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.
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.