A tour around Mont Ventoux

Mont Ventoux

We love Provence. The sun is all but guaranteed, the scenery is fantastic and the food is good. Having previously toured the Luberon on a marked bike route, we were hoping to find another similar route. Unfortunately there isn’t one, at least not an official one.

Mont Ventoux singletrack
A 1500 m singletrack descent – the reward for riding up Mont Ventoux on a mountain bike

Fortunately online route-planning provides a solution. I linked together a number of shorter routes from the Provence cycling website to create a 312 km tour on some of the most promising roads. I settled on a tour of Mont Ventoux, starting and finishing at Camping La Garenne in Bedoin, since we’ve been before and it is one of our favourite campsites. It is larger than we would usually go for, but the tent areas are generally secluded and have excellent views and the site is right in the town.

I hoped to be able to find a route through Avignon, but unfortunately couldn’t work out anything that looked safe to do with kids. We decided instead to go through Orange and Chateauneuf Du Pape.  Riding with young children, I was keen to avoid any busy or any particularly difficult off-road sections, so I used Google Streetview to preview as much of the route as possible. This method is much more reliable for the busy bits than the bumpy farm tracks which the Streetview car hasn’t yet explored, but the route worked out very well in the end.

One caveat for those considering following in our tyre tracks with kids – it is very hilly. We had the equipment to tow both children and it was certainly necessary. With nearly 4000 m climbing in 7 days, this would be a moderately challenging tour even without children.

The route

Riding through vineyards in the Rhone valley
Riding through vineyards in the Rhône valley

The downside of starting in Bedoin and riding anticlockwise is that the first day is a solid climb along the Gorges de la Nesque. As a reward, the scenery is spectacular. The final kick up into Sault is a sting in the tail, and if camping, you will have to continue through and out the other side of the town before you can rest. The campsite is large and generally rocky, but we found a lovely grassy area to pitch our tent.

The ride on the north side of the mountain was all new to us, including a lovely descent along a valley and some beautiful old towns. We camped at Camping de l’Ecluse near Propiac which was fairly busy but an attractive site with a restaurant.

Who needs toys when a stray sunflower will do?

For the next couple of days, as the route descends to and along the Rhone, the climate gets hotter, the settlements more dense and the land dustier. It is also generally flatter. This variety of scenery, despite the relatively short distance ridden, is one of the fun things about this route. In Orange, we took the time to go to see the famous Roman theatre and had a touristy evening wandering around the old town. From the upmarket L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the route heads for the bike path to Apt. This runs parallel to the Luberon tour we’ve previously ridden, and looking over the Luberon mountains in the sunset from the campsite above Apt brought back some good memories. It is worth noting however that the climb out of Apt is extremely steep – if this concerns you, it may be worth looking for another route rather than following my GPS track blindly!

The last day was the best of all, with a beautiful climb over a pass, and then a spectacular descent to Bedoin. A fitting end to an excellent tour.

Scotland C2C

The descent off Mount Keen through Glen Esk

A four day solo bikepacking adventure

In July 2016, I had five days for a bike adventure, including the travel. I was keen to go to Scotland. And if Scotland, then why not all the way across, coast-to-coast? There were some benefits from a travel perspective because I could ride from the West to East Coast train lines, and make use of the Caledonian Sleeper. When it came to deciding on a route, I discovered that there are a multitude of options, but not as much information on the web as one might expect. Hopefully this report will help someone, but bear in mind I haven’t ridden the alternatives.

Fort William to Montrose

I settled on the ‘classic’ route described in Phil McKane’s Scotland Mountain Biking: The Wild Trails. I’d take the sleeper to Scotland, get an early start and have four days to ride 290 km to Montrose, before taking the daytime train home on Sunday morning. For the first time, I’d be using an ultra-light bikepacking setup, with most of my kit in a bar bag and saddle pack and the rest in a small backpack. I planned to camp wild for at least some of the nights, which would add flexibility to the schedule.

Is it truly a coast-to-coast? Well it goes from sea to sea, but there is a lot of Scotland to the west of Fort William. With lots of time this could doubtless be explored, but would make travelling to the start much more complex. This route is a practical compromise which takes in some excellent riding. It essentially comprises three major off-road sections linked by some road riding. For navigation, I made a GPS file of the route (see below) and stuck it in both my Garmin and my phone’s OS map. As a backup, I took the guidebook which has reasonably detailed maps of most of the wild areas and a good overview.

Going solo

It has been a while since I took a trip on my own and it is certainly a different experience. Before I had even left London, I met a couple from Montrose in the bar on the train. Having explained over some whiskies that I was also travelling to Montrose, but via a less direct route, I was invited to stay with them when I had ridden across Scotland.

There were several other memorable people I met who I would not have talked to had I been travelling with others, and there were also many moments of absolute solitude high in the hills.

The Caledonian Canal and Corrieyairack Pass

The Caledonian Canal is uninspiring, but at the end of the canal, the Corrieyairack awaits, climbing with the pylons into the wild.

While I’ve combined these under a single heading, they could hardly be more different. The Caledonian Canal is a waterway linking Fort William to Inverness and thus the West and East Scottish coasts. It presents a pleasant, but entirely non-technical 50 km (there are a couple of single track alternatives to break things up). It is popular with walkers and family cyclists and is by far the busiest section of the route. Take the chance to have a good meal in Fort Augustus before embarking on the wilderness of the Corrieyairack Pass.

In contrast, the Corrieyairack Pass is a classic Scottish mountain bike ride in its own right. The route is an old military road built by General Wade in 1731. It ascends through remote landscapes to the 770 m pass before descending steeply to, and then gently along, the River Spey. The road surface is rocky in places but the difficulty comes less from the road and more from the remoteness, the weather and the need to find somewhere to break the route into a manageable day’s ride. I chose simply to camp on the pass.

Whilst I am pleased to have ridden the Corrieyairack, is worth noting that an alternative route from Fort William would cross Rannoch Moor and should also make for an excellent ride.

Glen Feshie and the River Dee

Glen Feshie
Camped in Glen Feshie, with the whole valley to myself for the evening

Some pleasant road riding along the Spey brings you to the trail centre at Laggan Wolftrax for some man made single track, cake and a shower. At Loch Insh the route turns right for what was probably my favourite section, a climb up Glen Feshie and over to the River Dee. Initially the glen’s landscape is pastoral with scattered houses, but it becomes increasingly wild with the single track following the riverbank. At some point you will have to cross from the west to east banks. The guidebook suggests doing this at Carnachuin, but when I was there in 2016, this bridge had been washed away and there were signs indicating that I should cross earlier, which I did.

In places the track has been washed away too, necessitating a short carry up the bank but this did not detract from the overall experience. I camped by the river and had the whole of the top of the glen to myself for the evening.

Continuing the climb, the trail eventually gives way to a boggy section across remote moorland at the top of the glen. Some of this was hard going, but the setting is wonderful if you have the weather. Finally the route reaches a track which descends to the River Dee. A combination of minor roads and well surfaced tracks through the royal forest at Balmoral take you to Balleter where I spent my final night in the campsite.

Mount Keen

Glen Tanar from Mount Keen
Looking back across Glen Tanar from Mount Keen. From here there is still a climb of more than 500 m vertical to go.

