Pedaling to the 7th degree: tips for intimidated (or not) cycle climbers

Written by: Christelle Bakhache



Time to read 10 min

I'm Christelle, I'm the average climber: I'm flirting with 7th grade, I'm too versatile to be really strong, I have a full-time job and equipment that's not always optimized. I have a notebook of crosses which includes beautiful paths and beautiful wounds too. In 10 years of climbing and 5 years of mountaineering, I have however admitted that whatever happens, I end up coming back to seek the richness of these practices both in team spirit and in relation to nature, and political positioning on how we decide to spend our free time. In short, climbing makes me happy!

Christelle Bakhache cycling & climbing
Arrival in Verdon at the end of October 2023 (photo credit: T.Livingstone)

I've only owned a car for 5 years, before that, I was a city dweller and not a car owner (plus I benefited from SNCF discounts so going everywhere by train seemed logical to me). Then came his thirties, moving to the mountains, and purchasing a motor vehicle. I admit, initially, for me it meant total freedom to go where I want, when I want. Then little by little, change of home and place of work, the train was once again essential for my daily journeys and I realized the joy of no longer moving my car every day.

Rethinking your work journeys is one thing, rethinking your leisure journeys is another. Although I have avoided flying for years now out of environmental awareness, cars and vans have established themselves as the most obvious means of transport and holiday lodging under the cliffs of all of Europe. Then the idea emerged: what if we were going to climb by bike? bike + train? We started with a lot of train and little cycling: crossing Wales from North to South using Eurostar and around 400km of cycling for 10 days of actual climbing. We followed the roads of the south-eastern quarter of France, in a very Mussatto-centered journey on the limestone walls of the pre-Alps (Bauges, Chartreuse, Vercors, Verdon) with 8 days of cycling for 10 days of effective climbing. All that was missing was to test the sporting cliffs of this same piece of France: Céüse and Saint Léger du Ventoux with a ratio of 1 day of climbing per day of cycling.

What does traveling to the cliffs by bike involve?

Cyclist equipment for climbing or climber equipment for riding?

Christelle Bakhache cycling & climbing
Photo of the equipment taken for a one-month cycling/long-distance trip from Servoz to Verdon (credit: T. Livingstone)

If you are a cyclist you will learn nothing, if you are a climber: be careful!

  • The biclou : we tested two schools: the road bike and the gravel bike equipped for travel. The second one wins. Depending on your legs (mine are the legs of a climber who occasionally skis with a box of goldfish) being able to wind helps a lot, especially on busy climbs.

  • Panniers : a rear bicycle pannier is 25L (times two it makes 50L which is a good travel bag) to which you easily add a climbing bag (30 to 40l placed on the luggage rack). You don't really need more. The fault of this system is that if the slope is too steep, the bike rears up a little. But if the slope is too steep, we prefer not to be there, so it doesn't work too badly (avoid slopes of more than 10%). The only need for a front bag was when we added a stowaway: the dog who carries neither his kibble, nor his bowl, nor his water.

  • Climbing equipment : double or single rope, you have to choose! Alone I was able to carry 60m of rind rope and 15 quickdraws. It requires you to choose your routes and tie a knot at the end of the rope, but that leaves a lot of choice on the French cliffs. With that, a harness, a grigri, three carabiners (and even my long-distance gear which slept in the bottom of the bags). I had forgotten the brush: a big mistake when making rind, and a ridiculous weight gain! Brushing your holds, removing your tickets, and making the route clean: so many good practices that made me beg for a brush under each cliff.

  • The tent and something to sleep in : a tent for two that weighs around two kilos is easy to find. It is rarely the volume that is lacking so we are spoiled for choice. Traveling in April, I had a small sleeping bag, but I missed the large mountain down which would have fit comfortably in my panniers (instead of my unused hardware). For the mattress, it depends on the level of comfort desired.

  • Clothes : an outfit for riding (the essential investment is the right shorts), an outfit for climbing, and an outfit for sleeping. Add shorts if it's hot or an extra pair of leggings if it's cold, three pairs of socks (of different shape and warmth), three panties, three bras, and a pair of flip-flops or a pair of warm slippers. it's hot or cold.

  • Something to eat : no need to do any shopping in advance, we only carried enough to eat for one day. And a stove, cooking pot, lighters, sponge.

  • Enough to be clean : a towel and universal soap are enough, but you can add a little moisturizing cream to maintain the skin of the hands and in my case hair conditioner (to avoid dreads).

  • And for safety : a climbing helmet for climbing and riding or a bicycle helmet for riding and climbing; a first aid kit (see intro for the climber's notebook of injuries who learns to make a beautiful kit), lights and a lock for two. Oh yes, don't forget your gloves or your sunglasses, whatever the season!

This gives you (without the dog) a load of approximately 15kg per bike . Cyclo-travelers carry 25 or more, so you have in your legs enough to brave the passes of the pre-Alps and the steep roads and paths which lead to the cliffs (a nod to the Ceüse track, so much more fun to descend than 'to rise).

Tracing your route, an opportunity to reconnect with the territories

Christelle Bakhache cycling & climbing
Improvised bivouac spot at the foot of Archiane where everything dries after a wet night (credit: T. Livingstone)

How much do we cycle and where do we stop? Everyone has their own answer. In my case, a normal day is between 60 and 120km and does not exceed 1500m of elevation gain. And it’s with the weather that’s going well! But my calculation after some experiences is that spending more than 6 hours in the saddle is bad for your body and your morale, so take breaks and don't plan too big stages. It's also very nice to stop at friends' houses, which avoids having to take out the tent and which allows an evening to think about something other than the contact of the saddle on our delicate behind.

