By Day 5, I am well acquainted with my gravity demons.
They hover in my ear, taunting me: “Weakling!” They mooch free rides in my backpack and weigh me down. “You shouldn’t have had that fifth glass of wine last night,” they scold. “We’re going to make you pay.”
It is 9:45 on a sharp blue morning. I am bicycling up a gruelling switchback road, pummelled by a strong wind. Only 21/2 miles up to the castle.
My legs are crying. My lungs exploding. The price the demons make me pay nearly drains my account.
Stupid Cathars, building a fortress in the foothills of the Pyrenees, 100 miles from nowhere.
I’m not saying the material world was created by Satan and inherently evil, as believed by the heretical Cathars, who fled to these mountains in southwest France during their 13th-century persecution. But gravity certainly is a drag.
Yet, our trip leaders’ promise of dinner at a country B&B at the end of the day — hearty meatballs, wine and company — is the fuel that may deliver me from this torment. By evening, my tortured body will be rewarded.
At least I’m not the last to reach the top. Gasping, our group of eight dismounts from our mountain bikes to suck water bottles and recover. The castle is a spectacular crumble of grey rock perched on an impossible crag. Where chateau begins and mountaintop ends is hard to discern. My spirits resurging, I bound up the trail on foot to poke among the ruins.
The demons vanish.
Dozens of companies run biking adventures in France, from four-star chateau-to-chateau tours of the Loire Valley to Alpine stage replicas of the Tour de France. I wanted a medium-hard experience, off the beaten path but not without basic comforts. I also wanted that sense of journeying from village to village through a genuine landscape. No Holiday Inn room off the bypass each night, no nursing my saddle sores in front of CNN.
Rough Tracks fit the bill. The British company’s Cathar Trail trip promised eight days of rigorous but not impossible mountain biking through the rural department of Aude Languedoc-Roussillon, in southwest France, close to the Spanish border and the Mediterranean.
Modest, bunk-style accommodations in gîtes d’étape (dorm-B&B hybrids) and a communal, small-group atmosphere meant I wouldn’t be waited on hand and foot. I wanted to participate, whether washing dishes after breakfast or learning to patch an inner tube. Plus, the trip was described as “suitable for fit beginners.”
That’s me. I’m 37, run in the park once a week and bike around town when weather permits. But I had never been on a mountain bike for longer than an afternoon.
The Cathar Trail would end up being one of the most physically demanding activities I’d ever willingly undertaken.
Though I worried about the challenge, when our group assembled at the Carcassonne airport 460 miles southwest of Paris, any self-doubts about my physical ability subsided. We were a mix of sexes, ages (30 to 53) and fitness levels. Sizing everyone up, I placed myself in the middle.
But as the sole American among the English, how would I handle a week of intensive British immersion? On the van ride to our first gite at Granes, the vineyards and stone cliffs rushed by to the surreal soundtrack of “brilliant!”, discussions of “snogging” and requests for a spot of tea.
Now, five days into the trail, sitting at the castle wall of the Chateau Puilaurens with a commanding view over the Boulzane Valley, sipping Earl Grey in the Pyrenees hardly seems odd. Neither does the prospect of vacationing with perfect strangers. The eight of us have become the best of temporary friends, a phenomenon that occurs when folks engage in a common endeavour and sleep (and snore) in the same room.
Just like summer camp. Or prison.
I wander over to Carol, 42, who works in marketing, and Mark, 44, a part-time architect and our principal guide. Carol’s archaeologist husband, Doug, 39, and the other couple on the trip, 53-year-old Trevor (a beverage tanker operator) and Sue, 48 (a social worker), are off visiting the chateau.
“How many ups this afternoon?” Carol asks Mark. “And how many downs?”
With a topographic map slung around his neck like a flask on a Saint Bernard, Mark is both map- and morale-keeper. His task is to psych us up for the tough climbs and warn us of any single tracks (narrow single-file) or technical downhills (stretches of rock- and stump-laden trail requiring some forethought to prevent us from flying over our handlebars).
“Well, it gets a bit tricky here,” Mark says, his finger tracing our upcoming route.
