Riding Among the Clouds: Tour du Mont Blanc by Bike

 

As any adventurer would tell you, give me a mountain, a means and a goal and I’ll give you a story. More-so when that story involves one of the tallest peaks in the French alps. Better yet, give me a challenge that very few people undertake so much so that for the most part forging our own way was all part of the plan. Give us the Tour de Mont Blanc, four days, 200kms, two bikes, and I’ll give you a story like no other.

The Tour de Mont Blanc is one of the most iconic hiking trails in the world which is usually attempted on foot over 8-12 days. It circles the towering 4810m tall Mont Blanc and the surrounding peaks passing up to 10 saddles in the surrounding valleys. Our plan was to ride the circuit clockwise, starting from Les Houches staying three nights in Champex, Rifugio Bertone and Refuge du la Croix du Bonhomme arriving back in Les Houches four days later.

Arrival

We began our journey with a three hour drive from Freiburg down to Martigny, Switzerland where we wound our way up a mountain pass through vineyards and little Swiss villages before crossing the border into France and into the valley of Chamonix. As we met face to face with Mont Blanc, our minds could only conjure one word: massive. We decided that Chamonix locals must develop a crook in their neck from gazing upwards to the surrounding mountains which tower of over their homes. It really is that massive. With Mont Blanc on one side and Le Brevent on the other it felt almost like entering a colosseum, only much much bigger. After some acclimatisation and last minute shopping it was on to our accommodation for the night just south of the village centre in Les Houches. Here, we would pack our bags, park our car and set off the next morning on our four day adventure.

 

Day 1 – Les Houches to Champex – Strava Link

“An Unexpected Journey”

Being born in the land of the long white cloud, one would expect that just as our Hobbity forefathers, we would be well prepared for any journey, even one of a Peter Jackson scale. Turns out we weren’t.

We set off, joking about how the extra weight of our packs would put extra pressure on our saddles and that by day two we might not even be able to walk without looking like we were in a western movie. Little did we know that by the time the day was through, it wouldn’t just be our sit bones that ached.

Half an hour in the trail pitches up steeply to the point that the roots and rocks lining the track formed more of a staircase than an actual trail. It was time to whip out the running shoes we had been advised to pack.

Boy were we thankful as two hours walking later and we still hadn’t sighted the top of Le Brevent and the trail had become steep enough that ladders and ropes were screwed into the rock faces. 

 

Only once we left the tree line behind us, having now carried our bikes for over 3 hours, was it that we caught our first glimpse of the summit.

It was about here when our water supply was running low and in almost 30 degree heat that we began to wonder how much further it really could be to the top. We knew that this stretch of trail was only approximately 7-8km but without the top in sight and few places to fill our bottles with water, we decided to stop at one of the small snow pockets and fill our bottles with “slushies”. It wasn’t for another two and a half hours of bike-hiking until we reached the summit. Five and a half hours, 7.5kms and 1400m climbing. And guess where we ended up… at the top of a gondola we joked about the previous day that towered over the Chamonix town centre. Yep the one that you had to physically bend over backwards to see the top of. Lucky for us, someone had decided to build a restaurant at the top. French fries were the order of the day but as we sat admiring the view we couldn’t help wonder if we would even make Champex before nightfall. From here the trail turned downhill (we were at the top of a mountain, it couldn’t really go anywhere else) but that didn’t make it a whole lot easier. The descent began with what would best be described as bike skiing. Follows a long winding scree covered access road the trail slowly narrows into a 4×4 track. But the loose rocks aren’t the only things to watch out for. It’s very easy to become distracted by the vista that skirts the trail off to the right. Below are cars the size of ants and a village that looks as though it has been hand painted by a model city enthusiast. Chamonix lies backed by mountains with cascading glaciers and snow drifts hundreds of meters tall lying in wait for the wind to blow through and shower the valley in a magical snowy-mist.

However, once the 4×4 track turned into rock slabs and stairs we knew we had to try something else.  As tired as we already were we knew that rather than continuing on unknown trails we should backtrack and head down into Chamonix to re-asses our options. So after thirty minutes of the steepest gravel road we had ever seen, we were back in Chamonix (approximately 2.5km up the road from our starting point).

