SEVEN YEAR ITCH - THE CORSICA REMATCHStory and Photographs by Dan Milner
“Have I got the shakes?” I ask myself, looking down at a trembling gloved hand. It’s not like I haven’t had long enough to mentally prepare for the descent I’m about to roll into: a cobbled trail that plummets 600 metres down the side of a gorge. In fact I’ve had a whole seven years to ponder this trail: the Gorge de Spelunca, a ride that has become ‘legendary’ in my mind. Ah, the Gorge de Spelunca. But seven years is the kind of time that allows memories to become embossed with romantic fiction, for simple athletic rides to assume ‘epic’ status, and conversely for some true epics to lose their edginess and scoop ‘top-ten flowing ride’ accolades. Now, anxiously perched at the trail’s entrance –an alleyway unnervingly seated between cemetery tombs- I wonder how accurately the Spelunca Gorge has been etched in my brain’s memory card. Is there a reason I’ve left it seven years to come back to ride this trail? “Let’s get this done!” I say more to myself than to Greg and Mike, my two accompanying riders before rolling into the Mediterranean oak forest that conceals our fate ahead.
Seven years earlier I was with Greg and another friend Matt dropping into the same technical descent as part of a quest to traverse the Mediterranean island of Corsica via the Mar-e-Mar North, a long-distance hiking trail. Then we underestimated the rugged topography of the island and were physically and mentally ruined by the end of our adventure. Destroyed would be a good word for it. But that was seven years ago, a time when we adhered doggedly to the hardtail ethos and the masochist idea of riding from A to B without hint of a car shuttle via C. Corsica kicked our proverbial asses, but even so I’ve had a nagging desire to return and re-ride the trail. It had potential; we’d just got it wrong that time. Now we have suspension, and lots of it, and we have hindsight. And both combine to do beautiful things.
To say Corsica is a mountain bike heaven would be lying. But although largely devoid of any real mountain bike infrastructure, the island’s steep mountains do hide an enormous amount of singletrack hiking trails. This is no bermed downhill wonderland, but if it’s long natural descents with a very All-Mountain feel that lube your chain, then Corsica has some of the best. It’s steep and tech and wild. The island itself is considered the most mountainous of any in the Med’ and boasts 21 peaks over 2000 metres high.
Our full-sus rematch will take in the same Mar-e–Mar North trail between the mountain town of Corte and the west coast village of Porto, but by viewing each day as a separate ride instead of a 4 day point to point endurance marathon, we can choose each day’s start and finish points and so bypass the couple of mindless bike-carry epics that blighted our original Corsican experience. Our approach is symptomatic of mountain biking today: to maximise the reward and minimise the pain. The word “minimise” is ambiguous: we all know that our rematch won’t be entirely painless, even with 150-mm of travel.
We warm up to Corsica’s nadge-tech demands among the red-granite pinnacles of the Calange, a UNESCO heritage site, a 30-minute drive from Porto. This is the only true “unknown” on our 4-day odyssey and having plucked an invitingly flowy looking dotted line from the map, we pedal into a climb littered with feel-good technical tests of leg power. It’s just one of the countless remnants of a vast historic series of chestnut-harvesting paths and cobbled mule tracks that once littered the island. Like most, this one is paved with decaying stone slabs now beaten into submission by centuries of time. It makes great riding.
By dipping into the unknown we’re playing trail map roulette, something that worked against us last time on the Mar-e-Mar, and we’re conscious of the gamble we’re taking. Last time our clutch of superlight XC hardtails met their match among Corsica’s burly challenges but now armed with a pair of Yeti 575’s and a Santa Cruz Blur LT we’re feeling slightly better equipped for whatever Corsica was about to throw at us. You don’t bring a knife to a gunfight we’ve learned.
