Words & Photos: Dave Mitchell & Ditte van der Meulen
At 1326 metres Briançon is the highest city in France and second only to Switzerland's Davos for Europe’s loftiest elevation crown. It has hosted 22 stages of the Tour de France since 1947 and remains a rare earth magnet for road cyclists testing their cadence up or over a multitude of famous and not so famous cols and passes.
Col Granon basking in the TDF sun.
For mountain bikers there is a vast treasure trove of tracks and trails to explore. And atop every ridge, mountain and col there are endless military relics and ruins - if that’s your cup of tea. The variety is astonishing from barracks and latrines, forts and block houses, pre WWI, WWI, WWII and Maginot line concrete monoliths with tunnels and pitch dark passages to explore at your own risk.
Fort de l'Infernet sprawling and falling down.
There are military roads carved high into the mountains where cobbled sections still remain and dry stone retaining walls, drainage systems, cuttings and bridges still do their duty after more than a hundred years. This must have been a huge drain on the French economy so no wonder they tooled up with nuclear weapons for the cold war and abandoned their fabulous forts.
Ancien Fort du Randouillet shimmering above Briançon.
We rolled into town pursued by a warm zephyr and a bunch of holiday makers, then GPS-ed to our apartment in the hills, just behind the town centre. We had pre-booked it for our three week odyssey and could only describe the abode as palatial, immaculate, secure, on the ground floor and equiped with everything including a bike lockup. Our hosts Emilie and Vincent were super nice and most helpful.
Cite Vauban Bridge arching its way to the old walled city.
Briançon Cite Vauban.
Like a good mountain bike wheel the IGN Briançon Topo 25R 3536OT water resistant map we purchased covered a vast area of mountains, valleys and rivers in a 1:25000 (1cm = 250m) detailed ratio. Some would say too much detail - with writing so small that it crowds out the shading and land features.
Sundial on orange, old city.
Briançon high art.
Centred on Briançon we plotted our rides roughly but firmly around the compass and set out to explore with map in hand, outdooractive.com GPX downloads in our GPS and a host of random printouts ready and waiting along with local VTT maps, their numbered signs at every turn. These were available FOC from the many info centres that reside in almost every remote and non remote village and town throughout the land of France, bravo. So a month or two of riding can be yours for less than 40 pieces of silver. Did I mention Trailforks? VTT stands for Velo Tout Terrain. ST is singletrack, DH is downhill, TDF is Tour de France, clear as mud?
Big white fluffy sheep dogs rule.
Art for Ancien Fort da la Croix de Bretagne's sake.
The top of our first pizza shaped wedge headed west from Briançon out to Montgenèvre before crashing into the Italian boarder near Claviere, where like a bad head tube, it goes down on way too steep an angle to Cervières then back to Briançon. This area contained not only the “worlds best singletrack, not” but a rather better one and in fact as our mate Murray Dwyer rightly pointed out “the worlds best singletrack is the one you are on right now".
Ancien Fort des Trois Têtes from afar.
Fort du Gondran, a massive complex.
Forty Four Forts
On our first ride we nabbed Ancien Fort des Trois Têtes (circa 1720 at 1440 m), Fort du Randouillet (1724 at 1604 m), Fort du Anjou (1734 at 1682 m) and Forts du Gondran A, B, C & D (1890 at 2459 m), plus villages of slowly deteriorating military ruins, barracks, stores, bunkers and interesting latrines. This ride culminated in a beautiful rocky switch back ST descent back into town through ancient pines and tall shady larches. Our arms were hanging off.
Fort de l'Infernet from the industrial military road.
Fort de l'Infernet winch-house looking forlorn.
Fort de l'Infernet and the inevitable drawbridge minus its moat.
