This is a ride graded Blue on the VTT Aude Pyrenees website. It’s listed under their Circuit Sportif category, which means “Sports Circuit”, in contrast to the other two categories, which translate as “Family Tours” and “Rolling Circuits”. Having figured that out, I’d say that explain a lot!
The route starts in Esperaza (11260) where there is are pleny of places to park. I like to park in the car park by the cafe L’orygin’l, which is also a great place for a coffee before and/or, if it’s still open when you get back, after. They have free wifi, the owner is a really nice guy, and – importantly, the coffee is good!
The route starts easily enough, turning right out of the car park by the cafe a left just before the railway crossing. This takes you onto a quite back round that is mostly-traffic-free, following the river from Esperaza to Campagne-sur-Aude. It’s an easy pedal and nice little leg stretch: a good opportunity to admire some of the local veggie patches.
Once in Campagne, you can stop at the small but well-stocked shop, if you need supplies (there’s nowhere else for the rest of the ride, so this is your last chance, if you need anything); otherwise, navigate out of the village, crossing the river. After a short stretch on the main road in the direction of Quillan you turn left up a tarmac track, and up you go. From this point onwards I swear the ride is 90% up!
After a short tarmac climb the route turns into a track. Then a short way around the bend and past a wild plum tree absolutely dripping with fruit (at the right time of year) and you’re into what looks like an absolutely fantastic descent. Note to self: this part is a Strava segment, so stopping to pick plums and take photos will drastically reduce your leaderboard position! Past the fruit trees and the track narrows, turning into a steep and rocky descent, not too dissimilar to some of the classic peaks descents, like Potato Alley. Shortly before this point on my ride, I was pondering whether this route would be any good for a hybrid or gravel bike. Well, that right there was my answer! Not because you couldn’t push a hybrid up there – but more likely because if you’re not on a mountain bike you’re probably not used to pushing your bike up trails like this! Personally, after feeling like I’d been riding uphill for most of the time so far, I was also a little dismayed to find myself riding UP such an awesome looking DOWN. Maybe because it’s graded Blue? More on this later.
Anyway, at the top of the fantastic rocky descent (that you’ve probably just pushed your bike up) there’s a signpost, which gives you the option to tootle along to a viewpoint, giving a fab view of the surrounding area. I didn’t have time for this – also have been there before, as that was on route the 15k ride took for la Ronde VTT des Trois Quilles that I did last year – so just carried on with the route, which follows the path on towards the pretty village of Saint Ferriol.
On my way past here, I had to squeeze past a tractor, which was blocking the way, and also throw a quick Bonjour! at a small group who were there for the grape harvest. A bit further along this path, there’s a very well-organised orchard with peach, plum and apple trees, and a little after that I passed an old woman pushing a trolley fully of apples; I presume that orchard is her handiwork!
Once in Saint-Ferriol, it’s up again. Follow the small road through the village up!) and continue on UP the hill when the road runs out and turns into a track. Again, the signs are there, so look out for them. This is the same route that we followed on the la Ronde VTT des Trois Quilles. It’s a nice shady track that takes you through woodland with sweet chestnut trees. At the right time of year, you can smell the mushrooms growing there too.
After riding along here (again, mostly up, so pedal pedal pedal!) the track takes a left turn, dropping down into the woods. If it weren’t so erroded it would be a nice swoopy stretch of singletrack, but because the water also follows that line through the trees, it’s turned into a rut that’s about 1 foot deep and 1 foot wide at the top: only a tyres-width at the bottom. Plus roots. Either I’ve lost my bottle OR it’s become worse in the last 12 months because I’m sure I rode more of it the last time I was there. This time, possibly in part because I was riding alone and working to a deadline, which meant no time for accidents, I opted to drag the bike down rather than risk an off. Roots and ruts = mountain bike kryptonite! It’s only a short stretch though. At the point where it levels out a bit, it becomes rideable, then it’s a nice wide track, stony with ruts, but with space for finding a line, down to the bottom.
From here the track drops down into Granes – another quiet and pretty little village – and you’re about half of the way around.
Once in Granes you follow a nice section of single track, which has a bit of a hairy drop at the end (onto the road – and both times I’ve ridden it, wire has been across the opening!) so take care there.
After that it’s mostly a wide open track, taking you past some interesting properties: one evidently owned by an artist/sculptor!
This easy track (mostly climbing mind you) ends with a fast gritty descent back to Esperaza, spitting you out on the D117.
If you can’t see the signs, you might be going the wrong way
The route is well signed throughout. I started off in the opposite direction (my GPX trace imported into Bikemap.net seemed to think that was the right way). Realising I wasn’t seeing the usual signs, I checked the back of a post by one of the junctions and there it was. All these routes are usually well signed so if you don’t see the markings it maybe that you’re doing it the wrong way round!
The verdict: great for e-bikes and gravel
General thoughts on this one: would I do it again? Tricky to say. There was a considerable amount of climbing – probably 5/6ths of the ride – which meant I was feeling time pressure for most of the ride. That time was made up when the route did finally descend but, as descents go, it wasn’t all that interesting: those wide gravelly tracks can be a bit sketchy (there was fresh rubble there so no nice flowy/compacted bits) and not so many rocks. I did at least make it back in time, thanks to that last fast descent though.
As “blue” graded rides go, it was non-technical but lots of climbing. I would think this is a great route for e-bikes and also decent as a gravel route, but for mountain bikers, there are better routes to ride!