Road trip. Two months. Five European friends across Canada from Toronto to Vancouver and through the States from San Francisco back to Toronto via as many cool places in between as we can find. We’ve used cities as way-markers but our interest is in the land we’ll travel through between them. Along the way we’ll pass through more National Parks than you can shake a stick at. Camp stoves, beaches, forests, mountains, waterfalls, adventures and waking up in a tent somewhere new every morning.
Introductions. We are Ciaran, Dian, Lara, Robbie and Sam – we’ve spent the year on exchange at Trent University but now exams are finished, school’s out and summer’s nearly here; time for a change of scene. You’ll get to know us along the way but for now:
Ciaran, 20, from England studies history – his most recent big adventure was climbing Africa’s highest peak, Mt Kilimanjaro.
Dian, 21 from the Netherlands studies psychology and is our most seasoned road-tripper – having driven all over Europe in what’s possibly the world’s tiniest two door hatchback.
Lara, 20, from Germany studies environmental sciences, we’re all convinced that if she’d been growing up in the 60’s she would have made a great hippie.
Robbie, 21, from Scotland studies archaeology and spent his childhood scrambling up the Munros of northwest Scotland.
Sam, 21, from Scotland studies astrophysics and spent last summer hitchhiking and walking around Iceland. Very rarely spotted not carrying at least one camera.
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
Having recently wrapped up three weeks of guiding Big Mountain Bike Adventures trips in Switzerland, my mind is alight with multiple moments of adventure, almost too many to distill singular experiences from. It’s probably easier to just summarize an entire trip as a whole. And while I was tempted to do this, there was, indeed, one particular day that stood out amongst all the others.
The stark contrast of this day is not so much about the riding itself. The ride did feature some spectacular singletrack, but the uniqueness of the day was more about how it allowed us to travel with our bikes. Travel in the sense of moving through terrain; achieving numerous objectives over the course of a day while focused on a final destination, one very different from the beginning of the adventure.
The day started cold and clear in Lourtier, our sleepy little homebase tucked into the postcard-perfect Val de Bagnes, Switzerland. I had made the executive decision to postpone this particular outing a couple of days due to a low freezing level and poor weather, and looking out the window at a splitter blue sky, I felt very self congratulatory and guide-like. Taking advantage of this perfect weather window, our group powered back a Swiss breakfast (mostly bread, cheese and meat) and headed out.
The climb begins as quintessentially as a Swiss climb should: in a tunnel. The tunnel bores up through the mountainside next to the Mauvoisin Dam, at 250 meters tall, it is the highest arched dam in Europe. The tunnel is faintly lit, with water seeping through the ceiling. We climb up the narrow dirt track, sporadically sniping sights of the dam and lake below us through small ports in the rock. Finally, the tunnel ends, and we emerge, blinking, into blinding sunlight on the other side, a fantastic view of mountains and water and glaciers and rivers spilling out in front of us. Inspired by the sight we bend into a grinding road climb that eventually gives way to an even more oppressive hike-a-bike that finally relents to a merely painful climb, all of this getting us closer to the Fenetre du Durand, a 2800m col that marks the border between Switzerland and Italy.
As we climb, the air becomes sharper, distilled by the last few days of freezing temperatures. The crisp air seems to bring out our surroundings in flawless relief. Snow-capped peaks tower above the distinct singletrack that stretches out in front of our tires, and as we crest the col, Italy beckons below, a different landscape perhaps only in perspective, but beckoning us onwards in perfect detail.
The ride down is a glorious amalgamation of flowy trail, technical rock features, and everything in between. While down is the general direction, we traverse through the valley for a long distance on a perfectly graded “bisse,” or ancient waterway designed to re-direct water from the glaciers to mid-mountain fields and towns. As we descend the air becomes warmer, as one would imagine it would, descending into Italy. It all seems so perfect.
The final descent is long and winding, on a rarely visited trail that recently revealed itself thanks to some keen map reading and some valuable local knowledge. We revel in the secrecy of the spot, shredding down the rolling singletrack. At one point the trail points down through a perfectly-spaced group of larch trees, the forest floor nothing but knee-high vibrant green grasses, the trail cutting a straight line through. The afternoon sun dapples the grass, as a light wind creates a wild kaleidoscope of light in front of our tires. Minds blown, we rocket through the trees and exit out on the road far below, coasting down to the Italian town of Aosta for eagerly awaited beers.
