As French lockdown eased, pro climbers James Pearson and Caroline Ciavaldini changed their plans for a bike-and-climb trip in order to adventure a little closer to home with baby in tow...
At the end of May, James, baby Arthur and I embarked on a project that has been close to our hearts for the last few years. In simple terms it's another climbing road trip, not unlike a lot of road trips we have done in the past. What makes this project special, however, is that we decided to leave our van at home, and make the journey on our mountain bikes. 30 days to ride around some of the best cliffs in the south of France, carrying all our gear on our backs and bikes, and using as few roads as possible.
The idea for a trip like this grew from a few separate seeds; the first, and perhaps the most important, was a simple desire to reduce the carbon impact of our climbing trips while still maintaining an aspect of adventure. James and I love traveling for many reasons and discovering new things is a very important part of our lives and one we are keen to share with Arthur. What we don't love quite so much is how much pollution just one flight halfway around the world puts out. Travelling to Rocklands in South Africa, for example, emits the same amount of carbon dioxide as it takes to heat our house for a whole year! Replacing one of the two or three "major trips" we do each year with a more environmentally friendly option didn't seem like too much of a sacrifice… and unbeknown to us at the time it would actually become one of our favourite trips ever!
The original idea was to follow the Danube River from the Black Forest in Germany all the way to the Black Sea. However, when we actually looked at the route on a map and planned how many kilometres we could likely cover each day, we realised it might be a little ambitious for a first attempt. Stopping in Vienna seemed like a good compromise, and we'd still get to discover some of the crags of Southern Germany and Austria that we have never seen.
Then COVID-19 came along, the borders closed, and nobody really knew what was going to happen! We changed our plans to a trip in France once confinement was over, and then France changed its plans and declared a 100km travel limit from your home. It seemed like our adventure was over before it had even begun, but then we remembered why we chose to live where we do in the first place, that our house is surrounded by cool cliffs and that if we stick to small tracks and MTB trails, 100km is actually pretty far!
OK, that last bit was actually a happy coincidence, especially for James, who really loves mountain biking and dreams of becoming a professional rider, even though he's not actually very good! Our first ideas about a big bike trip only really made sense because we were going to follow easy, flat cycleways, as riding anything else with the amount of gear we'd have to carry would be pretty much impossible. James, however, is inventive and when his ideas fall short he relies on optimism. With two e-MTBs and two single wheel, off-road trailers he assured me that we'd be fine, and set about planning a route taking us along some of the best trails of the region! Our Tour des Alpilles was born…the only thing left was to actually do it!
Getting started was much more difficult than expected: our second e-bike was late in arriving due to courier delays, and whilst it delayed our departure date, it gave us a much-needed chance to test our equipment and our preparation on some short rides close to home. It seems as though loading a cargo trailer is an art...that we have not yet mastered! We've been training Arthur for a trip like this for the last year, and have subsequently become very used to riding with his "Singletrailer", which in hindsight is just an amazing bit of kit. The Singletrailer handles so well that you barely notice it is attached to your bike. The same couldn't be said for our second trailer, which wobbled and oscillated dangerously when overloaded, unbalanced, or in fact anytime it wasn't at a standstill. The only solution was to reduce the gear we'd be taking along even more, and since we couldn't really cut down on our rope and quickdraws, we ended up with very few underpants!
I won't go into too much detail on each step of our journey, but in general we chose a selection of cliffs which we thought could be approached relatively easily with a bike and trailer, and which had a relatively safe base for Arthur to play. Some of the cliffs we knew, others we did not, and they were all only single pitch sport climbs, the shorter the better! The distance between cliffs ranged from 10km to 40km, with most of the ride following forest fire roads with some MTB friendly single-trails, up to T3 max, thrown in for good measure.
