The plan


What if we went bikepacking in the Alps? It was an idle lunchtime chat between three workmates but one that got us thinking… what could we do given two weeks to explore the high mountains of the French Rhone Alps? And how do you pack it all in given the distance just to get there, not to mention the amount of climbing on fully laden bikes? Eventually, we picked a start point – Lake Annecy. It would make an idyllic and chilled out start to the adventure – all we had to do was get there.


The travel prep


Having ruled out plane travel via Geneva (what do you do with a bikebox after the flight when you won’t return there?) And travel by car as none of us had a vehicle large enough and the costs of fuel, tolls and channel tunnel quickly ruled that out. So, ferry and trains were to be the chosen mode. Cue a lot of research into what was possible on French trains. The consensus seemed to be that in general, bikes are welcome onboard most services with special bike carriages on some regional TGVs… sounds like a plan, we thought. An itinerary emerged – overnight ferry from Portsmouth to Caen. 15km ride to Caen station, then TGV to Paris St Lazare. This is where it got sticky – we had to get a connecting train from Gare de Lyon just 45 minutes later and the Metro has a no bike policy. This would mean a 7km dash across Paris by bike and not a prospect any of us was relishing. But it was doable in theory and the second train would whisk us all the way down to Annecy in less than 4 hours.





The route


With the start point defined, talk quickly turned to the iconic climbs we could include in our route – Alpe D’Huez, Galibier, Iseran, Izoard, Madeleine… Turns out that many of these are linked by The Route de Grandes Alpes that weaves several alternate routes from Lausanne down to Nice. Attempting to ride all the 600km and 20,000m of elevation to Nice in two weeks fully loaded was deemed a bit too hard for us. It was however, possible to make a loop that went down from Annecy to Albertville, east to Megève – where the Tour de France was passing through (oh yes, we’ll have some of that!) South to Bourg St Maurice, Tignes, over the Col de L’iseran. West down the Maurienne Valley before tackling the Telegraph and fearsome Col de Galibier. Then over to Alpe D’Huez and finishing off with Grenoble at the western edge of the Alps, where we would make our way return train journey from retracing through Paris and back to Caen for the ferry home.


The gear


Anyone who’s looked into bikepacking kit knows what a rabbithole researching and buying the gear can be. It was no different for us! I’d done a couple of overnight camping trips, the South Downs and King Alfred Ways so had a few bits but Jon and Steve, my ride buddies, started from scratch. Several months, and more than a few trips to Woods Cyclery in Lyndhurst later for parts, advice, coffee and a steel Ritchie Outback adventure frame in Jon’s case. Steve opted for a titanium Dolan GXT gravel rig, while I repurposed my Cannondale SuperX cyclocross bike with a set of flared bars. Both Jon and Steve went for fork bags as well as the usual bikepack combo of seat, frame, bar and top tube bags. My set up used fewer bags but meant a bigger seat bag. All in and fully loaded, it was a bit of a shock to see previously light gravel bikes, turned into 23-25kg monsters – not the heaviest bikes ever ridden but we weren’t headed for the flatlands!


Next question was what to pack? Noone wants to take stuff that doesn’t get used but how light can you go on clothing when the destination can be 35° in the valleys but 2° at altitude in July? The european heatwave helped us make our minds up, going for 3 season sleeping bags and light down jackets should things get chilly.



Day 1: Ferries and trains


Having bagged a lift in a mate’s van down to the ferry, we had a night crossing and opted for reclining chairs rather than a berth. Leading to the inevitable poor night’s sleep on slippy recliners. The lounges were quiet though and fairly empty – I even spotted another cyclist bedding down in a corner in his sleeping pad and and bag – wish I’d thought of that before leaving the car deck!


We had a sunny start in Ouistreham and several hours to kill before our train to Paris, so we rode along the coast to Sword beach, then south along the canal to Pegasus Bridge for coffee and the first of the journeys many pastries. Getting onto train #1 was pretty stress free, it was in Paris that things got interesting. Having worked out a route between St Lazare and Gare de Lyon stations, we set about weaving through the cycle lanes which in fairness are pretty comprehensive, often segregated, many with their own traffic filters to keep bikes and scooters moving quicker than other traffic… as long as you don’t wait for other road users to make their minds up about priority. Its not for the faint hearted and fortune favours the bold (a bit of cross race experience came in handy here!)



Arrived at the connecting station with 15 minutes to spare, but it was when we got on the platform that our worst fears were realised. This TGV was an Inoui service – think budget airline – more seats crammed in, no buffet car and minimum luggage space which meant 3 loaded bikes were not going to be allowed on, let alone fit in the racks…unless they were in some sort of bike bag. I’d packed a load of bin bags in case this happened and started a negotiation with staff while stripping wheels and bags off and stuffing them into the plastic bags. We had 5 minutes before the train left and miraculously the staff wandered off which we took as our cue to stuff everything onto the train and sort it once we’d left the station. It was a crazy few minutes of total meltdown, but we did it and managed to cram parts into every available nook and cranny. After that, not even the fact that our carriage had been taken over by a group of screaming French schoolkids could faze us. We would however need a plan B for the return trip based on this experience.