After spending the day bundled up in the high mountains, it is an abrupt change to find ourselves in the old town of Aosta. The sun is warm, and as we relax and drink beers we witness a perfect slice of Italian life unfold around us. The striking differences between our morning’s departure and where we are now help to gel the unique experiences of the day together, and we celebrate two-wheeled travel, Italian style.
Story and photos by Joe Schwartz, Osprey Athlete
Eric Larson lives in Telluride, Colorado. But not very much. During the few winter months he works snow safety for Telluride Ski Resort. Then he ski guides in the Alps, guides expeditions on Denali and then guides mountaineering in the Alps. We see each other somewhere every year.
This year Eric and I overlapped in Chamonix. For a month, we guided trip after trip together. We had a blast working together. The best thing about Eric is that he’s always ready to go. We climbed every free day, then drank a few Stella Artois.
Eric leading the first pitch of the Contamine Route on Pointe Lachenal.
Eric following the money pitch on the Contamine Route, a 160-foot 5,10b.
Eric rapping the Contamine Route to the Vallee Blanche Glacier. This is classic Chamonix; we climb a beautiful six-pitch crack on orange granite at 12,000 feet. Then we get swished back to the city. It may sound soft, but if you like to climb…
The next day we climbed a 400-meter mixed route on the Triangle du Tacul. The route is called the Via Gabarrou-Marquis. Since every inch of the Triangle du Tacul has a route, we should probably call it the Larson-Stock-Artois route.
Eric leading money pitch on the Via Gabarrou-Marquis. Payback after I got the money pitch on the Contamine the day before.
Eric crossing the bergschrund on the Tois Sommets route on the Tacul. The Tacul is a low summit of Mont Blanc and is the first peak of the Trois Sommets route. This is the second most popular route on Mont Blanc, despite the major serac-fall hazard.
Then we drank Stella.
Just a little over one year ago, Adventure Cycling Association teamed up with Blanche van der Meer and her WorldCycle Videos group on Vimeo and launched their first-ever Bicycle Travel Video Contest. The premise of the competition was simple: “to celebrate the booming trend in bike touring and travel documentaries.” The result, thanks to some fantastic volunteer judges, is several fantastic videos that capture the essence of cycling. There were three winning videos, including the above, which was considered the Best Long Distance Tour Video. Watch Northern Europe by Bike by Stefan Böhm of Germany and enjoy! All submitted films were also considered for the Bike Travel Spirit Award, and this film took the prize. Here’s what Adventure Cycling Association had to say about the film:
Only two and a half minutes long, it’s a powerful piece of work. According to one of our judges, it is a “creative, entertaining video that demonstrates you don’t need fancy graphics, effects, or a soundtrack to tell a good story. Unlike many other videos that were submitted, he included the locations, which we liked. He documents the good, the bad, and the ugly of bicycle touring, while including the bizarre and noteworthy encounters he experienced along his journey. Shooting and editing were great too.”
Stay tuned for the following two winning films, which we’ll publish in the coming two weeks!
The spray of liquid magma burst into the night sky. Mt Etna was erupting, as she does once roughly every two months, and we were skiing under the orange glow of her latest paroxysm.
In early February 2012, a promising Italian snow forecast had us chasing a storm to Sicily, an island on the Mediterranean Sea. While much of the U.S. languished in a dry early winter, Europe was being blasted by heavy snowfall and Italy was deep in the weather pattern. With a lofty goal of ski exploration on Sicily’s notorious active volcano, Etna, our team thought it best to aim for winter-like conditions.
With the promise of powder, we booked tickets and landed two short days later in the coastal Sicilian city of Catania. Geographically, Sicily is the soccer ball to Italy’s boot. Assembled at the airport, we had a vague plan of action. On assignment for Salomon Freeski TV, filmmakers Nick Waggoner and Zac Ramras, photographer Grant Gunderson, and Salomon freeskiers Elyse Saugstad and I loaded into a white minivan and drove out of the city and up towards the volcano.
Reigning above numerous fragile, cozy old towns, Mt Etna basks in a sea breeze that wafts over its small, scattered cones, jagged igneous black-rock ridges, and wide, fluted flanks. Steep, rocky lines run down parts of her face along with miles of more benign terrain to descend. Topping out at almost 11,000 feet, Etna’s high position provides unobstructed views of the coastline, which blend seamlessly into the olive groves and vineyards dotting the landscape.
