By Phil Smith – Ride Morzine
The Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB) is one of the most popular long distance walking routes in Europe. But at around 170km in length with ten kilometres of ascent / decent and travels through France, Italy and Switzerland, the tour is no easy endeavour.
We’re adventurous mountain bikers based in the Portes du Soleil and on occasion we like to get away from resort-based riding on local trails to take on something more challenging. Walking the TMB route will usually take in excess of 50 hours, not including rest or overnight stops. We decided to tackle this multi-day backcountry adventure on bikes in just four days.
Starting in Chamonix and following an anti-clockwise route through Les Contamines (France), Courmayeur (Italy), Champex (Switzerland) and returning to Chamonix via Trient and the Col du Rosettes above Le Tour, it promised to be an epic experience.
Each day offers between 1300m – 2000m of vertical ascents; we knew in advance that some of this would be ride-able, but much of it would not. The gradients and terrain are just too steep and technical to ride a bike up and on occasion it’s bordering on scrambling territory. This means not only carrying a significant amount of weight in a backpack to accommodate the four days away, but also shouldering and carrying a bike weighing in the region of 14kgs for hours – literally.
To put it in context: the two highest surrounding peaks of Morzine, Ressachaux and Nantaux, are just over 1000m above Morzine. Imagine hiking both of those each day (even without a bike) for four consecutive days and you get a good indication of the mental and physical requirements for this trip.
The flip side of the climbing coin is the amount of descent on offer after each ascent. I love the sense of achievement to be gained from climbing as much as the next rider, but when push comes to shove, we wouldn’t have been so keen if it weren’t for the descents…
Chamonix – Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme
Starting in the centre of Chamonix, we loaded up on caffeine and pastries ready for the grand depart. High levels of excitement and nerves bubbled around our tried and tested group of four (Goldilocks principle, not to big, not too small). Lots of talk centred around the weight of everyone’s packs – heavy (very) – and suspension was adjusted accordingly.
We headed out along the river trail in the direction of Les Houches and the Telepherique Les Houches-Bellevue, and purchased a one-way ticket to the top. The initial descent to Bionnassay had us adjusting our stopping distances as a consequence of the un-accustomed backpack weight. Here we picked up the TMB route on the map, following it for the whole tour with only occasional variations.
We stopped for an early lunch at Les Contamines. The afternoon would be taken up with a long haul to the col with only the briefest of descents to the refuge as reward. Initially we pedalled easily along the valley with only intermittent sections requiring ‘effort’ to ride. It was interesting to see how everyone approached these normally ride-able sections; some guns blazing, some cautiously conserving energy. Eventually everyone seemed to settle somewhere in the middle, reserving some power for later in the trip at the expense of a little dented pride, pushing our bikes up normally ride-able terrain.
The distant end of the valley was a curtain of mountains with no visible col. We all knew what that meant. Indeed before too long the choice of riding or pushing had been taken away from us. The long, non-ride-able grind had started. The best technique was to push the bike where possible, before the sections of obligatory carrying with bike across shoulders – this was essentially the last 600m. As a bike does not lend itself to being carried, it was uncomfortable to say the least. Already thoughts of ‘can I do this for another three days?’ entered our minds.
The refuge was a welcome sight, as were the beers to be consumed by us weary travellers; a few celebratory drinks were consumed but everyone was restrained for obvious reasons. The food was basic but tasty and consisted of a healthy dose of polenta with meat. Breakfast was bread, jam and lukewarm coffee, but a good offering considering we were 2400m up a mountain with no road access.
Sleeping arrangements were big multi-bed, mixed-sex dorm rooms, meaning your (probably) unknown neighbour is sleeping only inches away. The cacophony of snoring was impressive, earplugs are a must.
Col de la Croix du Bonhomme – Courmayeur
The pick of the days (for me anyway) started with a superb descent to Les Chapieux. A long 1000m drop; sinuous singletrack, multiple lines, switchbacks, steep, technical rocky outcrops with enough flowing mellow in between to replenish the adrenaline stores. No trees and no roots, but I shouldn’t grumble.
We raided the Refuge de la Nova for omelettes and coffee, fuel for the long grind to the Col de la Seigne (a +1000m climb). Fortunately this ascent was mostly ride-able with agreeable views.
