Mad Descents & Lunar Landscapes: Incredible Shots from One of Europe’s Best MTB Destinations
As home to the Megavalanche, it’s one of the continent's best-known MTB destinations. But is Alpe d’Huez all it’s cracked up to be?
Our destination, Alpe d'Huez. A small town sat in alpine high pastures and famous for two wild races, the Tour De France and the Megavalanche.
One is fought out on the infamous 21 hair-pinned climb from the valley to the town, on which Chris Froome recently held on to Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador to secure his 2nd Tour title.
And the other from the top of the Pic Blanc at 3,300m down a glacier, navigating the entire mountain and finishing in Allemont more than 2,500 metres below.
Our battle ground for this trip is vast. It's not just Alpe d'Huez but 5 other villages, Oz en Oisans, Auris en Oisans, Vaujany, Villard Reculas and Allemont that make up the "grand domaine", one of the largest mountain bike parks in the world.
Over 280km of trail and endless possibilities means there is only one way to get the most out of your visit to this melée of mountain madness. You need a guide!
Charlie Garcin started the Mountain Bike school in Alpe d'Huez with his pal Eric 15 years ago after they both finished their ski school training. He has been guiding, coaching and exploring the grande domaine ever since and knows the mountain arguably better than anyone else.
He has not lost a drop of his passion for riding or the place he lives in all those years and his love for the mountain is infectious.
After you have finished this article and are booking your trip, you'll want to find Charlie at the bike school and let him unlock the world of trails that cover the mountain.
Our three man band of merry men have all been travelling the world with their bikes for many a year and know a thing or two about what makes a destination worth visiting.
Mick Kirkman affectionately known as Sik Michael, has raced the Megavalanche more times than he cares to remember. This is the face he used to describe the infamous mass start...
Andrew Dodd, Doddy to his friends, is another veteran of the bike world and in over a decade of riding his bike all over the world has never been to Alpe d'Huez. This is his really really really excited face.
Finally the author, a mild mannered, exceptionally professional journalist who will leave no stone unturned in the search for his lost bottle opener.
Many a country and many a bike park have been visited in his time but never Alpe d'Huez and so without further ado, the riding...
The top of the Megavalanche qualifying track is know as La Lune, The Moon.
The fields of orange and red rock make you feel like you are riding on another planet. Small rock cairns cover the undulating terrain and mark competitor's line choices for qualifying.
It's a world of jagged rocks and unforgiving terrain up in the high alpine.
We all felt rather exposed in our t-shirts, so we let Charlie and his body armour do all the guinea pigging.
Mile upon mile of 'fun lumps', the possibilities for both summer and winter are endless.
From the top of the mountain Mont Blanc looks over The Alps, the low morning sun cutting lines through the valleys.
It is a peaceful view before you ease off the brakes and set off down a black ski run, patched with snow that gives way to boulder fields.
Imagine 150 Megavalanche riders lined up at this point, insane techno blasting out of head high speakers, the tape drops and its on. We couldn't either. I think you just have to be there.
Only 1,999 metres of descent to go... Only the French could come up with something so gnarly.
The "Mega" has been a bucket list item for a large portion of the UK mountain biking community for over a decade and it's not going anywhere anytime soon - it will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
Mick and Doddy exhibiting two of the myriad of techniques to riding on warm, rut-ridden snow.
The Mega track is long. Your hands will bleed, your arms will lock up, your eyes will hurt and your feet will go numb. It's f**king great.
Doddy is seen here halfway to a cold beer.
The heat wave that gripped most of France while we were in Alpe d'Huez meant that unless you were first you were quite literally eating dust.
The aforementioned heat wave did mean some insane photo opportunities in the forest.
We hit this corner about 15 times before we were all coughing harder than an emphysemic dinner lady.
There's nothing like riding a trail at full speed when all you can see is smoke like dust. "Just look up and don't hit any trees..."
You have been descending for around 25 minutes by this point in the race and the trees are blurring in the corners of your vision and all you can do is smile at the madness of it.
The day is only half done and we feel like an ice bath and a sleep is in order.
We drink a cool, refreshing pop before returning to the hill and exploring the lesser known trails between Oz en Oisans and Allemont.
There's nothing like riding in the big mountains. Everywhere you look there's a possible line or potential trail. Charlie points out a few of his old favourites.
Mick unleashing his inner BMXer on this fun little side hit. Almost all the trails in the grand domaine have a real natural feel and flow without the aid of huge build up berms and jumps.
It's a choose your own adventure style of place and we like that, a lot.
The best thing about having a guide who not only rips but knows the vast expanse of mountain like the back of his hand is you get to hit all the secret local trails, sneaker short cuts and stupid straight lines.
This particular one ended in a bike buckling compression that nearly broke me in half. The lads learnt from my over-jazzedness and took it a little easier!
This hiker was not fussed that he was wandering right down the middle of an exceptionally high speed section of trail.
He had his two baguettes and his litre of wine and consequences be damned he was going to go find a nice place to enjoy them.
Celine from Alpe d'Huez tourism kindly organised a plane trip around the mountain so we could view all we'd ridden from the air.
The beautifully blue and clear morning was only marred by the fact that the run way was about 500m long, on a hill, and ended in a cliff. No second tries allowed.
On finding out we were mountain bikers the pilot delighted in pulling some solid G turns about 100m off the deck which left us all laughing and then, quite quickly after, feeling a bit sick.
Back on terra firma and still feeling a bit rattled we took up the trail again in search of fresh dust, rock and loam.
The alpine made for some more rock smashing good times. Proof that all that panicking about carbon bikes and rocks was just poppycock.
Just point 'er down the fall line and give it the berries.
This corner on the way to Villard Reculas from the saddle above Alpe d'Huez is the best corner in the resort.
Now I have told you where to find it - so go on and enjoy.
As the sun set on our Alpe d'Huez adventure we camped out at the top for some golden hour bangers to take home with us.
Mick shoots Doddy riding a ridge-line into the sunset.
And quite the sunset it was setting the parched grass alight with warm mid summer light. A great end to a perfect two days of new trails, good mates and a whole lot of riding.
If you are looking for a destination that offers far more than just a bike park then Alpe d'Huez has got to be high on your list. All day epic trails, loam, rock, roots, steeps, flow, lakes, alpine food, the grand domaine has it all.
After such a long journey one can work up quite a thirst.
Thanks to Alpe d'Huez grand domaine, Oz en Oisans, Vaujany, Villard Reculas, Auris en Oisans and Allemont for the amazing hospitality, Charlie Garcin at Alpe d'Huez VTT for being such a brilliant guide and VIP Chalets for putting us up in style.