Basecamp in the Alps

An Englishman, Scotsman and three Dutch people walk in to a café … not the start of a bad joke but a fresh adventure with XPDTN3.

In this adventure I am the Englishman. Fresh from Dirty Kanza and still with some vivid memories of Jeroboam 300 I was ready for an easy week. The Scotsman, Ross Muir, an ex professional road rider and one of the founders of Basecamp. Basecamp being the focal point for adventure based riding in this part of the world. The Dutch, fellow XPDTN3 team member Kim Van Dijk and some of her fellow countrymen, Martijn Boot and Mirko Meerwaldt from Soigneur magazine.

We were on the shores of Lake Annecy in the French Alps to sample some “alpine” gravel. Putting gravel on the map in this area is the La Resistance ride which takes place every September and combines some tough but beautiful road climbs with gravel sections that showcase the amazing scenery of the area. For this year’s event, the organisers have added a new 3 day bike packing event, Tour de la Resistance, and it was the route of this that we planned to follow over the coming days. The first day would be a ride out to an overnight, the second day a return leg to the starting point. Apidura bikepacking bags used on the bikes to carry some overnight kit. The final day would be a ride of the classic La Resistance course. On paper each day got incrementally harder as distance and elevation gains increased.

Day One – Talloires to La Chambre, 105km, 2618m

Monday morning, we meet at Basecamp. Basecamp, a relatively new offering on the shores of Lake Annecy. This venue offers the perfect starting point to any ride in this area, road nad adventure bike hire (including a fleet of 10 Exploros and Apidura bags), route advice and great coffee are all on offer. Breakfast is a combo of granola and cinnamon roll complimented by some of the fine coffee. In this case, the coffee is expertly delivered by another founding Basecamp member, Adam Horler. Adam is the visionary behind this venture and the business draws on his distinguished background working with some top brands as well as his love of cycling and especially coffee. As always the last minute bike fettling is taking place but we are soon ready to roll out almost on schedule. This is the first day of 3 what all seem like big days of riding, no filler or easy passes on offer here. The distance at home in the UK would seem tame but here it’s the elevation gains that offer the challenge.

We leave the village of Talloires, home of Basecamp, and roll down to the lakeside cycle trail. The first few kilometres are a picturesque ride along the shore of Lake Annecy. The inviting blue water set against the contrasting dramatic mountains offers an inspirational start to this trip. The sun is out and the pedalling is easy … for now. We continue to make our way to the head of the valley before the first opportunity to elevate ourselves from the valley floor is presented. Col de Cherel, the climb begins on tarmac before finally transitioning via some broken road to a full gravel ascent. Starting at close to 600m we are set to climb to over 1500m, the pace is steady as the group adjusts to the unfamiliar sensation of sustained gradient.

The surface under tyre Ross terms ‘Alpine’ gravel. Unlike Kansas or Kielder gravel this is irregular, chunky and loose. The mind can never truly retreat to allow the legs to take over as grip is constantly shifting and with it the need for perpetual readjustment. As we reach the top the effort from all is clear, day one and the first climb has already opened our eyes to the challenge ahead.

The descent that follows is more alpine gravel with some rock sections thrown in. I spend the entire descent trying to hold as much speed as possible hugely thankful of my tubeless tyres as I crash through rocky slabs. Of course, later I was told my tyres weren’t tubeless then I was just hugely thankful how robust WTB make their tyres.

We tackle next the smaller Col du Frene on tarmac before losing more height and seeking out some lunch. Monday in France equals limited options so we set up camp in the only supermarche we can find open. Cold salad and air conditioning offer a welcome break from the baking heat.

The final challenge of the day comes in a double header climb of the Col de Champ Laurent closely followed by the Col du Grand Cucheron. Before the climbing is done we take a break by a water well in the shade. The day has offered a real physical and mental beating, the reality of the riding far exceeding the previously viewed statistics of the route. We look ahead to the following days with pessimism as to how achievable they will be.

