Not piste-off! A mountain-bike adventure in the Alps, June 2023

by Scott Heyhoe

I blame Ian Stuart. After a decade of trips to the Alps to conquer the cols on road bikes, up pops Mr S, with “maybe we can take the gravel bikes?”. And last year, 2022, we did just that. And we discovered a few off-road sections around Alpe d’Huez that were truly magical. So, this year, we decided to go the whole hog and take the mountain bikes, in the middle of June, and really get exploring. We learned a lot about each other, about how cold a mountain stream can be, how exhilarating an off-road descent can be and how there are no such things as mountains when you hire an eMTB.

Sacre bleu!

Insults at the ready! Day one of our trip and we took a cable car. No we didn’t – we took two cable cars! I’ll just give you a minute to get over that. Imagine if you could get a cable car to the turn on a head-wind-out leg of a 25-mile TT and big-ring it back. Personal best, you bet! Well, we rode for quite a way along the Voie Verte (yes, I know that’s green – we’ll get to the blue bit soon), past the waterfall and the lake, in traffic-free bliss. This Voie Verte now runs the entire length of the Oisans valley, and can be ridden on road, gravel, mtb, hybrid bikes. This got us to Venosc, where we hopped onto the telecabine ski-lift. A bit worrisome placing the bikes in a rack outside the cable car – and Ian got a telling off from the operator for putting his bike in backwards! Then that blissful silence you only ever get on a ski-lift, punctuated only by the squeaky sound a bum makes on a plastic seat when the cable car jolts and your pride and joy shakes like a dog coming in from the rain. This took us to Les Deux Alpes. We’d seen a video of a descent from there back to Venosc. It looked really tame in the video, but in real life was a real cliff-hanger steeper than my stairs. We asked a couple of gnarly-looking mountain bikers about the route. They looked us up and down, and then looked our bikes up and down and said we’d be better in the Bike Park. We bought a day pass for €23 and caught the ski-lift up to Le Diable. There was snow on the ground up there. And the blue run (Route Bleu, thanks for waiting) from there back to 2Alpes was incredible. So many swooping and sweeping turns, so many drops and jumps. Easily more technical than any red run I’ve ever done in the UK, and way more scary.

We rode down with brakes on. I had taken a full-faced helmet and body armour and put all of that on. In meeting up again at the bottom, we were all filled with the dread and the danger. “That was difficult”; “I thought I was going to die”; “How the heck can they call that a blue run? Bleu is French for blue isn’t it?”. Thinking about it, “bleu” is actually how you ask for a steak that is barely cooked, and oozes with blood. Ah, erm, Route Bleu. Now I understand. “Let’s do it again!”; “Hell yes”! And do it again we did. This time much faster. No mid-descent stops to let the brakes cool down, and all of us grinning and laughing. THIS was mountain biking!

Postman Pat

Day two and we combined road and track to get us to the best lunch stop on the planet – the café at Villard-Reymond. We climbed up an off-road track from Bourg d’Oisans to Ornon, and then headed up a gravel track. We intended to get to the Plateau des Lacs, but the gravel turned to a muddy path through the woods, so we did a u-turn for a superb descent back to the road. We then took the road up to the café, had a fabulous lunch, and took the off-road descent back to Bourg. Now, this was called the Chemin de Facteur, or Postman’s Path. Jeez, I hoped they paid the postie well! The track was very steep, very loose, largely unrideable as the turns were too tight, too loose and too damned close to the cliff edge! We learned to study route maps for tight zig-zags with close contour lines. I don’t mind a bit of walking, but I do expect to be rewarded with a decent descent after a 60-minute road climb.

Ore inspiring

Day three, and we again mixed up the riding. A road ride up the Alpe d’Huez climb for a few ramps, before taking the balcony road, and then some more uphill to Auris. From there, a fast descent through grassy meadows, ending with an unexpected vista of the entire Oisans Valley. A few kilometres of road downhill then took us to the start of the old iron ore road. There are a few abandoned mines in the area, and luckily the old road has survived. This was a mix of gravel and grass-track and was quite steep in places but it was all rideable. It topped out at the Col du Cloy, followed by a great descent to the road that links Alpe d’Huez to the Col de Sarenne. Our original plan had been to grab lunch in the ski resort, but there was a track that I’d seen before that I really wondered where it ended. It actually ended with a nose-to-bumper encounter with a truck, but not before ten minutes of the most exhilarating off-road descent we’d ever done. Fast, bumpy, mostly straight. Brakes off and absolutely flying. They were building a new cable car station by the looks of it, and hence we rounded a small bend and were met by a small truck coming up. The driver was a very civil engineer and so no harm done. The air didn’t even turn bleu. This brought us out in Huez village from where we took the road back down to Bourg. What a day, what a ride.

