Travels with the Tranny

Biking the Tour of Mont Blanc

F*ck, f*******ck screamed Brian, hurling his bike into the dust, the naked spindle of his SPD staring back at him where the pedal body should’ve been. Instinctively I began to run down the steep, rooty trail, sensing that this was a pivotal moment in our attempt, with morale and motivation hanging in the balance. The pedal was easily located and not for the first time I thanked my running fitness as I jogged back up to my beleaguered friend. The mood lightened fleetingly until we realised that hand tightening was insufficient and we’d no sensible option but to drop all the way back to Courmayeur for repairs.

From this point onwards we’d be racing the darkness back to Chamonix.

Rewind 27 years and at age ten I’d just completed the walking version of the Tour of Mont Blanc, a stunning 170kmish circumnavigation of Western Europe’s highest mountain. It was a truly formative experience, accompanied by my Dad, still indelibly printed on my psyche even after three decades of systematic brain cell destruction. I’d always planned to return to bike the route and this year finally set off to realise that ambition with little more planning than booking a flight, coaxing Brian and borrowing a map two days before we left.

It was 3:30am on a dismal Dublin night when we dragged our bleary-eyed selves into the deluge outside, throwing gear in the van and heading for the airport. Gun shaped pump and C02 canisters in our hand luggage aside, the journey was smooth and we were soon in Chamonix, chomping at the bit to assemble bikes, squeeze kit in bags and hit the trails. Despite a poor forecast, enthusiasm trumped reason and with Alpine singletrack calling we grabbed the Brevent telepherique, keen to rapidly ascend and at 2pm rolled out into the mist. The section to the Col Des Montets is a superb trail; hugging the valley side and in places dizzyingly committing with jagged cliffs just inches from the riding line.

As the inevitable rain gradually worsened, grip lessened and we started making weary and potentially dangerous errors. A key junction missed in the fog prompted a trying three hours of hike-a-bike with saturated kit offering little protection from plummeting temperatures and so it was with a relieved cheer that we finally hit the road. Faced with the choice of a wet bivouac or pizza and beer we sprinted down the valley, bodies regaining feeling as we hammered out the miles, water blindingly spraying us as we followed the flow of the surface river.

Take Two

The mist was still evaporating off the road as we span up the valley at dawn, stuffing pastries into our faces in preparation for the calorie destruction that was to come. Having already ridden the off-road version of this section we settled for cruising up to Le Tour on the asphalt, allowing some heartening early mileage and a chance to ease into the gradient more gradually.

This pleasant reintroduction hastily ended beyond the telepherique station and an hour long push commenced. Disappointment at the closed cafe at the Col de Balme was instantly allayed as we plunged down the far side over the Swiss border. The trail was incredible, initially sweeping round fast corners with the stunning vista of the new valley laid out ahead of us before diving steeply into the trees, rocks clanging loudly off down tubes and grins as wide as the track. It was still early when we span up the short climb to the Col de la Forclaz and bought an extortionately priced coffee at the top.

The following ‘Bovine’ section was reputedly easier rolling terrain. That knowledge made every rise seem an injustice and in actuality this was the only part where we shouldered the bikes for any length of time, accompanied by the awkwardness of trying not to knock walkers off the edge with our wheels. The upside of this unexpected ascent was a bonus 30mph tear down to the painfully picturesque lakeside village of Champex. We were pleased, very smug in fact, having already covered a hefty distance and felt we deserved a wholesome lunch. Eateries were surprisingly few on the ground and the one we did find generously offered a 26 Euro burger, be warned!

mont blanc

Clif Bars and peanuts duly scoffed, we broke for the Italian border

The sun was high and we chatted happily, the delight of moving through stunning mountain territory enhanced by the incredible terrain and amiable company. An overly relaxed decision to temporarily deviate from the marked route cost us dear as our supposedly simple short-cut became steep, treacherous and entirely unrideable. A U-turn and ten minutes of angry descent later we regained the route at the spot we’d passed over an hour before. Despite this obvious setback we were still a contented pair as we dangled our legs over the veranda at La Peule, the final refuge on the long drag back to Italy. A brief conversation with a passing Canadian, walking the tour with his two young kids sent me into nostalgic waves and not for the first time in my life I silently thanked my Dad for originally setting me on this path.

Lengthening shadows and a distinct chill creeping over the valley soon made finding a suitable bivi spot top priority. With Brian having never previously sampled the delights of sleeping out I was keen for a spectacular mountain outlook, though with hindsight the 2,200m elevation was too high for comfort. We finished the twisted remains of our baguettes, lay back and watched shooting stars in a crystal clear sky. It was 2am when I awoke, freezing, really freezing. Severely limited space had forced us into only packing one-season sleeping bags and even with full thermals and a down-jacket they were grossly insufficient for the sub-zero temperatures at that altitude. I lay awake for several hours praying for dawn. Unbeknown to me, Brian was suffering the same predicament and we were equally relieved when the light finally peeked over the hill.

