This is mountain biking.

Big hills wee rider

You hear “Epic” describing a lot of things about Chamonix. Surrounded by deeds of derring do from alpinist, skiers, parapontists and such then as a lowly mountainbiker you really have to work to earn the title “epic” for a ride. You could try having horrendous weather to battle through, major mechanicals that required ingenuity & creativity to overcome and make it back. Distance, height gain, length of time riding are options for epic. Injuries can count too because after all, epic doesn’t have to mean good.

So why do I think this ride should count as epic? It wasn’t particularly long (30km) or high (800m up, 2900m down). We were about 7 ½ hours door to door, so not even a full days work. Injuries? Lorne had bleeding shins, but I don’t think I’ve ever been out on the bike with Lorne and he’s not had bleeding shins. Mechanicals? I noticed the dust cap on my pedal was coming loose, stopped, tightened it, and kept going. Not exactly a snapped frame is it. Weather? Well perfect blue sky and t-shirt temps is epicly good I guess….

Epic enough backdrop?

I’m claiming epic because how often do you reach the top of your climb, step over the crampon and iceaxe adorned rucsacs of climbers 1/3 of the way up the highest mountain in the alps to look down at the ribbon of singletrack you’re about to follow as it winds its way past seracs to a glacial lake 600m below you then disappears into the trees where another 1000m of vertical awaits you before you finish descending. THAT’S epic. Well that and the number of photos we took and I’ll now subject you to.

The plan to ride the trail from the Nid d’Aigle came from Tom who had seen the trail on a training run and realized it needed ridden. He was supposed to be part of the team heading up, but the evening before was attending the Neverest girls charity ball. The 4am message from him confirmed what Lorne & I already suspected, he wasn’t going to be up the hill for an all day ride.

Little Lorne, awesome aiguilles.

Instead the two of us pedalled down from Chamonix to Les Houches, hopped on the Prarion gondola and cruised across the hill to the Col du Voza where we had to wait 20 minutes for the next tram. It would have been quicker just to start pedalling up towards the Bellevue, but we had a cunning plan of trying to hide our bikes and 6 foot plus frames by the piles of rucsacs and so not have to get out at the Bellevue stop.

Tramway du Mont Blanc. Not carrying a MTB'er

It didn’t work, we got out at the Bellvue stop.

Our cunning plans continued as we failed to find the track marked on the map running parallel with the tramlines and instead had to carry over the top of Mont Lachat via the brutally steep and slippy trail straight up from behind the Bellevue lift.

At the top the friendly Swiss/French walkers we were to spend the rest of the morning bumping into explained that the dotted red line on our map that contoured round Mont Lachat to the Col du Mont Lachat was infact a wide easy track. At least we got some good photos.

A quick bit of urban riding, at 2100m

Descending down to the Col we met the next surprise of the trip, an olde abandonned building. I have no idea what it was in a past life (google reveals it was for testing jet engines), but I really wish I had a proper bashguard on the bike so I could have played on it a bit more.

Inner Chris Akrigg sated, we continued up to where the map once again claimed the footpath ran parallel with the tramline. The tramline was pretty obvious, being hewn from the cliff face, but there wasn’t any sign of a path. After much humming and hawing and a chat with the walkers who had caught us up again, we decided that as everyone’s maps said the trail went this way, we’d just walk up the side of the tracks and hope there was enough space if a tram came down.

This worked fine until we got to the tunnels where we found a perfectly good path hacked out of cliff face around the tunnels, so I guess the trail does actually just go up by the tramlines. The path was well made, but there was plenty of evidence of rockfall down the chute, I put my helmet on and didn’t hang about going through….

You know you're in Chamonix when you put your lid on to carry the bike uphill...

Past the rubble chute, we turned the corner and arrived, slightly surprised, at the top of the tramway. We’d kinda expected a bit more climbing, but here we were and with the Aiguille de Bionassay above and umpteen thousand feet of singletrack below us we ignored the view and sat down for some food.

