Mountain Madness

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At the end of September 2017 I took a solo trip to France and Spain to attend the Horizons Unlimited France meeting, ride the Pyrenees and compete in the HU Mountain Madness event in the Sierras de Espana. After some currency-conversion related overspending in Georgia earlier in the year this trip was done on a tight budget; tents, camp cooking and lots of riding was on the menu!

The journey there was my usual mix of working and riding; to Vichy after work, onward to Clermont-Ferrard the next morning, where I worked from a sun-drenched cafe in the city’s main square. The afternoon’s entertainments consisted of a very messy attempt at a small section of the TET France route; I ended up sideways so often I only covered 50km before giving up and heading to Souillac to stomp about in the dark setting my tent up for HU France.

This was my second visit to the French meeting and I’ll surely be back again; it’s fantastically French. You’ve got everything you’d expect at a HU meeting; presentations, workshops, exhibitors and a range of people to talk with. What’s unique is the food. While it is possible to just turn up and whip out the camp cooker I would advise against it; sign up for the full package and you’ll have some baked lovelies for breakfast, a generous portion of something-and-chips for lunch and a glorious three course meal in the evenings. These guys do cooking at scale fantastically; duck legs, local cheese, chocolate tarts – washed down with all the wine you can handle. Or more than you can handle.

For those of you English speakers reading this – don’t be put off of the French meeting. While our French friends are perhaps not quite as universally bilingual as you’ll find amongst the locals at the German meeting they’ll all speak better English than you do French. You’ll find a kernel of English speakers as well; we had two tables of English speakers and a dedicated translator for the presentations to ensure everyone understands. The organisation this year under Thierry Floreck was great; lots of presentations, well scheduled and there was even one utterly amazing, earth-shattering, mind-blowing presentation about the Caucasus from some long-haired Jesus lookalike with a Husqvarna….

The meeting over I packed up my tent while waiting for my HUMM teammate, Sayan, to arrive. So began the trip’s first and only major disaster. The bike wouldn’t start; I’d used it to charge my electronic gadgetry one time too many. No worries; I have my jump battery! But it was dead. I should have plugged in right then but thought it’ll just take too long to charge. Next trick – lets try a bump start; after much sweat and multiple attempts the engine still wasn’t running. From bump to jump we went. Hooked up some cables to a Citroen van and still couldn’t get it going. Any electrical wizards reading this… I’d love to know what could possibly have happened – we got the polarity right; we checked all fuses, we checked continuity in the cables… no matter what we tried it simply would not start from the van.

By this point I had attracted the attention of everyone left at the meeting; all of whom were merrily poking at the bike and doing weird and wonderful things with spare lengths of cable. I called a stop to that; I’m an ADAC member and – damn it – I was going to get my money’s worth. After some fuss they arranged what I assumed would be an appropriately equipped recovery vehicle to come and start the bike; all recovery vehicles have portable jump batteries – right? Wrong. A young lad turned up in a van to bundle me and the bike off to a local garage. No stress. The garage will have the kit and know-how. Maybe it did; but my driver didn’t have the keys to go into the garage – that was that; the bike was locked in the courtyard and the day was wasted.

After some fuss with the ADAC call centre, with me griping that all they had achieved so far had been to put my bike in prison, they agreed to put me up in a hotel. I could accept that, not much progress that day but a free hotel. Nice. Discussions with ADAC that evening were less than encouraging; apparently starting my bike required a specialist motorcycle mechanic – none are open in France on Mondays so I would have to wait another day. After a discussion with an ADAC technical specialist they agreed that the car garage where the bike could be trickle charged or jumped by a car mechanic. I was told to arrive there at about 10am the next morning and the battery would be charged; if it still didn’t start then I could accept it was time to involve a Huskie dealer.

Along came 10am the next morning and the bike was still locked in the van. So I agreed to get it out of the van so someone could plug it in to charge; no dice – mechanic was too busy to even point me to the trickle charger. That’s ok, they surely have a proper recovery vehicle with a jump battery – I’ll use that myself. Nope. Recovery driver was away. I plugged in my jump battery in at reception and gave it until it had one bar of charge. Connected to bike, switched on, started the engine first time. Thanks for nothing, ADAC! A few sarcastic words were exchanged with the incredibly (un)helpful team at the garage and I was, finally, on my way to the trans-Pyrenees trail!

