BURNING CALORIES AND LEARNING THE GRITTY WAY THROUGH THE ALPS ON A CYCLOCROSS BIKE.
WORDS & PHOTOS BY MICHAEL BURDON
Greg wasn’t looking too good. He looked florid at the last stop about two kilometres before, at the top of another false summit arrived at by gravel switchback climbs of about 9 or 10%. He had another load of Jelly Babies, and we pressed on up towards the Col du Coin which loomed ahead of us like a wall, unconvinced by talk of this being the final climb. I imagine his misery was compounded by the weather. What had started out as a beautiful morning in the valley below had gradually deteriorated with the passing hours and the brutal altitude gain into driving snow. Although it was only early October, the low temperatures and high winds at our current altitude of 2,400 metres meant that being snowed in could be a possibility come the morning – if we got to the refuge at all.
Me? I was loving it, and I suspected our third traveller, Ian, was enjoying it too. It would have been nicer to have the benefit of some sun and less wind/rain/sleet/snow, but the trip was going better than I had expected. In fact, it was bloody brilliant!
’Crossing it off the list
I’d been mulling over the idea of taking my ’cross bike to the Alps for a few years, but never really got beyond the ‘staring out of the window wondering how great it would be’ phase. It all started with an email to Sam who owns BikeVillage – a guiding/chalet business in Landry, near Bourg-St-Maurice. Fortunately he didn’t scoff when I asked him what was possible on a ’cross bike around that area. When I eventually caught up with him early in 2015 he began fleshing out some ideas for routes, and a date in early autumn was set.
I’d mentioned the idea of this trip to some of my ’crossed-up friends. “D’you fancy going to the Alps to do a ’cross bike ride over a couple of days, staying in a mountain refuge overnight? We might also go and watch a ’cross race in Belgium on the way down.” It wasn’t a difficult sell. Ian, a hardened veteran of Yorkshire Cyclocross, and my brother-in-law Greg, a mountain biker who had just experienced his first 3 Peaks cyclocross race this year after a couple of years supporting others, agreed to come and share the beer and the driving.
A Chunk of Cyclocross
Leeds to Bourg-St-Maurice is not a short journey, even with the benefit of the Hull – Zeebrugge ferry, so we broke it up into manageable chunks. The first chunk was the drive from disembarkation to Ronse, Belgium, for the BPost Bank Trophy cyclocross races. For the benefit of British and American readers, this isn’t like watching ’cross in your home countries. The crowd is made up of ‘normal’ people, i.e. non-cyclists. There are no cowbells. There is no cheering, except for Sven Nys. What you do get is a deep sense of appreciation for the sport of cyclocross. They just get it. In the crush of people on the way back to the car, the crowd parted to let the stars – Nys, Wout Van Aert, Tom Meeusen, etc., get back to their motorhomes.
Unfortunately, there was no getting away from the fact that, while the first chunk of travelling was only 60 miles, the second chunk was over 500. Thankfully divided by three of us, it passed as a blur of awful music, road noise, and infrequent stops for food/diesel/stretching. We arrived at the low lying skiing village of Montchavin at 2am and crashed out, waking to gaze out of the apartment window and see Mont Blanc bathed in autumn sunshine.
Morning in the Shadow
We had arranged to meet Sam late morning, so had plenty of time to drive into Bourg-St-Maurice and breakfast on croissants and coffee before popping into the SuperU to stock up on food for the trip. In hindsight, I wish I’d thought to buy a small bottle of wine and some cheese. It would have been nice to have a treat in the refuge, rather than just supernoodles.
The first hitch was that Sam wasn’t coming with us. An ill daughter and a temporarily absent wife meant that Sam was on childcare duties for the rest of the day. He gave us a map, showed us the route, and then left us to it, promising to meet us at the refuge at the end of the day. He looked understandably upset, but not gutted. This was probably because the first part of the ride was up the Cormet de Roselend, a 20km road climb with 1,200 metres of vertical gain in 19km. I’d done it before on my road bike. It would be a bit tougher on a ’cross bike carrying a rucksack. Sam’s cyclocross bike had seen better days, so he had been planning to do the ride on his hardtail mountain bike. If I’d been facing the prospect of cycling up the Cormet de Roselend on my mountain bike, I might have been tempted to fake an illness with one of my children.