This was a tough day. The climb to 2/3 of the way up Mount Keen from Tanar is a solid ride in its own right, but there comes a point where you see how steep the final ascent to the summit is. The weather was also closing in, and I was concerned that by the time I reached the top, it would be cloaked in cloud, which would be not only disappointing from a view perspective, but potentially also dangerous. As it turned out, the worst of the weather passed to the south and I could enjoy the incredible view half the way back across Scotland.

I had naively thought that once over the 939 m summit, it would be largely downhill to the sea. Not so! There was a fast descent from the mountain followed by plenty more riding, from well made Landrover tracks to difficult-to-find single track and finally a solid road ride. The day totalled 88 km with 1455 m climbing; it felt harder.

Arran to Jura

An Arran hillside

Hills and sunshine

We had a wonderful holiday. For some reason, however, we failed to pay attention to the fact that this route was rather hillier than our previous trip to Scotland. With two children and all the associated kit to tow, the hills became a significant challenge. It was doable, but by no means easy. Also unexpected was the incredible weather that we had. Western Scotland is not known for its sunshine, but we had a fortnight of blue skies and 25 degrees Celsius. We rigged up sunshades at our camps and swam in the sea. In these conditions, this is paradise.

The drive up from London is pretty easy, considerably shorter than the drive to Skye. It could be done easily in a day, but we chose to break it in the Lake District so we would arrive in Ardrossan with time to catch a ferry to Arran. There is a car park at the ferry terminal which would have cost us around £35 for our trip; this seemed excessive to me so we took a chance and parked on a street, without issue. There are also trains from Glasgow.

Route tips

The route you take will be determined by the ferry times. We spent two days on Arran before taking the Lochranza to Claonaig ferry. We rode from Claonaig to Tarbert and then took the B8024 all the way round the coast to Lochgilphead. From there we rode along the Crinan Canal to and the B8025 to Tayvallich. From Tayvallich, there is a small passenger ferry to Jura which requires booking, but takes bikes. We had two days on Jura, rode to Port Charlotte on Islay, then round to Kintra before taking the ferry back to Kennacraig on Kintyre. From here we returned to Arran, riding round the south of the island before heading home from Brodick.

Apart from the Jura passenger ferry, which opens up the opportunity of doing a circular route, there are a couple of other pieces of information which may prove helpful. First is the fact that the A83 is, in places, a dangerous road for cyclists. There are many warning signs along the road, but even in the few miles between Kennacraig and Tarbert we had a very unpleasant encounter with a lorry. We had intended to take a route back via the Tarbert to Portavadie ferry and Bute, but decided against this in order to avoid this section of A83. It may well be that returning via Arran is a better option anyway, but if you do wish to ride a circular route, going out via Bute and back via Arran avoids this section of road entirely; this is probably less of an issue if you are not towing two children. Second, there is a road from Achahoish along Loch Sween that we had considered taking. We were informed that this was unsuitable for our child trailer and so went via the B8024. It may be worth a try if you have suitable equipment as it would undoubtedly be spectacular. Third, in a bid to avoid the A83 section past Ardrishaig, we decided to follow a signed cycle route to Lochgilphead. It stated it was difficult terrain, and indeed it was (which meant that the Loch Sween alternative may in fact have been better!), but more annoyingly the signs disappeared and we had no idea which way the route went; plan this one in advance.

On the return leg of our loop, we missed our planned ferry to Arran from Claonaig. Having a couple of hours to kill, we rode along the coast to Skipness Castle. This proved an excellent excursion; Skipness looked a lovely little village with a little shop and tearoom and the castle ruins were freely accessible, with good signs and the opportunity to climb the tower. The views over to Arran were breathtaking and, had we wished, there would have been plenty of opportunity for wild camping along the coast road.

Arran

Arran is a mountainous island in the Firth of the Clyde (Firth meaning estuary) between the Kintyre peninsula, and the rest of the mainland. Because of this, it isn’t classed as one of the Hebrides. It is, however, spectacular and its relative accessibility didn’t seem to affect its charm. The road system is simple – there’s a route around the outside with a road, ‘The String’, across the middle forming two loops. The String tops out at 250m and there is another similar climb between Brodick and Lochranza on the northern loop, but the southern loop is at least as tiring owing to the constant undulations. We ended up doing the northern loop at the beginning of our tour and the southern loop on the way home. We’d recommend trying to ride it all, as it is varied and excellent riding.

We camped in Glen Rosa, which is pretty much wild camping with just a very basic toilet block. The setting is wonderful, but the damp location next to a stream meant there were a lot of midges. On the way home we camped at Lochranza, which is a fairly standard site and was busy but had a very nice feel about it and friendly owners. It is perfect if you want to mountain bike the fantastic singletrack route to Laggan Cottage. If the weather is good and you have decent mountain bike skills, you must ride this route! We spent our last night at Seal Shore, with great views over Plodda and Aisla Craig.

Kintyre to Jura

The Kintyre peninsula is in some ways further from Glasgow than Arran, because the road route around Loch Fyne is so long. Nevertheless there is considerably more traffic on some of the roads. Once off the A-roads though, all is calm and the B8024 proved excellent riding. We camped at the spectacularly situated, but rather odd, Port Ban campsite near Kilberry. It’s a large site with views over to Jura and has a strong Christian summer camp vibe with lots of prayer meetings. The tent area is nicely separate though and is down by the beach.

Tayvallich was a lovely place to spend an evening. The campsite is not great for tents, because your view is almost entirely of the static caravans, but we had a nice evening in the pub and the whole place, including the campsite, was very friendly.

Jura is one of my favourite places. Apparently George Orwell, who wrote 1984 there, called it a most ungettable-at place; and indeed it is. It is not just that it is ungettable-at, but that there is not really anything there once you do get at it. There’s a hotel, a distillery, a tearoom, a shop and a road. There is simply no reason to be there, other than just to be there, which gives it a lovely laid-back charm and there’s money from the yachts and the deer stalking to keep it all in good order. I can only conclude that Orwell and I have rather different personalities because Jura would have banished all thoughts of Room 101 from my mind.

You can camp by the hotel, and you can ride along the road. We rode as far as Tarbert and then wild camped by the loch on a patch of grass almost exactly the size of the tent, and about a foot above the high water mark. We stayed up until the tide turned! There also looked to be plenty of potential campspots on the Jura side of the Feolin ferry terminal.

Islay

We had been spoiled by the time we reached Islay. It certainly felt like returning to civilisation;and had a welcome flatness about it, but the riding wasn’t as spectacular as what had gone before. Nevertheless, the campsites at Port Charlotte and at Kintra Farm which face each other across Loch Indaal, but are 25 miles apart by road, have wonderful views. Kintra Farm should have been perfect, but the unbelievable bureaucracy of the owners – there’s a form to fill in, and a list of rules for absolutely everything – interfered with the otherwise relaxed vibe.

Provence

Provence lavendar

A touring paradise

Provence really does have it all. The Alps, the Cotes d’Azur, the River Rhone and the Camargue, Mont Ventoux, Roman ruins, timeless villages, Avignon, Marsaille, the Verdon Gorge, van Goch, Cézanne, the food, the wine and of course, the sun.

With all this to choose from, it is difficult to know where to begin. Even in bike touring routes, there are several classic options – for instance the Canal du Midi, or a route following the Rhone. Having now driven through it, the area to the south of the Gardon river would make for some amazing riding. With our one year old daughter in tow (literally), we decided on a simple option – the Luberon loop, which is well marked and mapped along quiet hilly, but not mountainous roads. This takes around a week, and we also decided on a two day ride in the Camargue. On the drive home, I was able to ride up Mont Ventoux as well – it seemed a shame to be able to see it for so long and not ride to the top! If you have the time, there’s some very attractive riding in its foothills as well.

