Ahead of an epic new sportive, Cyclist takes on a two-day gravel ride to loop around western Europe’s highest mountain: Mont Blanc
Words Nick Christian Photography Patrick Lundin
‘Yeehaw!’ Gaby dispatches a whoop of delight that echoes around the valley before she clips in and sets off in hot pursuit. Not far ahead is François, whose bonkers brainchild this ride is, and the enigmatic Nicolas, endurance rider extraordinaire.
As the trio drops out of sight, I’m left to consider how I have come to find myself staring down a frighteningly steep Alpine footpath that might generously be described as a goat track, but only if we are talking about adrenaline junkie goats.
We’re in Italy, I think, but it could be France. The border is around here somewhere but in this rugged landscape there are no signs or border posts.
When Cyclist’s editor emailed me a month or so earlier, offering a big – very big – autumnal gravel ride around Mont Blanc, I had replied immediately.
Fifteen months into an unprecedented pandemic, I had barely been beyond my southeast London postcode on more than a handful of occasions, so of course I said yes.
That was before I checked the profile of the ride: 216km of distance with over 8,000m of climbing, divided into two days.
That would be a significant challenge on smooth tarmac, but this ride is largely off-road, and not the kind of off-road that means crunching gently over gravel while discussing what to have for lunch. This route takes in boulders, slippy mud and vertiginous drops like the one I’m staring over while gripping my brake levers.
Oh well, the only way is down.
The big idea
But let’s backtrack to the beginning. In the run-up to the trip I had intermittently checked the weather forecast at our destination. It was soon clear that this was an exercise in futility, because the outlook was entirely different every time.
I had paid enough attention in geography lessons to know that mountain regions are magnets for microclimates, but the BBC’s usually reliable weather app was increasingly resembling a roulette wheel.
Little bit of Mistral action? Could happen. Hailstones the size of golf balls? You’ll be glad you brought your helmet. Early-season snow? Entirely possible. Glorious blue skies? Only if we’re lucky.
‘We are not lucky,’ says a solemn François as I arrive at the breakfast table on the day of our ride. Overnight a dense mizzle has enshrouded the French ski resort of Megève and seems here to stay.
There’s no talk of postponing, though. Time’s a-wastin’ and we need to make it to Courmayeur in Italy before sunset.
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My guide for today is François Xavier-Blanc, who as well as running his own bike brand [see ‘The rider’s ride’] is co-creator of a fiendish new event called the Gravel Tour du Mont Blanc, which will have its inaugural edition in September 2022, and which Cyclist is here to check out ahead of time.
The event combines bits of the Tour du Mont Blanc, one of the hardest road-based sportives in the world at 338km and 8,400m of ascent (which Cyclist tackled in 2018) and the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, an off-road running ultramarathon that loops around Mont Blanc for 170km.
The route for the new Gravel Tour du Mont Blanc has been devised by Nicolas Roux, a local elite rider, multiple winner of the Etape du Tour and the record holder of the Tour du Mont Blanc road event.
He’s also the man clipping into his pedals next to me as we get ready to leave, which I find both reassuring and intimidating.
Rounding out our foursome is Gaby Thompson, who now works with mapping company Komoot (a partner with the Gravel Tour du Mont Blanc) but is a former pro rider and placed second woman on the Transcontinental ultra race in 2014.
It goes without saying that I feel just a touch out of my depth in such company as we roll out of town on the southern road towards the Col de Véry.
I’m assured by our leader that the first gravel section is unchallenging, at least as far as the rough stuff in these parts goes. I take his words with the same generous pinch of salt I tossed over my scrambled eggs at breakfast.
Draped in rain capes we head up the smooth road, and I can feel my legs waking up. Shortly before turning off the tarmac, François points out the Flocons de Sel, Megève’s only three Michelin star restaurant. I suggest we pop in for a swift 12 courses, but that fails to amuse.
The rain has turned the track into part-stream, so I drop to the back of the line and follow the path chosen by my guides – at least for as long as I can stay with them.
An obstacle course of large stones removes any notion that I might be able to settle into a rhythm, and I’m obliged to concentrate hard simply to stay upright. At least it takes my mind off the rain.
With visibility reduced to almost nothing, I can’t tell how high up I am, but I know it’s higher than I was. Looking up, I equally can’t tell how far I still have to go, and I have long since lost sight of my ride partners, who have disappeared into the mist like ghosts.
After about an hour of silent ascent, I suddenly find myself with no more of this climb to conquer. The others are there at the summit, sheltering from the rain. I apologise for my tardiness in true British style, but stop short of asking how long they’ve been waiting.
Though daunted by the prospect of the first major descent of the day, the gravel on the way down to the mountain resort of Les Saisies proves more sure than on the journey up. It doesn’t hurt that the rain is now barely noticeable, and I’m more or less able to stay in touch with the others.
