Dawn to Dusk Ride – La Chaine de Belledonne

Last weekend I decided I would like to go and explore the La Chaine de Belledonne which is the mountain range to the south west of Grenoble, it has peaks that rise above 3000m and to me looked like a proper ‘alpine’ mountain range, until now I had not really ventured into this mountain range given that it takes a lot longer to get there on the road before the actual trails start and also that the snow seems to stay on the slopes visible from the city since they are mostly north facing.

So last week, partially inspired by this story on Pinkbike about riding during the sun rise I decided I would take the whole day to try and reach the Croix de Belledonne at 2926m, leaving the house at sunrise and returning at sunset, riding dawn to dusk. I could see from the city (my balcony) that the recent second summer we seemed to be having here meant that most peaks were completely free from snow but the Croix was further back behind the first peaks so I was not sure what to expect in terms of snow/ice but that was part of the adventure.

 

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I really love the idea of going on a proper adventure on my bike, I think it might be why I prefer natural trails to bike parks, going out into the unknown and exploring some new trails, potentially getting a little lost, taking on some rugged terrain or difficult trails and if that involves summiting a mountain along the way well that is just even better. So I was pretty excited to go explore some real alpine terrain up above 2000m and potentially summit the Croix de Belldonne at almost 3000m… and in mid November?!

I think I ended up being so excited that I did not actually get much sleep the night before. I prepared all my kit, made my sandwiches, prepared my stove and Mokka, packed my bag the night before and even spent half an hour trying to sand my new brake pads so they worked better (it didn’t work by the way, don’t buy Superstar brake pads… ever, it just isn’t worth it) so that all I had to do was wake up in the morning, make myself a coffee and some breakfast, brush my teeth, a quick cautionary visit to the toilet and hop on my bike!

Preparation the night before. Amazingly all of the stuff on the table was either warm or fit into my tiny Dakine bag
Preparation the night before. Amazingly all of the stuff on the table was either warm or fit into my tiny Dakine bag
The sun rising behind the peaks I was off to explore as I left the city
The sun rising behind the peaks I was off to explore as I left the city
Stopping for a quick break to take in the view across the valley towards Le Chartreuse where the sun was already shining. The road was pretty relentless, about 30km in all, I remember doing it on my road bike two years ago but didn't remember it being so long!
Stopping for a quick break to take in the view across the valley towards Le Chartreuse where the sun was already shining. The road was pretty relentless, about 30km in all, I remember doing it on my road bike two years ago but didn’t remember it being so long!

A large amount of the morning was spent cycling out from the city and up the road that leaves Uriage-Les-Bains down in the damp valley bottom up to the ski centre of Chamrousse which sits rather proudly above the tree line of Belledonne. Cold feet slowly made their way in as the sun refused to shine down on me and seemed to take an age to appear over the top of the ridge, when it finally did I started to wake up as my feet began to warm up again. Before I even reached the first section of trail I noticed I had already done 30km on the road, after a long gradual climb up so far it was straight into a nice steep hike a bike.

After about an hour of climbing I finally came into the first bit of direct sunlight to warm my hands and feet up
After about an hour of climbing I finally came into the first bit of direct sunlight to warm my hands and feet up
The road climb had taken me up to 1400m so it didn't take long on the hike-a-bike to get up above the clouds
The road climb had taken me up to 1400m so it didn’t take long on the hike-a-bike to get up above the clouds
Next leg of the hike-a-bike was a rather rugged trail with some pretty huge rocks and steps, it didn't look rideable down never mind up.
Next leg of the hike-a-bike was a rather rugged trail with some pretty huge rocks and steps, it didn’t look rideable down never mind up.
A quick pause for a food break. The trail wound its way up through the rocks to the right of this stack, if you look hard enough you might spot the guys that were out climbing up there, I guess they were out super early to be up there climbing before me
A quick pause for a food break. The trail wound its way up through the rocks to the right of this stack, if you look hard enough you might spot the guys that were out climbing up there, I guess they were out super early to be up there climbing before me

The road climb had taken me up to around 1400m but the hike a bike took me right up into proper alpine territory, above the clouds and up above the tree line. The first section of the climb was up through the pine trees which looked like it would be a real good trail to take down one day, through big rock gardens along side waterfalls and up paths strewn with pine needles, at the top of this I met a group a group of eldery ‘ramblers’ out on the trail who thought I certainly shouldn’t be on these kind of trails with my bike, that ‘there was no way it was possible to ride’ and it ‘just wasn’t worth taking the bike over these hills’, safe to say I am glad I politely disagreed.

