Gravel races pride themselves on providing unique challenges and one-of-a-kind experiences to cyclists. But while many of the most celebrated events like the Belgian Waffle Ride or Unbound Gravel are found in the United States, the inaugural Gravel Tour du Mont Blanc in France promises to capture the imagination of swarms of gravel riders looking for an ultimate experience.
The organizers of this new event are clear on one thing: the Gravel Tour du Mont Blanc will be the hardest gravel race in the world. And they hope it will soon become legend. Scheduled for September 3 and 4, The Gravel Tour du Mont Blanc will offer three distances to participants: a 75-kilometer entry-level event, a 90-kilometer half-distance event and the 190-kilometer Mythic Event that will include no less than 10,000 meters of climbing, often at pitches hovering around 15%. And in addition, there are nearly 10 kilometers that are simply unrideable, requiring participants to carry their bikes.
Those participating in the main event will start and finish in Mègeve — a historic ski resort and popular start and finish town for bike races like the Critérium du Dauphiné or the Tour de l’Avenir — before looping into Italy and Switzerland under the constant shadow of the Aiguille des Glaciers, the Grandes Jorasses, not to mention the peak of the Mont Blanc itself.
And while the buzz is building, we got a sneak preview with GTMB co-founder Nicolas Roux who was eager to recon some of the trails and climbs around his home in Mègeve.
Roux, a former professional, forged a unique reputation in the French gran fondo scene, winning prestigious events like l’Etape du Tour. But he also holds the road record for riding around this mythic mountain, a 335-kilometer trek that he covered in 11 hours and 10 minutes. And it was here, riding around the Mont Blanc, that he was finally convinced that epic gravel race was indeed possible.
“I did the tour of Mont Blanc on the road,” says Roux. “I did the tour of Mont Blanc by foot. And I have done it on a mountain bike. As a result I just knew there was a perfect opportunity for a gravel event. Coming up with this circuit is the result of years of work.”
On this day, Roux couldn’t wait to ride over some of the final climbs like to the Col de Voze and the Plan de la Croix to check out the evolution of scheduled road work and also to test out his new Assos MILLE GTC gravel kit, as he is also a brand ambassador for the historic Swiss brand, testing the clothing over the thousands of kilometers he logs ever year.
“I’ve done pretty much every discipline,” says Roux. “I spent a long time riding and racing on the road. I’ve done some track racing and a fair amount of mountain biking. But gravel really speaks to me. There is such freedom. We can go for a ride and really have no idea what we are going to do. Are we going to stay on the road ? Are we going to hit a trail? The sky’s the limit. It’s just fantastic!”
While the highest climb of this year’s race will be the Col de la Seign in Italy, topping out at nearly 2,500 meters, Roux insists that these final climbs will make the difference as they will come after nearly 12 hours of racing.
“The Col de Voze is only 1,600 meters, but coming at the end it is going to be really hard,” he says. “It’s really steep, really technical. It’s just going to be unforgiving.”
On this day the Col de Voze was made even more difficult as numerous heavy construction vehicles were making their way up and down the steep pitches of this gravel road, which provide unique access to the Mont Blanc train that skirts over its slopes.
But while Roux had to constantly change his trajectory, he rode fluidly, even over the steepest pitches.
“I just love this climb,” he exclaims. “It is technical but also so beautiful.”
As is often the case around these rugged mountains, the weather changed constantly. And while any view of the Mont Blanc remained hidden, at times, we were quite literally riding in the clouds.
After dropping back down into the valley, we then made our way up the final challenge of the day, le Plan de la Croix.
“It’s only 1,400, but it really is the last climb before descending finally into Mègeve,” says Roux. “It too will be demanding. But can you image what it will feel like to final see Mageve again after more than 12 hours of racing?”
While the first ever Gravel Tour du Mont Blanc is still months away, Roux is clearly consumed by his latest challenge, confident that a new chapter in French cycling history is being written.
“It’s going to be fantastic,” he says. “I am confident that all of the top riders, those that have been doing the Belgian Waffle Ride or Unbound, will be here in September. But this will be unique. The rider that wins will not only have to be very strong, but also have tremendous bike handling skills and really be able to pace themselves over more than 12 hours of racing! I can’t wait!”
Today’s ride also gave Roux a perfect opportunity to test out the new Assos MILLE GTC Gravel kit and particular Kiespanzer bib short and MILLE GTC gravel jersey in its distinctive olive green.
“They have really perfected this line for gravel,” explains Roux. “The chamois is a bit thicker for shock absorption and it really fits perfectly, which is just crucial in the middle of long efforts because gravel by nature requires the cyclists to change position all the time, and you need a chamois that stays in place always.”
In addition, Roux appreciated the numerous pockets that are snugly integrated into the shorts, with a pocket along each thigh as well as others in the back.
“They are really designed intelligently, and with the pockets integrated into the bib shorts, the jersey can fit loosely,” says Roux. “It is so comfortable. I don’t even feel it. But what is really impressive is that it is really breathable and adapts well to the sudden changes in temperatures that you can have when riding around Mont Blanc. You can really tell that Assos took time to really study the unique demands of gravel. Both the jersey and the bibs are just superior in both quality and design.”