Thomas Vanderham and Tito Tomasi in France.
My name is Tito Tomasi, I’m a french mountain biker, Rocky Mountain ambassador and I will ride with the legend I have been watching for years in the most beautiful mountain bike movies.
It’s 9 am and I drive a rental van in the airport of Nice, the guards spotted me and I sneak the parking lot, running into the airport every 40 minutes to catch my guests. And suddenly I see a dude with a Rocky Mountain t-shirt walking in the airport, this is Margus Riga. The legendary adventure mountain biking photographer will be part of the trip for the next week.
We meet, we talk a bit and walk to the van. Trow the bikes and luggages at the back, with the food and drinks and we go in town for a quick visit of the french riviera. Starting with the seaside road, the sun bright hard and the water is turquoise. I watch Thomas and Margus discovering the iconic french beaches. We park and go for a tour of my favorite places in the old city. I forgot, I grew up here! To see the guys discovering the place is a strong moment for me, they see the latin sculptures, the old market, the life in the streets. All that authenticity is unique and it’s really nice to witness their surprise. After a light lunch with peacock floor snack and stuffed veggies, we got back to the van and drive around Monaco and Menton before heading to Roya valley, the last french valley before Italy. We leave the sea and drive up in the valley, along the river with perched villages on every side. Eventually we got into Saorge where my friend Fred is lending us his house, plenty of place for us. The village is beautiful, typical and it’s now a strong place of resistance helping the Syrian refugees coming from Italy. Our first night is awesome, we share our biking stories and make plans. The trip is looking tremendous.
ON THE MAGINOT LINE
Today the weather is bad, it rains and it’s cooler. But the forecast says the sun will be back in the afternoon. Margus couldn’t be happier with clouds and strong atmosphere, also the program of the day is a tough one, 55kilometers and 2500 meters of elevation. With a light rain we climb the valley to La Brigue village, where the rain got so strong and gnarly. After a coffee and a break the sun comes back strong and beautiful on a wet forest. The climb is a long one, we take on us and after four hours of climb eventually got to the giant ridge. This represent the border with Italy and France established in 1929, it was also the witness of fights during WWII and the bunkers attest the period. We discover a path cut in the cliff by the soldier, fun and impressive. Thomas discover a terrain mixing history and adventure, on top of the mountains we are exposed and remote. This ridge of mountain we just reached is culminating at more than 2000 meters of altitude a few kilometers away from the sea. We ride down and up, the terrain is hard but Margus gets incredible pictures with verticality and texture. The clouds are dancing on the ridge and playing with the sun. The last section is a massive drop in the forest, from the top we cannot see any village or road, it looks just like it has always been. The trail in the forest is a switchback festival, my Canadian friends are not so used to tight and awkward turns. Again an impressive and tremendous trail built in the mountain, with fortified wall, bridges and tunnel, and the path was going inside the valleys and gorges back to the village of Saorge. After a quick ride trough the streets of old village we got into the popular plaza with fountain, trees and bar! The 8 hours plus ride was enough effort for us and the beers and typical gnocchi was a good reward!
ON THE RESISTANCE LINE
We drove half an hour south and we are now on the Roya river by the lake of Breil Sur Roya. No clouds in the sky it’s looking hot! Our ride today will be shorter and easier, but we will deal with the heat. After a quick loop across the village we start our tough climb on the classic way to another perched village, Piene Haute. Using the roman path to reach the village. The trail is paved with rocks, making small steps but the elevation is gained quickly. We are traveling in time, riding on multiple centuries old trails and ageless villages. From far we can see the thousand of terraces built on the steep mountains, but history is still going on here. The Syrian refugees are using the trails in the mountains to cross the border illegally, they are in Italy and right in front in France the cops are waiting and controlling. They have installed light camps and they wait to catch some refugees. It was weird to come trough and find police presence in the wild.
As expected the sun was strong and in the demanding climb we all suffered from the head, especially in the hike a bike section! But we eventually got to the summit witch is also an old fort, in the same complex as the Maginot line. The view on the valley and all the villages was great and so was the downhill, a mountain biking trail opened recently on a ridge. With corners, jumps and steep sections we dropped towards the lake, and got back on the roman path. The last trail was rough and fast, bouncing on the rocky steps and slow in the switchback.
We jumped in the cold river and took the road for another valley.
IN THE MOUNTAIN OF THE CRYING WOMAN
Today we start a three days crossing adventure in the backcountry, we want to explore different valleys and experience the endless diversity of the region. Greg is coming to pick us up in the morning, he will be our guide and organize our assistance. Unfortunately today it’s really stormy and it rains really hard in the mountains, we have to make a decision. The call is made we are heading to Vesubie valley, going to some high peaks near the national parc limit. There is a old legend of a rejected queen who escaped from their people and walked for days in the mountain and eventually died. Nowadays the mountains, comb and passes still have the name of this legend and tell the story of the dead queen. Every where is heavily loaded with clouds but we start our big climb in the mountain, with incredible views on the mountains and dramatic atmosphere. The rain starts has we are crossing the snow patches, hopefully it’s starts easily and it’s not too cold. The pictures of the lakes, snow patches and the beautiful clouds are impressive. When the rain got too heavy we decided to ride back down to the van, escaping from the big rain, riding fast on the sketchy alpine trails.
