Bike Touring in the Alps
Until 24 months ago, the idea of bike touring, or bikepacking as it’s called now, was foreign to me. I was a roadie, a bike racer. A tiny saddle bag is all I had, and I would carry food, a wind breaker and my phone in my jersey pockets. No more. Ever.
Then I lost my job and suddenly had the time to think – and do – big things. Pushed by a friend, I chose to do the 2015 Transcontinental Race, an unsupported race from Belgium to Turkey. 4400km across a continent. It was a revelation: crossing borders, meeting people, finding my route across new territories. On a bike. The TCR changed my life, for the better.
Now I have a new job, and a wonderful baby boy. I won’t go on a big adventure for a while, and that’s fine. But I can still go bike touring and live meaningful experiences, just not for 16 days straight.
The Alps are a great playground for short bikepacking trips, like the 400 km Tour du Mont Blanc I did from our home in Gryon as a preparation for the Transcontinental Race. I rode it in two big days, but it can certainly be done in three days – or more. As you wish, this is Europe!
Until recently, bikepacking meant carrying a lot of stuff in big panniers, and riding slowly burdened down by the fact that you were more of a freight train than a sports car. These days, bags are extra light and small. I used Apidura products for the Transcontinental Race and was extremely happy with them. A saddle pack, a frame pack and a top tube bag were enough to carry all my gear. No more heavy panniers, which is good: I am a roadie and I like to go fast. And ultimately, everyone can benefit from being lighter.
For navigation, I use a Garmin Edge 1000. The big screen allows me to view my route on a map and I (almost) never get lost. Because this device uses a lot of power, I carry a battery pack to recharge it on long days. I can do it from the bike: just plug the cable to the Garmin unit, and keep the battery pack in the top tube bag, which I find is the handiest piece of equipment on a bike tour. It’s also handy for my smartphone and my camera. Finally, I carry a real camera – a Sony RX 100, which takes high quality pictures with minimal weight and size.
Ultralight Bike Touring Gear List
- Arm warmers, leg warmers, overshoes, a winter hat, long gloves. It can get cold and wet in the mountains, even in the middle of summer. Welcome to the Alps.
- Gore Tex rain jacket. I wear it on long downhills and in case of rain. I don’t bring a wind breaker or a gilet – the idea is to minimize the number of items you carry and use them for several purposes if possible.
- Small repair kit (tube, tire levers, a pump, a multitool). There are many bike shops in the Alps so you will be able to get your bike repaired quickly if you have a major mechanical incident.
- Simple set of clothes to wear off the bike. I take light hiking pants and a running T-shirt. I wear my gore tex rain jacket if it rains or it is cold.
- Charger and cable for electronic devices.
- SD card reader to transfer pictures from camera to smartphone. I love to share my adventures on social media.
- Mini bike lock.
- Credit card, money and passport.
- Dry bags to organize and keep gear dry.
That’s it! I did not mention shoes. That’s because I use mountain bike shoes and pedals. This allows me to walk around during the day when I stop for a rest, and I also wear these shoes once I have reached my destination for the day. Yes, walking in mountain bike shoes in a town might sound weird and I get the occasional look. But a second pair of shoes is heavy, and I don’t spend much time off the bike when I am touring. Eat, ride, eat, sleep. Repeat. That’s what I love. But if you don’t want to look like a bike bum, you can pack a light pair of runners, or flip flops.
For lodging, camping is an option and you can carry a small tent, an inflatable mat and a light sleeping bag. These things are insanely compact these days and will fit in your bags. I’m a hotel guy, so I only need to carry a credit card. I used to book my hotels in advance with booking.com or via bike friendly hotel networks such as the Swiss Bike Hotels. Now I often just ride to the town I want to stay in and ask around for suggestions. Local knowledge is often better than online reviews, and can lead to great discoveries. The other advantage of staying in a hotel is that I can do laundry in the bathroom sink every night so that I don’t need to carry a spare cycling kit.
I do not bring energy bars, gels and powder. I much rather prefer to sample local specialties, which often turn out to be great – and natural – energy food. When in Graubünden (Eastern Switzerland), try the Bündner Nusstorte: a tasty caramelized nut-filled pastry which comes in handy pocket size format. I once tried to carry a Reblochon cheese in France but the experience was less successful.
As for the bike, I ride a Scott Solace, a normal road bike with a relaxed geometry. The beauty of ultralight bike touring is that you can attach your bags to a carbon frame; there’s no need for any special equipment. I have a Shimano Ultegra groupset, which allows me to have a 34×32. Much appreciated when you ride multiple passes in one day. I even use it on my regular, bagless training rides so that I can spin up 10%+ slopes. Try it and you’ll never go back…
I can’t wait for my next bikepacking micro-adventure. It will be in Switzerland, and will involve a train trip. The incredibly efficient Swiss train system allows you to get almost anywhere, with your bike. A great way to travel a little bit further, and discover more. Stay tuned…
By Alain Rumpf
To say Alain is a passionate, lifelong cyclist is a huge understatement. He lives cycling. As Chief Cycling Officer for Grand Tours Project, Alain is designing idyllic rides through the Alps which he enthusiastically shares with guests from all over the world. You can follow him on:
Nice post. What kind of tire you used? Can it survive the rocky road in the picture?
It was a 34, not sure which brand. Overall, the wheels and bike were fine except where there bigger stones on the road from washouts.
Great post, great tips and great adventure. I’m going to cycling the Apls from east Italy to Chamonix in France (about 1000 km) next summer. I would like to do it on my road bike (Canyon Endurace) in 4-5 days so I need to be light and fast. I’m looking for the bikepacking bags for the trip. Can you tell me which size is your bike and which size of bags you use? It can helps me pick the correct size for me.
Thanks, it was a fun adventure indeed! My frame was a Scott Solace size L which I think equals to a 56cm. I used the following Apidura products:
– saddle pack (mid-size)
– mountain Frame Pack (medium)
– top Tube Pack (extended)
They were great. Apidura were very helpful; I emailed them with my requirements and my frame dimensions and they recommended the products above which were just what I needed. Don’t hesitate to contact them before you place your order.
Good luck with your adventure – it sounds really cool. Let us know if you need help with the itinerary.
Alan, thx for the tips. I will contact Apidura. About itinerary – I have a plan but if you can recommend some cals I can’t miss I will be thankful and I will try include them to my route.
I would definitely recommend Switzerland. Here’s a piece I wrote on the best climbs in the country: http://grandtoursproject.com/story/the-best-cycling-climbs-in-switzerland . I hope it inspires you!
Thx for the link. I was in Switzerland and I climbed a few cols but you mentioned a few I have not known. Thx a lot! I’m going to climb some of them during the trip.
Do you use dynamo hub at the front and which one?
Didn’t your frame bag bother you to drink water ? This bag leaves less cleareance to take the bottles out of their cage
It was OK with a 500ml bottle. Not ideal but I find it a good compromise to be able to use a frame bag