If you have a copy of the excellent ‘VTT en Oisans’ mountain bike guide (available here or in the Tourist Information offices in Bourg d’Oisans and the surrounding towns) you’ll see that it is already translated into English, complete with a British sense of understatement. However, you may be wondering what to make of the ride ratings – for example, how difficult is a three star ‘technique’ run – as well as some of the comments that accompany the routes such as, “so long as you have the skills, it will be alright!”, “you are now getting to the serious part” and “a magnificent single track with sharp ‘made in Oisans’ switchbacks”.
This is my attempt to translate this into something that is a little easier to compare and understand. Taking the last of the quotations first, I can confirm that there is something unique enough to be called an Oisans switchback. This is hairpin bend, often linked with many others of its kind, which is so sharp or steep (or both at the same time) that you can’t turn round it in the space available. They are usually in steep beech forest so there is a thick bed of leaves as well as occasional roots and rocks.
It took me a while to figure out a technique to deal with them. This was to cut the corner with my front wheel and then slide my back wheel round the bend. That said, I’m not an expert and there may be other methods. These bends appear on the trials that have not been manufactured for biking and which are basically narrow walking paths… note that these trails are completely different in character to the manufactured downhill trails in the bike parks of Alpe d’Huez and Les Deux Alpes.
I’ve tried to shed more light on the trails by grading them with some additional criteria to the technique and endurance ratings in the guide. I haven’t repeated the descriptions or the route stats but if there was anything that I found confusing in the guide I’ve added clarification.
The ratings are of course just my opinion but in terms of my riding ability, I’m good technically but not the best or fastest, and I lack the skills to do anything but the most feeble of jumps. I was riding a Scott Spark full-suspension 29’er XC bike with 100mm of travel and a dropper post. Finally this trip was relatively early season in a very hot week in late June; the 2019 ‘canicule’ week where temperature records were broken across France.
As a benchmark for my grading system, here’s my assessment of some of the Les Deux Alpes downhill runs that I also rode on this trip.
Les Deux Alpes “666” and “Venosc”
Both these are red downhill runs. It’s not a fair comparison with ‘VTT en Oisans’ trails because the challenges are very different but it is useful benchmark nonetheless.
Sharp hairpins: 0/5
Other technical challenges: 4/5 (there are some sizeable drops on 666 and many gap jumps on both these trails although all with easier B-lines… luckily for me!)
Commitment: 2/5 (on the Venosc trial the only way onwards is down… however, I’ve given this as a 2/5 because there are usually many people riding it so if one were to have an accident help should arrive quite quickly… whereas I didn’t see any bikers or people on nearly all the trails below)
Climbing fitness required: 0/5
Natural beauty: 3/5
I rode some of these trails with a friend Mark who was in Les Deux Alpes on a ski racing course. Mark had managed to wear through his brake blocks that day and had to rent a bike… hence the full downhill look.
The rest of the runs are listed in the order I rode them. There was rain the day we arrived and then hot weather so I think they generally became less slippery.
Le Chemin de Malaine
I found this challenging. Partly because the bends were slippery in places but also because it was my first encounter with the ‘Made in Oisans’ switchbacks, of which there are 84. As you may have guessed this is where the “if you have the skills, it will be alright” quote comes from. Oulles itself is a beautifully situated hamlet with only 7 permanent inhabitants though in the mid-19th century it had around 300, mainly miners who were exploiting local seams of lead. There is a water fountain in the village and also a buvette (which wasn’t open when I went there).
Sharp hairpins: 5/5
Other technical challenges: 1/5 (but the bends are enough to keep you focused)
Commitment: 4/5 (you can walk the most difficult bends but there is no way out other than walking back up to the top once you start the trail)
Climbing fitness required: 4/5 if you ride up to Oulles (the road climbs 600m over 6km)
Natural beauty: 4/5
Just about to drop into the forest having ridden over from Oulles (in the background).
I’d ridden this the previous year and this time it felt much easier. Just follow signs for EN 3 and then EN 4, both Alpe d’Huez red enduro trails. Note that EN 4 takes you off the ‘guidebook’ route once you reach the road at the bottom, but the fun bit of the descent is what comes before. Aside from one slippery hairpin in EN 4 (right where the guide say, “you are now getting to serious part”) I rode it all without any problems. Quite a work-out for the braking fingers.
