Adventure Road-Biking

What is Adventure Road-Biking?

Picture3It’s a mind-set.  You can be an adventure road-biker on any kind of road bike, although you may wish to consider the wisdom of using your top of the range Pinarello (should you be lucky enough to own one)!  It is about focusing on going somewhere you have never gone before, on road surfaces that challenge your bike handling skills; it’s about accepting a higher level of risk and uncertainty, and enjoying that aspect of it.  The level of adventure is in your hands and can be anything from cycling across Asia to exploring your local canal tow-path, and the specifics of the bike you do it on are far less important than you might think.

There will always be trails that can only be ridden on a mountain bike, but adventure road-biking is not ‘mountain biking on a road bike’, it’s about incorporating off-road sections that are rideable and fun.  If you have to dismount for long sections you’ve probably been over ambitious, or unlucky with the weather!

There are a multitude of different tracks and surfaces that do not require the tire width, stability and suspension of a mountain bike, and with the advent of disc brakes and a trend for wider tires on high-end road bikes, the amount of trails suitable for road-bikes has expanded considerably, so what are you waiting for?

What skills does it require?

Taking your bike off-road requires confident bike handling skills. It’s not about doing bunny hops, endo-pivots and controlled back-wheel skids, but more about applying the principles of good road-riding; like balance, keeping your upper body loose, looking at least 3 metres ahead of the front wheel, anticipation and perhaps most of all, having faith in the bike and keeping a cool head. If you have any bad road-riding habits, the off-road section will amplify them, which is why it improves your on-road riding skills.

It can also require a greater amount of self-sufficiency in bike maintenance, and the ability to plan and follow a route, whether it be on paper or by GPS.  Both these challenges can be over-come by going with someone who is more experienced than you, but if you get the bug, you will find yourself learning these skills as you go along.  Discovering if your pre-ride assumptions were correct is part of what makes it an adventure.

Do I need an adventure road-bike?

Not necessarily.  The difference between some adventure road bikes and an average sports bike is very little.  If you are a relative beginner to road-riding and you think your off-road experience would be enhanced by riding an ‘adventure road bike’, the chances are that an increase in skill level would put a bigger smile on your face.  For experienced road-riders, who get a taste for the gravel, there are an increasingly exciting, but very expensive range of bikes you can indulge in.  For someone who rides a lot of tracks in hilly terrain, wider tires and hydraulic disc brakes are an obvious starting point.  The much lambasted Evans Cycles has a well written introduction to Adventure Road Bikes and in their opening paragraph describe them as ‘simply a tag to describe a light drop (handle) bar bike for adventure-minded riders’.  Couldn’t have put it better myself.  Click here to read what they have to say.

Adventure Road-Biking in the Alps

The European Alps are particularly suited to Adventure Road Riding because they have a lot of reasonably well maintained gravel jeep-tracks built at gradients suitable for a road bike, and these tracks are usually linked with quiet small tarmac roads.  This combination of surface type doesn’t require the tire width, stability and suspension of a mountain bike, so why lug all that weight up the hill?

There is something rather cheeky about passing a mountain biker on your road-bike when you are on a dirt road in the middle of now-where

Getting the correct ratio of off-road to on is a bit of an art, and depends on your bike, your biking ability and the state of the tracks you pick.  Using and understanding the IGN 1:25000 maps is key to getting the balance right.  Doing research on the internet via blogs and GoogleEarth can increase your chances of putting a worthy ride together, but ultimately part of the fun is discovering if your chosen route turns into an  ‘Epic’ or a ‘Fail’, and good route planning will never totally remove the unexpected element of the ride. It is also worth bearing in mind that this also applies if you are downloading someone else’s route, and in many cases this increases the unexpected element.

I have linked 3 of my favourite rides around Bourg Saint Maurice to this post.  A much more extensive account of the ride-worthy gravel roads and tracks across the Alps is documented in a blog called  I am in awe!

Here are a few not-so-obvious advantages to adding a couple of adventure road rides to your next Alpine biking holiday.

  • The number of linked tarmac roads in the European Alps are limited, and can be busy and narrow. The inclusion of short stretches of gravel tracks or un-surfaced roads into your ride significantly increases the number of rides you can do in an area.
  • Many valleys can be linked by including small stretches of un-surfaced road which cross a line of mountains at their lowest point (a col), so the col section maybe a short stretch of gravel track allowing you to link valleys and put a ‘loop’ ride together, rather than a ‘there and back’ ride, which gives you less of a sense of journey.
  • Doing more rides from one location has economic and logistical advantages.
  • If you are into ‘balcony rides’  the use of un-surfaced sections can often lengthen ‘the balcony’. The best example of this is Les Arc long, or for a great fully tarmac balcony ride The Village & Versant Loop. ( ‘balcony’ roads contour along a valley at a certain height above the valley floor, offering great views for as long as they last)

Rides around Bourg Saint Maurice.

