About Mountain Biking in Chamonix
Chamonix has a real mixture of trails offering something for riders of every ability. There are a number of relatively easy and picturesque trails which criss-cross around the Chamonix valley, some lung-busting technical ascents, lots of wooded and open single track, downhill specific tracks with north shore, and a fair bit of lift access for those not keen on pedalling uphill.
Chamonix’s geographical location allows some of the more experienced riders to interlink into neighbouring Switzerland and Italy. There’s a five day ‘Tour de Mont Blanc’ which takes riders on a 200 kilometre brutal uphill and brake smoking descent around the Mont Blanc whilst displaying some of the most stunningly beautiful scenery in the Alps.
If you are considering doing a 'twin resort' trip, Chamonix is also a perfect base to reach other fabulous mountain biking areas such as Verbier, Megeve, Les Contamines, Courmayeur, Pila, La Clusaz and the famous playground of Morzine and Les Gets. All of which are only about an hour's drive away.
Chamonix is definitely technically challenging area with many obstacles and serious rooty and rocky natural trails that require intense concentration and skill from the rider. Some trails are definitely not for the faint hearted.
If you're looking for an easy level of riding, there are plenty of low level cross country trails along the river l’Arve which passes through the small villages that make up the ‘Chamonix valley’ including: Le Gailland, Le Praz, Argentiere, Le Tour and Les Tines.
The Petit Balcons Nord & Petit Balcons Sud offer a little bit more technical riding, with a fair bit of rooty and rocky sections, and take you to a higher elevation from the valley floor. There are a number of different routes leading to and from these that you can easily follow on a map, or with the multitude of signs and way markers along the trails.
For those looking for a bit more downhill action, you can get lift access in some of the télécabines (cable cars) operating at the five main areas namely: Les Houches, Le Brevent, Flegere, Le Tour and Les Grands Montets. (Please note you cannot take your bikes on the Aiguille du Midi lift or L'Index chair at Flegere). Check out the summer lift pass prices here.
Mountain biking in Chamonix is still in development compared to a lot of other summer resorts. The valley is 16km long and the biking areas are spread out and not as interconnected as you'd find in most other mountain bike resorts. Bike buses do operate in peak season (July & August) and you can take your bike on some of the trains, but they don't run all day long.
You'll also have to take into account that in July & August you're not allowed on the main walking trails in the valley, so if you want to make the most of what's on offer (especially XC riders) we recommend you come to Chamonix a little either side of these dates. If you don't mind not having lift access at all, then the end of May, June, September & October are also good times to visit.
Another point to note is the restrictions on mountain biking in July and August.. read more here.
The lifts are open from mid June until mid September and have specifically adapted racks for your bikes allowing you spend more of your time riding incredible alpine terrain rather dragging yourself up steep inclines! Most of the lifts within the valley permit bikes to be taken on board free of charge, the only exception being the Aiguille de Midi where bikes are forbidden.
Lift passes can be bought at the lift stations on an individual ascent basis. However if you're here for a few days and are going up and down many times during your stay, it's more economical to purchase a Mont Blanc Multipass lift pass which gives you unlimited access to the main cable-cars in the valley either for a number of consecutive days (cheaper), or for a number of non-consecutive days. Non-consecutive passes must be used within a 7 day period though. Les Houches operates as an independent ski area from the rest of the Chamonix valley. Daily passes are possible and for more information consult the Les Houches Tourist Office.
By using the lift system you can increase the number of great trails for riders of all levels in the valley. The Index chairlift has been adapted to take bike racks allowing riders to gain better access to a variety of trails around La Flegere. At the Brevent cable car, mountain bikers can now use the side entrance which means that you no longer have to negotiate tricky turnstyles whilst getting you lift pass out.
