The Mont Blanc Mission


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One can not just show up and ride the Tour du Mount Blanc in one day. When I first dreamed of doing it, I thought I could just show up and ride the trail. Two years later, it’s 4:00 AM in Courmayuer and I’m scared shitless, about to ride the Tour du Mont Blanc in one day, solo, unsupported. No start line, aid stations, race tracker; just myself and the the mountian.

WHY:

I’m a multi-sport athlete, I enjoy the challenge of acquiring a new skill in the outdoors. Backcountry skiing, climbing, mountaineering, kayaking, sailing, surfing, backpacking, road bike racing, mountian biking, you name it I do it. This Mont Blanc mission is the culmination of all my experience in the outdoor realm and a reflection of what I want to get out of mountain biking.

After a season of racing road bikes in 2014 I was underwhelmed. Sure, racing crits and road races is exciting, but when I pause, and imagine what I want to do, I see inspirations like Uli Steck and Kilian Jornet forging new routes and styles deep in the mountains. I want risk, commitment, fear, I want an experience I can grow from. Perhaps the best way to describe what I want to accomplish is to blend the fast and light ethos of alpine climbing with mountian biking. There are no medals, podiums or support cars. It’s a deeply personal experience, an experience you can grow and learn from. Mount Blanc is the start of this idealized style of fast and light mountian biking, I’m eying up other routes around Europe that haven’t been attempted in a single push before.

The route:

Speed attempt route set by Luc Desplanches:
Chamonix>Chamoinx 166km _ 6,800M+/- _  13:55

I spent hours upon hours researching the route while I was still living in Savannah, Georgia. There is very little information written in English about biking the Tour du Mont Blanc, and no information about doing it in one day. I did find a news bulletin saying some French guys did it in a record of 19 hours, with comments saying Luc Desplanches had in fact done it in under 14 hours! After an hour of searching google I was able to discover Luc’s website. However, at the time it was so out of date I could not even copy the text on his website into google translate. Thankfully, now, he has updated it and google can easy translate it for your reading pleasure if you don’t read French. The goal to do the TMB in one day was a grand quest by Luc and his friends, first doing it in 25 hours in 1990, and after many attempts in 1999 he did it in 13:55!

Photos from Luc’s website used by permission

Great, now I had a benchmark. It was possible to do in one day, but why are all the photos of them hiking?…I was soon to find out.

The Tour du Mont Blanc is perhaps the most famous trail in the world, with people coming from all around the world to circumnavigate the alp’s tallest mountian. It would be a mistake to call it a single trail though, it is a grand mix of different trails and routes that can be combined in hundreds of combinations and riding clockwise or counter clockwise is a very different experience. Perhaps the single hardest part of planning the route is that there is no established path for bikes. Walking is the norm and there are arguments to riding clockwise and counter clockwise, sometimes using ski lifts to cut out the steepest parts. I pre-rode  the route both counter clockwise and clockwise direction, however, to attempt to break the record I decided the follow the same route as the record holder Luc Desplanches in clockwise direction.

No matter what direction you choose or route you take, there is no getting around the massive hike a bikes. At race pace expect 3-4 hours of hike a bike, some pushable, others require bouldering agility with the bike on your back. Yes, they suck, but damn if they build character and bring you to some of the most beautiful Cols in the Alps. After racing and training in 2015 I realized I just didn’t have the mental fortitude or fitness yet for the extended hike a bikes. I had a FTP of 4.5watts/kg but my legs cramped and my mind crumbled on the extended hike a bikes of the Ultra Raid Le Meije, a backcountry race with similar stats and terrain of the TMB. Mental toughness is just as important as physical fitness in an effort like this, and the only way to gain that toughness is to put yourself in uncomfortable, exhausting situations.

The trail set by Luc wasn’t as technical as I thought it would be, but there are certainly technical sections, Col du Bonhomme has some unridable bits for me. But as a whole the route is less technical that I imagined while still featuring lots of backcountry, chunky singletrack. For those of us riding in the alps every weekend it is almost all ridable. If you coming from somewhere that doesn’t feature steep, rocky terrain prepare yourself.

The Challenges:

There are three main factors that I’ve been balancing with the mont blanc mission:

Tourists, Snow, Weather.

Tourists
One of the most popular walking routes in world, TMB is the disneyland of mountain travel. This means no matter what month you go, you will find tourists on the trail. I call them tourist because I don’t think many of them are experienced backcountry wanders, and many don’t speak the local language or know how to interact with mountian bikers. Best call out to them in English, because yelling Attention! in French or permessio! in Italian will get you nowhere. Even on my record attempt I was polite and courteous with hikers and chatted often with them if we were hiking at the same pace up a hike a bike. Most seemed in awe at the pace I was going and wanted to know more about the mission. But some seem to think my main goal is to eat their young, and once, an American man tried to hipcheck me off my bike as I was slowly approaching his group. The French, Swiss and Italians know how to interact with bikers, the Aussies are stoked to see you, the Japanese tourists seem awestruck but the Americans seemed to be downright hostel at times. I’m sad my countrymen have such poor trail manners, but it mostly seems to be a generational thing, as all the hostel hikers were middle aged or elderly Americans.