The quaint Sicilian town of Nicolosi was our home for the next 10 days. From the lower vantage point we admired the mountain, scoped our dream lines, and we waited. Each morning we were greeted with unpredictable weather and the repercussions of an eruption that included turbulent cloud cover, and low visibility for skiing on her relatively blank, high-alpine expanse. Café-bound, we sipped our espressos, snacked on arranchinas (popular rice cones & balls served hot with a variety of inner ingredients) and waited for sunshine and clear windows to explore the vast terrain and the best ski lines on the active volcano.
We quickly realized we had to accept Mt Etna at her best and her worst. She threw out strong winds, thick fog, serpent-like clouds, and serious eruptions. She rumbled, coughed, spit, and spewed volcanic bits, with lava flow and liquid magma sliding down her slopes. We inhaled and skied ash debris but also enjoyed a few short sunny, clear stretches with a steady refresh of white snow from the constant storm cycle.
With slow access via an ancient gondola, creaky chairlifts, and struggling pomas, we got a gradual boost up 740 meters of hillside. Passionate locals joined us in gondola line each morning with their short carving skis and big smiles. Pouring out of the cabins, we warmed-up with the Sicilians on a few of the groomed options at one of Etna’s two ski resorts.
After sampling the mellow in-bounds terrain, our team headed into the backcountry. Though there is easy access to ski tour and explore the many additional acres of more challenging off-resort offerings, there is absolute solitude. We had any line we chose all to ourselves.
As we ventured across Etna’s broad landscape, we crossed high ridgelines that protected hidden valleys of rocky couloirs, mini-volcano cones, and small amphitheatres with mini-golf-like terrain. Dropping off one sastrugi-ridden ridge to the West, we skied wind-buffed corridors and then toured back up and skied corn back to the resort. Checking out the Volcano cones, we set a hard edge on each icy turn on the windward slopes and then skied packed powder on the leeward. Skiing into the craters was almost always soft as the sun reflected heat into the white belly of their inner bowls. We got a taste of everything.
Elyse and I looked at each other, then looked at Nick, and said, “No, thanks.”
Though there were many cultural highlights, we were there to ski. When the visibility was poor up high, due to Etna’s unusually deep snowpack during our visit, we were able to find good alternative options. We ducked into heavily wooded hillsides off the winding road up to the resort. From a skier perspective, the forests needed some pruning, but we found tight alleyways and fun, smooth powder skiing under the protected canopy of the towering trees.
The tempestuous visit was a beautiful and healthy reminder that nature is very, very close. Etna was in charge and we were on her agenda. After ten days of patience, waiting, and unusual skiing adventures on Etna’s flanks, our U.S. team “Magma” was provided with a couple of lessons: don’t book a ticket to Etna for a storm, and Sicily is beautiful but Etna can be a tricky beast.
In the midst of the hustle and bustle of the Olympic Games in London, the traffic is — as you might expect — a little bit worse than usual. So, what’s a city to do to keep the flow of everything up to par?
London UPS fleets in particular have deployed delivery bikes to make necessary delay-free deliveries to areas affected by heavy traffic.
According to BikeBiz, “Extended bike fleet will be in use in the capital after the Olympics too, logistics firm says.” Also according to the site:
“Bicycles were actually a foundation to our business over 100 years ago; when a few messenger boys began the business which became UPS today,” said Cindy Miller, MD for UPS UK, Ireland and Nordics. “We’re excited to add them to our UK fleet at such a critical time for London’s businesses.”
As cities around the world battle heavier and heavier traffic, we wonder if all delivery fleets shouldn’t consider having at least a few bicycles ready to rip through the city streets via less crowded bike lanes. What are your thoughts?
PHOTO Via: loop_oh
Head buzzing from wine, stomach full of cheese, meat and bread, I careened haphazardly down the mountain, the Rhone Valley far below and a group of howling bike riders in the exact same boat as I following closely behind.
We were mid-way through an eight-day sampling of some of the finest Swiss and French downhill mountain bike gems. Some days took us to established bike parks, and other days to obscure trails hidden to the general public, and only discovered through a combination of bribing locals, studying maps and some good ‘ol fashioned luck.
When people think of Europe, many of them think of this. And it’s true that in certain cities, such as Utrecht in the Netherlands, more than a quarter of all trips are made by bike. But this film — Brussels Express — shows the other side of European bicycle commuting, and it’s not all that pretty.