Summer is a busy time for us at Zero Neuf. The days might be long but somehow they never seem quite long enough. As the business continues to grow we’ve taken on board new recruit Horatio, better known as H. A keen cyclist, barista and ‘can do anything’er’, he isn’t bad when it comes to writing either. Here he talks you through life in the Ariège whilst recounting a memorable day on two-wheels.
Ride images by H
I am not exaggerating when I say Zero Neuf holds a special place in the heart of anyone who visits. The location, food, drink and atmosphere all play their part in creating a memorable experience but by far the most important factor is the hospitality of Mike and Joss. Their laid back, no rules approach means you can do as little or as much as you like.
I met Mike and Joss last summer whilst down here with Breakaway Digital and we instantly clicked. The incredible homemade mirabelle jam (believe me it’s the best) and croissants for breakfast were enough to make sure I came back. So a year later, with the business growing fast, I am back for more action in the Ariège.
Zero Neuf – The Pyrénées Destination is named after the regional code of the Ariège which is 09. And just like the Ariège, Zero Neuf is a tranquil and beautiful place. At this time of year fields of shrivelling sunflowers cover the flat land South of Toulouse. Baking under the magnifying heat of the sun, sprinklers water the crops day and night.
Further South and always on the horizon the Pyrénées sit still, drifting in and out of view behind a curtain of warm summer storms, they are the ideal playground for anyone seeking adventure on two wheels.
There is a huge variety of riding in the Ariège. No ride is ever the same. We’ve traversed hundreds of dusty ridges close to home each with a tantalising view of the higher ground, heaved our way up mountain valleys be that on or off road and found many a mid-ride swimming spot to cool ourselves down. The summers here are hot!
Everyday starts with a delicious cup of Workshop Coffee and a breakfast spread like no other. Fresh croissants and homemade jam are a combination strong enough to power you over any climb on the day’s menu.
In particular last Saturday’s menu was a punchy one. A long trip into the hills meant an extra croissant and coffee in the morning. It was about 26 degrees as we rolled down the drive, the sun shone gently through the high cloud and the dark ridge of the Pyrénées grew taller and taller as we approached.
After rolling through the ancient medieval city of Foix, picking up some much needed water from a swan shaped fountain, Mike talked us through the upcoming climb. As mountain ranges go the Pyrénées are quite different. When compared, as they often are with the Alps, they don’t appear as impressive. The peaks not so high, the length not so staggering and the roads not so famed. However, in my mind these differences make them much much more interesting. The Pyrénées Ariégeoises are in turn even less well known for cycling than the more famous hills further West. Quiet roads, hundreds of kilometres of on and off road riding combined with some of the most breathtaking scenery you can imagine make it perfect for an escape in the wild.
What makes the Pyrénées stand out even further is their relative lack of foothills. This means that from Zero Neuf you are climbing high before you know it. From Foix the road must have pointed skywards for the best part of 30 kms and not only did the road climb for what felt like eternity but the horizon similarly seemed an age away.
Riding through the dark deciduous forest kept the temperature down, as did the constant gain in altitude. Every once in a while the trees parted way to reveal a cavernous view over the plains to the North. At almost 1400 metres above sea level we were well over a kilometre above the land below us.
We crested the summit of the Col de Péguère and rolled west along a ridge towards our first and steepest descent of the day. It took 5 kilometres of screeching brakes to lose all our hard earned height. The last right hand corner spat us out in the village of Biert which thankfully housed the possibility of some lunch.
We had 70 kms on the ticker and plenty more to follow so we decided to fill up whilst we could. With a delicately balanced burger in our bellies we rolled out of town and onto our next climb. Much shorter than the first and on a road barely wide enough for a car, the Col de Saraillé was enchanting.
What followed the Saraillé was a section of the ride almost indescribable such was its beauty, scale and difficulty. Up until this point we had been riding in the forest, which is no hardship but the view was about to get a whole lot better. The road once again pointed down and soon we were in the hillside village of Cominac.
Before us lay the high peaks of the Pyrénées Ariégeoises. From left to right was Mont Valier the highest peak in the Ariège at 2,838 metres, the Pic des Accenteurs, the Pic de la Pale de la Clauere and the Pic de Montaud. Rain fell in patches over their slopes whilst rays of sun shone through gaps in the clouds. Moved by the light and sight in front of us there was an ethereal beauty about those particular mountains, something that sadly cannot be captured on camera.
We finally stopped stopping and made our way to the valley floor. 10 kms later we were in Aulus-les-Bains and ready for the final climb of the day. The Col d’Agnès.
The d’Agnès nearly broke us. In fact you could argue it did. The first 3.5 kms snakes its way up an achingly beautiful valley but at an astonishingly steep gradient. It winds left and right but the slope never eases despite your best hopes. It started to rain and our breathing got deeper as we inched our way to the summit. After crossing the GPM line we turned around. Forgiving the lactic acid in our legs, forgetting the mental torture in our minds we stood wide eyed at the mountains all around us.
For the second time that afternoon we desperately tried to express how we felt, what the mountains meant to us and how much we value and treasure such experiences but instead gibberish flowed out for what must have been a few minutes. One thing we could agree on was that no matter the pain we’d felt on the way up the view from the top was a more than adequate antidote.
After hours of descending and many kms later we were back at base. Totally knackered, we weren’t good for much. Sitting around the bar with local craft beers in hand we shared stories of the day. It had been a proper adventure. As Joss piled our plates high with delicious homemade food thoughts turned to our next one. Every ride from Zero Neuf is different, beautiful and inspiring. We couldn’t wait to see what the Ariège had in store for us next.