Multi day, Multi country trips are ace. Especially if there is a night in a hut involved.
Bike are well good.
It’s not guaranteed, but as you’re this many pages into the world’s number one online MTB magazine, I’m confident you’re going to agree with that sentiment. But what bikes? MTB is a broad church and a dozen riders could all own the same bike and all have their own unique interpretation of how best to use it. Are you all about laps from the uplift? Massive days covering huge distances? A gentle trail through stunning scenery or sweaty palmed terror tech with no eyes anywhere but the trail? Why be so limited, bikes are well good and you can have it all.
So we did.
Autumn in the Alps is the perfect time for putting stupid ideas into practice, so with Dave and Sanny visiting for a week of riding, we set about something that would ‘Combin’ all these things and more.
That something 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 some changes to make it a better for bikes 130km loop.
We started with the uplift, where the ever-punctual Swiss Post bus system can be used from Orsieres to knock as much as 1600m off your first climb depending on how close to the Grand St Bernard pass you want to start. Having reached Bourg St Pierre with the absolute minimum of effort, it was time to start pre-paying in sweat for our next descent.
A thousand meters of climbing is plenty of down(hill) payment, but the way was mostly ride-able at a chatting pace and with the borderlands between the Swiss and French Alps as the backdrop you’d have to be really against earning your turns not to enjoy it. Besides, the descent’s going to taste all the better for the effort. That and the tarte aux pommes at the Cabane de Mille refuge...
The trail from the Col du Mille is an alpine classic. Starting at over 2400m, you’ve got a lot of winding alpine singletrack to ride before you find first shrubby plants, then the tree line. Better, just as you’re getting to the tree line your tires hit one of the best sections of trail I know of anywhere. Nothing too technical, and there’s better backdrop elsewhere too, but it hits all the just right sizes of turn on just the right gradient to make something really memorable.
Most days, after a stunning climb and epic descent, that would be the ride finished. Today there was still a fair way to go to our bed for the night. We started the long climb, first road then gravel, up towards the Mauvoisin dam.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the scale of the engineering involved in the Swiss dam network, and if you’ve got the time then you can explore some of the original construction tunnels around the Mauvoisin dam. We didn’t have the time, so instead we winched our way up the access road at the side of the structure, then rode into the tunnel...
Yes, tunnel. With the normal valley floor trails being under 60 years of water you now take a few km’s of tunnel through the dam then along the side of the lake instead. I said it was going to be varied.
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 start entering my head, along with the first musings about e-bikes.
Fortunately, we needn’t have worried. As the Cabane Chanrion comes into view, so does the hut guardian, standing atop a lonely peak scanning the horizon for his only 3 guests of the night.
Dinner at 7pm? Why that’ll do nicely sir.
Another thing that makes bikes well good, the places they can take you. Cabane Chanrion is a long way from anywhere. Getting to be fed and sheltered this deep into big mountains, slow down and savor the day turn to evening turn to night and watch the moon illuminate the vista as you try and decide if a particular light in the sky is a fast-moving star or a slow-moving satellite, it’s pretty special
Another day with another sunrise and another liter of tea in the belly to hydrate. There are better starts to the day than a 400m singletrack descent straight out the front door, but not many.
There are better continuations of the morning than an 800m pedal and push to 2800m altitude, but not many.
Perhaps more than the previous example however.
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.
It wasn’t really too bad an approach, by far the hardest part of the climb is lower down and once 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.
The descent off the other side into Italy is better again. As you cross the border you’re welcomed by a moonscape of shale and deep deep turquoise lakes. The trail meanders through all these before a final terror tech section between derailleur hungry rocks and you arrive into a high alpine meadow and the start of a long balcon trail round to Etroubles. A very long balcony trail, 14km or so with hardly a change in altitude through some of Italy’s best scenery. Have I mentioned? Bikes are good.
What else makes bikes good? The excitement of exploring and seeing if the dotted line you’ve spotted on a map is going to be a great trail or not. That excitement wouldn’t exist if you got a perfect trail 100% of the time... sure enough the GPS said we were perfectly on the path whilst the ground said something very different. Dejectedly we kept picking our way downhill through open forest until a perfectly groomed trail appeared where no map said it should. So obviously we followed it.
The unknown worked out very well indeed, an absolute Aosta classic trail, that even took us directly to the small village of Saint Oyen and its selection of cafes
Contentedly loaded up on panini and caffeine it was time for our final climb. With no Italian version of the bike-friendly Swiss bus, this lap up to the col Grand St Bernard was going to have to be done the hard way. Bikes are well good, in this situation I’d say a road bike would be well gooder.
Happily, just below the col, we turned off the tarmac back to gravel and decision time.
By now it was 5pm with 350m of hike-a-bike to the next col and a technical descent still to go. You could make a strong argument that staying on the road for the short distance to the Grand St Bernard col and descending on the fast easy trails back to our start in Orsieres would have been the sensible choice. None of you were there to suggest that though, so we shouldered our bikes and started the plod to the Fenetre du Ferret.
The climb passed, as these climbs always do, and 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 patches of snow it was a happy place to be.
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 with the most perfect autumn light ticks all those boxes and more. Just a stunningly good ride in stunningly good scenery.
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 Orsieres. But, no matter how good bikes are, we can all have too much. Tired, hungry and more than aware of the fading light, we hit the single lane tarmac road and cruised down the hill back to Orsieres for food and celebratory beers. Bikes are well good.
Want to try this ride? With three cols at or above 2500m altitude in some fairly remote places even by alpine standards then the pictures and write up should have given you all the information you need to piece it together yourself. If it didn’t, the Tour du Mont Blanc is a great introduction to this style of riding, and the perfect place to learn the skills for a lifetime of biking adventure.
By Graham PinkertonAlthough hailing from Scotland, Graham has been settled in the alps for many years now. When he is not out doing silly mountain adventures on ski's you can find him digging new trails in the Chamonix area, or riding his bike down some exposed, tech, gnarly alpine terrain. Besides the talent to find epic trails, he also possesses the magic ability to write about a wide range of subjects, and somehow make them related to mountain biking.