Two Days, Two Peaks and Two Stars
By Cedric Tassan
This mini adventure will be in my memories forever, how I guided two Mountain Bike celebrities over two days to two peaks above 3000m/ 9000ft.
In February 2012 I contacted Hans Rey, who I didn’t know at the time, to write a foreword to a new book I was publishing with VTOPO. He immediately accepted in a very professional manner. After several emails back and forth I also decided to publish the French edition of a book Hans had recently released about his 25 years of Mountain Bike Adventures, the French edition will be published in Oct. 2013. To kick off the book, I proposed to do a trip together in the French Alps.
Hans, who has done many adventure trips all over the world, wanted to know all the details about the proposed trip and the route, he also invited Dan Atherton to come along to join us. I liked the idea, because these two riders are from radically different riding styles. Hans is a former Trials rider and Adventurer, Dan is built for speed. An interesting combination of skills at 3000m of altitude.
On the way to our meeting point a torrential storm approaches, rain is poring hard when I arrive at the gas station in Barcelonnette. When I pulled into the parking lot, I found myself face to face with the hood of Hans’ motor-home. We arrived at the same time, punctuality is the first thing we shall have in common.
Hans waves me over to join them in his camper. I brought them a view gifts, a nice bottle of wine for each, some homemade jam and a book I have published about the region where I come from. While the storm is still raging outside, I unfold a map and brief them of the days ahead. Hans is very attentive, he asks a lot of questions and looks closely at the reliefs on the map. I am afraid he thinks my plan is crappy, but I quickly realize he is just curious and interested. As for Dan, I think he relies on the experienced ‘master’, as he put it himself. He has no objections, to his credit he had just competed on this very day in the famous Alp d’Huez Megavalanche Downhill, where he finished in Third place. He was keen on getting dinner and going to bed.
In the evening we were greeted by my friends Joel and Julie, who had just bought an old farmhouse in the remote hamlet Saint-Ours, located above the road to the Col de Larche in the Ubay Region of the French Alps. We had a lovely homemade dinner and talk about many things, Joel also gave us some good suggestions for our route.
Dan hits the sack and Hans sleeps in the comforts of his camper, I study the internet and find out that there are still some big snowfields we will have to pass on our route.
At first light Hans was ready to go in Swiss precision, while Dan had a hard time to get out of bed. We ate breakfast and prepared our bikes and equipment, both Dan and Hans are sponsored by GT Bicycles, they both ride the brand new 27.5 AOS models (Force and Sensor). I brought my Carbine 26”, which was my choice of bike for this trip, lightweight and reliable. We cramped into Joel’s pick-up truck and drove on a super tight off road track to the starting point. We had to do some tricky 3 way turns on the super tight and exposed switchback tracks which was actually an old military road that was in very bad condition, I’m sure nobody has driven a car on it in years. Hans announces with a big grin on this face, “the adventure has started!”.
We get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, above the tree-line – the shuttle spared us a good hour of climbing, which was welcome, especially since I had to navigate carefully to not get us lost, after we had decided to make a last minute route change, that Joel had suggested. Hans and Dan had never been to the Ubaye valley before. For myself, the new route was uncharted territory and I started to get a little nervous, I tried to stay calm and rely on my map and smartphone. Hans admits to have a good feeling about this trip which boosts my confidence.
The mountain is quite, we tackle the traverse of Valonnet, Hans sets the pace and rides many technical lines up or down. It looks promising, the first pass is located at 2524m and was reached rather quickly. The sun had not reached the valley yet, nonetheless I remove all my layers, while to my surprise Dan is covered like a bear. The guy from from the South of France in a T-shirt and the guy from the North in a warm jacket. We couldn’t help to laugh about this, but the smiles disappeared from our faces fast, when we saw the hike ahead to the Stoppia Pass. Perched at 2865m above sea level, on the boarder with Italy, we were facing a 300m vertical hike n’ bike across several snow fields and a steep colvoir at the end.
From the top we enjoyed majestic views over uninhabited terrain as far as the eye could see, including the South Pillar of Massour and our goal of the day, which lays so far ahead that it seemed impossible to reach before dark.
After a short break we start the first descent across the snow field and a bit off-piste until we reach the trail again. No Way Rey, as Hans is known, showed some of his experience in the low speed sections, playfully nosewheeling around the switchbacks, while Dan prefers the high speed sections where he can let it rip. We reach another trail junction and the following decent was much faster, Dan ‘straightlines’ with finesse across the rocks, while Hans carefully picks his lines with different but equally impressive skills.
Far too quickly we reach the beginning of the next accent , another 600m vertical of carrying and pushing our bikes along a beautiful valley, the last bit to the Gypiere is rather steep and one really bites the bullet. One more climb was still ahead of us on today’s schedule, our goal was to reach the first of the 3000m plus peaks we were here to conquer, the top of Frema. By now we are back on French soil, the panoramic views are incredible and the tail ahead consists of very loose terrain, which made it hard to walk up. By the time we arrive on the top, its already 1pm, the time passed in a hurry, between the riding and the stopping for photos and video.
