1000 METRES OF LOAM
Words By: James McKnight
Photos by: Ben Winder
Legends rife among Alpine communities whisper secrets of a barely ridden singletrack nestled deep in the forest.
This is not a lone trail though: from one town to the next details vary, corners change, directions differ.
The trail has existed as long as mountain bikers have searched the next fresh turns, its particulars changing with every new season.
For this is a trail of simple muse, a journey of pure wonder.
Since my first foray into Alpine mountain biking as a spotty 15-year-old, the mystery of deep valleys over a hill and far away, of wild forests accessible only through great effort and trails available only to those willing to look beyond has gripped and enthralled me. Many others like me are on their own never-ending search for new terrain greater than they have ever ridden.
Pub talk for those who search gives sketchy notes on hidden gems that shine bright with flow, buried gold waiting to make rich those who look further than marked riding areas and lift networks.
Having moved to a new area in a dauntingly steep valley somewhere between Annecy and Chamonix (France) in 2016, the search for our own local legend began. In every direction from the house were slopes largely untouched by mountain bikes and trails that in many cases had been left unused for decades or even centuries.
Six months of scouring entire hillsides and rummaging through forests left us with a catalogue of rideable but often overly vertical trails. These had provided secretive movement for soldiers during World Wars or sneaky approach by hunters tracking chamois (large and sturdy goat-antelopes); neither their shape nor gradient welcomed two wheels.
So a new search began: a quest to find the perfect slope on which to create our own Alpine myth.
The pursuit of a perfect slope took flight. Several months of trekking around our local valleys ended in frustration at a lack of clean vertical descent; everywhere we looked we came across a problem in one horrendously rocky way or another.
But we pushed on, me, my girlfriend Morgane and our lodger Ben, desperate to uncover that elusive gem. We thought we knew it would uncover itself at one point or another, but having eventually found what seemed the complete package on a steep and untouched face we were left facing compromise: a band of cliffs separated the high point of the slope with any sense of accessibility. We began nick-naming this mountain ‘1000 Metres of Loam’ and talking about its unwillingness to let us in; the fierce upper reaches were nestled high above our valley and closed access to all but the highly agile and perfectly measured movements of those chamois.
Further weeks of fruitless searching for a new spot went by, but that unforgettable promise of one vertical kilometre of earthy turns never fully left our minds. Having been trumped by every other mountain, all signs led us back to Loam.
Having found a route that dropped us above the cliffs, we sat peering down into the most promising future trail, and our latest escapade began. Ben and I began a slightly (highly) dangerous project to scope every inch of said cliffs until we either found a way in or went home with our tails between our legs.
Scaling rubbly 45-degree slopes, fighting through enormous fallen trees, tip-toeing along perilous ledges, clinging to gigantic boulders and repeatedly being shut down when just a few metres above the entry to Loam left us all but defeated. Our hazardous quest was rarely without an audience: families of chamois regularly observed our own highly clumsy and disastrously thoughtless movements.
But then our luck finally broke as we stumbled onto a tiny zigzag of barely visible ancient turns presumably left from an age of hunting long forgotten. Disappearing into the void below, an on-foot recce confirmed that this trace of human activity led to our holy grail of Loam. A kilometre-or-so edging along a ledge and one tight squeeze through a rocky hole and there it was at our feet: 1000 vertical metres* of unridden, loamy, fresh, deep, dirt. The game was on. *ish
Mountain bikers like to put their stamp on a hillside. We already knew this one summarised our affliction with steep, but we would try to err away from our habit of overly technical.
Ben and I have often crafted tight and twisty mazes of trials challenges, but we would now aim for the flow that previous builds had lacked, and pack it into several kilometres of soft turns in the deep soil layered on this hillside from centuries of abandonment. Our imagined track would link corner to corner; throw its few riders from one rut to the next. It would be the antithesis of bike parks, with their compacted and overly enormous but regularly pointless berms. We’d add support only where it was most needed, and cause no damage to the forest that couldn’t heal naturally. And with its inaccessibility it would forever remain a stash of trail bullion. We got to work.
Weeks and then months of steady, bit-by-bit digging, shaping and crafting the track we want to ride have formed what is now a 75% finished, kilometres-long safe haven for mountain bike purists where skids will not go unnoticed and corners will never get blown out. In some places we have simply scratched a line, others we have added some support, and along the way we have linked in remnants of ancient paths. This track has lived up to everything we dreamed it up to be, in particular that it is accessible only to those with a treasure map and a willingness to embark on a potentially unrewarding expedition. For those who work hard enough to track this one down, though, there is pure gold waiting at the foot of that oh-so terrifying cliff.
1000 Metres of Loam will soon be complete, making the impossible possible and bringing the legendary to life. For details on where to find it, track us down in a bar somewhere and we will happily divulge its ever-changing details.