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By this height it had started to become more rocky than wooded. The views started to open up, the ridge in the distance is the first mountains of Le Vercors including; Le Pic Saint Michel and La Moucherotte which I have been up a few times previously
Just as my back was starting to get pretty sort I finally arrived at the first plateau and was able to rid my bike for the first time in about an hour and a half
Just as my back was starting to get pretty sort I finally arrived at the first plateau at 2000m and was able to ride my bike for the first time in about an hour and a half

By the top of the climb I was standing at 2000m and was pretty happy to be looking across to some big rocky faces and rugged mountain sides, I was however quite surprised to see a ski lift on the other side of the little lake, it turns out that the ski slopes of the Chamrousse ski resort reached this far.

After the huge climb I was finally greeted with my first little piece of rideable single track, I have to say it felt good to be riding in this kind of setting. I rounded the corner to be met with mountain overload, with ridges and valleys extending into the distance for miles, it took me a good while to understand the reality compared to the map and where my path was actually supposed to take me and just how far across this boulder field I had to ride. When things finally clicked I managed to spot a slither of grey trail hugging the side of on of the rocky outcrops, to get there though there was a rather steep and rocky descent to enjoy first.

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By now the terrain was certainly ‘alpine’, very little trees with a very rocky outlook, this is what I came for. I could see on the map I had to head towards and through the dark patch of trees straight ahead, now how do I get there?
By the time I reached the trees in the previous photo the terrain heading back down towards the city had gotten pretty steep, it felt like the clouds were right below me
By the time I reached the trees in the previous photo the terrain heading back down towards the city had gotten pretty steep, it felt like the clouds were right below me
The trail however... was more questionable
The trail however… was more questionable, any ideas?

On the map to get from the top of the first proper hike a bike to the refuge de la Pra (before I ascended up to the Croix) it looked quite far and sure enough it was quite far, it did not however look like I gained or lost that much elevation, in the end though there was quite a lot of ups and downs. The ups being almost always hike a bike as the ground was just too rugged to bought trying to push and the only decent down was through what felt more like a rock slide than a path (photo above).

I finally made it all the way across to the refuge though with the last section being really good fun to ride along the side of a rather dried up looking lake, which was no surprise given the tiny amount of rain we have had recently.

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Finally closing in on the plateau where the Refuge de la Pra is, back up at 2000m, the light yellow patch at the back of the scene
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Looking back down the valley towards Pic st. Michel away in the distance, I think the two guys in the photo were a bit surprised to see me on my bike up here, just like most people were to be honest…
Lunch spot! It was quite unusual to find this almost perfectly flat plateau after travelling across such rough terrain to get here, a little bit of tranquility between the jagged lanscape
Lunch spot! You can see the refuge in the back of the plateau, it was quite unusual to find this almost perfectly flat plateau after travelling across such rough terrain to get here, a little bit of tranquility between the jagged landscape
The view from the lunch stop at the refuge, I love a good coffee from the Mokka so I decided to bring my stove and make myself a coffee at 2000m up in the mountains, I think the neighbouring picnicers were a little jealous
The view from the lunch stop at the refuge, I love a good coffee from the Mokka so I decided to bring my stove and make myself a coffee at 2000m up in the mountains, I think the neighbouring picnicers were a little jealous

The lunch stop came as a welcome relief, my legs were feeling quite tired by this point struggling to cycle across the flat ground of the plateau to reach the refuge. I had come prepared for today, realising I needed a lot of food, I was very happy at the chance to be able to take my little stove out and fire up a coffee in the Moka, there was even a glass left behind in the part of the refuge that is left open for the winter which I was able to use since I had forgotten my mug!

Now… for the most exciting part, how high would I make it up to the Croix de Belledonne, there was already some snow on the north faces around the refuge but not a lot, so maybe it was still possible.

I set off on the path up above with refuge with a quick look down the Col de la Pra (that I would be taking later) it filled me with excitement… ohh it looked good! Of course, you guessed it, it was more hike a bike, by now I had become pretty used to it and had worked that if I attached the belt and chest straps on my bag my shoulder didn’t really hurt anymore whilst carrying the bike, I mean I couldn’t breathe as well but I decided that was better than my shoulder hurting.

