VIDEO Ride Review: Mont Blanc Enduro with 'Ben Jones MTB Adventure'
August 15th, 2016
August 15th, 2016
Anna is a jack-of-all-bikes, and has been riding and racing in a myriad of genres for over seven years; from World Cup level cross-country, to grass roots coaching kids on the road.
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Being an adventurous kind of rider, I've never fallen into the trap of going to the same holiday destination to ride the same polished trails. Now, there's nothing wrong with retreating to Morzine every year to hone some skills on long descents, but aren't you left wanting more?If you've ever stumbled across a local downhill route tucked away under a ski lift, or blatted down a foot path you probably shouldn't have, or slipped off the downhill main line by accident and found yourself on something wilder, and you liked it, then maybe it's time to quench your thirst for something a little more off-the-beaten-track, where breaking bumps and queues are a distant memory. Enter Ben Jones MTB Adventures.Offering custom or pre-planned guided trips, Ben Jones is a master of piecing together trails you may not otherwise consider from the comfort of way-marked routes in your usual haunts. From epic adventures in the Alps, to wild trail-hunting in Scotland; Ben has collected some of the best descents in Europe, and has spent five years tweaking loops to cram as much of them as possible into one week. We couldn't resist an invite to the Mont Blanc Enduro trip, for it's title if nothing more, which took in around 300km of stoke, and 23,000m of descending glory. Here's my ride diary:
Arrival in Chamonix saw our transfer bus drive straight through the crowded centre and slightly uphill to a quiet wooden chalet complete with hot tub and views of Mont Blanc. A group of seven strangers are welcomed by the chalet host before being prepared a three course meal. As one lad described how he chopped down a tree on his local trail with the power of a six pack of Red Bull and a hand axe, I wondered how Ben's routes and "unlimited trail snacks" would stand up to such connoisseurs of trails and sweet-toothery.
Ben's golden rule was "don't break yourself on the trail". None of us wanted to disappoint him.
During pudding, Ben lays down the law about stray bags, bike maintenance, and his idea of 'trail mix' being a freezer bag full of salted nuts, dried fruit and haribo. Ben's golden rule was "don't break yourself on the trail". None of us wanted to disappoint him. Julia Hobson, our second guide and all round alpine Hopetech queen, finished the speech with an alternative look at what Ben really means when he says things like "it's only a four minute climb". We all looked at each blankly when Ben said our first climb was to be 90 minutes.
Day 1. Chamonix to Grand St. Bernard
The day started with a hike near the Croix de Fer, a regular mountain pass for the Tour de France, but we were in Swiss territory now and steering clear of tarmac. Ben taught us to carry our bikes on our shoulders properly and we merrily followed him up to 2,000m on a rooty pathway. The views didn't disappoint. A row of mountains stood opposite the patchwork valley, with Verbier just about visible on the opposite mountain, a nod to how far removed we were from the hum drum of bike parks.
After a 90 minute walk, ahead of us was hours of descending fun, starting with the rocky and unpredictable surface of the Mont Blanc Trail. Tyres were woken up with loose scree and rolling baby-head rocks causing us to all pin-ball down the pathway as we desperately tried to get into a rhythm. One lad was pretty sure he did an x-up with both wheels still on the ground. I'm pretty sure I did the same, only mine ended up with a torn pair of gloves and some dented pride.
The trail eventually relaxed into open off-camber fields full of cows with tinkling bells. The occasional patch of traffic included walkers leaping aside, and big black Swiss bulls that looked like they were powerlifters in a previous life. I crept passed them slowly, the Scottish lad behind shouts "get te fook!" and blasts through a stream.
once we were off the beaten track of the Mont Blac Trail, we barely saw a soul all week
Coffee at the refuge saw us far removed from civilisation, however, it didn't take long before we got on to the topic of Pokemon Go and wondered what yellow-goggled enduromons we could capture up here. It seemed not many. In fact, once we were off the beaten track of the Mont Blac Trail, we barely saw a soul all week. Just stunning hour-long descents with no one in the way. Ben says the most common question at the end of a day is "why was no one else riding that?!".
In the valley, all hyped up on a morning of mental riding and near-misses, we grabbed a coffee and met the tour bus for an assisted uplift. Now that's my kind of climbing. We had arrived in Switzerland and waiting for us was flowing natural single track with a hairpin addiction. Pine needles were our loam and drifting corners was a dream. We were popping off side walls and using everything as a take-off opportunity. The odd fierce rocky section kept us on our toes, catching pedals and testing our nerve. Descents ranged from rocky wide tracks to skinny, wiggly stuff that had me dancing on the bike, bouncing from left to right, and feeling like a total trail Jedi.