We parked up outside a supermarket for a well overdue snack. Now when we say snack we mean more specifically: 1L pineapple juice, 1L orange juice, 1 bag of lollies, 1 foot long sandwich each, 1L coconut drinking yoghurt (Nicola though ‘coco’ on the bottle meant chocolate milk, even though it was in the yoghurt section) and 1 banana each. We did get a few strange looks from some of the locals, clad in Lycra sitting on a stone wall next to the supermarket but having been on the bikes for over 7 hours we didn’t mind too much.

We couldn’t simply give up here though so spurred on by our good feed, we decided to try an alternative route to reach Champex before nightfall. We knew we had 5 hours of light remaining and with a headlight we could stretch that to 6 if we kept to roads. Albeit longer, we decided to ride roads back out to the valley of Martigny and then up into the valley of Champex rather than take the shorter trail alternative as we couldn’t guarantee how much would be rideable. Even still, we knew it would be cutting it close. We knew that after crossing the French-Swiss border there would be no point in turning back. Between us and Champex stood two climbs, one up from the French-Swiss border and one from the Martigny valley to Champex. The first was manageable, (somewhat easy comparative to the climb 9 hours before) but as we descended into the Martigny valley and the road that was supposed to ‘traverse’ around just kept on dropping, so too did our spirits. In fact by the time we found the road leading to Champex we were practically on the valley floor and now faced a 7km, 700m climb. I guess you could say that after 10 hours on the bike, facing another two hours of solid climbing (yes, we were riding that slow by this point) isn’t an easy pill to swallow.

But we made it. After over 12 hours, over 3700m of climbing and over 70km after planning for a five hour day and 40-50km, we were shattered, but we had made it, and after crawling into bed were ready to face day two. Well, almost…

 

Day 2 – Champex to Rifugio Bertone – Strava Link

“A Little Easier (a little)”

We decided that our best bet would be to use roads to cover distance whenever we could. This would hopefully leave us more time to enjoy the trail sections to come. To start the day we would have a 12km road climb up the Ferret Valley before we attacked the Col du Grand Ferret. From Champex the trail follows the road before dropping onto a steep 20% downhill gravel road.  After descending quickly it then turns into singletrack and traverses its way down to the valley floor towards. From here we started our road climb passing through village after village on our way up the valley through Ferret and alongside a river. Here a 4×4 track works its way up the valley from where the road ends up to Chalet de la Peule. This is where the trail begins. Leaving Chalet de la Peule the trail winds its way along the range up into the valley below the col and is a mix of riding and walking. After about an hour we decided to stop for a little break, a snack and to put on walking shoes as we knew the top section was steeper and required a little more bike-hiking. We made more snow slushies, this time adding Vitasport and they were amazing! Actual slushies! 

The trail then turns and goes straight up the valley head for the Col du Grand Ferret. We had decided to have lunch at the top but after only an hour of walking and with a long descent waiting, we couldn’t help ourselves.  A wide ridgeline leads the trail downward, straight into the valley below. Popping off drainage ditches and rocks we had to be careful not to ride off down the cliffs to our right. Dropping left into some punchy switchbacks, linking up like we were skiing moguls almost leaping from one turn to the next. The trail then levels out and begins snaking along the walls of the valley, a thin ribbon laced through trees and tributary streams. A trail this good; techy and long, would be world class anywhere. Add the backdrop and it becomes unreal. Mountains unbelievably tall and steep everywhere we turned. We could swear we were looking at a green screen everywhere you looked. 

 

We finally stopped for lunch cheeks aching from grinning at the valley floor and then rode approximately 7km along the sealed road following the river towards Courmayer. The trail then crosses the river and traverses up the side of the hill on 4×4 track before turning off into single track; steep but with the right attitude rideable. The track skirts around the edge of the mountain giving some amazing views back into the Aosta valley. We arrived with daylight to spare and set about making ourselves at home on the balcony overlooking Courmayer. At dinner we found ourselves roaring and laughing with everyone else at the refuge, trying to keep up with the Italian and French being thrown back and forth across the room; sharing our tales from our day.

 

 

Day 3 – Rifugio Bertone to Refuge du la Croix du Bonhomme – Strava Link

“Why would you bring a bike up here?”

