Cols of Morzine (2019, Morzine, French Alps)
I remember the first time I saw the Alps. It was around ten years ago, on my first snowboarding trip with my brother and some friends (all fellow Pocketers). As we left Geneva airport in a transfer bus and got a short way down the motorway, the snow capped peaks appeared on the horizon to the right. Majestic looking but too far away to fully appreciate them.
Then, a little later, we turned off and started ascending through mountain towns and villages in the foothills and eventually into twisting roads that wind up the mountains. Suddenly, at some point, I look out to the right and realise I’m overlooking a valley and across that valley are these vast grey and white giants, overlapping each other and stretching into the distance. Like a child, I have my nose pressed against the window in slack jawed awe. It took my breath away and it was love at first sight.
I’ve been back to Morzine and the Portes du Soleil area many times since, for winter snowboarding trips. I’d heard it was beautiful in the summer and knew it was a mountain biking mecca. I also knew it had featured in the Tour de France a few times…
So, I found myself in a transfer bus again in July 2019, winding up mountain roads but this time in the height of summer, for a road cycling trip with a group of my closest mates - all first timers to the area. I felt some vicarious joy in watching their reactions, similar to mine, as they caught their first close up view of the mountains. Well, all apart from Steve who was busy hammering out the details of some work issue on his laptop. Fortunately, he was able to get a view afterwards.
The splendour of Morzine in the winter, becomes more visible on a cloudless summer day like the one we arrived in. The town is surrounded on all sides by the peaks of the Porte du Soleil area, except to the south which offers a shallower climb up to nearby Les Gets and a view down the valley to more distant peaks. The result is the feeling of a town dropped into a large green bowl - which, on the day we arrived, seemed to intensify the heat, bouncing it off the grey-blue walls of the mountains with temperatures hitting over 30C.
Next morning. Porridge, infused with a range of superfood powders and seeds. Bananas. Coffee. And some impromptu pan con tomate. Then onto the bikes, a fleet of Cannondales we’d rented right in the centre of town, and two minutes from our apartment. The beauty of Morzine is that it’s right next to great riding. That’s also the downside. Less than 2km away from our apartment, we began climbing up some steady and challenging zig zags for our first peak of the day, Col de L’Encrenaz.
Encrenaz is a steady climb, 10km and averaging 6% or so. Find your rhythm and enjoy the ride. Not quite as easy as that when you’re still warming up and digesting your breakfast, but still, it was we savoured. The views back over the valley are spectacular, across the town to Montriond, Avoriaz and the Swiss mountains beyond. No traffic here, just the sound of my own breathing - punctuated by some industrial cursing from further down the hill and exclamations at the stunning views.
About halfway up is one of those small features that I love about riding in places like this – in the middle of a tiny village, a copper water pipe, pouring a continuous, steady stream into a stone trough. We stopped to refill our bottles with fresh mountain water.
The last couple of kilometres unexpectedly kicked up, with the gradient hovering in the low double digits. By the time I reached the centre of Encrenaz, the small village at the top, my jersey was half unzipped and drenched. As we caught our breath and topped up at another water fountain, the road gave us a view south to a ridge that we’d traverse. “Over that ridge” I declared confidently, “we’ll be able to see Mont Blanc.” It was the right general direction but I was talking bollocks about any views. Still, it was good for morale.
The descent gave us our first taste of Alpine switchbacks, which traced through meadows and wooded hillside, before pitching up again to our next climb, Col de la Ramaz. It was almost a carbon copy of Encrenaz in terms of profile (6%, 15km). We were coming from the west (the Taninges side), rising up through empty ski stations and hotels, eventually hitting a dusty stretch of road with heavy construction work going on. Despite the complete absence of traffic, we found ourselves waiting at a temporary red light on an empty mountain road. The scene was made slightly odder by the elderly grandad and grandson next to us on electric mountain bikes - particularly when they took an off-road trail.
After the obligatory pic at the Col summit sign, we sped down in another twisty descent to the village of Mieussy, west of Taninges. The day was warming rapidly. We raced east along the valley in train formation, feeling the searing heat down low after the coolness of the high slopes. After a pitstop at Cafe le Central in Taninges (lovely spot, super friendly owner), we topped up our bottles again at another pristine fountain.
A few kilometres further along, we looped left to head north and began heading up Col de Joux Plane. It doesn’t take long to realise why this is a classic climb on the tour. At the very bottom, we passed through small villages, enjoying the cool shade underneath the overhanging trees. This was soon replaced by meadows and grazing land, as we zig zagged up the climb in the mid afternoon sun. The heat was intense and relentless, coming not just from above but radiating off the baking road surface. We found ourselves jerking across the road to get a few metres of shade as we passed under trees. I realised I was almost out of water, having gulped almost all the way through two bottles. Andy had a little more left but it was starting to feel like that scene from The Three Amigos.
The gradient seemed consistent but never ending. Winding and winding, we stopped at a corner three kilometres from the summit, with a jaw dropping view south across Samoens (the small town at the foot of the climb) and the Grand Massif beyond. Words weren’t required - and were beyond us anyway when a group of elderly Frenchmen engaged in conversation in fluent French.
As we set off for the final few kilometres, a Danish local we had met on the way up, came back down the hill and pulled up next to us. “Almost at the top!” he grinned. 'Thank fuck for that', I thought to myself.