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After lunch this is what I was looking at, it seemed to get even steeper and even more rugged, rather spectacular scenery, the trail headed up the left hand side of the waterfall
Once I got up past the two Lacs Du Domènon this was the view I was faced with. It looked like 'top' was in sight, the trail I was supposed to take is up on the right where the snow is lying, I thought I would go up as far as possible at least, but it was clear the path all the way to the top was not going to be possible
Once I got up past the two Lacs Du Domènon this was the view I was faced with. It looked like ‘top’ was in sight, the trail I was supposed to take is up on the right where the snow is lying, I thought I would go up as far as possible at least, but it was clear the path all the way to the top was not going to be possible
Luckily there was one other guy at the highest point I went to, he kindly obliged to take my photo, not sure he was too warm in his skimpy shorts up at this altitude though
Luckily there was one other guy at the highest point I went to, he kindly obliged to take my photo, not sure he was too warm in his skimpy shorts up at this altitude though

Once I reached the next plateau it felt like the terrain got yet more wild and rugged, I guess maybe the introduction of the snow helped with that and maybe also that the rocks were a sort of red colour in places meant it felt like I was in South America or somewhere, not just hours from my house.

I felt like I had climbed for ever and yet the peaks still grew higher around me, I would have loved to continue climbing but a combination of snow, the sun getting lower and me running out of energy meant that it looked like a summit was not possible, I like to feel like I have achieved some kind of ‘goal’ so I set myself a target of climbing to 2500m before stopping for a rest to take in the breathtaking scenery and heading back down.

I sat in the warm sun for 5 or 10 minutes to enjoy the views and smile about the fact that I had a 2300m descent ahead of me, perfect.

This is where the trail headed, if you look closely you might see some footprints from people earlier in the day, but they had ascended when the snow was soft, by now it was frozen again and way too slippy to walk up, as one guy I saw proved when he attempted to climb up and made it only 50m or so before very carefully shuffling back down
This is where the trail headed, if you look closely you might see some footprints from people earlier in the day, but they had ascended when the snow was soft, by now it was frozen again and way too slippy to walk up, as one guy I saw proved when he attempted to climb up and made it only 50m or so before very carefully shuffling back down
Looking back down the valley from the highest point and it looked positively warm, summery even, you wouldn’t believe it was November 14th at 2500m altitude
I could have gone higher up this path (which wasn't marked on the map) to the top of the col but I decided at this point that I was pretty tired out so decided that a new goal of reaching 2500m was enough and I wanted to keep a bit of energy for the mega descent so I at least had a little control over my bike rather than just being a passenger on the way down
I could have gone higher up this path (which wasn’t marked on the map) to the top of the col but I decided at this point that I was pretty tired out so decided that a new goal of reaching 2500m was enough and I wanted to keep a bit of energy for the mega descent so I at least had a little control over my bike rather than just being a passenger on the way down
The Mondraker looking rather majestic at 2500m, I had to wonder how many other people have had their bike up here
The Mondraker looking rather majestic at 2500m, I had to wonder how many other people have had their bike up here
The effect the ice gave on the frozen lake was quite unusual
The effect the ice gave on the frozen lake was quite unusual
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Looking down the valley from just above the waterfall seen earlier in the ride
The first section of the trail from the 2500m mark to the waterfall was all rideable, quite easy going in terms of gradient but fairly technical in places, even the snow/ice on the trail next to the lakes was rideable. At the waterfall there was a section that had to be walked, but nearer the bottom you can see the trail to the bottom right which was rideable. The two women I met down there were a little surprised I was riding up here!
The first section of the trail from the 2500m mark to the waterfall was all rideable, quite easy going in terms of gradient but fairly technical in places, even the snow/ice on the trail next to the lakes was rideable. At the waterfall there was a section that had to be walked, but nearer the bottom you can see the trail to the bottom right which was rideable. The two women I met down there were a little surprised I was riding up here!

As is almost always the case a lot more of the trail was rideable compared to how it looked on the way up. I had passed various groups of people on the way up and had asked a lot about what the snow was like higher up, they were all pretty interested or excited to see me come down again, or maybe mostly bewildered to see a mountain biker up so high.

