On the French and Italian border, the 'Great Needle of Rock' tempts brave souls with the rush of Europe's loftiest rideable descent.


Words and photos: James Vincent

“C’est Fou!”

Maybe it was the bemused expression on the hiker’s face that sealed the deal, or maybe it was the simple fact that we were somewhere around 3,000m above sea level, I had a bike on my back and was grinning like an idiot. Either way, there was no mistaking the meaning behind her comment, even with my basic grasp of French; “You’re mad!”.

To be fair to her, she had a point. The trail, if you could call it that, was beyond chunky. To a non-mountain biker it looked impossible. Heck, I reckon most mountain bikers would think twice before attempting it. But our guide, Deviate’s Ben Jones, claimed it was 99% rideable with such confidence that we were inclined to believe him.

Grand Sassierre

Riding the glacier’s ragged edge calls for some serious shale-surfing skills

How high?

Our challenge for the day was summiting the Aiguille de la Grande Sassière, literally translated as the Great Needle of Rock. This vast mountain of rock sits in a commanding position overlooking Val-d’Isère and Tignes at the head of the Tarentaise Valley, in the Savoie region of France. We were drawn to it for the simple fact that it’s considered the highest rideable peak in Europe, without having to tripod through snow or engage the use of ropes or other mountaineering equipment.

The summit is a lofty 3,751m (12,306ft) above sea level. That’s several hundred metres higher than the combined heights of Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Skiddaw. Or more precisely, 852.5 double decker buses stacked on top of each other. I’ve never been that high outside of an aeroplane, let alone carried a bike to the top and attempted to ride it back down. 

While it’s entirely possible to start the ride from lower down the valley in Bourg Saint Maurice, we decided to make life (a little) easier and drive to the car park at Lac Du Saut (2,200m). I say easier, but it still leaves us with a solid 1,500 vertical metres to make the summit. To be perfectly honest, I‘m not hugely daunted by the actual length of the effort required as I just tell myself we’re climbing Helvellyn twice. 

The bit that does concern me however, is the altitude. Above 2,500m the air starts getting rather thin and physical exertion becomes increasingly difficult, with even the simplest efforts leaving even the fittest athletes gasping for breath. While we were not climbing anywhere near what’s known as the death zone (over 8,000m), we were still aiming for what is referred to as “Very High Altitude”. The mood isn’t helped when Ben regales us with stories of the handful of times he’s climbed the peak in the past, and how not everyone, including riders who I consider to be far fitter than myself, make it to the summit. An extra degree of uncertainty comes from the simple fact that everyone’s bodies react differently to altitude and there’s nothing left that I can do to prepare. Our group is made up of youthful, globetrotting enduro racers (Matt, Antoine and Tansy), hardened mountain guides turned bike company owners (Ben Jones, Chris Deverson), and Youtuber Andrew McAvoy (McTrail Rider). We’re all comfortable in big mountain environments to varying degrees, but how we’ll actually cope with the altitude is something we’ll only find out when we actually get there. Time to get moving then…

Grand Sassierre

The air starts to thin as the final stretch of hike-a-bike begins

The only way is up

The sun is shining as we pedal across the car park, but that’s as far as we get. While it’s tempting to be a hero and try to ride as much as possible, the dusty singletrack through the alpine meadow ramps up almost immediately and we’re all off and pushing. Today we’re tortoises, not hares. No one is in a hurry, and we all settle into our own rhythm for the climb, taking in the extensive views and revelling in our good fortune in the weather – the forecast had been changeable all week, and at one point it looked like the attempt would have to be called off. This isn’t a place to ride in the rain. 

The climb through the meadow continues without incident, and after an hour or so we regroup for the first of the day’s several lunches somewhere around 2,800m. From the plateau we find ourselves on, we’re rewarded with the most incredible view out over the mountains and glaciers of Savoie while a pair of vultures drift effortlessly overhead on thermal currents. The twin blue jewels of Lac du Chevril and Lac de Tignes shimmer way off in the distance and I’m overcome with emotion. Before I can do anything about it, tears of genuine, unbridled joy, well up and roll gently down my cheeks. Fighting the urge to hold it in, I embrace them – I’m very much in my Happy Place, surrounded by big mountains and good friends and feel remarkably privileged to be here. The resort of Tignes is but a tiny cluster of concrete way down below us. The sun is shining and life is beyond exceptional right now.

Grand Sassierre

Time to eat lunch while drinking in the views

Just looking

Leaving the safety of the alpine meadow, the terrain shifts gears. Rough grass gives way to a desert moonscape of loose shale, the gradient ramps up and we cast our eyes around looking for the easiest route through. Walls of rock and giant steps call for scrambling on hands and feet, and on more than one occasion someone needs help getting over a tricky section. One of the significant benefits of an out and back route, especially on terrain as gnarly as this, is the opportunity afforded to scope lines and gather beta for the return journey. We mentally mark this section as unrideable.

Someway ahead of me, I hear Matt, Tansy and Antoine chatting excitedly. In a remarkably cinematic moment in a day full of such epic moments, I climb the last few steps to my companions, and the ground falls away to reveal the Glacier de la Sassière. Sadly depleted in recent years, it nonetheless remains an impressive sight. Giant fissures and crevices have formed over its surface, and while it used to butt right up against the trail, it has since retreated from the edge leaving a wicked looking drop down.