We pushed on, parched and pouring with sweat. I was so focussed on keeping the wheels moving that I completely missed a water pipe to the side of the ride; fortunately, Andy didn’t. We topped up again, and I took the opportunity to guzzle most of a bottle down too. The final couple of kilometres were reasonably gentle, curving around another grass bank, this time with a rocky trail leading up to the high point of the col. It was unapproachable in cycling cleats which was an annoyance - I had my bearings now, and knew we were approaching Morzine from the south side of the ski area and were heading back through it. The viewing point probably offered a spectacular view of the town.
The descent was fast on wide, empty roads but also a bizarre experience as we cycled through empty ski areas and lift stations. The grass was overgrown, the lifts stationary and silent. Cows roamed around freely and mountains huts used as cafes and snack stops in the winter looked abandoned. The scene had an eerie post-apocalyptic feel.
Our long descent followed a blue run I knew well from winter days. With zero traffic and clear views of the turns, it was a chance to practice my cornering with a bit of extra speed. We passed meadows full of summer flowers and small groups hikers strolling through them. A view of the town below appeared and soon we were dropping into it rapidly, bottoming out at the eastern edge of town. Immediately, I felt the heat and arid air of the valley blanketing me again.
As we savoured a few cold beers back at our apartment, Andy took on the task on planning the next day’s route before we made a two-minute walk to the legendary Bec Jaune for their own microbrewed beers and top quality food.
Saturday morning. We were heading up to Col de la Joux Verte, which is route from Morzine up to Avoriaz, sitting on the plateau above the town. I knew this route and the ski runs around it, and had high expectations. I was excited.
The route to the bottom of the climb was simple, and pretty fun too. Through the centre of Morzine, over a footbridge and then north towards Montriond which lies a couple of kilometres along the valley. Once through the town, we were quickly into the wide road heading up towards Avoriaz, with tall, cool pine trees on both sides. The shade and cooler temperatures were a relief. A few kilometres in, we stopped to take in the stunning Lac du Montriond, its water a stunning turquoise colour set against a sheer cliff along one side.
The climb from here continued past Ardent (finishing point for the classic Star Wars ski run). Gradients so far were only around 5% but soon started to kick up as we approached the switchbacks the gained height. But these are the sort of hills I love. A steady but challenging gradient and absolutely mind blowing views. We could see back down the valley, out towards the open edge of the Morzine bowl, miles of peaks, early morning haze and blue skies.
I got chatting to a guy working his way up the hill, and mentioned he was literally the only mountain biker I’d seen cycling uphill rather than using the lifts. “Yeah?” he said. "I’d feel like I was cheating if I didn’t do the uphill.” Respect to that.
We stopped in Lindaret village halfway up, for a quick morning coffee. The small row of shops and cafes were surrounded by goats roaming across the street and hills, no doubt attracted by tourist scraps and garbage.
At this point, observing a tourist, Jim offered his the enigmatic view “I’d never think to stroke a goat.” I’m sure there’s a kernel of Buddhist wisdom in this somewhere.
We continued on, soon passing the Lindaret bowl where several ski lifts and runs begin and end. We followed what is a blue flat track in the winter, up towards the summit of Col de la Joux Verte. Here, the gradient started to kick up a bit, providing a bit more a challenge to the zig zag route. After a few kilometres, we reached the peak, a T-junction with a mountain restaurant directly opposite. To the left were a couple more kilometres to head up to Avoriaz village, and to the right our long, rapid descent into Morzine. We opted for the restaurant, Andy silently heading straight into the bar to demolish a Magnum ice cream - and then another one. The dreaded bonk.
The downhill didn’t disappoint and ranks as probably the most enjoyable I’ve ever done. Wide, sweeping turns on clear and smooth roads. Even most of the hairpins had clear views of the road ahead, allowing us to practice tighter cornering at slightly higher speeds. One section included a series of Monaco GP style tunnels through the mountain, always a little cheek clenching when you forget to take your sunglasses off and enter the darkness blind. The views… wow, the views. One turn in particular offered a panoramic so breathtaking, that even Steve the downhill demon stopped to soak it up.
We hit the valley floor at the north side of town again, and hammered along the road heading on a steady incline for a few kilometres towards Les Gets for lunch. Our plan was to reverse the first half of yesterday’s ride over Encrenaz but not before lunch in Les Gets at the superb Wild Beets Kitchen (Buddha bowls, plant based options and everything else).
Downhill from Les Gets, we forked right to head towards Ramaz and Encreneaz - only to hit a complete roadblock at major roadwork. For half a second, I was tempted to head around it but then saw signs saying the road was completely cut off even closed for bikes and pedestrians. Ahead, we could we the road was actually a pile of rubble. Scuppered.
After searching our mapping apps for alternative route, we realised there were none. And we were running low on time. So plan B - head back up to Les Gets, down to Morzine, and along the valley to Lac du Montriond for a cold beer. As the sun continued to beat down, no-one needed much persuading.
We hammered it back, Andy and I immediately heading to the lake to dip our feet in, which felt rejuvenating at magical levels. Jim and Steve had found a bar overlooking the lake, next a thin strip of beach. A cold beer, a view of a shimmering lake and the afternoon sun hitting the mountain wall opposite. Like so many of these trips, there was a bit of everything: endurance, beauty, teamwork, challenge, adventure, relaxation and pure joy. At moments like these, with great friends and nothing else on the agenda for the day, I feel completely free, grateful and infinitely fortunate. I know I’ll be back for more of the Alps in the summer.
Go find your pocket: Road bike options are surprisingly limited in Morzine but Alpine Sports had a decent range for our group: https://www.alpine-sports.eu/bike-rental-page/
Eat and drink the best food & beer in town at Bec Jaune: https://www.becjaunebrewery.com/