On a bank holiday weekend me and Rob set off to complete a loop of Mont Blanc, taking in three countries, Switzerland, Italy and France. Day One With no more than a small rucksack we got the train to Martigny and started the long climb to the top of the Grand St Bernard, 2250m high. A bright and sunny start turned chilly and snowy at the top with banks of snow lining the final few metres of road to the top. We passed, and chatted to, a few hikers who were on their way to Rome from various parts of Northern Europe and for whom a life on the road was a daily occurrence. As tedious as the climb was it was all worth it for the descent to Aosta which was breathtaking and beautiful. A plate of pasta in Aosta and we were off to La Thuile ski resort, our destination for the night. Having negotiated the reasonably stretch of road from Aosta to….we turned left to climb the Colle Saint Marco, a vicious 10km that climbed 1000m. The road never stopped snaking upwards and it was with relief and also annoyance that on climbing to the top we realized we were above La Thuile and had to descend into it, as we had avoided the main road into it which wasn’t as steep or as long but nowhere near as pretty and isolated. We found our hotel for the night, and went out to eat pizza and find a TV to watch the champions league final.
Thankfully the following day the rain had subsided and we left La Thuile after breakfast in clear skies and in good spirits. We knew we had a bit of a climb first thing to get to Petit St Bernard but the first few kilometres were a steady climb through trees giving us a great view down on La Thuile and the mountains separating Italy and France.
Even towards the top of the Petit St Bernard when the road flattened out the gradient was not too steep but all of sudden, literally after turning a corner in the road and despite it flattening out somewhat, the landscape and the conditions changed. The mountains became more prominent, the landscape more barren and all of a sudden rain was falling and piles of snow appeared from the side of the road. Although the climb was not steep it was very gradual and with the change in temperature it was essential to keep moving. Eventually we reached the top of the Col de Petit St Bernard in the pouring rain and headed for the only café open for a hot drink and a radiator.
Although the only way was down, with the weather as it was we didn’t really want to leave but to keep on schedule there really was no choice so with jackets and gloves on we descended off the top of the Col as quick as the wet roads would allow us. Getting below the cloud line meant a change in temperature and an easing of the rain which was welcome so we could discard the gloves and jackets ready for the next climb of the day out of Bourg St Maurice to Cormet de Roselund.
This climb started along a stream and wound its way through the trees, winding upwards and eventually breaking out into a valley with huge mountains on either side and a typically barren landscape with not much traffic, apart from camper vans and the odd motorbike. Unlike the previous climb, the weather was pretty warm and we were able to plod along, although the last few kilometres to the Col seemed to drag forever along a false flat and really sapped the energy. The signpost for the Col was actually worth the visit and more inspiring than the Col itself. A short descent off the Col and we found a roadside cafe for lunch with the biggest, and most expensive, omelette we’d eaten was polished off in no time.
After a refill we knew we were on track and time and continued the descent down to the Barage de Roselund which was one of the most spectacular sights on the ride. It was stunning and well worth a picture stop. The chapel which lay next to the barage on the far side of the lake was equally as inspiring and in retrospect we would have found a cafe here for lunch to be able to take in those views for longer. A short climb away from the barage took us to Col du Méraillet and from there we headed down a superb forested switchback descent before starting the third major climb of the day, this time following the Time Megeve Granfondo towards Col des Saisies, from where we would descend towards Megève.
We hadn’t known that Saisies is a ski resort and only as we got higher and higher, and the temperature changed above the clouds, did the ski lifts come into view. The climb was pretty wicked, with a steady climb to begin with followed by drop across a valley and then another climb out of the village and being able to see the road in front and above you snaking up and up through a gap in the mountains. Only when we got to that gap did it become clear that the resort of Saisies was still another two or three kilometres further on. Anyway, we made it and were also glad we had made the decision not to stay there for the night as the resort was dead and nowhere seemed to be open. Fortunately we chanced upon another cyclist at the side of the road when we stopped to take a photo of the Col sign who was from Denmark and, to celebrate his birthday, was cycling the Tour de France route of the year of his birth. He had told his wife to expect him back at the end of June!!
From Col des Saisies we were headed to our overnight stay in Megève. As the weather seemed to be coming in we belted it down the descent and tried to keep the pace high into Megeve to avoid the rain. We just about managed it and found our hotel for the night, which was everything we wanted, and more. It was a beautiful place with a snug bar and cosy restaurant so we had a few drinks, a great meal to top off a tough but satisfying day.
The following morning we woke to a rainstorm which showed absolutely no signs of stopping. Breakfast didn’t slow it either so, in the knowledge that we had less distance to cover today than on the previous two days, we set off hoping that eventually it would clear. With little traffic out on the roads, due to the bank holiday, we were able to remain relatively safe but with not being able to see a thing wearing glasses and not being able to see a thing without them because of the spray, it was a little treacherous to say the least! Plus we weren’t exactly prepared for this sort of weather with a shower resistant gilet and one decent pair of gloves between us – if only Rob had made decent use of that rucksack and actually put something useful in it! By the time we got to the bottom of the valley leading up to St Gervais we were both freezing and not totally sure of the route either. From the profile the route looked fairly flat but the road we needed to take snaked upwards quite sharply in places before falling almost immediately and stayed like this for sometime, all the while the rain fell and we were getting more and more like drowned rats. Eventually we pulled into a café for a hot drink and also for some directions to Les Houches. A hot chocolate and route guidance from a most unhelpful maitre d’ led us to the right road and we traversed again the autoroute between Les Houches and Geneva and climbed sharply through a pretty little village before descending into Les Houches by the Prarion cablecars leading to the ski resort. A relatively flat ride into Chamonix followed and we were able to stay close together through Chamonix and into Argentière where we stopped for some lunch before continuing the final push to try and make it back to Martigny for the 3pm train. We chalked off the Col des Montets and the final climb of the trip, the Col de la Forclaz, before bombing down the descent into Martigny with enough time to spare for a photo and a beer from Coop before the train rolled in.
This trip was fantastic, from start to finish. Rob was great company, the route was perfect and despite some route anomalies and changes in weather conditions, I wouldn’t have changed any of it. To complete the Tour du Mont Blanc is amazing but there is absolutely no way I could even think of doing this in one day as those that compete in the race do. Not only would it be so physically demanding, you wouldn’t actually get to enjoy the scenery and the ride that much at all and that’s what bikepacking is all about. We cycled through some great landscapes, saw places we would otherwise never see and got to spend three days cycling through three different countries. A top way to spend a long weekend.