Subsequent rides revealed Fort-Dauphin (1734 at 1440 m), Fort du Château (1692 at 1290 m) and Ancien Fort de l‘Infernet (1878 at 2377 m) which was bagged on top of a mountain via a dodgy military road along with Fort du Janus (1880 at 2540 m) via an even dodgier trail exposed with slips. The last one in that row was part of the Maginot Line alpine extension and at 2540 m became the second highest in the alps. All these were just a bike toss from home, due east along the Ridgeline to Sommet des Anges.
Fort Janus Maginot Line was spread too thinly.
Fort Janus like a Swiss cheese, maybe by Italian shelling.
The Ouvrage Gondran Maginot Line continues.
From Montgenèvre we cycled our way twice up the ski field slopes to Sommet des Anges and zipped around sweet flowing ST past Fort Ouvrage Gondran (1933 at 2246 m) a lesser work of the Maginot Line, passing Lac Noir to Col de Gimont and into Italy. A narrow balcony trail roamed the high slopes of Grand Charvin to Grand Collet and back into France for a monumental sketchy DH all the way back to Montgenèvre. It demanded high levels of concentration that severely limited admiration of the views.
Lac Gignoux in deep blue.
Lac Trail into Italy but where is the gelato shop?
Lac Trail Italy, narrows as it and we progress.
Our second ride followed a similar trajectory, but this time with Trailforks on our side we navigated to “the worlds best singletrack, not” in red. Our exit point was Claviere, Italy with fog rolling up its sleeves. This gave the lower part of the ride the eeriness of cloud envelopment. The lower half in particular had been the best bit of ST that day, until the next best bit of ST managed to rear its gnarly head on our next ride. It’s all relative we suppose.
Worlds Best ST Not, playing ball on the way.
Worlds Best ST Not, the descent rocks and rolls.
Worlds Best ST Not, our friends in Italy.
Italy at its best.
From the village of Villar-St-Pancrace on the lower slopes of the 2612 m Grand Peygu we bagged Ancien Fort de la Croix (1883 at 2011 m) and Fort de la Grande Maye at a lofty 2417 m, complete and fully roamable within. We tumbled back to the valley floor via a loose rocky slip that some poor sod had tried to carve a set of switchbacks into. All good fun until somebody looses an eye. We lunched beside the clear waters of Lac de I’Orceyrette then headed onto forestry tracks up to the farming village of le Melezin where to our surprise a long flowing section of ST rocked us all the way down to Villar-St-Pancrace. Lovely jubbly.
Ancient Fort da la Croix de Bretagne.
Fort DH to Villar-St-Pancrace.
Lac de l'Orcyrette lunch spot imminent.
This segment rolls up Vallée de la Clarée from Briançon to Plampinet then across the Col de l’Oule then turns east to the famous TDF Col Galiber and back down the La Guisane River valley to Briançon. The suffering that this climb has dished out to the pro peloton is spectacular to watch.
Ancien Fort des Salettes.
Foret Domaniale les Coins.
Red rocks of Foret Domaniale de la Claree.
Granon Every Which Way
From Briançon the Valle de la Claree provided us with a great warm up for the big back door climb to Col Granon, but first we had to get there. A mettled road up to Fort des Salettes (1692 at 1400 m) delivered us onto a narrow balcony trail elevated high above the countryside. On this we roamed for a few klicks eventually dropping down a Briançon signature set of switchbacks then followed remote tracks down the valley to our main climb. This took us through the tiny village of Granon and up open slopes to an old military road and up to Col de Granon. This provided stunning views and a great lunch spot.
Ancien Fort de Lenlon flat on the bottom and on one side.
Col Granon GR5C DH with stunning views.
Col Granon GR5C DH continues unabated.
A superb ST downhill followed below the Crête de Peyrolle ridgeline into the Bois de L’Ours. An old school MTB trail at its best tumbling all the way back into town and the best long piece of ST in the world. The top section is open with stunning views and the bottom enchanting forest.
Col Granon descent to die for.
Fort Gondran - Vlad the Impaler's favourite.
Remote WW1 trenches below Fort de Lenlon.
