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Where the Beer Flows, Disaster Also Goes

Last October's Storm Alex ravaged parts of France's Maritime Alps, destroying a key business to the local riding community. Matt Wragg traced its path from destruction to recovery on the trails high above the valley where it once sat.


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The Vésubie Valley is a geographical anomaly. If you start drawing straight lines across the map you might be fooled into thinking it is quite close to Nice on the French Riviera. But, somehow the valleys and mountains twist and turn to make the route in and out through the Maritime Alps torturous and long. Each year riders make the pilgrimage to the valley for the Trans-Vesubienne, a hellishly tough, big-mountain XC race that links the high peaks of the Vésubie to the beach far below.

 St Martin de Vesubie, France
A long way to the sea.

My main memory of that race, beyond the suffering, is always the cold beer at the end. Because we all know the best beer is the cold one after eight hours of torture on the bike. And, it’s not just any beer, it is Biere du Comte, brewed in Saint Martin de Vésubie, a village of 1,350 situated on the banks of the Vésubie River, and the finish line for the prologue. The beer takes its unique flavor from the water running down off the mountains. Yet it is that same water which brought disaster to the brewery and the community around it.

Does a post-race beer taste better when you ride through the valley of its source?

It was October 2, 2020. Biere de Comte’s master brewer Laurent Fredj went to work like any morning. There had been weather warnings, but up in the mountains they are used to hard weather. As Fredj says, “here, when it rains, it really rains.” As the rain beat down on the metal roof, Fredj’s small team busied themselves with the latest batch, getting ready to bottle the beer. But by lunchtime he was starting to worry a little, this storm was bigger than normal.

The waters of the Vésubie River bring life, and on occasion strife, to the village on its banks.

Gathering his men, he advised them to take a moment to move their cars to higher ground. As the afternoon began, the noise changed. It mounted, getting more urgent, more worrying. It was a Friday and they knock off at half past three anyway, so he sent his team home and locked the doors. The waters were rising higher and higher and he left with a head full of worry about how bad the damage would be, how long it would take to dry everything out, how much production time he would lose.

The aftermath.

Nothing could prepare Fredj for what he saw as he headed down to check the damage the next morning. Every day he liked to spy the building from the bridge near his house, but he could not believe his eyes. It was gone. The ground the building stood on was washed away, leaving nothing but water, dirt and rock. Little more than a crater remained where his life’s work had stood just hours before. A hard, mountain man with little time for life’s softer side, Fredj has to pause telling his story as he is struggling to get his words out through the tears.

The storm left massive destruction in its wake—the gaping hole where the brewery used to sit.

Tempeste Alex was unlike any storm anybody had ever seen. Over the course of 24 hours, 900mm (nearly 36 inches) of rain fell on the mountains above Saint Martin de Vésubie. To put that in context, the average annual rainfall for Paris is 641mm. That incredible volume of rain sent 45 million square metres of water and 45 million square metres of sediment crashing down the valley, taking 100 homes, 12 businesses and four lives with it. Fredj grimly notes that it could have been much worse if the storm started through the night when people were in their beds. 

Laurent Fredj standing where his life’s work used to sit.

The very ground the building stood on was washed away leaving nothing but water, dirt and rock. Little more than a crater remained where his life’s work had stood just hours before.

The world of beer-brewing is a small but tight one. In a profession where your signature flavor is a complex blend of ingredients and processes, everyone guards their recipe closely. Yet when disaster struck the community gathered together in just hours to keep the beer flowing. Local brewers offered Fredj space in their production while he figured out what he was going to do next. With the valley devastated, roads cut and bridges washed away, the only way out of the valley would have been the old ways—the mountain passes and trails that have criss-crossed this area for thousands of years, although rather than a mule, an e-bike is a much better tool for the job these days. I did just that—tracing a route out of the valley on the ancient trails that double as our playground for bikes to the brewery 60 kilometers south in Peille, where another brewery is helping them stay in business while they rebuild.

Many of the high-valley trails above Saint Martin de Vésubie survived the storm, although the lower trails were in ruins immediately after the storm.

