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Stone King Rally Stone King Rally
2023-08-30 14:52:00

I made up my mind not to fly to the start of my bikepacking adventures. My reasons began as environmental but, very quickly, became much more personal.

I made up my mind not to fly to the start of my bikepacking adventures. My reasons began as environmental but, very quickly, became much more personal.

Travelling by train, ferry and bike is undeniably slower and often more expensive than flying across Europe, but it means that my adventure starts the moment I step through my front door, bags packed onto my bike, instead of waiting until I’ve reached my destination for the fun to begin.

The slower pace has also helped me realise just how much richness seeps out of an experience when I try to cram too much in. Travelling overland helps slow me down and really appreciate the journey for the journey’s sake. There’s an old Arabic saying that your soul can only travel as fast as a camel. When put this way, you have to wonder what the point is in travelling somewhere without your soul.

I made up my mind not to fly to the start of my bikepacking adventures. My reasons began as environmental but, very quickly, became much more personal. Travelling by train, ferry and bike is undeniably slower and often more expensive than flying across Europe, but it means that my adventure starts the moment I step through my front door, bags packed onto my bike, instead of waiting until I’ve reached my destination for the fun to begin.

The slower pace has also helped me realise just how much richness seeps out of an experience when I try to cram too much in. Travelling overland helps slow me down and really appreciate the journey for the journey’s sake. There’s an old Arabic saying that your soul can only travel as fast as a camel. When put this way, you have to wonder what the point is in travelling somewhere without your soul.

I’ve always dreamed of riding the Stone King Rally, a six-day enduro stage race through the French and Italian Alps that ends at the Mediterranean coast. The route begins in Arvieux, on the other side of the Col d’Izord from the town of Briançon, and weaves its way along some of the most epic singletrack the Alps have to offer. On a typical day, you’ll climb between three and four thousand metres over several timed stages. The other competitors would get shuttled up to the start of each stage and race each other back down, but I was planning to skip the shuttle and ride the whole thing under my own steam, carrying all my gear with me. Like my journey to reach the start, this way of tackling the route would be tougher but, I hoped, more of an adventure than the fully supported experience. 

Deciding on a bike setup for the trip was a challenge in itself. Because the Stone King is a technical mountain bike route I wanted to ride it on a full-suspension mountain bike, but riding with a seatpack hung off a dropper post and not have it interfere with your back wheel on steep descents is a notorious issue in bikepacking. My solution was to fix an Old Man Mountain rack to the rear triangle of my Juliana Joplin which allowed me to use my rear suspension and dropper post more easily. 

When it came to packing, I knew I had to stick to the essentials: warm layers, a full change of clothes, repair kit, toothbrush and flipflops stuffed into a dry bag attached to the rack, while a Restrap harness on my handlebars contained my tent, sleeping bag and mat. Two large Restrap food pouches provided space for my stove, mug, and enough food to last me 24 hours between resupply points. I rode wearing a 2L running vest to carry all the kit I needed on the move: my phone, passport, wallet, waterproof and filmmaking equipment. Having loaded all this onto my bike, I found I still had enough space to stash my Kindle, journal and a pencil. It wasn’t much but it was all I needed.

I caught a train from my home in the Highlands of Scotland to Newcastle, from where I sailed overnight to Amsterdam and then caught the high-speed train service to Paris. Bikes must be broken down and carried in a bag for this part of the journey, so I strapped a lightweight bike cover to my luggage to get me over this hurdle. I’d booked a bed on the sleeper service between the French capital and the Alps. It meant reassembling my bike on a station platform at Paris Gare du Nord and riding through the city to the Gare Austerlitz but it also meant time to stop and appreciate some live music and allowed me to grab some dinner on the way. I would leave my house at 9am on 20th June and arrive in the Alps at 8am on the 22nd having slept soundly both nights, first on a ferry and then on a train. 

By the time I loaded up with breakfast in Briançon that first day I already felt like I’d had a fulfilling adventure and the riding hadn’t even begun! 

Ash, the race organiser, had kindly given me the gpx files for all the race stages and vehicle shuttles so I used an online tool to merge them into one daunting 480km route with 20,230m of height gain. He’d helped me work out the sections I could ‘wormhole’ in case I found myself falling behind time and needed to cut out some of the climbing. I used these shortcuts a couple of times, instead taking a moment to appreciate my surroundings and the excellent food and hospitality in the towns the route passes through. I slept outside on high cols most nights and dropped down into valley floors in time for breakfast. Only once did I find myself without enough water to sleep high and had to drop off the hillside in the gathering darkness. That night I slept behind a bush just outside a busy town centre, which wasn’t the most salubrious of sleep spots, but did mean I could roll straight into a café for breakfast the following day. 

As I crept closer to the sea, the landscape slowly transformed from rocky, high alpine terrain, descending to loamy singletrack through scrubby oak. I met a friend, photographer Camille McMillan, just as the weather was changing from hot and dry to stormy and wet. During these final two days of the journey, Camille and I took shelter in mountain refuges and abandoned buildings so we could keep ourselves safe from lightning strikes and document the route properly. 

The weather reached a wild climax on our penultimate day, but the journey had taught me the importance of being flexible and so we adapted our route, making a break for an Italian refugio where we could hunker down for the night. Ash had plotted for us to drop straight down to the sea from a high ridgeline, and I was sad to have to miss this part, but the refugio offered a different, richer experience. 

Once we finally reached the coast, we dropped, exhausted, onto the cobbled beach at Bordighera and reflected on our incredible journey after a mandatory dip in the warm Mediterranean water. Camille and I eventually parted ways in Nice and I caught another overnight train back to Paris, a connecting train to Dieppe and a ferry crossing to Dover. From there it’s an easy journey back to the Highlands if you make use of the Caledonia Sleeper service.  

Admittedly this was all slightly faster than the fittest, most up-for-it camel might travel, but also slow enough to process the sheer joy of the journey – and at a fraction of the carbon cost.   

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Words by | Lee Craigie
Images by | Camille McMillan

Words & images by | Athlete Name


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