The 500m descent into the Vallon de la Lee Blanche was full of more rocky, single-track goodness. It was here we suffered from our only mechanical failure of the trip – a puncture. It’s worth considering what you would do with a more significant mechanical issue, or worse, an injury. We all restrained ourselves on the descents as much as possible to avoid either scenario.
An excellent lunch at Refuge Elisabetta Soldini was spent admiring the stunning glacial environment, a real highlight. Feeling upbeat, we then tackled a detour to the south side of the valley. More character building hike-a-bike (300m worth) was suitably rewarded with a full 1300m of gravity-assisted fun all the way to Courmayeur. This descent had the lot, finishing with tree-lined lower elevations, roots and dirt added to the rocky mix.
That evening’s accommodation was a family run hotel in La Palud above Courmayeur. With a very welcome shower and great Italian food, the contrast to the previous night made it all the better.
Courmeyeur – Champex
A climb of 1200m right from the get go didn’t stop anyone giving the extensive buffet breakfast a good hammering. Fortunately, the climb started out steady on tarmac, giving way to a ride-able gravel track. The final hike-a-bike to the Grand Col Ferret was preceded by a late morning snack / coffee stop at the Refuge Elena.
The cloud had come in a little on this day and cloaked the high peaks and dramatic views; sheltering at the col, the wind was wild and rain threatened. Everyone progressed at their own climbing pace and the group split. For those waiting at the top, the extra layers and rain jackets that had so far been contributing precious grams to backpack weight were gratefully put to use.
Another 900m of epic descent to l’A Neuve was everyone’s favourite part of the trip. Every kind of alpine terrain was on offer, topped off by forest, flower meadows and a bubbling river. Yes, it really was that idyllic. Everyone admitted to getting a little carried away and pushing slightly beyond what was wise on some of the more demanding sections. But we lived to tell a lunchtime tale under the sun, having outrun the rain at the top of the descent.
The terrace trail to Praz de Fort had plenty of exciting exposure to the valley floor and was another highlight in a trip full of highs. It was different from the obvious buzz of gravity assisted descending, although a few technical ups, downs and alongs were a welcome addition to the mix.
We descended the tarmac road knowing lost metres would have to be re-gained on the 800m tarmac climb to Champex. It was a tough slog propelling mountain bikes up tarmac and our slow progress was painfully apparent. Aches, pains, fatigue and general seating area discomfort were all grinding down our previously high spirits.
Our inability to find our digs that night resulted in a wholly unwanted lap of a very scenic lake. The pressure was on that day’s organiser (we took it in turns to make daily arrangements) but he showed admirable cool and eventually led us to our B&B / refuge combination, narrowly averting mutiny.
Champex – Chamonix
By now, mentally and physically tempered, the climb to Bovine seemed a mere trifle at 650m. Rumoured to be all hike-a-bike, it turned out work had been done on the trail, and although a significant proportion was un-ride-able, it was possible to push rather than carry the bikes for the most part.
More cracking single track descending to la Forclaz was followed by possibly the most expensive and smallest plate of pasta that it is possible to buy.
The rideable climb to Col des Rossettes was the gravity defying finale, leaving us with the well known and loved descent to Le Tour. At this point our weather window began to close and big, fat, cold drops of rain began to fall. By the time we reached the tarmac at Le Tour it had turned to torrents of floodwater flowing down the road. Biblical weather to end an epic trip.
The trip tested everyone. Physically, but more so mentally. It was very demanding but equally rewarding. The descents were all truly fantastic and well worth the climbing effort – although it made us appreciate how lucky we are to have an extensive lift infrastructure in Morzine to do the hard work most of the time. The views were stunning. The highs and the lows, the sense of adventure and achievement made this a real once-in-a-lifetime bike expedition.
Our group had previously undertaken many extensive, full day adventure rides, supplemented by various fitness regimes to get into peak shape. We all had experience of overnight stays in basic mountain refuges. We knew what to expect of a trip of this nature and of each other. We prepared for the worst and had emergency bailout back up options. If you’re considering the TMB, I’d recommend you do the same.
For more information on bike-specific holidays in Morzine and the Portes du Soleil visit www.ridemorzine.com