Peering down, all I can see is a rock-lined void; a near-vertical chimney of boulders and crumpled slabs each sheathed in smooth, polished, clear ice—as if the stream had been frozen the instant it tumbled over these rocks. At my feet is a hundred vertical feet of rifled ice: a frictionless gun barrel with the hammer cocked. I have just the grip of my cleated bike shoes to stop me from becoming the bullet. My toes curl and burrow into my shoes’ footbeds, longing for grip, searching for security.
Fuck, I wish I had crampons.
It wasn’t meant to be like this. The plan had been to ride trails awash with dust, not teeter on the edge of survival; crampons had never been on the kit list — because, uh, this was a bike ride. But you take what comes. You dig deep, and breathe even deeper. Passing bikes across the ice-reamed voids that begin to stack against our slow progress, I mull the name of the pass ahead. “What’s in a name?” I wonder. Words carry resonance, but right now this one couldn’t be more inappropriate. ‘Couard’ it’s called —French for ‘coward.’ How on earth did this pass get called Coward’s Pass? I ask, gloved hands crimping a death grip into my bike’s toptube. I dig deep, and breathe. Contain it, I told myself, now is not the time for losing control.
I remember seeing a saying 15 years ago: “Bravery is not that your heart should not quake, but when it does, nobody should know.” I saw it neatly painted in colorful, foot-high letters on the wall of a Pakistani Army barracks, while waiting for a heli uplift to our snow camp for an ambitious snowboard trip. It’s a weird take on bravery, but I get it. Posted to a remote territory immersed in warring tribally controlled lands and nestled against a disputed length of the Pakistan-China border, this was a morale-boosting piece of prose for the sentries of state ambitions. But I’m not sure I agree with its sentiment. I’m more of A Problem Aired is a Problem Shared kind of guy; a strength in unity sort of thing. But it’s hard to share a problem calmly if it’s screaming inside, hard to avoid hysteria when you just want to shout and curse. But here on an exposed cliff face in 10-degree Fahrenheit temperatures, this isn’t the place for hysteria. It takes us nearly an hour to navigate along a mile of precipitous, ice-strewn singletrack, and four more of crunching over drift after drift of hard, week-old snow to climb to our day’s 9,020-foot high point. When we reach it we will have a full 6,600 feet of descent waiting. But oh, how it waits.
How on earth did this pass get called Coward’s Pass? I ask, gloved hands crimping a death grip into my bike’s toptube. I dig deep, and breathe. Contain it, I told myself, now is not the time for losing control.
Adventures are good at throwing you curveballs. In fact, curveballs in the form of unknowns are what defines the very act of adventure—along with a willingness to embrace them. The fact that we are pushing and carrying bikes across the shoulder of one of France’s best known riding destinations—Alpe d’Huez, home of the legendary Megavalanche race—shouldn’t subtract from the depth of the unknowns that are slamming us. It’s November, two months after the closure of Alpe d’Huez’ bike-friendly chairlifts, and a month later than we’d hoped to explore this trail; and our decision to still undertake this challenge now is leaving a legacy of chancing our luck.
The unknowns we face are just part of the contract should you try to hack into the Mega’s infamous bike trails from adjacent alpine-road passes after the first of winter’s snows. But here I am, along with French rider Fred Horny and ex-pat Brit Kieran Page, gambling it all on the chance to roll empty alpine trails that have seen barely a sniff of bike tires all year thanks to the pandemic. Usually, Alpe d’Huez’ short summer is a frantic bike-centric calendar that culminates in the legendary Mega race: a frenetic event that lures some 2,000 hopefuls, most of whom have come to see it as a rite of passage. Some have their hopes pinned on gold —others on merely surviving its 15-mile, 8,ooo-vertical-feet of abuse.
In contrast to the Mega’s summer hordes, our own early winter event has just three participants and is played out on a stage constructed from solitude. We have no ambitions of race wins or to retrace the Mega track from its start point perched 10,902 feet on the glacier-jeweled Pic du lac Blanc, but our plan has some overlap with the Mega, and it takes the form of luck. If I’m brutally honest, our whole ‘alternative Mega’ plan is a gamble; a suck-it-and-see adventure framed by hope, but one that’s success will be shaped by luck—a trait that has played a big part of finishing, or indeed surviving any of the Megavalanche’s 25 annual races.
I’ve photographed the carnage of the mass-start Mega enough times to know that one of its number boards is unlikely to ever grace my handlebars. A tangle of full-face helmets halo’d by adrenaline, sliding and tomahawking down a glacier toward a bottleneck sea of boulders is not my idea of fun or glory. But I’ve also ridden Alpe d’Huez’ bike park enough times to know the trails there hit a unique sweet spot positioned somewhere between the flow of manicured tracks and the instant reactions demanded by natural terrain. I also knew that, this being the French Alps, venturing a little further from the resort’s manicured tracks would reward curiosity with miles of natural singletrack, an untapped goldmine—the other side of Alpe d’Huez. All I had to do now was to connect the two, and embrace the unknowns that lie in waiting.