Of course we take in the view, eat some food and begin to rake in today’s reward, a long downhill to the Refugio Chambeyron, which was going to be our shelter for the night. The first part of the route is not very fast, rather steep and trialsy, Hans feels comfortable on the technically exposed mountain side; Dan a little less. The “Master” rode a few very tricky sections, further down they both let the brakes go and drifted in the soft gravel all over the place – it was magical to watch. Once we were back at Gypiere the trail turned into a ordinary hiking trail, and we met quite a few of those species. The hikers were impressed by our antics and I used the chance to follow Hans’ wheels for as long as I could, I saw this as my opportunity to ride with these guys to see their lines, and to ride with my childhood hero: even though I was going much faster than I should have with my heavy camera-bag. Dan was in a class by himself, his enduro skills allow him to carry his speed with ease. These last 100m vertical when I had those guys in sight, will stay in my memory for ever.
At the mountain hut we were greeted warmly by the keeper, who lives there all summer long and who was already informed about our arrival by Philippe Leouffre the CTE of 04 Ubaye Region, who had made a reservation for us.
We order some sodas and beers and take a nap in the alpine meadow, while waiting for our dormitory style bunk-bed room to get ready. We film some interviews and talk about all sorts of things, including the book we are currently working on together. There were about 30 hikers who shared the Refugee with us, most of them gathered for dinner in the common room of the hut, Hans tried to read a French newspaper, he was particular interested in the previous days Tour de France results, which stages weren’t too far from where we were. I was the translator. At 7pm lunch was served, the same food for everybody: vegetables soup, bread, pasta, meat and homemade cake. The room empties quickly after dinner, we stayed on to play a simple card game Hans teaches us on the go. We had some good laughs and hit the sack around 10pm.
We rise to sunny skies and unusually high temperatures for this kind of altitude and time of year. We leave a few items at the hut, since we would pass by here again after summiting our second and main peak, Pointe d’Aval at 3320m.
Our wake up call is a 700m hike with our bikes on our shoulders. The trail is well marked, we have to cross and circum navigate a few more snow fields, the hike is not too bad and the ground is a bit soft, which promises fun and good traction for the way down. The views on the top in any given direction was brilliant and spectacular, definitely worth the strenuous hike. Dan and Hans’ faces lid up when I showed them the valley floor 2000m below which was our next stop. We accomplished our mission to climb Pointe d’Aval and now we were eager to cash in the reward; a sweet long downhill.
After a few photo ops near the summit we started the downhill, we quickly lost elevation. Hikers who almost had felt sorry for us early, when we had to carry our bikes, now really understood why we went through the earlier hassles.
The guys drop me quickly, I prefer to avoid any OTB’s with my heavy backpack and walked parts of the trail. The GoPro camera can be the witness for this part of the trail, and by the grin on their faces they surely enjoyed it. Back at the hut, we grab our belongings, lunch and we are on the way for the remaining 1350m of elevation, to be precisely. The hut keepers tells us we were the first to reach the summit on bikes this season. On this lower part of our ride we encounter many different kinds of singletrail, mainly fast and fun, sometimes interrupted by surprisingly sharp hairpin turns. Slides, drifts, feet on and off the pedals – it was all about eating up elevation while running the brake rotors hot. Dan plays with all the features the trail throws at us, whether it was ruts, roots, rocks, banks he finds ways to catch air or manual in an impressive manner. Before turning off towards Fouillouse, I remember the advice of the hut keeper, and I’m glad we listened. The flowy trail to Vistes lead us through a beautiful larch forest with a smooth carpet of needles covering the ground we rode over. The trail is narrow but not technical, we fly through the trees at high speed. Near the very end of our trail, Hans ran into a problem with this front tire and his pump wasn’t cooperating either, so he decided to ride the last two kilometers of paved road on this backwheel, like it was the most normal thing in the world? For him maybe? At last we arrived at the meeting point in the sleepy village of Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye where Joel would pick us up. After a quick shower at Joel’s place we fetch our vehicles and part ways. Dan has to return to Les Deux Alpes to get ready for the Mountain of Hell race, Hans has to head to Switzerland for meeting the next day and I head down south to the Cote d’Azur with many amazing images and memories in my head.
Notes from Hans Rey
I love riding with like-minded riders, at new places (preferably where nobody has ridden before) and on challenging terrain.
This trip had most of these elements. When Cedric Tassan invited me on this ride and when he showed me some the trips he had done in the past – I knew immediately that we would have lots of common ground and I could tell that his trips had some parallels to my very own adventure trips I have been pursuing over the past 20 years. It was really cool to have Dan Atherton join us as well. I’ve known Dan for quite a few years, but we have never ridden much together until this year. When he first told me that he was stoked to join us I was very excited. The last thing you would expect a rider to do, only a few hours after he finishes on the podium of the legendary Mega Avalanche Race in Alp D’Huez, was to go immediately on a gnarly back country adventure – but that’s exactly what happened. I was excited to visit the Ubaye Region, I have never ridden there before and I was surprised how remote, vast and beautiful it was. When we met Cedric near Barcelonette it was poring rain, but the weather forecast was good for the following days – which proved to be right. This was my kind of a trip, small team, great back country location, technical trails that require hiking and trials skills, and the ever so welcome infrastructure of the Alps with refuges and mountain huts/ restaurants that allow a rider to travel light.