A genuine Italian breakfast is not the best riding food…

I’m not sure how long we would have lasted on one large bowl of black coffee and biscotti. It was lucky then that after our first 4km singletrack descent from Rifugio Bertone we found ourselves a supermarket in Courmayer and stocked up on cheese, bread, chocolate mousse, tarts and orange juice for the day. Two breakfasts down we were ready to tackle another long start to our day. We started with a winding climb out of Courmayer into the south western side of the Aosta valley. Looking back we could see our previous night’s accommodation perched on the top of the hill as well as the entrance to the famous Mont Blanc tunnel. After a quick traverse around the side of Mont Chetif the road flattens and follows the valley floor up towards the Col de la Seigne. Here the road pitches up into steep winding switchbacks which work their way up alongside the river in and out of trees. At one point as you near the top the landscape changes altogether and you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking you were riding through a lunar landscape. As the road begins to flatten off again it enters a second valley where a large dried-up lake sits afoot Rifugio Elisabetta.

By now we had begun to notice a theme of the greetings we were getting from walkers. It generally went as follows… 

“Bon jour (or insert local greeting)”

“Bon jour”

Something in French we couldn’t understand

“Do you speak English?”

“Ah oui, a little” (by which they meant a lot), Then came translation of their previous statement,

“You are crazy! It must be very difficult bringing bikes up here! Why an earth would you bring a bike?” To which we replied…

“To ride down the other side!”

These conversations kept our minds off the fact that our average day consisted of approximately 6hrs of riding/pushing/carrying bikes up hills, 1hr of riding bikes down a hill and 1 hour of lunch. 

Before we knew it we were at the Col de la Seigne and were crossing back into France from Italy.

The descent was incredible, flowy sections punctuated with switchbacks and short little technical sections to keep you on your toes. Near the top the trail is open and feels almost as if you’re riding down a threaded river. Popping and transferring between lines, picking up speed while the world drops away either side of you. It then hooks a left and begins winding its way downward, following a ridgeline and then all of a sudden diving left into the valley below, corners linking up and flowing like a river. We felt as though we were the water rolling and pitching in time with the terrain. We were living dangerously, picking up more and more speed as the trail went on and on. All we wanted to do was simply let go of your breaks and start flying. The trail rolls in time with the valley before crossing cascading rivers and dropping onto tightly wound switchbacks. After reaching the Refuge we jumped onto the road towards Les Chapieux and screamed into town, tears in our eyes from the speed. It was time for a quick break, filling of bottles and a snack and then the final 1000m climb of the day which would also be the last major climb of the whole trip.

The climb was slow going; the first third winding its way up grassy farmland switchbacks then kicking up and narrows until it becomes a few single threads of a trail basically heading straight up the side of a mountain. It then pitches up further once you reach the dramatic rock faces nearer the top. We met plenty more walkers with the exact same question, this time though in very strong Australian accents and even one or two fellow kiwis.  However, any pain of the climb is quickly forgotten once the refuge is in sight. Refuge du Col de la Croix Du Bohnomme sits on the col of two valleys and gets full panoramic views from every angle, even the dinner table! It sees both sunrise and sunset as it Is the highest situated refuge on the entire TMB trail. Here we would unpack and rest before dinner.

One of the special things about shared dinners at refuges is the people you meet. And when you’re “the crazy people on bikes” it’s easy enough to strike up a conversation. We met walkers from Italy, France, the U.K. and Aussie and over dinner shared stories of our days of exploring. There really is something special about the sense of community in the refuges. Things like sharing in a birthday celebration or a highlight of the day are moments we will never forget.

 

 

Day 4 – Refuge du la Croix du Bonhomme to Les Houches – Strava Link

“An Attraction to Big Events”

We began the day a lot more relaxed than the previous few as we knew day four would be much easier. We were to descend from 2400m to just below 1000m. Over 1400m of downhill trail without 1m of climbing. The first 4kms were slow going. The trail weaving through big rock fields and across the lingering snow deposits until it reaches the Col du Bonhomme, a little below the refuge itself. It then turns steeply down a series of chutes witch lie home to loose scree and rocks. At one point the trail becomes steep enough that even walking is considered difficult but as the chute widens it spits you out into a stunning amphitheatre, the trail weaving back and forth as it makes its way towards Les Contamines. The trail is made of schist-rock at points and is designed for a slow speed that isn’t possible on a bike (it is a walking trail after all) which means that even though the rock garden looks awesome fun to ride, the cliff after it isn’t. These sections are also usually where large groups of walkers congregate which means if you can ride these sections (without hitting the walkers) you quite often get a cheer from the audience. And in some cases you get to pose with the walkers for photos; we have a feeling we may be in a few Asian walking magazine photos and social media posts over the next few weeks. Even if we took nothing else away from this trip, the look of awe and joy in some of the walkers faces and just pure disbelief that someone would try ride the TMB seems reward enough to us. It feels amazing to have shared such special moments with people from all over the world and hopefully we gave them something to remember from their time on the TMB. It’s not every day you see two crazy Kiwis riding an alpine walking trail.

