Working for MBUK is a huge privilege and, as you can imagine, comes with some pretty special perks. Alongside getting to ride the latest and greatest bikes, we also get to travel quite a bit too, and ride trails vastly different to our own in some of the most breathtaking places on the planet.
One trip that stood out for me this year started in Sospel, France. I was there to get a feel for the new Santa Cruz Nomad, and had three full days of riding ahead of me.
This place is seriously hard on tyres. If you do go, be sure to use a tyre with a heavier, tougher casing to help prevent punctures. Here Rob’s using Maxxis Minion DHF tyres with Double Down casings. He didn’t suffer a single puncture in three hard days of riding. Credit: Santa Cruz
The terrain in the Maritime Alps is truly incredible, with backdrops so stunningly beautiful it’s hard to keep your eyes on the trail ahead. I’d been in and around the area a few years back but only had a taster of what was on offer, so couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
Things were only helped by the fact that Ash Smith, the main man behind the Trans-Provence race (and Sospel resident), was to be our guide for the first stint of the trip. He’s no stranger to hunting out the finest, most testing trails that seem to be scattered on each and every mountain in this region.
An amazing mix of terrain makes this an incredible place to ride. Credit: Santa Cruz
I’ll not go into any detail about the bike here, as you can read all about the new Santa Cruz Nomad and women’s-specific Juliana Strega over on BikeRadar. Instead I’ll focus purely on the riding.
Tight and technical in places, followed by nerve-jangling high-speed sections – there’s no shortage of variety here. Credit: Santa Cruz
Dropping into the first couple of turns on day one highlighted just how little traction there was on offer, and how out of practice I was at riding on loose, marble-sized rocks. Still, the pace and flow (along with the sun) was a real breath of fresh air. Although speeds were pretty high at times, each run was long enough to be physically testing and required maximum concentration.
Fast open sections littered with loose jumps and drops were perfectly complemented by swooping singletrack that snaked through the trees and, on occasion, dropped into tight, loamy turns where random rocks and roots tried desperately to knock us off line.
The long grass and hidden rocks made for some interesting and, at times, terrifying moments on this particularly fast bit of trail. Credit: Santa Cruz
Just in case we were feeling like we had the measure of the terrain, one trail even slithered its way down an old, overgrown, cobbled path where awkwardly-spaced steps and painfully-tight turns did all that they could to disrupt any kind of flow that we might have had.
Old walking tracks provide some hellishly tight, awkward corners. Credit: Santa Cruz
While I may not have been totally familiar with what was under my tyres, there’s no denying it was a good way in which to get the bike set-up dialled in!
The road to Italy
Although my body was aching after a long but fun day on the bike, the second day proved to be one of the most exciting days on the trail I’ve ever had. Our plan was to take in four big descents plus a bit of pedalling to take us from our original base in Sospel all the way over into Italy, finally finishing up in Molini di Triora.
Welcome to Molini di Triora, the last place in Europe to burn a witch, apparently. Credit: Santa Cruz
From the outset, it was clear that the riding and terrain was going to be testing, to say the least. The first descent began with a steep rocky chute into a tight turn, with a wooden berm being the only real support to save you from a fair old fall over the other side.
After you made it past this tight, incredibly slow and ugly turn, all of a sudden the speeds picked up and things began to flow. From then on, it was a case of looking as far down the trail as possible and trying to pick the most effective, momentum-carrying lines through the tight turns that wound their way down the hillside.
Rocky, rooty and, most importantly, flowy. Credit: Santa Cruz
Our next descent was dramatically different and felt far less well-ridden. We were now out in the open, navigating our way down the mountain on old walking tracks that were rough as hell and, in places, overgrown. To spice things up a bit more, the tall grass did a fantastic job of hiding many of the rocks, which simply wouldn’t budge if your wheel did make contact.
Speeds were high too, making picking your way through the rock-strewn undergrowth even trickier. Thankfully, a much-needed lunch stop at a local’s house, which was perched on the mountainside, helped to restore energy levels and give me a well-deserved breather.
As the day continued, the riding just got better and nerves were tested even further. The pace really began to pick up too, and as we got ever closer to Italy, the terrain began to change. In fact, on many of the afternoon’s sections, our tyres could finally bite into dirt, adding some much-needed traction and boosting confidence levels.
There’s plenty to keep you on your toes on the trails around Molini. Credit: Santa Cruz
Trying to maintain some kind of flow while slapping from turn to turn and holding on for dear life down high-speed chutes is no easy feat, especially when you’re clattering down a trail for 15 to 20 minutes. If ever there was a true test of bike, body and mind, this was it. As the trail began to mellow, the turns tightened and the drop off the side increased, adding to already rattled nerves.
It was at this point that our guide changed. We were now in Italy, and on Adrian Nash and Jo Denham’s turf (the guys who run www.riviera-bike.com), destined for Molini.
Many of the trails use the hillside’s contours perfectly, creating jumps, gaps and drops all over the place. Credit: Santa Cruz
Before the last slog on the road, we were in store for a final test of nerves. This time, high-speed loose dirt and some tight trees made for an incredible ride. With gaps tight enough to snag handlebars and just enough traction to stay upright, it was simply a game of who could stay off the brakes.
Things started to feel a little more comfortable for me here, and my confidence began to grow. The playful nature of the bike certainly helped, letting me double up the occasional natural gap, all the while feeling predictable and stable through the turns.
Molini or bust
Hitting the trails of Molini heralded a change of terrain and, for the most part, pace. Things also get more technical, although the number of hairpin corners dwindled significantly. Shuttle runs were the order of the day, and it was nice to be able to hit run after run feeling fresh.
Some sections are pretty full-on in places. A bike with 150mm or more of travel is definitely the way to go here. Credit: Santa Cruz
The trails were cut into the hillside and used its contours superbly, retaining a natural feel. There was also a good mix of rock and root, which not only helped to keep us alert, but also dictated the pace and flow of the riding.
Tight manoeuvres at slow speeds around rocky outcrops or when holding high lines on cambers were beautifully complemented by full-throttle pinball sections where the only thing stunting our speed was ourselves. In these flat-out sections, there was support whenever we needed it and an abundance of rollers, kicks and gaps to keep pretty much everyone happy.
All in all, this region offers some incredible riding for a wide range of abilities. It’s also prime testing terrain for the ultra-capable modern trail bikes that we all love to ride. A big plus is that it’s easy to get to, with just a short flight from the UK to Nice. I know I’ll be heading back at the first possible opportunity.
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