Also see: Summer Lift Opening Dates in Chamonix
Hiring bikes & equipment
If you don’t own your own mountain bike and plan on renting equipment then there are plenty of Chamonix mountain bike hire shops hiring out both full suspension and hard tail mountain bikes. The cost of daily rental varies from store to store and on the type of bike you choose to rent. On average you can pay anywhere between €16 - €80 euros for a days hire. Prices vary depending on whether you select a basic bike without suspension, or a full on free ride descent bike. (It is also possible to hire mountain bikes for children from around €15 a day.)
Full Suspension or Hardtail Mountain Bike?
A full suspension (FS) bike is one with both front and rear suspension that is effective at absorbing lumps, bumps and jumps thus providing better performance and a smoother ride. A hardtail refers to a bike with no rear suspension. Suspension forks may be added to the front of the bike but its back post is rigid. There are numerous makes and models of both types available to the potential buyer so when deciding on which type of bike is best, it is important to consider the following:
- Your budget!!
- The type of riding you and your bike will be undertaking
- The typical terrain and angle of decent you will be riding
In general, hardtail bikes tend to require less maintenance and perform better on steep uphill climbs and sprints to the finish line, whereas full suspension mountain bikes are much more comfortable and arguably have more control over the rough stuff. Sadly, along with an increase comfort, FS bikes increase in price quite significantly.
Whether to go full suspension or hardtail is one which can create a lot of healthy debate amongst the mountain biking community. Inexperienced or beginner riders may prefer to start with a hardtail complete with front, lockable suspension; progressing to a full suspension bike after they have got a feel for their preferred type of riding. Although a full suspension bike will give you more options to adjust to suit the terrain, it can be more energy intensive on the uphill as unless you have a ‘lock out’ facility on the rear suspension as energy can be lost through ‘suspension bobbing' as you climb. And there is a weight penalty for all that bump proofing suspension. Furthermore, you could potentially have more moving parts to repair should anything go wrong. On the positive side, it is worth remembering that you can make a full suspension bike ‘lock out’ so the experience is like riding a hard tail, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to make a hard-tail ride like a full suspension bike!
If you bring your own bike then there's no point loading up your excess baggage with spare bike parts either (unless your bike requires specific specialist component parts).
Chamonix has some excellent biking shops that sell plenty of spare parts and components for your bike. However, remember the spares list does not extend to some obscure pivot in your one off special downhill rig. We are talking rear mechs, pedals, cranks, chains, cassettes, brakes, brake pads, cables etc from the more popular manufacturers. The exception to this rule is the rear gear hanger; bring one with you for your bike, especially if it’s of the super funky alternative/rare type. The bike shops do not carry this part for all the different bike manufacturers and the models they make and it is probable the most frequently damaged part in the event of a crash. Even a relatively innocuous fall can damage this part and although they can often be bent back into shape, it would be a shame to ruin your holiday if this were not the case. (Most of the rental shops will also do a good line in helmets, body protectors, repairs and servicing.)
It is highly advisable to ensure your own bike is in tip top condition before lugging it all the way over to France. A days riding in the Alps equates to many rides out in the UK and the wear and tear on your bike reflects this. If you start the week with your bike in a poor to average state of repair it will let you down at some point and spoil the day, if not the weeks enjoyment. If you are not a competent mechanic then your local independent bike shop will provide a service for your pride and joy to ensure you and it remain friends for the week. It is money well spent to upgrade your tires if they are of the lighter weight cross country variety and purchase some free ride tyres with a 2.3 section to smooth your way and avoid the punctures. There is every chance a set of brake pads will disappear in a week so bring a spare pair and carry them with you on the trail to avoid that metal on metal effect! If you run out of time before you come away, Chamonix local bike shops will be able to carry out a service for you. Charges are approximately €40 per hour on a pro-rata basis depending on how serious a service your bike requires!
Equipment for cycling
- Water - One of the biggest problems in this region 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.
