Green-laning the Maritime Alps

Last summer, I spent two weeks checking out the trails in south-east France and north-west Italy in the Maritime Alps, before heading on to the Slovenian section of the Trans Euro Trail.

Everyone in the UK seems to go to the Pyrenees to ride trails. You hear very little about people doing the same in the Alps, possibly because it is more restricted and because it lacks the convenience of an overnight ferry to get there.

Nonetheless there’s loads to do – I left after 13 days happy with how much I’d done but if I’d wanted to I could have found more. The majority of riding is on tracks that vary from fast and easy (light gravel) to not so fast and tougher (big rocks/boulders/broken up ground & ruts). Only about 10% of the trails I rode were slower, more technical single-track.

The nav action

The Alps section was great – there are some fantastic trails in this part of the world and they’re not that too hard to find. My highlights were:

  1. Col du Parpaillon – and site of the world’s scariest tunnel
  2. Via del Sale – 50 miles of non-stop track heaven
  3. The long ascent up to 2800m to the iconic Forte Jafferau.

The Slovenian Trans Euro Trail (TET) was good fun too – but it lacked any stand-out character. There are some very technical bits, which are similar to the trails you get here back in the UK, and a lot of gravel through woods, which I’d got bored of towards the end of it.

For planning/navigation, I used a mixture of paper cycling maps (1:250K at least), the WikiLoc smart phone app and the TET Italy Slovenia routes on the app to navigate, using an old iPhone 5 that was hooked up to the bike. was a really useful if slightly melodramatic sounding resource for finding out where to go, which you can then plot on paper maps.

For France, the 1:250k IGN paper maps are good. For Italy, the Michelin one I had lacked the same level of detail at that scale but I saw some great 1:50k scale walking ones for sale in the Gran Bosco area that did the trick. The shiny map for Slovenia that I bought at a petrol station was a waste of time. Next time, I’d invest more in smaller scale maps.

It’s worth looking at the detail of the WikiLoc routes and double-checking that the route does go off the tarmac and creating a short-list the day before. I tried to link as many of them up as as possible. Via del Sale was one of the highlights of the trip – the actual route isn’t that easy to find on the ground, perhaps due to a lack of detail on my paper maps – but thanks to WikiLoc I was able to simply follow a route that already been shared. This was the same with the long ride down to the Italian border from France, which ended with a good few hours of fast dirt tracks into some very remote areas, going over the final hills to the border and into Italy at Olivetta.

The old iPhone worked OK 60% of the time but did prove to be unpowered and unreliable in the end – being so reliant on it for navigating, it’s not worth scrimping on this sort of thing. On one occasion it left me in the lurch, by freezing whilst high up riding one route – I took a wrong turn or two and ended up in a slightly unpalatable situation on some very steep single track, high up in a remote section where I certainly didn’t want to be solo with a loaded up motorbike. Since the trip, I’ve ditched the iPhone and bought a £70 Motorola from eBay and set it up with all my apps – it does the job perfectly but does tend to run out of steam after recording your route for more than 5 or 6 hours.

Pushing an old-timer – the bike

The third day in, I found myself wondering which would be more knackered first – me or the bike. My XT600Z Tenere is real mongrel – most of it is a 34L model, the original first-edition 1983 version of the Tenere that appears in the iconic early ‘80s photos of the Dakar Rally. But the engine is from the final model XT600E (i.e. a 4PT model). The wiring loom is from sometime between 1988 and 2000. The carbs and front forks are from 1984.

Having ridden the newer 2009 version of the Tenere from London to Sydney on some pretty tricky territory before greenlaning it back in the UK, I’m under no illusions; the older version is a far better bike. It’s 40kg lighter to start off with. What’s more, on the newer bike that 40kg is high up, making her prone to toppling over.

The older XT was a great choice for this trip – a true all-rounder that was fun to ride on any terrain. It hoovered up most of the trails put in front of it, with the exception of a few bits of the Slovenian TET. For 10 of the 13 days I rode trails, typically for more than five hours off asphalt with liaisons between. The route covered everything from the technical mountainous trails in the foothills of the Julian Alps in Slovenia, to the heavy ruts and big boulders of the Col de Sommeiller and the fast, light gravel forest tracks of north Croatia. The other three days were sat for 9 hours+ on motorways with the throttle pinned in top gear at 80mph.

There were only two negatives. Towards the end of the trip, the float needle valve went in the carb to the point that the bike was leaking fuel even with the engine running. Second, the lack of a fairing and an off-roading gearing meant the 500 mile schlep down the autoroute from Calais to Briancon was particularly onerous.

The gear

Silvermans have some cheap heavy duty army canvas panniers, which I used on a Hepco & Becker rack. For £30, they’re a bargain – they’ve got lots of straps and loads of room. But they do need strengthening around where they attached to each other as they became worn – less of an issue if you are just riding tarmac, but if you’re throwing the bike about on the rough stuff, then the bags bouncing up and down put extra strain on them. I’m not sure what to do about that for the future TBH – or indeed if anything can be done. It seems a shame to write them off, because otherwise they’re a great bit of kit.

The tank panniers I got from Wolfman were good, and I was happy enough using them in lieu of a tank bag. You do have to ride somewhat with legs akimbo but that doesn’t take much getting used to. One advantage of having a tank bag though might be the ability to read maps whilst on the move, but I plan to try out simply putting a normal map case under a cargo net on top of the tank instead.

I ran TKC80s front and back for the hoops, and by the end of the first week I’d pretty much burnt through the rear one. I’ve been using them for the last couple of years and whilst they’re good, for a trip this length or longer I’d probably go with K60s (non-Scout) or perhaps some longer-lasting Karoo 3’s instead.

All in all…

…a really fun trip, and I’d suggest spending a week or two riding trails in the Maritime Alps to anyone. Having to fly home whilst the carb got repaired (or not) in Morzine was disappointing but given that the bike had been barely used since it was restored by the previous owner it’s not a surprise that something like might happen. This was my first ‘proper’ trip since landing back from Sydney two years earlier, and it left me looking forward to the next.

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