French Connection

by Tania Mackay

The gang of four assembled in Les Houches, near Chamonix - my husband Steve, our flatmate Karina, her friend Kirsty and myself. We were in town to circumnavigate Mont Blanc on the "Sentier Pedestre" hiking trail. London is not the best training ground for a putative epic, but we reassured ourselves it would be like an autoroute with gentle climbs and wide sweeping trails. Lucky we had our heads in the clouds, otherwise some of us would have stayed in London.

Day one dawns cloudy and sombre. The obligatory 'before' photo is snapped and we dart across the road to the start of the Tour du Mont Blanc trail. We ride fifteen minutes towards the Col de Voza before surrendering to the steep, loose trail. Reduced to walking this early in the trip is a bad omen but we struggle on and up into the cloud-shrouded tops. The 'tram-for-softies' chugs past. We sneer. It's swooping ego-track down to Bionnessay - through postcard-perfect scenes of cows and cowbells. Ding-dong. The trail breaks into sweet singletrack as we zip down a gorge and across a river. Steve's disc causes his rear wheel to lock up - bringing on a 'toy-tossing' episode. The girls stand back a safe distance - handing him tools and parts. One of us spots his wheel sitting crooked in the dropouts. Hurumph. We arrive at the end of the guidebook's first day by mid afternoon, but we hope to complete the ten-day loop in five days so it's a snack and back in the saddle. Sable Confiture is the preferred munchie - like a huge Shrewsbury but fresh and with heaps more jam.

The path up the Col du Bonhomme is scary, rocky and hugely rugged. We calculate that we haven't a hope of making our booked destination that night. A quick phone call secures some beds in the refuge beyond the Col. "... alors madame vous étes complétement folle, il est au moins à trois heures de là à ici." A friendly Frenchman reassures us "there are a few stones but you'll be ok". We surge on. "Bugger!" The track is narrow, about 45 degrees, and strewn with boulders. Steve decides his bike is better on his back, so turns the air blue as the bike refuses to come apart as fast as he'd like. The girls plod on. It's an interminable grovel. Finally as darkness approaches, Refuge de la Croix du Bonhomme swims out of the fog. A kind of heaven with warm fire and hearty fare. Total altitude gain for the day: 2400m in 101/2 hours.

We are greeted the next morning with an awesome view and a rip snorting descent before proceeding gently up the valley towards the next assault, Col de la Seigne. The track is in pretty good nick. Perky, we crest the Col and swoop down to Refugio Elisabetta and its stunning glacier views. Two mad German mountain bikers we meet warn us that tomorrow's Col is a "Katastroph!". Somewhere along the way we cross the border into Italy, swoop into Courmayeur and ensconce ourselves at the local gelataria. You can't beat Italian gelati... or pizza as we discover later. Altitude gain: 1004m. Sense of humour returned intact.

We drag our sorry bodies from cosy beds to find it's raining. Gatti e cani as the locals say. Spooked by the prospect of "catastrophe col", we sift around town for the day. We try Italian hot cioccolati. It's like custard with a major cocoa hit. You can actually stand a spoon in it but to drink it is impossible. Steve buys a new toy - a fully-complicated watch that predicts it will be fine tomorrow. Sweet. Altitude gain: just the stairs.

Day four. Steve's watch is wrong. After a sumptuous breakfast at Hotel Souvenir, some eggs, Nutella and bread stashed in our pockets, we endure heavy drizzle on our way up the valley. A short painless climb takes us to Rifugio Elena and more hot chocolate. Got the option of "solide" or "fluide" this time. Hah - No spoon required. Fortified, we attack the "Katastroph!". It's an anti-climax and we wonder how the mad Germans are coping on Col du Bonhomme. The downhill on the other side is colossal. And colossally muddy. The hot chocolate at the buvette on the way down announces our arrival in Switzerland. I stir and stir, thinking the brown stuff must be at the bottom. Perhaps it's white chocolate? I hassle the girl making it, and she points out the sachet of chocolate sitting next to my cup. Onward and downward to Edelweiss Hotel in La Fouly, where the hotelier breaks out the fire hose to clean our steeds and us. Altitude gain: 1300m.

It's cold the next day. Steve finds a hugely awesome bit of singletrack to Lac Champex. According to the map the trail is near vertical, so the girls opt for the road instead. It ends up being a 'long-cut' as we lose heaps of altitude. Steve is basking in the sun when we eventually arrive at the lake. Refuelled at the local patisserie, we soldier on to Bovine, passing some hikers who want to know what medication we are on. Around the corner we are confronted by a vertical, muddy, boulder-strewn cliff face. We grovel for three hours. Karina throws her bike down and gives the bird to the world in general. In fact all the girls lose the plot but the pain quickly recedes as we fly down the other side. Gob-smacking views overlooking Martigny greet us around every corner. A fun, technical section lands us at Refuge Col de Forclaz and a fabulous feast. It requires a supreme effort to drag ourselves onto our top bunks. Altitude gain: 1300m.

The last day and one final col remains. The girls are gun shy after yesterday so we take the tarmac option - stocking up with duty free chocolate at the border. Steve, ever the purist, completes the trip off-road. He tracks us down at a patisserie in Chamonix, gazing up at the hanging glacier while grazing on French tarts - or should that be gazing at the French tarts? A downhill singletrack takes us back to Les Houches and a hard earned hot bath.

Nitty Gritty

  • It's cool with the authorities to ride the Sentier Pedestre but it's best to avoid the congestion of mid-summer. September is supposed to be the best weather - although we missed out on that score. 
  • We used the 'Tour of Mont Blanc' Cicerone guide book by Kev Reynolds www.cicerone.co.uk . And the topo maps 3531 ET, St Gervais and 3630 OT Chamonix- Massif du Mt Blanc. Buy them direct from the 'Institut Geographique National' www.ign.fr under Cartes de Randonnée 1:25 000. 
  • We stayed in the mountain refuges that are really more like quaint hotels. Cost is around 30 - 50 Euros for dinner, bed and breakfast. Beware the token 'pain avec café au lait' breaky - hardly sufficient to fuel a long day on the bike. 
  • It's a gnarly ol' trip but so worth it. Tour operators do a version that picks out the tasty bits without the grovel. Check out Mont Blanc Mountain Bikes.