Descents that had me dancing on the bike, bouncing from left to right, and feeling like a total trail Jedi
We got back to the van just as thunderstorm hit. There was a big flash followed by a loud crack that sounded like someone was banging on the van roof with a hammer. We loaded up, grabbed some 'unlimited trail snacks' and headed for a hotel that, if it were in a film, would sit somewhere between the Grand Budapest Hotel and that place from The Shining. We scoffed a three course meal that was somehow both Swiss and Italian; unbiased food from somewhere that sat directly on the boarder.
Day 2. Switzerland to Italy, via Aosta
We awoke in a thick and cold cloud, and descended straight from the hotel with a rude awakening on some slick rocks, followed by a dewy rock-strewn grass verge. The tyres pinged and popped underneath, then, as if to announce the arrival into Italy, the clouds parted and we were greeted with an epic bowl-shaped green valley and a trail skirting its way around a mountain, like a shelf of single track. It was exposed and testing with a big drop to the right if you get it wrong. Descending style was not a million miles from the recent Enduro World Series Round held at La Thuile, which was in fact just over the other side of a nearby mountain.
It had been an epic day already, and it wasn't even over.
We hit the woods and then sunk into switchback corners down the side of the mountain, for what seemed like a lifetime. Mental chicanes on roots and rock had us all waiting for each other to clear tricky sections, lined up across the mountain edge shouting and cheering each other on like a World Cup crowd. Later, our slow-moving tech skills were rewarded with a super fast track that had us hitting off-cambers at full throttle with dust kicking up everywhere. One lad found solace in a bush off the edge of the trail, another cuddled up to tree after overshooting a corner. After a few child-like screams and made-up enduro slogans, we finished on a street in front of the van, all pumped full of adrenaline, wide-eyed with heart rates at max. It had been an epic day already, and it wasn't even over.
Later we hacked through some back alleys, down flights of steps and through some steep shoots that connected the roads like we'd stumbled across an urban down hill track. We stole sandwiches from the van, melted in the valley heat for a bit, then got on with the afternoon's adventure.
Gazing up at a baron cliff face, with toothy rocks jutting out, it was hard to imagine we were capable of standing up there, let alone riding
The afternoon treated us to yet more fast, open, dusty, rocky stuff near the Aosta Valley. Then, Ben took us to 'that cliff descent'. After reaching the top and looking over the edge of the trail, a point which looked to be more like something for base jumpers than mountain bikers, we knew we were into something quite advanced. The trail was extremely exposed, super technical, really narrow, and with tight switchbacks on rocks. One lad innocently asked "what was that flowery smell, rosemary or something?", no mate, that was Death's deodorant. Gazing up at a baron cliff face, with toothy rocks jutting out, it was hard to imagine we were capable of standing up there, let alone riding.
Day 3. Italy to France, near La Plagne
At the bottom of a valley, somewhere in Italy, we sleepily started our ride along a fire road, with coffee at the refuge on the horizon, but more than an hour away. Following an espresso, a can of coke, and a brief marmot encounter, we headed for the walkers' path that traversed up the side of the mountains in the opposite direction, which gave us a great view of where we had come from. An hour's pushing, and a few waterfall crossings later, we reach the pass between two mountains, complete with the odd blanket of snow and the sound of rocks tumbling down the cliffs in the distance. We were feeling the effects of being nearly 3,000m high, short of breath, tired and only a third of the way up the climb. In my mind I kept picturing those epic videos, which all seem to start with a three hour climb up a mountain in the middle of nowhere, only the one I was seeing wasn't going to get a quick edit.
The last kilometer was typically more difficult with steep scree and thin air. My steps had turned to a shuffle with my bike on my shoulders and lunch a distant memory. Reaching the top after four hours of climbing was a chilly relief. The wind whistled loudly as we loaded up on body armour and set our suspension and minds to 'trail mode'. Despite a full morning of ascending, it was hard to believe we would get a full afternoon of descending as reward, but we did.
It had been a full-on 9-5 affair, but I'll take those hours on a bike over working any day.
It didn't take long for the baron lunar landscape to turn to warm, grassy single track with deep ruts and natural drop-offs to keep you on your toes. Then, rocky grassland turned to alpine forest; deep, dark and rooty with a mossy carpet and a magical feel. We met only a few walkers and some rather smelly goats, jingling and charging down the track ahead of us.
As the walkers disappeared, we encountered super steep trails that had more rock than dirt. The rocks were so big that momentum was our only friend; an excuse to blast down the trail at top speed and feeling like we were riding wild bucking broncos with thighs burning and smiles from ear to ear. We popped off a wall at the end and rolled into a bus stop next to a road. We were back in civilisation. It had been a full-on 9-5 affair, but I'll take those hours on a bike over working any day.
