The Chilkoot Quest in Winter – The French Alps! – by Sebastien Morin

Translated from French, original article by Spotzle.cc

The Chilkoot Quest is a bike ride mostly on gravel from Briançon to Chamonix. Approximately 280 km and 11,000 m of elevation gain to be covered in three days. The transport of the camp / bivouac is handled by the organizing team. A 4 × 4 remains in contact with the participants to assist at any time.

The Chilkoot Quest is an almost rectilinear track that plays leapfrog between the valleys, and does not factor in the gradient. Surfaces vary between asphalt, alpine trails, small forest roads, fast descents and sometimes, carrying your bike…. and many varieties of gravel.

The Chilkoot Quest is a sporting and human adventure. A conglomeration of people from all walks of life; ultra cyclists, ultra trail runners, road cyclists, mountain bikers, etc. A friendly and caring atmosphere and not only at the nightly camp / bivouac. Everyone rides in small groups, where helping each other comes naturally.

Good preparation is key as the mountains leave no room for errors. This applies to everything; from a down sleeping bag, to the tent, riding clothes and of course, the bike itself. A wise rider will begin their preparations well before the journey begins.

gravel cycling in the french alps

What is the ideal bike to participate in the Quest?

Among the nine participants in this first edition, every iteration of frame material was represented – steel, carbon, aluminum and even bamboo! Gravel and cyclocross bikes, 700c and 650b wheel sizes. When I did my research into the event, I thought a monster cross type bicycle would be the ideal machine. The manufacturers are pushing 40mm mm front suspension, telescopic seat post, MTB sized tyres, etc. This is not the case, come as you are!

Well, a road bike would not be up to the job, but I recommend a tyre that is at least 40mm wide and preferably, tubeless with sealant. Because of the nature of the climbing – long and sometimes steep – low gears are recommended, especially if you enjoy riding a single chainring / 1x setup. I made the mistake of being overly ambitious with a 40 tooth single chainring. In hindsight, I should have chosen a 34T or 38T chainring.

Luc Royer, the route planner always had a surprise in store for the riders. I like to think of adapting my script, my plan, along the line of improvisational theater. This was the case for this first edition of the Quest when the snow appeared in abundance above 2,000 metres of altitude, just a few days before departure. Rain and snow were expected on the first day, and radiant sun the other two days of the quest. I was looking forward to experiencing every moment of the snow-capped peaks and autumn colours of the forests.

It is 6:00 am on November 2nd., 2018 A crew of eight cyclists and five organizers heads to the Pignerol gate of the Citadelle de Briançon, the departure place of this quest.

After a quick breakfast, we begin with a gentle climb to the Col de l’Echelle, peaking at 1,760 metres in altitude, across to Italy, namely Bardonecchia. The sensations are good on this first climb, which is exclusively on paved roads. The further we ride, the conditions change where we discover the pass is buried under snow. Nevertheless, the road is clear and the following descent proved to be quite epic.

We arrived together into Bardonecchia, in the rain, frozen by the descent. We warmed and dried ourselves somewhat inside a cafe. This break was very welcome, although the radiators of the coffee shop were covered with our soggy clothes.

A little later, we head to our support vehicles to return to France via the Tunnel of Frejus. Arriving into Modane, we take our bikes and begin riding the “regional stage”, an alternative route that we will follow until the beginning of our second day. Snowfall on at least two passes of our planned route has made that part of our journey impossible.

After a long stretch of flat road, our gateway to the Tarentaise Valley will be the Col de la Madeleine. The idea of a riding a long stretch of paved road does not sit well with me, but I remind myself that it will be a beautiful experience.

The descent is superb but tricky. Many turns are open without guardrails preventing a fall into the precipice., but it doesn’t take long for 1,000 metres of vertical descending to pass by. The final difficulty of the day is the climb that takes us over 1,700 metres in altitude before descending to the neck of the Coche. I arrive at the summit at night with two companions. The darkness makes navigation hazardous on this track. At the first fork, we followed tyre tracks, but on the descent, changes in direction or forks in the road are difficult to see. Fortunately, with my smartphone, GPS with IGN maps and Luc Royer, we are guided in the right direction.

Now comes the time to erect the tent and relax for the evening. Fortunately, there is a roaring campfire, excellent food and great camaraderie in our small group!

End of Day One – 126 kilometres and 3,000 metres of ascending.

Waking up the next morning, I became aware of the severity of the surrounding landscape and weather conditions. My sleeping bag was wet, the tent is full of water and my bikepacking bags are frozen by the cold of the night. But, it is a totally clear sky and a paradisiac view; absolutely magical.