Judging by the tire tracks ahead of us, we were not the only riders in the area, but this was never to be a first descent – I’m sure this trail is only ridden a few times each year, since it is not your common cycling path. Both Dan and I had the brand-new GT bikes, the Sensor (130mm) and Force (150mm). The uphills where often too steep to ride and we encountered snow patches more than once, the downhills were very fun, steep and had their challenges. My trials skills came in very useful – as is often the case on this high alpine tours. I like to ride treks and hiking trails where most mountain bikers wouldn’t see the fun. This trip is a great adventure, a super fit rider could even do it in one day, but personally I really enjoyed spending a night at the refugio. The downhill was endless and super fun. This is not a trip for beginner riders, but I can highly recommend it, the views from the top of the mountains are endless, as the trail criss-crosses the French / Italian boarder.
Notes from DAN ATHERTON:
I’ll admit that when Hans first approached me about this trip I didn’t immediately know how much I wanted to go – I’ve never done anything like it before, having always been in an intense race environment so I had no idea what to expect but I knew that with Hans and with Cedric Tessane I would be in good hands – if you want expert knowledge of mountain-biking and the back- country of the South of France there’s your top team right there!
So seems like next thing I knew Hans was picking me up from Megavalanche at Alpe d’Huez his crazy camper van and instead of sleeping all day after the race like I’d planned I had about an hour to get my shit together, then it’s off to the mountains around Vars where I’d raced my first Downhill World Cup. I got less convinced still when it started pissing down with rain! But next day we loaded the pick up and started to drive up the mountain, We got dropped off near this amazing old fort and the ride up began. It was brilliant – for 30 minutes or so before the hike-a bike section of the trip got started. First thing was to cross this massive snow field which was pretty tough! We spent the night in a mountain refuge – another new experience for me. I’m not that used to sharing and this place had 12 bunks to a room – luckily I could pull my hat over my eyes, and my ears….
The next day was tough too, hiking, hiking up this really steep peak but when we got to the summit –it was worth every minute of it – the views were amazing , and we had the whole descent ahead of us!.Riding with Hans is awesome, I was so impressed with the stuff that he can ride – there were loads of super steep places where I’d get off and he’d just control it down. He’s done so much for the sport, had a major hand in changing the way that the disciplines developed it was good to just be around him, learning stuff . Hans is definitely one of those people that anyone could hang out with and learn a lot. I’d recommend that trip too – for me it was pretty hard to turn off and really live it like it should be because I was in the midst of a seven week block of racing – I think you have to give yourself up to it 100% to really get the most of it , I’ll have to time it better next year. Maybe.
(the following text below is only roughly translated by Google Translate).
By road from the South: the A51, exit the terminal, Tallard. Then follow the direction of the ski resorts of Pra Loup and Sauze. Achieve Barcelonnette, continue to follow the Ubaye to Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye.
By road from the north: Briancon, follow the N94 to Guillestre and leave the main road to follow the direction of the Vars. Skip the ski and continue to Col de Vars. Down the other side to Saint-Paul-sur-Ubaye.
Ubaye is the mountain, you should start equip accordingly. The course will be bound by its remoteness, it will be independent. No question from the blue. Do not overlook the basic equipment repair and add what a derailleur repair a tire … The first aid supplies and a survival blanket is recommended. Remember that mountain weather changes quickly, it is better to take the weather before you go and see her hike if the weather is threatening. At 3000 m above sea level, these two peaks are still to take seriously. Although access are rather affordable, do not overlook the technical passages, snowfields …
WHERE TO SLEEP / OR ROOM
The area is well provided with accommodation infrastructure: lodges, guest houses, hotels … It is not lack of choice.
The restaurant offers central Barcelonnette whole bunch of addresses.
Otherwise, everything up there, it is possible to spend a night in mountain hut Chambeyron.
Do not forget to take a look at Mexican villas Barcelonnette, it’s worth it. The Ubaye also offers a rich religious heritage: chapels, churches, oratories …
Do not miss the ancient fortifications.
THINGS TO DO
If you want to do something other than mountain biking, it is possible here to discover sports whitewater rafting, canyoning, kayaking …
You will come across many pedestrians. Stay safe and courteous! Control your speed. On weekends, there may be a lot of people, families, children, other practitioners, especially when we approach the villages … Think about it! Finally, note that mobile phones do not pass, except the top of the Pointe d’Aval. Therefore, keep in mind that any emergency will be problematic …
Here as elsewhere, point out track. Stay on the trails, do not cut the pins, do not draw new paths or passages. Remember not to leave anything behind you. Finally, beware of cattle and the dogs are watching. Be sure to close the gates behind you.
2 guides ATV on the department of Alpes de Haute-Provence are available:
– VTOPO Alpes de Haute-Provence: 111 mountain bike through the department, the ride enduro family plot.
– Roaming VTOPO Alpes de Haute-Provence: two routes TransVerdon The Alps and Provence
The TDA 04 and Ubaye