The Third Rail – An Electric ride with Damien Oton

The Third Rail – An Electric ride with Damien Oton

We were the only people standing on the station platform, it was 9.00 a.m. I was tired yet wired. Five riders cracking jokes, having a laugh, grabbing a few photos. Five bikes crowded around a lamp post. Today was going to be something else, something special. I stared along the hot wires of the railway tracks, the third rail gleaming like lightning into the distance.

Electricity. It’s everywhere yet you can’t see it. Until transformed into light, or heat and sound. The billions of neurons firing within the human body create and emit an electro magnetic field. The atmosphere today was bristling with positive static – everyone was clearly here with one purpose in mind: having fun.

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We were taking an exciting and unusual uplift today – to the solar furnace at Mont Louis, pedalling a further 800+ metres into the mountains then we would fly our bikes back down across 12 kms of unsighted natural mountain descent.

“Breakfast?” I asked casually. Everyone laughed – I had travelled quite a way to be here; dragging myself out of bed at 6.00 a.m. And, for good reason – today we were riding an iconic trail with local hero and Enduro World Series hot-shot Damien Oton.

And here it was, painted in Catalan red and yellow – blood and gold – the famous little yellow train of the Pyrenees and full to the brim with happy tourists who eyed us with amused curiosity. We fumbled around for cash and joked with the conductor before placing our bikes in a small box car and squeezing ourselves into the last carriage.

At one time railway workers reported a fireball on the third rail between kilometres 28 and 40 – I was looking forward to burning down the trail; not deep-frying on the way up!

It soon became evident that Yann (the “master blaster”) had assembled the optimum “team” for having a damn good time on the trail and to show our guest Carlos from the Azores the best of what the Mediterranean Pyrenees have to offer.

The train climbed up through the trees above the Tet river affording fantastic views as it passed over bridges and through tunnels winding into the cool mountain air; a little nerve-wracking at times as we gazed down into the valley from thin, elevated viaducts at the rocky river rushing below.

At Mont Louis it was time for action. We flew a couple of k’s of fast winding tarmac, hollering and laughing with the traffic, Damien choosing to save some tread with a long, smooth, fast manual before hitting a firetrack and beginning our climb.

Damien obliged Simon’s questions with a little pro-level advice before the talk descended into hilarious broken English, bad French, ridiculous accents, jokes and the importance of certain mushrooms: girolles, cèpes or trompettes de la mort – the trumpets of death.

“Les champignons sont interdites pour l’étrangers!”

“Sean….connerie!”

“There are 2500 words the same in French and English”

“Yeah, and between us we know about 5 of them!”

A little later we reached one of the iconic tanks in the military zone – it was time for photos and to apply some stickers to the gun barrel – the climbing was close to being done. As the trail levelled out we cruised smooth, verdant, undulating single track into the pines.  It was silent, beautiful and mystical in the woods save for the mellow, hypnotic whir and purr of bike cassettes.

“Oxygen!”

We paused a while. I had to loosen some body armour. Unaccustomed to the thinning air Carlos was feeling the burn…something he would make up for later with a cracking, speedy pace on the descent.  Yann shared some noix. I questioned the wisdom of pouring maple syrup into my electrolyte, and we discussed the stylistic merit of ultra-wide handlebars.
A large stag skipped across the trail and disappeared into the sublime; it was time to kick out the jams and descend.

“Let’s roll!”

Within seconds Damien disappeared down into the tree line like a projectile, a missile, he was gone. Faaark! Simon and Carlos were on the gas too, followed by Jake and Yann. Rooty, slippery, damp, muddy, covered with moss, littered with tricky sniper rocks the first sector of descent felt like a wild fight between speed, grip and braking. We were looking for the golden thread, the smooth line through the trail. I was hanging on by a thread – surviving – by the skin of my teeth, a couple of pedal strikes. We passed Carlos who was battling a situation with his chain and dropped out of the pines. Wild-eyed we re-assembled and blasted like lunatics down fire-track before…the apocalypse.

“Impossible is a word to be found only in the dictionary of fools.” (Napoleon)

Steep. Fast. Huge. Angular. Rock. The way to dusty death! The trail had exploded – smashed to pieces, this was intense. Arms hurting. Carlos and Simon were getting away. Focus focus focus. Damien was long gone. What’s next? Back to back, evil switchbacks. W.T.F.? Rocks were flying, my eyes were singing. Is it possible? Yeah, maybe. A few close calls with the bushes. I was shouting. Someone was hollering. It was Yann bouldering his way through at my back.

Suddenly water, running down the trail, glistening white sparks, exposure to the left. On the brakes. Off the brakes. Stay OFF the brakes. Holy guacamole, it was gnarly. I could vaguely see three guys howling, laughing and waving down the trail. What’s going on?

“Go Jackman! Go Jackman! Alright!”

Damien, Carlos and Simon were grinning from ear to ear. Apparently wearing body armour can only mean one thing: The Wolverine!

“Let’s go!” Yann and I rolled on first, we wanted to grab some shots. We picked a ferocious double switchback at the bottom of a violent rock chute. Damien flew into and out of the high corner,  hot gunned into the chute, almost floating, his bike dancing over every rock, nailed the switchbacks – left – right, and disappeared, surfing on dust. He barely touched the ground. Damn! It was fast, electric bike riding from another planet. Simon appeared and we dropped back in behind Carlos; there was real a sense of style to his riding, it was tasty!

We rolled through a charming village high up on the edge of the valley on to the final long, exposed descent. The trail was smoothing out as we lost altitude and looped our way around the mountain high above the steep inclines of the river valley. Simon and Carlos were pinning it 30 metres in front; I could see them across to the right on each banked corner above the ravine. Could we catch Damien? He was nowhere to be seen. Rolling up the smooth, banked corners it was possible to look straight down into the void. Edgy! Don’t look down. Don’t look down. Feel the heat – everyone was racing. Hearts pumping, synapses firing, sprockets spinning. Pedal…pump…pedal…it felt like we were firing around the hadron collider.

Suddenly it was over. We were flying along tarmac beside the river, back to the railway station. 800 metres of climbing, 24 kms in distance, about 1800 metres of lunatic, high octane descent. The laugh statistics were off the scale.

Damien and Carlos left for the Trans Savoie, Yann had a photo shoot so Simon and I chilled in the post-ride afterglow with ice cool beer and a huge salad d’anchois on a sunlit terrace above the yellow train. We had made it out alive, and made new friends who were ready to shred at the drop of a hat, irregardless of bike skills, riding just for the kicks – nothing more – and that’s what really counts.

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