Friday, 14 June 2013

A Summer in the Maritime Alps

It seems like I've been here in the South of France for ages, yet actually it is only 4 weeks ago that I arrived in sunny Sospel, a quiet, pretty little town nestled amongst the steep wooded hillsides of the Maritime Alps. But what a crazy busy 4 weeks it's been!
I took a few days to drive down here in the van, choosing scenic roads and stopping to enjoy some of the places I was passing, making the most of the time on my own, knowing it was going to be straight into a busy job when I arrived.
I love driving in France...unlike the UK it is an entirely unstressful experience! The roads are well maintained and frequently quiet or even empty, and it is a stunningly beautiful country to drive through, with incredible views round almost every corner, and constantly changing scenery as you drive down through it. Having the van to stop and sleep in whenever takes your fancy is the ultimate way to travel around too, and allows you to stay in some fantastic little spots.

Roadside scenery on the drive through France
The Maritime Alps is not somewhere I've ever really visited in France before, despite having spent many long summers over the last 10 years with Gareth, we always stuck to the high alps, around Chamonix, and the Haute Provence area to the north west of here. There are many, many impressive areas of France, but I have to say, even though I've only been here a relatively short period of time, it really is beautiful...I absolutely love it.
It is quiet, yet somehow bustling with the little quirky parts of French life that I love...Markets full of fresh cheeses, meats, olives and fruit and veg; the usual locals who run the Boulangerie, the Tabac, the bar, who because it is a pretty small place, already recognise you after a few visits; the amusing characters that all little french towns seem to have, propping up the bar all day and putting the world to rights over a glass of Pastis; and many more things that make me smile. The pace of life is slow, and the sun shines most of the time, and the best thing of all is that hidden on the hills surrounding the town, in every direction, are the most amazing trails for riding bikes :)
There is pretty much a lifetime's worth of brilliant riding just in this valley, and then there are multiple other mountains and valleys to explore all around. There are also climbing areas of immaculate limestone nearby, the beach only a 20 minute drive away, and pretty river gorges and canyons to swim in and sunbathe next to...not really much not to like!

Sospel old bridge (Photo courtesy of
Sospel is the base of Ash Smith and his partner Melissa and their family, organisers and creators of the Trans Provence, a 6 day Mountain Bike Enduro race that is run every October and attracts the world's best racers, and wilderness adventure biking enthusiasts, and is growing in popularity every year, as more and more people hear of the incredible race vibe, and the totally brilliant riding throughout the week. Places are limited to 55 spots for mere mortals, and 15 pros each year, and the entries sell out within seconds of going online. For good reason....
For those who don't get an entry, or who don't want to race, there is the option to join one of the guided trail weeks, following the exact race route, throughout May to July, and September.
This summer, my job is to guide on these weeks, getting to ride the route not just once, but many times....needless to say, I'm feeling pretty privileged to have this job!

Shredding the famous Grey Earth section with fellow guide Sandra

Fellow guide Chris pushing up through Alpine meadows on day 1
River crossing in the canyon...a proper bike adventure week!
Each week there is a team of 4 of us guiding 14 guests, with each day, 2 of us driving/setting up lunch and 2 guiding, then changing over part way through the day. The route travels from near Sisteron, in Haute Provence, to Menton, on the coast, right next to the Italian border. The trip is a real adventure, with long days, plenty of bike carrying, pushing and pedalling, river crossings, and a huge variety of riding. From soft, loamy, swoopy trails through forests, to narrow, exposed balcony trails tracing a line across steep hillsides, steep, rocky, loose technical descents, to open, fast and furious ribbons of singletrack crossing alpine meadows. And all with a stunning backdrop of snow-capped mountains, deep gorges, huge wooded really does have it all!
It's been great fun so far to work within a team of like-minded colleagues, meet some awesome guests and each week see their excitement and enthusiasm at the trails we are taking them on (it'd be hard not to be totally stoked by these trails....), spend all day every day outside, get to ride my bike lots....It's the best job I've ever had by far :)

