They say, “Pack light, travel far.” My dad always said, “Pack what you think you’ll need, then halve it.” I did that, which led to a social riding weekend becoming an occasional ‘race the inevitable Alpine afternoon storms’ weekend.
Twelve hours of back-road driving from my Catalan home, via a campout on the top of Mont Ventoux, delivered me to the base for an organised bikepacking weekend in the Aravis mountains. ‘Organised bikepacking’ may sound like an oxymoron, with part of bikepacking’s buzz being the venture into the unknown. But it was a trip a mate had organised that I’d hijacked myself onto and, in that regard, it’s still a bikepacking adventure.
Said mate was Ross Muir of Basecamp in Talloires on Lake Annecy. Last year, in these same mountains, he organised the inaugural La Resistance event—a mixed-terrain ride paying homage to the French Resistance fighters who liberated this part of France from the Nazis in World War II. So Ross knows the lay of the land to weave a weekend over four days, with three nights in mountain top refuges. All we—five of us in total—had to do was pack, turn up, and follow his lead.
I stayed at Ross’ house the night before and we debated the packing over dinner. There was scattered information on the state of the refuges, so I assumed basics of shelter, running water, and with some luck, electricity. In the end, they far exceeded that; while still rudimentary, they were all superb. Still, pack light travel far, etc. Bare minimum stuff of one set of riding kit, dual purpose off-bike kit, spares, chargers for aforementioned picture making and a (sadly pathetic as I would discover) rain jacket. Plus a few other bits n’ bobs.
A warm, steamy Friday afternoon (pack light looking good, so far) was our rendezvous for coffee, lunch and roll-out from Basecamp. An afternoon départ was chosen for those arriving on the day, though it did push us closer to the realms of those Alpine storms. Around this time of year they build up, you see them accumulating down the valleys, then they charge on you and dump late in the afternoon. But plenty late enough, normally, to stay dry on the bike.
Normally. The late start plus an early incoming Alpiner meant we were drenched within the first hour and a half. My move to sunnier climes, from my Yorkshire origins (20 years hence now), has jettisoned most kit that is not suited to, well, sun and maybe a bit of chill. And I’ve become spoilt by the conditions, too. A great upside to my life. The downside is that I was left like a drowned rat. My Apidura was obviously not a full waterproof bag, either, so off-bike kit was spotted with wetness. Part of the adventure. Fortunately it wasn’t cold, even up at 1500m or so, inside the refuge.
We lost the first race of this social, non-race weekend. The next race was to find somewhere to try and dry our kit. The kids’ ice hockey team sharing the homely Refuge Auberge du Col de l’Arpettaz with us must have thought we were vagabonds as we scattered our kit, first in the bike shed, then the lounge room, searching for dryness. The weather outside turned for the worse, with our host battling said weather to make sure the flag was unfurled—I can only assume as a beacon for possible stragglers in the wild seeking, well, refuge. We, meanwhile, settled down for a proper hearty homemade Savoie casserole with crozets or croziflettes—little pasta shells—and hoped for the big yellow thing in the sky to return the next day.
I really don’t want it to appear as if it was horrid. It wasn’t. Quite the opposite. It wasn’t like Grinduro Scotland—well, not for now. We got wet, but so what, the riding was outstanding. Interweaving road and gravel—surely one of the ideas behind gravel bikes—allows you to both escape the world, but also dip into the culture of smaller villages and communities. Straight out of our Talloires start we escaped southwards onto a dirt climb up Col de La Forclaz, skirting above Lake Annecy, before joining civilisation again on the road climb near the top to watch the paragliders doing their best vulture impressions, spooking the viewing platform. A road descent at pace before some singletrack through sodden and puddled forests, passing some emphatically French sights like the Bouledrome for those who want to boule (is that a verb in French?) at the base of the mountains. Then the sopping wet, tough, road climb of Col de l’Arpettaz, about 15km of it, to the refuge. A day of some road, plenty of dirt, lots of fun. We slept well.
I set my alarm to rise early from my bunk bed to hopefully see that sun. Bingo. There she was, along with a healthy breeze. Clothes relocated from inside hanging to outdoors, a consensus to have a slightly longer breakfast to allow for drying, then the daily ritual of pack and roll out.
And what a start: a winding dirt track leading deeper into the heart of the Aravis. Nobody to be seen but ourselves. The crunch of tyres tearing up the dirt and the wind in our ears as we hurtled down for a few kilometres, across for a few, up for a few and repeat for a while. There’s nothing like hitting dirt straight from altitude. This really felt like escape. New friends, new views that felt like they were solely for us.
High up in this part of the world, even with heavy distant clouds (preparing for another afternoon race against time), we could still sneak peaks of the mighty Mont Blanc. She is a beauty; she caused many a pause to look across to try to see more, and pause for thought at how lucky we were to be out here.
Ross mentioned this was part of the route for his La Resistance event—the Route de La Soif, a track that cuts north straight across to the top of the Col des Aravis. We would spear off east on another track to Flumet to take in a quick coffee, then soon after, lunch in Le Plan (the best omelette I have ever had!), then take on The Cliff, the Sound of Music, and the one-handed farmer, before we returned to the road climb of Col des Aravis.
