The Tour du Mont Blanc
Some stats and facts to start with:
- The TMB circles the Mont Blanc Massif, with Europe's Highest mountain at its heart.
- The route travels through France, Italy and Switzerland
- The 4 Main passes are all over 2000m, the largest around 2400m
- It's 165km long, and for this trip I divided it into 5 days. Walkers do it in 10 or 11.
- Riding distances are between 25 and 45km a day (mostly around 35km a day)
- Average climbing per day is approximately 2300m a day
- On average 9.5 hours a day 'in the saddle'
This is an account of a 5 day adventure following the route of the famous Tour du Mont Blanc walking route, starting with some of the planning that went into the trip, to hopefully encourage and also enable others to set up an adventure of their own in the Alps. Many of the lessons I learned are applicable to adventure riding in the Alps as well as to the tour specifically, so if you're interested, please read on.
My initial decision was to travel light and therefore to travel from hut to hut. This meant that it was cheaper as a solo rider to fly than to drive (as the van wouldn't cut the accommodation cost by much) and also 2 days quicker and less exhausting. I'd also decided not to use a self-guided service or luggage transfer company as this either cost an arm and a leg or limited my accommodation options (or both).
So the plan was to fly from Edinburgh to Geneva, get a transfer to Chamonix and stay there overnight to rest and re-build the bike, before setting out the next day. I planned a five day trip, but there were so many unknowns I added another day just in case, so had a potential 6 days for riding before flying back.
There was a slot in my summer that needed an adventure, and having known a couple of riders who'd done the route, and watched the Matt Hunter video of riding the route, this route was definitely on my radar. I watched a few other videos on youtube in the spring, and this idea was rapidly taking root and growing. Eventually I found a slot in early September (which is one of the recommended times to ride the TMB) and it became inevitable that I would give this a go if I could
Looking into the Rhone Valley on the morning of day 2
I spent way too much time on youtube and google in the weeks leading up to the trip, but it was buying the walkers guidebook that tipped the balance. The route went from an idea to something that was broken down into sections and detailed in a definite and matter of fact and of course totally achievable manner.
Seeing it like this made it more achievable in my mind, less of a huge deal, and real. This was about 6 weeks out, and at this point the planning started in earnest. I split the route into achievable sections, identified my route and programmed it into my GPS, highlighted it on the paper map (which I subsequently cut up) and ran off route profiles.
I found the TMB website and checked my route against availlability of the huts (which needed some re-writing at this stage). It's worth noting that the TMB for walkers is generally a 10-11 day walk, so there was still plenty of discovery to the trip.
In terms of kit, I checked heights and terrain and prevailing weather and packed accordingly and spent some time thinking about likely mechanicals as well as how much I'd kick myself if I had an unlikely mechanical and hadn't packed the kit to fix it. I packed as lightly as possible, and used pretty much everything I took, but recognise I could have packed differently (I'll talk a bit about this in the conclusions learning section following the account).
Day Zero - Getting to Chamonix
Easyjet were fast and reliable as ever and didn't flinch at the sight of my huge bike bag (or those of a number of other cyclists on my flight), and contrary to popular myth delivered my bike in one piece on time to the same airport I flew too. In fact the bikes came off first so transfer was quick and painless. A short wait for delayed flights and the transfer to Chamonix by minibus with Mountain Drop Offs was also very efficient, dropping me at the door to my hostel again with no flinching at the bike bag either, so it was on..
Day 1 – Chamonix to Trient (Switzerland)
This was planned as an 'easing in' day, and it worked perfectly for me. I'd checked out the Flegere chairlift the day before and checked the plan versus reality, so I knew the route there from my hostel, and had already bought my ticket, so this was a really nice, stress-free way to start the trip. I rode up to the 'Grand Balcon' on the chair, fixed my position and headed off on the path. This path has the most amazing views over Chamonix to the whole of the Mont Blanc Massif. The path was hard work, but the views made up for it completely. It wound its way through high alpine heather and blaeberry in a rising traverse passing below the sharp pointed peaks of the Aiguille Rouge, eventually levelling out with views over the rest of the route through France up the Are valley to Le Tour.