Fellow guide Patrice enjoying another fun flowy singletrack descent
Plenty of balcony trails like this throughout the route
The weather hasn't always been on our side mind you...after all, we are in the Alps. Last week there was a HUGE thunderstorm one afternoon. The morning had started bright and sunny as usual, with factor 30 being lathered on by all, camelbacks filled up to their full capacity, and anxiety about the long climbs in the sun. Then suddenly, mid afternoon, the sky began to darken, and soon enough, even though we were dry at that point, the echoes of thunder in distant valleys started to be heard. We rode the descent we were on in the quickest time so far, and just as we got to the bottom and joined the road, the rain started to fall. There was frequent thunder and lightening by this point, but never that close, so we weren't too worried, we were down in the valley so it couldn't be that bad could it? Moments later, torrential hail started to batter us, the painful kind that stings as it hits your skin, and bounces up off the road it is falling so hard. Leading my group, I kept my head down, aiming for a barn I could see not far away as somewhere to shelter. As I got about 25m from the barn, the biggest, loudest, brightest, bolt of lightening and crack of thunder I've ever
heard, struck a pylon less than 20m away from where I was. It was the closest I've been to being hit by lightening, and really scary. My arms felt like electric shocks had gone through them, and my heart was beating so fast with fear and adrenalin, I was wide-eyed and breathless by the time I made it to the shelter of the barn and the excited jabber of the guests started. We waited for a while for the storm to pass, but when after an hour we were still waiting, cold and wet, and watching torrential hailstones from our dry shelter, it was time to make the call for an early pick up and call it a day.

It sounds an easy job, but it really isn't all just about playing on bikes all day. Maybe compared to a 9-5 job and the stresses that come with that it is, but you are busy all day, and the days are fact the riding is the easy bit. You are working 24 hours a day essentially, so mentally, trying to make sure all the guests have the best possible time, and everything runs smoothly and to plan is pretty draining. You are responsible for a group of people on trails which are technically demanding, exposed, and remote, and where sometimes, if you make a mistake at the wrong point, you won't be walking there's always a worry about not just ensuring everyone enjoys themselves, but also that they get down safely, and that is stressful in its own way. But I'm not complaining, I love every bit of it, and getting to ride these trails each week is a real bonus :)

On days off, there is always someone around to ride with. Yesterday morning, Ash, Emily and I set off early to go and explore a new trail that Ash had spotted on the map. We weren't disappointed. It was a trail of two halves, with the first part on sublime, flowing singletrack through the woods on the side of a hill, reminiscent of a wooded footpath in the UK (but dryer, longer and totally legal!) before it suddenly spat you out into a section of dry, rocky limestone switchbacks in the sun, surrounded by the smell of lavender and rosemary that is so familiar to the south of France. Poppies and other brightly coloured flowers lined the trail, as we cruised down to the next village for a coffee, hitched a lift back to the top of the col with a Romanian delivery driver, and then rode another amazing trail back down to Sospel. A good morning :)
Tomorrow I start a 4 week non-stop stint, so this week, have been making the most of chilled out days, riding trails in the morning, sunbathing and reading in the afternoon, repairing my bike, oh, and practising some new skills that I'll hopefully be able to put into use on the trail soon ;)

Endo practice in the garden!

Fellow guide Emily pedalling up to enjoy some more Sospel classic descents
I feel happier here than I have done anywhere in the last 18 months, and even though every night during guiding weeks is in a different place, I'm more settled than I have been for a long time. Gareth would have totally loved it here...the trails, the job, the people, the scenery, the pace of life....all the things I love about it. I wish he was here more than anything, and I think of him still every day, especially on sections of trail I just know he would have really enjoyed. I hope wherever he is, he can see me riding and know that I never stop thinking of him....

Well, time to go and sort my stuff out for the next few weeks...A bientot!


  1. great blog, what an inspiration you are Julia. Living life to the max. love from Lisa and Jules xx

  2. Fay and Lee Jordan told me about you... Really nice to read your blog... You're doing exact the right thing, Gareth would want you to live a life like this! Cheers from the dusty trails of Southern Spain to the dusty trails of the Provence! Live Life, ride fast!

    Love from Alexandra