The short out-and-back trail emerges high above the sea among towering needles of red granite, glowing crimson in the late evening sun. We push onwards re-riding sections of the trail, trying to clean tricky steps and switchbacks and enjoying the unpressured luxury of getting to grips with Corsica’s demands. As the sun begins its final dip towards the horizon, we about turn and head back, the step-laden climb we rode an hour earlier becoming a bouncy, jump-strewn race back to the car.
It’s end of October and we have the campsite at Porto almost to ourselves as we sit back and crack open tins of local chestnut beer and chat smugly about the trail we just rode. At the back of my mind though I know we have two of the toughest trails I can remember ahead of us, one a big, committing day out that is a long way from help.
A 90-minute roadclimb brings us to Evisa and its roadside cemetery. Seven years of building anxiety is soon dispelled by hoots of laughter as we sprint the Spelunca Gorge’s initial fast open bends and loft its fun drop offs. As the trail tightens up we enter a game of challenge, each trying to clean successive spirals of cobbled singletrack, and pushing back up to have another go if we fail. My shakes have receded; our fun approach has seen to that. A rocky staircases, as technical as I remember, has us puckered up again, before the Spelunca finally relinquishes its mental grip and spits us out along a fast lumpy traverse back to the car, laughing like newly released convicts. After seven years it’s already been worth the return.
Next day we roll out early to spin the 800m jeep track climb out of Calacuccia up to the Bocca a Croce, a saddle in the mountainside that represents the gateway to the Tavignano Gorge. From here we have a 25 Km singletrack descent that will drop a full three-quarters of a vertical Kilometre to the mountain town of Corte. It seems strange to be following a river as it flows inland, seemingly away from the sea, but from our recollections of seven years ago, we know that this will be one hell of a downhill. Most of our memories of the Tavignano were of carrying our bikes, endlessly lumbering up polished granite slabs. Of course that was when we attempted it in the other direction.
We reach the refuge and it dawns on us that ahead is possibly one of the most promising rides we’ll ever do. Autumn damp livens up the polished limestone baby heads as we start the mellow descent towards Corte. In my mind I can recollect a stunning ancient stone-slabbed mule track set deep within a prehistoric gorge, littered with ferns and uniquely shaped trees. The reality is exactly that, with the bonus of a full-tilt, undulating descent in our favour. We’re thankful for our AM capable bikes: so much of the trail is better, and easier ridden faster and the riding is intense, with only short climbs and a couple of short pushes allowing us time to refocus and breath normally again.
While the gradient of the trail on the map easily allows us to be forgiven in thinking we could ride up this gorge on our hardtails years ago, the reality on the ground can be so different. That’s trail map roulette. Now with the luxury of hindsight, of seven years of pondering, of 150-mm of suspension travel, Corsica’s most technical trail has found a place in our own list of top ten rides. No, the Mar-e-Mar North isn’t for everyone. It’s technical and unforgiving and remote, but like so many trails of the world, when approached with the right tool and the right attitude and a little prior knowledge, it too can be painless. Relatively.How, when, and where: The Mar-e-Mar is best split into separate sections. We tackled the Spelunca as 1 day (possible to car shuttle to the top if you have 2 cars), then riding fast XC style singletrack from Calacuccia to near the Col Vergio and back as day 2, and the Tavignano Gorge from Calacuccia to Corte as a big point to point day 3. You can leave a car at the end in Corte and get a taxi shuttle (70 euros) back to the start. The coastal Calanche de Piana has some short spectacular, if tech trails to warm up on. We used French IGN maps 4250 OT and 4150 OT, available locally. Summer is way too hot, so head to Corsica in April-May and Sept-Oct. Winters see snow in the mountains. Fly to Bastia or Ajaccio with Easyjet. You will need a car to access your rides. There are 3 campsites in Porto (3-star, 12euro pppn), and 2 gites in Calacuccia (from 35 euros pppn B&B). Corte has abundant camping and hotels. Corsica is great for its beaches, especially in the south.
Story and Photographs by Dan Milner