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.

How to cycle across the Salar de Uyuni

Cycling across the Salar de Uyuni

Based on my experience in 2005

Click the links for more information: BoliviaSouth America

The reason that many cyclists come to Bolivia is to ride the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt lake. This isn’t as difficult as others might have you believe but it does require some planning and reasonable experience to make it safe. It is particularly important to be able to fix any mechanical problems you might experience as you will ride some very minimally-travelled areas. Help may very well not arrive and so it is sensible to ride with others.

There are a number of potential routes depending on where you are intending to get to but the most logical would seem to be:

  • Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama
  • Quillacas to Uyuni

I rode the second route, choosing to head for northern Argentina rather than Chile. You do miss out on the additional sights of the Laguna Verde and so on but there is plenty to make up for it.

The first thing to note is that the Salar is not always dry. From around January, it is covered in a shallow lake of brine. Whilst this makes for extraordinary reflections, it would play havoc with a bike and I would really not recommend trying to ride through it! The ubiquitous car tours still run from Uyuni in the wet season so you could experience it this way (albeit with hoi polloi).

The route

Riding south from La Paz to Oruro is paved, flat and easy. This altiplano landscape, 4000 m up was once covered by giant lakes, remnants of which form Lake Titicaca and the salt lakes.

Oruro has a reputation for robberies although I escaped unscathed; take care. South from Oruro takes you past the road to Sucre and on to Chalapata; it is after this that things get really tricky from a navigation point of view.

For some reason known only to them, Bolivian town-namers (if there is such a thing) decided to call the four towns around one of the road junctions: Huari, Santiago de Huari, Quillacas and Sancturio de Quillacas. To make matters worse, our maps had them muddled and the locals just dropped the first part of the name. For instance, those in Santiago de Huari insisted that they lived in Huari.

Isla Incahuasi

Waking early, I had Isla Incahuasi to myself for an unforgettable hour.

How to do it

  • Ignore the map once you get to Santiago de Huari – it lies. In fact they all lie.
  • Take the main road south from Santiago de Huari. Ignore the promising looking right fork just out of town. Continue on the main dirt track as far as Santuario de Quillacas, and turn right towards Quillacas (see how it’s becoming confusing?).
  • You can get water and supplies at Quillacas, but you may have to visit several shops to get enough.
  • Continue on the road you entered Quillacas on, taking the left fork just outside town. This will eventually take you to Salinas de Mendoza. You’ll pass some huge meteor craters – you won’t miss them but they are marked in the wrong place on the map. You can stay the night at the unsurprisingly spartan Hostal Salinas in Salinas.
  • The road towards the volcano is the correct one, take the left hand fork about a mile out of town. The road starts off quite good, but degenerates into sandy misery after a while.
  • Carry on past the abandoned village onto the lowish pass to the east of the volcano. At the village at the bottom of the hill you may be able to buy stuff. Maybe not – depends if the (reasonably up-market) place is open. You can now see the Salar, head due south to get to the Isla Incahuasi, where there is a cafe, restaurant and dorm room that can be used. You don’t need a GPS, although it is reassuring and will tell you how far you have to go. The tyre tracks lead you to the right place so have faith!
  • There is someone on Isla Incahuasi (also called Isla Pescadore) year round and you will be able to get food and water. From Incahuasi you can travel east on the obvious track which will take you back to the road to Uyuni.
  • Additional points: Look for the little tracks at the side of the road. These are often better to cycle on than the road itself. Follow the Bolivians… We took four days from Oruro to Salinas – camping once before Huari, at Santuario de Quillacas, and some way past Quillacas. It could be done in three at a push but the roads are really bad, and you will be slower than normal.
  • The salar itself can be remarkably bumpy, windy, hot or cold. Don’t expect an easy ride. I would definitely recommend staying on the island for a night (it is beautiful) and then camping out on the salt. It is almost impossible to get pegs into the salt and it reached -5˚C inside my tent, but it was well worth it. There is nowhere else like this on earth.