Riding the Savoie Mont Blanc with L’Etape du Tour champion Nicolas Roux

A powerful relationship binds a rider and the roads on which he has developed his talent. For two-time L’Etape du Tour winner, Nicolas Roux, those roads encompass many of the iconic climbs of professional cycling. A man of the Savoie Mont Blanc since the age of two, now an ambassador for the Les Saisies ski station and Annecy wheelsmith, Mavic, Roux’s story is of a rider who walked away from professional cycling in its darkest period rather than compromise his passion for the sport. RoadCyclingUK joined him on the roads of a region he describes as “a magnificent playground” to learn more about the Savoie Mont Blanc, the burgeoning fields of granfondo racing and 'ultra' endurance events, and how the support of a young family can be the most powerful stimulus of all.

The summits of the Savoie Mont Blanc are tightly woven into the fabric of professional cycling. Each has served as a memorable battleground for the greatest confrontations in the sport’s history, and most of those have taken place in its greatest race, the Tour de France. Mont Blanc dominates the region, but its neighbours are no less impressive. The Col des Aravis, the Galibier, the Iseran, the Madeleine…the list is seemingly endless. Opportunities to experience these giants, to suffer on their cruel gradients in the spirit of those whose exploits have shaped the sport, are in plentiful supply. Nor is the region blind to its attractions for the cyclist. From June to August, it is possible to experience them on closed roads, thanks to an initiative simply titled: 1 Jour, 1 Col – One Col, One Day.

The best time to visit the Haute Savoie is when the UCI WorldTour circus is in town. Our visit to Megève and Les Saisies coincides with the dramatic concluding stage of the 2014 Critérium du Dauphiné. The spectacle of professional cycling’s top tier is, however, only the icing on the cake. Savoie Mont Blanc’s connections with the sport are such that every road sign is a reminder you have entered one of its great theatres and the giant peaks that frame every view a presence as striking as the peloton in full flight (a similar experience can be had on the drive from the Channel Tunnel through northern France and into Belgium, but there it is Classics territory you enter).

Annecy and its beautiful lake, not to mention its world famous wheel manufacturer, are resident in Savoie Mont Blanc. Last year, it hosted what is likely to be the first of many Tour de France stage victories for the sublime cycling talent that is Nairo Quintana, when the Colombian sensation, clearly unburdened by the weight of the sport’s most majestic climbing heritage, rode away from soon-to-be crowned Tour champion, Chris Froome, and world number one, Joaquim Rodriguez, to cross the finish line with arms aloft at the 1655m summit of the brutal Semnoz climb. Nearly two weeks earlier, a rider had reached the same summit and crossed the same finish line alone, his competitors similarly vanquished.

Unlike Quintana, this rider was not thousands of miles from his birth place, but riding on home roads. Nicolas Roux has been first to finish in the last two editions of L’Etape du Tour, most recently in an edition begun in the home town of his sponsor. Roux is our guide to the region and its roads, and his story, extracted through chinks in a wall of modesty (he fails to mention a near 12-hour assault on the Tour du Mont Blanc record made only a week earlier, and in epic conditions, at our first meeting; it takes a chance conversation with a Mavic employee and a follow-up email to learn the details), is as inspiring as Quintana’s.

L’Ambassadeur: granfondos, ultras and representing the region

Lost amid the bleating mea culpas of his less principled and higher profile contemporaries, Roux is one of perhaps an untold army of riders who refused to sacrifice their passion for the grubby compromise of performance enhancing drugs. A rising star in the late 1990s, apprentice and reserve at Festina, and a student in the exclusive finishing school of Pro Continental racing, Roux refused to enter the maelstrom into which the sport was descending. Aged 23, and with his principles in tact, he turned his back on a life he had prepared for since his early teens.

Lest this turn of narrative seem a sharp divergence from the cheery travelogue you’d bargained for, it’s important to understand the connection between Roux’s principled stand and the landscape in which those principles were forged. The mountains hold a deep significance for him. They are his home, in a spiritual as well as literal sense. His father, Jacques Roux, a contemporary in Paris of Hinault and Gallopin, moved his young family to Savoie Mont Blanc when Nicolas was two. The boy began seriously to cycle when he was 13. Ten years later, his time in the sport had ended. Or so it had seemed.

The unstoppable rise of the European granfondo, and the emergence of a still more demanding endurance discipline – the ‘ultra’ ­- has provided new outlets for Roux’s talents, after a career that as well as professional road racing has also included track, cyclo-cross, and mountain bike racing.

