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I tried gravel biking on snow. Skiing is better

February 19, 2024

This post is part of our Winter Riding in the Alps guide. Check it out here.

The Col de la Croix is our local climb. In summer, it’s packed with cyclists riding in our beautiful region of the Alpes Vaudoises. In winter… not so much. The road is closed and the snow is groomed for locals and visitors to enjoy it on skis, on snowshoes or just on foot.

I am one of them and the Col de la Croix is part of many of my ski tours around our house. Ski mountaineering is an excellent alternative to training on the bike, especially when the weather is more conducive to sitting by the fire than riding. What’s more, I wouldn’t miss a powder day for anything.

That said, I’ve always wondered whether it would be possible to ride up to the pass in winter on my gravel bike. 

Is this a good idea?

Because, you know… we cyclists have this weird obsession of trying to ride our bikes everywhere. Even where most humans use other means. Sometimes, it works. Other times, our bike becomes just an annoying piece of luggage that we have to push or, worse, carry. We call it “hike a bike” to save face and pretend it’s fun.

And, let’s be honest, bikes are not really made to be ridden on snow. Why? Fact: snow is slippery. And balancing on a 2-wheeled machine such as a bike is the result of a permanent miracle of physics that doesn’t go well with a slippery surface.

In fact, you have to have a certain kind of slipperiness to stay upright and manage to somehow go forward when you ride on snow:

  • If it’s too icy, you slip and you fall.
  • If it’s too soft, you sink and you fall.

In both cases, you become a pedestrian pushing a bike, wishing you had taken skis instead. 

  • In between those two extremes,  you can manage to stay upright and move forward sitting on your bike. That’s the sweet spot.

Another challenge is that, in the current state of our climate, this sweet spot is not a given. Unless you are located close to or north of the Arctic Circle, or you live above 2,500 meters altitude. Which is not our case: we live in the Swiss Alps, well under tree line. A place where winter can feel like the Far North one day and (almost) the beaches of the Mediterranean the next.

Anyway: after weeks of dealing with sickness, deep snow, no snow, icy snow or slushy snow, we woke up to a beautiful morning in late January with Lillie. We were a few days after a rare snowfall and the white stuff was packed but not icy. Oh, and we’d also managed to get rid of our son (in fact, he was quite happy to spend the day with a friend rather than come and play this stupid game with us).

I set off from our house with Lillie, who accompanied me on her e-mountain bike to document my not-so-heroic attempt. Because that’s the cool thing: the Col de la Croix is in our backyard. From our doorstep, it’s a mere 12 kilometers. So even if things went wrong and the idea turned out to be a disaster (read: a long hike with our bikes), we’d be back in time to pick up our son. Micro-adventure at its best…

Starting on tarmac

After a few kilometers on dry roads to reach the nearby town of Villars, we got to the point where motorized traffic is forbidden and the pass becomes a winter wonderland. Well, not quite as the snow cover was still fairly inexistant and we were able to ride on non slippery surface (aka good old tarmac) for a few more minutes.

Eventually, we hit the groomed snow and we could finally start our experiment. First stage: ride on the flat. It worked! I was moving, in what could be described as a fairly straight line. And using the same amount of energy as if I were on packed gravel. Which was good: I was riding a gravel bike after all.

After a kilometer or two, next test: the road started to climb at 7-8%. I was not fast, but I kept moving and could still pretty much decide where I wanted to put my wheels. Could this be a good idea after all? We started to believe it.

Is that a smile on my face?

There were still just under 4 kilometers to go to the summit and we were making slow but steady progress. The landmarks were the same as in summer, but the winter landscape added another dimension to the experience. It was… fun.

We crossed path with many other people enjoying this beautiful day in the mountains. Hikers, snowshoers, skiers and even the odd fatbiker. Which reminded me that fatbiking is a trend that never really caught on here – or anywhere else. They were all surprised to see me on what looked from a distance like a road bike, and we exchanged a few words or at least a smile with many of them.

This is where I have to make one very important thing clear: no cross-country skiers were pissed off to see us on the road. 

In winter, the upper part of the Col de la Croix is primarily a cross-country ski trail, but its use is officially shared. However, I’ve been XC skiing myself for a long time and I know how irritating it is to discover your track being trashed by other users. Therefore, we were careful not to intrude on the space of any cross-country skiers we came across, and all went well.

Share the road

That’s another reason why you have to choose the right moment to embark on such an “expedition”. If the snow is too soft, not only does the experience become miserable and you end up on foot, but you destroy the cross-country skiers’ playground.

Finally, I want to point out that other parts of the Villars-Gryon resort, such as the Coufin area, are strictly reserved for cross-country skiers and should not be ventured on foot, on snowshoes or by bike. Let’s respect each other!

The winter sun was high in the sky when we reached the summit. Yeah! That said, we were only halfway to our goal: we still had to descend, and the challenge was just as daunting as the climb. Nevertheless, we could already celebrate this partial success in a place that is decidedly more charming in winter than in summer. Instead of an often crowded parking lot, we were greeted by an area of immaculate snow.

We were just missing the welcoming buvette, this little café where the friendly Francine serves delicious fruits tarts all summer long to hungry cyclists and hikers. This place saved us more than once on our way back from a long day in the mountains.

A sign that we had definitely reached the end of our road: a wall of snow stood in front of us. Beyond that, we would have needed skis or snowshoes to continue our journey. So all we had to do was to turn back and go home.

This is the end

 Easier said than done, we thought before embarking on this (micro-)adventure: there was something terrifying about descending on snow, especially for a hardcore roadie like me.

But here too, the experience turned out to be much more pleasant than we had feared. Throughout the descent, my 45mm gravel tires kept me upright, and I remained pretty much in control of my trajectory most of the time. I didn’t hit a tree, a cross-country skier or the ground. I – and my pride – came off it unhurt.

Going down with (kind of) a smile

At most, it got a little wobbly towards the end, when the snow became downright slushy. But we were close to the tarmac – and our salvation. From there, it was just a few kilometers through Villars to get home. Mission accomplished!

Getting slushy, but I’m still upright

Would I do it again? Most probably, the feeling of riding through familiar landscapes in a winter atmosphere is really cool. But let me make one thing clear: when the snow is good, nothing compares to skiing. There are no bikes on a powder day.

Finally, special thanks to Lillie. She overcame her terror of losing control on a bike to join me and shoot this memorable day. She was also very cold at times. In both cases, singing out loud was the cure.

Alain

More info on the route, how I dressed and my bike set up: check out the ride in our collection

This story is part of our “Winter riding in the Alps” guide, which features our favorite winter rides and our tips to keep riding in less than ideal weather.

Head over to the blog to read more cycling stories. Looking for inspiration on where to ride? Check out our favorite loops.

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