Riding in the Alps is much more demanding than your favourite local route back in the UK. The roads around Chamonix are the setting for some of the most gruelling sections of the Tour de France but they can be tackled by enthusiasts as well as professionals.
To gain the most from your riding in the area it goes without saying you need to have a reasonable level of fitness. You do not need to be a super man or woman but the ability to ride comfortably for up to 3-4 hours in the UK should see you enjoy the mountain routes.
Before you set off you should also make sure that your bike is in good working order. Simply from an efficiency point of view a bike in good condition that is well lubricated will reduce friction between parts and can reduce the difficulty of a climb by the equivalent of 1% incline. Check the chain, derailleur, brakes, wheel mountings and tyre pressure before you set off. In the event of finding a problem with your bike there are shops in town with experienced mechanics who can supply and fit any basic components you may need but most of the shops are geared towards mountain-bikers, if your bike is quite specialist you should bring any essential parts you might need.
Once on the road set off slowly. The climbs in the Alps are longer and the summits higher than almost anything in the UK and the thinner air and baking summer sun will make the climb more difficult than what you might be used to.
The descents are super fast in places and can be bumpy as a result of the winter covering of ice and snow. We advise caution as it can take some time to scrub your speed off. You will meet oncoming cars and frequently cyclists climbing the other way who may not be tucked into the right hand side of the road (yes the right hand side!) as much as they should. Do not imagine you are in the Tour de France with closed roads! Having said that the roads are generally quiet and car drivers (the French ones at any rate) will be considerate in contrast to their British counterparts.
And finally - know your route! Although signposted and relatively easy to follow, it would be worth consulting a map and if not carrying it with you on the ride then at least make some notes as a reminder to use on your intended route. The Michelin map 328 LOCAL for Ain Haute Savoie or 333 for Isere/Savoie is the most appropriate.
Essential Equipment for Cycling in Chamonix
- Water - One of the biggest problems in the Alps is the heat. Fit two bottle cages to your bike and take 750ml bottles with electrolyte drinks.
- Sun Cream - The thin air and hot summer sun means you will burn quicker here than at home
- Windbreaker - Although it may be warm in the valley temperatures can drop rapidly as you climb, weather can chage quickly and the fast descents can cool you down fast.
- Snacks - Energy Bars and gels are a very good idea if you are planning a day on the roads.
- Mobile Phone - Being able to contact someone to pick you up if your chain breaks is helpful.
- Money - You may need it in an emergency or just for a beer at the end of the day.
- Basic Repair Kit - You can't fix everything by the side of the road but not all breakdowns require the day to end.
The Right Gears for Cycling in Chamonix
This tends to be dependent on ability and/or how hard you want to try up the climbs. If you are confidant of making the climbs quickly, which means you’ll be climbing for up to an hour, then you’ll need a 39x27 gear.Most fit club level riders able to comfortably cover 3-4 hours or more in the UK will get by on this gear without struggling too much. If you know you’ll take a little longer then your bike needs to be equipped with either a compact triple or double chain set. This will ensure you have low enough gears to ride comfortably at a pace that suits your level.
Remember the climbs may not be that steep but they are long and combined with the heat and altitude may present more of a challenge than you think. But don’t be put off, if you’re honest about your level and use the appropriate gears then it will be a tiring but pleasurable experience.
Flying Your Bike to Chamonix
A review of airlines terms and conditions in relation to sports equipment baggage indicates that it is highly likely that you will be subjected to a standard charge for taking your bike on board. Easyjet; bmibaby; Aer Lingus; and KLM indicated that there was an average additional charge of between £15 (€22.50) and £25 (€36) to take your bike, one-way.
However, make sure that the combined weight of your luggage does not exceed you allowance. Although you may have paid an excess for your bike its weight may be added to the weight of your hold luggage and there can be a penalty for any kg's over the allowance.
The more conventional airlines such as British Airways and its code share partner Swiss airlines permit free transport of bikes providing they fit within the free baggage allowance, and are packed in a hard shelled container.
Packing your bike for a flight
There are a few options available in transporting your bike. Hard bike boxes tend to cost in the region of £300 and like a hard case suitcase it will minimise the risk of damage occurring to the your bike but they are heavier. A soft bike bag is the cheaper option, costing around £100. Whilst this will provide your bike with a little more padded protection it is not as reliable as the hard box. On our recent trip from the UK to Geneva, we transported our bike in its original cardboard box, protected the key areas with bubble wrap and cardboard and it arrived safely and undamaged. Most airlines stipulate the following:
- Bikes should be contained within a protective box or appropriate bike bag;
- Only one bike should be carried per box/bag, and no other items (except protective padding) should be included within the box/bag;
- Handlebars and pedals must be fixed sideways against the frame or removed; and
- Tyres should be deflated slightly to reduce the risk of damage.
If you are transporting your bike, you should also check out your travel insurance arrangements. A lot of travel insurance companies will not cover your expensive mountain bike without an additional excess payment, and a lot of airlines will not be held responsible for any damage sustained whilst the bike is in their care. Check out your household insurance policy to see whether it can be covered as 'contents away from home'. There may be a slight surcharge for this option, but it's potentially better than having to fork out for a new bit of kit, or a brand new bike!!
In addition to bubble wrap, purchase some pipe lagging and zip ties from a DIY store to put around the frame of the bike for protection during transportation. In addition, if you don't have your original cardboard bike box, ask your local bike shop for one. If you have the choice always use the manufacturer’s box and your bike should arrive safe and whole. However, it is worth noting that the most frequently damaged part of a bike is the rear gear hanger. Remove the rear gear mechanism and tie wrap loosely to the frame to avoid this scenario. This applies almost equally to disc brake rotors if your bike sports them. Take them off, likewise pedals, its only a five minute job and will prevent you engaging in a fruitless search for an obscure part in resort.