No set of trails would be complete without one...trail hut, La Source.
No set of trails would be complete without one...trail hut, La Source.

Six trails riders jump in a minibus and set off on a dirt jump roadtrip round France with little or no planning and somehow manage to pull it off…


Words by Gareth Howell. Photos by Gareth Howell

Summer this year was a bit of a washout for the UK trails community. After a winter’s worth of hard graft the constant rain didn’t do wonders for morale. The weekend would come and rather than enjoying the fruits of your labour you’d either have the spade back in hand or be sat there in the ubiquitous trails shack watching the water drip of off the tarps. Pretty depressing when by all rights you should be out there shredding the lips, landings and berms you worked your balls (or ovaries) off to create. Now normally a roadtrip is an essential part of a summer’s riding. Spending a bit of time on the road hitting up new spots, catching up with seldom seen riding buddies, camping and generally being dicks has become a bit of a tradition amongst the trails set. However when it looks more fitting to take scuba gear than your bike it’s time to think a little further afield than the normal UK jaunt.

One of the many good things about having a decent set of trails is that other people who have trails will travel to ride yours, and generally invite you to do the same in return. This can be very useful when planning a roadtrip. As luck would have it, this spring’s visitors to the trail spots around Surrey included a couple of locals from the well known spot in the south of France called Penyier. Every year these trails host a comp called ‘Kill the Line’, it’s a Vans sponsored event and is known for being a bit more chilled out than your average dirt comp, having more in common with a local trails jam, aside from the pro riders and large amounts of money involved of course. Anyway, long and short of it is that the boys suggested we head down their way for the weekend of the comp this year, both to check that out and to ride some of the local trails. Obviously this seemed like a great idea and it was duly agreed that we’d go.

Fast forward a few months, whilst it was generally still agreed that we were going, no one had really made any move towards sorting out how this was actually going to happen. As the date drew nearer I decided things needed sorting before it became too late, so after having a chat over a BBQ down at Wisley (infamous southern trails) and doing a bit of maths, it was decided that we’d be best off hiring a minibus, both because it worked out slightly cheaper than taking loads of cars, and would do away with the inevitable problems that convoying–it incurs. We came to a deal whereby I was going to sort the bus, and Jimmy (Pratt) would book us a Eurotunnel slot. At this point we had about two weeks until the comp weekend, so we were already cutting it a little fine. I spent a day off ringing round various hire companies hassling them for the best price possible, which in the end turned out to be surprisingly cheap. Obviously I didn’t tell them that the plan was to rip the back two rows of seats out and fill it with bikes, tents and generally grubby shit for a week on the road.

Obviously Jimmy forgot to book Eurotunnel until I reminded him a few days before we were due to leave, so we ended up on a 2am crossing, meaning a full days work, go get the van, pull the seats out, load everyone up, drive to Dover, then carry on into France. At this point we still only had a vague idea on the crew for the trip, the French lads had been riding with Jimmy and Chris Hinkenickel for the most part, so obviously they were in, Tom Banfield (aka Builder) one of the old school Woburn builders, was keen, as was Jonny Faulkner from Brockham trails. Luke Cullis has been on many of a roadtrip and is always a good laugh to have along, plus had already booked the time off work, so he was in. This left a free seat in the bus, so after a few phone calls I managed to convince Phil Auckland it was a good idea to extend his student overdraft so he could afford to come along. Also Matt from ISON, promised to refund his expenses when the article came to light, which is why ISON is in capital letters, which surely must be worth a couple of extra quid?

Anyway, the day came round and I picked up the minibus after work, got it home and started trying to remove the seats, the theory being that if I managed to get the seats out quick there’d be time for a few hours shuteye before driving all night. Turns out that the seats in a Transit–based minibus are held in with a T40 torx bolt, like your disc rotor bolts, only bigger. I guess so that people like me are unlikely to have the tools to bugger about with them, which unfortunately was the case. Happily Jonny is very much into his cars and managed to procure the required bit, unhappily, the seats had obviously not been removed in a very long time and we quickly snapped it. After about four hours, a lot of phone calls, some very helpful friends of friends (who I’d love to give a mention but I’ve forgotten their names) and three or so T40 bits we finally had the necessary seats removed. By this point everyone had shown up and it was decided that we may as well head off, so after stocking up on budget energy drinks in the local Spar we hit the road.

