Wednesday, July 14, 1999
"All right, most of you can go back to Courmayeur the way we came up," said Joe, the more serious of our two guides. "I'm going to take the Nut Squad down a different way." He turned to Jeff the Elder, Roger, Ric and me. "This is very technical... very hairy." Joe mounted his bike and pushed off. "It's really not very much fun at all," were his last words before we set off.
Not very much fun? Not how I would have described mountain biking on and around Mont Blanc, France. While the area is a skiing and mountaineering mecca, its mountain biking cachet has been much more recently developed, though it's every bit as deserved. Think of it. Thousands of grassy pistes, cross-country trails and resorts scattered among some of the world's most scenic mountains, with the treeline at a reasonable 6,000 feet or so for a series of "Sound of Music"-esque vistas. There seemed to be so many riding possibilities that for the first time ever, I switched from my usual "buy a return ticket and see what happens" traveling mode. Instead, I put my faith in an REI-sponsored group excursion led by Joe and Will, expatriate Brits living in Chamonix, who definitely knew their stuff. For the last week, they had demonstrated both an intimate knowledge of local topography and a cheerful disregard for what most people would consider common sense. Two days earlier, we'd been thrilled by a ride through a pitch-black, two-mile railway tunnel ("I'm pretty sure there are no trains scheduled, but let's do it quickly, just in case," Will had warned us). This sunny morning we were on an Italian mountainside, with no trains to worry about-just a long, long climb that dazzled us with shining glaciers and endless fields of wildflowers. But now Joe was leading the Nut Squad, as he called the handful of seriously naïve racer-types, down what he considered a technical descent. God help us. Jeff the Elder was out of sight, so I pushed off in pursuit.
It wasn't so bad at first-narrow, winding and scattered with manageable, puppy-sized rocks. The switchbacks seemed to be getting tighter, though, and awfully close together, sometimes requiring a foot down to sling the bike around on its front wheel. And they kept rushing up more and more quickly, no matter how desperately I clenched the brake levers. In fact, the trail had become a monster-an incredibly steep, white-knuckled descent mixing short patches of gravel, giant off-camber rock faces, and abrupt, hard-edged drop-offs. As we thundered down the trail, grunting as the (I assumed) lovely scenery jackhammered by, Ric shouted from behind us. Mercifully, he had flatted, enabling us to rest. I gave him my spare tube and CO2 cartridge and offered to stay and help. "Oh, go ahead," he replied cheerfully. "I don't want to slow you down." We regretfully set off again, the clatter of bottoming suspension forks punctuated by occasional shouts and thuds as riders departed bikes, bikes departed trail, and egos were flattened. "Stop, stop!" I heard behind me. Roger had flatted. After finding a spare tube and wishing him well, we set off once again. Funny, it was getting darker. And the wind seemed to be picking up. Ah, rain. Thunder. And lightning, of course. The ride was taking on the feel of a genuine epic at this point. My hands were aching from the constant pounding, water was running into my eyes, and the stretches of exposed rock were now slick and treacherous. Wolves, I thought. Wolves running out of the darkness of the forest, snapping at out heels, was just the touch we needed now. Instead of wolves, though, I flatted. Back tire slurping and bouncing wildly, I kept going, finally slithering to a halt when I saw Jeff and Joe crouched under a rock outcropping. Huddled next to them, I tried to patch my tube, but the cold rain made it a frustrating job. Ric and Roger then arrivied to watch me curse and repeatedly drop my patch kit. "Go on ahead," I gallantly told the others, "I'll just meet you in town." No resistance there, I noted-a couple of "good luck"'s and they vanished down the road, promising to wait for me at the tourist office.
I pushed my crippled steed down the gravel road to Courmayer, enjoying the clearing skies, the neat homes, and the nods of passers-by who, I discovered, spoke no English or French. My Italian being restricted to the menu dialect, ("more spaghetti, please") a nervous edge began to creep into my pleas for directions.
"Signore, I search-ay the office-o tourisimo," I would beg. The Italians are a friendly people. Though I was completely unable to glean any directions at all out of their answers, I admired their apparent sincerity and enthusiasm in aiming me in every direction. I finally decided to head toward what looked like an interstate truck stop and was surprised to find the tourist office there. I sat next to a Saint Bernard with (no kidding) a barrel strapped to its collar and waited for my friends to arrive. It took them two hours more before they could find the office-o tourismo. A long day, indeed.
