The best adventure, best ride, ever - (GR5 TransAlp)
Have just got home from probably the best adventure I’ve ever done. A few people on here asked if I’d put in a report on it so here goes.
Having done several TransAlp type crossings, last year we never made one since in 2009 I’d bust a few bones in Italy doing a Transalp and last year ended up being a year off, some of it spent being ill. This year was different though and the (too large) group of us started looking at doing a trip from Geneva to Nice. Mainly following the French long distance footpath GR5, which is a classic walk taking about 4-5 weeks. The group dwindled and so eventually there were just three of us. I think if it had been 4 we would have made up two twos. These type of things are much better done in the minimum size groups and two or perhaps three is ideal. Pete, was older than me, a veteran of racing, climbing, paragliding very fit but for some strange reason deciding to live in Cambridge where hill climbing opportunities. Gary, just younger than me, also a racer and climber and veteran of TransAlp and TransRockies racing who was only marginally better situated for hills on Northhampton. And me, 48, mental age 16 never raced but spent most of my life in the hills, caving, paragliding and riding the bike, with not a level piece of ground in sight living in the Yorkshire Dales.
As on most of these trips I took it on to do all the organising. I like it that way. I have lost count of the hours spent pouring over maps, searching on the WWW and typing spreadsheets with all the data on. It sounds anal but there is so much hard work on these trips that you need to know exactly what you’re doing, when and why otherwise it will all descend into chaos. Also by knowing exactly what you’re doing, you get the most out of the route. You know what all the mountains are, what you’re looking at, where you need to dig deep and so on.
These trips are about being in the mountains and mountain biking. A typical day includes and hour of pushing or carrying. Some people don’t like that but for me being in the mountains and travelling with a bike is always going to necessitate some hard going.
We all got flights to Geneva, from different UK airports but arriving about the same time. Of course as we did we saw many UK guys on their way to Morzine and Les Arcs, all dressed in the cool-gear. Of course we had flown in our cycling shorts, tops and shoes and carried only the smallest of rucksacks. Our bikes were taken out of the cardboard boxes, built up in the 40 minutes we had and we were off, at least on, onto the train from Geneva to Aigle, eastern end of the lake and where the offices of the UCI are. What a fitting start point. We knew it would be a rush, hitting flights and trains on time was our only chance abut this only gave us 2 hours to ride the 24km flat round the lake and climb up the 600m and 7k to the first night that we had pre-booked. We went well and snook over the border bridge into France as it was getting dark. Dumped the bikes at the Gite and just got to the village restaurant before they shut. It felt good to be back at it again.
Up the road and carry the last Km to the Cold de Bise and over to La Chapelle d’Abbondance. From there up to the lifts below Avoriaz and fly down some of the downhill tracks there to Morzine. After finding the info office we found what was a cheap but good hotel for the night (about Û70 for the three of us B&B). We pool all the money and keep a tally for everything. Accommodation, drinks, food, lifts etc. It’s far easier that way. Today we had missed out on lunch but we know that to feed in the middle of the day is essential. We’re probably knocking out 3-4 thousand calories a day so food is very important. We wont be missing it again.
From Morzine up the first lift to the Plenay Ridge we wave goodbye to lifts and downhillers for a few days and have a good ride along the ridge. Mainly on double track but I reminisce about the good flying days we had here in the Paragliding Nationals probably 12+ years ago, taking off from Mont Chery and getting trashed above Avoriaz Ð happy days! At the road we mix with roadies for a few Km and get good views of the Mont Blanc massif before turning on a track at col de Joux Plan. For 1Km we struggle with mud and rough ground before canning it and turning back. We go down the road a couple of bends then turn off down route MTB50. I’d seen this on the web and although the first 40m were bad, after that it was fantastic. Nearly 1000m of great descent across meadows and down ancient roads we dropped into Samoens just in time for lunch in the market square. I knew this place having spent a few weeks here 20 years ago. It had changed little. From there along the valley road to Sixt fer a Cheval in what was blistering heat. We turned up the valley to le Lignon and climbed the 700m to the waterfalls with the rest of the tourists. Where they stopped at the end though, we carried on up the track riding at first then pushing on what became a hard push right up to the Collette Atterne. From there good level riding to the Alfred Willis Hut at 1810m. A great hut, very isolated where we joined about 15 others staying there in the communal dining area and dorm. While keeping a veneer of politeness and respectability, we managed to eat twice as much as the Austrian family that shared our table. All until the apple tart came out when we were beaten hands down by a 10 year old! While we ate the blistering weather broke and an alpine storm raged. A few campers abandoned their tents and squeezed into the hut as the biblical rain lasted a few hours.