25km, 500m Ascent (by Bike) 1900m Descent 6 Hours
The Grand Balcon
The top section was lovely flowy granite tracks with some slabby sections, but eventually it turned downhill towards Col du Montets and rapidly brought about the start of the change of the route. The descent fairly quickly headed down through boulders and large blocky sections, rendering it effectively un-rideable for large sections. Looking back on it, I'd recommend missing this section if you've come for the riding, but live with it if you want to see the mountains at their best, the view is truly spectacular.
Carrying down most of the descent to the col was a bit of a reality check (especially the two short scrambling sections!) but soon enough the rideable lower section popped up and I could let rip on some lovely singletrack with good visibility through the fields of Tre Le Champ, past the totem poles .. (random!) and on to the short road climb to Le Tour and the next uplift.
Most of the climb from here to Col De Balme and the Swiss border was now knocked off in a pair of chairlifts. This missed the choice of either an estate track climb, or what the guidebook described (for walkers) as a very steep haul up the mountain forming the left arm of the col. It turns out that riding this pure TMB route is frowned upon all year due to the proximity of the bike trails in the valley above Le Tour, but the decision was based on making an easy first day and settling in.
A short ride up to the Col De Balme from the top of the chair was soon followed by a navigational check to make sure I was descending the right trail from the choice of about 4, and then the 800m of descent began, on an unlikely looking rain rutted footpath.
Very quickly this path transformed into steep rocky doubletrack and the pace picked up. Not so much that I missed the Marmots by the trail, but still a rapid loss of height below the point of Croix de Fer down toward the forests above the tiny hamlet of Le Peuty. The guidebook said the trail steepened once in the woods with multiple switchbacks, and it wasn't lying. Losing count of the turns in the woods, I concentrated on each as hard as the first as they swept the tops of cliffs and gulleys as the trail continued down into the valley.
Le Tour from the Grand Balcon with the ascent to Col De Balme and the Swiss Border above (a bit of descending to do from here)
Trient with its Bright Pink Church and hanging Glacier
I'd been concentrating so hard I'd barely noticed the hundreds of metres of height lost, when I popped out of the woods, across a boulder strewn stream-bed and into the alpine meadows of Le Peuty. Here the track transformed into a gravel track which at some pace turned into the road into Trient and shot me to the last bar in the village and my accommodation for the night at the Auberge De Mont Blanc.
This had been a short, and easy day to ride, but had taught me already valuable lessons in the changeability of the trail, and the need to start to view this as a journey with a bike more than a huge bike ride, but also that I'd made a lot of good choices in my planning. Looking up at the pink church in the centre of the hamlet below the hanging glacier above I felt relaxed at the prospect of what was to come; so far, the plan had worked perfectly.....
day 2 - Trient to alpage le peule
Col De La Forclaz at sunrise - (1526m)
37km - 2328m Ascent - 1500m Descent 10 Hours
Eating in another country can always be a bit hit or miss, but the good thing was that there were so many nationalities in the hostel that hardly anyone knew the breakfast 'code' so we all made it up together, got fed, and headed out.
It seemed that I was the only one heading east, so I made my way up past the strangely coloured, but fittingly pink church and onto the first push of the day, up through the rooty woods above the village to the first pass of the day Col De la Forclaz just as the sun was rising enough to light the valley below.
The guide book read “rising occasionally steeply” familiar code for hike a bike, but rose in sections allowing occasional riding sections between the crazy push up sections, past the col, and one of the huge herds of bell-hung cows jangling away in the fields beside the path.
This ride-push-carry rose steadily for quite some time, crossing a secluded alp and farm buildings and moved up to the magical moment where I broached Collet Portalo, out of the trees and into the sun, facing the mountains ahead, and peering down a sweet single track heading towards the remote farm (and cafe!!) of Alp Bovine.
I'd been pre-warned about the cows at Bovine, so when they approached I kept my distance and took the bike into the cafe enclosure, memories of my conversation with a traumatised walker the night before reliving the moment he realised he'd been cornered and was promptly, and thoroughly licked by a big black massively horned cow – he still couldn't get over how big its tongue was.