Tackling the trail was me on my 701 and Sayan on a shiny new CRF1000 Africa Twin. We made our way from Souillac to San Sebastián in Spain without incident and with plenty of french pastries consumed along the way. I did my good deed for the day and bypassed the sidestand switch of a Honda 125 who’s owner had skidded out on a wet roundabout. A night in a cheap hotel and a most inglorious crash for me on some spectacularly slippery concrete under a railway bridge and we were on the trail. I had a range of routes loaded into my GPS; the “Official” TET Spain ran a little further south than I wanted to be. The other two routes were the “green” (GPX File) and “red” (GPX File) routes; green went from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean and red entered from France about 100km inland and then made it’s way to the Med. We were at the Atlantic – so green route it was, at least to start with.

Suffice to say – I got the colours the wrong way round when I picked them. Green was seriously tough going; there was steep rutted single-track though brush covered hills. There was mud, deep mud, sticky mud and mud over smooth rocks. There were multiple narrow tracks with nasty falls to one side; fortunately the one I fell off of was survivable…. It took us all day, from an early start, with much sweat and exhaustion to make it 75km inland. I was duly impressed by what Sayan could manage on his Africa Twin; big bike, small trails and he didn’t drop it once where my 701 was sideways regularly. After 75km of “green” and having had to give up on a few of the trails we decided to hit the roads and head to the start of “red” trail and see how the going was the next morning. We had 5 days to go and there was no way we could make it at that pace.

After a fine night’s camping with a German gentleman named Philipp, who was on his way home on his gorgeously well maintained R80GS we took the last few kilometres of road to the start of red. The difference was night and day. Red trail had very little single track; it followed mostly well maintained dirt roads and was incredibly scenic. There wasn’t any genuinely challenging terrain; which in some respects was a shame but with the time we had to complete the route we didn’t mind. The memorable sections were a ride through a national park in a valley – the route seemed to be designed for speed; which was at odds with the walkers and cyclists who also used the – perfectly legal – trail. I gave one half of a family a scare, and the younger half of that family a thrill, doing an entirely accidental little jump past them at the brow of a rise in the track.

Most memorable was when the track was at altitude; one section crossed a rutted field and followed the side of a mountain for kilometres; with views far into the distance. Eventually it climbed over the ridge line and I fully expected the trail to make it’s way down again; it just followed the mountain side again, then repeated the same trick – for a whole morning we had the most incredible views with only horses and vultures for company. A mountaintop observatory also provided particularly remarkable views – and my biggest scare of the trip; where I came close to riding at speed into a massive hole in the ground.

Along the way we camped; in late November the campsites were open but almost abandoned. Our main meal each day would be a menu of the day at lunchtime; a Spanish tradition out in rural restaurants. For anything from 12 to 18 euros a person you’d get your choice of three courses and a bottle of wine. At the campsite a light bite of pasta, or one evening a nicely barbecued burger, were all we needed.

We made it to the Mediterranean coast around lunchtime on the Saturday before the HUMM was due to start. A surprisingly long motorway blast later and we were checked into our respective hotels giving us Sunday for rest and recuperation; with the rally briefing scheduled for that evening.

The turnout for the event was shockingly poor; there were only three teams and 7 competitors. Sayan and I were teamed up with Jeff Test; who had flown over from the USA to take part and had quite a hard time finding a bike to rent. He ended up with an immaculate F700GS with road tyres and a proscription in his contract specifying no off road riding. Up against us were two highly disciplined gentlemen, formerly of the British Army, on their big boxer engine powered twins and “Rodge and Podge”. Two highly undisciplined Irishmen on very lightweight KTM Enduro bikes; with huge map tables strapped to the front. I’ve got to admit that I felt completely outclassed; between the captains of discipline and the trail riding leprechauns.

The competition is, effectively, a treasure hunt. We were given the competition materials and soon discovered that none of the way points were present on the big maps at all; a printing error. To compliment the big map you’re given a smaller overview map, on one sheet of A4, which did have the way points. You’re also given a bound, laminated book which describes the way points to be found – providing a full page photo describing the location of the numbered tag you need to find and take note of and a satellite photo of the location.

