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.
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.
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.