Beyond the length and the difference in altitude, talk to the locals: they will advise you on the best routes depending on the steepness and the use of motorists (in the Drôme prefer the Col de Cabre to that of the Croix Haute for example) .

Most of the time we are very well received by bike, people agree to fill the bottle at home if there is no fountain, we tell you the best bakery, we keep the bikes for you on the café terrace... This is one of the advantages of this mode of transport: we reconnect with the territories we pass through. We buy local, we curse the days when the bakery is closed but we bless the market days, we are at the PMU at the same time as the regulars and we go as far as possible from the large commercial areas so we help small businesses.

The only problem: there is no miracle app. Googlemaps is reasonable in calculating km but will send you on paths that are not very passable (hence the preference for gravel, even if it also suffers on certain routes); komoot thinks about cycling and degrees of slope but is crazy about the height differences (in the morning when calculating the route it's very, very scary!); Strava calculates the correct distances and elevations but retrospectively for the free version, it just helps to judge the other apps. The best thing is still to follow the marked cycling routes like the Haut-Buëch loop which enchanted us or the Bella Via which more or less links Annecy, Albertville and Grenoble. Look for the green and white signs and be afraid of the signs announcing a pass : if there is a bicycle sign, it is because it is a remarkable pass typical of the Tour de France and you will climb steeply, hard and for a long time with the panniers . Moreover, the speeds of all apps are calculated based on the majority of users: namely road cyclists. Every 5 hours add at least an hour of cycling + breaks if you are busy.

Christelle Bakhache cycling & climbing
The worst pass I climbed to do a route in Lanfonnet. (credit: C. Bakhache)

Also remember that if you struggle with the tent, there are often charming little lodges and villages under the French cliffs, all this less equipment will take away the kilos and the logistics to plan.

The weather, irritating neither the cyclist nor the climber

A mistake that I myself made is to think that we cycle when the conditions are bad for climbing and climb in conditions that are not good for cycling... That's not true! The wind that tangles the ropes will also prevent you from moving forward on your bike; the rain that soaks the tracks will make your day of cycling miserable; and the heatwave that transforms the cliffs into an oven will burn the asphalt on which you pedal, and you too! In the event of a predicted storm, violent thunderstorm or other extreme weather event (cold or hot), take shelter on a train, under a covered courtyard, with friends, or quite simply: elsewhere! A little of all that is bearable but for example an episode of Foehn such as we had this spring can double the travel time over a distance like Albertville-Grenoble. You will tell me that in this case you will be better off in your car: know that this type of wind also increases its consumption over the same journey. You will have less pain in your butt but more pain in your wallet.

Christelle Bakhache cycling & climbing
Crux of the Albertville-Grenoble day in the middle of the Foehn episode (southerly wind, very violent in certain valleys which led to the fall of trees on the cycle paths) – credit: C. Bakhache

The budget for traveling “light”

How much does all this cost? The red bike in the photos is sold accessorized in brand new 700eu condition. You can pay more (disc brakes, automatic pedals, etc.). Mine is from the third hand, given by a generous friend because she couldn't take it with her when she moved, and it suits me well like that. Panniers are expensive new but used, the three on my bike cost me less than 100eu. Where I went broke was on the shorts, the only technical equipment that I bought new. I have my bike serviced once a year for around thirty euros and I have attached a decath' headlamp (15eu) and a small rechargeable rear lamp.

All you have to do is pay for your food, a campsite from time to time, and the train when you jump on it: I estimate that to be a quarter of what you would have spent on a car for the same journey (gasoline + toll). In short, it's a good way to travel when you're broke and the equipment lasts long enough to largely pay for itself!

Christelle Bakhache cycling & climbing
Mr. and his border collie on the cycle routes of Savoie with a brand new bike and panniers! – credit C. Bakhache

And climbing?

I'm not going to lie to you, climbing after giving your all on your bike for several days requires remobilizing the right muscles and your body in two activities that are not very complementary. Very inspiring high-level people manage to combine max climbing projects with cycling trips (@Eline le Menestrel ). But on my scale, if I managed some astonishing performances on the long route, it was never the day after the journey. I would also advise taking a day of rest after the block of cycling days. But we are all the same, we die of hunger when we arrive at the cliff, especially if the weather forecast soon announces rain which will be perfect for a day of rest.

So, giving yourself some rest is beneficial. And also consider realistically what is feasible with the equipment transported . For example, if you have 15 quickdraws at St Léger du Ventoux, make sure you are going to share the routes with your partner. In our case, that meant focusing on routes that we were both going to do quickly rather than persisting in projects over several days. Afterwards, you can count on the goodwill of the climbing community and on the regularity of the great migration of climbers in spring and autumn : in Ceüse or St Léger, with or without an appointment, you will find friends, or at least one community which is often very lending and lets you climb on the quickdraws hung in a project (a nod to the Singular Garden which embodies this great family in the most beautiful way).

Christelle Bakhache cycling & climbing
The gray immensity of the Rocher du Midi in Bille de Clown. Photo credit: T. Livingstone

In conclusion, get started! I hope that this story removes the brakes to try the adventure and will have given you the keys to try to climb by pedaling. And if you have any questions left, you can ask me!

Main image photo credit: Hugo Schleicher


Christelle Bakhache

Christelle is in charge of nature sports for Asters, the Haute-Savoie conservatory of natural areas. She works on reconciling sporting activities with the protection of the département's natural areas. She has been a member of the Lagoped Family for several years and regularly shares her passion for climbing with us, whatever the season.