James Pearson & Caroline Ciavaldini – The long road home | VIDEO

Eine Rad- und Klettertour von den Alpen nach Hause. 3 Wochen Radfahren und Klettern, mit E-Bikes, Anhängern und einem 2-Jährigen! Von Ceuse bis Orpierre und St. Leger besuchte die Familie Pearson einige der besten Klippen Frankreichs, fuhren viele Hügel rauf und runter und wurden sehr, sehr nass!

Text: James Pearson

What is it that makes France so special, and why is it that I like life here so much?

A complicated question on so many levels! France is a beautiful country, with a rich and deep culture. From food to wine, film to poetry, one could, and people have, rejoice in the many wonders of France for a lifetime, and beyond. Even if I stick to climbing, a domain I know fairly well, I’m still not really sure where to begin!

@Once Upon A Climb

Perhaps it’s my English nature that makes putting words on emotions complicated. Keeping calm and carrying on is all good for winning wars, but it also made a nation of people who can’t really say how they feel. Caroline is always trying to get me to talk more, and I’m trying, especially now I have Arthur to guide down this road we call life, but 35 years of work cant be undone that easily!

It’s been over 10 years that I’ve lived in France, since I met Caroline back in 2010, and moved permanently in 2011. Obviously Caroline had a big part to play in this, but there are many other reasons that France really does feel like home, and I can’t imagine living anywhere else. The weather definitely plays a big part in this choice, and by weather, I really mean sunshine, but whilst we do have a lot of Sunny days down here in the South, I also like the way it rains! Sure, when it rains I can’t go climbing outside, but when it rains here I really don’t want to! When it rains in the south of France, it really rains! Rivers run down the street, and you are soaked to the skin for even thinking about stepping out of your door. I’m quite happy to stay indoors, enjoying being warm and dry, and knowing that tomorrow, or at worst the day after, it’s going to be sunny once again. 

Another element I love about France is the wide open space we have to play in here, and how you really don’t have to go very far to be in the middle of nowhere! I used to consider that I grew up in the countryside in the UK, and whilst technically that definition is still valid (ie I didn’t live in a city), there are houses and people everywhere, even if I did have the occasional field or woodland to explore. Here in France, I can leave my house, and in less than 200m ride off into the vineyards and forests beyond. For 10’s of kilometres in most directions I can run or ride my bike without seeing anyone, yet I can also walk out of my front door and go down the other road into the centre of the village to buy everything I could possibly need. The village where we live is small, with less than 1500 inhabitants, but we have a boulangerie, a butcher, a greengrocer, as well as several other little stores, a barber, doctor, physiotherapist, mechanic… Perhaps it is because of the extra space, making centralization more complicated, but somehow France has kept the “local” way of life far more so than back in the UK, and I for one am very happy about it.

@Once Upon A Climb

The more I think about it, so many little things spring to mind that make France special, the more I cant see myself ever living anywhere else. Yet I’m not so ignorant or blinded to think it’s simply because France has it right and everyone else has it wrong, something changed in recent years to make me notice!

When we set off on our bike and climb tour of the Alpilles and Le Luberon in May 2020, just after the first Covid 19 confinement had come to an end, we thought it was going to be a way to amuse ourselves for a few weeks when all other forms of travel were off the cards. Little did we know that this trip would change the way we think about “exploration”, and open our eyes to the many possibilities and advantages of local adventure. Before we even begin to explore the benefits to our carbon footprint, riding our bikes instead of driving our car forces us to slow down the pace of life and in doing so allows us to really see so many of the wonders we often take for granted.

Our second bike and climb trip, The Long Road Home, took us from Briancon, a beautiful part of the alps where we’ve been spending more and more time recently, all the way back to our house in the South of France. It confirmed everything we discovered on our first trip, and more, and over almost 3 weeks in the saddle we not only got to climb at some of the best cliffs that France has to offer, but saw the scenery change with every pedal stroke, from steep sided mountains of the Alps to the flat valley of the Rhone; an incredible way to appreciate the diversity of the French landscape!

We’ve driven a similar route countless times before, and whilst we’ve often marvelled at the scenery along the way, there is only so much one can see from behind the car windscreen, and 4 hours passes far too quickly! Riding a bike makes you a part of the story opposed to being a spectator. The terrain passes slowly enough under your wheels that you can see, feel, and smell so much of what is normally lost, yet at the same time you move quickly enough to notice the subtle changes along the way. The shaley soil of the Alps turning into the rocky limestone gravel we know so well. The wild alpine plants becoming violet lavender fields, and eventually the endless green vineyards of the South. So many things we’d seen before, but never really seen!

It’s hard for me to say what exactly inspired us to take on this particular route? Was it the amazing cliffs we’d pass along the way, or were we lucky that those cliffs just happened to be there, on a path between two points that we longed to discover? Either way, Ceuse, Orpierre, and St Leger are the stuff of legends, and with a few other “minor” venues thrown in along the way, we knew we were in for a real treat!

