my own as its bike-batteringly rough terrain), provided a thorough briefing, map and Garmin, booked accommodation, moved our bags each day and were very nice to us.
We’d ticked the accommodation box marked ‘comfort’ – a good move, as we stayed in some quite lovely hotels. I particularly appreciated the one that had a spa within ten metres of my bedroom door. I tested it out (purely in the name of research, of course) and can happily report that is just what you need after a dusty, hot day on a mountain bike.
Exercise makes you very hungry indeed so we made good use of each hotel’s self service breakfast and dinner buffets, and ate at beachside bars at lunchtime. There are fewer of these than you might expect – Menorca is largely ‘unspoilt’ – but they were all good.
This is one beautiful island with some amazing riding. Visit soon.