When was the last time you went to a trailcentre, or popular MTB destination? Why, because everyone else goes there? It’s easy?
Whilst mainstream and popular ride locations often guarantee at least some quality of riding, sometimes the best riding is the stuff you don’t read about, and often it’s really just there are requiring a little more effort or research, and a little bit of chance too.
After 5 months of working as a mountain bike guide in the French Alps, I thought I knew most of the good trails in and around the beautiful town of Samoens. Samoens and the surrounding Grand Massif region is a ‘hidden gem’ itself in the Alps, being just an hour from Geneva, and just over the hill from popular the mountain bike haunts of Les Gets and Morzine. The beauty of Samoens, is that mountain biking is less mainstream here and just one of many activities that go on in the summer. There is a mix of tourists doing all sorts of activities-hiking, rafting, or just soaking up the mountain atmosphere. What you find is perfect, quiet, natural ancient trails that get very little mountain bike traffic, so are a total contrast to the well-worn purpose-built tracks of The Portes Du Soleil area. The villages are filled with stunning old alpine huts and churches, and pre-date the ski resorts by hundreds of years. It still has a number of lifts open to riders too, including a gondola that goes to 2550m, and from where you can ride all the way back to the Samoens village 2000m below in one go. And as Les Gets is only a short drive over the hill, you get the best of both worlds.
However, there were still a fair few corners of the area I hadn’t explored properly, areas that on the map looked like they had great potential but could be hard work to access, and so it became a bit of a challenge to see what we could find. Gathering information about these areas from a hiking guide we worked with didn’t help much either- as a non-rider, he frequently told us either that trails would be good to ride only for us to then find they were totally unpassable, and other trails he dismissed as too easy, only for us to find perfect singletrack.
One area we kept on coming back to was a section of trail below Lac d’Anterne, a high alpine lake at 2000m, that got a fair amount of hiking traffic due to a popular long distance hiking track, the GR5, going past it. However it wasn’t this trail that caught our eye, rather a secondary trail which zig-zagged down from a stunning plateau into a neighbouring valley. The trail was 8km long and dropped about 900m in height, and was just too tempting to not try.
However, the question was how best to approach it!
The most obvious way appeared to be to approach it via the popular hiking track, although this was one of the few designated no-ride trails in the area, so would involve a long walk. One of our fellow bike guides decided to try this approach, and reported back on a backbreaking 3 hour climb/push to the Lake, which didn’t sound like fun. However, reports on the trail down were much more encouraging, with a smooth winding wide singletrack heading down the mountain.
There just had to be another way to get to it. That was when we had a moment of inspiration, and realised we maybe just needed to tackle the climb differently and come in from over the top!
The Col d’Anterne stood at 2300m, a few hundred above the lake. But the bonus of this route was it looked like vehicle access was possible to within striking distance of the top- the challenge was on.
The first part of the trip was an easy drive around the mountain into the Chamonix valley, and up to the beautiful ski resort of Plateau d’Assy and Plaine Joux. From here you get just stunning views of nearby Mont Blanc, and we could even see the string of climbers ascending the mount. Onwards and upwards we drove, until the roads turned to gravel, and then loose rock, then not really even a track at all. The further we went the more unlikely it was that our trusty old 2WD minibus would be able to power up the climbs with a full load AND a trailer full of bikes, but somehow, after 90mins we made it to the end of the road- literally!
We had made it to 1600m, and whilst it was nice to have achieved this height without working, it was a daunting sight to see the neighbouring mountains overshadowing us at heights of well over 3000m, and with Mont Blanc mocking us across the valley, dwarfing it’s neighbours at 4810m.
Our first goal was to reach the Col d’Anterne, which was just 4.5km away. The only problem was it was also a good 700m straight above us! The first 3.5km was on steep firetrack that gained 400m pretty steeply in sections. Only the toughest could manage to ride the whole stretch, and all of us used the excuse of ‘stopping to look at the view’ numerous times. After an hour of solid climbing though, our progress looked good, and we could see the saddle of the Col above us- the only problem was the extremely steep, rocky, narrow footpath disappearing skywards.