After breakfast we set off up the climb from the hill which was a carry for 30 minutes. The ground was wet from the night before but the sun was out and it quickly dried out. A good ride past the lake and a last easy push up to the Col Atterne (2257m) saw a 10 min push down before riding commenced and we whizzed down past Plan Joux to Servoz and lunch. From there to Les Houches and a cable car up past Col de Voza. We stuck to the GR5 which meant a bit of singletrack through the woods and a 5min carry up to a fire road and tracks to Contamine. After asking at the office d’tourism we got to a gite, part of the campsite at ND de Gorge. Another good place, quiet, good showers and cheap too. It had been an easy day and I felt that we were not making enough progress.
Up two lifts and an easy ride to the col d’Jolly we traversed on a part ride part push path to the Fenetre. Looking down from there was gruesome. It looked totally unridable. We pushed down with only small bits of riding and that ended when I went over the bars. I bruised and damaged my thigh (in a big way) and twisted my ankle. What a disaster! I calmed down for 5 mins, coated it Sudacrem and slowly carried on. A couple of Km of riding got us to the Col de Balme and the big carry up to Col and Refuge de Bonhomme. I knew this bit as I’ve ridden it a few times in the opposite direction. Carrying up it I was surprised that we ever rode down it! At the hut (2433m) we had drinks and cake before setting off on the ridge. This was brilliant riding. A track less than a metre wide with huge drops on one side of both. It made any amount of pushing and carrying more than worthwhile and we grinned all the way along it to the refuge at Plan de Lai (1818m). The double track near the end was criss-crossed with single track which was great. We arrived early (4:30pm) but were tired and the next bed would be a few hours further on so we called it a day. Another great refuge, run by the Club Alpine de France. The guy there made a superb meal of rabbit and mushroom stew both constituents that he had foraged during the day. We sat on the terrace and watched the sun go down as the paragliders soared about in the evening restitution. Life couldn’t get much better.
Again mindful that progress was very slow, I was determined to wind it up a bit. Let’s hope the tracks would get Ôeasier’. We left the hut at 8am and set off riding along near Lac Roseland, then bobbling along a traversing track that was muddy in places, jumping off the bike every 400m for a few metres then riding again. Eventually it dropped onto a jeep track that had saved us loosing too much altitude and soon we were climbing again. We rode to the very end of the jeep track that probably only left us 200m of climbing to the col de Bresson( 2469m) but it was very hot. At the top, bad news. The track down was unrideable and so we pushed most of the 400m down to the col de Balme (same name different col!). There is a col de Coin to the West so maybe someone will tell me that’s a better route. At la Balme we stopped at the refuge and had lunch. From there all downhill, 1200m to Bourg St Maurice. It started as rough jeep track then meadows and finally road through Picollard and down to Bourg SM. It did seem a lot of descending! We jumped on the Les Arcs Funicular and waited 10 minutes for it to set off. As we did loads of Darth-Vader clad downhillers got on after their ride down from the resort above. I was asked ‘Are you the bloke we saw in Geneva on Saturday?’ which of course we were. They were chuffed that we had at least got this far and we were thankful for their interest. There was also a Scottish guy there who was in Les Arcs for the season guiding. He was genuinely helpful, giving us encouragement for the rest of our ride. We jumped on a lift up to 2215m and rode down the ski runs to Les Arcs 1800 before taking another lift that got us to 2570m. That being the last lift for a while, we felt like we were making good progress. A lazy ride down long, long forest roads got us into the valley below Les Bettieres. The Scottish guy had warned us off doing the 4km of singletrack that we’d marked on the map as he said it was too rough so we had used only the forest road. At the bottom we rode a few Km up the tarmac road, asking about accommodation until we ended up at the refuge at Resoul, beyond Les Bettieres. Literally the end of the road at 1550m. What a palace. It turned out that the old one had been destroyed and this year they had just opened the new one. All glass and timber we showered and sat on the terrace and wondered about the meal. We were treat to the best meal of the trip. We should have guessed it when we saw the chef arrive a ‘big’ girl on a bike sweating hugely as she rode up the valley. Soup, a massive tart a flet, a huge salad and a sticky pudding.