Another kilometre of climbing takes us in to the descent. Not all plain sailing as some freestyle routing gives us some wet, rooty and rocky singletrack … hugely enjoyable if a little on the limit of the equipment. The final section of riding is along the Maurienne valley to La Chambre. This valley providing the staging ground for a host of classic climbs all having been heavily featured in previous Tour de France editions… not many attainable Strava KOM’s in these parts for mere mortals.

Day Two – Return to Talloires … Col de la Madeleine via gravel, 119km, 2725m

After the heat and effort of Day One no one is hugely optimistic about their ability to tackle what lies ahead on the return leg to Basecamp. The numbers are bigger in every direction and the climbs iconic in their reputation. The route profile looks ominous with near all the climbing coming in the first part of the day.

As per Day One we start with an easy roll along the valley floor before reaching the first section of our ascent, Les Lacets de Montvernier. A series of 17 hairpin turns tightly packed in to 2.5km of tarmac. This is a spectacular section of road to view from the valley floor.

The tight hair pins offer some immediate height gain before they open out in to the more sustained and gradual climb of the Col du Chaussy. So far the day has been exclusively on tarmac but shortly after cresting the Col we descend briefly to then turn off and begin a lesser ridden gravel trail option toward the Col de Madeleine. This is perhaps the show piece of the trip.

The gravel climb offers 360 degree views and unlike the previous days gravel sections is far more buffed out and faster rolling. The final few kilometres are ridden on tarmac to summit the famous Col de Madeleine. We lunch then set off on the descent. Alpine descending is sustained and hugely enjoyable as you sweep round numerous hairpins. The WTB Byway tyres are lean’t over offering huge amounts of cornering grip while the disc brakes afford some less than ideal braking and line choices at times.

As the descent brings us to the valley floor the riding is fun rolling tarmac followed by a flat out blast along the side of the river on some wide trail.   However, the gently undulating gradient is temporary as the days climbing isn’t all done. The Col de Tamie separates us from the valley we need to be in. At only 10km in length this seems a much easier proposition than the previous efforts we have endured though baking temperatures ensure the effort is felt. As I reach the top I do so with Mirko close behind me. I am out of water so we decide to roll to the next village to use one of the many water taps found along the route. We find an acceptable source in proximity to a shady spot to wait for the others. After 10 minutes we decide that maybe they are taking an alternate route. A phone call confirms as much and we catch up with the others in the next town. All that is left is the obligatory team time trial along the Lake side back to Basecamp then the beers and salty snacks.

Day Three – La Resistance course. 132km, 2825m

The main event. This is the biggest day on the trip. Broken down it’s comprised of a big climb, then a big gravel traverse, then a huge tarmac descent before finally a super steep tarmac and gravel climb. Obviously there was ground to cover in between these stand out features all in offering a big day on the bike.Leaving Basecamp this time the riding after the end of the Lake ventures in to the dirt. Some extensive research by Adam has turned up some excellent trail riding to kick off the day. Rocky stream beds and dirt singletrack combine to make a challenging first 25km.

Then as always in this part of the world ‘he who wants to progress must go up’. Col de l’Arpettaz, a hairpin lovers dream. Ascending the 1200metres is done in just 16kms. The road takes in numerous hairpins initially shaded by forest before the final section is ridden through an Alpine meadow, sublime ascending.

Today I am climbing with Ross as we tap out a sustainable but still challenging pace toward the summit. As we hit the refuge at the top already the heat of the day is growing and only 2 Orangina’s each are enough to combat the thirst. Unfortunately due to a persistent knee problem Mirko has called it a day mid climb and rolled back to enjoy Basecamp hospitality for the day.

Luckily leaving the refuge our thirst has been abated as we start a long gravel traverse, Route de la Soif, the route of the thirsty.This traverse is a series of lengthy undulations, each descent being matched by an equally lengthy climb. The backdrop in the distance today is Mont Blanc, there are worse places in the world to be.

The gravel here is a mix of all types we have ridden on the previous days. Chunky ‘Alpine’ gravel beating us up on the descents with some easier going smoother sections allowing the body to recover on the ascents.