The book includes the points value of each way point and a difficulty rating; rated one to five. A one would be along a well maintained, hard packed dirt road. A two could be some gravel, loose rocks or something of an incline. A three would be trickier, perhaps combining a loose surface with an incline – or some ruts. A four begins to become fairly challenging; you could encounter piles of rocks, sand, water crossings and steep grades. A five is genuinely challenging; long rocky stretches, steep inclines and deep ruts are to be expected. The points values range from 10 for an easy grade 1 to 400+ for the harder grade 5 waypoints. The points values don’t purely depend on the difficulty; points further away from the hotel are worth more – as are the most scenic locations; to encourage you to see the best that the area has to offer.

Here we found our first ace-in-the-hole. Sayan is a Physicist. Jeff was a bomber pilot. Between them they’re very good at reading maps and working with data. While everyone else was complaining about the way points not being present on the big map they charged into plotting them; working late into the evening to plot the points and establish an optimal route. Me… I got snacks and looked handsome. Nobody every puts us IT guys at the top of the intellectual pile and for good reason!

9am the following morning and the competitors were off. Or, rather, we were off. The two English gentlemen still had map work to do; grid co-ordinates for the way points had been supplied that morning to make up for the printing error. Team Ireland were still in bed and didn’t set off until mid-morning. As you can tell; this competition is way more serious than Dakar. I was amazed I wasn’t still in bed myself; many Jägermeisters had been consumed the previous evening. But I was surprisingly spritely.

Day one was, unfortunately, the only day we spent on the trails with Jeff. We’d agreed to limit ourselves to grade 3 trails, and even these were too much for road tyres. He made a Stirling effort; showing far less fear than I would have done had I been in his position – with inadequate equipment and the threat of massive financial penalties hanging over his head should he do any damage to the bike. My respect re-doubled that evening when I discovered that, like me, he had only been trail riding for a year. Despite a few drops along the way we tacked some impressively challenging sections. Despite that he decided to pull out of the competition leaving Sayan and I to continue.

At the end of day one we were, surprisingly, in second place. While Rodge and Podge had impressive machines and the skills to match they also had an impressive level of recklessness; they were there to ride and cared about as much for the competition element of the event as Stalin did for the excuses of his generals. By the time they got back we were sitting down for dinner and they’d accrued so many penalty points that they were firmly into the negatives.

The next two days followed a similar pattern; Team Germany would head off at 0900 – sharp. Packed-lunch stuffed into our luggage. Team England would head off shortly afterwards; after some careful planning. Team Ireland would head off whenever they felt like it and might, maybe, get back eventually. Everyone had a great time doing things their way; nobody really had the competition in mind – it was more of a structure for what we were doing than something that drove us to push. Sayan and I tackled trails of all grades; including the 5+ routes where he earned his nickname “Super Sayan”. We may not have had map tables over our headlights but this Africa Twin rider could – thanks to his automatic transmission – hold the map in his left hand and read it while riding. Not all heroes wear capes.

We didn’t have any huge problems on the trails; I had a puncture and had to whip the rear wheel off. Sayan smashed his side stand switch on a rock and my leatherman performed another quick piece of side-stand-switch-bypass-surgery. There were a few drops for both of us; but no injuries to man or machine. The scenery in the area is gorgeous; it looks fairly dull as you approach it on the motorway but it’s up and down all over the place and you have waterfalls, valleys and mountain-tops to explore. The weather was perfect; not a drop of rain and clear blue skies every day.

At the end of event dinner the results were tallied up, points given for bringing back rubbish from the trails, for making social media posts, for having a birthday on the last day (Go Me!) and the final standings were exactly what any sane human being would have expected at the end of day one. The disciplined military men came solidly first, Sayan and I came second and Rodge and Podge came in last – although with a positive score. A testament to their skills on the trails; they must have hit a heck of a lot of way points to make up for the huge penalties they suffered from getting back late.

Most people headed home the next day; I had to work – holidays were in short supply. Over the course of the weekend I made it back home; including waking up to a frozen tent and frozen self on the massif central in France. What I thought would be the final trail riding trip for 2017 done and dusted – it had been one hell of a year. Could I realistically expect any more from 2017? I’d switched from a big “adventure” bike to a more capable Husqvarna. I’d completed an Enduro training weekend, crossed the length of Portugal, ridden the mountains of Georgia and the valleys of Armenia, crossed the Pyrenees, and come second in a rally. Not bad for my first year on a trail bike. But, winter be damned, there was more to come!

You can download GPX files of this route by clicking here.

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