Words, video and pictures by Gary Lee
Chamonix was to be the destination of this year’s MB Swindon summer Alps trip. Planning started shortly after last year’s very successful trip to Andorra with the same company Singletrack Safari because we enjoyed ourselves so much. On the Ultimate Alps Week we were promised epic all mountain riding, guided off piste with varied and technical terrain. Yes, please we said. We were not disappointed.
I have skied and snowboarded before in Chamonix so I knew what to expect from the mountain landscape. Chamonix is not well known for its mountain biking like other resorts. There are no big bike parks or marked trails, so a guide is definitely required to get around the area. Many of the trails are rugged and natural and you are more likely to come across walkers rather than bikers.
For this trip, we had myself, Richard Rowe, Mark Stephens and Harry. We were also to be joined by 3 other non MB Swindon guests. Yes, numbers were down this year, but it did not make it any less fun.
We were staying in luxury accommodation in a chalet in Argentiere just up the road from Chamonix. Argentiere has its own character and is quieter and more relaxed than Cham. There are still quite a lot of shops, bars and restaurants around for evening entertainment. Our hosts for the week were Jo, Stu and George. Stu and George were going to be riding with us for the week. Unfortunately Jo was injured and could not ride with us. The riding is designed to be door to door from the chalet, occasionally using public transport and lift assisted (chairlifts and cabins). Make no mistake, this holiday still requires a high level of fitness and does require pedaling up a lot.
The journey from Swindon to Argentiere for Richard and Harry was quite eventful to say the least and had nothing to do with the Calais migrant problems (I won’t elaborate, but watch out for a possible story on the AA featuring Richard on BBC’s Watchdog program) Everyone eventually arrived on the Saturday night except for 1 guest from Sweden who turned up about 1:00 am. After a home cooked meal, we all slept quite well I think and in the morning we were up early in anticipation for some mountain bike riding.
Breakfast was served by our lovely Chalet girls Amy, Maudy, Justine and Fiona. Not all at once, they took turns by pairing up each day. Porridge was available along with the normal continental type of breakfast that is normally served in France. Mark did bring his own coffee machine (snob) even though the house coffee was very good.
First day faffing included bike rebuilding for some. Harry had lost (during transit) his stem cover and had to borrow one off Jo’s bike. This was sign of what was to follow for Harry. At least he remembered to bring both wheels.
Day 1 Sunday – Les Houches
The sun was shining and it was already feeling quite hot at 10:00 in the morning. We looked all around us and everywhere the view was stunning with snow capped mountains.
We rode up the road behind the chalet and headed towards the mountain. The first climb of the week and everyone was eager to prove their fitness. We noticed even after this short little technical climb that it was easy to be out of breath in the higher altitudes and combined with the heat it was going to be tough week. We continued and rode along fun bit of singletrack running back down following the contour of the valley towards Chamonix, stopping occasionally to regroup.
For most of us this was our first look around the town. It was already busy with tourists from far and wide and many were sightseeing rather than participating in adventure sports. Chamonix is very much a working town all year round. It is one of the few resorts, which attracts more people in the summer than winter. We stopped at a very good coffee shop called (star)Bucks, Mark was happy. After coffee we headed towards Les Houches with sandwich baguettes in the backpacks.
After about an hour into the ride George, our guide for the week, had a good initial look at our individual riding styles and decided to give us all some coaching on braking technique. It was a very simple demonstration of front wheel braking and rear wheel braking. Needless to say that nearly all of us were doing it wrong. This began a theme which ran throughout the rest of the week. It’s not just riding around on your bike, it’s about how to ride around better on your bike. George would introduce us slowly to different techniques every day to help us tackle the particular obstacles we would encounter. I think we all came away much better riders as a result.
When we eventually reached Les Houches we bought lift passes which cost €120 for a 6 day pass. This may seem expensive, but it does include access to everything including the Aguile du Midi lift up to Mont Blanc. We jumped on and had lunch at the top of Le Perrin lift where we had a superb view of the whole Chamonix valley.