The Luberon

A lovely little tour, achievable for nearly anyone who has the bit of fitness required to get up a few hills: the route encircles the Luberon mountains, but generally does not actually climb them. It is around 240 km long with around 5000 m climbing. We took six days though it could clearly be ridden quicker.

The best site for planning is Veloloisirluberon, which has most of the information you require. The signage on the road is really very good, and this tour could almost be ridden with it alone. Take a map though – we bought the IGN 1:60,000 Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon which has the route marked. Campsites, unfortunately are not marked – they are on the 1:25,000 maps but then you need several.

Some tips and highlights

The route is typically described as starting in Cavaillon, and this is certainly the easiest point to get to by road from the UK. It is one of the larger towns on the route and is very pleasant, as is typical. If you take a car, you’ll probably want to leave it somewhere quieter. We chose Maubec, which has an excellent Camping Municipal and is very attractive town in its own right. The route is signed in both directions – we decided on anti-clockwise as there are side loops that can be added from Forcalquier and Apt. By leaving these to the end, we could see if we had time (and energy) to undertake them. As it turned out, we decided to move on and use the time to ride up Mont Ventoux.
The campsites we stayed at were:

  • Maubec, which was excellent
  • Camping les Argiles, which has a lovely pool and is perfectly pleasant, though there is some traffic noise
  • Camping a la Ferme, near Cucuron which was a new site and in the process of being signed. We found it only because we met the owner’s son en route. The family were very friendly and is really in the middle of nowhere so it almost felt like camping wild to us (we were the only people there). I loved it. Take the Chemin de Galon out of Cucuron and some time after the road turns into a gravel track, it enters some trees before turning back north (by which point it is barely a road, though still marked on Google Maps as such). It is on the northern side of that corner.
  • Volx, which was a pleasant but quite busy camping municipal; situated slightly further up a hill off-route than we’d anticipated at the end of a long day!
  • St Maime, which we would really recommend despite its size and general ‘holiday camp’ feel. The pitches are relatively secluded and there is little else in the area. We had a really good night.
  • Camping a la Ferme, on the D223 just before the D48 junction (Les Gaudins). We passed this, intending to ride into Apt and perhaps do the additional loop from there. It looked so good, we stopped for the night. We weren’t disappointed – the views are spectacular and it is a fitting end to a Luberon trip.

The Camargue

This was interesting – it’s an amazing place, best accessed by horse or bike. The Camargue is the marshy delta of the River Rhone. Rather surprisingly it is essentially a man-managed ecosystem, created in the 19th Century when both branches of the Rhone were dyked and the digue à la mer, (dyke to the sea) was built to reduce flooding. It helped the rice and cereal farmers, and has produced a wildlife haven. You’ll see flamingos, the white Camargue horses, shimmering lagoons and loads of birds, of which there are more than 400 species here. On the other hand, it is pan flat, very hot, and has lots of mosquitos and tourists. Coming from the quiet Luberon, it is a different world, and one to my mind that is not so pleasant! If you have the time though, it is worth a couple of days, and I’d certainly recommend taking enough time that you can do a loop rather than a there and back ride.

We left the car outside the Crin Blanc campsite, which is conveniently situated. There aren’t many options, but this was expensive and the owner refused to give me my passport back so we could leave before the designated 8.30am leaving time. This despite her sitting at the desk with my passport at 8 o’clock. The site itself was large, but clean and with reasonable shade. We intended to leave as early as possible in order to avoid riding with Elsa in the heat of the day. Over the years, we have discovered that we almost always end up riding at noon in the spirit of ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. It is not intentional, just what happens if you don’t rush your morning. It doesn’t bother us particularly, but we did feel that Elsa should probably not sit in a covered trailer in the full heat of the Mediterranean sun.

Our route followed the ‘Route des Figares’, a minor road off the D37 running along the Petit Rhone, rejoining the D37 at Albaron and then taking the ‘Route des Méjanes’, a gravel road along the edge of the lagoon. This was excellent for seeing the wildlife as it had essentially no traffic. Our book suggested it would be a difficult, bumpy ride, but it was fine on slick 32mm tires and with a child-trailer.

We stayed in a very slick hotel in Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and found the town surprisingly enjoyable despite the crowds. Staying here allowed us to get an early start on the digue à la mer which was our main concern on this route as it is totally exposed and with no real shade or water. The terrain was similar – there were a few unrideable sandy sections where the beach had blown over the path, but otherwise it was a little bumpy, but easy enough riding. Of course, it is absolutely flat.

The loop can be completed in a variety of ways. With Elsa in mind, we took the shortest, stopping only at the Camargue visitor centre on the east of the lagoon and for a decent lunch in Albaron. It would, however be simple enough to extend the route to include a visit to Arles.

The Western Isles

North Uist camp

A family tour

Our lives had changed (for the better) in September 2009, with the arrival of Elsa. The question over the course of the year naturally arose: how to incorperate a baby into a bicycle trip? There are of course many ways of doing this, for instance basing ourselves somewhere and going on day rides. This may become a necessity as she grows, but we decided that we could take her with us on a tour.

The Outer Hebrides, or Western Isles, lying to the north-west of Scotland are well known as a chain of islands which lend themselves to cycle touring. They have very little traffic and are fairly flat and are joined by a network of ferry routes allowing for a linear (or circular, if you have the time to cycle the return leg on the busier mainland) tour. The significant disadvantage is the inclement weather which has the habit of blowing in from the north Atlantic. We didn’t care too much for ourselves, but a cold, wet nine-month-old would not make a pleasant travelling companion.

This ruled out the use of a bicycle seat, and she was too small anyway so we decided to get a child-trailer. Our choice, based on price and the requirement for weather-proofing was a Burley Solo. We had to purchase the baby snuggler seat insert as well. Note that Burley, and indeed all other trailer manufacturers insist a child must be over 1 year, and that the baby insert must only be used whilst walking, not cycling. This is largely due to neck strength and the requirement to use a helmet. At this point Elsa could just about walk, and therefore we decided that she should be fine – as indeed she has turned out to be.

Ferry routes

At time of writing, the ferry routes to the Outer Hebrides are Oban to Castlebay and Lochboisdale, Uig to Tarbert and Lochmaddy, Ullapool to Stornaway. The ferries are run by Caledonian MacBrayne and all the info is on their website. It is possible to link Ullapool and Oban by train from Glasgow which would allow for a one-way trip down the whole island chain; we wanted to drive and to see Skye so elected for Uig.

Harris

Our original plan had been to ride from the ferry to the standing stones at Callanish on Lewis, before heading south, which would have seen us cover almost the complete length of the islands. With a small child in tow, however, we decided for a shorter route and simply rode south on the quiet Harris eastern coast road. The ride is gently undulating and takes in dramatic rocky inlets with beautiful views back over the mountains of North Harris (which, if you follow in our tyretracks, you will have deftly avoided cycling over!) By chance, we found the rather wonderful Lickisto Blackhouse campsite: free homemade bread and freshly laid eggs, hot showers and a wild camping feel.

The ferry from Leveburgh connects to the Island of Berneray, passing between the many islands in the Sound of Harris. These ferries really add to the experience of the tour – the routes are spectacular in their own right.