Not many clothes were shed as we recommenced the superb descent towards La Vachey. Although not openly expressed we shared a subconscious agreement not to suffer another night outside and so there was no disagreement when we decided to stick to the road down to Courmayeur, avoiding a long push.  It would be Chamonix or bust today and the new found time pressure created a more serious atmosphere between us.  Nevertheless by 8am we were rolling into the beautiful Italian town with plenty of kilometres covered, legs defrosting and humour returning.  All seemed to be going according to plan but then the problems started…

Initially it was my fault, spending an inordinate amount of time in the supermarket trying to find food both calorific and malleable enough to meet our nutrition needs whilst also squeezing into the tiny pockets of available bag space. Following this with some inept urban navigation meant we left Courmayeur an hour later than planned in rapidly rising temperatures. A steep walking section further frazzled our worsening temperaments and then the pedal debacle happened! Unfortunately we needed a 17mm spanner, didn’t have one and so the sensible option was to drop the 400 vertical metres back to the town to find a bike shop.

I’ll be eternally grateful to the shop owner who made it his personal mission to get us moving again, zipping up and down the tourist laden street until he’d sourced the required tool and sent us on our way with a cheery ‘buona fortuna’.

mont blanc

The Exception

Three hours behind schedule we deviated up the obscenely steep road of Val Veny before rejoining the TMB route at the virtually non-existent Lac de Combal. I scoffed some chocolate and waited for Brian before embarking on the crux of the climb, a steep, loose and barely rideable access track to the Refuge E. Soldini. We’d chosen not to modify our bikes at all for our Tour and for the most part 1×10 drive trains had served us well. This section was the exception.

The constant gradient conspired with the frustratingly loose surface to make it an epic struggle of power and balance. We could’ve taken the less strenuous walking option but felt obliged to turn the pedals over whenever possible and the admiring glances of walkers provided a much needed boost. That was until a tennis shoe adorned Italian cruised past straddling an electric bike – not an ounce of sweat on his brow as he sailed on – swiftly followed by his three friends in pristine matching attire.

My pride turned to shame; our grime caked faces and crumpled demeanour clashing starkly with our stylish counterparts.

Another hour of mostly pushing took us over the Col de la Seigne and a descent that will stay in my memory forever; a rapid rolling, undulating pump track of a trail that saw us tearing round the creases of the mountainside, hammering through glacial streams, wheels skimming the surface and involuntary laughs filling the air. Unfortunately the following Col De La Croix du Bonhomme was little to be jovial about. After a short rideable lower section it degenerated into a steep and long push with a demotivating view of the summit an unimaginable distance away. Brian’s ‘disco slippers’ weren’t particularly suited to extended hikes and he ground it out admirably whilst I kept up my spirits with rudimentary French conversations that tended to conclude that we were completely crazy.

Brian mont blanc

Tangfastic views

Views from the col were stupendous and we hoovered our pate baguettes whilst glorifying in the circumstances that had brought us to that point. We’d moved strongly since the long forgotten morning’s hassles and all we wanted now was a speedy, none too technical descent and we’d be confident of reaching our unlikely goal. What actually ensued was a horrendous ridge line section, tantalising us with twenty metres of riding before rounding a corner to another cliff. Luckily this torture was short-lived and once we reached the Col du Bonhomme itself the trail veered on the just rideable side of super-techy. This proved another massive highlight, steep drop-ins and balancy moves more akin to trials riding at times than downhilling.

I marvelled at the huge diversity of terrain throughout this Grand Tour, truly none of the epic descents were in any way similar, testing the full spectrum of abilities whilst remaining almost entirely rideable. Protecting bikes was as important as preserving bodies, as rocks jutted out waiting to snap hangers and rip off mechs. I rolled a loose stone straight through a spoke but for the amount of abuse that trail dished out it seemed a pretty fair return.

More stunning descending took us through Les Contamines and a village buzzing with the arrival of some of the famous Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc runners who were by now stuck into their own Tours. With just the 900m ascent of the Col De Voza to go and possibly a couple of hours of light, we allowed ourselves to believe we may be sleeping in the comfort of the chalet that night.

The col itself featured some of the steepest roads I’ve ever seen, but a hazy satisfaction was already overcoming us and coupled with the incredible backdrop of the late evening sun slowly dipping behind jagged peaks, we easily found the inspiration to grind it out. Pausing for a handshake and a handful of Haribo at the top we struck out down the hill for Les Houches, unable to resist the bike park trails despite the highly questionable light.

Ian Bailey

The final stretch

Hitting the road at dusk we chain ganged it back to Chamonix, spinning back up to our chalet as darkness took hold. We both felt remarkably strong despite the herculean efforts of the day although looking at our ‘after’ photo on arrival it’s clear that we were pretty destroyed!

So that was that, just over 20 hours of moving time in two days, 174km travelled, 6850m of ascent and descent, 4 baguettes, 800 grams of pate, 3 bags of Haribo, 12 Clif Bars, some rubbery cheese and a couple of bars of very melted chocolate!

credit card pate lunch

So how good was biking the TMB?

In short, it was definitely everything I’d hoped and imagined it would be.

A two day assault was very demanding but with perfect weather and the right balance of fitness, riding ability and motivation it’s totally doable. Despite our couple of errors the navigation is generally easy and there’s no need to be guided if you’re happily capable of being self-sufficient in the hills. Having said that, they are big mountains and the dangers are very real.

We had an inspiring but extremely uncomfortable night out. Recommendations would definitely be to ride it clockwise, carry plenty of clothing, spare food, tools and bike bits and stay in the refuges for warmth, comfort and a great big hot feed. We rode hardtails and as ever my Ibis Tranny excelled, I think it’s a better choice than taking a bigger bike due to the unavoidable pushing and carrying. Choosing your riding partners wisely is essential to keep the harmony. Myself and Brian share the same fitness levels, grim determination and dry humour and it worked perfectly to get us through the couple of low moments… just!

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