I don’t like to admit to hastily-made plans or half-baked ideas, but this attempt of the Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) was verging on that. I had done some previous research into the route, even including some first-hand accounts from friends who had done the trip before. It had been a jam-packed summer, and with a single day of rest between departing on the TMB and 18 days straight of bike guiding for Big Mountain Bike Adventures in the Swiss Alps, I hadn’t afforded myself much time to prepare mentally or physically for the task ahead. All I had was the commitment from a friend, Trevor Mitzel, to join me for the adventure, and a couple maps, which I hadn’t actually opened and looked at yet. I was winging it a bit, I know, but I was confident in our abilities to make it up as we went.
We arrived into Chamonix in the evening, the clouds boiling around Mont Blanc high above town. It was dismal looking weather, but a forecast promised nothing but blue skies and warm temperatures for the following week. Getting our gear and bikes dialed, we decided on our route, and even reserved a couple places to stay along the way. Things were starting to come together. All that was left was to saddle up and head out on the 160km loop that promised over 8000m of ascent along the way.
Day 1 – Chamonix to Les Chapieux
The weather man was right, and the morning sun highlights the upper reaches of Mont Blanc as we pack our bags and scurry around the village picking up essential trail food items (sausages, cheese, chocolate and bread). Spirits are high as we connect to gravel paths that take us down the valley, and towards Les Houches. Our lack of planning is made apparent when we arrive at the bottom of the lift station to find the lift running and open for bikes. We gladly use this bump up to ridgetop, happy with our unexpected elevation assist. Our smugness is quickly and efficiently wiped away for the rest of the day though, starting with a crucial juncture missed, sending us deep into the valley and resulting in an extra hour’s climb back up the road. Once the proper route is established we get a few kilometres respite before beginning a 1600 metre climb up the Col de Bonhomme, the ascent mostly consisting of steep dirt road or rocky hike-a-bike.
The sun does little to warm us on the Col, and we are presented with another soul-crushing surprise, more climbing to the Col de Croix de Bonhomme, which is a seemingly endless series of ridges away. Finally achieving this last col, and feeling the effects of a large day on the bikes, we wobble our way down the descent to the Auberge de la Nova, a secluded refuge tucked in a remote valley far below. Dinner is hearty and delicious, and we retire early, slightly wary of the next day, and a little unsure of what we have gotten ourselves into.
Day 2 – Les Chapieux to Courmayeur
It’s amazing what a night’s rest will do. We awake stoked to tackle the day ahead, albeit stiff and sore. The climb up to the Col des Seigne (2,516m) is an arduous one, but mostly all climbable on the bike, which makes it enjoyable, in a masochistic kind of way. The views help too, with the sun rising on the broad valley where we had spent the night, and the Mt Blanc massif coming into sight as we crest the col. We had begun a tally to weigh the pros and cons of attempting this route on a bike, and where the hikers probably had won on Day 1, we were definitely winning today. The col marks the border between France and Italy, and the descent into Italy is welcomed. Italians seem to take less pride in their waterbar construction (years of riding in the Alps has made me a de-facto waterbar expert) and we have to negotiate numerous logs placed in awkward positions on the trail. Not enough to ruin the experience, but the flow of the trail is altered slightly. Descending into the valley is spectacular though, with big alpine walls on both sides, and glaciers yawning up above. As quickly as the TMB gives though, it takes away, and we steel ourselves for another climb, this one extending a mere 400m above the main valley. It is a deceiving 400m, as our legs feel like it is at least double. The reward is there though, with a ripping fast trail that descends to the top of the Courmayeur ski resort, and finally into the picturesque town below the ski runs.
Day 3 – Courmayeur to La Fouly
The bikers definitely lose to the hikers on the climb out of Courmayeur. It is a rocky, steep affair all the way to the Rifugio Bertone, pushing/carrying our bikes the whole way. Once at the Refugio, a split in the trail requires a decision. One, a beautiful looking traverse around the corner, and on the map it looks like a fine, lower level option. The other route continues with the hike-a-bike, but promises some ridge-top singletrack and a peak to climb with the bikes. Being gluttons for punishment, we forgo the smooth-looking traverse and shoulder the bikes for more climbing. The climb pays off with unbelievable views and great trail once we get higher, but the ratio of riding to hiking is skewed the wrong way, and we regret our decision. We make our way off the ridge eventually and downclimb to the Col Sapin, and from there ride a fun trail that takes us back to the main route, the smooth, buffed trail we stupidly avoided. Oh well, next time. We soldier on up the stunningly beautiful and easily accessed (judging by the number of cars out for a Sunday drive) Val Ferret. Another giant climb is hiked up (we are really losing to the hikers today) and we look down into Switzerland from the Grand Col du Ferret (2537m). This is when we start winning again, with a sinuous descent that drops over 1000m down to the sleepy town of La Fouly. We check into a somewhat questionable auberge, but are treated to an amazing steak dinner, washed down with beer and wine.
Day 4 – La Fouly to Trient
With the skies still a perfect azure blue, the morning is a relaxing mix of singletrack and exploratory roads through quiet Swiss villages. We really start to feel like we’re on a bit of a bike holiday, rather than a sufferfest. The inevitable climbing begins eventually though, and we work our way out of the valley towards Champex Lac. Lunch is spent at a café by the lake, and we easily turn it into a two-hour stop, enjoying ourselves and soaking up the perfect September weather. The food sits a little heavy an hour later though, as we approach the base of the Bovine, a 700m wall of a climb. Appropriately named too, as all the cows had just been escorted out of the alpine for the winter, and the trail was left ravaged by cow shit and swarms of flies. We escape the Swiss agricultural tour eventually, and rip a long fast descent all the way into Trient.
Day 5 – Trient to Chamonix
While we probably could have squeezed more riding into Day 4 and pushed on to Chamonix, we did not feel the need to, given the amazing weather. Where else would we rather be? Day 5 is a bonus, and we mean to treat it as such, maybe go do a little exploring. With that in mind we stray from the normal TMB route, and even from the recommended variation route, and head out on a little ride. The little ride ends up turning into a gnarly hike-a-bike complete with bolted chains for safety, getting completely lost in the woods, and eventually finding some very rarely traveled-on singletrack. Despite our momentary lapse in route-finding, we have a great morning of riding, connecting long-forgotten trail that eventually takes us down to le Buet, at the north end of the Chamonix Valley. We now embark on the only planned part of our TMB adventure, a booze cruise hitting key pubs all the way into the town of Chamonix, where we continue to celebrate an amazing mountain bike trip.
Story and photos by Osprey Athlete Joe Schwartz