This is a really special route. It visits three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) as well as circumnavigating the highest mountain in western Europe. It crosses remote alpages and passes of up to 2,500m. A bike tour should not be undertaken lightly as riding it is both physically strenuous and technically difficult. I would not recommend attempting the route in July or August as the number of walkers on the route can be enormous. June is normally ok for an attempt on the route, however there may be large snow patches to cross, which can be dangerous - I have experienced sliding out of control down one of these with a bike and it's pretty scary! September is probably the best month for it, but a dry October or even November could be good if the snows have yet to arrive.
Being lucky enough to be living and working in Chamonix means I had the opportunity to do this kind of thing on a weekend when other folks would have to plan a whole holiday around it.
I left work in Chamonix at 5 on a Friday afternoon and pedalled like crazy to get to the Prarion cable car in Les Houches before it closed at 5.30. Fortunately I made it in time and 7 minutes later had gone from 1,000m above sea level to around 1,800m. This was the only lift I took on the tour and it didn't feel like cheating as I've pushed up the slope beneath the lift to get up here before and don't feel there is anything to be gained from it. I also had an annual lift pass so the lift was free!
|The view from the top of the Prarion lift above Les Houches|
These guys were having a significantly worse Friday evening than me!
I trundled on to le Champel and then on to the main road to les Contamines before getting onto the bike track that took me all the way to Notre Dame de la Gorge. From here there was a steep climb which involved some pushing, even on a bike with plenty of gears. This led over the ancient Pont Romain and the torrent in its carved out gorge and then past the Nant Borrant refuge where some hikers were enjoying an evening beer. After crossing some meadows I reached la Balme where there is a designated bivouac area. The rules state that it's ok to stay here from dusk until dawn but not to camp for more than one night. This suited me perfectly and there was no one else around.
|A cup of tea before bedtime|
I was on the trail early, mostly pushing and doing a little carrying to reach my first target of the Col du Bonhomme. From here I had imagined that climb to the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme might be mostly rideable as it was only sloping gently upwards. This didn't turn out to be the case as it is strewn with boulders and the path is somewhat indistinct in places.
|Col du Bonhomme first thing in the morning|
|Col de la Seigne|
|Looking down into Val Veny|
I grabbed a sandwich, some crisps and cake in Courmayeur and then continued up the road into Val Ferret. The walking TMB route goes over the hill from Courmayeur via the Bertone refuge, but from reading about other mountain bike attempts it seemed that this was not a popular biking route, so I had decided to skip this extra climb and follow the road.
As the day was starting to cool with evening approaching there was a strong catabatic wind blowing down the valley, so I was riding up the road into a headwind. Not the best finish to a great day on the bike, but by grinding on into it I managed to get to the perfect spot to attack the Grand Col Ferret first thing in the morning. I stopped just beyond the road end and set my bivvy up amongst some trees near the river. After cooking my dinner I went for a look at the river which had a picturesque foot bridge.
|Almost bedtime on the second night|
|Halfway up the very long climb of the Grand Col Ferret|
From the small town of Issert the climbing begins again, this time up to Champex Lac which is a lovely little town on the edge of a pretty lake. The trail climbs through the trees passing mushrooms carved out of the tree stumps. Some is rideable, a lot of it is too steep and rooty.
After Champex Lac there is a short, technical rooty descent before the climb to Bovine commences. This is a beast of a climb with very steep sections which were actually difficult to push up without sliding back on the loose surface. The climb finally relents and brings you out to the pasture of Bovine. The farm and buvette were all shuttered up and the cows had made their biannual transhumance to the winter pastures. I stopped for a cereal bar and contemplated the view from this lovely mountainside down to the smoggy industrial Rhone valley.
|The alpage of Bovine|
To descend to Trient I couldn't see any permitted mountain bike route, so to avoid the very busy road I slowly and carefully followed the water-race which leads towards the Glacier du Trient (signed as being forbidden for bikes). From here I took the switch-backs which cross the road and eventually lead to Trient.
The TMB route from here back to Chamonix climbs up to the Col de Balme, then down to Tré le Champ before making its final climb to the Lac Blanc and along the Aiguilles Rouges. The climb from Tré le Champ involves ladders, so I had ruled this out immediately. The Col de Balme is accessible by chairlift from the other side, so I had no desire to push my laden bike up it from this side just for the sake of it.
My route was to follow the road to le Chatelet and then an off-road climb (all rideable) to the Col des Montets. From here it's possible to descend to Montroc off-road and then follow the petit balcon nord back to Chamonix.
I enjoyed the final valley trails to take me home in time for Sunday evening dinner. I arrived at work on Monday morning feeling more like I had had a week of adventures than just a weekend!