Dirt Roadtrip to Lourdes, France, Venue of 2015 World Cup Round 1
From Issue #158
Words by James McKnight | Photos by Steve Jones
The slightly surreal sight of two priests smoking tabs and firing back litres of strong French beer is enough to take aback even the best man – this is a scene and a place of total unchartered chaos that comes as a complete shock. The shock should be obvious, but surprisingly it was brought about earlier in the day on the side of the mountain high above the small, but unashamedly bursting-at-the-scenes town of Lourdes, in the low Pyrenees.
It had been an epic trip already at this point. One night in and we’d have been forgiven for wanting to reach out for solace in the magically healing fountain. Laurie Greenland, World Cup racer, Junior National Champ and general all-round good guy, wouldn’t even have been mocked for a little soul searching and the odd prayer either. You see, when you’re fragile from the rigours of a journey across a country with the rolling circus act that is Steve Jones (Dirt Dep. Ed.) and Sam Jones (Dirt friend and bike tester, not related but an equally large measure), the last thing you want to be faced with is a nightmare like the Lourdes downhill track. We’ll get back to that though, first for an interlude.
Landscapes passing in a blur, sights never before seen, wrong turns and late evenings in the low sun, views to put any man into a backward stagger, stumbling through the night, friendships tested then strengthened. There’s a lot about the peripheral elements of life on the road that goes into creating long lasting moments. Memories to cherish. Then there’s the constant drinks harassment coming from the Joneses to snap you straight out of this moment of deep reflection and back to the task in hand: finishing the table full of sipped pints of Guinness bought in a last-second panic as the ferry closed its bar for the night. I’ll forego the fine details of this trip and instead focus on the good stuff; everything about Lourdes that is going to make it one hell of a 2015 season opener for the downhill World Cup.
Getting to the Point
We had driven over a thousand miles of the finest British potholes and perfect French tarmac to arrive bleary eyed at a destination that would warrant a double take at the best of times. Lourdes, you see, is something of a theme park for Catholicism, a tourist destination founded on the basis of performing miracles, built on by way of shameless capitalism. And I don’t mean any bad to the people of faith whose unfaltering devotion to a supreme being bring them, in some cases, from the far corners of the planet in search of salvation and a nod from him up there (they are in town to visit the grotto where reported ‘miracle’ sightings of Mary took place in the 19th century, a visit to the site apparently helping to cure any ailments). I am talking about the neon signs, the endless sprawl of tourist trap bars and eateries and, above all, the never-ending assault of overpriced tat for sale.
What the town’s penchant for extraction means is that not only is the entire infrastructure in place for the hosting of a big old World Cup race (with the number of hotels in town second only to Paris France-wide), but also that there’s a funicular railway installed to whisk religious sightseers upward, not for the views, but for a dank cave that forms one part of a circuit of convenience.
According to the town Mayor, who kindly took the time to meet up with us, there are around 50 sporting associations in Lourdes – everything from table tennis to climbing to downhill mountain biking is catered for and supported in some way by the council. With a ratio of 50,000 inhabitants to over 6 million tourists per year, it probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that there’s a high season (people mostly need healing in the summer months apparently) and the rest of the time clearly a lot of sport goes down. Lourdes is keen to invest in promoting non-God related tourism and something sustainable for the future as religious pilgrimage is apparently on the wane, and mountain biking has the answer (we’ll see how they feel about that once the World Cup party has been and gone).
The French have previously hosted downhill races of regional and national level in Lourdes – events of which legends have been born. Speak to anyone who has raced the track and they’ll give you a spluttering of expletives crushed into a wide-eyed account of crashes, mud and slick limestone. This is a track that serves to test not only the skill but also the very nerve of even the world’s best. When the World Cup riders asked for a series far from the ‘bike park’ courses that have become more commonplace over recent times, this is perhaps more than they could have imagined. Tech, tricky, awkward, dangerous perhaps, it’ll be interesting to see whether by race time there is all-round praise for the place or woeful words muttered, tails between legs. It’s a salt and pepper course, one that will suit some, ruin others. Let me give you a rundown of proceedings.
