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Le Pilgrimage: Stunning gravel in the Alps

After a short call with Simon Rosmolen in early August, we could not be more excited to take part in the inaugural edition of Le Pilgrimage on September 14-20th. Alongside Cyril Chermin and Aaron Griffiths, they had designed a set of three self-supported gravel routes of increasing beauty and difficulty in the French Alps, and they were ready to welcome a small group of riders looking for an end-of-summer adventure.

The idea behind the event was quite straightforward. We would all start at 7 a.m. sharp from the Chalet AlpeLune in Puy-Saint-Vincent, where we had set our base camp. We had to complete the route passing by a strategically placed checkpoint, and then heading back to the chalet, all in a friendly and non-competitive atmosphere. In other words, a compromise between ultradistance racing and the comfort of sleeping below a roof.

Upon our arrival at the chalet on the 14th, already at 1,470 m above sea level, we were completely mesmerized by the high peaks of the Ecrins National Park surrounding us. After unpacking, all 22 participants gathered to enjoy a beer and a 5-star dinner made by the professional chef Anne Pekelharing. Despite coming from the Netherlands, France, the UK, Italy, Costa Rica, and Spain, we all shared a common passion for cycling, adventure, and mountains that brought us together.

After Simon and Cyril’s briefing, we understood the idea behind the event’s name, Le Pilgrimage. History says that the pilgrim Saint Roch traveled around and what he enjoyed the most was the people, food, and scenery he found along his journey. Our hosts already planned that for us and given what we would find on the way and despite the nerves due to the routes’ toughness, we couldn’t be more excited.

Stage 1 – Pays des Ecrins and Fort Janus

The early bird catches the worm, so we had no time to spare as 120 km with 3,500 m of gravel awaited us. We all gathered for breakfast at 6 a.m. before descending from the chalet into the valley and heading to Briançon. Despite seeing the sun rays on the highest peaks it was humid and chilly, but a punchy first gravel climb warmed us up before arriving at the Boulangerie ALEF to enjoy a croissant and a hot coffee.

From there, we slowly took the road to Col de l’Izoard, but we rapidly swapped to a hidden road that would take us to Fort Janus. The slope was constant, surrounded by trees at the beginning and opening up above the valley as we finally made a right turn into a proper gravel path from which we could clearly spot the fort at 2,530 m. After a quite challenging final climb of 1.5 km, we reached the top where Simon greeted us with a smile and a well-deserved stamp on the brevet card.

We were enjoying the warm sun and the views of endless peaks both in France and Italy and Montgenevre in the valley, where we were based during Among the Giants 5, but it was time to head back down to Briançon. After what seemed like an endless descent along the alpine ski slopes, we entered Briançon by old forts and the cité de Vauban. It was time for lunch so we scattered to find some snacks in a supermarket, eat in a restaurant, or order a pizza.

The following part of the route consisted of two consecutive climbs. The first one from Sachas and among trees till reaching 1,850 m after a final funny 200 m hike-a-bike. We descended back to the Durance Valley and the Argentière village from where we would climb back to 1,770 m. This time the gravel road became gradually narrower and we had to avoid some construction sites on the way, but we finally reached a small plateau with cows and grass that meant the end of the climb and the start of the downhill to the chalet.

Although we were all scattered, all riders made it back in time to enjoy the plat du jour dinner made by Anne at 7:30 p.m. We were tired, but we could not stop sharing how we had felt during the day. Among laughter, we gradually headed to bed since another long day awaited us.

Stage 2 – Col du Galibier and Vallée de la Clarée

Cloudy day, with not a promising weather forecast, and 130 km with 3,000 m to complete the route. The breakfast was quieter than the day before and everyone was putting on the rain gear. We headed towards Briançon on the road, and we had the first shower of the day with views of a rainbow.

From Briançon we joined the first gravel sections that would take us through small villages and singletracks to finally start the proper gravel climb to the Galibier. Among some drizzle and mist, and just before the Lautaret, it all became real as the slope suddenly went above 10%. We could not see the top, just some random peaks on the sides, but up we went along a challenging, wet, muddy, and slippery gravel path. The wind was blowing and we could feel the rain on our faces and legs, which was slowly soaking us. We all climbed at our pace, which meant a very elongated trail of cyclists.