Sharp hairpins: 3/5
Other technical challenges: 2/5
Commitment: 3/5 (it’s easy to walk the trickiest bits, but it would take a long time to walk down the top section until you hit the gravel road to Oz)
Climbing fitness required: 5/5 if you ride up to the start which is above Alpe d’Huez
Natural beauty: 3/5
I didn’t take any photos of the descent but wanted to post this one as there is a restaurant at Lac Besson (the Chalet du Lac Besson) which is located above the start of the descent and serves an amazing lunch. Lillian and I had climbed the Col de Sarenne that morning so felt we’d earned it.
La Boucle du Rivier d’Allemont
A beautiful ride, particularly as I have ridden up the valley on the way up the Col du Glandon many times without realising what I was missing out on. The first section up to Le Rivier is not technical at all but it worth doing as it is hard to believe there is a road above as you follow the track up the banks of the Eau-d’Olle river. Once you reach the main road in Le Rivier the guide is quite confusing. Turn left and ride almost to the end of the village before taking a narrow tarmac road on the right, sign-posted as a walking path to Allemont. The push referred to in the guide is hard work and takes around 10-15 minutes but is worth it as the reward is an enjoyable switchback descent.
Sharp hairpins: 3/5
Other technical challenges: 3/5 (the traverse through the forest is rocky and rooty in places)
Commitment: 3/5 (the descent is not that long but it’s quite remote and isolated in the forest)
Climbing fitness required: 3/5
Natural beauty: 5/5
The rivers were very full including this one I cross on the ride up the bank of the Eau-d’Olle. With the current it was actually quite hard to ride across.
After Le Rivier you need to follow the yellow walking sign to Allemont.
The ruined chalets at Le Gay are just before the big push up and were surrounded by flower-filled meadows.
The next bridge was incredibly slippery and I could hardly walk across it.
La Forêt de l’Ours
This was my first black run (EN 6 on the Alpe d’Huex trail map) and four star technique run in the guide. It did not feel harder than Le Chemin de Malaine but it’s an impressive descent and looking back afterwards it’s hard to imagine that a trail can descent such a steep section of forest.
Sharp hairpins: 4/5
Other technical challenges: 3/5
Commitment: 5/5 (the trail is sustained in difficulty and once you are in the forest it’s a long way to walk out)
Climbing fitness required: 3/5 (if you ride up to the start in Villard-Reculas)
Natural beauty: 4/5
At the start of the trail in the car park in Villard-Reculas.
100m or so down the trail is a memorial to some members of the French Resistance who had taken shelter in the Forêt de l’Ours in WW2 and were killed or injured when they ran out of water and returned to Villard-Reculas.
This was a revelation to me as for the last few years we have stayed in Allemont and I have never been up the roads above the village. There were good views across the valley to the forest containing Le Boulangeard and the road to Villard-Reculas. The Chalets de Coteyssard are not at all obvious. I rode by and over another kilometre up the track before I realised I had definitely gone too far. The most technical part of the descent is the section between the road at the bottom and the Lac du Verney though it’s easy to walk the hard bits.
Sharp hairpins: 4/5
Other technical challenges: 3/5 (only 2/5 until the bit below the road, although I also had the clamber over a fallen tree which was tricky… but which probably will be gone in a few weeks)
Climbing fitness required: 3/5
Natural beauty: 4/5 (the views across the valley are nice and as is the forest)
This is where the trail leaves the gravel road. There is a chalet down to the right but it’s not obvious.
La Combe du Bras
This descent is listed in the guide with the Forêt de l’Ours (called “La Forêt de l’Ours par La Combe du Bras”) but as they are linked by the Pas de la Confession road they easy to ride separately. The route I did was a fantastic descent being challenging but not too technical, and with magnificent views over the Bourg d’Oisans valley.