Day 4. Peisey to Bozel
Yep. That's right. We've ridden from Chamonix, through Switzerland, through Italy, and back to France, and it's only Day 4. That morning we deliriously discussed how to set up a trail croissant with a bleed kit, Sram jam, and a lint-free rag. A sign of the madness to come. We rolled out into glorious sunshine and caught the local lift to the top of the mountain in what looked like a bunch of lobster pots. The day was to start with a good hour's descending and hot stinky brakes.
That morning we deliriously discussed how to set up a trail croissant with a bleed kit, SRAM jam, and a lint-free rag
After half a morning descending to the bottom of a valley we were treated to a bus lift most of the way up the next mountain to La Plagne, then a short hike the rest of the way. We saw some downhill trails to the left of us, snaking down another mountain, but who cares right? We had something more 'au natural' on the cards. We followed the dusty lines carved into endless hillsides, ever-picking up speed and rolling towards towards mountainous backdrops and with not a breaking bump in sight. A few 'Sam Hill corners' in the woods (all foot-out-flat-out) and we were back in civilization again. Fist bumps all round and a 'thank you' to the trail gods for another awesome ride.
Day 5. Bozel to Areche, Beaufort.
This was known as 'the ridge line day'. Ben promised us it would be a feast for the cameras, and he was not wrong. We took a ski lift up towards Meribel, but found ourselves at a secret entrance to the woods below it. Ahead of us was root-strewn craziness. The descent gave us everything from natural jumps and kickers, to Alpine switch backs and roots galore. Brakes were squealing, with hot callipers frying up local mud-splash delicacies for all to smell.
Brakes were squealing, with hot callipers frying up local mud-splash delicacies for all to smell
We reached the road that lead back to our morning's ski lift, but we hadn't finished. Across the road we took a way-marked 'enduro trail' towards the bottom of the valley where we encountered a path that meandered along a cliff, with washed out sections, rocky obstacles, and little touch-down options or room for error, and the odd chalky overhang forced you to lean towards the exposed edges. If I were in a Mint Sauce comic strip, I would have had a picture of a pair of pants in a thought bubble above my head.
We reached the valley a little shook up, but still super enthusiastic to see what else we could scare ourselves on. We took a quick bus ride up a mountain, made some sandwiches, did some warm-up dance moves, then headed for the ridge line. There, over 2,000m up on the Roche Pastire, we were treated to views of Mont Blanc once again, and a huge turquoise lake held back by the Roselend Dam. The ridge was fast and narrow, with deep grooves that buckaroo'd a few of us off our bikes, and I learned how to steer a bike from the comfort of my back wheel with only one foot clipped in.
Day 6. Back to Chamonix
We encountered a few cross-country jaunts and a little more urban downhill, rattling down some mental stairs, much to the delight of some local youths. We meandered a river over some sketchy tracks with wet rocks and slick roots to test the riding skills we'd been practicing all week. Ben signalled for the final climb of the day (again), so we dutifully headed up at a descent pace, myself edging towards the front of the group, that was until Ben grabbed a handful of my brakes and sprinted for the top like a loon. Of course I tried buzzing the back of his wheel, but all I achieved was myself bouncing off into a road-side bush and leaving him to claim his place at the top with smug, childish grin.
We had ticked off every kind of trail obstacle on the enduro bingo card
We convened at our final stop in a pub in Les Houches and got French beers all round to toast our week of mischief and banter. Avoiding the 7% ruby leffe, but somehow still managing to get tipsy, I reflected on a great week of riding with an incredible bunch of people. That week, we had all taken on days far bigger than we had ever done before and still gone out the next day excited to see what else was in store. We had ticked off every kind of trail obstacle on the enduro bingo card and all come away with new skills and higher expectations of what a riding holiday should entail. The UK would seem so flat.
In the End
It's hard to convey how good a holiday is, especially when good riding is subjective, however; you'd be hard-pressed to not like this trip. It's a trip that puts the adventure back into mountain biking. It's what made enduro a new category; big hikes, big descents, and tech that is often just on the limit of a trail bike. This is not cross-country, but you'll work hard on the climbs, and it is not purely downhill, but the descents are testing. Whatever you want to label it is, you just wouldn't get trails like this back home; with such variety and such length all in one go. If you've ever considered doing something like the Trans Provence or Trans Savoie, or watched the videos in awe and delight, or simply desired pushing yourself both in fitness and technicality, then it doesn't get much better than a week blind-riding in the Alps, and I can't see how anyone would regret, or forget, a week like this.