Berneray and North Uist

Whilst it may be tempting to continue south from the ferry terminus on Berneray, via the causeway to North Uist, it is worthwhile backtracking instead to take in the isolated beauty of the island. We camped at the Berneray Crofters Hostel, pitching with a couple of backpackers next to an unrestored stone building. The shelter of the wall was much appreciated, and the views from inside the tent, once again quite lovely. Having Elsa, the ability to wash wash in warm water was much appreciated, and camping outside a hostel was an ideal way of avoiding disturbing others, whilst at the same time having some amenities.

North Uist has a road running in a loop around it. We were planning on taking the ferry back from Lochmaddy to Skye and so opted for the western route whilst travelling south. If you are only doing one direction, this is the road to take since the beaches are quite breathtaking (there is also another road through the mountains, crossing the center of the island, which is likely to be very scenic as well). Another important consideration is provisions. There is a Co-op at Solas which is the only decent sized store until you get to the next one at Creagorry, Southern Benbecula. There is another at Dailburgh, South Uist and one in Castletown, Barra. Of course there are other small stores, though their opening hours are unpredictable, especially on a Sunday.

Having travelled up from London, it was even more striking than we’d expected just how remote and quiet everything is. We had almost no phone signal (T-mobile) at any point on the trip. On a Sunday, there are no newspapers, because the planes don’t fly. We never locked the bikes at any time, and in fact I left my expensive camera on my bike by the roadside whilst going shopping with no concerns that it would be there when we returned.

The beach near Balmartin, before the bird reserve was spectacular, even by Hebridean standards. We were lucky with the weather, but the green machair, the emerald sea and bright white sand, with views over to St Kilda were undoubtedly a highlight of the trip.

Benbecular, South Uist and Eriskay

If we are honest, the main road through Benbecula and South Uist (all of Benbecula in fact!) is something of a disappointment. It is not busy, but it is long and flat and straight. We were lucky to have a tail wind in both directions, but it was only when we got off the road that we really enjoyed our riding. The highlight was undoubtedly the road past Loch Druidibeag to Lochskipport where we camped. The royal yacht Britannia used to bring the Queen on holiday here, and it was easy to see why. An unforgettable camp, which we made on our return leg and completely changed our opinion of South Uist. It is worth looking at the map and noticing the road to the other side of the loch via Locharnan; this would surely be worth exploring too.

We also camped at Howmore Hostel, acceptable, but not amazing and cycled along parts of the beach and coast road, which was tricky to navigate and required a climbing over a few styles when the road came to abrupt end.

Things pick up again to the south. The views past Eriskay to Barra, are typical Hebrides and never failed to impress, despite the weather closing in. There are numerous opportunites for wild camping before and after the causway to Eriskay.

Barra and Vatersay

Barra is reckoned to contain elements of all the Outer Hebridean islands, in one small package. There is certainly an element of truth in this and it is well worth the ferry trip to get there. If you decide to come by plane, things are even more interesting since your runway will be the beach and you flight schedule decided by the tides. We camped wild up by the airport, though it was not as easy as we’d hoped to find a good spot. We were then keen to find a comfortable hotel in Castlebay for some luxury, but were thwarted by the Round Britain Yacht race which was having a stop-over. We stayed in a caravan in the Hostel. If we were to do things again we’d book the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel which has a fantastic location and would make a luxurious stop-over.

Vatersay is the end of the road. The causeway (as with many of the others) has only existed for a few years and this is a remote outpost with only a few houses. Of course, the beaches are whiter than white and the sea crystal clear. We climbed the hill, took in the view and had lunch on the beach before heading back to Castlebay and planning our route back north.

All in all, once you’ve managed to get there, it is hard to go wrong on a Hebridean tour. We got lucky with the weather – you may have rain for a week, but it is more likely to be a heavy shower that blows in and then out again. It would make a great first bike tour, or indeed a great first bike tour with children. The scenery is constantly changing but frequently spectacular and, bar a few exceptions it is pretty flat! Enjoy.

La Reunion

Cirque de Mafate

A Tropical paradise

What a place! A French Departement in the Indian Ocean between Madagascar and Mauritius. It’s just 63 km long and 45 km wide but is 3070 m high and manages to contain breathtaking canyons, ancient forests, tropical beaches, lychees, alpine climbs, Creole cuisine and one very active volano. Pay no attention to the horizontal dimensions, there is a lot of riding to be had here.

I’ll be honest, I knew nothing whatsoever of Reunion before this trip, but Malin was in Madagascar and it seemed a good place for a bike holiday in the vicinity. It also features it one of my best ever purchases, Nicky Crowther’s Classic Mountain Bike Rides, a compendium of 30 of the world’s best mountain bike tours. If you can get your hands on a copy, buy it – it’s kept me in holidays for years.

The portion from Bourg Murat to the volcano was one of the best roads I’ve ever ridden, through always changing but consistently stunning terrain.

Arriving in La Reunion from London in December then came as a very pleasant introduction to the Indian Ocean. It was hot and the taxi was expensive and terrifying, but once you got a few hundred metres up into the very steep hills, the air was cooler, the ambiance relaxed and the views simply beautiful. We stayed in a lovely ‘eco-hut’ in La Montagne, in the garden of an equally lovely young couple. An excellent base should you attempt a similar trip.

Early starts and huge climbs

A weather pattern soon became apparent; clouds gathered over the sea and rolled in from the coast during the morning so that by midday, the summits were cloaked. In order to be sure of seeing the fabulous vistas that we were promised existed, we’d have to be up early enough to climb 2000 m before around 10 am. The other advantage of this strategy was that we’d be climbing in the cool of the morning.

Reunion has been formed by two huge volcanos. The first, now dormant, has partially collapsed leaving three cirques – vast natural amphitheatres with even the steepest 1000 m high rock walls covered in lush vegetation. The first, Cirque de Mafate is inaccessible by road, but it is possible to walk or cycle in along the river bed which we duly did. This was more of an expedition than an enjoyable ride given the rocky nature and frequent river crossings but it gave us a feel for the place.

Our first big peak was Piton de Maido at 2200 m. The long climb was really enjoyable in its own right, especially with the views over the ocean but the jaw-dropping moment occurs when you reach the summit and look out over Mafate. The pictures do not do it justice, it is truly spectacular. Maido is the centre of mountain biking on Reunion, though we were unable to contact a guide from home and the infrastructure is not nearly as good as it should be. Still, we found a tour group to tag onto the back of (they were very welcoming) and had a pleasant enough off-road trip down.

Several hundred meters up the flanks of the island it is usually possible to find a road that traverses the hillside, flat and with relatively little traffic. Ideal then for making some ground on a bicycle tour. Sipping beers on the beach in the very pleasant St Leu following our success on Maido, we rather underestimated the day ahead. A 1200 m climb to Cilaos without time pressure from the clouds should be easily achievable. It wasn’t. Our total climb was almost double that – the road that appears to follow the river up the valley, in fact climbs and descends over an over. Coupled with the fact that our accommodation was in Bras Sec, another few hundred meters up the road, this should have been a daunting prospect. Of course the clouds didn’t materialize on this day and we were forced to ride the whole thing in the sweltering midday sun.

Small-town Reunion

Our hosts in Bras Sec were a French couple who were clearly keen to get away from it all – having tried Brittany and the Pyrenees, they’ve finally settled here and one suspects that this might very well be where they stay. Hundreds of miles to the nearest landmass, and at the end of a very long, high road. The setting is spectacular as you’d imagine but there is a problem.