I’d assumed the minibus would be limited to 60mph, happily, it wasn’t, so we made it to Dover way ahead of schedule, so we had a bit of time sitting at the terminal to plan a route. When I say plan a route, it was more a case of just drawing a line down a map of France. Luckily it’s a pretty straightforward drive down to Penyier if you stick on the major roads. Once we were off the train and in France it was just a case of getting on the right road and trying not to fall asleep at the wheel, which is quite hard when everyone else has nodded off and all there is to look at are the white lines on the road flashing in and out of the headlights, and just the occasional toll both to liven things up. Myself, Jimmy and Builder took turns at the wheel, swapping when whoever was driving decided it was getting a little sketchy. Things were fairly uneventful until we hit Lyon, where it was decided we’d stop, stretch our legs and grab a bite to eat. Parking a large minibus in a busy French city wasn’t quite as easy as we’d hoped and I think it’s fair to say that everyone was a little stressed out by the time we managed to park up and find a café.>>


[part title="Sleep Deprivation Et Baguettes | Dirt Jump Roadtrip Page Two..."]

Chris Hinkenickel is the master of the no-hander, proved by holding the hell out of this one on a steep and awkward step-down. Check out the trails in the background, La Source is confusing as hell.
Chris Hinkenickel is the master of the no-hander, proved by holding the hell out of this one on a steep and awkward step-down. Check out the trails in the background, La Source is confusing as hell.

A few more hours on the road and it felt like time to stop and set up camp for the night. Everyone was knackered and we were making good time, so the search for a spot to stay the night was on. As luck would have it, the French have rest stops by the toll roads at regular intervals. I’m not sure if you’re actually supposed to camp at them or not, but we did on numerous occasions on this trip and no one said a word to us. They even have clean and well–maintained bathrooms, which somehow are not full of doggers or George Michael wannabes like they would be in the UK. This makes the whole roadtrip experience far easier and less stressful than in the UK in that respect. The logical thing to do would have been to get to bed early, after all, the drivers had been awake for about 36 hours by this point. Of course that didn’t happen and we ended up sat around drinking beers and chatting shit well into the night.

Come the morning everyone was feeling suitably refreshed and spirits were high, until we stopped at a service station for breakfast and found a major downside to roadtrips in France. In the UK a fry up in the morning is an essential part of any roadtrip, in France this turned out to be nigh on impossible, pretty much all you have on offer in service stations is baguettes. A few days in we did manage to track down a supermarket and stock up on bacon and sausages to cook on the camping stove, but by the end of this trip I never wanted to see a baguette again! Now rested and fed, the collective mood of the minibus was far higher and normal roadtrip behaviour was in full effect, shouting at vaguely attractive girls in cars next to us and shaking the bus during the queues for the tolls whilst belting out Pat Benetar at full volume. Jimmy even got the finger off of some middle aged French woman, deservedly of course. I think it’s safe to say that we did the ‘English lads on tour’ stereotype proud. This renewed enthusiasm made the driving experience much more pleasurable, and added to that the temperature was picking up and the scenery had taken on a distinctly Mediterranean feel, it now felt like a proper holiday.

By the time we made it down to Penyier it was a beautiful sunny day, nice and warm, so it was on with the shorts an down to the trails. We spent the rest of the day chilling with a few beers and watching some top BMX riders shred a massive set of trails during Kill the Line qualifying. It was while doing this that we discovered that there was to be an after–party that evening, which was a little odd as there were still the finals to go the next day. After a bit of a debate it was decided that we should probably go along, helped by the fact that it was taking place about 100m away from where we’d decided to pitch the tents up in the woods. This turned out to be a very good decision. The night is a bit of a blur, but essentially we got pretty pissed up, hassled a load of pros (hopefully the photo of us with Chris Doyle has made it in) and danced about like dicks. Along the way though we somehow managed to make some useful contacts. Jimmy got talking to Jeremy Muller, who builds the trails at La Source, near Toulouse and recognized Jimmy from riding his spot when he was over in the UK a while back. I’m not sure how it happened but we also got talking to a chap by the name of Luis, who lived and had some trails not too far from Paris. So in one drunken night we’d somehow managed to plan the rest of our trip. Got to be a lesson in there.

The next day everyone was in varying states of hungover–ness and it was decided that a trip to the supermarket was in order, as everyone knows the best cure for hangover is a massive intake of bacon. Once that was all done with it was down to watch the finals, which as could be expected, was insane. Particularly impressive was that Mike ‘Hucker’ Clark was even on a bike, let alone doing well, having seen the state he was in the previous night. I don’t know how hot any of you are on geography, but Penyier isn’t very far from Marseille, which happens to be the location of a concrete bowl set–up that’s well known around the world, in part due to appearing in the first Tony Hawk’s pro skater game. Although this was supposed to be a trails trip it seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up, also it happens to be right next to a beach, so with the possibility of a dip in the sea and checking out some girls in bikinis it just had to be done. It turned out to be a good call, the sea was refreshing, the bowl was fun, although horrendously slippery, and as the sun got lower it made for some nice shots. Phil and Jimmy in particular were killing it, blasting the hell out a hip. After that we sat down and had a nice civilized meal on the beach, which really rounded off the day nicely, despite our piss–poor attempts at ordering in French, apart from Jimmy that is who just pointed and spoke loudly.>>

[part title="Sleep Deprivation Et Baguettes | Dirt Jump Roadtrip Page Three"]

The amazing Penyier trails.
The amazing Penyier trails.