Here are details of three of the best rides I put together during my stay.  For the super-fit they may constitute a half-day ride, for others a full day out, and for the armchair travelers there is always the blog diary to read.

autumnpourri2-smallThe Roselend Epic. If you only get the chance to ride one adventure road-ride around Bourg Saint Maurice, make it the Roselend Epic.  This ride is a great example of how including a short section of off-road, results in an epic loop ride.  The ride up Cormet d’Areches is an extremely small and remote tarmac road up a beautiful valley and you get to descend the famously stunning Cormet de Roselend.  Enroute, you pass the massive dam of Lac de Guerin, ascend Col de Pre and pass Lac de Roselend before your final descent back into Bourg Saint Maurice.  It includes 5 km of gravel track over the top of Cormet D’Areches, of which the last 2 km is a tough descent.  A small amount of pain for bags of pleasure!

Length: 86km, Total Ascent: 2800 m, Off-road section: 5 km.  Click here for the blog post and the GPS link

bike_med-1-253-x-168Les Arc and La Plagne. This is a great example of a balcony ride, that manages to avoid the big ski-resort roads.  The off-road section above La Planay on the ascent is a breeze (apart from the first km!) and the descent from Villaroger to Landry will put a grin on your face. After the ascent, the ride keeps you above 1500m for about 17 km, which is a fair achievement for any alpine road.  It also gives you the chance to ascend to over 2000 m and visit the ghostly resort of Les Arc 2000.

There is a partially reccied extension of this route which takes you above La Plagne and down into Macot La Plagne.  Work to be done!

Length: 58 km, Total Ascent 1663 m, Off-road section: 16 km.  Click here for the blog post and the GPS link.


zigzag_med-1Col du Petit St Bernard. This ride was born out of a rather uninspiring road ascent of this col, and whilst I was being uninspired I noticed a track across the valley that I thought looked rideable, so for my second ascent I chose the track and descended down the road.  The track ascent is tough but more fun that the road (in mho!) and lends the col an added challenge and a loop ride rather than a ‘there and back’ ride.  Don’t forget to go to the Patisserie in Seez for your days treats!

Length: 66 km Total Ascent: 1559m Off-road section: 8 km.  Click here for the blog post and the GPS link.

To read the diary blogs for my stays in the Alps click here for the June and Autumn trips.

How to get there: 

Bourg St Maurice is a 2 to 3 hour drive (traffic dependent) from either Lyon or Geneva Airport, both serviced by cheap Easyjet flights from the UK.

It is possible to get the train from Lyon to Bourg Saint Maurice.  There are a couple of trains a day that are direct.  The tram-link from Lyon airport to the main railway station is all step-free, but lugging your packed bike bag up 2 steep steps onto a SNCF train will probably require 2 people.  If you want to relive my journey check out South London to Landry.

If you live in London, pick up your bike bag from home and meet you at the airport with it to save you the inconvenience.  They also do the return from Airport to Home.  Currently they service Gatwick, Heathrow and City Airports.

Where to stay:

There are loads of places in and around Bourg St Maurice.  Bear in mind that if you stay somewhere higher up in the valley, you always have to end your ride with an uphill!  Having cycled through the ski resorts of Les Arcs and La Plagne, if somebody was offering accommodation, I wouldn’t want to stay there anyway!

I stayed in which caters for self-guided cycling groups.  It is situated in a small village 3 km from Bourg. It has a garage kitted out for bike storage, great food and a fridge full of cold beers for a post ride bevvy!

Route Planning

Paper maps used: Institut Geographique National (IGN) Carte de Randonnee. Scale 1:25,000

  • 3532 ET Les Arcs, La Plagne
  • 3532 OT Massif du Beafortain
  • For the online version of these maps click here.

Digital Maps used:

Other websites:

  • For weather forecast I found to be the most reliable.
  • For train information: the SNCF website even gives you details of the CO2 emissions (Lyon to Bourg St Maurice is 4.6 kg)!
  • Cycling Challenges website:  No route planning in the European Alps is complete without checking this comprehensive blog.

2 Comments on “Adventure Road-Biking

  1. Pingback: A Pilgrims Tale – A ride less ordinary

  2. Pingback: Who needs an Adventure Road Bike? Me! – A ride less ordinary

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