On 21st September 2012, fourteen members of Southampton University Officer Training Corps (SUOTC) embarked upon Exercise TIGER TRAIL, an adventurous training expedition mountain biking in northern France. The aim was to develop leadership, navigation and ground appreciation skills in an unfamiliar environment whilst conducting arduous physical activity and the Normandy region presented plenty of opportunity to achieve this aim. Despite the common perception of Normandy as a flat expanse of agricultural land filled with cheese and calvados, it soon became apparent that between the apple orchards and dairy farms, there were a number of very challenging hills and a significant network of off-road mountain bike trails waiting to be explored.
Within the fourteen participants were nine Officer Caders (JUO Stonor, JUO Morrow, OCdt Ager, WOCdt Brewer, WOCdt Calvert, WOCdt Coates, OCdt Guilbert, OCdt Scarratt, OCdt Curtis) and four Territorial Army Staff Instructors from SUOTC (Capt Rawdon-Mogg, SSgt Dollimore, CSjt Derrick) as well as LCpl Brodie a recently qualified Trail Cycle Leader and PTI from SUOTC and Sgt Reid, an experienced Trail Cycle Leader from a Royal Signals recruiting post in Kirkaldy.
The expedition was challenging from the start as due to an industrial strike within the ferry company, the journey from Southampton to Normandy was diverted via Dover and Calais involving an additional six hours on the road before the cycling could begin. Despite the lack of sleep however, everyone attacked the first route of the expedition with great energy and enthusiasm. The route was called Le Val D’Orne and was graded red, covering 37 km starting and ending at Thury-Harcourt. This gave everyone the opportunity to pick up some top tips from the two instructors and practice their skills, especially their up-hill technique! Several members of the group were able to brush up their map-reading skills along the way which included some technical woodland tracks, a few long ascents and some exhilarating descents. There was also a stretch alongside a disused railway line and some very attractive views along the River L’Orne.
The group was accommodated at Camping du Traspy, Thury Harcourt for the first night and Camping Municipal, Bayeux for the second night. Due to the season, the campsites were very quiet and we were able to set up fairly exclusive camps and settle down to demolish hearty home-cooked meals of sausages and pasta etc, before spending the evening discussing the likelihood of having just eaten horse-meat sausages!
The second day was spent tackling Le Val de Rouvre and La Plisse red routes covering 26.5 km from the village of Bréel. At the same time, the more confident riders launched straight into Le Bois de la Mousse, a black route covering 30 km in the same area. Bréel is approximately twenty miles south of Thury Harcourt and so the routes brought different challenges and different scenery. There was less woodland, but longer and trickier downhill stretches and seemingly an impressive châteaux around every corner. By the end of the day the whole group was feeling confident enough to have a go at a section of the black route which exhilarated and challenged everyone without exception.
In summary, Exercise TIGER TRAIL was a great success. Everyone was able to develop their leadership skills and their technical ability on a mountain bike. There was also ample opportunity for other talents to come to the fore; everything from cooking in the open to conquering saddle-sore! We would all like to take this opportunity to thank the Ulysses Trust, The Connaught Drill Halls Trust and the South East Reserve Forces Cadets Association for their generous support which enabled this expedition to happen.