We didn’t really take to any of the towns in the cirques – they’re full of people with nothing to do, but the EU subsidy allows for drunk tramps and moped-racing teenagers. I couldn’t help feeling that they’d have a better time clearing some biking trails and then riding them.

Piton de la Fournaise

While western Reunion is home to the cirques and the central high point, Piton des Neiges, the east is dominated by Piton de la Fournais. Its name alludes to a furnace and that is exactly what it is. Spewing millions of tons of lava out most years down huge lava fields to the coast, this is one of the world’s most active volcanos.

Riding around the flank, all of a sudden settlement ceased and our 5 year old map was horribly out of date. The road had been re-layed across the almost annual lava flows from 2000 onwards, with the year signposted before and after the road crossed each flow. Of course there were plenty of tourists in rental cars, but we couldn’t help feeling that experiencing the sulphurous heat from the saddle, stopping wherever, was the proper way to do it.

Having seen the mess it makes, it was time to see the volcano itself, so time for another climb to 2300 m. The portion from Bourg Murat (where there is an excellent volcano museum) to the volcano was one of the best roads I’ve ever ridden, through always changing but consistently stunning terrain. From the Pas des Sables, the road is unmetalled and crosses the lunar Plain des Sables to the viewpoint over the volcano.

We stayed in the excellent Gite du Volcan and had hoped to walk to the crater, but this is no longer advised following the crater collapsing 300 m vertically in the 2007 eruption. We didn’t argue! Several hours exporing the lava fields in the early morning was reasonable recompense and we were able to find some excellent singletrack on the way back down.

Primordial forests in Bélouve/Bébour

As a final treat, we rode from the Plaine des Cafres along a forest road into Bélouve and then Bébour forests. Ancient and almost untouched, these contain all manner of exciting species from tree-ferns to creeping climbers and lichens to give a Jurassic Park feel.

We took a side-trip to the Trou de Fer (you have to walk the last km or so) but this reputedly spectacular waterfall was cloaked in cloud. If we had to miss one view on Reunion, I’m pleased it was this one – I’ve seen a lot of waterfalls!
As a whole, the trip was a great success. Two weeks is about the right time, allowing you to spend a few days in each main area. We were disappointed by the difficulty finding true mountain bike routes in most areas; but as a tour, it was wonderful. If your focus is off-road, perhaps hiring a car might be the answer.

See ‘How to plan a cycle trip to La Reunion‘ for more detailed information.

How to plan a cycle trip to La Reunion

Piton de la Fournaise

Route Tips

For certain tours, I have added a ‘how to’ page to provide information on those routes that the maps and guides have missed, or for which bike-specific details are sketchy.

Of course the world changes; some dirt roads are paved, others become overgrown and are lost to the forest. At least two of my routes have been destroyed in rather more spectacular fashion by volcanic eruptions. With luck much of this information will prove useful, just don’t take it as gospel. If you questions or more up to date information, please leave a comment.

Road or mountain bike?

La Reunion is unquestionably a wonderful biking destination, but other than the crazy mass-start Megavalanche downhill is relatively unknown outside of France. Even French bike tourism is minimal in comparison with the legions of hikers who hut-to-hut their way across the island.

So, why should you take a bike? Despite its small size, being just 63 km long and 45 km wide, Reunion contains an awful lot of riding. Road or mountain, you could easily occupy two weeks here either as a bike tour, or in conjunction with a rented car.

For those road riders looking for a winter training vacation with a difference, look no further. Thanks to EU investment, the roads are in beautiful condition and reach into the interior crossing 2000 m passes (and don’t forget that your 2000 m starts at sea level). There is just one major disadvantage to taking a road bike, and that is that the last few kilometers of the extraordinary Plain des Sables road to the volcano is unmetalled. You could hitch the last bit easily enough however – the destination is unmissable and the climb beforehand is one of the best I’ve ever ridden in its own right.

We took mountain bikes and the distances covered in our route description take that into account. Attempting to mountain bike was, for the most part frustrating, however. Hopefully I can make it a little less frustrating for you if you choose to follow in our tyre tracks.

Accommodation

There are only one or two official campsites on Reunion, though it is permitted near many of the mountian huts. It would also be possible, and indeed wonderful, to camp up high and in some of the forests. We decided however to travel light in order to give us more flexibility in the routes we took (particularly carrying down to Salazie) and to limit the weight for the climbs and off-road descents.

Whilst we were warned that accommodation would be scarce in December, in fact we had no problem finding places to stay by visiting tourist offices and letting them phone around. Most of the hotels were not even a third full. Not even the Gîtes were crowded, though I think if you are planning to climb Piton des Neiges, booking is certainly recommended.

Most of the beds are in Chambres d’Hotes, where you stay in a house with a few rooms and eat together, usually with the family for dinner. The disadvantages of this arrangement are that it can get tiring conversing in pidgin French each evening and that dinner tends to be pretty late, making early departures even harder.

Mountain biking La Reunion – the true picture

This is what we found on the ground in December 2008. At some point, presumably 5 to 10 years ago it is clear that the powers-that-be decided to brand La Reunion as a mountain bike destination. The multitude of trails that criss-cross the island were examined and each individual area was given a map of graded bike routes. These were available in leaflet form and large maps were put up. Unfortunately it clearly didn’t really take off and those maps have now officially been withdrawn from the tourist offices though the large signs remain.

The fate of the trails themselves varies. Some are well used by other traffic – cars or hikers – and remain easily rideable. Others are overgrown and unrideable. The signs are often absent, thus making it almost impossible to follow a route unless you can figure out which trail is which on the IGN map.

As far as I am concerned, there are only two sites worth their salt as mountain bike destinations worth flying halfway round the world for: Piton Maido and Piton de la Fournaise. As for the others, Cilaos provided an afternoon of reasonably entertaining riding and I would have ridden on the slopes of the volcano near Ste Rose had it not absolutely poured with rain when we were there. The forest roads of Forêt de Bélouve, and even the boardwalk of ‘Sentier de Ecole Normale’ near le Trou de Fer made for enjoyable riding in a pristine forest.

Piton de la Fournaise

As already mentioned, the road climb from Bourg Murat is special, and the dirt-road to Pas-de-Bellecombe is a must. You’ll have to leave the bikes behind to walk the precipitous route down onto the Enclos Fouqué but the route along the rampart to Nez Coupé seems rideable, at least for the distance we walked along it to get a sunrise view of the volcano.

As regards the descent: there is a report in French on the internet of a ride along the GR R2. We couldn’t find the starting point, despite it looking pretty obvious on the map and crossing it later, the early route looked pretty unrideable. Later we had some great riding below Piton Textor, initially along the ramparts in the direction of Nez de Boeuf. We can recommend the routes marked “6 Red” and “8 Green”. Doubtless if you have driven up with a full-sus machine and some armour, the black routes will beckon. The routes can be followed all the way back down to Bourg Murat, an 800m descent.

If you have a car to bring you back up again, or are super-super fit, there is the option of the full height Riviere des Ramparts descent to the coast at St Joseph. It looked wonderful from above, although the initial section was clearly pretty steep. Sadly, we didn’t have the time to ride down, back up again and still cut across the center of the island to Salazie. If I planned this trip again, I’d find a way of fitting it in.

