All images courtesy of Tomás Montes / @arrieredupeloton
I’ve always been fascinated by animal tracks and trails and the birds that fly high above them. I have spent countless hours watching birds and will follow the paths of unknown animals wondering where they’re going and where they’ve come from. The routes I ride often share the same terrain, the impressions in the ground a clue to who resides there and the songs in the trees a giveaway for the birds who make their lives there.
The Ariège is home to an incredibly diverse range of four legged and airborne residents, from wolves and bears to eagles and vultures and a plethora of animals in between. Tomás and I came up with a plan to combine our love of nature and the bike and use it as a tool to widen the search area. We invited good friends Lucie and Lea along for the ride and using the skills of photographer Joe (a self-confessed natural world addict and a human encyclopaedia of Ariège flora and fauna), we plotted a mixed terrain journey into the wildest parts of the region, to seek out more of our indigenous neighbours…
It’s a strange feeling when your destination is an unknown spot visible from your starting point but that’s the position we find ourselves in and for the next 24 hours we will journey across the Ariège; leaving Zero Neuf and the northern fringes of the region we’ll head to its high southern ridges and the border with neighbouring Spain and Andorra. We will ride, push and carry our bikes as we make our way to a mountain top rendezvous with Joe and a night under the stars.
The topography of the Ariège is extremely varied and our route begins on a wide double-track chemin alongside the river l’Hers. We are moving over open farmland; this is passerine territory and home to deer and hare, badgers, genets, stoats and coypus. A kingfisher darts across the water as we ride by and kestrels hover above us searching for lunch.
A stop in Mirepoix for bread and cheese and that means a visit to Chez Lucie; a wonderful fromagerie and delicatessen in the centre of town. After much deliberation, we opt for a local ‘tomme de brebis’ and a ‘tomme de chèvre’. We’ll pause for lunch alongside the river in the picture postcard village of Camon so that means the next section of the route is along a disused railway line and with more tree cover, the birdsong is a blissful mix of black caps and nightingales.
As we near the high mountains, we ride through meadows filled with wildflowers and the sound of skylarks fill the air, a reminder of walks with my grandfather and one of my favourite bird songs. There are tracks everywhere, likely to be wild boar but it’s hot and they are deep undercover sheltering from the sun. I imagine them watching us wondering what on earth we are doing in their backyard.
We head into the Gorge de la Frau, an ancient path connecting the Aude and Ariège, with 400m high walls of limestone on both sides. A protected area, this is the home of golden eagles, a host of other raptors and birds, rare flowers and bats amongst others. This is ‘hike with a bike’ territory and as we make our way slowly up the rocky slopes, our bikes balanced precariously on our backs, we are left in constant awe of the scale and beauty of this landscape; we are so very lucky to be here.
We’re above 1,000m now and up on a magnificent plateau, orchids and butterflies everywhere. The landscape is changing and our mountain top destination and home for the night is looming above us. There are reminders everywhere that we are riding amongst the region’s wild inhabitants, their homes and hunting grounds, we are privileged visitors to their world. A short-toed eagle soars above us hunting for an evening meal as we make our way up to our route’s highpoint and our rendezvous with Joe and his partner Emilie. It is time to hang the hammocks, open a beer and watch the sun as it sets behind the high mountains and the frontier with Spain.
True to Joe’s word, the mountain’s resident marmots are up by the time we are brewing our morning coffee. It’s a highlight of the trip watching them sunbathe flat on their backs and they’re certainly a unique breakfast companion.
The tracks and trails we followed to reach this point had given us much and with our eyes and ears well and truly open, the joy of riding the bike was elevated to a new and enriching level. This is the experience, adventure and escape we can all feel when we immerse ourselves (responsibly) in nature.