As the first rumbles of thunder rolled through, the sun had just retired and we were sat by the pool regaling stories of the day's riding and of past adventures. It was as if the weather was in tune with the festival atmosphere, a crescendo of energy and excitement at the weekend ahead.

Zero Neuf, an adventure lover’s paradise | Credit: Breakaway Digital

Our base was Zero Neuf, a beautiful French farmhouse in the village of Gaudiès, nestled in the Midi-Pyrénées in the crook of the river l’Hers. Zero Neuf is a retreat dedicated to a balance of adventure, relaxation, and festivity that I'm not sure I've found anywhere else. The event was Gather Festival, a collaboration between Zero Neuf and Komoot to bring together the outdoor community to celebrate and embrace responsible and sustainable adventure and meaningful experiences. On the menu was cycling, hiking, trail running, yoga, route planning workshops, stargazing, and birdwatching interspersed with relaxation, music, and outstanding food and drink.

As an event sponsor, Mason was tasked with supplying a range of bikes to bolster ZN's already fairly comprehensive range of hire Bokeh, as well as a mechanic (yours truly) to help out with the not-inconsiderable pre-ride faff. The journey down in the Mason #fastfar wagon got off to a rocky start when the border control agent kindly informed me that according to French authorities my COVID pass had expired the day before we travelled! After a run to the Sainsbury's pharmacy for an emergency Covid Antigen test, I had the all-clear and we boarded the ferry as the last vehicle with two minutes to spare (Sorry Dom and Julie!). My heart rate wouldn't return to these peaks until climbing the Prat d'Albis a few days later. Kudos to Dom for taking on the entire 1400km drive even though I was insured to take over if required, it was almost as if he didn't trust me with his pride and joy Transporter...

Our arrival at Zero Neuf on Thursday evening was greeted by the warm sun, cold beer, friendly hugs, and firm handshakes. Thanks to the pandemic I hadn't returned to ZN since the inaugural Further ultra race in 2019, and it felt like coming home with the friendly and relaxed environment spearheaded by Mike and Joss's impeccable hosting. After a hastily consumed IPA we had work to do - somehow we had shoehorned 7 bikes along with 4 people and their luggage into Dom's van, and the bikes needed unpacking and setting up before we could fully relax. Once the bikes were out we could finally take a seat and get to know our fellow gatherers - making friends was a given here, with 70 like-minded adventure lovers all in one place, and conversation was soon flowing as consistently as the beers.

Waking up in a tent in twenty-five degrees of French sunshine is always sufficient impetus for an early start and we were treated with the options of yoga by the pool overlooking the Pyrenean foothills, or a swim in the crystal clear mountain water of the river l'Hers at the bottom of the drive. Friday's activities were freeform - there were two groups going out for mixed-surface rides into the foothills, a smaller group on a longer ride on the black stuff as well as a trail run for the masochists. My faithful steed for today's riding would be the (currently) one-off Sensor blue Bokeh, with a new colour on the way, look out for more on this in the near future. Equipped with Campag Ekar, Ritchey Beacons, and 650x2.1 Vittoria Mezcals it proved to be the perfect companion for the highly varied terrain the route took us on; smooth winding tarmac and fast dusty gravel, right through to rutted woodland dual and singletrack.

Photos from left to right: A one-off (for now) in its natural habitat | Middle - Chain ganging into the mountains, credit: Weronika Szalas | Right - Tricky climb on the ridgeline, credit: Weronika Szalas

Particular highlights from this ride included cruising at 30km/h in a bunch of 30 riders whilst laughing and chatting most of the way. This soon gave way when we reached the major climb of the day, 4km of 6.5% in 29 degrees Celcius was rewarded by "The Ridgeline", a section of trail that runs in and out of the woods on technical ground overlooking the valley and the Pyrenees beyond, and eventually gives way to an off-road descent upon which a mountain bike certainly wouldn't be overkill. The way back to base was blissful golden gravel through rolling countryside, punctuated by the obligatory dive into the river in riding kit. Not a bad start to proceedings all things considered!

