The Tour du Mont Blanc is one of the most famous hiking routes in the world. A circular route filled with spectacular glaciers, breathtaking alpine meadows, grand mountain passes and charming valleys. Crossing the borders of three countries; France, Switzerland and Italy.
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With Covid preventing all long haul travel, but European countries just opening up just enough for EU residents to cross borders, I thought this was a once in a life time opportunity to take on the TMB by bike whilst the trails were almost empty.
I asked a couple of friends if they were keen, and a week later we set off to ride the route in 3 monster days. One day to represent each country. Unsure of what would be open in the way of refuges and accommodation due to the pandemic, we opted to load our bikes with everything we needed so that we could be fully self-sufficient and bivouac each night.
What a blast we had! Many of my favourite sections along the stunning route were the hard-earned climbs pushing my bike, the sense of achievement gained earning the spectacular views made any suffering quickly forgotten.
This route predominantly follows the hikers TMB, but in places, it has been tweaked a little to allow for sections to be as rideable as possible. However, as a word of warning, this loop still requires a LOT of hike-a-bike. Uphill and downhill, especially the Col du Bonhomme and La Bovine sections. But for those of you who are not afraid of long climbs and taking your bike for a walk, you will be treated to the most amazing scenery. Postcard worthy views around every corner. With the mighty Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak at 4810 m, almost always in view.
Hikers tend to complete the TMB anti-clockwise, but on bikes, I would recommend going clockwise. I would also highly recommend you don’t do it in July or August, as the trail is incredibly busy. We set off in late June and there was still a lot of snow up high, which made the journey incredibly challenging at times, so I would suggest that September might be the best option.
With it being a loop, you can start/finish where you like, I only chose Les Chapieux because it was the closest point to my home. However, Chamonix or Courmayeur would be obvious start points, both are large towns with great transport links and plenty of amenities.
- The descent from Col de la Seigne 2516m to Les Chapieux.
- Spectacular views from Val Ferret and the balcony traverse that follows, looking out over the northeastern side of the Mont Blanc massif.
- The long, but ‘ridable’, ascent on a 4×4 track up to the Col de Balme, for a morning cuppa at the Refuge du Col de Balme whilst looking back at Mt Blanc.
- Champex du Lac is a picture-postcard Swiss town, great for refuelling and cooling off with a dip in the pretty lake.
- The satisfaction of summiting the Col du Bonhomme after ascending the toughest stretch of the route through a lot of snow.
- A well-earned slice of homemade tart at the Alpage de Bovine, after a gruelling hike-a-bike section.
- Italian pizza in Courmayeur.
Notes From The Trail
Unbeknown to us when we set off, the first 4 hours of the day turned out to be the toughest of the whole trip! The climb, from the carpark in Les Chapieux up to the Refuge du Col de la Croix du Bonhomme is hike-a-bike the entire way. Progress slowed nearing the refuge with snow patches growing bigger, and as the temperatures soared, the snow became soft and slippery. However, it was after the refuge, on the undulating traverse round to the Col du Bonhomme (2,483m), when things started to get even more challenging. Continual snow, and the implications of slipping and sliding down the mountain to the cliffs below had become pretty serious, so the utmost care needed to be taken for every step, making sure ones footing and bike placement was spot on. This not only made for slow progress, but it was also mentally exhausting. I was responsible for all the routing and logistical planning for this trip, so I’m pretty sure the rest of the team were seriously questioning what they had signed up for, and whether they should quit while they were ahead at this point. But on arrival at the col, the sense of achievement and the spectacular views quickly outweighed the struggles from the previous hours and excitement started to build about what was next.
The singletrack descent was initially very technical, and there were still snow patches to negotiate, but it soon became smoother before turning into a fast gravel road leading into the town of Les Contamines. Where we eat, drank and consumed copious amounts of ice cream.
Thankfully the afternoons’ Col de Voza (1,567m) was a lot kinder, with both the ascent and descent ridable on a gravel forestry road. (From the top of the Col de Voza there is also a VTT downhill route option into Les Houches which one of us took, but it was incredibly overgrown and difficult to navigate on this particular occasion.)The next stop was Chamonix for a very quick bite to eat, it was starting to get late so we needed to press on to get back out into the countryside before dark, to find a suitable place to bivouac. The vast majority of the route up the valley consisted of very rideable forest trails, with just a small tarmac climb up to Le Tour to finish our day.
