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Segment Stories: Chez Nous
Chapter One: (Re-)Discovery
Written and photographed by Matt Wragg
If there is one dream that unifies all mountain bikers, it has to be riding from your door. No matter if your idea of a good time involves body armor and big bikes, lycra and hill climbs, or whatever shade in-between, the desire to be able to roll out of the house and onto a trail is universal.
When my wife Mary and I rented a small house just outside Sospel in late 2014, one of the first questions was, “Where are we going to find our trail?” The answer came in the form of a flight of stone steps alongside the house above ours. Talking to neighbors we understood that they weren’t part of the house, but the end of an old trail…
Hiking up into the forest, it began with a rocky toboggan run, a narrow channel with dry stone walls marking the properties that abut the trail. You could still make out the lines to follow them, but it was little more than a hint of a trail winding up the mountain. Eventually, it popped out on the well-worn fireroad that connects the village up to the mountaintops.
Work was hard and slow at first. Loose rocks needed pulling out of the channel to create a consistent surface to ride on, but with walls on either side, the choice was between dragging them to the bottom or lifting them up and out. To get the trail running nicely we needed to shift hundreds of kilos of rocks.
Heading a little further up, the walls come to an end and the rocks can be raked away from the trail. It was still hard work, but not quite as back-breaking or time-consuming. Further still, the trail finally leaves the rocks behind and passes onto more flowing singletrack that needed to be strimmed and raked clean, boulders and branches cleared out of the way.
Breaking out past the treeline lies the staircase – a rough, raw flight of rock steps cut into the mountain. With a sheer drop to the outside, it’s a difficult, high-risk section that had to be perfect. The long grass needed to be cut back to show the shape of the rocks and the loose rock pulled out.
Finally, there is a short grassy stretch from the steps up to the fireroad, a little strim was all that was needed to create a gentle run-in to the ugliness that awaits.
In all, it took maybe 70 hours between the two of us to have a running, working trail that finished at our house. A lot of people use that phrase euphemistically, but here it is literal. We had reopened a 1.2 km, 360 m vertical drop trail that actually arrived at our front door. We named the segment Chez Nous – quite literally, “Our House.”
Chapter Two: Sanctuary
My first run down the trail was an eye-opener. Spending all those hours working on the trail, I had the idea in my head that it would be a fast, flowing cruise home. I was wrong.
All those hours left me gradient-blind and that first descent was far wilder than I had expected. It was a steep, physical, and technically demanding plunge down the face of the mountain – nearly 400 m in just over a kilometer. A quick check on the segment stats showed that the average gradient was over 30%, making it one of the steeper trails in the whole valley. When it rained, the exposed rock became terrifyingly greasy.
If I’m being honest, there was a second problem with the trail. It was those rocky channels at the bottom. Between the weather and the wildlife, the rocks kept falling. We would put in a day of back-breaking work to lift out all the rocks and have it running perfectly. A few weeks later it would be like we were never there. To keep the trail running well consistently it needed a full day of work each month, at least.
After appearing in an edition of our local enduro race, slowly the trail began to fade away once more. People weren’t riding the trail, us included. Some found it too steep and challenging, you could forget about it when it rained, and while finishing at our house was great for us, it was a pain for other people to ride out.
Quite simply, Mary and I didn’t have the time or energy to make regular pilgrimages to move rock and the forest began to creep back in. That is until Covid happened. Here in France, we had one of the stricter national lockdowns in Europe – we were confined to one hour of activity a day within a 1 km radius of our houses. Bike riding was banned.
While the world was turning itself upside down and inside out to fight the pandemic, Chez Nous was there for us. Starting from the doorstep meant we were not even stretching the limits of our kilometer to work on it. All that moving rock became a godsend. At a time when many people were effectively shut in their houses, we could spend our hour a day in the forest doing something physical, something positive.
What in normal times was the trail's biggest drawback – the endless work needed to keep it running well – became its biggest blessing. There was always more to do. Mary even started running up the trail when she needed a hard day. It became our sanctuary.
Once the lockdown lifted we could start riding again, our first ride was Chez Nous. While most of the trails in the valley had fallen into disrepair with lack of use through lockdown, it was running clean, fast, and perfect. All that time had meant we could thoroughly clean each switchback, empty the channels, and cut the grass right the way back, so you could charge the straights with confidence. It was as close to the flowing trail I had imagined as it ever could be.
That brief window after lockdown was a perfect moment on an imperfect trail. Once work, travel, and the million other things life requires began to pull us in every direction again, we knew that we would never have the time again to get the trail back to that condition.
Chapter 3: (Re-)Wilding
As we rounded into 2021, the rocks crept back down, the corners closed in and the grass grew. Once more it became too tough to be fun. And then we bought a house in the next valley over.
Of all the things we left behind, Chez Nous was one of the hardest. The reality is that since we no longer live at the bottom of it, we won’t have the motivation to stay on top of the rock-clearing. Maybe someone else will take it up, or maybe it will become little more than shapes in the forest once more.
At the end of the day, no matter how much time or effort you put into a trail unless you own the land it is on, it’s not yours. The trail was there in one form or another long before I was born and our time caring for it was hardly more than the blink of an eye on that timescale. We were just lucky to have been able to spend a little time with it.