With the lower valley in ruins, up is the way to go. Along the west flank of the valley, a ridgeline trail runs north to south, some 40 kilometers (25 miles) to connect the villages of La Colmiane to Utelle. In such a deep valley, reaching that trail is no small feat. The lower slopes would have been in ruins after the storm, with each tributary or torrent suffering the same fate as the river below, just on a smaller, steeper scale. A year later, the roads and pistes that reach up toward the trail are open once more, but immediately after it would have been treacherous to cross the ravines and gullies created by the storm. Reaching the higher trails should bring relief, but on a bike it brings pitches that only a mountain goat could scale and soon the bike goes up onto the shoulder with the ridge still high above. 

Pushing on, you finally join the ridge and can begin to enjoy the journey. Looking back you can see the valley far below, the unimaginable destruction now just a fine grey strip flanking the river far below, a tiny, grim model of a disaster.

Rounding the stone monolith that is the Brec D’Utelle it is time to brace for the first real descent back toward the river. The trail is littered with awkward stone protrusions and rolling rocks, but somehow, if you get it just right, you can let the bike flow between them. Sure, an ebike is hard to get up to that ridge, but now on the descent those sticky tires and great suspension are a godsend, a much more fun experience than arriving on the red line aboard a sketchy XC bike.

The river crossing below Utelle survived the storm—the valley is deeper there so the water couldn’t wreak the same havoc. Crossing the river means climbing again. The lower slopes are gentler here as you rise up toward the perched village of Loda, then wind up to Col de Porte.

Pausing to take in the view is always the right choice in a place like France’s Maritime Alps.

There is time for a quick pause to take in the passage from the Vesubie to the Paillons before you turn once more away from civilization and mount the northward flank of the village of Beasse. Before long, things are too tough for pedaling and the bike soon returns to its familiar rest on my shoulders. The only way to keep going is to remind myself that this is the last big climb. 

A reward worth the climb.
The riding in and around Sospel is one the route’s highlights.

Passing out of the high-alpine forest, you follow the ridge down through Rocca Sparviera, an abandoned medieval village with a bloody history too disturbing to write about (trust me, Google it). Another short climb gets you back onto the ridge toward Mont Macaron. Soon the long descent starts to feel as hard as the climb. To keep my flow, I had to constantly work, hunting for lines to avoid the worst of the rocks and maintain speed. One slip and the lost speed becomes a start-stop nightmare of awkward shapes, but holding the speed has a price too and soon my arms and hands are burning. Mercifully, as I approached Mont Macaron things begin to ease up. When I arrived in the areas where people walk and hike regularly, I knew the trail would relent and become a little more worn with flow that comes easier.

From here it is a short dive down into the Paillons Valley and the final destination: La Grave de Peille. Sitting on the banks of a very different river is Brasserie de Ligures. Guillaume, the master brewer, is waiting with a cold beer.

 

This is one of three breweries where Fredj’s beer is being brewed while he rebuilds. Guillaume says that it was an easy decision to help out his fellow brewer. He sees them as a community, and even let one of Fredj’s staff come and work in his brewery to oversee the production, saving another job in the process. He is proud that as craftsmen they look after each other, even if they spend much the time carefully protecting their secrets from each other. 

Of course, it’s not the regular beer Biere du Comte being brewed here in Peille. The village is fed by the Paillon, not the Vésubie, so the water is not the same so it wouldn’t taste quite right. Instead they have named this temporary beer Monta Cala, local dialect for “to climb and descend” to signify the journeys back and forth between the littoral and the mountains. 

The same beer, but different.

 

Meanwhile back up in the mountains, Fredj is focused on rebuilding. He is already working on a new facility that will increase production from 4,000 to 10,000 liters per day. And Guillaume also sees more positives coming from this. “By working with them we have the chance to learn a little about how they do things, and hopefully they can learn a little about how we do things. In this way we will have learned something new and we will all come out of this disaster stronger.” 

Photos: Matt Wragg