One small detail we’d failed to anticipate was that the weather in the more mountainous regions might not be as stable as that in the South! On our Tour des Alpilles, we had one day of rain in almost 1 month, which became a most welcome rest day for our tired legs. This time however, we were checking the weather forecast for weeks before, trying to understand and predict when the best day of departure might actually be. In the end we had to accept that there were things we couldn’t control, and that we’d have to adapt to each and every situation as it arose. If it rained we’d get wet, possibly very wet, but as I’ve said before; in France it’s never too long before the sun shines again.

Day 1 found us riding down the Durance valley towards Eygliers and la Rue des Masques. The overhanging conglomerate rock makes for very basic, almost brutal climbing, pulling on mainly good holds, time and time again until your arms explode. It had been raining a lot over the last few weeks and so a lot of the holds were on the damp side, but at least the overhanging rock kept us dry whilst climbing. A breathtaking ride down to the valley floor soon turned into a slow slog up the other side and the heavens opened just in time to soak us before arriving at our gite for the night.

We woke to rain on day 2, which at least left no surprises as to what we might encounter on the ride. There would be no rock climbing today, but plenty of climbing on our bikes, but we’d be rewarded with spectacular views of the lake down below and the mountains to the North. The further we rode, the harder it rained, and by the end of the ride we couldn’t feel our feet on the pedals, not our hands on the bars! The only one still warm and dry was Arthur in his trailer, and even he was getting to the end of his patience with the wet weather as his windows kept steaming up!

After a day of chilling/riding around the tiny ski resort of Reallon, we made it to Ceuse on Day 4, and checked into our accommodation for the next few days. I’d spent a few weeks climbing at Ceuse in the past, and although the rock is nothing short of exceptional, the long approach and the hundreds of other climbers had always left a bitter taste in my mouth. This time however, the combination of being early in the season, and having our E-bikes approach the cliff, made our few days here pure pleasure, and both Caro and I would have happily stayed for a few days more…

But this trip wouldn’t ride itself, and if we wanted to keep on schedule and not sacrifice climbing days later in the trip, it was time to move on, next stop Orpierre. I’d never been to Orpierre before, and Caroline only had memories from when she was very young, but if I had to summarise it in one sentence, climbing in Orpierre really felt like a holiday. In a similar way to climbing in places like Kalymnos, Rodellar, or Antalya, everything has been tailored to make your climbing trip as simple as possible, you can turn off your brain, stop thinking, and just have fun.

From Orpierre we had 2 days riding to take us over the mountain of Chamouse and down to St Leger. The biggest day in terms of altitude gain should have been easy with 2 fully charged batteries and the E-bikes in “boost”, but when the battery change came and we discovered the 2nd batteries were almost empty, things suddenly became a lot more complicated! Situations like this are definitely type 2 fun! Miserable at the time, but we can look back and laugh, and we’ll remember that day for years to come!

Riding into the valley of St Léger felt like opening the door to the South of France. The rugged mountains of the alps were far behind us, replaced by sights and sounds we know so we’ll. Summer was here, it was time to search out the shady North faces, and cool down in the beautiful streams. Luckily for us, St Leger can tick both of these boxes, and when combined with the comfortable, picturesque, rustic gite, we were happy to spend a couple of days here and let our legs and bottoms recover from the intense few days before.

One of my favourite cliffs on the trip is the little known “La Carrière du Maupas”, an ancient Roman Quarry with some of the most spectacular “lines” in the south of France. Bolted around 5 years ago, climbing in the quarry is technical, yet physical at the same time, and takes no prisoners. There are no easy ticks here, and even the “warm up” packs a punch, but if you don’t mind potentially finishing your day with your tail between your legs, it’s incredibly rare to be able to climb bolted sport routes on features as spectacular as these!

Les Dentelles de Montmirail are some of the most spectacular and underrated climbing sites in the South of France, mainly because, like their nearby neighbour of “La Carriere” they reward a technical climber who knows how to place their feet and pull on tiny holds. The Dentelles have one other thing standing against their popularity, the bolting is often fairly adventurous, and in an age where more and more people expect outdoor cliffs to be bolted like indoor gyms, they are beginning to gather cobwebs! For anti-social Trad climbers however, they offer a spectacular playground where you will never have to queue for a route, or complain that the holds are polished! 

This time however we planned to do things a little differently, and set off  one morning to take Arthur on his first multi-pitch. Perhaps we were a little optimistic, he’s only 2 ½ after all, or maybe we underestimated the length of the approach hike and the general conditions for a climb like that? Either way we found ourselves late in the day, 1 pitch up a striking limestone arête, with a crying toddler that would soon transition into full “melt-down” mode! We cut our losses and abseiled back to the floor as Arthur fell into a deep slumber. Luckily for us the day wouldn’t be a total loss…  The Dentelles are also a superb place for mountain biking, and we could enjoy some dream-like trails and views on the ride back to the gite.

And that was that! A final day of riding took us down into the valley of the Rhone, where the endless vineyards of the “grand wines” of the South made riding easy and progress fast. A final stop at Gargantua, the closest cliff to our home, marked the end to all the climbing on this magnificent trip, and we rolled into Connaux on a sunny summer evening, tired but happy, and sure of the fact that adventure with a bike is something really special indeed!

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