Settle in for the long-awaited third instalment of Shand rider Scott Cornish’s ‘Deconfinement Diaries’ – sharing life in post-lockdown Chamonix Mont Blanc with his Bahookie bike and an open trail.
With so many events cancelled or postponed, the pressure of focus driven training has been replaced with a chance to simply ride and explore all those trails you wondered where they went. The return to ‘normal’ or the new normal has been a slow process, the once desolate streets of downtown Chamonix have been filled with throngs of tourists once more, along with the local trails. With rapid snow melt under what has been consecutive, oppressive heat waves, the rivers too are in full flow.
Like everyone who has had events cancelled, it’s been an odd feeling adjusting to a season of diminishing focus. E3coach.com has kept the legs sharp though, yet without specific regular goals or knowing if events will eventually be cancelled anyway. On the flip side, I’ve delved back into my box of paper maps collected over the years, some still bearing faint pencil lines of planned trips from 20 years ago and dog eared corners from actually carrying them with me to follow.
There’s something eternally appealing about having a map fully opened out on the table, an overview of all the riding possibilities as opposed to the modern, limited view on a computer screen, being able to see the full route and surrounding terrain. Scheming rides via cols I haven’t sweated over for a while and along trails previously unexplored, discovering more routes in the backyard as well as access to trails from a different perspective, trail running.
The trail running (fast hiking essentially on steeper terrain) around here is pretty extreme, like much of the riding. Real (in relation to myself!) trail runners seem to float upwards and lightly dance their way down technical trails to my heavy ‘technique’. It’s fun discovering the higher mountain trails, getting closer to glaciers and sharp peaks. It’s not without yang to the yin though; lacking running km in the legs and the steep, long descents make for a painful return to this sport, barely able to walk properly in the days following those initial, upon reflection, overly eager outings.
Our valley trails are of 2 distinct types; easy rolling or steep and rocky. There are more options out of the valley and from the back door, access is via the Col de Voza, a deceptively manageable gradient on touring skis, on a bike however, its full fury is unveiled. The upper gravel section is mere 3km but a constant 20-25%, peaking at 30% over loose dirt and euro sized gravel, pushing the HR quickly into the red!
Choose from the road access which breaks you in gently or the trail access which puts you straight into the mood for this super steep top half. It’s one of the local challenges, chase the KOM or simply make it all the way up without putting a foot down. It’s usually best just following snow melt or heavy rain as the ground is still tacky. Once it dries, it’s a hard fight to keep the rear wheel from slipping out over the dust and loose rock. 6 times up, a mere single ascent all the way up without a foot down, pilot error being the factor.
The higher volume of the 29×2.4 WTB Rangers at the right pressure have been a real revelation for bikepacking and general riding, with Shand’s rigid fork making the Bahookie quite capable over tough terrain. The riding down the other side of the Col is no less steep or loose, the bigger tyres add control though and will you to edge ever faster on the descent, having to remember though that it is an access track and used by hikers too!
A recce of the first 50km of the Tour du Mont mtb gives a little perspective on why its 151km (or 173km depending on route choice) mtb route is projected to take so long, as the plan is to complete it non-stop. With numerous refuges and towns along the route, riding unsupported is straightforward, but it’s the significant hike a bike sections which adds time. 5 ⅕ hours to reach the highest point of the Col de la Croix du Bonhomme pass at 2600m, but only 37km in! The rhubarb tart at the refuge was a sweet reward for the effort.
The descent is steep and riddled with various singletrack path options, a lesson in how to ride steep in the drops! Once down into Chapieux, it was back onto tarmac across the stunning Barrage de Roseland and gravel exploring in the Beautfortin area, of which there are numerous tracks. If you ever find yourself in the town of Beaufort too, there’s a superb boulangerie opposite the main square, offering slabs of quiche, hearty pizzas and large enough slices of cake to keep you fueled for a good few hours.
In Chamonix, there’s only one great coffee house, Moody. Compact and tucked away on the Avenue de L’Aiguille de Midi, if you know, you know. At the time, it was closed on the weekend (now open for a limited run) and the next personal favourite was 100km away in Talloires on the edge of Lake Annecy, called Basecamp. A bike rental come coffee house with top food too. Even the local mayor has been known to frequent the café. It’s a beautiful ride out, across the Aravis range and past the monument to the resistance fighters of WWII who defended this area.
Talloires sits right at the edge of the lake with a bathing area 5 minutes from Basecamp. A quick dip before the ride back via the quieter, narrow back road up to the Col de l’Arpettaz and along the gravel track of the Route de la Soif, flowing along the contours of the mountain side. Check out Basecamp‘s site for gravel weekends and events.
One of the main reasons I went for the drop bar Bahookie was due to badly fracturing both radius and ulnar my left wrist at Ironbike 2 years ago. The radius was displaced backwards and had to be wrenched back into place at the hospital. Being a physio, I knew what that meant for all the connective tissues in the area and future strength and stability. Riding flat bars for bikepacking became a painful experience and drops provided much needed multi-position options. Having now tuned in well to riding technical terrain in the drops, I was looking for something more adapted to the mtb geometry of the Bahookie. Currently on 480mm/560mm, hoods to drops, I was wondering about wider.
With the evolution of the gravel bike and 29er drop bar geometry, there has been a concurrent growth in drop bar width. Curve cycling have taken wide and made it wider, with their Walmer bar, evoking those long faded memories of the then, bewildering 720mm mtb width when they first appeared.
The Walmer comes in 4 widths, opting for the narrower of the 2 that they recommend for 29er wheeled adventure bikes, measuring 580mm at the hoods and 700mm at the drops. Flare is 29 degrees, with a slight rearward sweep and a back and neck friendly low drop of 110mm. Reach is 60mm, but actual, relative reach is less due to the back sweep by around 10mm. Some may question the necessity and/or efficacy of such a wide drop bar, but it would seem to make sense given the geometry of the Bahookie.
Initial ride impressions were odd of course. Wide! Being in the drops did put a different stress across the shoulder blades, but time would tell whether that would adapt or become an issue. Full impressions in the next diary entry.