Now 37 and an ambassador for his home resort of Les Saisies, as well as for Mavic and Canyon Bikes, and most recently engaged by Garmin to run its training camps in the region, not to mention his performances at L’Etape, Roux has embarked on a second career that appears to be providing – belatedly – something of the recognition his talents deserve.

Good natured, imbued with the detailed knowledge of a region and its roads that only a lifetime of riding them can instill, and, of course, with a talent that had propelled him to the sport’s upper echelons a decade earlier, there can be few better guides to the Savoie Mont Blanc than Roux.

He arrives at our rendezvous in Combloux like a visitor from another planet, the advance guard of a race of cycling supermen. Immaculately dressed in his sponsor’s cycle clothing, yellow socks worn outside his leggings, Roux is a living reproach to those who believe the pro cyclist look can be bought. The same garments would look very different on a mere mortal.

Despite his stature, Roux’s physique is one able to serve as a dictionary definition of lean (‘adj. having no superfluous fat, see Roux, Nicolas’) and members of our party unfamiliar with the breed are shocked by the elite cyclist’s disdain for body mass. There is an unmissable symmetry between the contours of his legs and the mountains that have shaped them. Roux is no mere tour guide, however. He remains a competitor.

The Tour du Mont Blanc

A week before we meet, Roux attempted the record for the Tour du Mont Blanc, a challenge of such epic proportions that it seems to belong to another age, that of Bordeaux-Paris, or of the early Tours, when stages were of inhuman lengths. His final motivation, after seasons filled with other objectives, seems fitting: to attempt the record during Mavic’s 125th anniversary celebrations.

The TdMB encompasses nothing less than the northern Alps, its route taking in three countries, and five hors categorie climbs. Roux’s task concerned the small matter of riding the 330km parcours, one containing 8,000m of ascent, in a time less than 11 hours and 41 minutes.

Astonishingly, the route was arguably the lesser part of the challenge: Roux made his attempt in conditions that are barely described by the phrase ‘changeable’. The adage that familiarity breeds contempt does not apply to those who know mountains well, and while Roux would have expected wild variances in conditions, those in which his attempt was made might have surpassed even his experience.

From 30-degree heat in the Aosta valley to a potentially lethal blend of driving rain and storm force winds in the high mountains, a less determined individual might have shelved the attempt for a better day and climbed off. Not Roux.

He credits the vociferous support of his young family, first glimpsed at the roadside on the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard, for the motivation to continue to ride when reason presented an emphatic case to stop. There is the racer’s instinct to account for too, one suspects, though Roux is hardly the man to flourish a professional code that sees riders descend mountain passes in blizzards or continue to race with broken bones. “In any case, I would never, ever have abandoned,” he states, simply. “Finally, by all means, cross the line.”

L’Etape du Tour and the spirit of cycling

An event that inspires most cyclists to months of preparation to Roux must seem small beer. Two consecutive triumphs at L’Etape du Tour attest to his continued abilities and makes one wonder what he might have achieved as a younger man in the professional ranks had he raced in a cleaner era.

He is under no illusions, however, about the gulf between his current level and that of the men who now dominate cycling’s biggest races. He offers a direct comparison, and here we return to Quintana and the climb of the Semnoz. Roux covered its 11 kilometres in 37 minutes. Quintana? Thirty. That Quintana should be seven minutes faster than a rider in such obviously good condition seems on first telling astonishing. Thirteen years separate the Colombian from the Frenchman, however, and Roux himself would have been significantly quicker as a younger man. He laughs and shakes his head in wonder.

The success of events like L’Etape is evidence for a new style of riding, what might be termed as endurance racing for amateurs. The days when a Sunday morning time trial on a deserted stretch of dual carriageway represented the only outlet for an amateur rider’s competitive ambitions are gone. Continental travel is easy and relatively affordable. The greatest theatres in cycling lie little more than an hour’s flight from the UK.

It is one of the great ironies of cycling, and perhaps of life, that tolerance and talent are meted out in inverse proportion. The Olympic champion is likely to offer greater encouragement to the newcomer than the self-appointed expert. So it is with Roux. Those who turn up in their thousands to ride L’Etape are “true cycling enthusiasts,” and one can’t help but feel that he is drawing a distinction with those who sacrificed their love of the sport to maintain a place in a corrupt system.