Just before the top of Galibier at 2,640 m, Chris Hall was cheering everyone on, but some decided to take shelter and warm up at the refuge, whereas others headed to the next valley to start the second climb. The rain came and went, and with it the freezing wind. No decision was better than the other, just trying to stay warm, either in the refuge or by keeping on moving.

The second climb was a gravel military road with a rocky and bumpy start. The gradient was quite constant and the terrain was in good condition. The rain had stopped as we reached the top at 2,500 m. From there, we had to do a 3 km hike-a-bike among the three Alpine lakes that allowed us to get to the Vallée de la Clarée.

That was probably the highlight of the day, but what was even better was the welcoming of Simon and Cyril to the Refuge des Drayères. A hot soup and a buffet with amazing food by Anne from the refuge, as well as, a hot stove and blankets to warm us up awaited us. We could not be more grateful for what was happening after enduring such a cold and wet ride. However, we could not stay too long as we still had a long descent and final climb ahead of us.

Either following the original track or switching to tarmac, we all made it back to the chalet in time for dinner again. But before that a shower, and a visit to the sauna and hot tub. This time we were slightly more silent because the fatigue was real, but we still had a smile on our faces as we looked back at what we had accomplished. It was time to get ready for the next day and rest.

Stage 3 – Serre Ponçon, Vallée de l’Ubaye and Tunnel du Parpaillon

Of course, the best is always served last, a 250 km route with 6,500 m of elevation gain designed to be finished in two days with an overnighter in the middle. With some snow from the night on the highest peaks, we would be heading south for the first time and this time directly going up. In the menu, there was a succession of relatively short climbs along the Serre Ponçon that took us to Embrun and the lake next to it with already 2,000 m of accumulated elevation gain.

Halfway through the day, we headed upstream into the Vallée de l’Ubaye where we would spend the night scattered in a Gite in Meolans or hotel rooms in Barcelonnette. There was only one of us who decided to go all in and sleep outdoors. Luckily Martijn found an open outdoor sauna in which he placed his bivy bag. Everybody spent the night thinking about the others and the next day, as the night was very rainy and the weather was not promising.

Given the weather of the second day, the organizers suggested alternative routes as climbing up to 2,640 m into the Tunnel du Parpaillon might be considerably difficult. However, everyone was determined and this is what we strive for. On top, there was Simon, checking all the dots move and already with a fire and some warm tea to welcome everyone. He had driven his van there the night before but had to sleep in the tunnel due to the horribly strong wind and rain.

Valentijn and Anna were the first to start riding that day, from 4 a.m., but the first up to the checkpoint in Parpaillon was Martijn, who had bivvied and was the closest. At that moment the weather was just cloudy but not rainy. However, as the rest of the participants started arriving after noon, the weather drastically changed and it would only get worse. Thunder made everyone rush to the top to find shelter in the tunnel, next to the stove, or inside the van to enjoy a warm tea and some snacks. Simon became the savior of the day.

After recovering some energy we descended into the valley there was a little detour and climb before heading back to the chalet. We all arrived one by one and those who finished before were there to cheer the others, between hugs and smiles. We had just accomplished 500 km (+13,200 m) of pure Alpine gravel riding in tremendous everchanging weather conditions.

We sat for a last time around the table to enjoy some beers and a well-deserved burger together. At the beginning of the event we barely knew each other, but it is experiences like these that create friendships in just a few days of sharing moments, landscapes, and food, the true pilgrim way.

We could not be more thankful to the organizers of Le Pilgrimage and all the involved brands. We hope this will be the first event of many more as it provides both the scenario to experience a real adventure and do so in a safe and comfortable environment. In the cycling community, aside from racing, there should be a place to meet like-minded people who are eager to discover, push each other to the limit, and overcome the unexpected to finally create friendships and synergies that will endure in time.

Photos: Yorit, Cyril, and Simon