As I start to grind up the ascent, the road quickly ramps up to double figures: ten, 11 and 12 per cent. Just 350m into the climb, I’m forced to rise out of the saddle to overcome the wall-like slopes of this little known pass in the French Alps. The initial ramps of the Col de Romme are intimidating, to say the least.
My legs have already started to accumulate lactic acid; my sense of trepidation doubles. Only the low gearing on my bike (a 50-34t chainset and a comfortable 30t sprocket at the back) lets me spin up the opening slopes of one of the hidden gems of France’s Haute-Savoie region.
Soon the secret of the Col de Romme will be out. Not only will the Tour de France visit for the second time, as part of the 159km tenth stage starting in Annecy, but sportive riders will take on the same challenge as part of L'Etape du Tour on Sunday July 8. With four categorised climbs in all, and the kinds of steep slopes not often seen in the Alps, it will be one of the toughest Etape stages in recent Tour history.
Ahead of the Tour’s return, we've come to discover the finest climbs surrounding Lake Annecy – both the renowned ascents of the Tour and those climbs that escape the regular attention of cycling’s biggest race.
Armstrong, Alberto and Andy
The Tour first climbed the Col de Romme in 2009, the year Lance Armstrong made his comeback and Bradley Wiggins his breakthrough. The stage started in Bourg-Saint-Maurice and, just as it is in 2018, finished in Le-Grand-Bornand after 169km and a classic Tour battle in the Alps.
Annecy's must-ride climbs - part one
Col de Romme
Average gradient: 8.8 per cent
Maximum gradient: 12.5 per cent
A superb climb that starts very steep and continues to be hard all the way to the top. The toughest section comes in the opening four kilometres and the valley floor disappears in no time
Col de la Colombière
Average gradient: 8.5 per cent
Maximum gradient: 12.5 per cent
Part of a double-header set to feature in this year's L'Etape du Tour, along with the Col de Romme. The Colombière is consistently steep, with the toughest slopes near the summit
The Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, launched a series of attacks on the ramps of the Col de Romme and only the maillot jaune, Alberto Contador, could keep up with their pace and save his leader's jersey. Armstrong, Wiggins and the rest of the pack slipped back. The Romme had made its selection.
Fast forward to today on a cool morning in the Alps and the Col de Romme is much quieter than on that hot July afternoon. A gentle rain starts to fall from the first hairpin, but it doesn’t last long. Only the sound of the cowbells and a hunter's shotguns in the distance interrupt what is an otherwise silent climb, during which I meet only a handful of cars and no other cyclists. A solo ascent shared only with my thoughts, heavy breathing and the whirr of tyres on tarmac.
After 4.5km at a grueling average gradient of 12 per cent, the road eases off for a couple of hundred of metres, enough to get my breath back and realise I’m almost halfway through the climb. However, to consider the work done here is to fall into the Romme’s trap. The next sections of the climb are easier – but still at around nine per cent average. All I can do is keep my pedal strokes smooth, eat, drink and avoid going into the red. In the summertime, when the temperature in the Alps often tops 30 degrees, riding the Romme would be even more challenging, and I’m grateful for the cool conditions, surrounded by scenery which looks as if it’s taken from the Giro, rather than the Tour.
Savoie Mont Blanc Tourisme
All told, the Col de Romme averages nearly nine per cent over its 9.3km. While it may not be the longest or indeed highest climb in the Alps, with the summit arriving at 1,297m, it is still one of the most challenging, ready to catch unprepared riders by surprise. After passing over the summit, I start the descent towards Le Reposoir and, after an all-too-brief period of respite, hit the Col de la Colombière, a seven kilometre ascent that has been featured 21 times in the Tour since 1960.
"While it may not be the longest or indeed highest climb in the Alps, with the summit arriving at 1,297m, the Col de Romme is still one of the most challenging, ready to catch unprepared riders by surprise"
The Col de la Colombière will be the final climb awaiting Etape entrants on July 8 and the Tour peloton nine days later – rising for 7.5km at an average gradient of 8.5 per cent, but with long sections significantly steeper. For sportive riders, the Colombière will represent a gruelling finale to a tough day in the saddle; whoever triumphs here in the Tour de France will strike the first blow in the mountains.
Savoie Mont Blance Tourisme
Beyond the Tour
While the Col de Romme and Col de la Colombière will take centre stage this summer, beyond these two climbs the Haute-Savoie is a cycling playground like few others in the world.