The trail was certainly rocky and very technical but it is exactly how I like it, I love if parts of the trail are simply a challenge just to ride down and then the parts that are too difficult to ride down always leave me thinking ‘if only I was Danny Macaskill, I would totally have ridden that’.

Down below here is the top of the Col de la Pra where I had lunch and where I had started my ascent up to the Croix de Belledonne. The refuge plateau over to the left where I had come from earlier and the trail I was to descent away to the right
Down below here is the top of the Col de la Pra where I had lunch and where I had started my ascent up to the Croix de Belledonne. The refuge plateau over to the left where I had come from earlier and the trail I was to descent away down the valley to the right all of this section was rideable with a few corners requiring endo-turns however
From the top of the Col de la Pra you can see all the way out past Le Lac du Crozet to Le Dent de Crolles et La Chartreuse
From the top of the Col de la Pra you can see all the way out past Le Lac du Crozet to Le Dent de Crolles et La Chartreuse. The first part of this section is a bunch of really rocky and loose switchbacks with the trail heading along the right hand side of the lake, this section is fantastic and is was all rideable, there are several pretty technical little sections which are all rideable with a little bit of momentum and determination

The trail from the top of the Col de la Pra certainly goes into my books as one of the best I have ever ridden (I seem to say that quite often…) with all sorts of types of terrain; bit drifty corners, tight thin switchbacks, big rocks slaps, steep technical sections along with the fact that you were riding down an incredibly scenic and intimidating valley made it quite the epic descent that I was hoping for.

This was the smiles that the section of trail along side the lakes brought! Super excited whilst riding this
This was the smiles that the section of trail along side the lakes brought! Super excited whilst riding this
The trail along side the lake is pretty well defined and could even be said to have a bit of flow at some point... sometimes... mostly technical though... pretty technical...
The trail along side the lake is pretty well defined and could even be said to have a bit of flow at some point… sometimes… mostly technical though… pretty technical…
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The next section of the trail after the lake was probably the hardest, BUT probably the best! There are a series of corners/switchbacks which have a lot of rocky features, steps and drops which provide some pretty good challenges, the trail is pretty loose but with some larger rock slabs now and then which is just what I love, for those reading this in the UK I would compare it to some of the best trails in the lake district, very rocky, very technical and with some very challenging sections

I would certainly recommend this trail to anyone who loves ‘technical’ riding, it is a pure tech-fest! I will definitely be back to do it again, the switchbacks above the lake, the almost ‘flowy’ sections along side the lake, the big rock slabs below the lake, the awkward boulders above the treeline and the fast switch backs in the trees make it oh so good. Oh and did I mention once you get to the car part down in the trees, if you cut straight across it and take the line which looks like it is from the top of a jump it is a downhill track constructed by the local lads fill of berms, drops, doubles, you name it. So if you still have the energy and your arms haven’t turned to jelly by this point then you are in for a treat!

Looking back up the trail from below Le Lac du Crozet, you can just make out a group of students who I passed who were on the way up to Le Refuge de la Pra for the night
Looking back up the trail from below Le Lac du Crozet, you can just make out a group of students lost amongst the wall of rocks, who I passed who were on the way up to Le Refuge de la Pra for the night
Looking back up to the mountains I had travelled across earlier from Revel, a village in the foothills of Belledonne
Looking back up to the mountains I had travelled across earlier from Revel, a village in the foothills of Belledonne
Dusk was certainly on its way by the time I exited from the forest and onto the road back to the bottom of the valley
Dusk was certainly on its way by the time I exited from the forest and onto the road back to the bottom of the valley
While cycling along the road back into the city the setting sun light up the clouds in a rather strong shade of pink
While cycling along the road back into the city the setting sun light up the clouds in a rather strong shade of pink

I set out with the idea to ride from sunrise to sunset and with the simple goal of exploring some trail, a little unsure of what I would find along the way. I ended up on what felt like a true alpine epic, a real adventure into the mountains through some amazing scenery on some incredible trails, and even though I set off for the day on my own I ended up spending most of the day with people, interested in what I was doing, this is a part of riding in ‘hike a bike’ type locations that I always forget about and that I really like, nobody ever seems annoyed or grumpy that you are there, everyone is friends in the mountains.

This is exactly the kind of adventure I moved to the Alpes looking for, until next time.

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