The breakfast was not eclipsed by the previous nights meal. The trouble is you can’t pig-out too much when you have to Ôwork’ straight off and so it was we were soon pushing up the path at the head of the valley. Not a bad path and after probably 40 minutes we reached the to of the steep bit, the border of the Vanoise National Park and the sign Ôpas de VTT’ (no mountain bikes). We knew about this and figured that if we were quiet, we would be no trouble and so it was. We rode much of the path up to 2656 and all this section was great riding in the best of scenery. Marmots close to the path, lakes and huge rock faces. The park rules had said you’re allowed to push your Ôvelo’ so I guess they can’t be that fanatical. The wind was very strong and at the summit I recognised some of the Tignes ski runs that we were now whizzing down. The GR5 runs down to Tignes le Lac and gives a great swooping path for the 600m descent that end on a manmade downhill track which we took to the Centre Ville. We were to take a lift up and ride down to Val d’Isere but due to the wind the lift was shut. We took lunch while smirking at the one-trick-ponies that were the downhillers skulking round the village. Having no lift but loads of tricks, we shot down the road, to the dam and round the road to Val d’Isere. I mused that this was the road Wiggins, Schlek, Armstrong and Contador had all fought on only two years earlier. While on the climb up to Val d’Isere we got at the back of a very fast roadie and tried to draft her. I killed myself doing it only to find that the others had dropped off some Km’s before. Once there we took the lift that cuts out half of the road up the Col d’Iseran but still leaves you to climb the rest to 2764m. In the ride up this iconic Tour de France road I felt strong and buoyed up by the knowledge that we were getting somewhere. The road descent too is a classic and seems to go on forever. Down sweeping bends overtaking cars to 1785m there is still another 500m to wind off over the next 45km to where we found a hotel at Branmans. We’d done 90km today and cast off many maps. Instead of the 45Km of road there are old tracks parallel to it but there just didn’t seem much point when we were flying. The hotel was OK but we felt seriously under-dressed!
Saturday morning and the hotel was full of German MTB riders who looked like they were out for the day. We had pressing business and set off into what was a low-cloud morning but with blue sky rapidly increasing. On the road to Modane, about 15km a town that seemed to have no redeeming and at 1058m was where the motorway went to go into the Frejus Tunnel linking France with Turin. We quickly left the stream of wagons with their fumes and noise and rode up the hairpin road to Val Frejus a ski resort at 1599m. Onward up wooded forest tracks we’re now into border country and the route is littered with old barracks and fortifications from the war. At 2100m it changes to a good ride up across the meadows gets us to the col de val Etroite at 2434m. The ride down is good, all singletrack and 95% rideable to the Refugio Maggi, a bustling place where many people seem to have driven up the track to take in the climbing, the via ferratas and generally sunbathe. By now the weather is hot again. We take on lunch there and when getting back on the bikes soon have our first puncture of the trip. We’ve done well to get this far without one. We fly down the jeep track to the road at 1514m which is only a Km short of Italy then up the col Echelle at 1779m before a long, long downhill road section to the ancient town of Briancon. Famous from the Tour de France as being at the foot of many passes including the Izoard, the Gallibier and so on. We set off at 1212m up the bottom of the Izoard before bailing out after a few Km and riding up to a gite marked on the map at Terre Rouge. It turns out to be great. Run by a guy and his wife who are keen to be hosts, they ply us with home brew and tell us all about the tracks of the area. We share the accommodation with three French walkers up from Marseilles for the weekend and 4 German motorbikers on a tour. Again a good meal of Tart a Flet, equal in quality to the previous one but just not quite as big. The meal though is great and the conversations with the French are getting better.
In the morning we all seem keen to get an early start. Breakfast is good and we set off what was the old road up the col d’Izoard. Never tarmaced it meets the modern road at Cervieres (1636m). It is cold as the sun has not yet got into the valley. We ride up a rough jeep track that climbs up to the tarmac road then to the end of the valley at les Fonds. Our host last night had told us how this valley was an old Savoir valley, spared the damage that comes from ski resort building and we were happy to see it that way. Large meadows, clear streams and old timber barns. It was beautiful. Today we mused was the day of cheesy-peas. A steep track set off up the col de la Peas which was only rideable for short sections when the gradient slackened but much of the slope was brutal. Soon at the top though at 2629m and a great descent down to the castle town of Chateau Queras at 1350m. A fine old town well worth a visit, we had a pasta lunch then set off up the forest road that makes for an easy climb up to 2125m. Just a short push up to the col de Fromage at 2301m then a sublime ling traverse through woods and rock to the other side of the valley. Again a real bit of must-ride track. We watched paragliders high above and know they would be watching us! From the end of the traverse the ride down is good on a singletrack with tight bends which goes down to Ceillac at 1640m. We asked in the sports shop and were sent in the direction of the only refuge in town, down by the river. Big and comfortable it was full of walkers of all ages. At the meal we broke our own record, demolishing 4 full baskets of bread. The serving girls were quite amused.