We finally get spat out on to the tarmac at the summit of the Col d’Aravis. Lunch time, pasta and more Orangina.At this time the remaining Dutch contingent have to opt for a shorter version of the days ride to allow them to catch a flight. However, they didn’t depart before joining us on some of the descent allowing Kim another opportunity to display her fearless descending style dropping all but Ross.Then there were two … Only myself and Ross remained to tackle the final big climb of the trip, Col des Glieres.

Not only did we get the maximum gradient of the trip we scored some of the highest temperatures too … as the gradient tipped 17 degrees the temperature was north of 40 degrees celsius.

The climb ended on gravel bringing us to the whole reason this event exists. Monument National de la Résistance, the national monument to the resistance of the second world war. Situated on the Plateau des Glières, an area initially utilised by the resistance fighters as a point for air dropped supplies.

The resistance fighters, maquisards, sustained an opposing force to the occupying German army and French militia. After sustaining heavy losses in the Battle of Glieres the maquisards restructured and regrouped eventually leading to the liberation of the Haute-Savoie before the allied troops even arrived. This whole event has been offered up as a tribute to these individuals who resisted and with hope, persevered and eventually won against sizeable odds. This monument would have been a useful source of motivation many climbs ago but now seemed a fitting way to end the final real ascent of the trip.

Some undulating miles were still required to finish off this fantastic route and with renewed vigour Ross showed me his pedigree as a rider. As I clung to the wheel a new objective had been found, race back to Basecamp to get there before Team Netherlands had to leave for their flight. We scraped in with minutes to spare allowing us to offer our sweaty goodbyes.

The trip was challenging from start to finish. This region is undoubtedly a cycling paradise with untold number of riding routes and gravel playgrounds on offer.

Since we adopted the word ‘Gravel’ to categorise this type of riding a true definition of what this term actually describes, outside of the mid west of America, has eluded me. The long sustained climbs had offered me some time to think and reflect, enabling some clarity. For those not living in the gravel strong holds of Kansas, Iowa or Oklahoma, gravel has to represent something different.

Gravel and gravel racing can simply be categorised as a ride or event which has sufficient off road riding to rule out a road bike but also enough tarmac to mean a mountain bike would also be a poor choice. Basecamp and its series of events showcase this definition in its purest form. As they develop and expand their offering the potential here can be realised.

Thanks to Basecamp for their hospitality and use of their Exploro fleet. Tour de la Resistance takes place on 14-16 September and the classic one day ride on 16 September. More information about these events and the services that Basecamp offers can be found at www.base-camp.bike.




Tour de la Resistance is a 3 day bike-packing adventure on the roads and tracks in the mountains surrounding Lake Annecy. Just like the classic La Resistance one-day event, TDLR is not a race but a mini-adventure over challenging terrain where team work is essential. The first two days are an unsupported and unmarshalled ride into the back of beyond on tarmac and gravel, camping overnight in the shadow of the formidable Col de Madeleine. The route on Day Two ends back in Talloires with Day Three being the full La Resistance 130km route to round off the tour.

Location Talloires, Haute Savoie, France
Stages 3
Distance 355 km (220 mi)
Ascent 8218 m (26961 ft)
Best Time The high mountain passes tend to be clear of snow by the start of June. August should be avoided because of the hot weather. September and October are both nice options as the summer  weather tends to last well into Autumn. The official Tour de la Resistance event takes place in mid-September each year (14-16 September for 2017 – more details at www.laresistance.cc)
Terrain High mountains
Weather Weather in the high mountains is always unpredictable but summer temperatures can be expected in the range 25-35C in the valleys, falling as you climb. Be sure to check the weather  forecast in advance; if bad weather is forecast you will need to be prepared to cold temperatures and even snow!
Tires 650b is the way to go for high volume with numerous rock strewn ascents and descents. 650bx45 or 700×40
Gearing The route features long sustained climbs both on- and off-road so it is important to have low enough gears to climb comfortably for extended periods. A bottom gear of 38×42 is  recommended
Don’t Forget Your camera to capture the amazing views throughout the route