How do you get down on those, let alone get up?” asks one of the elderly French ladies we keep bumping into. She and her hiking companions are looking at the four of us on our beefy all-mountain bikes with looks of utter bemusement, as our paths cross yet again on this narrow mountain path in the southern French Alps. For our part, we’re staring at these hardy mountain women, who look well into their 80s, with no less a sense of amazement. The admiration and respect is clearly mutual – it takes proper toughness to take on trails like these, whether you’re on foot or in the saddle.

The seeds for this five-day blast around the Queyras valley had been sown the previous summer, when a family campervan trip took me to visit friends who have set up homes and businesses in this part of the world. Emily, a qualified French mountain bike guide, led me out on rough and narrow local trails that were a million miles away from the man-made runs most riders flock to the Alps for.

There and then we started planning a cross-mountain bike-packing trip mostly based around the GR58 – a long-distance off-road route best known for hiking, which winds its way around this stunning but remote alpine region that nudges up against the Italian border.

Almost a year later, the two of us, along with Emily’s partner David and their friend Rob – a Brit who’s lived in nearby Bourg-Saint-Maurice for more than 15 years – have piled into Rob’s van and set off for the start of the route. Also squeezed into the van are our bikes and gear – which are a dead giveaway that this is no ordinary bikepacking trip. Unlike traditional long-distance rigs – tough, lightweight and loaded up with kit for going both as far and as fast as possible – we’re riding on rugged full-suspension bikes and carrying with us just small, minimal rucksacks.

The route’s technical descents and variable terrain mean a highly capable all-mountain bike is a necessity, and while some say you can ride any trail with any bike, I don’t fully agree – to enjoy it and do it as fast (and as safely) as possible, you really do need the right tool for the job. We’re expecting plenty of hike-a-biking on the uphill bits, too, hence keeping our gear off the bikes and on our backs – that’ll make it (theoretically) easier to balance the bikes on our backpacks when the climbs defeat us. As a professional cycling and landscape photographer, I’m lugging what feels like a few hundred extra kilos of weight, which will make those backbreaking slogs even more brutal.

I’m really hoping that the descents and the images I get from the trip will make up for it…

Setting out

We get to the small mountain village of Abriès and pull up in a car park where we can unload our gear and get moving as quickly as possible. It’s early, but already the sun’s beginning to bathe the valley with a light and heat that are due to stick with us for three of the five days, with storms forecast for the last two – preparing for the worst, we’ve packed a storm shelter that’s big enough for the four of us, but we’re all hoping we don’t have to use it.

Abriès is both the start and end of the circular route, and we set off out of the car park and into the far more inviting valley that stretches out ahead of us. In five days of riding we’ll cover nearly 130km of steep, tough trails, with almost 7,000m of climbing (some of it with our bikes slung over our shoulders) and the same amount of descending, and unsurprisingly it’s mountain guide Emily who’s planned our route. She’s guiding us using IGN maps (think France’s Ordnance Survey), which makes a refreshing change from the usual reliance on GPS routes – plus it seems fitting given the GR58’s wild and untouristy trails.
Compared with their northern counterparts, the southern French Alps are a little smaller in scale, but what they lack in size they make up for with a breathtaking backdrop. To the north, riding in the shadow of the Mont Blanc massif, you see the mountain in full view and little else, but here we see whole ranges – layers of mountains stretching out in front of us.

The terrain changes as fast as the scenery as the trail snakes up and down cols, passes through classic alpine meadows packed with early summer flowers, and scythes through densely packed forests. It’s arid, too, with a sun-scorched roughness that sometimes feels more Spanish than it does alpine – hardly surprising when you think that we’re actually closer to the Mediterranean here than Geneva.

Even so, this is proper technical alpine riding, and if we need a reminder it arrives on the last descent of the day. All four of us are wild by this point – we’ve had an epic first day and can practically smell the beer at that night’s stop – and this, added to the unfamiliar weight of the packs on our backs turns out to be a recipe for near disaster. Two of our group come unstuck and wipe out – these trails are definitely designed for walking, not pounding downhill on enduro bikes, and we’re relieved to reach our first gîte d’étape in Cervières with the whole team (not to mention our gear) in one piece.

the terrain changes as fast as the scenery as the trail snakes through forests and meadows

The next two days’ riding offer more of the same – back-breaking climbs with our bikes balanced on our shoulders, followed by fast, technical descents through more of the Queyras’ stunning terrain. The skies are blue once again, which makes a photographer’s job both easier and more difficult: plenty of sun’s great for sports photography because you can keep shutter speeds high, but at the same time endless blue sky can be boring as hell. When you’re up high in the hills any clouds will throw contrasting shadows onto the surrounding hills and it makes the imagery really different, taking it from ‘back of a chocolate box’ stuff to magazine quality.

