By day 2 or day 3 we were starting to realize how huge everything is there— And we weren’t even in the big mountains yet.
Kilometers-thick sheets of limestone and underlying rock were thrust upon one another 60 million years ago, and in the subsequent time, rivers and glaciers have cut deeply into this uplifted mass. The result? Everything is steep. But the landscape is anything but consistent. In a single day, we could pass through lush jungle, vibrant alpine meadows, snowy cols, bizarre karst uplands, deep valleys with raging clear rivers and lined with springs, and medieval villages perched on steep slopes and nestled in narrow canyons.
The French and Italian armies of the World War I and World War II eras knew how to build roads and trails. These routes still exist today, in arguably better condition than many mountain roads and trails in North America. Despite 4,000-5,000 feet of relief, there is a way up and down every pass. We humored ourselves by counting switchbacks as we climbed; 70 in one day was our record. Despite excellent trail construction, we found ourselves hiking plenty.
“The moments that stand out are the moments that are the most challenging.” —KB
In reality, you can connect virtually any two points on a map in the Alps by riding (and likely hiking) your bike—mostly trail, farm tracks, ancient roads, military roads, and quiet paved backroads.
Initially we had almost exclusively followed our planned route using the track on our GPS units. But all along the way, we marveled at the abundance of trail markers, mountain bike route emblems, and signs with destinations, distances, and hiking times. Upon leaving our route, we simply followed trail markers and mountain bike emblems pointing in the direction we wanted to travel.
All these routes can be linked together, and the all-too-familiar problems of private property and bike access that seem to plague bikepacking routes in the United States are absent. We saw just three “no bike” signs and a single “private property” sign on a two-track. And all the signage along the way made bike travel unimaginably easy. In theory, you could ride through the Alps on trail and bike routes with nothing more than a basic road map.
But be warned—even though bikes are permitted on virtually all trails, many are steep mountain trails that require strong hike-a-bike muscles.
For the first 10 days of our trip, we worried we weren’t riding far enough each day. It felt like we were crawling along. Our route was intimidating to start with and became even more so once we were into it, experiencing the Alps on loaded mountain bikes. We had a place to stay in Chamonix that we didn’t want to miss, and we also had to reach the Swiss Alps, but they felt so far away. At first, 30 days felt like plenty of time to ride, but as we inched along on our route, it started to feel like hardly enough time just to make it back to Zurich. As a friend pointed out, we were making solid thru-hiker pace ... but we were on bikes!
As we rode along on our El Mariachis, fighting the flu, negotiating different cultures, hiking up and sometimes even down cols, and hiding from hail, Kaitlyn came up with 15 reasons why our 30-mile-per-day pace suited our journey well. These reasons all related to two primary factors:
One, we were touring.
And two, riding in the Alps is hard. But really there is much more to it than that.
1. 30 miles per day generally meant 5 to 6.5 hours of moving time. That’s less than a 5 mph moving average. And 4 or 5 of those hours usually involve riding in our granny gear or hiking, ascending ~9,000 feet per day.
2. Besides not having the legs to ride past dark, we didn’t want to ride at night. We found nice campsites, cooked dinner, and slept in. We were generally in our camp for 12 to14 hours. It was awesome.
3. We traveled through three different countries and languages. This meant everything town-orientated took twice as long as it would have at home; a stop for groceries that took us less than two hours was fast, and we didn’t rush.
4. The coffee in Italy and France was hard to pass by, and we never really tried to pass by an opportunity for it. Fortunately, it’s also the cheapest thing you can buy on most menus, including soda and water. Plus, the extra energy boost seemed to help us propel ourselves on toward the next col.
5. The Alps are gorgeous. We spent a lot of time taking pictures.
6. Despite being assured that the weather is generally good, we had 23 days with rain, two strong hail events, and two snowstorms to negotiate. We never hesitated to stop and sit out the heavy downpours, camp early, or even take a tent day to wait out particularly foul weather.
7. The engineering feats in the Alps are mind-blowing, from past to present. Each is worthy of awe and admiration.
8. Kurt had a whole new landscape to interpret. Lots of limestone, but gneiss, quartzite, granite and serpentenite all folded and faulted upon one another, keeping him on his toes.
9. There are cherries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries and blackberries to forage! And if we decided to camp at a lake with a swimming beach at 2 pm, we usually had time to make a gourmet picnic dinner spread and drink wine.
10. The animals here are vicious and often impede our progress.
11. Every climb is an unrelenting uphill. From valley floor to cresting a col, it’s climb-only climbs; mid-climb descents and flat stretches just don’t exist. These wear the legs down quickly.
12. Hike-a-bike was a daily activity. A hike-a-bike of 1,500 vertical feet somehow started to feel like a short one. But these hikes also wore the body down.
13. There were a few cols we hiked down just as much as we hiked up.
14. The long stretches of hike-a-bike and long descents actually make for tired upper bodies. We occasionally ended days at the top of a long descent in order to tackle it with vigor in the morning.
15. Sometimes you just have to stop, sit, and smell the flowers. This may be an excuse for a serious bonk.
We couldn’t fathom riding any longer each day. Our legs and arms were tired. We enjoyed our leisurely mornings, cappuccinos, lunch breaks, hanging out atop cols, taking photos, trying to identify the elusive “toot toot bird,” hiding from the incessant rain, and camping before sunset. It’s the way touring should be.
Letting yourself slow down, soaking in the surroundings and culture, and taking a break when you need it lets unique opportunities and events more readily present themselves.
Early on in our trip, on a narrow alley-like main street where we sat sipping what was our second round of cappucinos, was a banner that read “Demonte 800 anni—1214-2014. (the town’s 800-year anniversary)” That was just one example of the countless impressions and new experiences that the first days of riding through the French and Italian Alps delivered.
Contrasting starkly with the landscape, everything human-made is small and/or narrow—vehicles, portions, living spaces, roads, farm fields, and mountain bike wheels and handlebars. France was tougher for us to negotiate. We were immediately scolded with, “No velos!” when we tried to walk our bikes onto the Mediterranean beach within just an hour of arriving in Nice. And mailing two parcels at the post office took us an hour. Italians were far more helpful as we fumbled with learning basic phrases. Buying food in villages consisted of visiting the butcher, baker, tiny general store, and one of several cafes. We continuously found ourselves saying, “I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, but this sure wasn’t it.” This continued as we left Demonte and made our way up the next 6,000-foot climb.
We left the Alps with great respect and admiration for the mountains and everyone who adventures there. The cultures and landscapes we experienced were new and offered endless uncertainty and unknown in the beginning. As we got our bikes to Nice, and pedaled away from the Mediterranean Sea and into the mountains, we met each day with what it offered. We learned along the way through our triumphs and struggles. A sense of accomplishment still lingers from stepping beyond the familiar and creating our own adventure in the Alps.