After baguettes, we rode down through a tree lined descent, through an open meadow and onto Norwegian Wood:
“Norweigian Wood and The Danger Hole – Yes, those are weird names. Yes, they sound a bit dodgy, but these trails are no joke! Norweigian Wood was named after a big group of Norweigian riders who were the first people who got a chance to ride it in 2014 – itis a long flowing forest descent which gives a similar feel to the Twister, but without the switchbacks! Danger Hole was discovered by guides Jo and Stu, and is a challenging rooty blast – somewhere along which a front wheel was lost into a well-hidden hole… Both of these routes head off from the top of the same lift at the far end of the valley, so we tend to hit both of them on the same day! If we cover ground quickly we might even add in…”
– Singletrack Safari
It was brilliant. My only regret was not bringing my Go Pro and videoing the descent. There were plenty of long steep sections with a mixture of roots and rocks. It was a good taster of what is to come for the rest of the week. No, I didn’t find the well-hidden hole. It was on one of these descents when we heard a loud shout from Richard from behind us… “God Damn it!!”. We jumped off our bikes and ran back up hill. We feared the worst and thought he had a bad crash, but it turned out Richard had trapped a branch into his back wheel and broke 3 spokes. He was thankfully OK.
We continued down the mountain, after stopping for another mechanical…Harry’s wobbly rear wheel. We tried sorting it, but we didn’t have the tools so we headed for Les Houches in search for a bike shop. None of the shops had what we wanted for Harry or Richard so it was to be the train back to Chamonix.
The ride to the train station has to be the best ever. Where else do you find a hidden train station only reachable at the end of a fast flowy section of trail? Yes trail, not footpath. OK, so it was more of a train stop than a station. It’s not much more than a bus shelter and a STOP button which you press to stop the train. The only clues it was there are the small SNCF signs from the road. Sadly, we missed the train by a few minutes. So back up to the road it was to be and it was a sprint back to Chamonix on the road. It was after about 2 miles into the sprint that I realized Schwalbe Magic Marys do not roll well on tarmac (tarmac in 35deg. C heat), even when paired with a Rock Razor on the back. Oh well, it’s not a race….Strava!
We reached Chamonix and visited Zero G bike shop so Richard could buy some spokes and nipples and a few of us had large ice creams. There was some drama when we tried to board the train at the main station and we had too many bikes. The guards didn’t like it and tried to get us off the train. Some of us eventually agreed to get off but it was another hour wait for the next one, so Mark and myself decided to ride back on the road back to Argentiere. Those sticky MMs! Mark was so chuffed that he beat me back to the Chalet.
Once back at the Chalet, it was a well deserved beer and a session in the hot tub.
Day 2 Monday – Grand Montets
Grand Montet is one of the main ski lifts in Chamonix. The first lift takes you up to the mid station and from here there is another which takes you further up to the glacier at 3275m. It’s not recommended to take the bike up the second lift. From here we did 2 great trails:
“The Full Montets – An enormous descent, which sits far above the town centre, we sometimes ride this as a route in its own right, or work it into other days, such as Border Patrol or Fondue. Whichever way we come to it, it represents the final descent of the day, as it drops you right back into the town centre eventually. The lift delivers you 900m above Chamonix, and all that sits between you and a cold drink is an hour of grin-filled descending on trails which begin fast and flowing through high meadows, and end up tight and twisty amongst the trees. The occasional technical section such as “What’s That in the Bushes, John” (ask us why on the day!) keep you on your toes, whilst multiple line choices often see the group criss-crossing itself towards the bottom. A final selection of non-mapped singletrack takes us back to base, with the option of trying the frankly bonkers “Siren” trail – so called because it will lure you to run aground on its many rocks! You won’t clear it, no-one can – seriously, it is silly. But you will emerge giggling after surviving it’s ridiculous challenges… just follow the trail of fluorescent yellow paint that Martin left after scraping his Commencal against every rock on it last year…!”
– Singletrack Safari
“Fondue – this trail descends around 900m vertically, and features 47 – yes 47 – switchbacks as it descends from the lift station to the valley floor in Argentiere. It will turn your brake pads into melted cheese – hence its name! It’s actually not a terribly technical trail, with long, flowing sections of singletrack between corners – but the turns get trickier and trickier as you go. All of the switchbacks can be ridden, and most people will clear the majority of them – but any rider who can clear every single one is doing a really good job – only a handful of people have cleared all 47. A lot of people can do 46 of them, but one in particular catches 99.9% of people out! This trail is fantastic for honing your cornering technique, and as it spits you out right next to the lift station most people ask to go back up for a second run…& sometimes a third as they feel skills improving with each descent. This one comes right to our front door!”
– Singletrack Safari
Fondue had to be the most memorable. I did not quite manage the 47, but I’m a much better switchback rider for having rode it. None of us managed it, only George. I’d like to think that we as a group helped George clear it first time by riding so well he had to put on a good show.
Day 3 Tuesday – Le Tour, Vallencine
The day started with Harry collecting a demo bike from the bike shop whilst his own was being fixed. A heavy Scott freeride bike with a coil spring shock with 8 inches of travel and a saddle pointing up to the sky. Harry was delighted to learn we had a long and grueling climb up towards le Tour past the cheese factory.