After leaving home on May 26th, we pedaled our way slowly up to the plateau of Pouzilhac before starting the first of the day's many descents, which would eventually lead us to the little known crag of Estézargues. It was a day of trials and tests, a day to see if our overall concept of cyclo-climbing with a baby made any sense, and a day that would set the theme for the rest of the trip to come! Unsurprisingly, James had decided to jump directly into the deep end and included one of the trip's hardest MTB trails on this very stage!
To his credit, it was the lesser of a whole bunch of "evils" that we could have used to approach the cliff, but I obviously didn't tell him this at the time! A 50cm-wide trail torn from the scrubland and garrigue which our region is famous for, with rocks, loose stones, and a whole lot of spikes! In good condition, with a good rider, an MTB alone passes without great issue, with perhaps one or two short sections of hike-a-bike. Add 10kg for an e-bike, and a 40kg trailer, and we're sadly not talking about the same story! With no option to turn around, we forced our way forwards. Let's say that lifting/dragging/wrestling our trailers was a good warm up…that or the perfect excuse for why we can't get up any routes today…assuming, that is, that Baby will let us climb!
Sport climbing with a baby is a sport within the sport that we have been practising for the last year and a half. Arthur was a few weeks old when we first took him to the crag, and since then we've learned all the tricks. Make the most of his nap time, but first of all you have to teach him to nap at the crag! Even if he's not sleeping, you can still create a safe area for some calm time - just don't forget his toys and books. Belaying with a baby in a body carrier is doable safely as long as you're smart with your harness position, and if you've got the technical know-how, self-belaying or even semi-self-belaying as we call it is awesome for warming up and working routes, allowing you to save any precious baby-free time for your actual attempts.
All these ideas worked perfectly for us before confinement, but then everything changed when our little man decided to learn to walk. Suddenly the world is there for him to explore, and it's quite amazing how quickly those little legs can carry him away out of your sight! Despite not having a square metre of flat ground to play on, Arthur's behaviour was exemplary! He walked and scrambled and climbed and fell, but never too far away from us for us to worry too much. We managed to climb several routes up to 8b, and although the rock is not the most beautiful - the holds often sharp, chipped, or full of sika - we ate them up, ravenous for climbing after two months shut inside.
Whilst Orgon and Mouriers might be "known" outside of France, the majority of the cliffs in the Alpilles are more "locals only". Whilst the landscape is beautiful, the cliffs are often lacking in height, the rock either too compact or too brittle. Despite living a 15 minute drive from Estézargues, we'd never actually been climbing here, and the same can be said for several of the cliffs on our planned route. Not because the climbing isn't good, just that there is better to be found a little further away. In one hour we can be at St Léger, in three hours at Céüse or in the Verdon. In a car or a van however, everything is easy, and boring. You just sit there and wait, and eventually climb; there is nothing really to separate the cliffs apart from the quality of the rock. On a bike, however, the approach is an adventure in itself, and there is something magical about how happy you are to arrive and climb on even the most scrappy bit of rock if you've gotten there under your own steam, and seen a lot of unexpected, beautiful places along the way.
Don't get me wrong, biking isn't always fun, and there were definitely some moments where we'd have been pretty happy to just jump in a car. At the end of stage 3, Fontvielle to Saint Rémy de Provence, James had to repeat the stage in reverse and come back as he'd forgotten to return the keys to the bed and breakfast! 20km in both directions - the perfect recipe for a good night's sleep.
We can't wait for tomorrow!
It's always amazing how something so new and unknown just a few days before can quickly become normality. Every day we wake up, eat a big breakfast of pain au chocolat, coffee and croissants. We'd pack the cargo trailer in the precise way we've found that keeps wobbles to a minimum, strap Arthur into his seat and set off. Adventure here we come. It sounds funny to use the word adventure to describe your home climbing areas, but this is really what it feels like. Just before the confinement we spent three weeks in Ethiopia climbing sandstone towers in the desert. We're used to going to the other side of the world to find the unknown and we love it, but never did we think we'd be able to find similar experiences less than 100km from our house.
