For the first part of our tour of Mont Blanc click here.
It was another early start, well except for Joe who managed to sleep for twenty minutes more than everyone else. Naturally the morning feast was bread, cheese and coffee. We lubed our chains and then set off on a road climb up the valley. After reaching the head of the valley in Switzerland we turned off up a fire road for the climb to ‘La Peule’. La Peule was also the name of the current cheese I was eating at that time and we were passed on the climb by an old Renault van with multiple layers of large wheels of cheese in the back. The natural assumption is that this was the farm/area it was made in. It’s good cheese too very light, yet with a strong undertone to the flavour somehow.
Joe was having a good morning, the twenty minutes of extra sleep must have worked wonders and he rode most of the initial fire road climb of the day . However all three of us would have to employ the technique of walking a bit, riding a bit for the whole ascent to the Grand Col Ferret. Having long legs must come in handy for this as I reached the top first. I quickly had to put my jacket on as it was pretty windy and much colder than in the valley or on the climb. The others quickly arrived though and we crossed into Italy. Country number three in as many days. The descent to the refuge Elena was sadly too steep to ride although the views were fantastic. I think this was the descent where we met a large group of American tourists who kept telling us we were incredible and taking our photos!
I’d never been to Italy before so we had a coffee at the refuge and I have to admit it was the best coffee of the trip. Fully caffeinated we raced down the fire road from the refuge and into the valley. Sadly we were going so fast and having so much fun when we hit a paved road surface that we missed the turning for our planned off road route. We tried to come up with a new off road route but after getting pretty lost and having to back track more than once we gave up and just descended by road to Courmayeur. It was really fast and fun though with those classic alpine road switchbacks. It was baking hot in Courmayeur a rapid change from the cold wind at the top of the mountain. We stopped literally across the road from a pizza shop completely through luck and then amazed the owner by ordering three or four slices each! I think it was a husband and wife team but they were really friendly despite the fact none of us spoke any Italian. The pizza was also fantastic.
We spent a long time studying the map in Courmayeur and looking at the slopes around us. The town is in a very steep part of the mountain valley and it was clear that our intended route would take us up some very steep climbs. I also consulted the GPS tracks I had and these showed an easier way north out of the town and into the Val veny. It was still a tough road climb to end the day with and again Joe seemed to be full of energy and left us in the dust. We regrouped at the top of the climb and dropped into the valley looking for somewhere to camp. Leaving the road and following the footpath along beside the river we stumbled across a wooded park/picnic area. It had benches, fire pits, water points and public toilets. It looked like a perfect free campsite. After hanging around for half an hour or so just to see how busy the area was we set up the tarps and settled in for the night. We made good use of the table that night and played poker for sweets.
It was cold in the morning, the valley sides sheltered us from the sun until it was quite high in the sky so we packed up quickly and got going. Today was the day we had been dreading as in our planning it had looked like pretty much all climbing for most of the day. However that was on our original route so it was now a bit of an unknown. After continuing up the Val veny on the road it turned into a fire road leading us upwards towards the top of the valley. We were cycling on the flat floor of the U-shaped valley and although the general trend was upwards there were some respite as the road flattened sometimes and even the occasional downhill. At the head of the valley there was a final steep push to the Col de la Seigne. It however hadn’t taken us as long to reach this point as we had anticipated.
As we crossed back into France we were greeted with the best descent of the trip. Sweet flowing singletrack with ace switchbacks. It raised our spirits immensely and we were all grinning when we reached the bottom. We were soon realising that in the mountains you can spend hours climbing 1000 metres in height and then if you have a good piece of trail descend the same amount in 10 minutes. We celebrated being back in France with crepes at the refuge de Mottets, trying to ignore the amorous donkey in the field next to us. Stomachs full we blasted down the valley on a wide fire road to Les Chapieux. After watching a woman leading goats through the village with a Fiat Panda (they love that car in this area) we again had a discussion regarding the route. We had already decided that the original route we had planned which was most direct was probably not passable by bike but as we were well ahead of schedule wanted to press on.
So we set off to climb the Col de Bonhomme. Our dreaded day hadn’t been that bad up until this point, this climb would change that. The initial parts were steep but manageable the top section was incredibly hard. From about a third of the way up it was too steep to ride and so tiring that we started to split it into sections. We would push for 100 metres of altitude gain by my GPS and then rest before starting the next section. At one point Nathan picked up his bike and took the shortest steepest path up the rocky trail. I just didn’t have the strength to do that so had to wind back and forth across the mountain to reach the same point. You knew paths were going to get steep when you met walkers coming down who wished you good luck!
