First thing I will say is… this is definitely the best biking trip I have ever done, if you haven’t already tried bike-packing then I would recommend it in an instant.
Last summer I was living in the alps, in Châtel, and had quite a flexible schedule work wise. Near the beginning of the summer I was chatting to my friend Jan about riding and he suggested we do some kind of multi-day trip. We did some research into where to go and looked at various options using refuges and cabins and came to the conclusion the most interesting and affordable way would be for us to have a go at bike-packing. We had both been interested in giving it a go previously and thought it would be cool to finally give it a go!
So we fixed a date when we would both be free and managed to get 10 days that would work, leaving plenty of time for a big route. Now, I love looking at maps and creating routes so I told Jan not to worry and I would sort out a route for the trip in the next few weeks. I had heard of people walking the GR5 and even of one or two people Riding it, and in fact got inspired by an old article I saw on the Singletrackworld forum years ago of some guys who rode it (I must still have that saved in my favourites somewhere). I decided this would be a great route as it took us through some proper alpine terrain, nice and technical, some big descents and high trails, perfect. The other thing that made this a good choice is that we wouldn’t have to buy and carry 300 maps, since it is a well used, long distance route through France the trail is way-marked the whole way and is easy enough to follow. We were able to just buy a couple of large scale (1:75 000 I think) maps, which proved very handy, so we could figure out where towns and villages were and how many hills per day we would do.
Because of this we didn’t need to plan too much, simply when to get there, where to meet, what to take between us so we weren’t carrying the same things twice and a rough idea of how far we would go each day. Once everything was decided a few weeks of minimal communication followed before we met at Nice airport and set off on our adventure!
The GR5, the GR5, the GR5, I keep saying it so what is it? The full route actually begins in the Netherlands and finishes in the south of France in Nice however the part that crosses the French alps is the more known and hiked section, that means starting in Geneva and finishing in Nice. We however, chose to do the section from Briançon to Nice with a few little added extras to take in the best parts of the alps and to ensure we finished at the sea. The route is generally considered a hiking route and we actually ended up hiking a lot of the uphills due to the steepness, however the downhills and views more than made up for our efforts. The trail travels right down the spine of the french alps, crossing the entire french portion of the alps from north to south, passing through mountain ranges such as Le Chablais, Mont Blanc, Le Vanoise, Le Queyras Massif and Le Mercantour Massif. The length of the route and the fact that is it a point to point meant that the scenery, nature and landscapes changed significantly along the way, from large built up towns, to alpine pastures with cows grazing in remote areas with only tiny villages to refuel at to empty ski resorts to dustier, drier slopes and more populated mountains towards the mediterranean with an all together more 'the south of France' feeling.
It was actually Jan's idea to do this trip and if i'm honest I was sceptical and not really that keen on it at first (this is probably news to him too) however this actually turned out to be the best trip i've ever done and I am so glad he suggested it! Jan is from Germany, is super fit and has a super positive attitude, I think it would be very hard to catch him in a bad mood. We know each other from studying in Norway, we both spent a year there on Erasmus studying and ended up meeting through bikes of course, we rode together plenty of times up there and have since been on a couple of trips around Europe.
Ok that last stat might have been a bit made up, but the french do love their switchbacks, we rode 331km in total riding almost twice the height of Everest.
So the plan to was to ride basically half of the GR5, we didn’t actually plan much, all we knew was we had plenty of time so that we could go at our own pace. Right before we set off we learned from someone who had already done the GR5 that 10 days was enough to do the whole route from Geneva to Nice so suddenly we were left with a lot of extra time. In the end we decided on buying some maps in Briançon and doing an extra loop of two days to the north of the town before setting off south on the original route.
We met up in Nice initially and then took the train from Nice all the way up to Briançon, I think it took about 5hrs and cost about €100 each (we booked last minute), arriving in the evening and basically in the dark we set up camp somewhere above the city before spending the next day sorting out some food, maps and a couple of last minute bike bits.