Thanks to the van we found a shelter, but the rain was stuck on the mountain, so we decided to drive and find another spot, hopefully dry! And we did well, as we drive to Roure we could see that the rain was strong on the other side while here we found dust! And the terrain was really different, starting from one perched village we dropped all the way into the valley, a huge drop of 1200 meters on diverse trail. Red dirt, rough or fast we had a bit of everything. Flowing down in the valley we ended it at the bar after this big day. After it we drove again to get to the village Roubion, a typical village of maritimes alps, build in the mountain with small houses facing big mountains. For me it’s always a pleasure to be back here, the food is great and it’s a clam place.
IN THE RED DIRT
Starting from Roubion and heading to the alpine, we left the village in the morning to cross the pine forest. The atmosphere changes little by little and finally we got into the alpine, wide passes and beautiful trails in the mountains. The riding is great there, but it’s when we started to get into the rocks and grey dirt that the things got more interesting! A awesome combo of trails, with slabs and pine needle toping … I was stoked to ride it and share it with Thomas. Everybody was having a great time.
We stopped near the village and had food. Resting a bit in the shade before heading back to the mountains.
Second half of the day started with a long climb on a dirt road, the terrain was normal with trees and dirt, but when we crossed the pass we suddenly got into the red dirt area! And the more we were going into it, the more it was looking amazing. With canyons and balcony trail. The place is must for mountain biker! Margus was strugeling, he wanted to stop and shoot on every corner but we had to go to make it to the other side. The distance were big with proper mountainous trails. But he made it very well with the best pictures and riding on time. Trails were fun to ride and after the last pass we dropped to the road where the van was waiting for us.
It wasn’t so late so we decided to go for one last bonus lap, a very technical trail, slipery and turning a lot first, with a fast and challenging last part.
We spent the night in Valberg, an almost desert ski resort at this period of the year.
IN THE BIRTH PLACE
This is the last day of our adventure and we have a big ride ahead. Because we are starting the day from deep in the mountains and we want to ride the last mountain before the sea!
Our last day started with a long climb trough the resort, leaving the civilization to get more into the wild and reach one big and high pass around 2000 meters. With incredible red dirt to ride again this morning, Thomas was playing on and around the trail, making the most of the unique terrain. After the mythical red dirt section we got into some rough and crazy grey dirt trails, before one good climb in the heat. The vision was pretty impressive as everywhere we could look there were no human construction, but after on big climb we crossed the last pass. The last downhill was long, technical and rough at the beginning but more playful as we got into the woods. This was a long and remote ride we did in the morning.
Happy to get find a cool place to stop, rest and eat.
After another really helpful drive we finally got to Mont Vial, our last ride of the trip. This mountain is culminating at 1500 meters but is only 20 kilometers from the sea. This is also the place I did my first big mountain ride 17 years ago, that experience totally changed my vision of traveling on bikes and potential of discovery. The riding and commitment here has shaped my way of riding bikes. The trails are rough and rocky, it also long and demanding. It’s hard to describe how happy I was to show this mountain to Thomas and Margus. Both were stoked on the trail, Thomas on the riding and Margus on the quality of the pictures. With dramatic landscape and beautiful lights. With cliffs, white rocks and scree fields we were touching getting into the heart of mountain biking in maritimes Alps. After a couple of hours we finally got into the village of Gilette built in between tow rocks, with clif around and a impressive view on the Var river, it’s bed and the sea! We were getting really close and the last downhill on the roman path was our last chapter. Dropping into the valley after a break, we were conscious. This was the end and we needed to make the most of it. The winding trail was a good one and than dropped into the steep drawing crazy switchbacks, rock paved, rolling rocks everywhere and surrounded by rocks! Just the classic trails from the south of France. Ending in a luscious comb, we crossed the suspended bridge and got on the road, the end of our adventure. So close to the sea now.
Our trip together was coming into an end. We spent the last day resting on the coast. Perfect timing to visit some cape and enjoy the sea for a bit. This adventure was a blast and it was an honor to guide Thomas and Margus on my home trails. But this region is also the birth place of mountain biking in France, the proving ground and training terrain for the biggest champion of our sport. With champions like the Brunis, Vouilloz, Barel, Vergier and more the Maritimes Alps counts 29 world champ titles … This is another mecca, different British Colombia and unique too. But just like BC the Maritimes Alps has influenced the world of mountain biking. With rocky trails, old trails and modern riding.
I’m flying back home, my new home. More north in the Alps, I live in Annecy where the forest are deeper and more wet. I bring home memories from another trip, very different but so rich. Because of the mountain and because of the people, just like life the people are influencing the experience and change it. Thanks Margus, thanks Thomas this was a incredible time.
See you in BC for the next one!