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February 25, 2011

France: Chamonix, Petit Balcon Nord

Filed under: Europe 2010, France, MTB Travel, The List, Travel — anotherheader @ 8:16 am

Becky on Le Tour's singletrack

It had all looked good in the pictures.  Scenes of mountain bikers working their way along rocky single-track with snowy alpine peaks in the background inspired our summer trip.  We figured, when we were planning our trip, that there would be many wondrous places to mountain bike in Europe and especially in the Alps.  But the truth is we were disappointed.  When we had the time to ride, the trails were uninspiring.  When our schedule pressed us forward, it seemed we were passing by the most intriguing trails.  Our last great hope for decent mountain biking was Chamonix France.

Becky practices her Japanese Tourist Pose on Petit Balcon Nord

At this point in the trip, we’d given up on figuring out the best trails to ride on our own.  We decided to find a bike shop and get the local scoop on the trails.  Per a couple of suggestions, we pedaled over to Zero G Bike Shop in Chamonix for advice.

Our trail request at Zero G was pretty standard–technical challenge, high alpine riding, and scenery.  We were advised to ride “Petit Balcon Nord” to the Le Tour Chair Lift.  Extra credit loops would be possible at the lift, it was explained.  To make sure that we got the information straight, we purchased the shop’s short overpriced trail guide.  As we left the shop, we overheard a couple of “newbie” riders receiving the same set of directions that we just got.  Apparently everyone visiting Zero G received the same trail advice.

The next day we headed out to the trail taking the advice we were given at Zero G.  At first we navigated the web of trails along the fast flowing glacier-fed Arve River until we found the Petit Balcon Nord trailhead.  Petit Balcon Nord is a wide and mostly smooth track that follows the river up the valley contouring along the forested hillside.  The gradient is gentle punctuated by short but lung popping climbs.  On a warm day, even in the shade of the dense trees, it wasn’t fun.  Nor was the trail remotely technical.

Becky at Le Tour

Perhaps it says something about the tread when the best part of the ride was La Cremerie du Glacier.  La Cremerie du Glacier is a small restaurant conveniently located alongside the trail.  We stopped for a croûte au fromage, a typically fresh green salad, and a beer.  That sure beats Power Bars for lunch.

At the end of the trail, 1,300 feet higher than the start, is the Le Tour chair lift.  We did a quick pass on the trails there but were limited by a lift breakdown and oncoming electrical storm.  (Do really want to be on a malfunctioning ski lift in a thunderstorm?)  In any event, the trails we tried around Le Tour were way more interesting than Petit Balcon Nord.  But still they weren’t that interesting.  It was mostly loose gravelly tracks twisting down the open ski area.  At least the trails are narrow and there’s some pretense of an alpine view.

Perhaps there is more riding of interest at Le Tour than the fast moving rainsquall allowed us to find.  Yet it seems unlikely that there is a pocket of primo singletrack tucked in nearby behind a hillside.  In any event, with our rain jackets inconveniently stashed back at the room and the raindrops turning heavy, it was time for a warp speed return to the B&B.

Petit Balcon Nord

The next day, we took another Zero G suggestion and headed down the valley to Les Houches.  Les Houches’ Bellevue lift took us to the top of the hill.  Zero G, at the shop and in the book, suggested the trail GR5.

Apparently the folks at Zero G had not ridden GR5 recently.  The shop’s directions took us to a trailhead for a trail that had been removed months before.  Replacing GR5 is a North Shore-style trail with multiple side braids of varying difficulty.  Undoubtedly, this new trail is better than what Zero G had in mind.  Still, the riding at Les Houches is limited.  It really hurt that half the altitude gained on the lift ride to the top is burnt off on a fast paved road descent through the farms to get back to the base lift house.  Nevertheless, Les Houches is undoubtedly the most technically challenging place we rode in Europe.  (That’s not saying much!)  If we had not been fixated on the true North Shore riding that we would be soon experiencing in British Columbia, we might have reveled in Les Houches small cluster of tracks more.

OK, we were disappointed with the mountain biking in Chamonix.  The trails didn’t match our expectations.   No doubt that it didn’t help that many of Chamonix’s trails are closed to bikes in July and August.  (We were in Chamonix around July 10th.)

It has to be noted that Chamonix, despite all the adventure activities in the area, is not supportive of mountain biking.  The fine print at the bottom of the Chamonix’s trail map says it all:

“VERY IMPORTANT: As Chamonix is first and foremost a destination for hikers, there are many restrictions on mountain biking, especially on singletracks, during the crowded July and August months. Consult the free guide from the Tourist Office for more information.”

For us, there’s no real point in going to Chamonix to mountain bike.  Why bother?  Go there to climb a mountain instead.

Becky encounters Chamonix's wildlife


  1. […] Chamonix and the French Alps there was time for just one more stop before our two-month long road trip […]

    Pingback by France: Beaune « Another Header — March 1, 2011 @ 6:16 pm

  2. hi! I work at Zero G and read your review. I think the guidebook that you bought is the one that I wrote too. Such a shame about the lift breaking at Le Tour at just the wrong time. If you make it back, the ride to Trient off the backside seems exactly what you were looking for. Steep, technical, demanding, rewarding. The St Gervais sector of Les Houches (Hugh’s Way, Pipeline) is just that too.

    Chamonix is really a resort where biking remains in its’ infancy, despite everything. Behind-the-times attitudes, approaches and trailbuilding. Things are getting better now, with the new trails at Le Tour and La Flegere, but slowly. It’s not a patch on Utah/BC/Portes du Soleil.

    At work, we pretty much recommend everyone the Balcon Nord / Balcon Sud lap of the valley for their first day. Some people come back nonchalant, others petrified. It’s a good sorter-outer. I’m glad you got your thrills in Les Houches, at any rate. We ride there a ton and love their approach. If you end up back in Chamonix, come to the shop and ask for me and I’ll make sure you get your fix, in Les Houches or otherwise. We ride stuff like the Aiguiette des Houches, the Sicktrack and the Grand Balcons for ours.

    Comment by Tom — April 26, 2011 @ 8:14 pm

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