On a subsequent ride up to Col de Granon, the sealed TDF way, we roamed this very same high plateau on old military roads to Ancien Fort de Lenlon (1880 at 2502 m). It’s an unusual construction, built like a half round fence post surrounded by a picket fence, the type of which Vlad the Impaler had a fondness for. Golden Eagles cruising the thermals above on their 1.9-2.3 metre wing spans opined that the structure looked more like a flat tyre. They are a protected species with around 1,200 breeding pairs in the alps and can spot their prey from more than 1km away. Marmots beware.
WW2 Maginot Line below Granon used enough concrete to build a housing estate.
WW2 Maginot Line turret rusted in place.
Going north down the ridge we encountered a WW1 trench line and derelict stone buildings. Further down the hill, Ancien Fort de l’Olive (1881 at 2239 m) looked through rose tinted glasses at some serious rock faces below. We headed back to the Col Granon dropping down to a tri-vector of so called little Maginot Line block houses and found to our surprise the massive blast proof doors ajar, each the weight of an EV.
La Cochette barracks contemplation.
La Cochette barracks' remains.
Revealed by torchlight was a staircase that led into the bowels of the construct, with water tanks, storage rooms, tunnels and more staircases. These joined each strategic section and all were surrounded by metres of concrete. No wonder the site from the other side of the valley looked like a massive mining operation due to the extraordinary amount of excavation required.
Granon to Bains Col de Buffere on the edge.
Granon to Bains Col de Buffère block house open.
A third ride started from Le Petit area just before Col Granon where we took an old military road east hugging the 2000 m contour. We climbed up to Col de Buffère (2427 m) for lunch and to check out another Maginot Line block house monolith plus a cable lift and some ancient fortifications. We then continued back around the same contour to an old mine site, maybe silver, then onto a singletrack ascent that hovered above the Foret Domaniale. Beautiful old school ST preceded us over pine needles, tree roots and flat rocks with a few switchbacks and stream crossings added to the mix. Fantastic riding was had all the way down to the town below and yet again was the best singletrack in the world. From Le Monêtier les Bains we descend back to our start point on la Guisane river trails, elated.
Granon to Bains silver mining.
Granon to Bains downhilling.
This cheesedale segment boarders the bottom side of the Guisane River Valley then climbs from Ski Station 1500 to Sommet de l’Eychauda (2659 m) and back west along the convoluted ridge line to Briançon.
Le Bez old school Bike Park village.
XC on black 35 "Your time is up".
When is a bike park not a bike park? When it’s old school.
We managed to bag a couple of Serre Chevalier Bike Park lift passes just before they closed the summer season. This covered two chair lifts up the long convoluted mountain range that roams from Briançon to Le Casset - hovering around the 2500 m mark. It proved to be an unusual bike park with trails not overdone, very natural and with some big climbs and excellent long cross country options to boot. They would have been there long before the bike park existed.
The top of 35.
Col as a de la Cucumelle.
Lunch with sheep.
From the top of Casse du Boeuf lift we headed uphill and cross country on ST to traverse all the way along the ridge top accompanied by stunning views to Col de la Cucumelle. Beside us the massive peaks of Le Pelvoux (3954 m), L’Ailefroide and Barre des Écrins with the last remnants of their glaciers filled our vision. A fun descent to Bachas ski centre was followed by superb ST on red trail 33 to the valley floor. Back up the Bachas chairlift we tried our luck on red trail 38 which proved to be of the same quality. Alas a massive unexpected lightning storm closed the lifts for the day and halfway back to base the sky opened up. We got mostly drenched.
Col du Grand Pré along the tops.
Col du Grand Pré rocky rocky DH.
With unfinished business on our minds, we pedalled back up a few days later to Serre Chevalier at 2491 m to ride trail 39. This joined black 35 all the way along the tops to Col de la Cucumelle. From there black 36 trail lifted us to Col de Grand Pré. A challenging descent of tree roots, steepness and switchbacks. Remembering to grip the bars like holding an ice cream cone helped.
