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We spent a fortnight in the eastern French Pyrenees. The advantage over the high Pyrenees is that here there are gites available with pools. We had a week in Vernet-les-Bains, on the north side of Canigou, and then a week near Arles-sur-Tech, on the other side. The idea was to make full use of the pools but unfortunately there was simply too much unmissable cycling to be done and we finished the fortnight wiped out, as usual.

Both Vernet and Arles are provided by the FFC with a selection of graded VTT routes, which we based some of our rides around. In Vernet there is a free leaflet outlining the routes but no other information. In Arles each route has a laminated informative route sheet to buy for E1.50. The routes are reasonably well signposted but sometimes a sign was missing or a turn not well enough marked. The grading (green/blue/red/black) seems mostly to be on length and amount of climbing rather than technical difficulty. The routes follow a mixture of unsurfaced roads and forest roads, and established footpaths. We couldn't ride all the paths but the challenges were interesting, and some sections are certainly unrideable.

We also used tracks and some footpaths not on the VTT routes. As far as we know it is all right to cycle on waymarked paths except in some National Parks, but you face the problem you don't know how rideable any path is - and one path I tried to find seemed nonexistent.

Rides from Vernet

Roques Blanques
. The most alluring route is a long circuit from Vernet to the Col de Mantet, Collade des Roques Blanques, Pla Guillem, Marialles and return to Vernet. To the Col de Mantet it's a tarmac road which is steep beyond Py. Then it's track at an easier gradient. The high point is about 2300m but the potential views over to the Tech valley were in cloud on our day. The section to from Roques Blanques to Pla Guillem is a little narrow, but otherwise the track is wide and easy to follow. The views of the Canigou group over Pla Guillem are impressive. The only food available en route is at the Marialles refuge which we got to quite late on in the ride, so take some stuff with you. (60km, 1840m).

Cortalets.
The other long routes we did were both up to the Refuge Els Cortalets. The first of these we rode up via the "good" road and down the FFC's black route. From Vernet we went by road to Taurinya, then by track to Clara via the Col de Clara, taking the route that starts going south from Taurinya. From Clara there is another track to the Col de Forn, passing below the strikingly situated St Etienne chapel. On the main road there are a few cars; the scenery is spectacular, and you ride up through some great rocks. The climb is generally easy graded but it takes a long time. The Refuge is up a rougher track from the col. It has food and beer, and it is from here that most people choose to walk up Canigou. The descent on the black route starts off on the rougher road, takes a track turning right which is all very nice, before descending steeply through forests, which we managed more or less with some care. You come out into the open, then the path is much steeper and beyond our abilities, before it relents and becomes fun. We continued the black route to Vernet, a little harder then we wanted at the end of the day. (54km, 1920m).

Canigou.
Our other ride to Els Cortalets was more straightforward. We rode up the old road from Fillos and the Col de Milleres. I confess we drove to Fillols to save us a little climbing but it barely seemed worth it. The road is steep and rough but we could ride it all, and it is spectacular. There is a horribly steep section but at least it is tarmac of sorts here, and there is a fab little tunnel through the rocks. We left the bikes at the refuge and walked to the top of Canigou. It is a great walk and not at all difficult, and took us about 1hr10 to walk up. (30km, 1280m ride; 600m walk)

Around Taurinya. We had a rather meandering exploratory ride the first afternoon. From Corneilla on the road to Fillols but took the track to the left about halfway, which takes you to a junction at la Collade. These tracks are used by the FFC's route 7. We had planned to go to Sirach but saw a "false route' sign, and thinking this meant bikes were banned that way, we took the VTT direction sign which took us to Fillols. In fact that's not what the crossed-out bike sign means, it simply means that's not the waymarked route. From Fillols we rode to the Col de Milleres and down the footpath to Taurinya. This is a lovely, lovely descent - just challenging enough for us. We then did a little loop to Cassanet and past the Tour de Cours, a quite and overgrown track through woods. Finally, took the right track forking off the Fillols road which sort of crests a hilltop. This track seems to just become a woodland path before meeting a track agaain before the road and we were never quite sure we had gone the right way, but it was fun. We were going to ride back on the road but couldn't resist taking the ridge track from the Col St Eusebe down towards Corneilla and back up the gentler forest track back to Vernet. There had been a VTT race the previous weekend and we followed the arrows, taking a sweet little path with tight corners to roll into Vernet. (30km, 800m).

St Martin and Col de Jou.
A supposedly easy day. We rode to this "gompa" - these guys are really Tibetans in disguise. They try to frighten you off by claiming that the road does 300m ascent in 1600m. This isn't true, it's about 200m, but the road is the stuff of nightmares. We took a couple of photos of the abbey and twenty of the road. We then went up the road to the Col de Jou and down the FFC's red route to the Tour de Goa and down the ridge. "Assez technique" they say in the leaflet; much of it was a little beyond me as it's on a right hand slope. (860m, 21km).