The welcoming committee at Alp Bovine
The beautiful setting of Alp Bovine from Collet Portalo - the top
The trail from Bovine continued round the mountainside on a long strip of beautiful dusty singletrack, eventually turning into steep dusty switchbacks heading down into the next valley. Crossing this (often on foot) I then gained the trail heading round towards the Champex villages, traversing and climbing through a neat and exclusive hamlet of very expensive Swiss houses, onwards into Champex en Lac for a quick lunch following a comprehensive supermarket raid, and then dropping down into the Swiss Val Ferret.
At this point I found signs for the mountainbike version of the TMB, signed from here to the Italian border. However I (and others too it seems) made the 'genius' decision to stay on the TMB main route through a wood sculpture park, which was pretty well done actually, but through so much wooded and rooty trail that much of the scultpures were admired from foot.
Up near the top of the Swiss Val Ferret in the blazing sun
The hamlets astride the Swiss Val Ferret contrasted with the well heeled homes of the Swiss rich above Champex, populated by farms and small houses dotted with only the occasional posh villa. Moving up the valley, the heat steadily rose to the point that for me the best decision was to remain with the road sections of the TMB and steadily plod while trying not to overheat. The option of following the same valley along mountain path and mountain bike trail was simply not there for me if I wanted to make it to the top of the valley in time. I still regret not riding this trail, but not much. Having completed the route I know that I would have been much later getting to the hostel, and in a much worse state – I really struggled with the heat and lack of any wind, it was the best choice.
The villages and valley continued upward and remained beautiful, and the residents although few in evidence were friendly and encouraging, leaving me only to complete the zig zag vehicle track up to Le Peule, and my accommodation for the night in an old converted cattle shed and yurt....... It was a lot nicer than it sounds.
Despite being a sideline to a booming dairy business, the hostel was very nice, and miraculously we all managed to survive with two toilets and two showers between about 40 of us. My only complaint would have to be that my dinner was pretty small and very cheese based, which with my slight lactose intolerance made for a none too happy digestive system.....
DAy 3: le peule to Col checruit (Italy)
Another cheese based meal sent us packing, and again I was heading away from my companions in the other direction. This morning dawned pretty dimly, and as I left at about 8am the cloud was still well and truly down around us, but the trail was clearly defined and easy to follow, if a little disappointingly steep to start off with.
As I rose through the cloud toward Grand Col Ferret, more and more of the trail eased to allow riding for a much greater proportion, until only the final push to the summit was actually that; a final push.
33km - 2087m Ascent - 2200m Descent 10 Hours
Promised amazing views from the guidebook, it was unfortunately very cloudy, and extremely windy too. I sheltered there by the border marker with a German couple for a moment, before it was clearly time to head down into Italy along the thin ribbon of singletrack in front of me; the unmistakeable trail down to Rifugio Elizabetta.
There are a few unmistakeable sections of trail that cropped up in almost all the good YouTube videos, and after a few minutes of dashing along the beautiful winding trail ahead, the cloud parted enough to confirm that I was now on one of them. This trail, beading wildly contains several logs laid out in an attempt to contain walkers to one trail while they head (if going in the same direction as me) towards an ever-narrowing point of a spur forcing its way into the massive glacier topped valley ahead and below.
Here I wound my way down gingerly aware of the consequences of a fall until the spit of land narrowed enough to force the path to change direction by 90 degrees and headed back to the relative safety of the back of the valley. These zig zags while all rideable made for a very focussing piece of riding until, back in the main body of the valley, it approached the top of the meadows, and became a wider trail with switchbacks, and a fantastic view up and down the valley, up to the peak of Ferret above bordered by a huge glacier, and all the way down to Courmayeur and the Itailan Monte Bianco de Courmayeur and all the spectacular peaks in-between forming the right hand wall of the valley I was descending into.
The Italian Val Ferret from the 'must make' corner. The route drops to the valley floor, heads along for about 1km, then up again
A few last high speed switchbacks and I was deposited at the relative civilisation of the giant Rifugio Elizabetta where it was only right to have a quick coffee to try to sort out my cheese addled interior. From here a higher speed descent on the vehicle track to the bottom of the valley was in order, mostly just to miss the millions (maybe an exaggeration) of tourists all over the TMB path down to the road-head. From here, down a short road to the next Rifugio, and then on to the next climb of the day, onto the left hand side of the valley for the journey to Courmayeur.
