Le Tour Triptych

Three of these please.

Three stories about the Tour du France. No, not really, but I wonder how much traffic from VTT’s lycra clad brethren will be directed this way as a result of that title. Page views are views, it all aids the google rating…

No, this is the story of the three descents from Le Tour that seem made to be appreciated together. The trail trio that take the tumultuous twisting turns towards Trient, Chatelard and Vallorcine. I’d prefer it if those last two were renamed Tatlard and Tallowscene but I want doesn’t always get as Trump appears never to have been told as a wean.

Alliteration or no alliteration, this is what 50% of Le Tour riding looks like. The other 50% features more trees...

The Le Tour riding encapsulates much of what makes biking in Chamonix so great. A mix of gondolas and chairlifts interspaced with traversing and climbing under your own power. Thin ribbons of singletrack high above the treeline dropping to ancient paths through the forests, all with a range of technical challenge from the fast and flowy to the feck that I’m pushing and everything in between.

Great bike, great trail, adequate rider. Cheers for the photo Fred Leth.

The catalyst for riding all these trails in a day came in a visit to Chamonix from Fred Leth. I seem to make a habit of riding with friends from the flattest countries in Europe, presumably in the hope that I can be faster than them. Riding the Enduro des Belleville last week with Bas from the Netherlands, where he kicked my ass, and most peoples ass, on every stage he had inflated tyres for shows the folly of that theory. Fred being from Denmark doesn’t seem to cause him any issues with knocking out some impressive race results as he trundles about the alps each summer in his caravan. Even better, Spence made a return visit to town to get reacquainted with the trails that made him the rider he is today.

Frederik Leth. Taller than Mont Blanc.

In the usual narrative the trails would be ridden in ascending order so you could use a line like “each trail was better than the last” but I think we probably rode the best trail first. Though the second trail runs it close. And the third is up there too.

Up the Charamillon gondola and the Autannes chairlift, onto the bikes and pedal round to the Refuge du Col de Balme and onwards towards le Bechat. Uphill dealt with and some cryptic clues from Spence and I about what lies ahead we drop in and start the fast flowing blast round towards Catogne that forms the first part of the descent to Chatelard.

Fred leading out Spence onto the first dip down towards Catogne.

It’s a particular pleasure, getting to show someone a trail for the first time. You know what’s coming up and, whilst you no doubt still enjoy the trail, some of the excitement has gone out of it. With someone new to the trail along for the ride though, so much of that comes back as you watch their reactions. Fred seemed pretty happy!

Sheeeeeep! Such interruptions aside, cracking trail innit.

With the 200m prelude down to Catogne done, we continued on for yet more alpine singletrack through fields and past old cowshed to the tree line. As the trail enters the trees things start to get a little more challenging, but still nothing too technical. A new built section of trail near the Esserts reservoir brings you away from some grassy 4×4 track and keeps you on singletrack all the way to the tiny hamlet of La Mena. It’s an odd contrast, going so suddenly from dark woods to weaving through perfectly tended chalet gardens, then back into the dark woods but that’s how it rolls about here.

Spence making the call between looking at the trail, looking at the views and looking to see if there's a clown waiting in the haunted cowshed. All in a days work on the way to Chatelard.

The next dark woods are a bit different from those above. The roots are to be expected, but it’s the most rocks we’ve had to deal with all descent. Much steeper and more technical it’s a challenging finish when the arms and core are getting tired from all the trail above, but very satisfying.

A less tech, but also less dark, bit of the dark woods. Dark woods do not make for easy photographery.

The trail spits you out onto a viaduct for a short flat pedal, another little bit of jibby trail, a picturesque bridge and an old school version of falling water house and then it’s done. 1100m of first class and varied descending. Now just pedal back up the road to Vallorcine before the lifts there close at 1250 (not 1300 as the website claims) and for added fun, watch the train that saves you this effort go past shortly after deciding that there probably isn’t a train at this time of day.

Lap two involved a bit more up to get to the down.