Being well practiced at eating several kilos of bread and jam and more than a handful of yoghurts we were soon on the now familiar plan, riding up the road to where it ends at a carpark. A steep but pleasant push up through the woods let us ride across the meadows to col d’Tronchet (2656m). We had planned to cross at the col d’Giradin (2699m) but our choice looked better. Over the top, the ride down was great at least for the first 200m then it just became unrideable all the way to the bottom. What a disappointment. That said the other route looked just as bad when we looked back at it. At the bottom, Maljasset we had an early lunch at the CAF hut (1910m) and were treated to a good looking waitress who insisted in flashing her nipples at us. The food was tasty too. A guy in the village spoke good English and was inetersted in what we were doing. He told us too about a Swiss guy in Italy who had bought most of an old village and was turning it into a biking resort. We took that on board but set off up the col d’Mary which goes over to Italy. Much of it was rideable. It’s a long but mainly more shallow route up. At the top the downhill was just as good. Fast and swooping then a jeep track then bang. My freehub played up. It was fine on the uphills but downhill it just Ôbound’, dragging the chain around instead of clicking. I kicked myself as it had done it in the UK but since I stripped it down, I’d had no problems. Now the pawls were worn out. We took it apart and confirmed the diagnosis. Our best chance was to go to the Swiss mans village as surely he would have spares, even if that meant a new wheel. We rode down the jeep track and road, me pedalling furiously all the way down to 944m then rode up to his place at 1100m. The village of Marmora was unbelievable. Like something out of James Bond but with Swiss efficiency. We were given a Ôhouse’ with white linen sheets (that surely was a mistake!) while I set about in the workshop and stripped the freebub down. It was very, very worn. They might have posh bedding, endless cheese and cuckoo clocks but no spare wheels or pawls. Still once re-built it seemed to be OK. Maybe I could limp on to the end. Having not seen our bijou apartment I know which alley it was down so just waltzed into what looked like the right house. There in the lounge was a screaming German girl stark naked shouting what I guess was German for Ôpervert’. You see no nipples for days then in one day four come along all at once. I did have to spend the night trying to avoid bumping into her although I never recognised her with her clothes on. The meal was a sight to be seen. We bailed out at 9 courses and pleaded with them not to give us any more. This was posh with knobs on. There were tens of German MTBers there and Peter the Swiss Goldfinger said we must meet a Swiss guy that was doing a similar journey to us. He in fact was riding Martigny (near Chamonix) to Menton (near Monaco). He was following an route in a magazine that he had but said he was splitting many of the days into two as they were too much. He was a nice chap though and in true Swiss style had a full carbon bike with XTR everything.
We were again the first up in the village and gorging at the breakfast bar before anyone else. We took the long road up which was jeep track for the last 5km to the Passo Gardetta (2437m). Up near the border there is a vast network of old military roads that go for miles and seem to traverse the hills nicely. We shoot along these for miles and miles but due to the now (poor) Italian maps we go too far and miss our turning. We do though see a sign to the village we’re going to and see its an MTB route. What a route! Mainly rideable but very technical and shelved into a precipitous hillside. After an hour we end up on the jeep track that would have been 2 minutes from the military road. An interesting diversion but more than what we probably need just now. We shoot down to Sambuco (1133m) and have a late lunch. The heat is unbearable. Checking the Web shows that the weather is getting bad in the Northern Alps so we did well to be much more south. We were going to head more west along a path up to the col Lombardi but it looks very poor on the map. We therefore choose to ride it on road, dropping to 860m before starting the classic Giro climb that will take us to 2350m. What a slog! How do those pro-racers climb up there so fast? The 20km takes us two and a half hours of pure sweat and grind and it’s 6:30pm by the time we reach the top. There were loads of tourists driving up to the top all the time we were riding just to see this famous summit. As the sun was fading we rode down the short road to Isola 2000 (2000m) another ugly summer ski resort. Asking around there is only one hotel open, a massive place but with just us and a few summer construction workers in it. We join them at the pizza bar and get to bed knackered after a long day.