The following day we awoke to less promising looking weather. Now the comp was done it was time to have our own session on the trails at Penyier. The jumps are pretty large and intimidating so it took a little while for everyone to get into the swing of things. Jimmy and Chris were looking good though, Chris especially going super high and stretching out no handers in his signature chilled out style. Unfortunately before everyone could fully get to grips with the trails the heavens opened and promptly ended the day’s riding. Not cool after driving 800 odd miles to get there! It was decided that we’d cut our losses, load up the bus and head out towards Toulouse in search of La Source. About an hour outside we stopped at another of those convenient rest stops, this time setting up hidden away in some woods so we could have a camp fire and get our BBQ on, something that had been lacking thus far in our trip.

It didn’t take long to finish up the journey in the morning and following Jeremy’s directions, with the aid of a helpful satnav equipped delivery driver, we made it to La Source. These trails are well known in the BMX world, having featured on many videos and web edits, but to my knowledge, MTB’ers riding them is something of a rarity. This shows in the way the jumps are built, not huge, but very tight and tech. There’s also a lot of lines, it took a good half hour of walking around to figure out what went where, and as everything was meticulously well groomed and tarped, we had to pick which lines to uncover, as there was no way in hell we’d be able to ride everything in the one day we had there. In the end we ended up session two very different lines, one which started small and tech, then gradually got bigger, and another which was only three sets long but ended up a nice trick–suited jump. Once everyone had gotten dialled–in a good session went down, I wont bore you with trick lists or anything, but suffice to say Phil was throwing down, and Jimmy was just being Jimmy, which is always a treat. After a good days riding it was time to water and re–tarp the jumps and then head off towards Paris, in search of Luis’ trails. Not before a quick dip in a random lake though as by this point the weather had got its act together.

I’m not entirely sure why, but for some reason we decided to just drive through the night again, and at about 2 in the morning ended up in Paris, staring up at the Eiffel tower, shortly followed by a lap of the Arc de Triomphe. At this point it was discovered that a minibus full of trails riders who have barely slept in the last few days does not make for very successful navigation around the confusing streets of Paris. There was a definite glow of morning in the night sky before we managed to escape back onto a main road and promptly pulled into a truck stop, and just crashed–out on the grass next to all the parked up lorries. A few hours kip and the drone from the motorway about 30 feet away became too much to sleep through, so once again we loaded up and headed out.

Finding Luis’ place was relatively easy, he lived in a small town on the outskirts of Paris, his parents had a farm and had let him build on some land there. He’d created a strange combination of normal looking trails, interspersed with ghetto looking wooden skatepark style creations. It turned out to be hella fun to ride, and I think everyone would agree that the best session of the trip went down there. Luis himself, despite not speaking much English, was a great host and did everything he could to make sure we had a good time. Even letting us camp on his parent’s lawn, so massive thanks to you if you’re reading this dude! Riding wise, everyone was fully on it, apart from Cullis who took a bit of a spill at La Source the previous day. Builder and Jonny both pulled out tricks I hadn’t seen them do in a while, and Phil even went upside down! A great last session to our trip.

The following day it was time to head home, so we were up and very quietly packing the bus at about five in the morning as we still had a way to drive to Calais. Once again it was a bit of a lonely drive as everyone bar me spent most of it fast asleep, but seeing the sunrise on a particularly pretty part of France made it all worthwhile. The Eurotunnel trip home went smoothly and we arrived back in good Old Blighty in time to catch breakfast at the first Maccy D’s we came to, cheap mashed together bits of random animal never tasted so good! Returning the seats to their home in the back of the bus was considerably easier than taking them out, thank God. In the end I managed to return the bus with 4 miles left in the fuel tank and the clock had just ticked over 2000 miles, I’d say we definitely got our money’s worth….

So, in conclusion, if next summer turns out to be a washout again, hire a minibus, grab a few mates and head out to somewhere it’s less likely to be raining. It’ll be a shit–ton of fun, guaranteed, and if a bunch of ‘tards like us can manage it, anyone can. Bon Voyage!