#whatisgravel: An exploration of Mont Blanc

The Roof of Europe, more commonly known as Mont Blanc, culminates at 4810 metres and to circle its base, three countries must be crossed. The subject of many controversies between France and Italy, there is no doubt that this geological monster clearly lives in both countries, but the real issue concerns its summit, and who can claim stewardship of the eleventh highest mountain in the world. This perhaps emphasises the lunacy of territories and borders – owning nature on this scale is surely not possible.

The destiny of Mont Blanc is historically linked to that of the city of Nice – another location that has passed between Italian and French ownership. In 1860, Victor Emmanuel II of Savoy, desiring to unify Italy and become its king, ceded the Sardinian states of Nice and Savoy to France by the Treaty of Turin, in exchange for military and diplomatic aid from France. The treaty includes the summit of Mont Blanc.

If we still needed to argue the case for Gravel riding’s stature in the velocipedic landscape, this Tour du Mont Blanc will provide sufficient evidence. Asking the question #whatisgravel at this altitude, is an exciting prospect. The approximately 218 kilometres of this gravel route achieve the perfect synthesis of road and MTB riding, placing us most of the time in the heart of the mountain and far from traffic, while allowing us to comfortably borrow parts of asphalt to cross between passes.

In terms of how you travel, there are two ways of attempting the journey. One opts for the comfort of a light bike by selecting hotels along the route (and the half-board that goes with it), the other for a heavier bike but capable of offering us total autonomy and the 100% outdoor experience that goes with it. We did this trail in early October with uncertain weather and opted for the comfort version.

From Chamonix to La Fouly, the Swiss stage.

The reputation of Chamonix as a mountaineering paradise comes from the story that two Englishmen, William Windham and Richard Pococke, tell of the valley they have just visited and mention in particular a gigantic glacier which they baptize the Mer de Glace. This was in 1741. 45 years later, on August 8, 1786, two Chamoniards, Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard were the first mountaineers to reach the summit of Mont Blanc.

Sadly, the Mer de Glace now looks more like an ice lolly that a kid would have already eaten down to the stick. Global warming has got the better of it. The largest glacier in France retreats 10 metres each year. Being at the foot of this giant and going around it remains an event, and the different glaciers that we see there captivate by their size and their strength.

The morning temperature is not very high when we leave Chamonix in the direction of Le Lavanchet via the paths which in winter form a cross-country ski trail. From Argentière, the tour then leads to the Col des Montets towards Vallorcine, by paved road. The arrival in Chatelard by an alternation of roads and paths marks our arrival in Switzerland. The 13 kilometre climb to Champex Lac which follows the lunch break in Martigny marks the start of a real battle. When we pass the doors of the Auberge in the evening at La Fouly, our counters show 76km and a total ascent of nearly 2600 meters.

La Fouly – Beaufort: one day, three countries.

The most demanding day of the Tour, the first challenge is the Grand Col Ferret at 2537m, which is reached by taking some off-road sectors. This pass marks the border between Switzerland and Italy, offering a remarkable view of the Grande Jorasses in good weather. We crossed it in a thick mist, leaving us with not much to write home about. Dropping down 500m to the Elena refuge on the Italian side required walking beside the bike. The refuge, built shortly before the Second World War, was destroyed by an avalanche in 1960 and was not rebuilt until 1995, which explains its modern construction.

The arrival in Courmayeur presents a typical alpine landscape with all the clichés of torrents spanned by wooden bridges, rustic chalets, green meadows, and sumptuous evergreen forests. This valley experienced intense activity during the 16th century due to its gold mines.

Courmayeur would also take its name from the Latin Curia Mayor (Court of Justice) as law enforcement was needed in the city because of the large number of people who arrived and fought for this gold rush…

We will not linger, the ascent of the Col de Seigne which awaits us is substantial and relatively difficult because of the stony paths which lead to it. The playful descent on the French side, before embarking on the short ascent of the Cormet de Roseland is offered as a reward. The night in Beaufort at the foot of the former Imperial Gendarmerie marks the end of a long and demanding day in and out of the saddle.

Beaufort – Chamonix: on the slopes

The shortest of our stages on the Tour but demanding for the long ascent of the Col du Joly (22km +1250m). We start the day at a thunderous pace and due to the very steep slopes of more than 26% we are already cooked as we reach the Voza pass. Here we encounter a view of the Aiguille de Bionnassay which rises to 4052 metres, just under four kilometres west of Mont Blanc.

The descents on the ski slopes on the Contamines side require you to stay focused, here too you would see yourself having more success on a full suspension mountain bike. Hikers who climb the slopes on this sunny Sunday seemed intrigued to see us tumble down on these loaded bikes. The 10km on the banks of the Arve mark the last part of this extraordinary journey and the salt left by perspiration on our jerseys and shorts attests to these three days of effort in a place that is both mythical and sublime.

Further Riding