Clear mountain water is the most refreshing way to end a hot ride | Credit: Breakaway Digital

Next up was dinner, and I couldn't write about Gather without a few sentences about the food. With the unenviable task of feeding seventy ravenous adventure cyclists was Anders, and boy! did he do a good job. His Boeuf Bourguignon was about as authentic as they come, having been slow cooked for five hours, sweet and sour chicken that had a depth of flavour that I can still almost taste as I write, and Portobello mushrooms that retained their earthy taste despite the sheen of garlic butter were just a few of the treats he managed to conjure. All the ingredients were locally sourced including sausages that had come from pigs he'd reared himself. That theme of local produce also ran through the beers - provided by BDQ beer co. brewed in Chalabre, and the coffee - roasted in Toulouse by MiniFundi. Hugo from Minifundi deserves a mention on his own, for not only was he an incredible barista and all round great guy, but he cycled all the weekends' coffee (a not inconsiderable amount - seventy cyclists remember!) the 70km from Toulouse to Zero Neuf on his cargo bike, a cargo bike with no electrical assistance. Cheers for the essential caffeine Hugo!

The first day culminated with a midnight river swim under the light of the moon and stars, followed by an incredibly deep sleep, which was fortunate as Saturday was to be a big ol' day out…

Photo: Pre-ride faff on a grand scale

Much talk and conjecture had been had over Saturday's ride. The route was under wraps until the grand depart when riders scanned a QR code and uploaded it to their navigation devices, and once the omni-faff was finally complete we set off into the hills once more as a group of fifty or so. We owned the roads and gravel tracks that day, all smiles and chats and hubbub for 50km to the stunning town of Foix, complete with its 10th-century Chateau overlooking the river. Here, we rested and refueled as we knew what was next - Foix is in the shadow of the looming Prat d'Albis, a 1200m peak, to summit which we'd ride 800m of vertical over a variety of surfaces. Well then.

Gravel climb to the top of Prat d’Albis | Credit: Weronika Szalas

It'd been a few years since I'd tackled any proper mountain cols, and it took a few kilometers to find my flow - that almost meditative state that allows you to be at the envelope of exhaustion and still miraculously keep turning the pedals. I'd missed it. Only the occasional glimpse of an incredible vista woke me from this state when the trees broke through to a clearing. Maintaining traction on the steep, loose surfaces was a game in itself, and I spared a thought for those on skinnier, higher pressure tyres than myself. This challenge seemed to make the miles tick by faster, and before I knew it I had reached the treeline and was near the top. Our rolling cavalcade had dispersed somewhat over the course of the climb, but we were to be reunited at the top with a gravel skid and a cheese baguette.

From top to bottom: Top - View from top Prat d’Albis, credit: Breakaway Digital | Middle - Summit special, credit: Tomas Montes | Bottom - Tarmac descent down to Foix, credit: Weronika Szalas

The way back down is always my main motivation for climbs like this, and the tarmac descent of Prat d'Albis did not disappoint in this regard. Whilst the Bokeh shod with mountain bike rubber is probably not the ideal tool for a road descent, it sure did inspire confidence on the sinuous ribbon of tarmac that dropped from the summit. When we were afforded a glance away from the road surface we were rewarded with stunning views of Foix and the river valley. The ride back to Zero Neuf was mercifully flat and average speeds were high as we chain-ganged it back to base, eager for a cold drink, food, and a swim in the river.

Saturday evening's entertainment came by way of an 8-piece third-wave Ska band whose brass heavy grooves got everybody on the dancefloor, initially just the locals who put in an excellent showing, but eventually the rest of us couldn't resist the charms of the trumpets. A few of us perhaps stretched the day a little too long, but the Pyrenean night sky made that decision worth it, with a mind-boggling tapestry of stars on display.