We stopped at the café at the bottom of le Tour lift station and stocked up with the obligatory baguettes and drinks.
Le Tour has a small Bike Park consisting of just blue and red trails. Some of the group decided to take the lift up and do a run down the blue whilst there was a little faffing going on with someone’s bike (Harry’s). The trails are good fun but nothing special.
We regrouped and went up the second lift. From here it was a longish traverse around past the café on the Swiss border. The weather turned a little bit on this day, so for the only time during this trip, we put on our rain/windproof jackets. Halfway down the mountain we stopped and ate our baguettes. It was here that we past a few other cyclists from the local UCPA. After lunch, we were ready for the next descent:
Menatour – A new addition in 2014, and is close to edging it as our favourite trail! This one starts out heading in the same direction as Border Patrol, but after the initial descent it heads more directly down to the Swiss border – and offers a very different set of challenges and scenery. Why is called “Menatour”? Well, firstly it heads through an area called “La Mena” – but more importantly, the further you descend the darker and more challenging it becomes… It all starts off lulling you into a false sense of security on perfect, flowing meadow trails high on the mountain…gradually the switchbacks appear and you head into the treeline. It’s a very deep, dark valley at this point…and to reach the bottom you have to clear “The Maze” – a final twisting set of switchbacks through dark woods on unusually rocky singletrack. It requires skill, confidence and control to clear this section successfully – especially in the wet! Will you come out of the Maze having successfully escaped the Menatour?
– Singletrack Safari
What can I say? Another awesome descent. We were lucky with the weather, even though it rained, it was not heavy. Mildly moist is a good description of he conditions rather than wet. This had us exhausted at the end with massive grins on our faces. At the bottom, the climate seemed to have changed and it was stifling hot and humid, almost tropical. It was jackets off ready for the climb up to Vallencine.
We stopped for refreshments at a local café in Vallencine and it was up the Vallencine lift to come down a DH run which has no name yet. It was basically more of the same… tight switchbacks, rocky, rooty and steep off camber. What else do you need? More big grins at the bottom of the run. Everyone was starting to feel it in their hands from all the braking. This trip is very hard on the brakes.
We went back up the lift, but this time we headed back over to le Tour and back towards the Bike Park where we played on some big rock drops. The run back to the chalet in itself is fun. One (Strava) section is called Happy Campers! (a bit tongue in cheek?) You can probably guess what this section entails.
Wednesday – Aguile de Midi
It was a day off the bikes, a trip up the mountain to see Mont Blanc and take selfies. It was chill out day and it was what skiers call bluebird weather. Some of us fared better than others at the top! That’s all I’ll say.
Thursday – Brevant
We were all itching to get out again after our day off. We were heading back down the Chamonix valley again but on the other side. We were treated with some very sweet single and double track with technical undulating terrain with some very hard climbing challenges.
It was part way along the trail towards that we came across a church group walking and singing in the opposite direction. We greeted them all with the obligatory “Bonjour”. Mark tried to high 5 them… There was just enough room for one abreast, so we had to lean over with the bikes so they could pass. This took some time as there were about 30 of them to go past.
We arrived at Chamonix and we had lunch outside the Extreme café with a great view of Mount Blanc and ate our extreme baguettes and drank our extreme coffee.
We took the le Praz lift from the centre of Chamonix up the Brevant mountain side. From the top, we descended down, zig zagging down some very loose singletrack. The rock had a shiny quartz like texture reflecting the sun light into our eyes. We rode it very gingerly as it moved beneath our tyres. This was a south facing side of the mountain and we had the sun beating down on us and temperatures were rising. We were desperate for some shade. Halfway down we did meet another rider. He was a young French guy in just Lycra with a huge backpack riding a Giant Trance Advanced. He was touring the area on his bike and riding along casually along the same trails we just rode with body armour. He mentioned something about doing a 4 day bivvy trip around Mont Blanc. Mental!
We got back down to ground level and ended up back in Chamonix. The next goal was to catch the bike bus from the centre of town and head towards Les Houches. We practiced trackstands in the town square (another skill George showed us) whilst waiting for the bus. When it arrived, it was a normal bus, but it had the rear section converted to accept around 20 bikes and passengers sat in the front. It took some time to load up our bikes and before long we were on our way. Bike buses only come along every hour and run for limited hours so it is best to check the timetable.