Lap two. Off to Trient. Once more up the Autannes chairlift, onto the bikes and pedal round to the Refuge du Col de Balme but this time keep climbing to the Col below the Croix de Fer. You can pedal all the way to the col, but you can also chill out and push up, it’s not a race. The col is a good spot for lunch, so we stopped for lunch. Bikes are grand, and going downhill fast is grand, but lying on a grassy hill in the sunshine with stunning views all round is grand too.

Even better if you can add in some good French bread. An Italian coffee too would have been perfection, but you can’t always get what you want (is Trump a fan of the Rolling Stones?)

Tyre tappin' Mont Blanc and sending the alpinists flying. Starting the Trient trail with (almost) a Swiss squeaker.

Eventually we accepted we would have to sit up and exercise. The trail to Trient has been covered here before, away have a look at the other blog entries or check out Tom’s Chamonix Bike Book if you need more information (or give Wayne a shout if you want to be shown a few of the variations that have been left out of the blogs to keep a bit of the trails hidden…) but suffice to say it’s a Chamonix classic for a very good reason and there are a lot of people out there who’d rate it as the best descent in the valley.

We're not in the bike park now Dorothy.

There has been some trail work on the first section that has seen the arrival of some very aggressive drainage features, rock slabs sitting vertically out of the trail about 30 to 40cm proud. How you deal with them depends mostly on how high you can bunnyhop, but despite it messing with the flow it’s probably for the best if it helps slow down some of the folks blasting down here on one of the busier walking trails. On which subject, some kind soul has been putting screws and nails into drainage ditches presumably in an effort to puncture tyres, though the angles used could equally puncture trail shoes or livestock hoofs. Gonnay no dae that would seem a fair comment.

This is at the top of the Autannes chairlift, but it's be well good if the sentiment coud be applied elsewhere too. Please.

Back to the trail, which has finished. We’ve spun back round to France on the road and are about to head up the Vallorcine gondola for the second time of the day. The group grows by three as we bump into Lorne and Edinburgh ski shop Freeze‘s finest Al and Becky.

Bikers assemble! Lorne hitting the Vallorcine DH on a sociable group lap

We’re heading for the Vallorcine DH track (Fred is a downhiller after all), they’re heading to the DH track, so we get a fun lap as a big group feeding off each others laughs/screams at surviving rain eroded berms and some of the best man made biking in the area.

After another ride up the Vallorcine lift we head back round to the front of the hill for the third big lap of the day. Spence has to head home and the others are going for the Trient lap to finish the day so Fred and I re trace our steps from the mornings first lap, but with none of those pesky flow-breaking photo or crash stops.

Heading back up to the col from the Vallorcine gondola. The toughest tiny climb in Chamonix?

At the chatelard junction we head up the short climb to begin the third variation of the day down to Vallorcine. We hadn’t really noticed time or fatigue creeping up on us during the day, but suddenly both were becoming a pressing concern. Energy levels were low and we only had 12 mins to the last lift out of the Vallorcine valley, so we skipped the link into the Vallorcine DH track and it’s associated singletrack to instead dump a couple hundred meters of altitude on 4×4 track and short cut throughs. This wasn’t a full wave of the white flag though, we still broke off for the final 200m of fine forest singletrack back to the gondola to arrive with 5 minutes to spare. An irrelevant 5 minutes as the ferme barrier was already up.

All smiles at this point of the descent to Vallorcine, only 900m to loose and not long to do it in...

Fortunately the liftie took pity on us and we were ushered under the tape and onto a gondola. As we stepped off the top the motors were shut down and the lift stopped turning. Time to head for home.

Yeah so the photo's from the first lap, but it's got a kinda heading for home vibe about it, so I'll stick it in here and assume nobody'll read the caption.

In an ideal world we’d then have hit the Posettes trail back towards Chamonix, but it’s August and we didn’t want to invite conflict on one of the more contentious local trails. Nothing to do with being tired or how much I like looking down from my high horse (though I hear the higher they are the more they hurt when you fall off). Instead it was a cruise through the bike park and assorted simple trails by the river to home and a fridge of cold drinks.

Just 3 bikers riding 3 sweet trails and chilling with a dinosaur. We think the t-rex is more of a track rider but, those arms wouldn't last long on a 1000+m descent.

Another day in paradise ticked off without having to think twice or listen to Phil Collins.