Jérôme Clementz takes on a crossing of the classic mountains of the Tour de France his way – off road.
Words Pauline Dieffenthaler
The Tour de France has many iconic mountain peaks that have a special place in its legends. Mountains where great heroes of road cycling did battle, where attacks were made, races won, and spirits crushed. But as every mountain biker knows, if there’s a road to the top, there’s probably a fun trail back down again. The idea had been in Jérôme’s head for years, inspired by every time he’s been back and forth through the Alps to attend events or races and every time he’s discovered more and more of the amazing spots scattered around the mountains. The Alps have always fascinated him, both the road riding culture of the Tour de France and the new mountain bike legacy of the Trans-Provence and the Megavalanche that use these mountains.
Slowly Jérôme put together a plan that would combine that road heritage with what we all love best – ripping back down the mountain. He proposed starting from the highest road passes and, instead of just going down on the boring road, taking some of the many incredible singletrack descents down.
By collecting information from local contacts, he started to plan his journey. He wanted to ride the best downhills from these legendary passes, but wanted to head in one direction. After much research, it seemed that the best way was to start from Nice and end up in Montreux, on Lac Léman [Lake Geneva]. This route would take in seven famous Tour passes, starting at the top of each and heading north each time, from the sea to the mountains.
And because it was Jerome’s challenge, he got to make the rules, which meant van rides to the top. The challenge wasn’t for the sporting achievement, but purely for the pleasure, so we started from the top of each pass and either we pedalled up to reach the best downhill or we went down directly if the trails allowed it.
I love it when a plan comes together.
The team was set up: one van, one driver, four mountain bikes, a cameraman, a photographer and two riders.
The first challenge was to fit everything and everyone into one vehicle… We met in Nice on Sunday night, ready to cross the 650km of the Alps; we were excited, but also anxious as we didn’t know what to expect. Leaving the city centre, we started our drive to Col d’Allos and quickly left the crowds behind. The beach became a memory and soon we were surrounded by the majesty of the mountains.
We set up at the bottom of the pass as the light died, ready to wake up early next morning. The first pass was the Col d’Allos, where the famous French enduro race ‘Tribe 10,000’ had been held for ten years. Our excitement was high and the morning was fresh from the dawn, contrasting sharply with the warmth we’d left behind at sea level – a heady reminder that we were already at 2,250m. The summit of the road pass was wild and open and we joined some motorcyclists in stopping to admire the stunning view.
Let’s go! We reached our first downhill, but it became more and more complicated to see the trail… We discovered that the tracks had long been abandoned, bad luck from the start! We didn’t want to get discouraged and decided to keep going and find our way, thanks to our GPS. The trail was pretty vague and kind of damaged and we had to hikeabike along a cliff traverse, which started to freak us out. The mission would be more complicated than we thought
We reached the car, a little bit confused and tired. The state of the trails and the route finding had been a shock (it’s so much easier to follow a dotted line on a map) and we started doubting our plans. Nevertheless, we tried to stay focused and hoped to have more luck for the next one – the Col de Vars.
Col de Vars? Col de Mars more like.
And we weren’t to be disappointed! Arriving on top, we started our grand descent with a climb as we had to pedal up to reach the start of our chosen downhill. The uphill was about half an hour and worth it as we went through another wild valley. It is an old glacial valley surrounded by chamois and eagles, not to mention a couple of hundred sheep and their shepherdess. The scenery was stunning and the descending unreal. As we started our descent, it felt like we were riding on Mars, or the moon, such was the terrain. The track was flowy, crossing wide meadows. The descent to Guillestre was perfect and as varied as we could have wished for – some technical sections where Jérôme showed us the lines, some narrow, forest singletrack and some fast sections. We were relieved and happy to be on our bikes!
We stopped at a mountain chalet where we spent the night, to rest, refuel and sleep well, because the following day we’d be tackling the legendary Col d’Izoard. This pass is famous for its barren, lunar-like landscape. This moonscape has forged many champions, like Louison Bobet who made his name by first winning a stage at the 1950 Tour having crossed this summit in the lead. For mountain bikes, the downhill starts hard and it becomes harder and more technical and rocky than we’ve experienced so far. But fortunately, it’s for not long and we survive the steep sections to then enjoy the switchbacks afterwards. It was tough, but we’re not enduro riders for nothing and the landscapes were phenomenal!
Grabbing a Galibier.
Our next stop was the Col du Galibier, at 2,645m above sea level. Driving up we could see just how many passionate road cyclists were trying to push their limits to climb this narrow and endless little road. Having arrived at the top, we saw some of those road riders watching us get ready for the descent. Their curiosity was rewarded as we plunged into the first loose, rocky section to a round of gloved applause. They were stoked by the fact that we could even get down this track.
Out of sight of our Lycra-clad friends, the trails became much more easy, wild and open, without any human sign until we got to Valloire, way below. It was fabulous and scary at the same time to be in the middle of nowhere. In order to do the longest descent of the trip we still had to climb 600m up to the top of Valloire resort to start going down to Saint Michel de Maurienne in the valley below. Unlike the crashing, moving rocks of the Galibier, our descent, for a change, was a pleasant, wooded fire road.
Big Saint Bernards.
Our project was only possible thanks to the advice of local contacts, who literally put us on the right paths. In the Issoire pass, we joined Enak Gavaggio, aka Rancho, and his Canadian girlfriend. Rancho is a professional freestyle skier, famous for his French moustache. Sharing the ride with them was a treat for all of us. We are always convinced that a mountain bike is the perfect social tool throughout the world: for us, every rider is part of this worldwide community, wherever you come from and whoever you are, we share the same passion and excitement for good trails!
This recurring theme was again confirmed for our two last passes: the Petit Saint-Bernard and the Grand Saint-Bernard, which are situated respectively in Italy and Switzerland. What could be more magic than crossing borders with our bikes as easy as we could write it? Just enjoy a gelato in La Thuile and keep going to Switzerland…
In the Petit Saint-Bernard some of the locals showed us the most magnificent downhill to Aoste, which is only known by a few riders. It had such perfect grip and the descent was unbelievably long, with almost 1,000m drop on fresh dirt below the pine trees… What a journey!
For our last day, we used our remaining energy to reach the top of the Grand Saint-Bernard pass and hike-a-biked up to get to the most stunning trails ever. Above us, the peaks of Mont Blanc and the Grandes Jorasses loomed as we passed next to icy high-altitude lakes. We went down on fast mountain singletrack, passing cheering hikers who’d be descending on this trail for a long, long time on foot… We stopped to take in a truly iconic scene at a Swiss chalet, surrounded by meadows full of cowbell-ringing cows. A cheese snack and we were almost done… Our trip had reached the end and we were worn out, thanks to all of the riding, but nostalgic for a week that had flown by…
- 650km between Nice and Montreux (by car)
- 190km bike riding
- 3,320m climbed by bike
- 12,660m descended by bike
- 13 hours riding time
- 7 legendary passes (Allos, Vars, Izoard, Galibier, Iseran,
Petit St Bernard, Grand St Bernard)
- 3 countries (France, Italy, Switzerland)
- 5 regions (Alpes-Maritimes, Hautes-Alpes, Savoie,
Val d’Aoste, Valais
- Best time to do it: July / August
Because we always have too many images to publish in the mag. Here are the rest.
Thanks to Julbo for making this trip possible.