Tough pushing up the first couple of hundred metres of the trail spat me out at an old farm, and brought me to the traversing trail that was to take me past 'lunch' at the half way point at Rifugio Walter Bonatti to Rifugio Bertone, and then on to Courmayeur and the last climb (or would it be a chairlift?) to my accommodation.
At the end of the Val Ferret route, just before starting the descent to Courmayeur with Monte Bianco de Courmayeur above
This trail was almost all rideable, with only a few really steep or loose sections and one section that looked ready to fall off the mountain. It traversed the valley side slowly rising all the time (or was the valley bottom dropping?) passing between old farms and ruins and the Rifugio Walter Bonatti with its cold clear spring, and blueberry tart (of course) and on up through the heather, blaeberry, larch and pine strewn open slopes of the valley, continually accompanied by the fantastic view of the other side of the valley as we approached Mont Blanc again but from the other side.
This trail flowed fantastically too, and there were a good number of long sections of flowing trail along this path as we approached the end point and the start of the descent into the valley to Courmayeur.
As I approached the Rifugio Bertone and the start of the descent (from its patio) everything became very dry. The cloud had long since gone but much of the trail was a little moist, but at Bertone it became obvious that it was dryer and dustier by far at this point. After a little light refreshment here I started the descent, looking forward to hitting Courmayeur in good time.
My plans had changed after a conversation with my Wife during the planning stage. My initial plan was to stop here, and to have a really big day 4, but I took another look at this idea, and consequently decided to descent in the afternoon and climb to the top of the valley ahead in order to drop the climbing and distance on day 4 to less superhuman proportions.
The descent from Bertone to Courmayeur (or at least to the road through the village above) was completely bonkers. Dry and dusty of course, but now rocky and really steep. So steep in fact that I have to admit to walking down a couple of sections because of the combination of steepness, huge rocks in the path, and the subsequent consequences of a fall.
While riding I had to stop a couple of times to let the brakes cool a little, finding that when I spat on the rotors my spit instantly boiled off.
Eventually I made it down to the roadhead, struggled with the speed limit down into Courmayeur and deposited myself in the main square thanks to intricate guidebook directions.
Here I was promptly and firmly told that the chairlift was not open, and that I should abandon my plans to go high this afternoon, and to follow the valley round to the next Rifugio (which I later discovered was full). I thanked the nice lady in the tourist information, and promptly ignored her and headed across the river to start the climb up to Col Checruit.
It's worth pointing out at this stage that my cheese addled innerds and the high heat now in the valley were conspiring together to try to finish me off. I was slowly losing power, and beginning to feel quite rough as I climbed up through the steep woodland in the valley below the Hostel.
This was a 700m climb in high afternoon windless heat, and it was really getting hard; the hardest it got in fact on the whole trip. I was carrying a lot of water for the climb having refilled at the square, and was drinking constantly, but continued to feel really pretty weak, and was now concerned about heat exhaustion too with the lack of a cooling wind of any kind. I checked the map and found that there was a network of ski roads that roughly joined all the parts of the climb that the now brutal TMB path went through, and I now took to these paths.
On the way I delved into my bag for my emergency rations, and can confess (although there is no photo evidence) that if anyone had been half way up the climb on the ski track they would have found a rather feral 'biker' clad in his sweat soaked shorts, shirtless, eating cold 'boil in the bag' sticky toffee pudding with his fingers, covered in dust – some sight that would have been.
My morale was boosted on meeting a Canadian on his descent from the Col who exclaimed with expletives how much better this ridiculously steep track was than the main TMB path only yards away now in the woods. A sachet of dialorite later, the remains of what ammounted to over 5 litres of water (that day) and some head down and keep plodding action for about a year and a half finally saw me to the first refuge, and then rapidly topping out on the col to the flag adorned sight of my Rifugio (Rifugio Maison Viele) for the night – such a relief.
