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During the Whitsun Half Term we were lucky enough to go on a bespoke family cycling holiday in the French Alps, organised for us by Florian Schwey and Marketa Lanska at Maison-Amalka. On our third and final day of cycling, we were in for a real treat – a fabulous off road, downhill ride all the way from the iconic Tour de France stage end of Col du Lautaret (2,058m above sea level), down to the historic town of Briançon (1,132m above sea level).
We left our hire car at the bike shop in Briançon, and after checking we had appropriate equipment Florian drove us and our rental bikes in his van all the way up the valley on the D1091 to the top of the col. Our ears popped and we watched as the thermometer on the van dashboard started to drop, from a lovely 23C in Briançon, and I started to worry we weren’t adequately clothed for our adventure! We were gaining significant height, and we started to see snow and glaciers. Thankfully the sun was shining and when we pulled into the car park at Col du Lautaret it was about 13C in the sun.
After the obligatory photos Florian left us with instructions to call him if we had any difficulties. One thing we’d noticed is that wherever we cycled in our three days we had 4G coverage – very impressive!
The start of the off-road descent from Col du Lautaret is the steepest part of the entire ride, as the trail descends steeply down the side of the col. It was difficult to concentrate on the trail and the scenery, and so started a pattern than was to last all day – ride a little bit and then stop to admire the breathtakingly stunning views and take photos.
In a matter of minutes we rode very close to a couple of patches of snow – apparently 2017 has been colder than previous years and we were lucky to have snow topped peaks.
Obviously, it was impossible for 11 year old N and 8 year old T to ride past the snow without the obligatory snowball fight!
The steepest part of the day was soon over – we’d descended 225 metres down from Col du Lautaret in just 1.4km - whooaa!! At this point we picked up the path by the Guisane River which we would follow all the way down into Briançon.
The path varied from fast fun single track to wide sweeping gravel, and for 23 km we hardly saw a sole – just one solo guy on an e-assist mountain bike who passed us early on going up the steep climb to Col du Lautaret, and then overtook us as we were working out how to cross the tributary of a stream flowing into the Guisane. Having seen how easy and quick he was moving, I’m seriously tempted to try out e-assist in the mountains sometime soon!
We saw a group of mountain bikers sheltering under the shade of a tree whilst fixing a puncture, and a family on a hike and that was it for the first two hours – just us, the alpine scenery, the wildlife and our bikes – bliss!
The alpine meadows were just starting to come into flower, and the number of butterflies was incredible, a reminder at how the widespread use of pesticides in the UK has devastated this species.
Eventually, and inevitably, we came across signs of civilisation – a tiny chapel the first indication we were approaching the highest village in the valley.
The single track ended for a while, as we followed the road down the valley between the tiny villages of Le Casset, Le Lauzet to Les Boussardes. It was certainly a shock to see buildings, cars and people again, although these were sleepy little hamlets where the cycling was very safe.
By this time we were ready for some lunch, and found a shady picnic spot by the River Guisane near Les Boussardes. It appeared that Makka Pakka had been there before us!
At this point I thought that perhaps the picturesque and fun part of the ride was over, but I was totally wrong! Whilst we were leaving one set of majestic peaks behind us, we were heading down towards the ski-resort of Serre Chevalier and the towering peaks behind Briançon.
Once again we left the road behind, and the trail continued to follow close by the River Guisane. At times we entered woodland and the track became fun and fast single track, where we were able to concentrate on our riding without being distracted by the views (and I have no photos of this as I was enjoying it too much to stop!). At other times we got a bit of a relaxing ride along wider tracks (where I could take photos more easily).
Then suddenly we’d find ourselves leaving the woods and would have to stop in our tracks and admire the stunning view unfolding in front of us.
Wider gravel tracks allowed us to ride and admire the view, before entering the next wooded, single track section.
And so the ride progressed, with increasingly larger villages and ski-resorts as we descended down the valley. We passed the stationery cable cars at Serre Chevalier – it won’t be long before the mountain bike parks across the southern alps open for the summer season, but we were early and everywhere was deserted.
The only navigational issues we had were when we entered some of the larger ski-resorts. It was like cycling through ghost towns – no evidence of any form of life, with everything boarded up after the winter season, and not yet brought to life for the July / August summer visitors.
As we approached Briançon, I’d assumed we’d be on more paved roads, but the off road trail continued to follow the river through woodland. By this time we’d lost the views, and our final kilometres were fast and exhilarating as we sped up to try and beat a large black rain cloud that was following us. The number of runners and dog walkers increased, preparing us for our inevitable return to civilisation.
The track ended on the outskirts of Briançon, and suddenly we were thrust out into the Friday evening traffic – a sudden juxtaposition which reminded us that where ever we go in the world cycling with children is difficult if there isn’t dedicated cycling infrastructure. With the help of sat nav and pavements we managed to navigate our way back to the bike shop, where the owner kindly provided the boys with glasses of cool water, and sadly relieved us of our bikes, which had been such an important part of our three days of alpine cycling.
It was the end of our adventure, but I really hope it's inspired you to visit this beautiful area of the Southern French Alps - we would love to go back and ride this again (and again!!).
We rode the Col du Lautaret to Briançon downhill route on 2nd June 2017. The weather was dry and sunny throughout. Our boys were aged 8 and a half and just turned 11, and are used to riding off road at trail centres and cross country in Cumbria.
Start point: Col du Lautaret on the D1091 from Briançon. We were transported to the start point with out bikes by Florian Schwey from Mainson-Amalka, who had recommended the route to us, having ridden with us on two previous days.
End point: Briançon. We parked our rental car at the bike hire shop at the start of the day.
Distance: 29 km with 850m descent (250m of that descent in the first 1.5k)
Maps: We used our photos to navigate with Google Maps, as there is 4G all the way, but it would have been good to have a map as back up (I don't like relying on the battery of the phone), plus we couldn't tell what all the peaks were around us. Next time I would take the local
Type of riding: The route was fun and fast (except for all the photo stops) and there were only a couple of technically challenging parts that needed to be pushed over / round. The route is mainly off road on single track and gravel paths, with some quiet rural roads through villages. Heavy traffic on arrival in Briancon.
Bikes: We rented mountain bikes from Go Sport in Briançon. Suspension is recommended, but T’s bike had very limited travel on the forks and he was fine.
Refreshments: none for the first 23k. After that fountains at each village allow you to refill your water supply with fresh cold water, which was very welcome. We carried our own food, but there will be cafes and stores at the larger villages further down the valley. Lots of restaurants and cafes on arrival in Briançon.
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Disclosures: We were guests of Florian and Marketa at Maison-Amalka and we did not pay for Florian to take us to the start of the ride at Col du Lautaret.
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