Ride Report: Gran Combin

Needless to say, I’ve been dragging my feet on writing this report. Le Blog has come otherwise to a standstill and this post blocking the floodgates. So here it comes, an incomplete sketch as it is.

Lessons Learned:

1. Alpine mountain biking demands total corporeal focus: You must simultaneously hold your bursting lungs inside of your chest, stalwart your legs against collapse, and be sure of your step. Your eyes will be bright in the beaming reflection of all that surrounds you, and, you will be carrying your bike.

2. Alpine mountain biking is subject to the whims of that capricious clime: Be prepared for everything. As this, this is the stuff of myth, expect nothing less. You will discover that your pride is nothing compared to the mountain.

3. Alpine mountain biking is not for the faint of legs, arms, mind, or heart.

…………..Day 1……………….

Fionnay, Switzerland.

Around each switchback on the drive into Fionnay, I prayed like mad for sun. Just around this turn, it will be sunny. Just around this turn the rain will stop. It didn’t.  A quarter of an hour later we found ourselves circled round a wooden table in an empty café, a map splayed out before us. Seven clean faces stared back at me over espressos,  excitement painted with the anxiety of venturing into some deep unknown. Rain, rain. A thunderclap, des tonnere et eclair. Allons y!


I watched the back wheel in front of me roll into the puddle, splash, roll out. I followed, but not closely enough. In an instant my own front wheel vanished before me. In concussive hues I saw myself from above, projected in slow motion. I saw it all: the bike flipping, the mud splashing up, my back and the bike on top of me, submerged five centimeters in mud, and then, darkness.

Can someone pull my bike off me, please?

I was covered in mud and hence jumped in the next alpine lake we came across. It was, predictably, very cold.

Col de Mille

Soon enough it became too steep to ride; the altitude and the rock strewn, treacherously slippery trail did not make it easier. We walked, we climbed, we forded streams and relayed the heavy bike up the mountain. Everything was wet and everything was happening in slow motion.

At the refuge there is woodstove, a woman, and a girl. In the pasture outside a donkey grazes happily; callous to the chaotic weather. As we remount our bikes to descend down the sodden mountainside, I’m left wondering if they rode the donkey up.

Col du Grand Saint Bernard

It is truly a pity to have gone over the Grand St Bernard pass and not to have seen any of it; Once we were forced to abandon the trail and take the road up the on the Swiss side, the rain came in from everywhere. Visibility was at best a couple of meters, and I didn’t even realize I was at the Col until buildings appeared beside us: Shops, restaurants, and the hospice, the fabled hospice! I can imagine it was all very beautiful, but I cannot say for certain.

Once over the Italian border the road curved gently down the mountainside and the sun shone onto undiscovered country. My brain, in its predictably campy fashion, was busy dancing about the Roman Empire. For a moment I managed to forget that everything, everything, is wet; all that matters is the road, the road, the flowing road! And, where, oh where, are the elephants?


Allora, allora. the waitress said. She pressed her hands together, smiled hugely,and took our orders. I’m outed as a vegetarian, but it hardly matters: there’s food I can eat, here it is dry, and the hotel has enormous wool blankets. Heaven.

……………………..Day 2…………………..

We awoke the next day to find the sun, as promised by the Italian Optimists. Oh the first climb was glorious and long, a nameless browngold road winding 14 kilmeters through Italian suburbs with names I cannot remember before spilling out into the mountains. Even from the first kilometer I wanted to go hard. I was in the climbing place, a place I personally have only recently discovered exists within myself: Yes, I now can say, in complete and utter honestly, that I love to climb. And so I climbed.

It wasn’t long before Stefano caught up with me and asked me what I had eaten for breakfast. Muesli, I said. What I did not say was that, really, my pace (admittedly far from blistering) was not sustained by the solely by the muesli. Instead, I was really propelled by some locomotive of imagination, generated by the scenery, by taking off my helmet, and by secretly pretending for the entire climb that I was one of these guys:

Bartali, Coppi. Coppi, Bartali.

Ride the bike!

Frenêtre du Dunand

A near vertical ascent, a climb, the bike across the back. At the pass (2797m) you could look down on the glacier and hear the ice cracking through the millennia.

Downhill, downhill: Across the Swiss border again and into rocks bigger than my fork can handle, a few sections of flow, and a trail hugging the edge of the glacier. We rolled over the tops of waterfalls and through lantern lit caverns. We ended up at a dam at the edge of a slender turquoise lake. Our descent to from there was warm and brief Fionnay, back to the car, a piece of tart at Relais du Grand Saint Bernard, which I didn’t know I needed until I took the first bite, and a ride back to Geneva.

Vive les alpes!


How lucky am I, to have friends who dream up such insanity?!


One Response to “Ride Report: Gran Combin”

  1. the devil you know – e.alia.salim Says:

    […] company even more. She’s an internationally accredited master of the long haul, a lover of ludicrous Alpine death rides and the ultimate good sport. (Like Oliver Sacks and Primo Levi, she’s also a scientist who […]

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