I'm pleased to say that Italian hospitality was turned up to eleven that night, and although the hostel was completely full to bursting (I swear I slept in a store room under the bar) there was loads of great quality food, so much so that we lost count of the number of courses, and great company too even though we didn't speak eachother's languages. I slept pretty well that night.
La Maison Vieile - Col Checruit - Oasis
day 4: Col checruit to Croix du bonhomme
31km - 2140m Ascent - 1673m Descent
The rejuvinating qualities of copious amonts of fine Italian mountain food (containing very little cheese) had worked wonders. I woke to a beautiful sunrise through our window, had a leisurely breakfast (the usual bread, coffee, jam), packed, collected my almost dry riding kit (I washed it last night as it was absolutely minging) and headed out onto what the guidebook described as “a beautiful balcony route”.
It didn't lie, but it's worth noting that all the guides I could find, and the Cicerone one I based my trip on are all for walkers. Descriptions for walkers give very little away for bikers. That steepness where you have to step off and push is not delineated in the guides, neither are short sharp climbs, or boulder fields crossing the trail. This trail initially was pretty typical of this in that coming straight after breakfast I was forced to push a good section of the first mile or so just to break my legs in.
Looking back toward Col Checruit (you can just see the Rifugio) along the balcon with the spectacular Mont Blanc Massif alongside
Once riding however, I soon made distance on a lovely singletrack path, but here the main feature was the view over the valley below (the one the lady from the information desk had tried to send me up) over at the amazing jagged rock peaks of the Italian side of the Mont Blanc range. It was absolutely stunning from this vantage point, and a lovely way to start the day swooshing through alpine meadows with this as a backdrop.
The first half of the ride went much faster than I'd expected, the second a little slower, but eventually I zig-zagged up to the final point on this path before the descent. I stripped off my first (now shredded) pair of socks for the descent, had a wee feed, and then headed down onto what was a continuously rideable trail all the way down into the Valley through fields, alpine pasture, along cascading burns and eventually down bush lined zig zags. On this descent I probably met about half of the total number of walkers I met on the whole route. Clearly the full Hostel the lady in Courmayeur had wanted me to ride to had ejected everyone at the same time, and they were all over the path. This is why the TMB suggests that you ride in the opposite direction to the Walkers; so that they see you as you approach, and why there are seasonal restrictions when the walker numbers are high.
Once down to the valley floor, it was a wide vehicle track up to the first mini-col at the next Rifugio, and so I expected this to be straight forward. Unfortunately there was a stiff breeze in the valley into my face, and this multiplied the effect of the hill, and caused a rather embarrassingly early resort to pushing.
Once at the Rifugio I noted that they had a cafe, and being determined not to run out of energy I rushed up to grab some food. Here I met the less helpful side of the Hostels. Lunch in Italy seems to be from 1pm. If you arrive early, there is no food. Rather than the hot big early lunch I had prepared myself for I had to settle for some very expensive crisps and chocolate and a cup of coffee instead.
Back on the track however things changed up a bit as I met two fellow riders from Poland who had ridden up the valley and were looking for the rest of their party who had come on the high route that I had been on in the morning. We chatted for a while, and then set off at our own rates toward the next big mountain pass, back into France Col de la Seine.
With the wind in our faces, I can only say that this track/path would have been a lovely ride in the opposite direction as it swooped upwards through black gravelly trails and lush short mountain grass. In our direction though, it was just a slog. We parted about half way up as they were a little fresher and faster, and I reached the col just in time to see them dive off into France.
The Mont Blanc Ultra Marathon (Basically running the walkers route) had been on the weekend before (check the dates, you don't want to be anywhere near the TMB on Ultra-Marathon week) and I'd seen footage of the snow and gales at Col de la Seine, and now understood how horrible this place could be in poor weather.
The path rose fairly steeply, but became much less steep as it reached the col, from both sides. The effect of this was that we stayed high for quite a while, with the wind whistling across the col, multiplying the effects of any weather you found up there.
A short break in the wind then off into France down wide gravelly beaded tracks with only a few walkers now. The trail narrowed after a while, but made a beautifully contoured descent across the left wall of the corrie ahead as it narrowed. Eventually a set of initially narrow and then broader zig zags made their way down to the pastures at the head of the valley and down to the converted cattle farm of Les Motettes. This Refuge is accessible by car, and was very popular, although strangely segregated with day trippers sitting at one side and travellers on the other, or laying outside. Food here was awesome, plentiful, and possibly the reason why the rest of the day went so well.