The Course – Have Faith (You’ll Need It)
I’ll feed you this course preview directly so that you can imagine what is in store for racers. From the high perch above town, the start ramp’s perfect unaffected view over the entire of Lourdes – directly into its streets more or less – and its surrounding valleys should give some indication as to the gradient we’re talking here. Basically vertical, and although the track largely traverses the steep incline up top it still plummets at a great rate from the get-go. Get a (flat) pedal in on the start ramp if you’d like to state your race-winning intentions, before either crashing in the onslaught of limestone boulders that hit you like a slap in the morning, or lock-and-load, feet in position where they will undoubtedly stay for the remainder of the almost pedalling-free track.
That limestone then, I may as well address the issue as you’re going to have to get used to it. Best not be touching the brakes if you’re anywhere near it and as for tyre choice, well now, good luck with that. Depending on how waterlogged the slick clay between the rocks is (I’m guessing very much so as the timing for this event in early April couldn’t have been picked more perfectly to coincide with changeable Pyrenean spring weather), you might get a chance to roll out less than a mud tyre, or else you’re going to want something that can cope with just about every technical challenge and conditions that are unlikely to be anything less than treacherous.
The punishing rude awakening of the course’s first moments quickly subsides and you’re into the first fast, flowy section of dappled light, where looking far ahead to figure the lay of the land is absolutely necessary at warp speed. Don’t get comfortable though, as before you know it things are about to get messy again as a brief glimpse of town reminds you things are (funnily enough) still awfully sheer around here. The track tightens and you drop into a series of turns with an impossibly steep inside/inside line, before a brief spell at speed again and then into the carnage.
Next the track closes in, desperate to punish a wheel, grab a rear mech or simply throw you into the bushes. Briefly all dirt disappears and pure bedrock opens up with hideous gaps and holes. Just make sure to have some strong wheels.
Plummeting from a brief moment in the open and back into the trees – which the organisers intend to thin greatly for the event – things get fun and easy (relative to the rest of it) for a while, even taking in some fresh loam and a few jumps. It’s a much needed rest, not that the body takes a great punishment anywhere here but more just in terms of levels of concentration needed to stay on the ball and upright.
That rest is needed to compose oneself before heading into the true bonkers stuff down low. Ironically the hill mellows in gradient but the track gets steeper as it points straight down into a ruck of high-speed holes, punishing sharp rocks, undulating crests and drops and edge-of-the-tyre turns. This lower final minute or so of track is what I personally found to be the true balls-to-the-wall stuff. Arms tiring, concentration faltering and you have to deal with a reasonably narrow track considering the potential speeds that are available through the trees here. Eventually you are spat out of the forest and into a final fast dash to the finish line… if the final jump doesn’t get the better of you.
Here’s one last thought. When I asked Laurie to take a run down the course with his GoPro running, shouting ‘pedalling’ at every spot when he was on the cranks, the poor lad put in his very best performance but only managed to come back with three shouts. Flat pedal thunder is all I will comment.
Getting to Grips with Lourdes
Having travelled a fair old way – although I should say that the drive wasn’t all that bad with a rotation of drivers and getting a group together to head over for the World Cup or even a weekend’s riding isn’t at all unrealistic – we were somewhat jaded initially, but the lure of a funicular railway and carefree time on a downhill bike was too much to resist. There’s nothing like a baptism of fire to quell any feelings of piety and so diving into the hell that is the limestone slip fest served as a wake up call and a reminder of mortality as rocks flashed by glazed with remnants of pedals, mechs, fork legs and basically anything else that can be smashed into sharp boulders (Sam’s knees and chest included).
With a quest to find the path of least resistance through sending laps of the track on various different bikes, it became apparent that the only key to taming Lourdes would come in the form of good brakes for emergency anchoring and big balls, because if you are willing to let go here then things can get ridiculously fast and hectic very quickly. We rode a range of geometries and components while young Laurie put in as many laps as possible aboard his World Cup Trek Session, quickly learning the track and finding its limits. Check out his headcam on the Dirt website to get an idea of the warp speeds reached.
