Tour around Mont Blanc – visiting the White Giant

— Written by Giedrius on

Its quite hard to write a (relatively) short review on a weeklong bike trip full of many ups and downs (uphills and downhills), challenges, new experiences, amazing sights, fun, laughter and some pain in the ass (literally). Even though I would like to mention every trail and every difficult uphill, I will keep it brief just to give you a taste without too many numbers and unpronounceable French words.

The Facts

Trip duration: 5 days
Difficulty level: 5/5
Distance: 231 km
Vertical climb (lifts not included): 7100 meters
Pushing the bike (approx. duration): 6-8 hours

 

The Map

The trip around Mont Blanc is famous not only for its amazing views, but also because it’s located in three countries – Switzerland, Italy and France. As most other bikers and runners that we met on the way, we started our journey in Martigny (Switzerland), which we reached in 13 hours by train.

Day 1

Easy warm up on the asphalt, passing Champex in Canton Valais and its peaceful turquoise-hued mountain lake and the arrival at La Neuve – La Fouly (still Switzerland). 1750 vertical meters – piece of cake before the destructive day 2.

 

Day 2

Long and difficult climb (like to push your bike? Go ahead!) to Grand Col du Ferret (2537 m. border between Switzerland and Italy), difficult trail to Rifugio Elena and some easier kilometers till Courmayeur. The day continued with a luxury 700 meters up with a ski lift, an amazing singletrail and a tricky 200 meter climb toward the final destination of the day – Rifugio Elisabetta Soldini (2200m).

 

Day 3

Day 3 –  country 3: France. Departure towards Col de la Seigne (the border between Italy and France) – half an hour of pushing the bike with the rewarding single trail to Ville des Glacier on top of the cake. Little Tour de France climb to high mountain pass Cormet de Roselend and relaxing serpentines towards “Hauteluce”.

 

Day 4

Some vertical meters on asphalt till Col du Joly (1990 m) with a wonderful view towards Mont Blanc and a trail/forrest road to Les Contamines. Difficult undriveable passages towards Col de Voza and some downhill (not THE downhill) to our destination Chamonix.

 

Day 5

Nice and easy mountainbike trails towards Col de Possettes and Col de Forclaz. For closure – steaming hot serpentines back to Martigny. Tomorrow we depart…

 

Stereotypes

I don’t know about you, but when I travel somewhere I always take a list of stereotypes with me :) you know – banks on every corner in Switzerland, cheap and good coffee in Italy, french guys with their berets and a bag of baguettes in their hands. “Lots of bullshit!” you could say, but hey – this reliable information had to help me on the way! Not all of it did as a matter of fact…

Switzerland. As soon as we crossed the border of Switzerland I could feel that something is different here, I could smell it. It smelled EXPENSIVE! “A hoibe” (half liter beer) cost 8€, for a simple lunch for two we left almost 50 Francs (50€) and so on. In my mental stereotype list I had an entry about Swiss. Somehow I have always imagined that in the country with three official languages everybody have mastered at least two of them. People with money, people with appreciation for high education left me speechless (and damn I speak 5 languages!), because most of them spoke nothing else except French. We sat in restaurants, got some drinks in places visited by tourists, but most people didn’t know a word in German, Italian or English. I met only one young man who spoke perfect English – he worked in grocery store. Buying postcards and stamps was easier than to order a beer.. I crossed the stereotype from my list.

Italy. Maaaan – I love Italy when it comes to pizza, pasta, ice cream and coffee. Add “good and cheap” to the list mentioned before. When we arrived to Courmayeur I really expected to sit in some homey restaurant and eat some dish which would represent the best of Italy – food. For my disappointment everybody chose some snack restaurant before I could even suggest some restaurant that an “insider” recommended. Well, I decided to look for something better and cheaper – sat on my wheels and drove to some local café. Didn’t get a pizza or pasta that I wanted but at least I had a nice chat and ordered some warm Panini. It was good to remember Italian language after a while, it felt so damn good to be able to communicate at all! Still the restaurant’s bill left me wondering – 2,50€ for espresso – what the hell happened with coffee for 0,80€?! I crossed another stereotype from my list.

France. My first encounter and let me spoil it – a love at first sight. The first little French town that we reached was les Chapieux (however it’s pronounced). We spotted couple of tables in the shadow and decided to take a break. The place was idyllic – old garden furniture, comfortable cloth chairs, all done with love and taste under the shadow of old trees. A lady came. I would say she was between 60 and 70 years old. She spoke English and after she learned that we came from Austria, she spoke German. I COULDN’T BELIEVE IT! All the brainwashing that French don’t speak any other language than French and even if they understand English, they pretend not to, was a lie. She brought us an Omelet with cheese and a salad from her own garden. I have never had such a tasty omelet in my life! I always dreamed to do some “food travelling” where I would go to different countries to try their specialties – that day my dream became true. It wasn’t an exception – in most places that we visited people spoke either English or German, in most places we have got some amazing food to eat – ravioli with white truffles and some interesting liquor drink in Hauteluce, amazing breakfast in Chamonix. I fell in love with France. If you will ever pass les Chapieux – take a break at Les Chambres du Soleil. I am sure that you will be pleased!