Dom teaching the locals some new moves | Credit: Breakaway Digital

I awoke late on Sunday morning with a mild (ahem!) hangover, and there was only one thing for it - a 60km road ride on my Resolution. Mike from Zero Neuf has worked hard on the routes, with a smorgasbord of both tarmac and mixed-surface routes of a variety of lengths and difficulties. The one we selected for Sunday's warm-down was perfect given the way we were all feeling. All rolling hills on roads through corn fields, cashmere smooth tarmac, and no traffic, we got back to base with clear heads, feeling energised.

Sunday afternoon's activity was the "Gathercat", a countryside take on the traditional Alleycat with checkpoints and tasks on the way round. It was apparently a challenge, not a race, but I think the pace of the riders probably told a different story! The heroes of the day were a team of seven, most of them on a borrowed fleet of Masons, when one of the team punctured Dom's Bokeh Ti with a huge nail, they split the bike up and carried it amongst them whilst the stricken rider took a backie on an ISO. This really symbolised the "leave no rider behind", the inclusive mentality of the whole Gather experience for me, and the river crossing to finish the Gathercat was a fitting end to the weekend's riding.

Image top left - Team “Nailed It”, credit: Tomas Montes | Right - Teamwork makes the dreamwork, credit: Tomas Montes | Bottom - River crossing finish, credit: Weronika Szalas

Gather was a bicycle nerds’ dream, and whilst we still consider Mason to be very much a boutique brand we were one of the biggest amongst the bikes being ridden over the weekend. There were machines from Caminade (a small French custom builder) made from lugged and bonded titanium, one sporting a pinion gearbox, numerous stainless steel 2-11 bicycles (another small French brand) with their elegant lines and wafer-thin seat stays, and my personal favourite; a custom painted Quirk Mamtor. Almost every style of bike was represented, from flat-bar world touring load-luggers to light and fast all-road bikes, with a generous helping of gravel and adventure whips in between. I’m pretty sure I didn’t see a single Specialized, Trek, or Giant, which is a testament to the kind of people Gather attracts; those that care about where and how things are made.

What a weekend! | Credit: Tomas Montes

The people really did make the festival, with adventurers congregating from all over Europe and beyond, it was inspiring to see so many had cycled there, or diverted from their European tours with a fair few even riding over the Pyrenees straight after finishing Kromvojoj, the Spanish ultra race. A special mention here has to go to India, I spent a good portion of Friday's ride chatting to her and was frankly blown away by her story! Having taken up cycling in the second C19 lockdown, mainly as a means to get to work and back, India got the bug hard! She picked up her first gravel bike early this year and promptly completed the Dales Divide (her second ever off-road ride!) and then went on to complete the Kromvojoj - 1400km of Spanish badlands. Not bad achievements for your first year of cycling!

Other honourable mentions include Chris, editor of Base Magazine. Chris won the award for the skinniest tyres, riding the sometimes punishing loose and lumpy surfaces on his Mason Resolution shod with 30mm Schwalbe G-One speeds; pushing the definition of multi-surface a bit there Chris, but doing it with aplomb! Another Mason rider I have to give props to is Ioana, who sadly had her Bokeh stolen in London just before the event, and after a difficult year had not found a great deal of time for riding. Climbing the Prat d'Albis on a hired Bokeh after that setback is incredibly impressive. Then we have Stephanie and Ruby from Komoot. These two travelled without bikes, but with no suitably sized hire Bokeh available we managed to just about make Dom's Bokeh Ti and our 50cm ISO work for them, the ISO was two sizes too big for Ruby, but her relentless grin was a testament to how fun the bike is to ride over terrain like this even if it's a touch too large!

The Gatherers started filtering out on Sunday evening, gradually and in ones and twos. A surprising number of nomads were not heading to their respective homes to go back to work, but continuing their adventures by bike all over Europe. For the rest of us; the adventure had come to an end, but it was one that we'd remember and continue to be inspired by for a long while. We'll be back next year!

Special thanks to Mike and Joss from Zero Neuf for their exemplary hosting, Komoot for the organisation and planning, Anders for the mouth-watering food, Hugo for the coffee, and Dan (BreakawayDigital), Tomas (ArriereDuPeloton) and Weronika for the stunning photography.