Mountain bike trail hunting in the Dordogne, pt.2 October 13 2013

After a glorious ten days in the Perigord Vert region of the Dordogne, we packed up, said our goodbyes and headed south to stay with family in Beaumont du Périgord in the 'Périgord Pourpre' (Purple Périgord) region for a couple of days. This is an area I've visited on a number of occasions and so know my way around a little better than the north of the region. However, my last visit with a mountain bike was over ten years ago, and so I was keen to get out into the countryside and explore what the area had to offer in terms of trail riding.

Beaumont du Périgord
Beaumont du Périgord (or Beaumont), sits on top of a ridge that flanks the river Couze and is one of many imposing Bastide towns in the region. Chosen for their strategic positions, bastide towns were set up as early as the 13th century in order to establish a more modern society in what was, at the time, a rather wild and inhospitable part of Europe. Many, including Beaumont, were used to gain a military advantage during the 100 years war and became heavily fortified, often using a fortified church tower as an observation post.

While I'm no military strategist, one thing I do know about bastide towns is that they generally have some steep terrain around them and Beaumont proved to be no exception. With over 100km of trails in the area I was spoilt for choice, and after buying a 'cartes IGN' map of the region (1937 O if you're interested), I eagerly planned my first ride.

The Rollercoaster
Setting off from Beaumont I headed east and quickly picked up a trail that began at the road-side just out of town. Heading swiftly across the dry grass I entered a little copse, turned a corner and was met by around ten people on horseback blocking my progress. Fortunately, the group leader spotted me and waved me past, and I didn't need a second invitation. The good nature of all trail users I came across in France, whether on foot or horseback, was a refreshing change from the usual reception encountered near my home in south east England. Everyone was really friendly and almost always smiled and waved, sometimes shouting encouragement ("Allez! Allez!"), as I did my best (read: poor) impersonation of Fabien Barell!

Quickly leaving the group on horseback behind, I followed the trail up a steep incline as it traced the tree line to my left. At the top of the climb, the trail ran out and met with a tarmac road for around 200m before I spotted an opening and a likely looking trail. I wasn't disappointed, as the trail dipped savagely into some woods, full of ruts and roots and small lips which provided a decent amount of boost to get some air. Hitting these lips provided great fun and the trail seemed to steepen, then level off, then incline slightly before becoming even steeper than the previous downhill section. The trail ran like this for a good mile or so, testing my skills and nerve, as the ruts became deeper, often filled with the dust of a hot, dry summer. I decided that this trail had to be called Rollercoaster!

As I reached the bottom of the trail I could see that the height I'd shed was going to have to be paid for, and crunched down through the gears in order to begin the slow climb out from the bottom of the valley. The climb was tough. Rocky, rooty erosion channels pushed my front tyre into a line I didn't want to take and forced me to really put the power through the pedals in order to keep moving. Rising temperatures that were close to 30 degrees centigrade didn't help, and by the time I got to the top of the trail and burst out onto the road at Léomard I was exhausted. Looking on my iPhone at my Strava app, I'd only ridden eight miles.

From Léomard I headed down towards the river Couze, turning north to follow the river until I hit the few houses that make up La Moulinotte. I saw the most beautiful house here, which was a converted forge, complete with waterwheel and lake. Yours for only one million Euros, I was to learn later! From here I headed back west to complete the loop and back to Beaumont. Distance covered: 13 miles.

St-Avit-Senieur
My appetite well and truly whetted, the next day I set off on an even bigger adventure. Following my route from the previous day, I hit the aptly named Rollercoaster trail, thoroughly enjoying its contours as my 'trail memory' allowed me to be much gentler on the brakes and more effective with my lip-boosting. The trail didn't disappoint and was even better than the previous day.  As I climbed out of the valley towards Léomard the rain began - I knew it was coming as I'd read the forecast - and I pushed on down the other side of the hill towards the river Couze. From the valley bottom I climbed toward St-Avit-Sénieur, slowly making my way up a steep open trail in what was rapidly becoming heavy and persistent rain. 

After stopping under the shade of an oak tree and munching on a powerbar, I decided against visiting the 11th century church in the centre of St-Avit-Senieur in order to limit the amount of time I'd be spending stationery in my now sodden riding gear - I was getting cold. I had no reason to be alarmed, as a steep climb up and over the hill to the hamlet of Les Giroux soon warmed me up. Now my biggest problem wasn't the cold but the heat - I needed to wear my Oakleys in order to keep the driving rain out of my eye, but every time I put them on they misted up within seconds! 

Despite my best intentions to make this a really long, all day ride, the weather was getting the better of me. I was soaked through to the skin and with no sign of the rain even easing, let alone stopping, I decided to head back to Beaumont. From Les Giroux I followed a trail into the trees that headed west and then plummeted steeply down to the river Couze. Although broken, rutted and overgrown, the dressed stone surface of the trail betrayed this trail as an old drovers' road which was originally cobbled in order to allow farmers to drive their cattle to market. On another day this could have been an incredible trail - on this particular day the surface of broken cobbles, tree roots and moss made it treacherous, and my tyres lost their grip twice, depositing me hard onto the trail.

On reaching the river I crossed via a footbridge and ground my way up through woods of walnut and oak trees, towards the ridge upon which Beamont stands. Again, on another day, this particular trail, which ran almost parallel with the D25 to Beaumont, would have been amazing. If it had been dry, I'd have probably ground my way up to the top and then turned around and hammered back down!

I finally reached Beaumont, satisfied at having competed the ride, but a little upset at having only completed twelve miles on what was probably going to be my last ride of the holiday. Also, I'd worn a hole in the seat of my shorts due to a mixture of moisture and mud!

The following day my bitterness melted as we attended the Beaumont night market, a regular event that is a combination of local food and wine producers selling their wares in the town square, and once purchased, visitors can sit at trestle tables and eat and drink the night away. On this particular evening, we were lucky enough to be accompanied by a fantastic blues band playing some great rhythm and blues.

At the end of the day...
After only a brief time riding in the Dordogne, one thing is certain. The region is a fantastic place to ride. At times it reminded me of my local trails in the South Downs in the south of the UK, and then at other times it was so rocky and steep that it could have been a region in the lower French Alps. The variety of trails was astonishing, and although definitely cross country, I felt there were enough technical elements and opportunities for speed to keep most people happy. Having a map is crucial, as is being able to read it. Signage can be hard to spot in some areas, and there are very few people around to show you where to go if you get lost. I would advise to always plan a route before you leave AND make sure you tell someone else where you're going. I'd love to go back and ride more; perhaps north east of Beaumont around the Vézère Valley or in the Périgord Noir region to the south east, which includes places such as La Roque-Gageac and Beynac-et-Cazenac. The area would be an awesome place to start a guided mountain bike business - you could have some great fun building your own trails, or 'modifying' existing ones.

Finally, always check when you're planning to go to the Dordogne. You can ride all year round, but be aware that in some regions it may be hunting season. And while an average mountain biker careering through the woods doesn't really look like a deer or wild boar, you wouldn't really want to take the risk of being shot, or of ruining the hunters' carefully prepared shooting grounds now, would you?!