At this point it was clear there was no easy option. Nope, the only thing to do was to suck it up, and start pushing or carrying your bike up the last 300m of height in 1km! A steady 45min of pushing makes you really appreciate chair lifts, I can tell you. And some of the looks from the hikers we encountered were priceless. Clearly we were the first mtbers they had met pushing bikes up a sheer cliff!
However, the reward at the summit was without doubt worth it.
The top of the Col d’Anterne is at 2,300m, but it is still dwarfed by the massive Pont d’Anterne above it, and of course nearby Mont Blanc. At last though we could see our final destination, Samoens village, over 30km and 1700m below us. The only thing between us was a long run downhill, oh and maybe a lake, a waterfall and a mountain hut serving afternoon tea……
There was no question we had chosen the right side of the Col to ascend, as whilst the way we came up would have been totally unridable both ways, the decent we had lined up looked perfect- a rocky high alpine paradise- and before long we were all picking alternate lines as we weaved through the rocks and jumped from one string of single track to the other. The main key was to look far enough ahead to make sure the bit of walking single track you had chosen was not going to fizzle out or hit an unrideable stack of rocks before you had time to switch lines.
A couple of tricky, exposed rock slabs tethering near the edge of a steep drop proved too much for half of the group. The line required a serious amount of nerve and a little rock scrambling, but with the correct line choice it was amazing how grippy and smooth the rock slabs proved to be. Only those brave enough to block out the drop and focus on the inches of platform available were rewarded with a nearly clear run down to the lake, and the next riding challenge, a large area of the last remaining snow of winter. No-one managed this one!
After riding past the lake, there was a final short climb and a turn off from the main GR5 trail, onto our own private singletrack. As we rode along, the whistles of Marmotte’s could be heard, and occasionally could be seen- one narrowly missing my wheel when it decided to go for a wander- clearly it hadn’t seen fat wheels before.
Then, we got to the point overlooking the whole valley. We were still at well over 2000m in altitude, but could look straight down a cliff to the small village below us- a careful eye could even make out the pub 1400m below. With only the local wildlife to keep us company, the descent began, and my god, was it good! In 5km we dropped 600m on sweet flowing singletrack, ducking in between trees and through high alpine meadows, with no time to stop for the view. It was very clear that no riders had been here for a very long time, if ever. The trail was an ancient route for local herdsmen to get their sheep and cows to the high summer meadows, and had been carefully cleared and smoothed by years and years of use. And no braking ruts!
After what seemed like forever (but was around 20mins) the trail popped us out at a roaring stream, and a chance to rest and cool tired fingers, hands and brakes. And of course, right next to the stream was a wonderful high alpine refuge, serving amazing coffees and myrtle-berry tarts, result!
And so, from this point all that remained was a leisurely 15km roll back into town, via an Indiana Jones swinging bridge, a quick detour via root-central to ride underneath a waterfall, and a final ride down through the gorge just above Samoens.
All up the ride had been a total of 36km. So not really what you’d normally call an epic. Except it had taken the entire day, and involved a 90 minute drive and almost 2 hours of climbing to get to the top. But from there we had nearly 30km of descending, on untouched alpine meadows and forest singletrack.
Had it been worth it? Hell yes! So much so we have repeated this ride every year we go back to the Alps- and each time it’s pretty clear we are the first (and possibly only) riders to have ridden these trails in the last year.
So, next time you are off somewhere, rather than just sticking to the tried and tested trail centres and ‘well-ridden’ trails, why not do a little exploring? Pull out the map, study it, ask a few locals, take an educated guess, and go exploring. If it looks hard work, all the better, you may well be the first to try. It really could be an awesome ride, and you could be the first one to discover the next epic must do ride!
Ian Fehler worked as a mountain bike guide in the Alps for 2 years, before moving back to Adelaide to set up his own MTB guiding business, Escapegoat Adventures, which run skills training and guided MTB trips in South Australia and beyond, including Europe. Each July Ian leads a group back to the Alps and Samoens, and the Col d’Anterne ride is always one of the highlights of the trip.