“Don’t worry,” says James, 42, an ophthalmologist and former trip leader. “Just follow me.” There’s another James, 30, an itinerant outdoorsman with a Hugh Grant accent who serves as the behind-the-scenes logistics man, making our sandwiches, driving the van to meet us for lunch and replenishing our all-important wine and beer stocks.
“Okay, enough faffing,” says James I. By now, I know what this British idiom means: Stop wasting time. Let’s get back on the bikes and hit the trail.
The Cathar sect flourished in Western Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, especially in the region around Toulouse. But when Pope Innocent III got wind that the faith was gaining followers and establishing bishoprics in France, in 1209, he began a 20-year crusade to annihilate the movement.
We were visiting only a fraction of the remote fortresses the Cathars built to defend themselves: Duilhac, Queribus, Puilaurens and Puivert. But our route, often a medieval peasant’s donkey-width path, sometimes followed in the footsteps of these same believers.
With every pedal and skid, I was kicking up the dust of history. I wondered if the demons plaguing me might be the spirits of these tortured Cathars, still haunting these cols (mountain passes) and wind-whipped valleys.
Not that we’re learning much about these infidels as we bike. Conversation more often turns to discussions on chains and cables, to the merits of quick-release levers and Marin frames. Or to amusing anecdotes from previous trips: the time the cat fell in the salad, or projectile-vomiting in the Moroccan desert. That sort of thing.
If our guides are a little weak on the local Albigensian history — my only real complaint — their cheer and technical chatter more than makes up for it. Because I know nothing about mountain biking, I need to be walked through every squeaky brake pad and muscle cramp.
Why put down the seat for steep descents? (To lower your center of gravity.) How best avoid upcoming obstacles? (Focus not on the rocks but where you want to go.) I’m a 3-year-old stuck in his “Why?” stage. Everyone offers technical support: Trevor suggests a gear-changing technique, and even off-duty leader James repairs my frequent tube punctures. The culprit: a thorny plant.
After the third day, I become more confident on the downhills.
“That was fun!” I say to anyone who’ll listen, after one injury-free descent of a boulder-strewn, dry river bed. “When’s the next one?”
By now our routine is set. We’re up at 8, eating our breakfast and tuning up bikes. Kitchen cleaned up, bags packed into the van and water bottles filled, we’re on the trail by 10. Mark goes over the route.
After three hours of biking, we stop for lunch. We rest after each tough ascent and regroup.
“Don’t be worried about being the last,” James reminds us. “You’ll probably enjoy the view more.”
And what views. Along our week’s circular route, an astounding variety of trail surface and topography unfold: crushed stone tracks through pine groves, dirt trails along ridges, muddy paths crossing cow and sheep pastures, roller-coaster single-file tracks fording brooks, zigzag roads through limestone gorges.
Anyone who’s tired can take the support van. But as a matter of personal pride, I pedal every mile, for a grand total of 122. Even on the final day, when it begins to drizzle, fools like me carry their bikes up a trail covered with inches of slick mud while others wisely ride back to our starting point in Granes.
But no matter the trail’s daily frustrations, after about six hours of riding, covering roughly 15 to 25 miles, we roll into the next village around teatime.
We unpack, shower, set up our beds. Some nap or drink beer. But mostly, we bask in the silence. The valleys of Languedoc-Roussillon have been largely abandoned, farms have reverted to forest, and peace reigns supreme.
This evening we’re at the much-anticipated gite at Aiguebonnes, the one Mark and James and James have been building up all week. My legs may be scraped by thorns and my clothes soaked with perspiration, but I’ve conquered my saddle sores. So I stroll up the trail where earlier we’d spotted wild boar, as the sun sinks behind a wall of silhouetted rock.
At 8 o’clock, it’s time for aperitifs. Bring on the fried sardine beignets, and then the meatballs with wild mushrooms and olives, followed by pasta with cheese, salad, apple tart, herbal tea and bottomless carafes of local red wine.
The Cathars were wrong: My tired body may feel like a hovering spirit, but it’s entitled to a material existence and all the pleasures of this good earth.
Ethan Gilsdorf, a poet and writer from Boston whose work has appeared in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.