Hunger sated and recovered from our disappointment at not getting to plod uphill any more we dropped saddles and rode for at least 5 metres before having to dismount and carry the bikes over an awkward rock step.

How does several kilometers of this grab you?

One of the wee problems of BIG scenery rides like this is often the actual riding is a bit of a let-down, you can only hope that the environment, ambience and views around you make up for it. We had all 3 of these in abundance, we just kinda hoped that we were going to get good riding too.

There were a lot of big scenery/wee rider photos taken

And so it turned out, the trail was technical, but not in any way desperate, for the first few km and although you didn’t want to be falling, you’d have to have been pretty unlucky to get seriously hurt. At the back of our minds though was the section lower down marked “eschelles” (French for “not much fun on a bike”) on the map.

As we approached the ladders, the trail got techier and, more importantly, the consequences of an over the bars, or even a slight slip were increasingly serious, actually about as serious as it can get at points.

If you're going to fall, try to fall right.

The next 15 minutes were a mix of short sections of riding interspaced with pushing or carry the bike through sections either too serious or too difficult for us to ride. Fortunately the marked ladders we’d been concerned about turned out to be metal stairs bolted onto the cliff rather than actual ladders, so not much hassle with the bikes (anyone who’s had to deal with “real” ladders whilst carrying a bike will know how much of a relief this was….).

Sky, lake, rucsac, lid. This is how you do colour coordination folks.

Once past this section the slope slackened off and the trail opened up. We’d not seen many walkers all day, and those we’d seen were predictably amazed to meet a bike, but down here with more visibility and absolutely no one about it was great to let the bikes run after so much slow technical terrain over the last week or so. The trail kept opening up until we reached the junction with the paths that continue up to the Col du Tricot and back to the Col du Voza, but we chose the middle way, down towards Bionassay.

Then the trails got even faster

With over 700m of vertical already desceded we were expecting the track to start dropping in quality but no, once again we were treated to amazing singletrack down through the woods to La Chapiot, finally ending in some warp-speed riding across a meadow where Lorne lawndarted into a bank and tried to imitate a tortoise by pushing his head into his body….

Just when we thought the fun was over, back to tree lined singletrack

We had a bit of a break whilst Lorne cricked his neck back out and took what would surely be the final section of singletrack and onto the 4×4 trail to Bionassay.

Obligatory riding past chalet with mountains behind shot

Again we were wrong, though this time by accident, as we followed a path marker off the road through the village and found ourselves fleeing down a rolling path clinging to the side of a riverbank. We didn’t really know where we were heading at this point, but the trail was fun and there was a signpost, so what could go wrong?

More singletrack. Will it never end? The misery.

Fortunately we lucked out and although the trail abruptly stopped going downhill at a bridge, a short push up a hill later we were on a fireroad heading rapidly to Le Champel. Hitting the road at the village there was 1 more trail we could have taken, but time was ticking for the last tram back up the hill and we were keen for an ice cream stop in St Gervais so instead we got our aero-tuck on an proceeded at speed.

We probably had time to have ice cream AND ride the pipeline trail down to Le Fayet to get the tram from there, but it was sunny out and we didn’t feel like rushing. Besides, as ever with the tramway, you still get another 800m of vert to ride once back up to the Chamonix side so we could forego the trail, fun as it is.

This is about 1/2 the total descent, just to give you an idea of the scale

Back up to Bellevue we decided that there just hadn’t been enough vertical meters of singletrack logged today, and dropped into one of the more hidden lines from back when the Les Houches bike trails ran from the top of the Bellevue lift. It’s not getting the traffic it used to, but it still made for some entertaining riding to finish the day (I’m pretty sure whoever made it rode a proper DH bike…) and it’s always good to make down to Les Houches village without having to ride on a road.

Hidden trail back to Les Houches, it gets a bit junior kick start in places....

Can I call it an epic ride? I don’t know, it was good but.