Piton Maido

Maido has a large number of trails, mainly between the Route des Tamarins and la Petit France, and again suffers from the frustrating map-that-doesn’t-match-up-with-reality problem. In order to do it justice, you need either a guide (we were able to latch onto the back of a tour) or a car to ferry you back up whilst you scout out the best trails. You could doubtless have a great time if you hung out with some locals for a while – this was the only place on Reunion where we saw locals moutain biking, but with neither a car, nor several days to spare, we made do with the wonderful road climb and the quite sensational views, combined with a pleasant, if non-technical off-road descent.

Our route

Our excellent hosts in La Montagne brought a bottle of wine to our cabin on our return and asked to join us for a while to find out about our trip. They commented that we’d been everywhere on the island and had seen more than the majority of car-bound tourists.

This was our itinerary:

La Montagne – Bellemere Canot

D41 to la Riviere des Galets, where it is possible to cross the river by dirt track (prepare to get feet wet!). Then le Bois de Nefles to Bellemere les Hauts.

Next day, we rode back to Riviere des Galets down an enjoyable, no traffic, cobbled road from Bellemene to Bouillon, and then along the very pleasant Tour des Roches through fruit plantations near the coast. We then followed the riverbed track into Cirque de Mafate. From Deux Bras the track becomes a walking path and we tired of carrying the bike over boulders before we reached the tunnel and turned around. Pleasant enough, but not a Reunion highlight.

Bellemere Canot – Maido – St Leu

The concern about climbing any of Reunion’s peaks in December is that the cloud will, at some point in the mid-morning, roll in and obscure the view. Staying at Bellemere Canot at least gave us a 600 m headstart on the climb. Nevertheless, we left at 5.30 am in order to make the top (2200 m) by 8.30 am and have a good chance of beating the clouds. The early start also allows you to knock off some of the climb before the full heat of the sun hits.

It was a special climb, through ancient tamarin forests and eventually opening out for the last few hundred vertical meters, affording views 2000 m down to the Indian Ocean. The best is saved for last however; Mafate is truly astonishing from above.

Regardless of the dirt tracks you find to come down, you’ll reach the D3 and we followed this and the D12, D13 and D130 to St Leu. These non-coastal roads were almost always pleasant and with relatively little traffic.

St Leu itself was probably our favourite town on the whole island. Whereas I’m not usually one for surf-spots, this one at least felt authentic and relaxed, a quality we felt many of the towns in the interior lacked.

St Leu – Bras Sec

A really tough day that we didn’t pay enough respect. A total climb of around 2500 m in the midday sun, but the scenery is certainly impressive and we enjoyed the company of some local road riders. Of note, refreshment is available in the form of a restaurant, just before the tunnel that marks the summit. We were very glad of it!

Bras Sec is a lovely hamlet with an away from it all vibe. It has a rudimentary store and a couple of unappealing snack bars so make sure you’ve got dinner sorted before climbing the final few relatively easy kilometers from Cilaos. The other route, avoiding Cilaos is also perfectly suited to biking – we took it on the way down.

The paved road to Ilet a Cordes also provides spectacular views across from the other side of the cirque, but be warned, as with everything here, it is far from flat.

Bras Sec – le Baril des Haute

The descent from Cirque de Cilaos follows the same road. We crossed the river at Le Ouaki, took the D38, crossed N3 onto some minor roads to the N2 at Grand Bois. These were really pleasant, passing through sugar cane fields traversing the mountain side a few hundred meters up.

The descent to Grande Anse is well worth it if you’re in the mood for a swim. There is also a mountain bike map near the beach, though we didn’t take any of the trails. D30 and N2 (by now relatively quiet) to le Baril des Haute where we stayed at the excellent Pinpin d’Amour where you’ll doubtless be fed on the eponymous ingredient – surprisingly tasty!

Le Baril des Haute – La Cayenne

From here, it’s all volcano. There’s only one route, and if there’s been a recent eruption, there won’t be a route at all. Undoubtably one of the most unusual rides you’ll ever have. The ‘Sentier Volcan’ on the 1986 flow provides a nice introduction.

We were stopped in La Cayenne by a torrential downpour and stayed in the soul-less but cheap (€30) Ferme-Auberge La Cayenne. The views were fabulous.

La Cayenne – Bourg Murat

Take the high r0ute on the D3 after crossing the Pont suspendu (an early suspension bridge); it’ll give you some respite from traffic before tackling the busy climb on the N3 to La Plaine Des Palmistes. This would be a climb to give a miss if there were an alternative, there isn’t however and you will be rewarded higher up. Above Deuxieme Village, the route steepens and the hillside is cloaked in fabulous tree ferns and creepers.

At Bourg Murat, take in the Volcano Museum to set the scene for the visit to the Piton Fournaise. We stayed at the Hotel Ecrin which was comfortable enough but not a favourite. The view from the restaurant however went some way towards making amends.

Bourg Murat – Gîte du Volcan – Bourg Murat

A wonderful route elaborated on elsewhere. As usual, rising early got us to the top out of the heat of the day and before the clouds rolled in. Staying in the comfortable Gîte du Volcan allows for a sunrise exploration of the volcano, and doubles your chances of a cloudless visit. The food is as good as you’ll ever get in a gîte. There’s also a snack bar in the volcano car park.

Decent footwear for the lava is highly recommended, bike shoes or flip-flops would be pretty dangerous.

Bourg Murat – Gîte de Bélouve – Hell Bourg

We decided to take this road, and to carry the bikes down to Salazie in order to avoid backtracking and to see the beautiful, largely unspoiled forests of Bébour and Bélouve. We had our own room at the Gîte, and the descent was not difficult, the path well made and at a comfortable gradient, though few sections were truely rideable unless your downhill skills are really good. You’d get down it with a loaded touring bike but it would make things considerably more difficult.

Hell Bourg – La Montagne

As with Cilaos, Hell Bourg is an odd place. It has incredible natural beauty and some great walking routes; many of its population however are clearly bored and living off French welfare.

Highlights of the route to St Denis included the 1000 m descent, the Niagara Falls (really!) where you can swim, and the surprisingly nice route right along the coast into town. If, like us you started in La Montagne, there’s then the 500 m climb in full sun to get back up there again!

How to cycle the Tour du Mont Blanc

Mont Blanc

A self-guided Tour du Mont Blanc

For this tour, I have added a ‘how to’ page to provide information on bike-specific details that are not widely available. Of course things may have changed since I rode the route in 2008. If you have questions or more up to date information, please use the comments.

The main page: Tour du Mont Blanc

IGN online maps: Geoportail

My kit list: Backpack kit list

A self-guided Tour du Mont Blanc should not daunt an experienced mountain biker. It is however important to have wilderness experience and to have a plan for bad weather, injury or mechanical problems, even all three at once. Whilst most of the route is popular with walkers, you cannot be sure of rescue so riding as a group is preferable. Taking things a little more cautiously than usual whilst hurtling round the switchbacks may also pay dividends!

Maps and kit

This is not a tour for the heavily laden. Travel as light as possible or the ups will be even tougher and the singletrack back down will be unrideable. Some suggestions are in my lightweight kit list.

The maps required are: Chamonix (IGN 3630 OT), St- Gervais-les-Bains (IGN 3531 ET), Megève (IGN 3531 ET). This misses two road sections, one from les Chapieux to Beaufort past the Cormet de Roseland and the other from Col de la Forclaz to Champex. Neither was difficult to navigate from the road signs (though see below for Forclaz tips).

There is a very good guide to the walking route by Cicerone which conveniently describes the route in both directions. Cut out the one you don’t need. It’s good for accommodation and interesting facts but not essential for navigation if you have the maps.