Prades and back.
Supposedly a rest day. We fancied going to Prades but driving the enormous vehicle the car hire place had upgraded us to was more trouble than cycling. We rode to Fillols via the Col de Juell (the FFC's route 7) and to Taurinya via the Col de Millieres and our now favourite descent. Then road via the St Michel gompa. You have to pay to go in so we rode about on their steps a bit instead. Then to Prades which isn't all that interesting but has a patisserie. There's a nice way out of Prades wchich is to head towards Molitg (no, I've no idea either) and take the back road to Ria. Splendid view of Canigou with Sirach decorating the foreground. Then the reverse of part of route 7 via les Artigues. The track from Roc Ram to Fillols is another delight. (34km, 900m).

Rides from Arles-sur-Tech

We relied more on the FFC's routes in this area, and we used the car a lot more to get to the start of rides. There is a wealth of forestry tracks in the valley but it is not clear from the map whether they are going to be interesting or not.

Le tour de la Souque.
One of the two FFC black routes, to which we appended the Chapelle St Guilleme route. From Corsavy, fairly standard forest standard forest track of an unmistakably uphill nature, to the Fontane del Brigadier. The Blue route is a nice one, with two sides of the triangle on old roads. Back at the fontane we realised how much more climbing there was, and it's pretty damned hard, all the way up to the Col de L'Estangnol. We were now "rewarded" with a long and somewhat technical descent. (44km, 1505m).

Raid Transfrontalier
This is the other black route. It starts with a long and fairly monotonous forest track climb. Once you meet the road near the pass, it tries a little more track which simply gets you to the base of a pointless and tiresome carry up a path. Now the fun starts - the route follows the frontier ridge, mostly on the Spanish side. It is quite varied. The first bit is narrow and a little tricky for me - later it becomes easier. We had some cloud and were in some cloud so we didn't have as good views as we might have done. Routefinding is mostly straightforward except near the Col de Pany where the track evaporates and you need to pay attention to distances and the map. Technical descent, some of which was fun, but we got lost on the old forest track part, with lunch heading off into the distant future. The last bit was fun.

It is a long ride and although we had taken some couscous, a proper lunch was called for. There is nothing at Preste-les-Bains (the hotel was closed) so we hammered down to Prats. The restaurants seem to stay open longish hours for lunch - they do serve Spaniards. It started raining so we postponed the second part of the ride. (37km, 1170m).

We returned to complete it on our last day in the mountains, but spun it out a little more by riding up towards the Cabane Pastorale des Estables. The road to Can Pitot and the forest track are a little steep at times but otherwise straightforward and you have decent views. We descended to the junction at 1470m to take a nicely overgrown old road past la Mouline, dropping to about 1200m in the valley. There's not a great deal more up to regain to the Coll del Miracle, and from there it's a narrow, entertaining but mostly rideable descent. (31km, 1140m).

Els Vigourats - Tour de la Batere. Tracey did this alone; Colin rested. Tracey is suffering more right now. From Corsavy, the road past the Creperie and into the Riuferrer valley. Heart plummets at same rate as valuable altitude lost. Sharp right to Els Vigourats near the bottom, this is rough concrete, becoming a reasonably interestingly surfaced track. The steepest sections are lower down - it does get easier higher up. Just before the final turn to the top house, there's a right (sort of straight-on at a bend) onto a more overgrown track which levels off. Cross the GR10 path and reach a hairpin bend on a better-looking track. I took the left and continued climbing on this overgrown track through mixed woodland. It's straightforward but it's worth chcking the map for false turns. Eventually emerge at a clearing beynd which I found a sort of hippy camp. Continued to the road - this is all open now with pastures around an expansive views. I belted up to the tower (there's a stretch of gravel road) and back again, descending crazily so as to catch what turned out to be the decisive stage of the 2010 Tour. (1050m).

Els Vigourats - GR10.
A more interesting variant on the previous ride was to take the right turn on the track just after you cross the GR10, for in a short while you merge with the GR10 properly and you can follow this. There is footpath and there is track, mostly path where it gets interesting, though there are sections of steep rock which we had to carry over. But with great views. At some point one or two of the FFC's routes merged with our route, and their routes follow a diversion from the GR10 itself near Arles (the actual GR10 looks too steep). Buy cake in Arles because it's a long way up back to the Mas. (32km, 920m).

De Serralongue a Falgos. One of FFC's red routes. It looks from the map to be all forest tracks, but it's a more interesting route than you might first think. We took a detour to St Laurent: we left at Col des Colomines and took a sandy forest track that crosses a waymarked horse-ride route. A little further (where the track probably stops) we took a 90 degree left, downhill, then followed the path to St Laurent - this was really rather nice. To rejoin the FFC route we used the tarmac road to Falgos which steepens insidiously. (36km, 920m).

Practicalities

Maps. We used the IGN 2349ET Massif du Canigou, and 2449OT Ceret.

Food. Vernet. There is a decent enough supermarche in Vernet, and a few boulangeries. There is a better supermarket at Prades. We ate out once, at Bistrot Le Cortal, which is run by a British couple. Corsavy. There are traditional small shops in Arles and a small Spar supermarket. For a big supermarket you have to go to Ceret. We did not eat out in the evening here as it seemed impractical to get back from Arles.

Access. We flew to Toulouse and hired a car to drive the rest of the way. There are direct flights to Perpignan but they are only seasonal.

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