Tour des Combins

Tour des Combins. You can say what you like about Switzerland, but the flag's a big plus...

Let me break the fourth wall on the way this blog works. Usually I’ve had an idea that’s been written down long before the ride happens. Sometimes the ride doesn’t go to plan and the idea doesn’t get used. Sometimes I have a better idea. As a result there’s a file on the laptop with unused stories covering subjects as diverse as “How much fucking up of the environment is considered OK*”, “How addictive is bike riding” and “How quickly did Capucin monkeys invent prostitution after being taught capitalism” (The answer to all these sort-of-questions is “very”).

I had an intro all lovely and written for this, then realised it was perfectly wrong. I like realising things.

Dave realising just how much fun carrying a bike uphill can be at 2800m

So instead of a bit of a rant about how “Mountain Bikes” shouldn’t be called “mountain” bikes because really its “lower down the hill where the trails are interesting” bikes I’m just going to be happy about the idea of going into the hills with friends and enjoying being there**.

Autumn innit. Col du Mille descent

Because three of us went into the mountains, rode a route that we were fairly sure would be good, and had a generally grand time.

That route would be a variation on the Tour des Combins. The ‘Combins’ being the Grand Combin, one of Switzerland’s bigger hills, and the ‘variation on the Tour des’ bit is the classic Tour des Mont Blanc esque hut to hut walk with tweeks to make it betterer for bikes.

Having fun. Mostly.

The first thing that made it betterer for bikes was Bike Verbier giving us a lift up to Bourg St Pierre to start the first climb of the day about 1000m higher than otherwise. If this seemed like a good idea at the time, it seemed like a bloody amazing idea by the time we were slogging up the final hill of the day to the Cabane Chanrion.

The first hike-a-bike of the trip. First of many, we just didn't know how many....

That’s in about 2500 meters time though, we had the initial thousand or so to go up to the Col du Mille first.

They went.


Confusingly, this climb is part of the Col du Mille down. climbing pictures are much quicker to take than DH pics.

You go up to get down, and the down from the Col du Mille is a bit of a classic. Starting at over 2400m, you’ve got a lot of winding alpine singletrack to ride before you hit first shrubby plants then the tree line. Better, just as you’re getting to the tree line you hit one of the best sections of trail I know of. Nothing too technical, and there’s better backdrop elsewhere too, but it just hits all the right sizes of turn on just the right gradient to make something really memorable.

Sanny makes the magazine magic happen whilst Dave rides off into the Col du Mille sunset...

Down then up, well across more than up at first, but eventually up. First on tarmac to Mauvoisin, then gravel to the Mauvoisin dam, then tunnel to Lac Mauvoisin.


Aye, tunnel. With the normal valley floor trails being under 60 years of water you have to take a few km’s of tunnel along the side of the lake instead.

You canny say the riding’s not varied in the alps…

Varied riding (pushing...) past the damn dam.

The climb keeps going up, the scenery keeps going up, the energy levels keep going down. Thoughts of missing the 18.30 feeding time at the refuge zoo keep entering my head, along with the first musings about e-bikes.

Forgive me father for I have sinned.

There's a hut up that valley. 250 extra watts would really help get there.

Turns out we needn’t have worried. As the Cabane Chanrion comes into view so does the hut guardian, stood atop a lonely peak scanning the horizon for his only 3 guests of the night.

Switzerland or Nepal? Nearing the refuge.

Dinner at 7pm? Why that’ll do nicely sir.

Hut views. Welcome at the end of the day.

This is pretty much where the original start to the tale fell apart. I should be talking about the trails and the riding and the differences but really, the best part was just beginning. Sitting outside in the sun(moon?)chairs watching the moon rise over the mountains and the stars get outpaced by the satellites had nothing to do with biking, we could have arrived on foot, skis or parapont and the experience would have been exactly the same. We have far more in common than which divides us  I guess.

Cabane Chanrion

Another day with another sunrise and another litre of tea in the belly to hydrate. There are better starts to the day than a 400m singletrack descent out the front door, but not many.

Breakfast singletrack. Could be worse.

There are better continuations of the morning than an 800m pedal and push to 2800m altitude, but not many.

More than the previous example however.

Ride then carry then ride then carry then ride. A quick summary of the climb to the col. Sanny pictured on a ride bit.

Passing through the Fenetre de Durand marks the literal and figurative high point of the trip, 2797m up and surrounded by high peaks and glaciers.

Headed for the Fenetre de Durand, surrounded by high peaks and glaciers.