We begin the second day with a very pleasant descent to Moutiers, a small commune in the Savoie department in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region. We pass through quickly before taking a small road that rises to Hautecour. At some point, we had to improvise by riding a relatively technical trail.

A lunch break followed not long after, beneath the warming sun that was an invitation to catch a short nap. Nap over, it is time to attack the serious ascent of the Cormet d’Arêches and its 2,100 metres of altitude.

As the group rides onto the first metres of the climb, I feel something is not quite right. My legs are sore, already pained by the efforts of the first day. My morale takes a small hit as I realize there are still two big climbs along today’s route.

I spent much of the climb to Cormet d’Arêches at the rear of the group. Whilst the climb is seemingly endless, it is beautiful. The small forest road eventually gives way to a beautiful track, where I pause a moment to eat some food, and persuade myself that I will eventually find my strength. Thankfully, my legs did come around.

What a joy when I arrived at the summit of the pass! The snow is here, there and everywhere! I begin the descent carefully, the snow-covered ground can be tricky to read. Sometimes you have to push the bike through the snow softened by the sun. But a few meters down the pass, I can finally release the brakes. I arrived at Lake St Guérin to rejoin most of the group. All of us took a short break before continuing the descent to Arêches and Beaufort.

The final difficulty of the day awaits. Shortly before the climb, I understood there were just 10 miles of ascending remaining before the planned bivouac at the summit of Col du Joly. I am dubious to begin celebrations just yet, because I there is 1,000 metres of ascending waiting for us. 1,000 metres for 10 kilometres… it’s not going to be fun…

The gradient of the first kilometres is not easy, but on the positive, they rise well out of the valley. My legs are feeling better now, but I’m not sure how long these sensations will last. I was probably a bit too optimistic about my fitness level when I began this quest. The gradient seems to ease off as I slowly make my way towards the summit, but the 10 kilometres of the climb feels like 20. Night has fallen, when I had a chance meeting with a local resident. She informed me the distance to the summit of the Col du Joly is “10 kms”. Something isn’t quite right here…

The climb is steep and there are times I have to hike-a-bike. There is also the notion that I will once again have to set up my tent in the darkness. With my lights illuminating the way, the hostility of the surrounds and temperatures set in; I’m getting cold despite climbing. This is not a good sign…

Gaëtan and Julien, members of the support crew, find me with their 4 × 4 and announce that we will finally bivouac about four kilometres below the Col because of wind and hostile conditions that prevail at the pass. I love these guys!

The Chilkoot camp was set up near an unoccupied farm. The wind was cold and gusty, which hastened my tent set up. This night will be clear and cold, colder than last night. I dressed in as many layers as possible, and spent much of the evening parked next to the campfire. The campfire was a popular place, to warm one’s body or grill marshmallows!

I have no idea of the temperature but I was overcome by fatigue. I finally settled into my down sleeping bag for the night and do not remove any of my multiple layers of clothing. Victory! This night will be good.

End of Day Two- 85 kilometres and 3,100 metres of ascending.

Next morning, we wake to negotiate the few remaining kilometres of the Col du Joly. The cold has made conditions treacherous, even on uphill sections on the asphalt. Hopefully, things would go better on the descent. We descend along a track that drops down to Les Contamines. Thankfully, the cold snow is hard and provides a good grip for the first part of the descent. After a brief reunion with some of the other riders, I lead us onto the next downward slope. These are ski slopes which are steep and rough to ride. I arrive at Contamines ahead of everybody else.

Regrouping at Contamines, we attack the ultimate difficulty of this day, the Col de Voza. The first gradients are an indicator this will not be easy. At some points the gradeint is calm on the gravel, but others, not so much. At least the views are splendid! Later, the grades hover between 20% to 25%, sometimes reaching 28%! It is on these grades that I take to pushing the bike.

It is hot when I arrive at the pass, but what a moment. I find a good portion of our riding group laying in the sun on the platform of the Tramway Mont Blanc. We soon rejoin again for the final descent. What a hoot! This time, I was able to let go of the brakes… the deserved best was saved for last.

The arrival in Chamonix, near the statue of Balmat and Saussure, is a great moment of emotion. It was a fantastic adventure. Three days that made me leave the real world. I am happy and proud to have been part of this epic, to have met like-minded cyclists. I will be back, for sure!

Link to original article by Spotzle.cc – Many thanks to our French friends in Gravel!

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