As the valley opens out further dropping through gorge after gorge some fast rock slab sections appear which feel almost reminiscent of British Colombia. The trail then winds alongside a river through some playful sections arriving in Les Contamines. From here there is one final climb up to the Col de Voza which starts weaving through village back roads up to the crest of Le Champel. After then dropping into a gorge via some steep switchbacks, it then links up with a 4×4 track in Bonnasay which leads to the final Col de Voza track. The road is steep, loose and slow going and definitely requires a small gear (Sram eagle helps), but we were determined to ride the whole thing as the previous evening we had been challenged by some of our new friends to clean it. And we did. As we emerged from the final wooded section of the climb a tourists’ retreat affronted us, crossing over the Mont Blanc tram track the clearing supports 2 restaurants, a volleyball court and enough tourists to fill a few busses at the least. From the top we could see the valley of Chamonix, Mont Blanc and Le Brevent lining each side. And we knew that from here it was all downhill to the finish; there’s even a bike park on the Les Houches side of the col if you follow the Piste VTT signs. 15 minutes later and our cheeks were beginning to ache. We were smiling wildly, not only had we just ridden 15 minutes of bike park trail, flowy berms, north shore features and jumps but it was beginning to set in, we had done it.

As we rolled back through the village of Les Houches to our car we knew had done it. We hadn’t called it quits, even when it got tough; and boy was it tough sometimes. We had learned a lot about ourselves and we were exhausted but we had done it, we had ridden the Tour de Mont Blanc. We packed the car and headed to Chamonix for something to eat to celebrate and remembered that the Mont Blanc Ultra Marathon (80km) had started that morning at 4am. The streets were packed and at the foot of the Le Brevent gondola was a finish line. People were lining the Main Street and just as we found a spot on the side of the road to watch what we thought were the mid pack runners, a huge cheer went up as Xavier Thevenard came running around the final corner to claim the victory. We could not have timed it better if we had tried. As we joined in we realised we were not only cheering for Xavier but also for ourselves because we too had completed our own marathon. There’s this strange feeling knowing that you have completed something you have dreamed of, especially when you overcome challenges you weren’t expecting to face. Now the TMB was no longer a dream but a story we could share with others, an experience, a part of our being. And as the celebrations began, we bid Chamonix adieu. It was time for us to move on and head back to Switzerland to our next great adventure. We left Chamonix with something no souvenir or trinket could match, we left with an experience and now we had a story to tell like no other.

 

Our TMB Top Ten Tips

  1. Recommended route (see earlier photo).
  2. Stay in refuges and take the ‘half board’ option. This may be slightly more expensive but the advantage of not having to carry or prepare food is a god-send.
  3. Buy a topo map from the ‘Chamonix Press House’ and learn how to read it (see photo to left).
  4. Carry heaps of water (enough that in the worst case you could survive all day on it).
  5. Learn a little of each language. Even if it is, “Hi, I don’t speak Italian” it will help strike up a conversation and you never know who you might end up talking to.
  6. Bring comfortable walking shoes. This is a must as you will spend some of your time walking and stiff soled riding shoes will not be your friend after an hour of walking up rocks.
  7. Keep as much weight off your back as possible. Your ass will thank you later.
  8. Don’t be afraid to shortcut. Shortcutting can save time and energy and make the trail sections a lot more enjoyable.
  9. 12hrs in the sun and it’s very easy to get sunburnt (this is coming from someone who doesn’t burn easily.
  10. Chamoix or anti-chafing cream is a must. Again, your ass will thank you for this later.

 

 

Follow James and Nicola at Kirkham Racing NZ to keep an eye on their adventures.

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