From Les Saisies we rejoin the tarmac and continue our descent to Beaufort, the starting point for the climb of the Cormet de Roselend. We’re now in Tour de France territory on a road last used when Geraint Thomas claimed the first of back-to-back stage wins in 2018.
The landscape and the climb’s length echo the drama of that day, but the single-digit gradient means it’s not too gruelling. We take our time, refuel, chat and drain the stress from our legs. I try not to think about what lies in store.
We descend from the Roselend’s summit on smooth roads for 5km to the village of Les Chapieux, before an abrupt left turn takes us onto a track at the foot of the mighty Col de la Seigne.
What starts as poorly tended asphalt soon becomes a rough trail, which only gets thinner and more fearsome as it rears up towards a sandy horizon. Eventually it dwindles to a path barely distinguishable from the surrounding scenery.
I follow François’s lead as he weaves through a craggy basin carpeted with daisies, mountain cress and fireweed, until I’m too far back to tell the line he has taken. From here I’m forced to figure it out on my own.
I’m slightly unnerved by walkers coming the other way, all of whom are equipped with poles and stout boots. Sure enough, it isn’t long before I’m forced to hop off the saddle and shoulder my bike.
Even my super-strong companions are required to walk for long stretches, and after about another hour, sweat dripping down our faces despite the chill, we reach the top of the climb, 2,500m above sea level.
Hold on tight
Wasn’t this where we came in? As I ease myself over the precipice, Gaby’s parting words ring in my ears: ‘Trust the bike.’
I watch as she, Nico and François skip effortlessly down the mountain, skidding into the turns, rear wheels billowing plumes of grey powder. They look less like cyclists than freestyle skiers. My own descent is more reminiscent of Bambi on a black run.
I grip the brake levers like the reins of an untamed thoroughbred, trying desperately to keep my speed in check while allowing the bike to roll freely lest the beast should decide to buck me off. At least the stones are dry on this side of the mountain.
Somehow I make it to the wide, open valley floor and the gentler run-in to Courmayeur. My forearms are tender from an hour spent juddering down a mountain. My knuckles will not regain their colour until late evening.
Day two: longer, higher
We wake the next morning to find fortune has smiled on us. Not in reducing the mountains to plains, but in bringing a cloudless dawn. The day ahead is due to be longer by distance (127km), with more climbing too (4,780m), but nevertheless I’m told to expect it to be a breeze compared to yesterday’s full-force gravel combat.
I’ve seen the route profile and so remain sceptical, especially as the day starts with a 16.5km climb to the highest point of the whole ride, the Grand Col Ferret on the border between Italy and Switzerland.
However, once we set off I’m pleasantly surprised by the forgiving, consistent upward path. It’s not easy but my legs don’t completely let me down until close to the top.
Near the summit the retreating glacier has left behind a maze of boulders, one of which I fail to avoid. Fortunately I could barely have been moving any slower at the point of impact, so I merely topple sideways like a newbie unable to unclip at the traffic lights. A trickle of blood drips down my left shin, coagulating in the dust.
Confidence bruised, brain fogged by the thinner air, I’m grateful our descent is mostly on tarmac. The 18km that follows is a rollercoaster as we drop down into the Valais canton of Switzerland, almost as far as Orsières, before a short climb up to the village of Champex-Lac.
From here, the next real test is the Col de la Forclaz, containing what François warns is the worst 4km stretch of the entire ride. The slope itself may not be especially steep, but calling the surface ‘gravel’ would be to contravene the trades descriptions act.
The rocks rise up from the earth intimidatingly, each with a mission to prevent any forward momentum, and with every stall I find it harder to get going again.
I am at the point where the ride is now as much a psychological challenge as it is a physical one. I’m not used to having to concentrate so vigilantly on the few metres ahead.
It’s not, however, until we are back in France, just outside of Chamonix and practically on the run-in for home, that I hit the wall. It has come later than it might have, but still earlier than I’d have liked.
The catalyst is the sight of François and Nico powering their way up the penultimate gravel pass. ‘Mountain goat’ is a term bandied about all too readily in cycling circles, often erroneously attributed to anyone who can can ease their way up a 2km slope in the home counties, but it is certainly apt for these two Frenchmen.
Both still in the saddle, they make a gravity-defying charge for the promised postcard summit of the Col de Voza, while I admit defeat and push my bike slowly after them.
There’s not too much shame in stepping off, however, as up ahead I see Gaby whipping her leg over the top tube and kicking her soles crampon-like into the mountainside.
The last hurrah
After the hike to the summit there is still one more descent, a stretch of rolling off-road and then another road climb before we’re back in Megève – a fact that lands on my brain like a lump of Alpine rock.
The final 20km stretch is greener and less rocky than what has gone before, but in my deep-fried state they’re probably the least elegantly ridden kilometres of them all.