I found the guide description of how to get to the start unclear and as a consequence did an extra 120m of excellent single-track… so it worked out well! I followed XC 8 and XC 9 from the top of Alpe d’Huez on a single-track trail traversing leftwards up to the grassy ridge of the skyline. At the point where they continued around the hill and EN 5 starts (which is where the featured image for this post was taken) I followed a trail south along the ridge to a telecommunications tower. At the tower (marked as being at 1972m on the local IGN map) I picked up a path that soon descended left into the pine forest. After some linked hairpins, I came to junction where I took a left (following a sign for the Combe du Bras) and soon afterwards a right. This is the point where I think the Combe du Bras trail described in the guidebook starts. The way to access it would have been to take a lower trail traversing in from Alpe d’Huez. However I think my variation, just through good luck, was a better alternative and would recommend it.
Sharp hairpins: 4/5 (they felt okay though it they had been wet and slippery it would have been a different story)
Other technical challenges: 3/5 (as the guide says the trail becomes quite rocky towards the bottom)
Commitment: 2/5 (there are ways to bail out and it is not far to walk down or back up)
Climbing fitness required: 5/5 (if climbing from the valley up to Alpe d’Huez)
Natural beauty: 5/5 (stunning views and although you’re not far from Alpe d’Huez it feels like a different world)
At the end of the ridge (Point 1972m on the map) and about to start the descent. You can see the trail curving down into the forest on the right.
Le Chemin du Facteur
A stunning line through the cliffs and forest beside Bourg d’Oisans. The description in the guide is good but at the point where it says that the trail splits, with VTTistes heading straight and walkers heading right, there is indeed a VTT sign pointing straight on. However, the trail has not been ridden much, if at all, recently. I had to cross or go under about 20 fallen trees and when I rejoined the walking trail it was obvious that everyone now rode down this. However, the good news was that I didn’t miss the best section of the trail as there were plenty more bends to come. Mindful of the fact that there was a cliff to the right (although far enough below the trail that you can’t really see it) I walked round 3 or 4 of the more tricky left-handers. But although airy in places and rated at ‘four star’ technique, the trail is not especially scary. It’s just fun.
Sharp hairpins: 5/5 (these were in pine forest and were made more difficult by a drop if you made a mistake and rocks and drops in the bends)
Other technical challenges: 3/5 (quite rocky in places)
Commitment: 5/5 (no way but down or back up to the top once you start)
Climbing fitness required: 5/5 (if climbing up the road to Villard-Reymond)
Natural beauty: 5/5 (the road to Villard-Reymond is worth riding in itself, and from the top of the trail there is an excellent view across the valley to Alpe d’Huez)
An early morning start from Allemont for the road climb up to Villard-Reymond. The Chemin du Facteur descends the forest almost exactly where the pylon is in this photo.
An exciting traverse about two-thirds of the way down the trail.
Looking down to Bourg d’Oisans from near the bottom of the descent… in case you’re wondering there’s a cliff directly ahead; the path continues on the right.
La Descente du Col du Sabot
The final descent of the trip was with Mark on the Col du Sabot. Although a red in the guide this was rated as two-star technique so we were hoping for a more mellow outing. This was the case with trail being rocky in places but not too technical, apart from the “fine series of switchbacks” mentioned in the guide. At Vaujany, Mark continued down the blue EN 8 trail to the Lac du Verney whereas I rode back up the Col du Sabot to collect my car.
Sharp hairpins: 1/5 (there was one sharp hairpin in the series of switchbacks but these were so nice I rode them again on my way back up the col)
Other technical challenges: 2/5 (in places the rocks were hidden by grass so you had to stay vigilant plus there were some steep sections)
Commitment: 0/5 (or 5/5 if it’s your car at the top)
Climbing fitness required: 5/5 (the climb from Vaujany is 800m of vertical and on a hot day – it was 33 degrees when I left Vaujany – it’s hard work)
Natural beauty: 4/5 (there is a fine view over the far side of the Col du Sabot and the trail felt like a nature tour through high pastures and meadows)
Not far from where the switchbacks start.
Stream crossing just below the switchbacks.
Other than a car who passed me these where my only company on ride back up the col.
About 200m past the Col du Sabot looking towards the Col du Glandon.
I hope this is useful to anyone riding these trails. If you have any thoughts on my ratings please feel free to leave a comment.