Chamonix: Sick and Steep|
Wednesday, January 05, 2005
|Photo by Dan Milner
|Paul Heron on La Trappe trail
Think about Chamonix, France and you think of lunatics on skis blurring the distinction between skiing and free-falling, right? Or perhaps it's images of climbers pushing the limits of alpinism to new extremes.
Well, there's another side to Chamonix quickly working its way into the picture. In case you haven't heard, Chamonix is rapidly becoming known as the hotspot of European mountain biking.
But before you load up your gear and book a ticket over, let me just start by pointing out some of the things Chamonix doesn't have. Chamonix doesn't have any of those sick tree bridges that you always see in the videos. Oh yeah, we all sit around and get loaded and talk about building some, but when the time comes to actually get our butts off the bikes and start shoveling all the good intentions suddenly disappear. Y'know, there's only so many hours in the day, only so many days in the summer, and sooooooo much ground to cover that we'd all just rather ride.
And while we're at it, we don't really have any manmade jumps here either. There are a couple of piles of dirt pushed up over by La Norvège and there are guys who go and session them but if you wanna jump, don't come here. Go to Georgia or Oklahoma or B.C. or wherever it is they build those beautifully sculpted masterpieces of engineering, but don't waste your time on Cham.
So why would you ever want to come to Chamonix when there is such sick riding in the States and Canada? How does riding steep, technical terrain in the shadow of some of the most beautiful mountains in the world sound?
Y'see here in Chamonix, we've got about, ohhhhhh let's see...4807 meters minus 1035 meters is what? About 3772 meters of vertical between Chamonix's centre ville and the summit of Mont Blanc. The highest lift climbs to 3842 meters and after that, it's as high as you and your snow tires want to go. Bring a harness and an ice tool - you might need them.
Realistically though, the best riding is off the many téléphériques (gondolas) that ring the valley. Six ski stations surround the village and lift access to any of them is only a short spin away. Trails descend in all directions and offer a wide variety of riding. There are mellow jeep trails like the Grand Balcon Sud between Brévent and Flégère that are perfect for those looking for some excitement but who might not have as much experience behind the handlebars.
Then, of course, there are miles and miles of steep, technical single track to satisfy the hungers of even the most hardcore downhillers. Trails like the Bel Achat descending from the top of Brévent, offers a steep descent punctuated with what seems like hundreds of tight switchbacks and plenty of air below just to keep things interesting.
On the other hand, if you're the kind of rider with thighs the size of tree trunks bulging from your lycra shorts, there's certainly enough uphill grinds to keep your heart pounding until long after the teeth on your small ring have worn off.
For many riders, the Petit Balcon which encircles the floor of the valley is as much of a ride as you could ask for. The trail begins at the northeast end of town next to the parapente landing field and follows the flat but scenic Bois du Bouchet to the jumps of La Norvège.
A bit of a warm-up climb leads to a short rollercoaster descent that heads across a bridge to the base of Levancher. This is where the climbing really begins and for those riders who are a bit overzealous through the Bois du Bouchet, it might also be where the walking begins.
Thankfully, the climb isn't too technical and for fit riders, a good set of lungs and strong legs is all that is required to make it to the top without tapping.
The ride then follows the road for a short, refreshing descent through the village of Lavancher before it dives off right through the meadows that lead up to Argentière. The trail is a gradual uphill battle on loose rock with a couple of stream crossings and a few sections of rider-launching roots to negotiate.
The trail gradient eventually eases to a fast, flat single track traversing the side of the Grands Montets. A severe drop to one side, and turn after turn of blind corners are guaranteed to keep your heart rate up through this section.
Crossing a stream, you once again find yourself climbing a steep trail of loose rock. This is followed by a loose, unnerving descent punctuated by numerous rim-bending water breaks.
At the bottom of the hill, you'll find yourself in the parking lot of the Grands Montets. Ride out of the lot, hang a right on the road and after crossing the river, chuck a left and get ready for the descent. Shift into your big ring and start hammering down the dirt fire road following the riverbank. Quite a few streams cross this road and you'll rarely know whether to take the bridges or the water crossings next to them until after you've passed.
|Photo by Dan Milner
|Checking out the face
of Aiguille Verte
The pace soon slows as the road narrows to a rocky rollercoaster single track, changing often and abruptly and leaving most newcomers flailing for gears. Follow this to the golf course at Flégère at which point you can relax and look forward to the fast road descent back to Chamonix.
The Petit Balcon ride normally takes a few hours but for those looking for something a bit more strenuous, it is a good start to many other rides leading out and around the valley.
One good ride that will last a greater part of the day begins with the Petit Balcon Nord and, after reaching the Grands Montets, follows the signs towards Le Tour ski station. If you're just getting warmed up by the time you arrive at the top of Le Tour, drop into Switzerland and hump your way up the pass called Col de la Forclaz.
If, at this point, you still haven't broken a sweat then you might as well charge the Tour du Mont Blanc. This circumnavigation of the highest peak in the Alps takes you approximately 200 kilometers through three countries (France, Switzerland, Italy) on what a lot of local riders call the ultimate alpine ride.
The five-day tour leads you through some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery in the Alps and although the uphill slogs are brutal, they pay off in bone-rattling, bugs-in-your-teeth, smoking brake descents. There are tour operators in Chamonix who can keep you from getting lost, show you the best places to sleep and eat along the way, and keep you laughing even though your thighs have burst into flames. They even offer SAG support so that you can change into clean, dry clothes before you slide up to the bar to begin the herculean task of fluid replacement.
Summer is the best time to ride in Chamonix with the prime months being July and August. The temperatures rarely reach into the 90s during the day and cool off dramatically at night. The months either side are great as well and riders usually encounter fewer tourist hassles in June and September. Stretching into May and October, though beautiful times of the year, you're likely to encounter encroaching snow on many of the best trails.
Riding through the streets of Chamonix pretty much sums up the scene here. You'll see it all from baggy shorted BMX grommies to super-light, lycra-encased, cross-country man-machines, to fully-armored downhillers with bikes that look like motorcycles and weigh almost as much.
And don't be surprised if you see more than a few of them with ropes and harnesses strapped to their Camelbacks. After all, this is Chamonix…
NEED TO KNOW
134 ave Ravanel le Rouge
33 (0)4 50 53 01 01
front suspension bike rentals - 22 Euros/day
56 rue Ravanel le Rouge
MBC Micro-Brasserie du Chamonix
350 rue du Bouchet
33 (0)4 50 53 61 59
(including Tour du Mont Blanc)