Ye tak the high road, and I’ll tak the Roman road

After three days of hard work – climbing as well as descending – we settled on an easy day. We all knew that riding mountain bikes up-hill would be harder than road bikes, but what we hadn’t bargained for was just how much hard work coming downhill could be. The trails in the Alps are much steeper, generally more rocky and more twisty than anything we’ve done in the UK. This means maximum concentration, great speed control and really working hard on steering and braking. So, back to the Voie Verte, a more gentle ride with photo-stops for the Cascade de la Pisse (you can type that into Google Translate if you must), the lake, the river. Then back the length of the Voie until it turned into the Roman Road at the other end of the valley. We stopped to check the route as the guide book said that there was a remarkable Roman ruin to be seen. In the 30-seconds that it took for us to be eaten alive by mosquitos, we abandoned 2000 years of engineering excellence for a mad dash to the main road. A lovely lunch in Allemont was followed by a flat and gentle ride back along the river Romanche to the chalet at La Piscine campsite where we were based.

River deep, mountain high

This was a real day of high adventure. We drove to La Grave, and parked at the ski-resort of Le Chazelet. We then began cycling up a road that became a track that became a path, all the way up to the Plateau de Emparis. The road was great, the track was excellent. We had to wade through several streams and man alive these were cold. Melting snow and we were up at about 2000m. We had to carry the bikes at times near the top, and there were a couple of sketchy traverses. At the top, we were above the snow-line, though there was plenty of pasture and the path was clear. A superb descent followed, with a packed-lunch stop by a river. We then did a bit more hike-a-bike, with some riding through actual snow (with Iain falling into the snow. A glutton for cold punishment that guy). This brought us out to a couple of small lakes overlooking the glaciers of the Meije mountain opposite. So quiet, so peaceful. There were two walkers nearby, clearly a couple, getting all snuggly in the absolute silence of the high mountains. Lying there arm-in-arm, looking up at the blue sky, pondering the full extent of the universe. Interrupted only by the squeal of Iain’s disc brakes. We did hear more squealing soon after, as the marmottes (medium-sized, ground-dwelling, furry rodents that look a bit like otters) were scuttling about, presumably responding to the mating-call of Iain’s bike. Another sketchy descent back to Le Chazelet. Now that ride was real mountain biking in another way – real wilderness cycling on the top of the world.

E-bike gum

Final day of the trip and a big climb in store – the Col du Sabot. This really is the best road climb in the area and I’d done it a couple of times on my road bike on previous trips. We’d noticed in the guide book that it was possible to come back down the same way but on an old track, so that was the plan. Ian decided to hire an eMTB for the day – and what a brilliant decision. It was a roasting hot day, and Iain and I toiled up the road on our human-powered bikes. Ian used the eMTB to great effect, using the added power to keep the climb challenging but manageable. There was snow at the top of the Col but were able to get right to the top. The descent was a bit disappointing in a way. There were lots of rocks in the grass, so the ‘pastureland descent’ was a bit of an obstacle course. Not quite as bad as the Postman’s Path, but not as flowing and fun as we’d hoped. Still, some sections were great. Ian found the eMTB to be a bit heavy to manoeuvre, though the guy in the hire shop later told him he should have just straight-lined it over the rocks! Another fabulous lunch in Allemont and a miserable ride back to the chalet, knowing that our week’s riding had come to an end.

Lessons learned

This was the first trip where we’d planned purely off-road rides. Here are some things that we learned that are worth bearing in mind if you plan to head there – and I highly recommend that you do! The scenery is fabulous, the tracks are excellent, the restaurants and cafes superb.

  • Head for the bike park! The one at Les Deux Alpes has something for everyone and a €23 pass gets you unlimited ski lift usage. There are other bike parks in the area too.
  • Expect some walking. The tracks can be very rocky and loose. Tread carefully and there is no danger, but riding can be very difficult at times. Look out for those zig-zags on the map.
  • Flowing descents can be hard to come by, but when you find them, they are just terrific. The descent from Sarenne to Huez is out of this world.
  • Take everything that you might need. Some of the high mountain stuff is very remote. Take all the tools and food you might need. Take fleece jackets in a rucksack even if it’s 25 degrees in the valley. If you get into difficulty, you might be above the snow-line and need to keep warm whilst awaiting help.
  • Get ideas for routes off the many Oisans websites, or get the VTT en Oisans guide book (online and in print from the tourist office and campsite). We tried one route off Komoot that someone had created and some sections were really not very good at all. The guide book in particular has some excellent routes and describes quite well what to expect.
  • The rides will take you longer than you expect. With some hike-a-bike, you might be averaging only 4-5mph, even though you might hit 30mph+ on the tracks, and 50mph+ on the road.