Sunday, September 03, 2006

Mountain Bike Tour de Mont Blanc

I have just completed a 5 Day Journey by Mountain Bike around the base of the Mont Blanc Massif. The ride covers 180km, mostly off road and takes in 7000m of climbing over 6 mountain passes. The route starts in Chamonix in France, proceeds over the Col du Balme(2191m) into Switzerland, then into Italy by way of the Grand Col du Ferret(2537m) finally returning into France by way of the Col de la Seigne(2516m). These are the bare statistics - here is the tale.
We organised this trip through the company MBMB in Chamonix and were picked up at Geneva airport and ferried to our chalet in Les Bossons just outside the town. The first inklings that there may be some organaisational glitches along the way came when there was a prolonged argument between our Guide Nick, who met us at the chalet, and the Spanish driver as to who was going to pay for the taxi from Geneva. I immediately put on my 'bugger all to do with me look' and started to load my gear into the chalet. The dispute was eventually settled when Manuel grudgingly accepted Nick's exhortations that 'Phil will pay.' Phil being, as we later learned, the boss of the company, who didn't exactly endear himself to me at the first night briefing by referring to us as 'Scotties.'

10.00am the following morning saw as gathered in the courtyard of the chalet ready for the off, At which point Phil, hereinafter referred to as Boycie - bearing un uncanny likeness we thought to the 'Fools and Horses' character, with his wideboy London accent and braying laugh - appeared and asked who was going to join his 'elite' group (there were two groups of 11) All the
'Scotties' managed to resist this siren call without too much difficulty and each succeeding day only served to confirm us in what proved to be a very fortuitous choice. But more of that later. A gentle road ride of two miles or so brought us into the main street in Chamonix were some of the group stocked up on spare tubes and more than a few energy gels. The first off road riding trended up through the woods by the river Arve to Argentiere and as we entered the village we passed a number of very spaced out (not just distancewise) competitors in the Mont Blanc Ultra endurance race which basically followed our route but in the opposite direction. We later found out that the winner completed the course in about 21hours but the guys we saw on their last legs were on the the last leg to Chamonix and would narrowly avoid the 48hr. cut off point.
We continued uphill to the village of La Tour, the scene of a devastaing avalanche some years back which all but wiped out the village. Here we took the only cable car of the trip up to the Col du Balme which at 2191m forms the border with Switzerland. Lunch was taken here before some great twisting single track across the col where we encountered the one and only snow field crossing of the trip. Once we reached the tree line on the Swiss side we had to negotiatentered some very muddy, rooty and steep single track which, after the torrential rain of the preceding days, had been churned up well and proper by the passage of the hundreds of endurance race competitors. One of our number came to grief on this descent sustaining quite nasty facial injuries which necessitated hospital treatment and sadly, he took no further part in the proceedings.
This technical descent took us onto a fire road and then on to tarmac and after a couple of miles of steep climbing, a mixture of trail and road, we reached the Col du Forclaz and our hotel. I ommitted to explain that the deal with MBMB included our luggage being ferried between each overnight stop. It is possible to do this tour unsupported and we did see a couple of people doing just that. However, my friend George has a saying that he applies in situations like this involving the words 'nuts' and 'mangle' and in this particular case I would have to agree with him. The Freedom of being able to ride unencumbered by a hefty rucksack was well worth the extra cost.Incidentally, 'mangle' is a word some of we older Scotties use to describe an early edition of the clothes wringer with rollers used to extract excess water from newly washed clothes -just so you can get the picture! From now on it was nine o'clock starts and when we went off road the next morning onto grassy single track there was still a heavy dew about and when I locked up on a steep section the tumble that followed was inevitable. No damage done, we continued down windy track to the main road leading to the Grand St. Bernard Pass. After a mile or so we turned uphill and there followed a steep road climb to the village of Chapex where we stopped for lunch. This was the regular pattern to the day and despite taking on board huge amounts of pasta over the week I registered a net weight loss at the end of the trip, it was simply burned off as necessary fuel. Calories in / Calories out is the simple equation here and no matter what winky- wanky diet is followed by people trying to lose weight it is this universal truth that lies behind it. I digress, enough of that particular hobbyhorse. I took the climbing prize by a fair margin - competitive, who me? I'm a roadie at heart and I had the polka dot Tour de France climbers jersey in my bag but I was making sure of my position before I put it on the following day - sad really isn't it (rhetorical)

To be continued