In general we followed the GR5 exactly as it is seen on the map, apart from often on the ascents the route follows hiking paths and trails up while there are tarmac or gravel roads nearby which we usually chose so we could actually ride up rather than push up. There are two options of finishing the route at the end, you can choose once you arrive in St-Dalmas to either travel towards Nice or towards Menton, Menton seemed like the more scenic route however we chose Nice since we were flying out from there at the end. The extra loop we did the north of Briançon was towards Mt. Tabour, we decided the trails looked good on the maps and also I had a vague recollection of a friend saying he was going to work for the summer in a refuge around there so we went to see if we could find him… which we did.
With the extra time spent travelling and faffing around sorting bikes/food/maps/routes we eventually did 9 days on the bikes, 2 doing the loop to the north then 7 actually riding the original planned route. We knew we had plenty of time to finish in so we didn’t really push ourselves pace wise and in general had a fairly laid back approach to where we needed to get to each day (although Jan may disagree with that), although the last day ended up being a bit further than we though and with a lot more elevation than we though becoming a little stressful towards the end. It was food stops that ended up dictating how far we needed to get each day, figuring out which villages had a shop we could refuel at and get food for the next day and not have to carry too much weight all at once. We probably did around 30-40km each day and completed 2/3 cols per day on average and that was enough with all the extra weight.
Day 1 Rode from Miramar - Cannes, train from Cannes - Briançon
Day 2 Briançon - Col Des Roceilles
Day 3 Col Des Roceilles - Briançon
Day 4 Briançon - Château-Queyras
Day 5 Château-Queyras - Ceillac
Day 6 Ceillac - Larche
Day 7 Larche - St-Dalmas-Le-Selvage
Day 8 St-Dalmas-Le-Selvage - Roya
Day 9 Roya - St-Dalmas
Day 10 St-Dalmas - Nice
LES VILLES ET VILLAGES
There are many cols and high mountain paths to follow along the way which make you feel quite remote however each time the trail dips down into a valley you find yourself passing through little villages and towns. As with the landscape, the architecture and buildings change as you move south, there are many quaint and characterful villages along the way like Briançon with its fortified walls to keep the Italians out, Maljasset with its heavy tiled roofs or my personal favourite villages are ones such as Utelle, the ‘villages parchés’ that you find along the Côte d’Azur and the hinterland behind Nice.
CAMPE-LES-FOURCHES (what used to be anyway)
And of course...Nice
WHAT WE TOOK
We took too much stuff! And so will you on your first trip!
We tried to be lightweight, and we were in some instances, however this being our first trip we didn’t quite know what we would need and what we wouldn’t. We did some research into other bike packing gear and ended up with a bag on the handlebars plus a roughly 30-40L rucksack each, I also put a little top tube bag on which I got for €10 from Decathlon to store some quick access things. We stored our sleeping bags and waterproofs in our handlebar bags, water and spare tubes on our bike and the rest in our rucksacks.
We decided on a camping set up of groundsheet + tarp pitched with a bike wheel and ropes/stones and it worked really well. We had very company air mattresses which you can get from Decathlon for £30 (bargain!) and sleeping bags, here is something we could have saved weight on, we took sleeping bags which were WAY too warm for summer in the southern alps.
For cooking we used a little Primus Omnifuel stove and probably used about 1L of fuel over the whole trip (cooking for 2 for 7 nights). Then a little pan set with big pan and frying pan.
Clothes wise we both took a set of clothes for riding in, a couple of spares and a set of warm! clothes of the evening, I was super glad to have something very warm to hang out in once the sun went down.
We took a few spares for the bikes between us, a book and camera and a few other luxury items. Apart from that the main weight was definitely the food! So we ended up planning as best we could to buy food that would mean carrying it the shortest distances before using it.
Bikes wise we both had 140mm trail bikes, myself on a Mondraker Foxy XR and Jan on a Canyon Spectral 9.0 EX