Annecy's must-ride climbs - part two
Col de l'Arpettaz
Average gradient: 7.1 per cent
Maximum gradient: 9.8 per cent
A long and relentless climb which has never featured in a major race. With 42 switchbacks in all and a combination of mountain forest and open Alpine pastures, this is a real stunner
Mont Semnoz via Col de Leschaux
Average gradient: 5.6 per cent
Maximum gradient: 10 per cent
A long but enjoyable climb with a superb view of Annecy from the summit. The north side is where Nairo Quintana attacked Chris Froome at the Tour in 2013. At that time everybody thought Quintana would have been the anti-Froome at the Tour, but that prophecy is still to be proven
"In terms of the variety of riding this area offers, there are some big challenges for mountain-loving cyclists,” says Teak Builder, our guide for the weekend and operations director of Bike Weekender, a UK ski and cycling company based in Saint-Jean-de-Sixt, less than 30km east of Annecy.
Indeed, we tend to associate the Tour with its most iconic summits, like Alpe d’Huez and the Col du Galibier, partly because they have been included in the race more than any other climbs. But throughout the French Alps you will find breathtaking routes and jaw-dropping scenery that acts as an antidote to the thigh-burning climbs, which few people know about apart from the locals.
The Col des Contrebandiers starts in the east of Annecy but soon whisks riders into the mountains above the city. In a region which offers so much choice for cyclists, Smuggler’s Pass remains off the beaten track (at the time of writing, only 61 riders feature on the Strava leaderboard) despite the climb's proximity to Annecy, and it offers a six-mile climb right out of the town's suburbs, ideal for a post-flight leg-stretcher.
Savoie Mont Blance Tourisme
Further south lies the Col de l'Arpettaz, a 42-hairpin climb yet to host a major race. Not only are you gifted a virtually traffic-free climb through a combination of light forest and Alpine pastures, there’s the reward of the finest views of Mont Blanc you can have while riding a bicycle. The crisp air and long shadows during our ascent of this undiscovered gem work harmoniously with the sharp, well-defined ridges of Europe's highest peak.
"While the Col de Romme and Col de la Colombière will take centre stage this summer, beyond these two climbs the Haute-Savoie is a cycling playground like few others in the world"
At the same time, the crystal-clear water of Lake Annecy is a constant point of orientation for many of the rides in the area, not to mention that several Tour-worthy ascents begin at the shore. La Forclaz (a steep climb that has been touched by the Tour only four times) provides an epic view of the lake from its 1,157m summit, while on the other side you will find the ascent of Semnoz, Annecy’s biggest climb (1,699m) with five routes to the summit.
Summit finish on Semnoz
The opening kilometres of the Semnoz ascent via the Col de Leschaux gently zig-zigs through charming French villages. A house with a round door, five kilometres into the ascent, is reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’ house, while the haylofts and fields complete the bucolic surroundings. The climb is anything but tame, however. The hardest part of this particular ascent from Saint-Jorioz kicks in after 11 kilometres and the classic roadside markers of the Tour de France appear. The bornes (boundary stones) are found on all of the Tour’s major climbs and, increasingly, many other mountain roads elsewhere. The markers keep you company when riding alone, but I’m not sure whether they're a useful tool for pacing and or just a sadistic way to remind the rider that the road is still long and the pain not over yet.
"The road narrows and enters the deepest, darkest section of the forest above Annecy, the gradient steepening and my breath shortening"
How we did it
We flew with easyJet from London Gatwick to Geneva. The Bike Weekender team then drove us to St Jean de Sixt, a mountain town 30km from Annecy and 66km from Geneva (little more than one hour by car). Bike Weekender specialises in weekend tours and offers fully-supported and semi-supported rides through spring and summer, as well as renting bikes if you don't want to travel with your own
The road narrows and enters the deepest, darkest section of the forest above Annecy, the gradient steepening and my breath shortening. It starts to rain and fog surrounds the trees. Riding alone, I remember Nairo Quintana’s attack on Chris Froome’s yellow jersey at the 2013 Tour de France. Quintana attacked Froome on Mont Semnoz during the final moments of stage 20; though not on the same road I am climbing but its opposite side, the route I will descend on my way back down to Annecy. The then 24-year-old Colombian showed the whole world that Froome was beatable, even if his British rival maintained the race lead into Paris the next day. Quintana marked himself out as a candidate to be Tour de France champion, though that early promise has yet to be fulfilled.
The Alps have the potential to make or break a professional rider’s career – but while the Tour’s general classification is often decided on these slithers of tarmac, as amateur riders we come only to pit ourselves against the mountain. In two days, I’ve only scratched the surface of the Haute-Savoie and the roads surrounding Lake Annecy, where for every major Tour climb there’s an unearthed diamond waiting to be discovered.