Our knowledge of the region is just enough for us to be able to plan our main route, but then each individual path is a new discovery. Some trails work perfectly with an e-MTB and trailer and are a pure pleasure to ride, whilst others don't work quite so well, but the places they take us to along the way make up for any hardships we might have on the journey. It's cherry season in the south of France, which means clafoutis for almost every dessert, but also plenty of wild cherry trees crossed on our bikes, where we often stop to "refuel". Arthur might have found his first love!
We discover windmills built in the early 1800s, a troglodytic village lived in until the mid 1500s and many other little surprises along the way. We get to climb at awesome cliffs like Buoux that we don't normally go to - too far away for a day trip, but not far enough for a holiday - and we meet up with friends along the way whom we've not seen in far too long! Life slows down and simplifies, problems are limited to fixing punctures, remembering to charge our batteries, and stocking up on nappies before riding into a valley without any shops. Occasionally we feel a little stress and worry if we have to leave our bikes chained to a tree and access a cliff on foot, but for the most part life is pretty good!
A trip like this teaches, and allows you to go with the flow. We don't really have any fixed time constraints, nor hardcore climbing objectives, and that makes everything pretty easy and fun! If we like a cliff, or our asses are too sore, we stay for a few days if we don't we move on. By keeping the stress and pressure low, you are so much more open to appreciating life itself. We weren't always like that; James is hyperactive and I am super organised, but this approach is something we had to learn when we had a baby, and it's maybe for that reason that Arthur seemed to be having such a good time on this adventure. A day ticking hard routes is just as rewarding as a day when Arthur learns to walk on his own along a rocky path, or plays with his little cars in the dirt outside our hotel.
When we first started to take Arthur out for rides in his trailer, we were lucky if he'd last more than 20 minutes before crying and wanting to come home. Baby step after baby step, our rides got longer and longer, and now Arthur can happily sit in his trailer for 5 or 6 hours, smiling the whole time! He loves watching the world go by and the only time he'll grumble is if it's lunchtime (his body clock is wound to the minute) or if we stop for too long to figure out where we've gotten lost! 30km of cycling per stage on average may seem unambitious to those of you who already cycle, but considering we add at least 20% for wrong turns, and that we're pulling pretty heavy trailers and avoiding the roads as much as possible, we often end the day rinsed, ass on fire, ready to sleep at 9 p.m.… just like baby!
And the climbing...
...because we are professional climbers after all! If it's not clear already, this trip was never focused on performance, but two months of training in our gym during confinement clearly got both of us into pretty good shape as despite the kms in the saddle, we both climbed some pretty cool routes! In Orgon we found ourselves doing nice ticks at "la Bergerie"… Les Mollahs du Mollard for James, a route originally given 9a (maybe just an 8c now, a complicated story of added and removed holds, let's just say that the route was hard…), an 8b, and an 8a onsight for me. A beautiful day, especially because the site is a paradise for Arthur, with a small wall which prevents him from escaping and allows him to explore his stronghold for the day.
From great highs to great lows! Two days later I have to give up on "Godasse Clean", an 8a at Fetid Beach that James just about manages after work! Oh the shame! Are we in good shape or not at all? More likely just another example of climbing grades being pretty meaningless, or at least heavily dependent on the area, style, and conditions! This is something that I've known for a long time, since my days as a competition climber where I could happily onsight long overhanging resistance routes, but would fall in technical grade 6 slabs! The difference on this trip is that biking actually makes it easier to laugh about because at the base of it all, the trip is a compromise. Cycling to the cliff is tiring, and you may have to revise your objectives downwards…even better, forget about the grades altogether! Of course the "ticking" conditions would be better with a good bed, an approach of 1 minute, and a baby with his grandparents…but that way you'd miss half of the magic! The orgies of cherries, the U-turns on disappearing paths (type 2 fun), and baby discovering what a wonderful world we live in! At 35, the importance of these little letters and numbers fade...all we want is to climb, try hard, and pursue the ideas that are important to us!