The route

La Fouly – Rifugio Elisabetta

Traditionally the route starts and ends in Chamonix and is broken into 5 stages. We started instead at the beautiful campsite in La Fouly, Switzerland, deciding that it would be a safe place to leave the car and a nice spot to spend our preparation day beforehand. Definitely recommended.

From La Fouly you have a 1000 m climb ahead of you to Grand Col Ferret. The TMB walking route is clearly marked with red and white paint and initially follows the river up Val Ferret, before embarking on a steep singletrack climb to Grand Col Ferret, most of which is rideable. Towards the top, we had large patches of snow to cross which made for quite a trudge; we were there in late June so bear this in mind. What a view at the top however! And what a descent; your abilities riding switchbacks will certainly improve. When you eventually reach the valley floor, a fast road ride down the valley to Entrèves will keep you grinning.

I love staying up high in the mountains and had therefore decided to book us into Refugio Elisabetta. This meant another big climb to end the day. Leaving the TMB walking route, we crossed the river, passing under the Mont Blanc Tunnel road and double backed to start the moderate road climb to La Visaille. The road is pleasant and shaded, and with a big climb already in our legs, we decided not to take the alternative higher route (note though, this alternative passes Rifuge Monte Bianco, which, being off the TMB walking route, would probably be a nicer place to spend the night).

The route turns to gravel and climbs to reach a desolate marshy plateau rejoining the walking route with the refuge and col visible in the distance. There is a short, sharp climb to end the day.

Elisabetta, as already mentioned, is spectacularly situated, but far too small for the number of people staying there. We spent the night crammed together on wooden platforms next to snoring hikers.

Rifugio Elisabetta – Les Saisies

We reaped the rewards for our discomfort the following morning on the climb to Col de la Seigne. The route was initally obvious, but we found navigation more tricky later, particularly with the snow obscuring the path. There are several tracks, but they all seem to reach the col in the end. We found a significant chunk of this unrideable, even away from the snow, but the push was not too arduous. On the plus side, there are a lot of marmots to watch on the higher slopes. The descent to Les Mottets is excellent alpine singletrack, challenging in places, fast in others. From there it is another fast metalled road, with numerous stream crossings providing an opportunity to get wet.

At Les Chapieux, we left the walking route for a substantial detour through Beaufort on the road. The walking route takes a high path over Col du Bonhomme which requires a substantial amount of carrying. Others have done this successfully so it depends on what your priorities are.

The 500 m road climb to Cormet du Roselend is not too taxing (the famous Tour climb is usually from the other direction, which we are about to descend – 1200 m down to Beaufort. What a shame to lose all that height on the road! This is one of those places that a guide may be able to show you a better alternative.

From Beaufort, it is a hefty road climb up again to Les Saisies. Fortunately this one does lead to some pretty spectacular mountain biking. Les Saisies is a very seasonal ski town: there were no shops open, but we were able to get a room and dinner easily enough. In fact, because it was so off-season, the few people that were there were particularly welcoming and friendly.

Les Saisies – Les Houches

The route climbs from Les Saises to meet the Tour du Beaufortain, continuing gently to ascend on a well surfaced track past Mont Clocher. Once at the Col de Very, the route merges with the Tour du Pays du Mont Blanc (not to be confused with the main TMB). You ride on some great remote singletrack under the rock outcrop of Aguille Croche with views towards the Mont Blanc massif. There is however a point where the track suddenly turns to climb steeply up the mountain. There is a sign saying unsuitable for horses, and to be honest, it is not really suitable for bikers either! There may be an alternative route, descending to the valley floor, but then you’d have a much longer climb later.

Once you reach the stream near a derelict hut however, the trail traverses once more to reach the Col du Joly and possibly the best Mont Blanc view of the trip. The descent, still on the Tour du Pays du Mont Blanc brings you back to the TMB route and continues to descend down the river, through Les Contamines.

Our book suggests that from here you ride along the valley to Chamonix, but having driven this busy road, we wanted an alternative. Instead we took a route from La Villette, Le Champel, Le Crozat, Col de Voza. Some of this is very steep, but there is nothing technically difficult and it is all rideable if you have the legs. At Col de Voza, you cross the spendidly optimistic Mont Blanc tramway, which was initially intended to go all the way to the summit.

There are a lot of bike descents from here to les Houches, which seem to be signed and graded for technical skill. We were tired and hadn’t researched the options and so continued to follow the TMB route which was pleasant enough, but nothing special.

We weren’t expecting to enjoy Les Houches, but it had a nice vibe in late June and the cheap accommodation directly opposite the tourist office was excellent, as was our dinner.

Les Houches – Champex

We rode through Chamonix taking the bike trail on the far side of the river before crossing and riding the Petit Balcon Nord up to le Tour at the head of the valley. A wooded start to the day with occasional views of Mont Blanc and some rooty technical sections on the Petit Balcon Nord made for a very different morning’s riding.

There’s a big climb from le Tour, but it is easily skipped by cablecar and chairlift if you don’t feel like it! If you’re taking the chair and have some time in hand, consider getting a multi-trip pass to ride some of the singletrack beneath – it looked well worth it.

If you don’t have the time, fear not: the Swiss side of Col de Balme is just as good. Fast and open, then rocky, then wooded with endless switchbacks, then a wonderful (if the flowers are out) alpine meadow to the road.

A short, sharp climb brings you to the Col de la Forclaz where you can eat overpriced tourist food with the masses who drive up here. From here, you have a choice, follow the TMB on a highly technical section with lots of carrying, or take the road to Champex. We opted for the road, but had we been there earlier in the day, might have tried the trail.

Not having a map for this short section, we were slightly confused by which road to take to avoid descending all the way into Martigny. You want to take either of the right turns into La Fontaine (after the series of switchbacks) and join up with the Route du Grand St Bernard. We got it right, but weren’t entirely confident until we reached the main road. Follow your nose and you’ll be fine!

The old road to Champex is clearly signed and is a quiet and pleasant climb to round the day off. If you’re feeling strong, pushing on back to La Fouly would be entirely possible but Champex is a pretty pleasant place to spend a night.

Champex – La Fouly

A half day of easy navigation to finish off with, so spend some time by the lake or visit the botanic gardens then take the singletrack descent to the valley and ride along the river all the way back up to La Fouly.

Tour du Mont Blanc

Grand Col Ferret

The best ride in Europe?

For more detailed planning information, see ‘How to Cycle the Tour du Mont Blanc‘.

I’ve known of this route for some time, in fact as a child I hiked with my parents the very popular walking route on which the bicycle tour is based. It is a circular route around the Mont Blanc Massif passing through France, Switzerland and Italy. The walking route is usually completed anticlockwise in around 2 weeks. The mountain bike varient is normally ridden clockwise and has been described as the best ride in Europe, combining alpine views with mile upon mile of singletrack; oh and some pretty tough climbs. It takes around 5 days.

There are now several companies running tours, the first being Mont Blanc Mountain Biking. I can see the point of a guided tour like this, but I like my freedom and I’d rather spend my time in France with French people than an English guide. At £500 a person it was also clearly possible to do this tour rather cheaper unguided.

There isn’t much information in English on the web about the route but to be honest, it is pretty easy to navigate. There are some decisions to be made about how much of the walking trail to follow – the MBMB route is almost completely rideable but others have hiked sections rather than ride on the road. The low-down is in my route tips section.