The summit of the Cormet de Roselend arrived with much effort, pausing only by Les Chapieux to look across at the stunning, snow-capped Auguille des Glaciers to the north. A fresh weather system was approaching from the north-west and the occasional squall indicated that it wasn’t going to be as pleasant as the last one. A short descent by road to the Refuge du Plan de la Lai and a left turn onto a gravel track marked the end of the easy part of the ride. The next stretch was along the popular summer walking track known as the Tour du Beaufortain. Despite being only seven kilometres to the Col du Coin, total climbing for that short distance was in excess of 850 metres, with only a few brief passages unrideable downhill on a ’cross bike, and the last 200 metres to the saddle below the Col was a hike-a-bike climb of about 200 metres.
This part of the ride, Greg’s illness notwithstanding, was the high point of the first day for me. I’d no idea how much of the route would be rideable. My fear was that the bike would be made redundant by the terrain, and we would all end up carrying the damn things for the whole journey. But I needn’t have worried. The French approach to off-road alpine climbs is very close to their approach to the road climbs – lots of hairpins and as a result, fewer savage gradients.
The journey up to the head of the valley was just great fun. The climbs weren’t bad – the occasional 15% kick in the teeth waiting just around the corner, the pay-off being a tricky, but mostly rideable, rocky descent or switchback gravel road drop to the false flat valley floor. Always with breathtaking views – the Lac de Roselend to the north-west, the huge rock slab of Pierra Menta (2,714m) a constant presence to the east, the looming wall of Le Mont Coin (2,539m) ahead. And by now, snow everywhere.
From the saddle of the Col du Coin, the drop to the refuge involved a bit of ‘hanging on for grim death’ descending onto a gravel track. I think we were all about ready for a bit of warmth and shelter by this stage, so it was a joy to arrive at the Refuge de la Coire and a relief to find it open. These small hostels can be found all over the Alps – they tend to be staffed in the summer, but partially closed the rest of the year. This particular refuge is owned by the local community, and Sam had informed them that we would be staying – having had what sounded like a particularly grim experience in the past when he had arrived at the refuge to find it closed up and then spent the night in the outside toilet under a piece of discarded carpet.
We made ourselves at home in the refuge – firing up the wood burner, fetching water for a brew and lighting candles. The weather outside was really unpleasant, and now it was getting dark. Given the conditions, there was a growing assumption that Sam wouldn’t get to the refuge, and that we would make our own way back in the morning. After a couple of hours of loading logs into the wood burner, we were surprised to hear movement outside. It was Sam, who had driven up the valley in his van, then cycled up to the refuge with his dog. Not only that, but he had brought meat, cheese and a hip flask!
There were two dormitory rooms in the eaves of the refuge. Ian and I took a dorm each and Sam and Greg brought mattresses down to put in front of the wood burner. Although it was warmer downstairs, Greg’s hope that a good night’s sleep would sort him out was scuppered by a large fidgety snoring dog. I’d had the foresight to bring fresh coffee for us, so the morning began in a relatively civilised fashion with a map open on the kitchen table and Sam showing us the route back down to the valley. He promised that there would be ‘hardly any climbing’ which produced a smile on Greg’s face for the first time since Belgium.
Learning the way down
After removing any signs that we had been there, and with the weather looking much less grim, we set off from the refuge. I won’t attempt to describe how we got to the valley floor as I have only the most basic idea, although I can see from the map that we lost about 1,000 metres in about 12km. Sam obviously knows the area like the back of his hand, but had never done these routes with riders on cyclocross bikes before, so the whole thing was a learning experience for all of us.
The route varied from gravel roads to switchback singletrack, to paths across mountain pasture as we made our way down past the Chapelle Saint-Guerin, crossing the aptly named Torrent du Cormet D’Areches and traversing the lower valley side down to the river Isère by the small town of Bellentre. The easy, open roads and tracks were ridden at a nice fast pace. The singletrack was technical but rideable, save for a few sections near the refuge. Because it was October, leaves covered large parts of the route, making you constantly wonder whether you were about to hit a nasty hole or endo over a hidden rock. Apart from a few pride-swallowing falls, there were no real problems and we took the whole descent swiftly, pausing occasionally to take in the wonderful views down and across the valley to the skiing resort of La Plagne.
As is always the case when you’re enjoying yourself, the descending was over far too quickly. There was a short road section back to BikeVillage, which was a welcome change from the upper limb hammering we had just endured. Having thanked Sam, Greg (who was all smiles by this stage) took Sam back up to fetch his van, while Ian and I decided to ride the road climb back up to Montchavin to get a few more miles and a bit more climbing in before the long drive home. We regrouped at the apartment and then headed back down to Bourg-St-Maurice for some food. In a restaurant by the station, the map was already out, spotting refuges and drawing imaginary lines of adventure between them.