Two days earlier we’d met up on the Col de Sarenne road pass to the east of Alpe d’Huez, where we’d vehicle camp overnight to gain us an early jump on the first of our two-day adventure. It’s a tranquil spot, part due to the pandemic-inferred limitations on human movements and part because of our off-season time frame. We pedal away the next morning between frosted spikes of golden grass and frozen puddles, tracing a ribbon of backcountry singletrack up to a ridgeline.
Peaks stretch out before us—a churning sea of white horses, whipped into icy pinnacles by the winds of both geology and time—the plunging troughs between them so steep and deep they are devoured by stubborn shadows. Somewhere lost in the first dark valley is today’s destination, Bourg d’Oisans, over 5,000 feet below us.
After the rude awakening of early morning coffees brewed on a subzero parking lot, that first day soon slips into a torrent of smiles and laughter as the trail relinquishes its rewards. We flow along the ridge and across a vast silent, mountainside tinged with orange hues, before drifting our way through a skeletal forest on a trail deeply carpeted with autumn leaves. It’s easy riding and we gorge ourselves on its low-hanging fruit, pulling up at our valley accommodation hours later still licking our lips from the smorgasbord of rewards now behind us. But it’s a diet that slips us into a post-binge coma of complacency.
Peaks stretch out before us—a churning sea of white horses, whipped into icy pinnacles by the winds of both geology and time—the plunging troughs between them so steep and deep they are devoured by stubborn shadows.
And now, just 18 hours later, how different our mindset is—faces stretched tight with anxiety, eyes shot with adrenaline. We’d gambled that today’s first trail, leading us up into the resort, would be free of snow, and we rolled the dice again when we pushed on past the sign warning of dangerous exposure.
We’re driven by curiosity and by an itch that was inflicted by weeks of lockdowns and confinements. Like so many that have ridden Alpe d’Huez we have our own goals in mind, and anything that arose between us and them was just a learning experience, a chance to explore personal boundaries. There is bravery here, or stupidity. Or both. But then, this mountain is no stranger to either.
Once out of the danger zone, we drop our bikes onto a safe, snowy hillside to push energy bars into dry mouths. Our route now meanders below the towering Pic de lac Blanc, leading us between a daisy chain of lakes, each one progressively more frozen, until the last and highest is barely discernible beneath the snow. We push onward, following the prints of an Ibex, aware that we are mere day-trippers in his domain. At 8,500 feet, we pause to rest on the shore of Lac de la Fare and slump at the foundations of an old stone hut, the Abri Rajon bivouac. The jumbled boulders that surround us are silent, the air around us clear and calm, but it hasn’t always been. Seventy-six years earlier, these same boulders provided refuge for resistance fighters who, along with a U.S. bomber crew shot down on their return from a raid over nearby Italy, enacted an ambitious evacuation of injured allies. Pinned down among these rocks for days by German gunfire, this tiny stone hut and the surrounding bleak, unforgiving moonscape leant physical form to the definition of bravery.
Today there is no gunfire, no noise, just the squeaks of Alpine choughs as they soar overhead in a clear, blue November sky; it’s hard to imagine such a harsh episode in human history playing out in this most serene environment. I try to imagine what these same brave souls would make of our own antics, venturing into unknowns and chancing a sketchy, snow-covered trail in search of simple rewards free of politics and burden. And when we reach our high point an hour later and peer down into the gaping mouth of the vast descent we’ve earned, I smile and try to imagine the fears and courage that will flicker across the faces of those lining up on the start line of the next Megavalanche—whenever that may be. I know that face. For a few moments I ponder the thousands of people that usually ride this mountain and the myriad paths that each of our lives has taken to get here, and those paths that are still to be taken; the deviations, the U-turns, the pushing through adversity towards diversity; hard won rewards that define existence.
I know that at every junction, every change in direction of every existence, there is another metaphorical pass to cross. I can’t pretend to even know all these passes in my own life, but I know one. It sits on a French mountain that’s long been a home to courage and bravery. It’s called the Couard. It is perhaps the most inappropriately named pass I have ever crossed.
Words and Photos: Dan Milner
How, When and Where
Alpe d’Huez’ Bike Park is open from start of July to early September, and offers 160 miles of trails including the Megavalanche tracks. A 1-day lift pass is $22 . See www.alpedhuez.com. The Megavalanche race is held at the end of July. Other backcountry trails including those around the Col du Sabot and Col de Sarenne are typically accessible from late June to late October. The Lac Blanc to Col du Sabot trail is best ridden as a descent from the bike park, but even without snow, it’s narrow and very exposed. From the Col du Sabot you can descend on another trail to Vaujany. We used local transfer company www.alp-venture.com to shuttle to the passes. They also offer airport transfers. We stayed at the beautifully renovated old school house run by www.cyclingascents.com which offers self-catering from $20 and B&B accommodation from $80.