This was to be the last Ôfull’ day but we hadn’t really bargained on it being so full! Breakfast was good (probably as they were catering for builders!) and while we were eating I changed my flight to be a day earlier as we were doing well. We took the lift up to 2310m then had a good ride along the ridge to cross into the Mercantour National Park at Col Merciere (2342m). The col was pretty all except for the wartime gun emplacements and barracks that once guarded it! Form there a good jeep track headed south which we flew down until Pete had a lapse of concentration and got flipped-off. He looked a mess, grazed arm and leg and ripped his shorts. We cleaned him up and set off again. After a few Km we saw a small track that dropped off through the forest. I had mis-read the map and although it went to the valley road, I had not realised it went 400m lower than we needed. It was however fantastically technical, so much so that it was sapping our energy and although we had to push the last 100m, it had been well worth it. We were wary that in the Mercantour the Park Rangers are known to be fanatical and would arrest us on sight. We climbed the wasted 400m back up to the Vallon l’Adrech (2025m) and set off down the fire road and road to St Martin Vestibule (900m) me with my chain off. We hadn’t planned on going right down to the town, we would have turned off at 1100m but the lour of a possible bike shop was too much for me. Besides we got a good lunch there and were able to stare into the eyes of yet another Office de Tourism babe. This one had bad news however there seemed to be no accommodation in the next valley however we would try by asking when we got there and if not would press on. After lunch, up the road, past the 1100 junction on on to Col de Suc (1581m). A short lift up to 1771 which served a summer toboggan run and a few wayward French downhillers and we were back carrying up to Tete de Clans at 1959m. A long ridge, rocky and technical rolled up and down for 10km before we dropped to Les Granges at 1702m. We asked the only person there, a farmer, but it seemed there was no accommodation. We soon realised there were no buildings either! We saw on the map a gite marked in La Tour some 19km along the mountain road so set off. It was getting late and we were tired. La Tour although I thought a nice village was named Royston Vasey by Pete and Gary. It had the regulation old ladies and scruffy cats and dogs all wandering aimlessly round the square. In the only bar we asked and it seemed any accommodation had shut years ago. The guy there was pleasant and showed us where on the map there was a hotel. It was right down in the valley, 900m below and 23km down the main road. Disheartened but realistic we set off with only 45 minutes of daylight. We shot down the hairpin road, over the bridge and started to climb upÉ. Up? I stopped to check the map while the other two got 50m in front of me. It dawned on me we were on the wrong road, it would be a dead end in 5Km. I shouted, reticent to give them the bad news but keen to get turned round. After a minutes debate we turned around and set off up the 300m climb back to La Tour, sweating in the heat of the low-lands but anxious about the now rapidly dwindling daylight. At the main road it was now dark, we put on our pathetic LED headtorches and chain-ganged down the road, me in front, Gary at the back and Pete the torchless-wonder in the middle. My computer had a light on it and I was able to keep it above 28/30Km/h but kept grinding my teeth as I could hear the clicking of freehubs behind me as they draughted. 30 minutes later we shot across the terrace of the bar, exactly where the guy had said it would be, with a big ÔHotel’ sign above it. We looked a sight, hot, sweaty and Pete still covered in dried blood. The owner and his heavily pregnant Waynetta-lookalike wife gave us a strange look. Then in a kind of nativity-reversal they told us that they too had not done accommodation for many years. We felt like we’d been kicked in the stomach. We were however now familiar with the French phrase Ôthere is another hotel 20Km further along the road’ so we set off, again chain-ganging, avoiding the HGVs and the precipitous road edges. At the next hotel-oasis we prepared ourselves before going in. Now it was 21:30h and we left the bloodied Pete outside as we put on our charm offensive. We made it, we got a room in what looked like the Barbara Cartland suite. A big hotel, very posh, we managed to sneak our bikes into the room and dived into the restaurant. The head waiter hesitated as it was so late but I assured he we would eat faster than anyone had ever eaten before. We did not disappoint! While the first course came out I called my Dad back in the UK. Today was his 80th birthday and although I had been thinking about him all day I had promised to call and thought of little else while we had been chain-ganging. He was so chuffed I called, and I felt tearful as I put the phone down. Funny that. Today had been 125Km, 2550m of ascent. We had over-done it in every way.
The run in day. The hotel was only about 20Km from Nice but we decided to ride back, climb up on the road to the ridge at Aspremont and ride the last Kms of GR5 into Nice. The road ride up was good, hot and climbed 600m. We got a drink in a bar there with a po-faced waitress. We were truly out of the mountains now, near big towns where people make a living out of being grumpy. I much prefer the mountains and the countryside! A short climb up and push to 900m saw us on an old road on the ridge, all rideable but rockier than most things we had done to date! Eventually it dropped into the suburbs of Nice and we spun along roads past traffic lights and trams until we hit the promenade and in for a swim. The relief was short lived. I felt my place was not there, I longed to be back on the route, sweating hard, achieving loads and making progress in the mountains. I even longed to be back on the carrying bits!
Our total was 650km, 29,000m of ascent.
Planning for next years TransAlp starts in three months, I can’t wait!