To the end

While the view does its best to distract us, we’re able to spin our pedals for the briefest of respites alongside the glacier for a couple of hundred metres. That is, until we look up from the trail and see a wall of endless switchbacks rising in front of us. This is the point Ben tells us, barely 300 vertical metres from the summit, where others have found themselves unable to continue. Not due to lack of fitness, but thanks to the unpredictable and debilitating effects of altitude. To have travelled so far and gotten so close, yet not make it, is unthinkable. Sensibly, Tansy decides she’s going to struggle to ride the switchbacks on the way down, so leaves her bike to one side and pushes on to the summit without it. The rest of us shoulder our bikes once more, and begin the final effort. 

The loose fragments of damp rock are ridiculously slippery, reminiscent of Lakeland graphite and shift about as we climb. With every clink of my cleats, I look longingly at my companions’ flat pedal shoes, and wonder how the loose surface will cope with our tyres. Or should that be the other way round? I don’t know. My thoughts are getting a little blurry now. My body, although tired, doesn’t feel too bad, but I’m breathing heavily and the effort required to get my bike back on my shoulders after taking some photos is exhausting. I feel light headed and a dizzy spell washes over me. I take a moment to steady myself and shuffle on in silence, the chatter from earlier having faded away.

Grand Sassierre

Expedition snacks are lashed to the top tube

Having spent most of the climb lagging at the back of the group, Ben suddenly pops up, way out front, his voice breaking the silence. He eggs us on from the summit; “Just a few metres further Antoine! Nearly there Matt”. Spurred on by this encouragement, the last few metres vanish and what seemed impossible earlier on is now our reality. 

Sitting on top of the world

Before now, I’ve never had much of a desire to climb Everest (there’s no point taking a bike is there?), but topping out at 3,751m I get an inkling of how it must feel. We can easily make out Mont Blanc way off in the distance, and the rest of the western alps are spread all around us in a vast 360° view. It’s taken us five long hours to get here, but the feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction is out of this world and I wouldn’t change a thing. Now that we’ve stopped moving, there’s a noticeable chill in the air. The wind has picked up and celebrations are remarkably subdued as everyone rushes to put on jackets.

The summit itself is low on ceremony. A simple flag and cairn marks the top, and there’s nothing to mark the border into Italy. Not that you’d get far – there’s one route off, and that’s back the way we’ve come. 

Going down

Just as we’re about to bid farewell to the summit, our attention is drawn to another visitor to our mountain top party. A lone glider echoes the vultures from earlier and soars between the peaks and above the glacier. Ben allows us this momentary distraction, before dragging us back to reality. We’ve got a long, technical descent ahead, he reminds us, and it’s nearly 3pm. Although the sun is still pretty high in the sky, we’ve only got four and a bit hours of daylight left and we don’t want to get stuck up here in the dark.

Exposure is a funny one. Some people cope ok, others not so much. Ben and Chris are in their element. It’s obvious that they’ve spent years guiding out here and are supremely comfortable. Andrew is equally at home, having done most of his riding in the wilds of Scotland. He has a video of his own to shoot, so makes his excuses and exits with Chris, leaving Ben, Antoine and Matt to perform for my camera. 

Grand Sassierre

This is why I drag my bike to the top of a mountain…

The first half of the show is a masterclass in rolling endo corners from Ben and Antoine. Oddly, Matt is freaked out by the exposure and walks down from the very summit.. All week he’s been displaying some ridiculous bike handling skills, honed over a season racing the EWS, at this altitude there’s such a tiny margin for error, that if you’re not feeling it, then there’s a real danger in over-reaching. Besides, the feeling of camaraderie between us all is something special. We’ve all made it to the top, and we all want us to get down in one piece. 

It isn’t long however, before Matthew has found his feet back on his pedals, and he soon catches up with Ben and Antoine, endo-ing round corners with aplomb. We make short work of the switchbacks and get stuck into the rest of the descent. There are sections we earlier deemed unrideable, that somehow we breeze through, while other easier looking sections leave us stumped and gingerly carrying down. More than once, Ben and I take it in turns to reign Matthew’s youthful enthusiasm in “No Matt, you can’t send that. You’ll die!”, and  “You can ride it, but I’m not pointing my camera at you while you do”. His frustration is palpable – but in a bike park or at a lower elevation, there would be no problem. Up here, with a sky-high penalty for failure and rescue several hours away should things go wrong, it’s just not worth the risk.

Dimming of the day

The day fades quickly, with some late afternoon/early evening clouds doing wondrous things to the light and I’m in turmoil. The trail is sublime. The light is equally sublime. I want to ride non stop back to the van, yet I want to stay on the hill and take photos until my memory cards are full. This is why I drag my bike to the top of a mountain with a weighty camera bag strapped to my back. Big landscape. Amazing light. Great riders. I keep shooting.

Eventually, the light takes the decision away from us and drops beneath the horizon. The alpine meadow from earlier in the day is in shadow and it’s time to hightail it down the dusty singletrack before we need more than an emergency head torch. We get back to the van to discover Andrew, Tansy and Chris have given up waiting for us and gone to ride something else, but we don’t mind one bit. We’re elated, tired and happy. Grande Sassière? Completed it mate.

Grand Sassierre

Sublime Alpine panoramas are best shared with friends