The Grande Alpine Traverse - Bikepacking the length of the Alps
This spectacular alpine bikepacking route traverses the French and Italian Alps. Starting in Lac Leman (Lake Geneva), the route offers such diverse landscapes, over a real mix of terrain, all the way to the Mediterranean sea. The scenery is nothing short of breathtaking, with ‘wow’ moments around every corner. A journey filled with high mountain passes, alpine pastures abundant with wild flowers and bell ringing cows, turquoise lakes, historic military gravel roads, derelict but once mighty forts, and switchbacks galore!
Having previously hiked the GR5 high mountain walkers route from Lac Leman (Lake Geneva) to the Mediterranean, as well having ridden the Route des Grandes Alp (the road cycling version), I was keen to create a route that was somewhere between the two, staying off the busier paved roads as much as possible, but also finding alternatives to the hiking trail allowing it to be as ridable as possible. There were also some infamous historic Italian military roads that I was wanted to weave in. The result is a beautiful 780km journey with 28,400m of climbing over phenomenal mountain passes. The image gallery at the bottom of the page sums it up best, or take a look at my daily Instastories I did along the way (you can find them in my Instagram highlights here).
Well, that’s a tricky one, I loved it all.
I think one of the highlights was the chance to slow things down and not be against the clock. Unlike my normal adventures, this one was more of an ‘adventure holiday’. I say holiday, as it’s the first time I have ever gone bike packing with a spare t-shirt, my swimsuit and a towel (well one between two)…luxurious. We also had no schedule and no need to do big days in the saddle. We had lots of long lunches, stopped to cool off in rivers, took lots of pictures and just generally took the time to enjoy the small stuff.
As for locational highlights:
- The Col de Bise, with its stunning views back over Lac Leman and the amazing herd of Bouqetin that live up there.
- The Col d’Anterne, by far the hardest section of the whole route with a lot of very tough hike-a-bike, but the scenery was stunning from the bottom to the top and the feeling of personal satisfaction of finally reaching the summit was worth the effort.
- Lac Gittaz and the gravel road above Lac Roseland offers possibly the best view of the whole trip, looking back to Mont Blanc. Just wow.
- Camping on Lac Mont Cenis.
- Italy’s high altitude military gravel roads, snaking their way over ridges whilst staying above 2000m in altitude, covered in old forts and steeped in history were what this trip was all about for me. The main sections were the Strada dell’Assietta, Via della Gardetta and Alta Via del Sel. I had ridden the Assietta before in the Transcontinental Bike Race, but the Gardetta and the Via del Sel were so different again and unlike roads anywhere else I have ridden. An absolute must for gravel hunters. Plus there are days of the week when no 4×4’s are allowed on the roads, I would recommend to try and ride on those days if it fits in with your schedule. Less dust!
- The cheap but delicious pizzas in Italy (just 6 euros)
- The warm turquoise waters of the Mediterranean makes for the most perfect finish line.
With the tough Hike-a-Bike sections coming thick and fast in the early part of this trip, in fact starting on day 1, you may be quick to ask yourself ‘what was I thinking!’ But be rest assured, in the second half of the journey the single track is replaced with gravel roads, making the riding much easier.
You could of course avoid some of the early Hike-a-Bike mountain passes, but to do this you would need to stick to the paved main roads that follow the valley floor, going around the mountains rather than over. When I was putting this route together, I was looking to stay off the bigger paved roads wherever possible, and to take the highest route I could, which means some hiking trails were included to link gravel sections. It would be remiss of me not to mention that these tough Hike-a-Bike sections will not only need a good level of fitness, but also strong mental toughness! None the less, these sections turned out to be some of the most rewarding sections of the whole traverse, and took us to the most spectacular landscapes.
For the those who like stats… 48% of the journey is paved (but mostly on small quiet back roads), 47% gravel tracks and just 5% made up of single track. We found 98% of the journey to be ridable. Of the 40 main mountain passes, just 8 involve a little Hike-a-Bike, from a few 100 metres to a couple of kilometres. There is just one pass that involved nearly 10km of really hard graft Hike-a-Bike!!
Accommodation along the way is abundant. I have marked on the map the mountain refuges/huts along the route, as these are in remote locations where there are no other options. However, it’s best to book these in advance during the peak summer season. Down in the valleys, there are hotels, gitês and campsites a plenty.
We chose to wild camp every night bar one (we fancied a shower halfway through the trip, so booked into a campsite in Briançon). Wild camping is technically not allowed, but if you adhere to certain rules, it’s generally tolerated. Make sure you leave no trace and don’t set up your tent until after 7pm and be gone by 9am in the morning.
In France, food and water are really easy to come by. There are water fountains in almost every village and near many farmhouses along the route. Most villages have a mini supermarket (I have marked many of these on the map) and restaurants are frequent. Mountain refuges/huts not only offer Half Board accommodation, but they also can make you a picnic lunch to take on the road, or if you are just passing through in the daytime then they will all offer a number of options for lunch and will happily fill up your water bottles. In Italy, the options are a little less abundant but still plenty frequent enough. We never carried food for more than 1.5 days at a time, and it was in the later section of the route, beyond Limone, that things became a little more scarce. Water also became scarce in the last 100km.
As for when is best to do this ride, I would say late June to early October. If you went earlier in June you could still find yourself battling snow patches up high, as the highest point on the route is 2774m. Alternatively, in early October you sometimes get the first snow flurries of the imminent winter, so summer would be best. The peak summer months also gives you the option of refuelling or staying in the mountain refuges/huts, as these are only open for a couple of months. We rode the route during the last week of July and the first week of August and were blessed with great weather (although the heatwave that arrived during a second week was a little hot… with temperatures rising to 40degC).