Our first trip over (or rather, under) the Channel with the mountain bikes took us to the French Alps. First stop, Chamonix. We’d done this drive a number of times so we knew what to expect. We had a rough idea of where we were going to stop overnight on the way down and the trip went without a hitch. I was still not used to the idea of leaving the bikes on the van overnight. This led to another restless sleep for me with one eye on the bike rack. My fears remained unrealised, and with everything present and accounted for the next morning, we continued the drive south.
None of the local campsites take bookings in Summer, so we arrived in Chamonix without a reservation. We were turned away from our first choice, Ile des Barrats, which we had chosen for its central location. That turned out to be a fortunate twist of fate, as we ended up at the delightful Mer de Glace campsite, situated in the commune of Les Praz.
Check in was simple and we were given directions to our pitch. We were close to all of the facilities and our large pitch offered a certain amount of privacy. Our spot backed on to a trail leading into Chamonix town center, a 20 minute walk or 5 minute ride along the banks of L’Arveyron. A buvette sold basic supplies and provided fresh bread and croissants in the morning (don’t forget to put your order in the day before!). The site hosted different caterers throughout the week, the pizza truck was our favourite.
Chamonix is not an obvious downhill mountain bike destination. With a mountain biking ban on most trails in July and August, riders are restricted to a handful of dedicated mtb trails. The two main areas are at opposite ends of the valley. Both are within riding distance from Les Praz and are also accessible by the local shuttle bus, which is included in your lift pass and has plenty of room for bikes.
Head up to Le Tour for long, groomed green and blue trails (Variante Chevreuils and Les Cerfs) and stunning views across the Chamonix valley. Les Houche bike park offers tree-lined trails closer to the technical end of the spectrum, with a couple of interesting variations through the woods. The trails were fun but would struggle to keep most riders entertained for more than a couple of days.
What Chamonix lacks in downhill bike trails, it makes up for in many other ways. Attracting a large crowd in the summer, Chamonix is hub for alpinists, climbers and walkers. The summer months are almost as busy as the winter season with loads going on in town. It was with heavy hearts that we packed the van and prepared to leave this mountain playground.
The second leg of our trip took us further south to Le Bourg-d’Oisans. A three hour drive on paper, the route took us over the Col du Glandon. This added a couple of hours on to the journey but also provided magnificent views which more than made up for the inconvenience. We were staying at la Rencontre du Soleil, a campsite just over a mile and a half from the centre of town. It’s a decent site with good facilities and a pool, conveniently situated at the foot of Alpe d’Huez where the majority of the MTB trails can be found. Fresh bread could be ordered from reception for the next morning and a restaurant served good food in the evening.
Alpe d’Huez offers a variety of enduro and downhill trails across 3 main areas, Alpe d’Huez, Oz and Vaujany. We spent most of our time riding in Alpe d’Huez, lapping the DH1 and DH5 trails, serviced by the super fast DMC1 lift. Most of the riding in this area is over 2000m and well above the tree-line, giving the area a truly alpine feel unlike many other resorts in the Alps.
DH1 (Les Vaches) is a fun flow trail, perfect for warming up. DH5 (Rock and Wood), comprises a mixed bag of natural and man made features. Rock and Wood makes the most of the natural landscape. Technical slabs, big drops and gaps keep you on your toes. Heading further up the mountain to 2400m brings you on to DH2 (Les Chamois). A 2 mile technical descent over loose rocks and steep slabs, with a couple of technical northshore sections thrown in for good measure.
Every July, Alpe d’Huez hosts the Megavalanche, a mass start enduro event starting on the Pic Blanc glacier. The route is accessed via the Pic Blanc gondola, which drops you off on the glacier at 3330m. A 20 mile enduro with a 2,600m descent follows. The trail winds down to Allemont along some of the most beautiful singletrack I have ever ridden.
Les Deux Alpes
I wish we’d have had more time to explore some of the other trails on offer in the area but the final leg of our journey beckoned. We were heading to Venosc, a small village in the Veneon valley under the resort of Les Deux Alpes. Venosc is a small place with only a few shops, so it is definitely worth stocking up at the Super-U in Bourg before heading up.
Access to the resort is via gondola and takes just 7 minutes and our campsite, Le Champ du Moulin, was just 5 minutes from the gondola station. After a quick and easy check in, we found a nice pitch overlooking the river and made our camp for the next 4 days. Fresh bread can be ordered from the campsite reception during the summer months and an on-site restaurant provides a traditional menu in the evening. The campsite also had a bike wash, which was an added bonus.
This was our first visit to Les Deux Alpes with the bikes. We headed up to 2400m on the Diable lift, providing access to the Diable and 666 trails. Diable is a flowy blue freeride trail, featuring more gaps, drops and tabletops than I can remember. 666 was a steep red with some bigger features. You could link both trails with Venosc (another red) to take you back to the base of the gondola.
The Jandri Express II takes you to 3200m and the Mountain of Hell where technical riding over rocky, slabby terrain and breathtaking views await. The run drops 1100m before joining Sapins on the lower slopes. A short ride through town links Venosc for a total descent of over 2400m.
Generally, the trails were amazing. The freeride trails were thoughtfully crafted, fast and flowy. The downhill trails were technical and relentless. My only criticism would be the number of breaking bumps which, to be fair, all bike parks suffer from. That said, they really started to take their toll on the third day. Riding the badly affected trails began to hurt to the point where gripping the bars was agonising.
It was a timely end to our time on the bikes. With broken bodies and bikes in need of a good service, we packed the van for the final time and prepared to make the 900 mile drive home.
This was our second big trip this year. We learned loads from our first trip and came away a little wiser from this one. I’m a little more relaxed about having bikes on the back of the van overnight. We secure them with a couple of decent locks and forget about them now. We weren’t so keen about driving the van away from the site during the day. It was actually a lot less hassle than we thought and it was great having a base at the foot of the trails.