The trail here as marked went down the valley initially by high speed gravel track, and then on to road, and I decided to keep to this, although clearly there was a path on the other side of the valley, but for some reason it seemed to make a significant climb before descending again.
It was a shame to lose so much height by road, but fantastic to arrive at the Nova Hut in the village at the bottom of the valley so fresh and so early, ready for the climb up to the Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme. The week had mentally been divided into pre Croix du Bonhomme and Post Croix du Bonhomme. Ahead of me was around 1000m of climbing on trail that had again been described as “very steep in places” and by some walkers as “really difficult to get a bike up – almost scrambling”, so it was quite a large feature in my thinking about the route.
After a rest, a cooling off, a pot of tea, and a chocolate bar, I spent a few minutes talking to the Eastern European party I'd bumped into half of earlier, who had arrived before me of course, and then set out slowly, trying to keep the pace, and the stress as low as possible.
Before long, one of the Poles, Wojtek caught up with me. I discovered that the group were made up of a number of sub-groups from Slovakia and Romania as well as Wojtec and Isabella who I'd spoken to in Italy that morning. Wojtec had spent quite a lot of time studying in Scotland and we very quickly (as you do) established that we knew people in common – it really is a small world!
We decided to head up together as company would be nice on this long haul to the Col and my acommodation. Wojtek and his team had planned to go down the other side, but before long it became clear that they had become split up on the climb, and we didn't see them at all for the remainder of the climb to the Refuge.
What can you say about 1000m of ascent. I was so grateful to hook up with Wojtek so we could chat and take our minds off it. Bizarrely we tried to have a conversation with a shepherd at about 2/3 of the height but failed as he explained he didn't speak French very well either – he was Romanian. A weird day of connections.
The guidebook said that once we'd seen the Refuge it was still a good hour before we'd arrive, but this was causing some consternation as we still hadn't seen it in the first place and the clock was ticking. Fortunately we both had altimeters on our watches, and despite a difference in readings it was clear to us that we had just missed seeing it and would reach it in time for dinner. The last mile or so was pretty interesting, and did actually require some scrambling as we crossed deep ravines ready to transport meltwater from the high peaks beyond, but in my lovely sticky 5:10 shoes, these sections were simply entertaining.
Eventually, and in good time, and remarkably fresh, we reached the Refuge and I checked in. Despite no sign of the rest of his team Wojtek insisted on prepping to leave for the valley, and with no sign of them, and about 2 hours of daylight remaining, he eventually left to sort accommodation in the valley for everyone.
An hour later, the rest of the team arrived with tales of road detours, tarmac climbs, and mad ridgeline descents, having clearly created a new route to the Refuge, they also arrived very tired and despite being behind Wojtek, elected to stay the night.
Day 5 - Croix du Bonhomme - Chamonix
43km - 1400m Ascent - 2600m Descent (oh yes)
Morning dawned brightly and cloud free with a beautiful cloud inversion in the valley we had climbed from yesterday; it promised to be an awesome last day, and now not just because Chamonix was at the end of it, but also because of the weather and the views.
Breakfasted, I set off alone from the Refuge after a little navigation work to ensure I left in the correct direction, and made the short climb to the col.
The track here looked steep and rocky, but rideable, and so I set off chilly but in great spirits looking forward to an awesome descent, despite “steep and rocky” warnings – surely going down would be okay?
There was a lot of carrying on this section of trail. While there were definitely sections to ride and a lovely finish to the Col Du Bonhomme and from it as well, there was a lot of steep rock to scramble up and down through. Nothing too hair raising, and again to be fair in awesome scenery which more than made up for the lack of riding on this initial section.
Significantly lower, the trail eventually hit a high mountain track, at which point I met the Eastern European team again as we leapfrogged eachother at speed razzing down the log Nant Borrant Valley on the gravel vehicle track following its centre and the river flowing there.