The best way to avoid the crowds is to go in early July or September, and use a riding bell on descents. 

Snow:
Depending on the season the route should be snow free from July to September. This leaves a relatively short span of two months to attempt a record attempt because August is too crowded with tourists.

Weather:
Perhaps the most difficult challenge is weather. Going for an all out effort on Mont Blanc in one day requires a good weather forecast, simply because it’s not easy to abandon the effort. The only way to get back to the start is if you stop halfway in Courmayuer or Chamonix(depends on where you start) and take a bus through the Mont Blanc Tunnel.

If you live nearby and have a flexible job, cherry picking a day with clear weather isn’t hard. But if you’re investing in a trip from America and booking all your flights in advance good luck! You might have great weather, ok weather, or impassable weather, sometimes all in one day. If you are doing it in a couple days you can deal with the bad weather, but doing a one day attempt in bad weather is outright dangerous. I live two hours away from Courmayeur and had to wait 3 weeks for a weekend that had just a 30% chance of rain.


Training:

Training to ride Mont Blanc in a day is a complex task, rider and bike must merge into a trail gobbling monster, requiring the skills and fitness of mountian bike racer and trail runner combined. Mix in the navigation of backcountry travel, the challenge of fueling yourself for 14+ hours on the bike, self supported and having the technical ability to descend some very technical sections of trail. Not to mention having you bike and gear dialed and the very real chance of breaking something that leaves you stranded somewhere in the alps.

It has been a huge investment of time, energy and money to build the fitness, skills and bike to even attempt the Mont Blanc mission. I thought I was ready in 2014, I had the fitness on the bike, but I lacked the mental strength and on bike nutrition.

On bike fitness is key, but only one piece of the puzzle, I was on the bike between 10 and 20 hours per week in 2016. This is an enormous challenge considering I’m at work 50 hours a week, but prioritizing training makes it possible. I train with a power meter on a structured training plan and build though the winter and spring while using endurance mountian bike races to peak fitness leading up to my Mount Blanc attempt.

In addition to building fitness I strapped on a full face and spent months sessioning local enduro segments, dialing in my bike and sharpening my descending skills.

The only way to train for hike a bikes is to hike with a bike. Starting mid summer I did less races and focused on long, epic rides with lots of hiking and backcountry trails. This is as much physical preparation as it is mental preparation.

Good core strength is essential to ride for more that 14 hours, and even more important when you factor in all the hike a bikes. Pushing/ carrying a 11kg bike up steep inclines for 3 hours at full gas is exhausting. Going deeper into my physiology I spent time analyzing blood tests, dialing in nutrition on and off the bike and working with an Osteopathist and Physical Therapist to correct any imbalances.

The end result is I’ve transformed into a rider than can go on the local road hammerfest and come out on top of a climb, and the next day drop enduro riders on local dh segments. I know my body, how to prepare for an ultra endurance event, what fuel my body needs, and how minimal I can go. All this takes time and experience, my one year goal to set the record around Mont Blanc has lasted two years and is going on three, but perhaps it is the price of entry.

 

Connecting the dots:

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4:00 AM, September 11, Courmayeur. Mind, body and soul prepped for an all out assault. It is impossible for you to understand this moment. Two years of training, every day on the bike. I honestly didn’t think It was possible, but I was committed to going for it. This is the moment where greatness is found, when the odds are stacked against you, it seems impossible and you throw down the cards and go all in.

My friends don’t understand all the missed dinners or social gatherings. My future wife is just getting home from her bachelorette party in Barcelona. The town sleeps and nobody knows or cares what I’m doing, but this is what I’m searching for. It’s scary, raw, uncomfortable, requiring total commitment and focus. As I pedal forward through the darkness my breath freezes in front of me in the 35 degree air. My mind eases, life is distilled into one goal: forward movement. The sun rises after I summit the first big col of the day Col Ferret, I’m ahead of schedule and feeling great. Yet it wasn’t to be.

Despite all the planning, training, preparation and commitment I wasn’t able to break the record or do the TMB in one day this year. Unsure of which direction to go, or which route to take, in early August I did the TMB in two days clockwise. I decided that route wasn’t the best I would try Luc Desplanche’s record setting route. I went for it on the morning of September 11th and made an unfortunate route finding error that lost me 40 minutes. The trail had been re-routed since Luc set the record in 1999, and I got lost following the new trail, then searching for the old trail Luc took, and finally taking the newly re-routed trail. Despite my garmin crashing and some pedal/cleat issues I forged on, but decided to stop at the only place to bail, Chamonix. I was incredibly satisfied though, two years of hard work and if you take out the 40 minutes lost off trail, I rode from Courmayeur to Chamonix in 6.5 hours, just about half the route. Better yet, the pace I set was sustainable all day as my power meter showed a .65IF, my goal intensity for the full 14 hours. It’s possible! I could hardly believe it, but with a little luck and some more training the record is in reach!

The experience left me more hungry than ever. I’m coming back next year, fitter and stronger than ever. I’m all in!

 

 

 

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