Even if the sky isn’t playing ball, there’s plenty going on under our wheels to keep things interesting for the camera, not to mention for our tyres – particularly when we hit higher ground. Though it’s late June, there’s still snow on north-facing slopes above 2,500m. In some cases that means carrying our bikes across small snowfields, in others, riding down deep snow softened by the warmth – with some predictably hairy results. Being loaded up with expensive camera gear means I have to be extra cautious, though that doesn’t stop me losing my front wheel in one particularly deep bank of snow, and I spend the next few minutes desperately trying to dig it out with my hands.

Storm’s a-coming

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about the relentless blue skies. The forecast for the last couple of days is for storms, which doesn’t bode well given that we’ve all packed as light as possible.

What to pack

Make sure your group is carrying spares, a first aid kit, a storm shelter and an array of tools. In your bag, take your camera gear as well as…

  • Spare Assos shorts for evening and in case your riding shorts became filthy, also spare Assos inner shorts.
  • Two spare jerseys
  • Spare socks
  • T-shirt for evenings
  • Pillow case
  • Alpkit silk liner
  • Toiletries
  • Ear plugs
  • Headphones
  • Phone
  • Portable charger as not all places have sockets in rooms or 230v
  • P20 suncream
  • Lezyne pump
  • Quick-dry travel towel
  • Baseball cap
  • Water bladder
  • Sawyer water filter
  • Howies primaloft jacket
  • Trail snacks and a lunch each day
  • Trail running shoes to help give you grip on the hike-a-bike sections

All four of us have spent a lot of time in the hills, though, and it’s nice to know there’s a professional guide among
our number. Emily’s always watching the weather, so she knows when it’s going to turn, and between us we have the knowledge and confidence to see a thunderstorm coming in and know that it’ll roll right past and keep you dry. Though every now and then, of course, you’re inevitably going to get a soaking…

Even so, we set off extra early on the penultimate day – more often than not, storms in this part of the world tend to brew up through the day and reach a climax in late afternoon, and that turns out to be the case this time, too. After a tough slog through the steeply undulating Queyras landscape we arrive at the refuge hot and sweaty from the searing 30-plus temperatures of the day, only to feel massive hailstones hammering on our backs as we open the door and step in to the gîte. It builds to a full-blown storm, forks of lightning jagging to the floor and rolling thunder echoing through the valley – it’s a pretty cool sight, and even better when you’re watching it through a window with a cold glass of beer in your hand.

By the time we set out for the final day, which closes the loop back to our starting point in Abriès via the border with Italy, the storm has long gone, leaving us with clear skies and empty trails to hammer our way along. Once again, though, the mountains really make us work for it.

I get a few shots of the France/Italy border sign and sling my bike over my shoulder one last time, for what turns out to be the steepest and hardest climb of the week – not least because all four of us are knackered, and desperate not to end the week on a bum note. When we finally hit the top and clamber onto our bikes, the relief is immediate – and the reward for our hard work is one of the most incredible descents that I have ever done.

We hit the trail hard and fast, barely stopping at all as we pass by several lakes, descend through patches of dense woodland, traverse rocky slabs, and each pick our own routes through stretches where the path seems to have disappeared entirely. It’s a hell of a way to sign off.

We roll into the same car park we’d set off from a few days earlier, our legs, arms and shoulders with nothing left to give. Each one of us is in awe of the wild and challenging trails of the GR58, and the people – from those elderly women hikers to us thrill-seeking bikepackers – tough enough to take it on.

Getting There

The Inside Line offers guided mountain bike holidays in the French Alps, including the Queyras Regional Park. Cool Bus runs airport transfers to and from the area. EasyJet flies to Lyon from £46 return and Geneva from £53 return.