Eventually as clouds rolled in and with the wind having picked up we reached the refuge at the top. We went inside to get out of the wind and ordered omelettes and cokes, everyone was quiet for a little while absolutely exhausted. We were hoping that the other side of the mountain was going to be another good descent but we were sadly disappointed. The climb had taken us over three hours so a quick descent would have been good. However it was very rocky, if you had a bike with full suspension and a fair amount of balls you could probably have picked a line down. With a hardtail loaded with luggage it was walking time again. Lower down it became more rideable and then we hit slate/gravel fire road which led us down into the valley. We found some flat ground to camp on whilst trying to stay out of the Contamines-Montjoie park area where camping and fires were definitely prohibited. We seemed to get the tarps set up in record time and after a quick cuppa headed for bed. It felt really good to be well ahead of schedule but we were so tired from the day it was only 8:30pm when we turned in.
Another cold morning so packed up quickly and were in the town of Les Contamines-Montjoie before 9am. We warmed up in a bar that was open with a cup of coffee and again discussed the route and day ahead. Breakfast was proving elusive though so I just had some cereal bars whilst Nathan and Joe bought a whole rotisserie chicken to share. After this park bench feast we didn’t actually set off again until 11am. The road out of town was a nice gentle climb weaving back and forth through houses. However once off the road onto fire road the route literally went straight up the slope. It was a hard push to start the day but our spirits were still high and after a bit of up and down we reached the Chalets de Miage. I was the only person to order food but needed something more substantial for the day ahead. It was actually a really good potato omelette and it was only afterwards that I realised I had managed to conduct my entire conversation at the refuge in French.
The descent from Miage to Le Champel was frustrating with nice sections we could ride and then steep rocks and roots which required pushing. The village of Le Champel also turned out to be much smaller than we anticipated consisting of about five houses. We headed out of the village on fire road again climbing back up towards an area we had identified as a potential campsite on the map. The area didn’t look great though with lots of nettles, mosquitos and a farm close by. So as we were still making good time despite starting late that day and although a short day would have been nice we decide to push on.
The other two seemed to be fairing better than me and pushed on ahead. It was quite a shock to round a bend and find Nathan washing his hair in one of the water troughs that you find all over the mountain. When the mood takes you and all that. Eventually it became apparent that we would have to continue all the way over the Col de Voza which was the final climb of the trip. It felt good to have completed it when we reached the top but it was incredibly hot now and I was really suffering. The descent the other side towards Les Houches should have been a fast ride down some steep but manageable fire road. I was so tired though I couldn’t concentrate and so ended up walking large sections as I didn’t trust myself to ride downwards on the loose surface safely.
Once back on the road we investigated a picnic spot on the map as another potential campsite but it turned out to literally be a picnic table by the side of the road. So let the score stand at Italy 1 France 0 when it comes to quality of picnic areas. It seemed logical to just keep going towards Chamonix at this point and there were a couple of other spots on the map that looked promising for campsites. We also discussed paying for an actual campsite as a fall back if we couldn’t find anything for free. At another picnic spot just outside of Bossons we pushed our bikes up into the woods on the north side of the valley. It was far from ideal being very lumpy and littered with roots but I think by now we were all tired. It was also the last night out in the open and so thoughts of a bed the night after would tide us through. I tried to make some food but was so tired I managed to knock my stove and pot over twice before finally cobbling together something vaguely edible. I think we all had a bit of sunstroke and two hard days were starting to take their toll.
So the final morning was upon us. Packing up our stuff had become a pretty slick routine by this point. Naturally Joe was the last one up and there was a discussion as to whether it would have been cruel or amusing to leave him to wake up on his own in the woods. We set off and rode the 2 remaining miles to Chamonix. It was tough, draining and…who am I kidding! We pulled into the square where we had started roughly 110 hours previously and high fived. Job done!
The whole trip was amazing and we spent four more days in Chamonix after completing the tour of Mont Blanc. I did some running/walking up the hills and it was just incredible getting so high up so easily and looking back from where you had come. Looking back the tour of Mont Blanc was hard, perhaps one of the toughest rides/journeys I have completed. The terrain really isn’t suited to loaded bikes but I am glad that we attempted and completed it. I’m not sure that even on a full suspension mountain bike carrying limited gear I could have ridden much more of the route, I’m just not that skilled. The tour of Mont Blanc is a very popular walking trip and I possibly would like to go back one day and see if I could run/walk around the route in a shorter time!
Finally a few thanks and a personal recommendation:
Thanks to Joe and Nathan for being great travelling companions.
Thanks to Restrap for the prototype bikepacking luggage we used/tested. It worked and I didn’t break anything, success.
Thanks to Will at Schwalbe UK for the Nobby Nic rear tyre. No punctures, good grip and even on the road it rolled well.
Finally a personal recommendation for Alpkit whose drybags, Hunka XL bivy and Rig 3.5 tarp I bought earlier in the year and used on the trip. Their kit is good value for money but also does the job, just what you need.