The final obstacle is the road climb to St Nicolas de Veroce, almost back where we began the day before, and this proves to be the only point in the whole 37-plus hours of our ride where I find myself wishing for narrower tyres. I can hear in the rumble of my 40mm knobblies the precious watts lost to friction.
Eventually we roll into town and across the empty mosaiced square, which feels like an apt finish line. A little bloodied, but not broken, I feel pretty good about completing the course.
That is until François informs me that, when the Gravel Tour de Mont Blanc arrives in September, he expects the top riders to complete the entire route in something around 12 hours.
What: Gravel Tour du Mont Blanc
When: 2nd-4th September 2022
Where: Megève, France, and Courmayeur, Italy
GTMB full distance: 200km+ distance, 8,500m of ascent
Two-person relay: Megève to Courmayeur (89km, 3,490m);
Courmayeur to Megève (127km, 4,780m)
The Half: (departs Courmayeur), 100km, 5,000m
Tour du Mont Joly: (departs Megève), 70km, 2,500m
More information: graveltourdumontblanc.com
The magic of Mont Blanc
Mont Blanc is a special mountain, but it’s not obvious why. Sure, at 4,809m it’s the highest mountain in western Europe, but it isn’t the highest in all of Europe (that honour belongs to 5,642m Mount Elbrus in Russia), and by global standards it’s a bit of a molehill.
Mount Everest, at 8,849m, is almost twice the height, and Mont Blanc would need to add a whopping 2,410m to its height before it even made the list of the 100 highest mountains in the world.
As it turns out, the secret to Mont Blanc’s magic may be found by crunching two alternate metrics: topographic prominence and topographic isolation.
Topographic prominence is a measure of height, and tells us how far below its summit is the start of the closest high peak, also known as its saddle. It is essentially a measurement of how much the mountain sticks up above its immediate surroundings. Topographic isolation is a measure of distance, telling you how far you’d have to travel to find a peak of equal elevation.
Mont Blanc’s summit has been identified as being 4,696m above its saddle, more even than K2, giving it the impressive position of 11th on the global ranking of topographic prominence.
On the topographic isolation ranking, Mont Blanc sits 13th. The nearest height peer to Mont Blanc is the Kukurtlu Dome (4,978m), some 2,713km away in the Russian Caucasus.
In a structural sense, a comparison might be with The Shard. Despite being a lowly 97th on the ranking of tallest buildings in the world, it is the tallest in London by some 30m and sits apart from the capital’s other skyscrapers.
The fact that it would be dwarfed by buildings you’ve never heard of were it to be transplanted to New York, Guangzhou or Dubai is immaterial. Likewise Mont Blanc is magical because Mont Blanc stands alone.
The rider’s ride
Wish One SUB, approx £3,000 frameset; complete bikes from approx £4,600, wishonecycles.com
I wasn’t meant to be on this bike. The Felt I was planning to ride suffered catastrophic damage during transit, but luckily for me, the people behind the Gravel Tour de Mont Blanc are also the owners of bike brand Wish One.
It isn’t a name many people outside of France will be familiar with, partly because it was only launched in 2018, and partly because it has a very local feel. The founders, Maxime Poisson and François-Xavier Blanc, wanted to keep their environmental impact as low as possible, so the bikes are created in France using sustainable materials such as steel and alloy.
This SUB is the brand’s all-road/gravel bike, made from Columbus Spirit steel tubing. Its geometry is fairly road bike-ish, making it great for speed over rough ground, but requiring a little extra attention on more technical parts of the route.
Maximum tyre clearance is 40mm for 700c, which proved sufficient most of the time, while the 1x Sram Force groupset with 11-42 cassette was all that I needed for the many steep ascents, and the whole package was a satisfying blend of comfort and performance. I will seriously consider steel when choosing my next gravel bike.
How we did it
Getting to the start is remarkably easy. Either take the Eurostar from London to Paris (2h 20min, from £52e/w), then the TGV-Lyria to Geneva (3h 5min, from €29e/w), or fly to Geneva.
Transfers to Megève are readily available in the form of private taxis or shuttles, taking about an hour door-to-door.
Both Megève and Courmayeur are well served for hotels. Before the start of the ride we stayed in the Novotel Megève Mont-Blanc (all.accor.com), which was big, comfortable, reasonably priced and right in the middle of town.
On the following night we stayed at the Hotel Vallée Blanche (hotelvalleeblanche.com), a couple of miles outside Courmayeur. This rustic hotel is cosy, and perfectly set up to cater for skiers in the winter and cyclists in the summer.
Many thanks to François Xavier-Blanc of Wish One for organising… well, everything, plus Gaby Thompson of Komoot and Nicolas Roux at Grupetto Megève for the physical, emotional and occasionally mechanical support.