I'm still amazed by what the French refer to as 4x4 tracks as in places this track was steeper and rockier than some of the downhill trails I've ridden. It was exhillarating flying down these trails, only braking for groups of walkers as they toiled up the steep track in front of them.
This blissful trail eventually brought us to the bottom of the valley and much closer to civilisation as (now split up again) I rode along footpaths, bank paths, through small hamlets, and eventually after crossing the main road through a small village to its upper farms to make the last climbs of the day.
Col du Bonhomme
The descent from the Col - not always straightforward
Dropping down into the Nant Borrant Valley
On the map it looked like one climb, but this was definitely a series of climbs on old farm tracks leading from hamlet to hamlet as sometimes we went down, sometimes up, and, well, mostly up. Here I bumped into the team again who explained that Wojtek had headed off in the morning from this valley and was now several hours in-front, and at this point, after some jibes about riding my bike not pushing it I joined the team for the remainder of the wooded climb until we reached the upper alpine houses and the track changed to gravel track and led us sweating profusely and all pushing to the Col de Voza and 'civilisation' again.
Crossing the bottom of the valley, only Col de Voza to go
Near the top - Mont Blanc makes a welcomereappearance
Col de Voza is an odd place. It's the last Col to drop from into the Chamonix valley, but is on the rib of Mont Blanc that is most accessible, and therefore has the mountain railway on it too. The Col itself has a station on it, you have to cross the railway, and there is a Refuge there as well, so it's far from the remote mountain col you envisage as your last col. But here it was, and here we were, and here was Mont Blanc again!
Col De Voza
The team wanted to make a more interesting descent into the Chamonix valley than the estate track the TMB takes, so we had a squint at the map and identified a thin red line that looked like it might be a footpath. Unbeknown to us, as there was mountain biking in the area, it's likely that the TMB path was bike free here anyway, so this was probably a pretty good idea. Probably.
We descended following our noses, initially on a track across a meadow, and then onto some overgrown singletrack. An excited shout from in-front heralded some north shore over a large thistly bog, and I started to get quite excited – had we stumbled on a hidden gem? Well, no, not exactly, excitement soon changed to a different form of excitement as the rider in front discovered that the north shore was broken and falling apart in front and was roughly deposited into the bog. From here we knew that it wasn't a hidden gem, but more of a forgotten gem, and took to the odd bits of north shore with a bit more care, and more often than not, just hit the bogs instead.
The trail was steepening, but not alarmingly, and was severely washed out in places, but nothing I couldn't handle, but it did split us up as there was a variety of expereince and bikes in the party. Eventually though we hit a track and followed it to where it spat us out onto a road high above Les Houches. Now forced to stay on the road (as we were now officially signposted away from paths) we descended at full-tilt down to the valley floor where we parted. The team were going to refuel in Les Houches as they wanted to get to Trient to meet Wojtek and the rest of the group tonight, and I wanted to press on to Chamonix and my finish point.
I finished the day much as I spent the trip, riding alone through beautiful scenery. I rode on the Petit Balcon; the low level path up the valley, rather than the high level one I'd started on 4 days before. This was sparsely populated by a few walkers and cyclists travelling up and down the valley between Les Houches and Chamonix, and was a really lovely mellow way to finish the ride. The cloudless hot day had continued and I was once again rewarded by glimpses of Mont Blanc and the Massif, the Aiguilles and Glaciers as I climbed the treelined valley beside the thundering milky Are river which connects all the towns and villages in the valley.
Eventually I was spat out in Chamonix, and the last km or so of the route was through town, dodging blind French tourist drivers down the high street with all its bustling cafes and shops and eventually out to the small village my hostel was in, in a village swallowed by Chamonix some time ago. I went straight round the back of the hostel, locked my bike to the biggest wheelbarrow I could find, and was now focussed on my next adventure – getting to a bar and eating as much as I possibly could. I'd finished.
I wrote this article as I thought it might be inspiring for someone else, or useful information, or maybe even just an interesting read, but to be fair; mainly to capture the experience for myself. While doing it however, I did realise that I learned a few things that might be of interest, so what follows are some of the things I realised, learned and reflected on following the trip, that might prove useful to anyone heading out on this or a similar trip