There’s not much to be said for our first day on the hill – essentially we were like crazed kids let loose in some sort of highly dangerous sweetshop, manically throwing ourselves down the mountain with little regard for personal safety. It was definitely an eye-opener to see Laurie’s professional approach, even when goaded by a gaggle of tittering failed racers, and to see how soon he was realising the boundaries of this course’s limits.
And They Say Religion’s on the Wane
After a morning of sessioning the track and the hill’s other delights (hidden, not to be disturbed), a lunch stop was called for, which was taken care of by the decent café at the top of the funicular – duck is the speciality of the region, ham on offer for vegetarians (always good to confuse traditionalists with the veggie line) – and we relaxed with a view over the valley and across to the nearby airport (cheap flights from London available at the right time of year). We were joined by Patrice Bordères, one of the organisers for the World Cup, who’s been involved with Lourdes DH since the very start and also heads up the local mountain bike club. He told us the great plans to fell large parts of the forest for better viewing, to create walkways for safer spectating, and the likelihood of a rather healthy turnout of fans and curious passers-by. It’s going to be a big old event and Lourdes is pulling out all the stops, so may we hereby recommend getting a van packed and roadtripping to the race.
We followed up our pit stop with an afternoon of further runs, crashes, wide-eyed scary moments and the like, and finished up satisfied that we’d come within a meagre fraction of the warp speeds that will be reached come World Cup race time. To celebrate, we went to the zoo.
People-watching of the sort we indulged in is undoubtedly a sinful act – not that we were in any way mocking them but merely in awe of the sheer cross-section of humanity present in the town and the clear lengths people had gone to in search of the supposed healing water that flows from the Cathedral’s fountains in winter and trickles in summer (side-note: it is apparently stored in tanks so as not to disappoint any pilgrims in the summer months). The story goes that so many people used to turn up (I’m going back a bit now) that the ‘healing’ baths would turn to a slimy murky gunge by the end of each day, so many malady-ridden people had used them. It isn’t hard to believe either, as although religious tourism is apparently on the decline (according to our guides), it was simply astonishing to see tens of thousands of Christians filling the streets and following the procession after Mass. Have a look at the town’s Cathedral and its gold bling and it’s clear that Catholicism isn’t struggling too badly.
Of course, having toured town by way of the various and many bars that spill onto the streets, we were by this point fairly well lubricated, and having asked a pissed-up seasonaire priest the way to the nearest night club it turned out there are plenty to choose from. We whiled away the night and awoke to sunshine and headaches, ready for another day of struggle with the track.
Not very professional you say? Au contraire – we were merely testing the water (of our own holy brand) for the World Cup racers and assessing the potential for damage to be done. There will be plenty, let me just say that. Fortunately it’s the season opener so town isn’t likely to get the sort of pasting Méribel received at the end of the 2014 season. A large number of unsuspecting Christian pilgrims could be in for a shock when the likes of Rat Boy Bryceland are unleashed though.
Another day, another session of runs on the Punisher – the main line DH track – and some time to explore the easier second track on the hill, which is graded blue in difficulty. With a quite dangerous boardwalk section to begin, some decent jumps and plenty of steep turns hit at high speeds, it is enough to keep most busy, and in all honesty far from the ease of a beginner trail. Lourdes is limited to providing mainly for fairly decent riders – if you aren’t really confident you won’t enjoy the technical onslaught. However, if you are a racer, you build your own and you understand the beauty of a rough-cut track then you’ll love the two-or-so (shh) tracks this hill harbours.
Gripes? Well the funicular isn’t as fast as it could be – the loading and unloading process is a tad slow – however if you are looking for somewhere with a decent permanent uplift and an exotic (neurotic?) feel, then here’s one for you.
It’s hard to see what could go wrong come race day aside from potential poor weather and queuing when attempting to board the funicular (hopefully we’ll be proved wrong on that one). The town is massively behind the race and the future of mountain biking in the area, the infrastructure is definitely there, and the post-ride entertainment is sufficient to ensure complete and utter carnage of the sort only World Cup mountain biking and its followers can rustle up.
We booked a return to Lourdes without thinking twice – this could well be the most exciting season opener ever.