Swiss scenery, Italian food and an overfilled hut

There are some tough climbs on this tour and we’d started part way up one of the toughest. 1000m in 10km, from La Fouly up to Grand Col Ferret certainly broke us in to alpine climbing. As with most of this route, it is pretty much rideable; we were hampered towards the col by large areas of snow, but this wouldn’t be a problem later in the season. The breathtaking view from the top is of Italy, as the col straddles the Swiss-Italian border.

No complaints about the descent; the valley falls away steeply and the trail zig-zags round some technical hairpins before reaching the valley floor. It was well worth getting some switchback practice as there were plenty more to come later in the ride. A pleasant partly-asphalt road took us along the river past legions of Italian picnicers, eventually arriving at Entrèves. We certainly felt we’d earned our bona fide Italian pizza for lunch.

As with most of our days, there was a second major climb in store, this time up to Refugio Elisabetta a little below Col del la Seigne. I’d been keen to stay up high in some refuges to get a little of the ‘away-from-it-all’ sensation that you get whilst camping wild at altitude. Elisabetta’s situation was certainly wonderful, and apart from the actual business of sleeping, it provided all one could ask for – especially being up and alone (save for a number of marmottes) at the col in the early morning. Sadly there were so many people crammed into the little hut that a decent night’s sleep was impossible.

French cheese and fabulous singletrack

After less than 24 hours in Italy, we reached the French border and the enjoyable fast descent into Les Chapieux before the short climb to the classic road summit of Cormet de Roselend. Coach tourists congratulating us on conquering the mountain were a little taken aback when I pointed out that we’d been considerably higher whilst off-road earlier in the day and had in fact descended quite a way in order to get here!

This section of the route is the major deviation from the TMB walking trail, modified to avoid a long carry. It seemed a shame to descend to Beaufort on the road but there was no other obvious route. Perhaps a guided tour would be able to show you some singletrack?

Beaufort is home to one of my favourite cheeses and so it was obvious to seek out a bakery for a lunch of bread and cheese. We sat under an awning in a cool breeze and watched the thermometer on the building opposite climb past 30 degrees. Perhaps not ideal for the slog up the road to Les Saisies that we’d decided on to end the day, but you can’t complain too much about blue skies and sunshine in the mountains.

Our route from Les Saisies followed the Tour du Beaufortain to the Col du Joly over some wonderfully unspoilt terrain. Snaking singletrack beneath a sheer ridge of rock with not a soul in view. Since leaving the main TMB route in fact, we found that we had the mountains almost entirely to ourselves – the TMB has perhaps become too popular for its own good.

Despite this, we certainly enjoyed the plunging descent St Gervais and then decided to deviate from the MBMB route for an off-road route to Les Houches. After over 7000m climbing in 4 days, we (Malin) decided to cheat and take the chair lift out of the Chamonix valley back to the Swiss border. If time allows, the singletrack under the lift looked pretty inviting – there’s a ticket that allows for multiple ascents.

If not, it’s another great technical descent to the Col du Forclaz and then a plod along the road to Champex and some more inviting off-road back to La Fouly.

The aftermath

So, is it the best ride in Europe? It is certainly a great ride – the scenery is surely as good as you’ll get anywhere, it’s entertaining to ride through 3 countries in 5 days, some of the singletrack is outstanding and there’s enough variety to keep everyone happy. I would go so far as to say that it is the best mountain bike route that I’ve ridden.

I’d bet that there’s a better ride though – being ‘the’ route has its drawbacks since it is clearly over-walked. One of the great things about the Beaufort section was the lack of people, though unfortunately this section also has too much road riding, and Les Saisies was a bit of a ghost-town when we were there.

Let’s end on a positive note – it’s brilliant, go ride it – guided or un-guided. But don’t think that it’s the best or indeed the only high mountain multi-day route in Europe. The obvious alternatives are Chamonix-to-Zermatt, sections of the GR5, and the Haute Route in the Pyrenees but there must be many many other possibilities for those with imagination.

The West Country

Megavissey

I’ve been toying with the idea of a trip to the English West Country for some time. It is so close to home that the simplicity of planning makes up for any lack of exoticism. It is a little ironic then that one of the reasons I was keen to visit to Cornwall was to visit the Eden Project, an attempt to bring the exotic to Britain and to save the world in the process.

Eden is impressive, and has had a hugely positive impact on the surrounding area of used and disused clay mines; it is fine example of the way that tourism can provide jobs and regeneration, whilst actually enhancing the environment. It is not however the only reason to take a cycle trip in the West Country.

Highlights included most of the coastal sections – Boscastle and Megavissey in particular are wonderful – and an incredible cliff-top camp near Tintagel.

Sustrans

Having ridden around various parts of Britain, I have noticed the increase in the numbers of blue bicycle route signs over the past few years. I was well aware that they were part of the Sustrans (Sustainable Transport) network in which this charity aims to provide safe cycle routes the length and breadth of the country. Despite this, I hadn’t ever actually followed one of these routes for any great distance. It was time to give it a go.

I visited Stanfords (if you haven’t been, you should go), and picked up maps for the West Country Way and the Cornish Way, conveniently printed on waterproof paper and then booked a cheap train ticket back to London. If we’d been content to follow the route without deviation, that would have been all the planning required. In fact, we were keen to do some real mountain biking in the Quantocks and on Exmoor, as opposed to the tamer ‘off-road’ Sustrans sections and so printed off some additional Ordnance Survey maps covering those sections from my National Parks Multimap CD.

Our experience suggested that Sustrans are doing an excellent job. The routes were generally easy to follow both with signs and the maps (though you couldn’t do it with the signs alone) and the road sections saw very little traffic. Clearly the emphasis is on accessibility and for me this detracted a little from the experience. At present, the mix of riding surfaces was enjoyable, especially with our detours, but I get the feeling that Sustrans would like to turn most of the routes into two-meter-wide gravel tracks. After a while we also gave up on their circuitous routes into towns. I’d rather spend three minutes riding on an A-road than thirty intricately navigating various industrial areas and council estates in a bid to avoid the traffic. Overall though, Sustrans is a very positive organization that will undoubtedly develop cycling and cycle touring in the UK.

Highlights

Inevitably around half the route, particularly in Somerset and away from the coasts, was made up of rolling farmland and miles and miles of hedgerows – pleasant enough but not the main attraction. We had decided to take a detour along the Quantock ridge from Triscombe Stone past Hurley Beacon and would highly recommend this for its fabulous views and excellent (non-technical) mountain biking. Even the road climb to the ridge was lovely; there is also an off-road option which we avoided owing to the wet weather.

We didn’t want to miss the chance to mountain bike on Exmoor either and therefore again took a much more northerly route than the official West Country Way. For those following in our tyre tracks, we took the bridleway from Brockwell to Webber’s Post and then the 20% road climb, joining the Macmillan Way to Dunkery Beacon. This was all rideable, which the direct route from Brockwell did not appear to be in our direction. We continued on and camped at Westermill Farm which was very pleasant. The next day it rained so we took the valley road to Simonsbath before taking the Tarka Trail Route past the Exe Head. In the sunshine this might have made a good ride, but there is no defined trail and we got caught out in a thunderstorm – not recommended!
Other highlights included most of the coastal sections – Boscastle and Megavissey in particular are wonderful – and an incredible cliff-top camp near Tintagel. It goes without saying that pasties and cream teas in Cornwall and cider in Somerset also provided highpoints after a long day in the saddle!