Chamonix Mont-Blanc. Crucible of extreme mountain sports. You might think you're pretty rad hitting that 20-foot table on a 6" travel #enduro
gnarpoon, but compared to what alpinists, steep skiers, wingsuiters and the like throw down, it's pretty small fry. And that's good. The price for making a mess of it on a bike is pretty low; in most of those sports if you get away with just a couple of badly broken legs then it's a good result. I'm happy we're not playing for the same stakes. It does mean bikes are a bit further down the pecking order in town though. For all Chamonix has some of the best riding in the Alps, there isn't much of a bike scene here, and there isn't a massive amount done by the town hall to encourage it either. The opposite almost. For July and August, most of the trails in the valley and several of the lifts are off limits for bikes, leaving a handful of purpose made trails and the option to take the lifts out of the valley either north towards Switzerland or south to the Aravis.Early cloud as we head into Switzerland and back for the first descent of the day.
This is where the inspiration from the alpinists in the valley comes in.....
Back in the 80s, most of the obvious major lines around Chamonix had been climbed. So what could the up and coming young alpinist do to increase his or her exposure? Well, climb two of the major routes in a day, linking them by helicopter or, even better, a quick parapente flight. Climbed two routes in a day? Let's try three. And so enchainments across the massif became as de rigueur as Vuarnets and a headscarf.We're on a schedule, but there's always time for skids and wheelies.
How about trying to link all the bike friendly lifts on the lift pass in a day then? Fifteen chairlifts, gondolas and mountain railways stretching from Vallorcine at the Swiss border to Combloux 35km along the valley, and back again. The first lift opens at 08:30, the last lift back into the Chamonix valley leaves at 17:10. Seven hours and forty minutes, with the added complication that several of the lifts close for lunch (at different times, obviously) and others only run every 30 minutes. An Excel spreadsheet was made. It was just possible.How many of your rides need a spreadsheet?
Hence, at 07:54 Lorne and I were sat on the SNCF train to Montroc, at 08:21 we were pedalling up to Le Tour and by 08:42 we were on our way to the first descent of the day: some quick singletrack, briefly popping over the French/Swiss border, then into the Vallorcine DH track. Don't worry, this isn't going to be a root by rock, turn by jump description of the trails we rode. But if you are in Chamonix, and like raw natural DH tracks, you really should give the Vallorcine track a go. It's one of the best DH tracks you've never heard of in the Alps.Cruising the Lavancher bowl high above Chamonix town.
Anyways, Charamillon, Autannes and Vallorcine lifts ticked, we skip the classic Posettes singletrack descent (still in the bike ban months remember) for bike park and road to the Grands Montets gondola. This is one of the lifts that gives Chamonix its winter reputation. A lift queue brutal on a powder day. We arrive with about two minutes to spare, to discover there's actually a queue in the summer too and have to wait 15 minutes for the next bin. On down through the valley with a 900m descent to the valley floor then some road kilometres, past the off limits Flegere and Brevent lifts, then past the Bellevue gondola in Les Houches (we'll tick it on the way back) to Prarion.Look at the gap, not the tree.
Another 800m of height gained for no effort, followed by 950m lost on singletrack and alpine meadows into St Gervais.
The 4400m of descending accumulated to this point is already starting to have an effect on us, and the lifts begin to blur into each other for a while. Outside the Chamonix valley we don't know the trails so well, so frequently the flow is lost by, well, getting lost. Which also cuts into our tight schedules. With no time to break on the trail (barely even for photos, check the links at the end of the article if you want to see what the trails can look like with more than 30 seconds set up time!) each lift is a chance to shake out the hands, rest the legs, eat and drink, then check we think we know where we're going.Granite water trough. So Megeve.
Sometimes the break is more needed than others. Some of the trails end at the lift way too soon. Others. Following a flat out sprint through the old world charm of Megeve to catch the Rochebrune lift seconds before it closed for another 30 minutes we were pretty happy to be able to sit down and do nothing for a while.You gotta admit, the Alps do a good backdrop. Powering on somewhere between St Gervais and Megeve.
With only three lifts to go we thought we'd blown it. After another set of navigation errors on the way to the Petite Fontaine chairlift we arrive a little behind schedule. Not to worry, the time can be made back; navigation off this lift is easy. It'll be fine. And it would have been. If the lift hadn't had to keep stopping, and stopping. and stopp..We knew we had no chance to make the next Mont d'Arbois lift and, as it only runs every half hour, we would then be seriously tight for getting to the last lift back to the Chamonix valley.Views for days. Or one day in this case.
Every cloud has a silver lining, though, a chat to the leather-skinned local on the lift revealed the trail that we'd spotted from the static lift was good, very good, though apparently "has a lot of roots". It turned out to be one of the trails of the day (and yeah, it had a lot of roots) and it would have been missed in the relentless pursuit of efficiency if we'd still been on schedule.It's one of the best descents in Chamonix, or that's what Cedric Gracia says. Allegedly.
From the top of Mont d'Arbois, it was all to play for. Twenty-five minutes to ride the 5km 'Wizz' flow trail (yeah, what's with the names that get given to bike trails exactly?) then another 6 km of trails and road back into St Gervais. Twenty-four frantic minutes later, we made it to the tramway. And about ten minutes later the tram actually arrived. Which was good as it meant we could grab a can of coke, but it also meant we would now miss the last Bellevue lift at 18:00, and miss the last lift we needed to tick.If we hadn't failed, we wouldn't have got to jump the tracks. Failures' not all bad.
So we'd failed in a pointless challenge. It didn't really matter though. From the Bellevue stop on the tramway, as high as you're allowed to take bikes, we cruise back 800m to the valley floor on what's allegedly Cedric Gracia's favourite Chamonix trail (it's really pretty good....) and along for a well-earned pint.Heading home, the last descent of a long day.
All the games we play in the hills are pointless, and trying to ride all the lifts was a particularly pointless challenge, but where's the problem in that? I'd be lying if I said all of the 9250m of descending was on the best trails in the area and it would have been nice to stop and look at the views occasionally, but it's not like this was the only ride we'll ever do. Get out, find a stupid ass challenge and push yourself once in a while. And if you succeed, it obviously wasn't hard enough, so go out and try again.Fifteen separate lifts, 150km covered, 9250m descended. A pretty glorious failure.
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