Col du Grand Pré riding black DH at our peril.
Bike Park cows chilling out.
We bottomed out in the valley floor totally exhausted and not in the least inclined to go back up for another run. By chance we found a host of cool ST above and beside La Guisane River including a water race trail still in operation. This took us most of the way home. That was it for the east, and as everybody knows communism is a failed experiment.
Bike park, wide smiles and thumbs up.
A SOUTHERLY CHANGE
This is a big block of country below Briançon bordering the Bois des Ayes Reserve and a group of rides up the La Gironde River Valley from towns L'Argentière-la-Bessée, Vallouise and further up Vallon de Chambran to the Ecrins National Park
Old barracks never die.
Les Vigneaux Trail fork.
Lurking with Intent
Lurking below Briançon is a host of riding, especially above la Bessee, the ex aluminium smelting capital of the Alps, probably owing to its early surplus of hydro electric generation. It sounds like a disease. From there we bagged the illusive 2044 m Les Tètes from a labyrinth of forestry roads. It’s a vast limestone dome and a place for lunch with amazing views. A DH flowing network of forestry trails gave us hours of ST play on the way back.
Les Vigneaux Trail.
Vallouise wash house, bright and repurposed.
Further up La Chambon River Valley at the town of Vallouise we found more ST trails in the Bois Noir, Bois de Parapin and Bois du Clot. Further still up the valley at the very end of the road the Parc National des Écrins reclines. Towering mountains and hanging glaciers were in residence but no real mountain biking was to be had. It’s all glacier moraine and vertical inclines.
Wifi sundial way back then.
Les Vigneaux rams.
We backtracked to the camping, rock climbing and bouldering town of Ailefroide where ironically a rocky, bouldery and technical ST took us back to Vallouise on the true left side of the river with a similar like minded trail continuing down to Les Vigneaux. Lots of fun and challenges along the way.
National Park road end.
Exit National Park.
There were more trails to be had around Ski Station 1400, 1600 and 1800 with uphill forestry roads and downhill ST. On our last riding day we headed back into this area and discovered an awesome series of trails starting at la Bessee. This climbed an old pylon road to a high point overlooking the Saint Crépin valley. From the top, ST delivered us to the farming village of La Roche-de-Rame where big rolls of winter hay were neatly spaced on the green patchwork quilt below.
Climbing to Les Têtes St Vincent.
Les Têtes limestone rocks.
Bessee to Roche-de-Rame.
A short liaison rode us through the village, past the blacksmith, a quaint church and finally a rumbling hydro plant to Le Lauzet forestry road ascent. We topped out at the tiny mountain village of Le Lauzet at 1786 m and had lunch beside a small lake set amongst beautiful mountains. There is always a choice in life and for us in our time and at this place two options presented. One black and one red. We opted for the black, climbing up a steep trail for an unknown downhill. It was narrow but flowing through a tall pine forest on a steep slope peppered with switchbacks and lots of fun.
Bessee to Roche-de-Rame.
Military Road's outstanding telegraph pole.
Porte de Cristol, an unintended side trip.
The road came up to meet us but only for a short while then we continued the rest of the way down a labyrinth of great ST trails. A dedicated cycle trail took back to the aluminium kingdom of La Bessie, where wild grapes growing beside the track weren't quite ripe. The old aluminium works had seen better days but the town was still thriving. We looked for gelato but there was none, our local would have to do and in fact they were excellent on a hot sunny day.
Lac de Cristol a bonus side trip.
A bridge too far in Italy.
WW2 Maginot Line, made round to go round.
We were sad to leave Briançon... the great apartment, the fantastic riding and tramping trails. We could easily envisage a month's worth of fun without having to travel too far from home. It’s definitely on a par with the Aosta Valley in Italy. We highly recommend both destinations. All packed up we headed over the famous TDF cycling Col d’Izoard to Abriès in the Queyras Regional Park, another mystery move awaiting our pedal strokes.
Thanks for watching.
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