It’s 0715 and we’re packing up camp when the dogs arrive. Their owners do not. Instead the whine of a whistle from behind the trees summons the dogs back. Suddenly, just as seat-packs and frame bags are closed, a rifle shot pierces the silence to the west. Before we know what’s happening three more crack on the other side of the valley to the east, filling our camp spot with reverberations of gun shots.
We are IN THE MIDDLE of a sanglier hunt being conducted by men clad in bright orange camouflage clothing. And we are all in black and navy kit and carrying tan coloured luggage, Simon is even on a camo green bike with matching camo green shoes. Time to ride, fast.
Adventure. In the days of navigation computers full of carefully plotted GPS files, border crossing ultra events and customized guided tours, it’s easy to feel the need to go long and far to find adventure. More can be more but that requires time commitment, that is not always possible. Sometimes adventure needs a rethink.
And so it is that we found ourselves riding a gravel double track through a mountainside peppered with men pointing rifles through the bushes at every moving object that might be turned into stew. It makes the climb back up the DFCI (remember them from Ventoux’s G-Side) to the Col de l’Espigoulier more focussed.
Credit and inspiration for this micro adventure from Marseille to its mountains behind goes to James Olsen and Andy Cox. James is the founder of the Torino-Nice Rally and Andy Cox aka @doubletrackfanatic is a nomad adventurer of Europe and, currently, America. Both suggested the ‘over-nighter’ during discussions last summer. ‘You can leave your desk at the end of the working day and be setting up camp for sunset in a matter of hours’.
Escape civilisation, dine on a grassy terrace at sunset, marvel at clear star-lit skies, wake up with the birds, brew some coffee on the stove and then ride back to be at your desk before you can say ‘Trans Continental’.
Currently in France, adventure can start as soon as you get out the door. The Gilet Jaunes’ campaign of disruption is in full swing and in a town with a history like Marseille who knows when things might boil over. But Simon and Matthieu are residents and they are not perturbed. Simon is a Parisien who, since his arrival in the South has fallen in love with the adventure side of cycling. Matthieu did so some time ago and is a two-times TCR veteran. Both of them are designers and both of them love drawing traces far and wide from Marseille’s centre.
Arriving in Gémenos after the suicide run out of Marseille through industrial estates and commercial centres is like crossing a great divide from city to rural Provence in an instant. It brings that feeling of leaving all the clutter of work and city life behind. Gémenos has only one open boulangerie, a central fountain and low winter sun casting light and shadows on pastel coloured walls that are peppered with classic coloured wooden shutters. It’s too tempting not to take a coffee and watch local life sleepily canter by.
Don’t get comfortable. Not only does that ethos apply to the café stop, but it touches on the ethos of the trip. To never stop adventuring in whatever form that might be. It’s that constant state of wonder mentality, which is assisted by the slower pace of a loaded bike. Added to which is the practicality of testing equipment for the longer haul.
The Col de l’Espigoulier is only 40km north of Marseille and is the peak of Massif de la Sainte-Baume. Having featured in the Tour de France, Paris-Nice and the Tour de la Provence, it’s as fine an example of French road building that you will find this side of Mont Ventoux. A perfectly smooth surface with curves that gently wind their way up the hill, punctuated by a set of switchbacks lying like a dormant snake in the middle of the mountain.
It’s known to every self-respecting cyclist in the South’s infamous town as the get out of dodge climbing option that offers panoramic views of the bay below. With a gravel chemin laid on the south face, it’s a fitting destination for the compact camping escape.
As with every all-road adventure, the ride doesn’t stop at the tarmac summit. Because there is a D.F.C.I. - les voies de défense des forêts contre l’incendie - you might remember the D.F.C.I. from our Ventoux G-side adventure. They are the double-track solution to finding space and quiet. And in this case, a great camping spot tucked in the wrinkles of the south face of the mountain.
This particular piste serves up a set of switchbacks that offer a picturesque panorama of the bay of Marseille as they traverse a ridge. The sun is on its descent and it’s one of those evenings when the sky is sandwiched between the sea and a blanket of cloud, creating contrasting layers of soft light refracted into a spectrum of grey, blue and orange tones. Exactly what the mini-adventurer ordered.
Camp is to be made. And it is found beside the Refuge de Tuny, a typical French communal shelter in which there is a fireplace, a wooden table and an old cupboard dresser with assorted left-behinds of condiments, dried meats and half-packets of pasta. It smells of smoke and dirt but in the mid-winter we imagine that there are more animals than people through the door each day.
Tents are raised, lightweight mattresses inflated and sacks of smart synthetic fabrics are put inside one another to ward off the cold. And the fire. Camping man must make fire… Not in December. Wood, unless prepared in a shelter for many weeks, is fundamentally and permanently damp. After many attempts, no spark will catch and a rechaud (camping stove) replaces the real thing as dark becomes darker.
Turning in, the wind begins to howl. Not constantly, but in waves that seem to trace the contours of the mountain. It catches the tips of the trees first, then begins to shake them to the trunk before seemingly attempting a twister on the empty ground between the tents. This is Marseille, and this is the mistral. It’s only at 2am that thoughts begin to wonder towards the dry stone walls of the refuge just metres away. But that would mean de-camping everything and letting the cold in. Better to snooze it out as best as possible.
Waking, sleeping, waking, sleeping, snoozing, waking, sleeping, waking, snoozing. And then first light. If anything is worth sacrificing your double mattress and duvet for, surely it is first light. Just make sure there is coffee. Out here it doesn’t need to be the finest crema-laiden espresso. As long it’s hot and with a hint of caffine, it is good.
And then came the dogs, and the guns and the fear of imminent death. Arriving back at the Col and the mistral is blowing from west to east so strong that it’s hard to ride. Time to get down to the flat. Descending the Espigoulier is to understand why the moto-riders also flock to this road. Fast and flowing down the mountain means operating systems are now fully awake at the bottom.
There is work to be done back home, but not quite yet. Let’s take the long way back to town, via Cassis and the Col de la Gineste. The Gineste gets the day’s effort on the bike done and then serves up views of Marseille as the road swoops down towards the city.
At the bottom of Avenue du Prado we pass a replica statue of Michaelangelo’s David, made by local sculptor and Marseillais philanthropist Jules Cantini. It’s one of many copies of the famous man; a likeness of the original. For visitors to the city it’s a noteworthy surprise in an odd location. Back at their desks, bright eyed and heads showered, Simon and Matthieu begin to draw the forms of all their 2019 Adventures. Each has his idea of the perfect form but there will be many different likenesses created, including more ‘compact camper’ mini-adventures like this one.
Footnotes: Photography by Benedict Campbell