The Cliff. Christened by Ross and thrown in as a detour test to see how much adventure folk wanted on a riding weekend that is so well organised. In short, a largely unrideable 40 minutes or so of slogging alongside a river and up steep footpaths through lush woodland. I reckon it was about spot-on. Any more and it might have become less than fun. For some, it was perhaps 39 minutes too much, after a stumble and a broken hand—unbeknownst to us, but Pierre rode on like a trooper for two more days. But it was beautiful. And peaceful, the stumble and resulting groan aside. Another reason to choose this route was that it led to a stunning Sound of Music-esque scene at the other end. A spectacular mountain meadow bathed in midday sunlight. The sound of my music—awful renditions of “The Hills Are Alive,” etc.—was perhaps equal in balancing out the beauty nature was delivering. Sorry companions—and nearby animals.
And the one-handed farmer? Well, no matter how much one might recon a route, things change. It turns out, we weren’t in Julie Andrews’ meadow, but in that of a farmer who, as we crested the rise, was out chopping his field in front of his farmhouse. Like the brave soul, I hung back as Ross chatted to him (his trip, his negotiation). We scuttled across to his gravel driveway, uttered our genuine, grateful thanks and apologies, and we were on our way to another rolling section of gravel up at high altitude.
Though we didn’t know Pierre’s hand was broken, we knew he had some pain, so when we returned briefly to ‘civilisation’ atop Col des Aravis on the road (including a short cut for Ross and I, on which I somehow, mildly, electrocuted myself on a fence), we stopped for ice cream, purely so we could ask for some ice for Pierre’s hand before we got to our refuge for the night.
We consoled Pierre with the fact that it was a lovely road descent for while, so his hand would be soothed not bumped, then what was described as a gradual or gentle climb to our home for the night. Lies. True, it was a lovely descent. The climb, however, was double-figures gradient, long, then the last kick for a couple of kilometres was technical, steep and rocky. Really happy to have 650b WTB Byway tyres to skip up the technical bit to the refuge, but I felt for Pierre—700c, a sore hand and rocky…
Oh, and the storms were heading in again. The race was on.
We made it though, barely. And that approach to the refuge was, again, spectacular. Singletrack, technically challenging fun, through a mix of pines then the rocky stretches, opening out finally to the refuge with a stunning view down the valley. While we could see it.
Huddled in for the night, the storms hit as hard as the night before, but we were dry. Another true Savoie speciality was laid in front of us for dinner, perhaps the classic of them all for after a day traipsing across mountains—tartiflette. We slept well again.
Leaving the refuge the way we came in meant for a technical, rocky start. Peirre’s hand seemed OK, though a little bruised, but the rocks would no doubt remind him it wasn’t quite right. But soon we were onto sweeping forest tracks again, descending and swooping through the trees with occasional vistas down the valleys and across to mountains on the other side. The nature of the riding really took me back to mountain biking on a fully rigid Marin Pine Mountain: having to pick a good line, no suspension to bail you out, really in the moment.
Soon though, the moment was a drag. A 12km or so climb up Col des Annes, on the road, with a headwind. And I don’t think any of us really got enough out of breakfast that morning. Two rewards were promised: a local tart and coffee atop the climb, then onto a long, long section of dirt and gravel traversing then descending a ski area.
The blueberry tart—a local speciality and a must-have for Sam any time he does this climb—was superb. Paul had two, or three maybe. The coffee was French; caffeine, but…
The traverse after the tart was also superb. Low-hanging cloud made it dramatic as we wended our way along a singletrack, up high, leading to a ridge atop the ski fields with the lifts laying dormant for the season. Even on a weekend, we still had much of this to ourselves; a few walkers sharing the escape, but otherwise adventure and adrenaline, and this trail was worth the weekend alone. If the lifts were working, we would have nipped back up for another few runs.
We got back on the La Resistance route for the last part of the day, before we peeled off to our refuge. The Route des Glières is a tough, steep climb on a dead-end road up to the Glières Plateau. Here was the French Resistance’s last stand in World War II at the Battle of les Glières, with 10,000 Nazi and French militia going up against 465 French Resistance fighters, on the 26th of March, 1944. The Resistance were forced to pull back that day, 149 members lighter, but they restructured and returned to Glières for parachute drops on the 1st of August, and by the 19th they liberated the Haute Savoie, before Allied troops landed. Exactly the period we were up here just enjoying our freedom…
We were barely 3km from our refuge and the best was saved for last. All on gravel, all on high with amazing views, and after the final curve, nestled in an amphitheatre of pines, was an almost fairy tale home for the night: Refuge de Spèe. It was the first time we had arrived without threat of clouds, so we had time to sit outside and be; to escape and reflect. Looking into those trees and the mountains above, I could not imagine the hardship that those before us in 1944 experienced. We knew we were very, very lucky.
The next day, we lost the race before we started; we awoke to rain. But it was an easy, quick day on the bike, back to Basecamp on the lake. A higher proportion of road than gravel, but on a fairly miserable day, in this instance, no one was complaining. Fresh dry clothes and a chance to reminisce over a departure lunch. The hammer was down, it was just one of those days when you are happy on the bike, but you’ll be glad to get to the finish.
The weekend wasn’t a race, it was an adventure and days of making new friends. Pack light, travel far. Get wet, have fun, we are living in fortunate times.