Cycling hotels & camps
These days there are many companies taking the thought process out of it all and offering a tailor made mountain biking specific holidays. There are many specialist Chamonix based chalet companies and apartment rentals offering such packages. Try Bluebird Chalets who are located at the bottom of the Prarion lift in Les Houches and can give you some great advice on where to ride as well as bike storage and comfy accommodation They offer B&B with dinners on request. Also look out for Chalet B in Les Bossons, who have 8 apartments available all year round.
Several local Tour Operators offer an active mountain biking programme. Most of the above companies will all offer comparable deals with little extras here and there so perfectly suit a range of riding levels from beginners up to skilled riders.
Most companies listed can recommend where the closest or best trails are to them, and some will happily organise a guide through a local company if you need it. The various biking trails surrounding Chamonix offering some great cross country riding and single track trails with spectacular scenery in the background.
Evolution 2 and Legend are just 2 of the companies that can organise guides for you, showing you the best trails the valley has to offer, and if you're looking for mountain bike hire there are a number of companies up and down the valley that can get you kitted out with everything you need.
Wherever you choose to ride you will inevitably have a thoroughly enjoyable experience in and around the Chamonix Valley. The mountains are there to be enjoyed by everyone so remember to be considerate of others when on your bike, following the 'Mountain Bikers code of conduct' at all times.
Flying with your bike
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.
Taking your bike on the train
Going on holiday to France with your bike is pretty straight forward, but as with a lot of things, its better to book in advance.
The Eurostar allows you to take your bike in 1 of 3 ways into Europe.
1) Reserve a place for your bike on the train in advance - For peace of mind, you can reserve a place for your bike on the train you’re travelling on for £30 one way, subject to availability. 2) Fold it up - If your bike is placed in a suitable bike bag no longer than 85cm, you can carry it on board as part of your baggage allowance.
3) Use the registered baggage service on the day of departure - For fully assembled bikes or bike bags over 120cm at their longest, you can use their registered baggage service for only €29 one way from Paris, €25 from Brussels and £25 from London. They will do everything they can to ensure your bike travels on the same train as you. But if it can’t, they guarantee that you will be able to collect it at your Eurostar destination station within 24 hours of your departure. If you can fold or dismantle your bike and place it in a bike bag between 85cm and 120cm at its longest, then you can use their turn-up-and-go registered luggage service for just €15 from Paris or Brussels and £10 from London. Your bike will generally travel on the same train as you unless there is not enough space. If this is the case, they will send it on the next available train.
To make a reservation or find out more about registered baggage service, call 01 55 31 58 33 in France or 0844 822 5822 in the UK.
On trains running from London to Avignon, Provence and the French Alps, bike bags measuring between 85 and 120cm can be carried on board as part of a passenger’s baggage allowance.
Once you're in France getting around with your bike can be straight forward, but again planning ahead and getting to the station early are highly recommended.
Domestic or regional trains (TER) and Tourist trains quite often allow you to transport your bike for free, although you may have to put it in a bike compartment, or hang it from a hook to save space, or fold it up and take it on as hand luggage. Spaces are limited and you cannot reserve in advance, and in some regions bikes aren't permitted Monday-Friday during working hours as the trains are too busy with pedestrians.
Regional trains in Ile-de-France, the region surrounding Paris, are called Transilien. These are the country’s busiest commuter trains. They operate into all of Paris’ stations and run on lines with a letter associated (line K, line P, etc.). They also include the RER trains, which run on lines A to E. You can take your bike on board a Transilien Monday to Friday, before 6.30am, between 9.30am and 4.30pm, then after 7.30pm; At any time on weekends and bank holidays and at any time if it is folded or placed in a bike bag and does not cause fellow passengers any inconvenience.
On Intercity trains it's best if you can dismantle your bike and carry it on in a bag no more than 120x90cm. Some of these trains require a seat reservation, whereas others do not. Consequently, according to the type of train, it may or may not be necessary to book, or pay for, a place for your bike.
Also see: National Trains to Chamonix