He understands entirely the amateur’s passion for the sport and the drive to ride the same roads as the professionals, even the often terrifying descents, where the gulf that separates them from riders of his own ability is as pronounced as on the climbs. For Roux, the pleasure, it seems, is his: a chance to share a passion for the bike untainted by commercial or competitive agendas.

Riding with Roux in the Savoie Mont Blanc

To share the road with Roux is a privilege. Mont Blanc dominates the skyline in this area of France, but despite its incontestable grandeur, I have other things on my mind. Breathing, for one. Continuing to turn my legs, for another. Oh, and an underlying astonishment, surfacing rapidly to the level of conscious thought, that Bernard Hinault raced up this climb more than 20 times en route to victory in the 1980 world road race championship. This last nugget of information is bequeathed by no less a source than Roux. And if he considers the Côte de Domancy a challenge (and is in quiet awe of Le Blaireau), then perhaps there is something to it.

It is the brutal ramp on which Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky will launch his successful bid for overall victory on the final stage of the 2014 Criterium du Dauphine, the day after our ascent, despite its appearance after just 13km of racing. Roux predicts its use as a spring board for just such an attack, but the idea of making any plans for its 809m duration beyond survival strikes me as wildly ambitious. Most Alpine ascents allow the rider to build a rhythm, but the Domancy is as brutal as the sharpest ramps in England, only longer.

This is the opening business of an 80km ride laden with 1,600m of climbing: an out-and-back affair, broken by a pleasant lunch at 1657m in Les Saisies, that will take our Roux-led party approximately 40km into the 131.5km parcours of the final stage of the Dauphine and back to our base in the pretty ski resort of Megève. The WorldTour circus rolls into town the following day, and to heighten our appreciation of its finest performers, we test our legs on the same roads.

With the Domancy conquered, the road rises only slightly in the ensuing 10km or so as we make our way through a series of small villages en route to our next rendezvous with gravity, the Col de Saisies. Despite its unnervingly steep beginning, it is more of the stamp I’ve come to expect from the French Alps: demanding and seemingly endless, but with sufficient grace to offer the consolation of rhythm – the opportunity to hunker down and grovel.

I am doing just that as the village of Bellcombe Notre Dame hoves into view: a resort consisting seemingly of a single road and which serves only as a staging post for those disposed to cycle up the side of mountains for pleasure. A steep hairpin rears up as the town falls behind, and soon after the road broadens. While no more forgiving, the sudden abundance of greenery, courtesy of a canopy of overhanging trees on either side of the road, lends it a friendly air at odds with the gradient.

From here, the climb becomes enjoyable. The savagery of the lower slopes slips into memory while the road ahead is pitched at a level that strikes the right balance between enjoyment and challenge.

A short descent serves as a prelude to renewed effort and what might be described as the second half of this gruelling ascent to Les Saisies, a brutal climb to one of the many ski resorts that pepper the Savoie Mont Blanc. The road surface is truly appalling, but this only adds to the sense of endeavour (though it is of greater concern on the descent, especially when the heavens open). It is on the ascent that Roux reveals himself again as a useful man to know.

While I grovel in the lowest gear available to me, Roux bounces alongside in the big ring, remaining just far enough ahead to offer shelter and incentive. When he senses that his charges might find greater solace in suffering alone, he rides clear, seemingly without effort.

Days in yellow

As a cultural ambassador for Les Saisies, Roux is duty-bound to make positive noises about an area he describes, not unreasonably, as a “magnificent playground”. It is his wordless response when I ask why he has chosen to remain in an area in which he has lived since the age of two that speaks volumes; a question he clearly regards as unusual at best. He replies with a look of incredulity and a gesture at the magnificent scenery that frames our view from a restaurant terrace in the centre of the resort. My enquiry is made not in genuine quest of information, but in the hope that he will provide a useful quote for this article. His expression and gesture say more than I could hope to gain from any spoken response.

That L’Etape has a champion like Roux will further enhance its reputation. Thousands will tackle the road from Pau to Hautacam this July but few will experience the same journey. In the wildly popular granfondo scene, and the burgeoning ‘ultra’, Roux has found an uncompromised outlet for his passion, one in which the support of his family is the greatest performance aid and where his success brings publicity for the region he loves, rather than for a shifting line-up of corporate backers. His sponsor for the last 10 years has been a local business with an international reputation and Roux is obviously proud to ride in Mavic’s signature yellow.

Good things come to those who wait. Roux seems finally to be gaining the rewards his talents deserve. There are many in the Savoie Mont Blanc, and in Les Saisies in particular, who will raise a glass to that.

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