It actually arrives fairly easily, the hardest part of the climb by far is lower down, by the time you get to the last few km’s to the col the slope angle has eased off and the scenery cranked up to 11 to distract you even more.

Good col that.

Fenetre de Durand. Lower than the stuff about it, bigger than the riders trying to climb it.

The descent off the other side into Italy’s no bad either. Moonscape shale and deep deep turquoise lakes that are the thing of Yeti brand managers dreams. A final tech section through derailleur hungry rocks and you’re spat out into a high alpage and the start of a long balcon trail round to Etroubles. Really long. 14km or so with barely altering altitude through some of Italy’s best scenery. Bikes are good.

We're off to button moon, button moon. 80's childhoods, no Paw Patrol there.

I’d had high hopes for the descent into Entroubles. After a summer of bike guiding where pretty much the whole point of riding is to go to places you know and have checked out before, this was going to be a dotted line on the map that I knew nothing about, could find nothing about, but that ticked all the right topographical boxes to give a classic Aosta valley singletrack descent.

Still descending up by the col. It's near continuity.

It didn’t quite work that way. GPS said we were slap bang on the trail but the ground said otherwise. I’m pretty sure there was a trail there once, but I’m also pretty sure the dinosaurs were there once too. Dejectedly we kept picking our way down through open forest until a perfectly groomed trail appeared where no map said it should.

Keep following the map or strike out into the unknown?

Still teasing with pictures from the upper parts of the descent. It was pretty good.

The unknown worked out very well indeed.

A known known rider on an unknown unknown descent in a known unknown Italian valley. Early 2000's politics. And we though things were weird then.

The other thing that worked out very well, the trail ended in a small Italian village. Coffee time.

Drink enough coffee and you too will turn into a roadie. Quick, Sanny, bag that classic col.

Caffeine is an interesting performance enhancing drug. It was also a welcome one at the start of 900m of tarmac climbing. We weren’t going quite to the top of the Grand St Bernard pass on the road, but a couple of sweaty hours later we weren’t much off it. Classic road bike cols are better done on road bikes would be my main conclusion from that.

Hello Bike, Hello Fenetre du Ferret. My much abused and much loved Edit v2 ticks off another classic descent.

Here Dave, on his carbon 29’er hardtail, decided that a better time would be had continuing over the col and descending by road back to Etiez. It was 5pm with 350m of hike-a-bike to the next col and a technical descent still to go. The appeal of travelling 20km without pedalling was too much… We waved Dave off, never to speak of him again. Sanny and I shouldered our bikes and started the plod to the Fenetre du Ferret.

We ain't plodding no more. Starting the drop to La Fouly from Fenetre du Ferret.

Somehow I’ve never been to the Fenetre du Ferret before, but for a first time up there, arriving to early autumn golden hour on a perfect blue sky evening is about as good as it gets. Even with a chilly wind whistling over the rock and snow it was a happy place to be.

The Alps. Does good backdrop. Very good backdrop.

As we started the descent it got even happier. Some descents are memorable due to the situation, some the quality of the riding, some the sheer length of the descent. Dropping from the Fenetre du Ferret to La Fouly ticks all they boxes and more. Just a stunningly good ride in stunningly good scenery.

Wish you were here? Wish you could be here without the thousands of meters of climbing to get here? Me too.

The ride could have continued. From La Fouly there’s the Tour du Mont Blanc trails along the valley floor, a couple of climbs can get you to some classic descents from around Champex Lac or above Orsierres, but it was getting dark and I was hungry. We hit the road and tucked for a very rapid return to Etiez, in the end the full descent, some 30km and 2000m disappeared in 80 minutes. If only all human progress could be so easy!

Sanny making progress. We descended a lot of trail like this. The fading light may have killed off the descent lower down but it didn't look so bad up high.

Cheers and hi-fives go out to Sanny and Dave for being (mostly) willing guinea pigs to the route, Alpavista, a fellow pictures and pontification rider/blogger who gives a breadcrumb trail of clues to put together over a bit of time with a map and educated guessing to help plan routes (except his pontifications are in French which does lend them a much more poetic air than I get). And Lucy and Phil at Bike Verbier who know every trail every where and are two of the best things to happen to mountain biking.

Insert own caption here.

*You can enter a false email address to complete the test here and not worry about getting follow up guilt trips, the point’s more to make us think about just how much we have to change behaviour to live in a way 1 planet can support us.

**Keeping with the transparency theme, normally I get something written up and published within a few days of the ride. All this happened about 3 weeks ago but working riding my bike has got in the way of writing for free about riding my bike.