On the next trip I will leave my expectations and stereotype list behind me. I will take my new motto instead: “surprise me!”. And I am sure that they will.

 

All in 1

As I have mentioned in my previous post we didn’t have any delivery service for our belongings and all the necessary stuff that we need, so everything had to fit in one backpack. I was sceptical at first, but somehow managed to pack everything in my VAUDE using ABC strategy – Accessible, Balanced, Compressed.

Even though I had 7 kilograms more on my back than usual, the first day’s bike was somehow easy. I just had to adjust the straps, distributing the weight to the hips and shoulders and I could drive comfortably. From the second day on, we all understood what we are up to. It was real pain in the ass to sit on that “rock hard” bike seat. As time passed it got better, I guess it was some kind of psychosomatic reaction in the brain – the brain knew that there was no other way.

As the days went the backpack got lighter since there were less and less power-bars left. Anyway it was somehow disturbing to see that 50% of the backpack’s content was not used. The days were sunny and warm, so all the rain clothes, arm and leg warmers, shoe covers and extra clothes were useless. Nobody had a flat tire and except from a broken spoke nobody needed a serious repair. In the end I was very satisfied with my VAUDE backpack (now that’s advertising) – it survived two crashes, soaked as much sweat as possible, packed all I needed and was really accessible. So I recommend it!

 

Earn it! – beauty, delicacy and other rewards

The main motive for any mountain bike tour I do is challenge. To be able to do it – that motivates me. Mont Blanc brought something else – it brought the beauty that I was not able to compare, capture and comprehend. First serpentines in Switzerland somehow reminded me of South Tyrolean ones, first mountain tops that we saw did not impress me, but when I saw those gigantic glaciers I was stunned. One morning at Rifuggio Elisabetta I was sitting outside and looking at the mountains. I didn’t take the camera – at that point I already knew that this beauty can be captured only with your own eyes. I also understood something else – to see this kind of beauty and to appreciate it, one has to earn it. And we did – with our sweat, with exhaustion, with our patience.


The same rule applied to our culinary adventures. Every day really hungry we waited for a “surprise” dinner. It was interesting to see how familiar and unfamiliar dishes were served in our visited countries and how they tasted. It was not only me who wanted to try something local and in most cases our meal started with lots of “mmmmm” and “wow”.

Mont Blanc rewarded those who earned it. Let it be dinner, let it be ice cream or a cold drink after an exhausting climb. A cold breeze, refreshing mountain river or some cold fresh water to drink – all these little things became a little extra motive to bike towards our goal.

 

The Group

The trip was organized by the Naturfreunde Oberösterreich and was led by the guide Friedrich Irauschek. After an initial meeting and a short trip in Enns to assess the bikers and explain the rules of the game the group of 9 men was up for a challenge. It was one’s personal responsibility to evaluate his own physical shape and answer to the question if he was up for this challenge. It was clear that five days of biking will push the body to its limits (at least hobby bikers’ body) and none of the team mates will be able to help – one will have to push forward.

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Since everybody was in different shape it often happened that the group split up and then again reunited at some point. Some downhills were not for everybody, so a part of the group sometimes had a possibility to choose another way to go or to push the bike through difficult passages. It was good to know that Fritz’s right hand Stefan was watching our backs on some singletrails and was ready to help. Thanks for that, Stefan! :)

Even though there were some uncomfortable moments I could say that the group fitted quite well. We had a lot of interesting conversations, funny stories (thanks to Ludwig, Hermann and Fritz for the best ones!) and a lot of crazy moments to share.

 

The Aftermath

This was the first bike tour with the group staying at different locations every night and carrying all the necessary things with us. I did not know what to expect from it but I know what I would advice for those who would like to experience something similar.

  • If you are a challenge-type person, try to form a small group (4-5) of think-alike people who are in similar shape as you are – it will be much easier to manage and nobody will be pissed that they were left too far behind.
  • If you like some challenge, but don’t want to be totally exhausted at moments or don’t want to push your bike (up- and/or downhill) then chose something else or make changes to the plan – I am sure there are some ways to avoid the most difficult passages. But if you want those super trails – you will have to suffer :)
  • Get some insider tips before the trip – it is really cool to try some particular food/drinks from the area (or simply eat something delicious!) or visit some highly recommended places while you’re around. Don’t forget that you have a bike and you can move around fast!
  • Even though you love your MTB shoes and you have never got blisters from them – take some band-aid (special ones for blisters) with you – if you won’t need it maybe your companions will.
  • Take some Swiss Francs – NO, they don’t take Euro everywhere! In a week I spent about 50 for lunch, some drinks and food for the trip home.
  • If you can go by car or rent a minivan avoid going by train. 13 hours trip, sometimes no air conditioning, no guarantees to get the place for your bike even if you have a reservation, changing the trains four times – not the most comfortable experience one could have.
  • And my biggest advice – if you have a chance – take this challenge together with your friends or family members. When you will finally reach the top after hours of climbing and pushing it will be really great to tell “we did it!!!” and give a “high five” to somebody you care about. Hermann – you’re the man! Danke!

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P.S. I would like to thank all the guys for great pictures, which i dared to borrow, and Hermann for the GPS Data!

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