Day 2: Annecy


Reassembling bikes in a deserted Annecy train station was a lot more chilled, but on the ride to the southern end of the lake and our campsite, it soon became clear that in our haste to strip down, things weren’t quite as they should be with Steve and Jon’s rear wheels. Never mind, we planned a couple of days stay in Annecy and it could wait til the morning. Arriving after dark meant a phone call to the owner who gave vague instructions on where to pitch… needless to say, we ended up on someone else’s spot in the dark and had to move early next morning.


Apparently Annecy lake bike paths get a million visitors every year and it was brilliant to see how well the routes work for all types of cyclist. It also meant a good deal of bike shops to sort our mechanical issues. Unfortunately, many are just bike hire outfits and although very friendly and helpful, lacking the tools and parts to sort us out. Three stops later, Steve’s bike was working again thanks to a humble washer in the rear axle. No complaints about the 25° sunshine for a chilled lap round the lake.




Day 3: Albertville


We were on the road early for the next leg to a farm to camp at the village of Thenésol, on the hillside above Albertville with the weather heating up by the day and making riding in the afternoon an unpleasant experience. First proper climb of our tour was Col de Tamié (9.7km, ave gradient 4%), quiet roads and first real views of the valley. By the time we arrived, temperatures were in the the mid 30s so we took advantage of the cool farmhouse for a few hours.



Day 4: Megève


Another early start with a hot day in prospect. A quick descent to Ugine in the valley, then straight back up the Col de l’Arpettaz heading east – a stiff little 12km leg loosener avoiding the main road and we had it all to ourselves before the gradient eased as we made our way up the walled valley with the river Arly below. Coffee stop in the village of Flumet and one of those unexpected gems when we walked through an unassuming café from a busy main road to a stunning ravine and balcony at the back!


Arriving in Megève, you could tell there was a sense of anticipation for Le Tour growing with campervans starting to line the route, having driven south from the previous stage and the car horns were blowing well in to the night. This was one campsite we made sure we pre-booked as any host town for the race will get very busy in the run up to the tour madness. We’d be stopping here for two days to experience the end of stage 10 of the tour on the final climb out of town, up to the airport. I’ve been to tour stages before, but it always blows my mind how many people follow the biggest sporting event in the world and are part of the race convoy – there a hundreds of trucks, vans, cars and not to mention the ‘caravan’ of promotional vehicle floats, throwing out all manner of freebies from t-shirts and hats to keyrings, drinks and snacks to roadside fans. Highlight of the tour day was getting to actually ride down the mountain with the pros who were returning to team buses at the foot of the climb!



Day 6: Megève to Albertville


Leaving Megeve to head south, we faced one of the biggest days of the trip with two long climbs – the Col de Saisies, gateway to the Beaufortain area (14.5km at 6.2% ave). Then lunch in Beaufort at a converted London Bus café followed by the Cormet de Roselend (20.3km at 6.1%). Thankfully, the route was quiet and tree lined because it was HOT on the the steeper lower slopes, hitting 38°c. A magnificent pass, the wild character of the high mountains (apart from the dam two thirds of the way up). The fast and technical descent down to Bourg St Maurice put smiles on faces, we were also pretty happy at the prospect of proper beds as friends from Sotonia CC, our cycling club were staying in town and had space to let us crash there (cheers guys!). One man tents are not without problems when you’ve got a healing collarbone and broken rib like I’d managed to sustain few weeks before the trip!



Day 8: Bourg Saint Maurice to Tignes


Officially, there’s only one road up to Tignes and the Tarentaise Valley – the D902. It’s a main road with a lot of traffic and no shade. A pretty unpleasant option in the heat, but from previous visits, I had a sneaking suspicion that there was an offroad trail for part of the way if we climbed out of the valley to the small resort of Sainte Foy. Well, it may have involved the odd 17% gravel climb to get there but when we emerged onto the plateau we were rewarded with some amazing trails and incredible views of the valley and glacier above. There was a bit of hike-a-bike near the end as the trail got too gnarly for fully loaded gravel bikes but a couple of days rest, chance to do some washing and recharge kit in a chalet at Tignes Les Boises, next to the dam awaited three tired but happy riders.



Day 9: Rest day bonus climb


Lac de la Grande Sassiere is a road climb with a gravel trail near the top to the lake, five minutes out the door from where we were staying. Jon and Steve opted to make the most of a rest day while I headed out for the short ride. The legs weren’t happy but at least I’d ditched most of the bike bags and the views over the Lac du Chevril reservoir well worth it.