On another afternoon, we discovered the piste ride. These slopes, which are covered with snow (and skiers) during the winter, are broad, steep, dense meadows in the warmer months. Will introduced us to the delights of les pistes on a mountainside above Les Houches. "Now," he said, "you really will need to lower your seats on this one, but it's not too hard." With that, he rode to the side of the dirt road, coasted through a grassy patch, and plummeted like a stone. We rushed over to watch him barreling down a slope that appeared to actually have an overhang, it was so steep. Will's bike was hub-deep in greenery, wheels churning, looking like some sort of titanium weed whacker. He slipped, slewed, shimmied, and then gracefully rolled to a stop at the bottom. "All right, let's go!" he shouted back.
I thought I could do it. I slipped my seat down, took a couple of pedal strokes forward, and the elevator dropped down toward the basement, out of control. It was like sliding down a greasy green cliff. The brakes were next to useless, and I was going awfully fast... and then I was going fast but sideways. Both wheels aimed the wrong way, I snapped into a barrel roll to much applause. Struggling to my feet, the slope was so steep I couldn't straddle the bike, so I ran, slid and coasted to the bottom.
"Great, eh?" enthused Will.
Jeff the Elder was next. He had a good head of steam until something stopped his front wheel and sent him over the handlebar. Mouth open, arms forward in best Superman style, he seemd to be en route to a classic endo, but his pedals did not release. Jeff hit the ground and rolled, and his bike obediently followed suit. Bike, and then Jeff, came swinging back upright. He caught the handlebar, broke his feet from the pedals long enough to run a couple of steps, and re-mounted. Roy Rogers couldn't have done it better. We stopped laughing in time to see Ric thrashing down the hill, arriving in style after only one fall. "Okay, who's next?" Will called up to the rest of ther group. We could see them look at each other, then turn and head down the road. "There's more to life than crashing down hills," another rider later told me.
Not all the riding is this strenuous. Despite the rugged nature of the terrain, the Chamonix Valley is one of the best places imaginable for casual off-roading. The string of villages along the valley from Les Bossons to Telechamp is connected by a system of unpaved paths, which are generally smooth and wide enough for the most inexperienced rider, and relentlessly picturesque to boot. The Chamonix tourist office can supply you with a guide to these authorized VTT (Vélos Toutes Terrains-Euro for mountain bike) trails, with the distances for different loops listed. Chamonix also has several bike shops which can provide rental bikes (of wildly varying quality, so look before you reserve.) Renting isn't a necessity-international airlines will carry your bike (box it at home or have your shop do it) as checked luggage for no additional cost, and European trains will almost always carry your bike with little fuss.
The attitude towards les vélos toutes terrains in the Chamonix Valley and surrounding areas is generally very accommodating-but, residents say this could change. As anywhere, a few thoughtless acts (a pack of hammerheads racing by hikers, skid marks on scenic trails, trespassing) could have a lasting impact. We tried to make ourselves welcome guests by always trying to speak French, smiling a lot, and calling "bonjour" to hikers.
To find the truly inspirational rides, you'll need to ask the locals. Chamonix Mountain Bike, located in the center of town, has English-speaking employees who can help you. Most of these high trails are best accessed by the many lifts in the valley, which run all summer and accommodate bikes. An alternative to finding your own way is to go with a group, as I did. You can usually find ads in the back of cycling and outdoors magazines.
There's more to the Chamonix Valley than riding, of course. Riding the lift up to L'Aguille du Midi, an imposing rocky spire on Mont Blanc, isn't cheap but is genuinely breathtaking thanks to the view, the cold, the altitude (over 14,000 feet) and the stomach-turning lurches the lift makes. Or visit Courmayeur, Italy. The town is beautiful, the riding (as noted earlier) is great, and the short drive is via the Mont Blanc tunnel, an astounding engineering achievement. Other alternatives to crashing down hills include an afternoon or two of hiking through the mountains, or a stroll through town to check out the bargains on Swatches, cheese, and all things French, including deals on Mavic stuff.
Recounting the day's lunacy and splendor while sipping a Chardonnay and scarfing down escargots in garlic butter, one hardly misses Mexican food, MTV and freeways. In fact, one could come to the conclusion that a hard day on Mont Blanc is one of the best days a vertical junkie could have. Vive la France!