The climbing highlight of the trip was definitely Buoux, where we divided our time between the ancient West Face, and a newly bolted secret cave. The two areas couldn't be more different, and both of them are world class in their own special ways! The West Face is all about delicate technical climbing up amazing features, including some fantastically hard and delicate limestone friction slabs! Here you can climb hard routes with strong fingers and technical feet. The new cave on the other hand is full of steep and pumpy climbing on good holds in a spectacular position above the Aigue Brun river. Strong fingers always help, but it's your forearms that will take you to the chains here… or see you dangling on the end of your rope!
It wasn't until my early 30s that I finally started to appreciate Buoux for its true value. From the bottom of the valley, the colours are magnificent, and the climbing movements are unique. Just as the old streets of Paris inspire respect, Buoux, with more than 50 years of climbing history, is a very fit old lady, pampered by those who care for her lovingly, and her routes transpire the history of climbing. From Edlinger to Le Menestrel and Moon, behind each route an anecdote is hidden, and even the 7as do not give themselves easily, they all require a real fight!
I was really happy to climb L'Homme Programmé at the West Face, an 8a slab that I thought was absolutely impossible on my first try, but little by little began to make sense. James had an amazing time at Buoux, climbing the classic 8b Les Mains Sales on his first redpoint try, Flashing L'Homme Programmé, and climbing a really nice 8b and 8b+ in the new cave! Finally, Arthur developed an interesting technique for descending from the beautiful West Face on the new path carved into the steep slope - all on his bottom, like a slide…we begin to plan how we can reinforce his baby trousers!
After an unplanned, extended stop with some friends 30km South of Buoux whilst we wait for a new part to fix a broken trailer, we're back on the road again just in time to enjoy the heatwave hitting all of Europe. Apparently, people are even sunbathing in the UK, but here in the South of France, with temperatures in the mid 30s we decide to skip a few of our planned cliffs that risk being a little warm in favour of one we know will be in the shade all day.
Mouriès, another monument of climbing history, and one of our favourite local cliffs. A blade of rock rising above the meadow, flanked on one side by a golf course, on the other by remains of a Roman oppidum, occupied by humans from the 6th century BC. Mouriès and its super compact limestone is a concentration of technique, and instead of coming here and hoping for harder and harder routes, we love visiting to see just how "easy" a route we can fall off on! Our current record is 6c, but that was in winter…who knows what horrors the summer might bring! We meet up with a good friend of ours, Raph Fourau, for some of the amazing pictures you can see here, and enjoy fighting in the 7as. James manages a 7b onsight in the Prairie sector, and he's my hero for the day, but then pulls on bolts on a 7a, which equals everything out!
After two glorious but very warm days, our feet can't take any more of those slabs, and we set off for the last crag of our trip, a small secret cliff near Fontvieille. With no more than a list of route names and vague directions, we're expecting an epic, but we surprise ourselves by not only finding the cliff, but also a group of local climbers who are only too happy to point out some of the best routes. James makes short work of the hardest route at the cliff, a short, bouldery 8c on some of the craziest rock around, and we marvel at the fact we've yet again "discovered" another new home crag that we'd never been to before!
Our last day is one of the longest of the trip, from Tarascon to home in 45 km. I don't know whether he's giving in to my moaning, or if his legs are finally getting tired too, but James chose fire tracks that roll well, and despite the pain in the buttocks which is starting to be acute, we make good pace towards our house. The last two hours of cycling are a final pleasure that the three of us enjoy, with the clear feeling of having had a perfect month. It's been amazing, emotional, and really one to remember. The mountain bike-climbing trip is a mode of adventure which is a revelation for us, and one I'm definitely sure we'll be enjoying again in the not-too-distant future...
View James and Caro's original route map here.