At first light, we were up and ready to tackle another monster day. Coming straight out of camp was a long but ridable 4×4 track up to the Col de Balme (2195m), on the border of France and Switzerland. (Depending on the time of year, there is the possibility of using a ski lift to ascend to the Col from Le Tour if you would prefer.) We were all super chuffed to find the Refuge on the col open, and second breakfast and coffee was ordered, which we had looking out over the mighty Mont Blanc.
From here, a long scenic single track runs through high alpine pastures, before entering the forest where it becomes rocky and very technical. At the bottom, we were spat out of the forest into the beautiful Trient valley, where the trail took us into a natural amphitheatre under the huge Glacier du Trient to the Col de la Forclaz, wow! We were all in high spirits at the col, beautify weather, beautiful scenery and so far the day hadn’t been too tough. Well, that last bit was about to change!
The next section, the ‘Bovine Route’, I had described to the others as a traverse that’s a little ’undulating’ (that’s how I remembered it from hiking). It turns out, that with a heavily ladened bike it is a very long and tough hike-a-bike section, to which the word ‘undulating’ doesn’t come close to describing it, or indeed getting you mentally prepared for what lay ahead! Forevermore I will be asked, “is this one of your undulating sections Katie?” After we hauled our bikes up and over big boulder and tree root sections of forest, we eventually popped out at the Porte à l’Ô (2,049m). Hurray, from here we could not only see ridable single track heading off into the Alpine Meadows, but we could see the super lovely Alpage de Bovine refuge and were already salivating at the promise of their fantastic homemade tarts and cakes.
We had hoped to get to Champex du Lac, a large picture-postcard Swiss village, by lunchtime so we could have lunch on the bank of the pretty lake followed by a quick dip. But it was 4 pm when we arrived, so we settled for a quick break to enjoy the view whilst we stuffed our faces with delights from the bakery.A great ridable descent followed into the Val Ferret valley, before the final uphill of the day, a very gentle but slightly relentless climb on tired legs. A little beyond La Fouly, we found a suitable bivouac spot next to the river. Food, beer and bed!
The final day, and two big cols to conquer! The first was the Col du Grand Ferret (2,537m), on the Swiss-Italian border. There was 4×4 service track up to the refuge Alpage de La Peule, where we had a second breakfast on the terrace soaking in the warm morning sun and feasting on the spectacular views. The remainder of the climb to the summit was a mixture of gentle hike-a-bike and rideable single track, which apart from the snow patches wasn’t particularly taxing compared with some of the other climbs on the route. Once at the col, the view into the Italian Val Ferret valley was truly breathtaking and one of the highlights of the whole trip. The mountainside traverse that followed was equally breathtaking, a panoramic balcony, looking out over the northeastern side of the Mont Blanc massif.
We were now on a race against the clock to make Courmayeur, a small Italian town located at the foot of Mont Blanc, for lunch… for that all-important and much dreamt of pizza! We made it, and an hour later, full to bursting point, we swung our legs over the bikes to tackle the last big col of the trip.
Whilst at lunch large clouds had bubbled up, and a massive thunderstorm was brewing! Once the rain started lashing down, we decided to stick with the quiet tarmac and gravel roads that wind up Val Vény, rather than take an additional balcony route. There would have been no views to be had whilst the storm was raging. (I have attached the balcony route alternative in this collection.)By the time we had reached lake Combal the storm had passed, and the landscape revealed itself to showcase a stark contrast of views to anywhere else on the journey. The high isolated plateau, vast glaciers, dilapidated military barracks and the Dora Val Vény river made a damn phenomenal backdrop to ride our bikes through.
With just a small amount of hike-a-bike, we found ourselves on top of our last col, Col de la Seigne (2512m), on the border between Italy and France. We arrived here in the golden hour and what followed was just the best descent of the entire journey. We sped down flowing non-technical singletrack down the Vallée des Glaciers to the tiny hamlet of Les Chapieux for a celebratory drink in Refuge de la Nova.
We loaded our bikes into the vehicles. We were stinky, tired and dirty, but we were grinning from ear to ear. What a fantastic 3 days!
Feel free to ask me any questions, happy to help where I can.
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