We returned to Les Houches and did 2 runs down from the top of the lift. Here we found the Bike Park with red and blue runs. They were fun and are fairly typical of any decent Bike Park… big berms, table tops, steps and north shore (rideable woodwork features). We spent a little time on the north shore and had a go off some of the features (except for one silly looking drop). Les Houches has a lot more tree cover than Le Tour so the Bike Park runs here are more varied and enjoyable.
Friday – Le Tour Border Control and Blair Switch
It was the last day of riding! How did that happen so quickly? We were to do the famed Border Patrol:
Border Patrol: we believe this trail is the ultimate Alpine riding experience and is utterly unmissable: it is our favourite trail anywhere! From the high point you will descend away from France into Switzerland on perfect singletrack through flower-filled meadows at over 2200m altitude. The trail begins fast and flowing on stereotypical Alpine singletrack, with huge views across the mountains. Upon diving into the treeline you will encounter dozens of tight switchbacks and occasional tricky technical sections infested with roots and rock gardens. After an hour or so of this incredible descent you reach the valley floor in Switzerland. A short ride sees us catch another lift back up to 2000m (where you have the option to descend the full height of the mountain again on a World Cup style DH trail before getting back on the lift to the top) to reach the col ready for a choice of final descents back into Chamonix 1000m below – all the while Mont Blanc towers above you…an incredible day for photos!
– Singletrack Safari
They were not wrong! We already rode some of it on day 3 towards Vallencine. This time we came across some trekkers (walkers?) walking along with a pack mule in front of them carrying all of their gear. I’ve never seen this before. Is this analogous to us riding E-bikes? Anyway, it was funny when the donkey/mule/horse started to gallop away and went slightly out of control with one of the walkers chasing after it. To make matters worse Mark was on his way down at full pelt down the descent and had to pull on the anchors pretty sharp to avoid ploughing straight into Mr Dobbin.
So far we retraced the same route from day 3, but we took a right turn this time and headed slightly up over to the other side of the mountain and began our traverse. The view we were presented with was spectacular. We could see the entire valley below us on the left if we dared turned our heads. We could see the Porte du Soleil area in the far away distance. Unfortunately the riding was so good we had to keep focus on what was immediately in front of us. We did stop briefly for lunch at the end of the first stage of the descent. And what a descent! It was probably one of the best yet. It was a long way down and most of us were two finger braking near the bottom. We reached a place called Trient and it was to be a bit of a road ride back to Vallencine. This time we had long descent on tarmac and time to see who had the best freehubs. I tried my best, but I quickly reached terminal velocity on my MMs.
A bit of fun was had with some roadies a head of us on the road. It was like greyhounds chasing the hare. George was up there like a rocket and followed by Harry, it has to be said, on his 29er. I struggled with my MMs.
We got to Vallencine and stopped at the same café a few days before. We went up the lift to do one more run down. We had to say goodbye to Ian who had to leave 1 day early. We came back up the lift again and prepared ourselves for the finale. This was my favourite bit of trail of the week:
“Blair Switch Project – we tend to ride this one only with smaller groups, and during late and early season only. It’s probably the toughest trail we guide on in Chamonix – as the name suggests it is full of switchbacks – some of which can only be cleared by the very best riders, and even they will need to use their finest trials skills to hop the bike around in places! We have only had 1 person clear every section of this hour-long descent – will you be the second? If you can clear the switchbacks you’ll be confronted with sections such as “The Root of All Evil” which is several hundred yards where the entire trail surface is made of gnarled and twisted rootyness! It’s fine in the dry, but a whole different challenge in the wet…”
– Singletrack Safari
It was dry, actually the weather was perfect. It was late afternoon/early evening and the low sunlight was refracting across the whole valley into different colours and shades. The temperature was dropping slightly from hot to not so hot. Things did not start well. Mark pinch flatted his tyre on the many sharp gutters that run perpendicular to the trail.
This turned out to be one of my favorites of the week. I rode everything apart from about 3 sections. One memorable moment was being passed by a French girl on a Santa Cruz Nomad (the blue and magenta one) dressed all in pink. Not only did she totally smoke the rest of us boys down all of those switchbacks but she out pinked me! I did give her kudos for her riding though when we caught up with her. Mark got a bit distracted and nearly followed her onto an oncoming bus.
Probably the best holiday I’ve had on the bike. I will definitely be returning, I suspect there is so much more we didn’t ride even though I would be totally happy riding the same routes again. A big thank you to my riding buddies Richard, Harry, Mark, Ian, Gustav and Jasr for keeping me company. Thanks to Singletrack Safari: Martin (not present), Stu, George and Jo and everyone at the chalet. I’m already looking forward to the next one. Highly recommended.