With long winter evenings already a reality, and months of darkness and poor weather to come, the thoughts of many of us will turn to spring and a much deserved break.
We’ll be considering a range of cycling getaways this month, from a ‘staycation’ in the Cotswolds to riding with a former world road race champion in Italy.
The French Alps contain some of the most famed climbs in cycling: l’Alpe d’Huez, the Col de Glandon, the Col du Telegraphe, and the Col de la Galibier among them.
North of these giants lies the town of Bourg St Maurice; a commune of nearly 8,000 people, conveniently located for the climbs of La Plagne, the Col de la Madeleine, and the Cormet de Roselend.
Bourg, its neighbouring villages, and the entire resort of La Plagne exist to serve the ski tourists who arrive in their thousands each winter. In the summer months, however, they play host to a much smaller population of cyclists who come to ride the climbs made glorious by the riders of the Tour de France.
A little under 15km from Bourg lies Montchavin, a rural village of just 100 permanent residents, that seems largely to have resisted the tide of concrete apartment blocks in villages lower down the mountain and across the valley.
Kevin Harding and his wife, Lee, moved to Montchavin five years ago and have converted an old farm house into living quarters for their family and an eight bedroom chalet with living room, sauna, and terrace for guests.
Lee says that the work won’t be finished for another two years, but when RCUK stayed at Chalet de La Vanoise in July, there was nothing in the two-thirds of the house apportioned for guest accommodation that required improvement. Varnished wooden floors and ceilings leant a very Alpine feel to the place, the kitchen and bathrooms were modern and functional, and the sleeping arrangements – a variety of rooms set up for families, or with single or double beds – were perfectly comfortable.
The view from the terrace was peerless (Mont Blanc appeared to be within touching distance). Most importantly, however, for a party that had travelled ostensibly for an extended fortieth birthday celebration, but also to ride the region’s famed climbs and to take in stage eleven of the Tour de France, Montchavin proved ideally located.
The road that leads to La Plagne lies just over 10km along the valley, and so within easy riding distance of the chalet and was the climb I had looked forward to the most, having become a road cyclist overnight after witnessing Stephen Roche’s on the climb in 1987.
The trepidation as the group settled into the 16km ascent was tangible. A hot sun and the faintest of breezes combined to form perfect or uncomfortable conditions, depending on the rider’s tolerance for heat.
The signs on each hairpin faithfully record how many remain between rider and resort, but give no indication of the distance to the next hairpin. Often the distance between hairpins would be short, inspiring a false confidence that the ordeal would soon end; other times, an age seemed to pass before another of the low stone beacons, painted white and yellow, would come into view.
In my naivety, I had set the pace for a stronger rider for the first eight kilometres, but as I lowered my cadence while fumbling for an energy gel, the elastic snapped and I experienced first hand the scene I had witnessed countless times from television coverage of the Tour: a rider going out the back door. This time it was me. I made the classic mistake of trying instantly to raise my pace to get back on to the wheel of the rider now departing, and by doing so, pushing myself into the ‘red zone’, rather than steadily working back up to tempo.
Rhythm is everything on an Alpine climb, I learned, and filed this hard won knowledge for another day.
The descent of La Plagne was exhilarating, an experience requiring unbroken concentration, particularly when the wind tugged at the deep section carbon hoops beneath me. With the exception of a short section of road leading out of the resort, the road surface was superb, and the remorseless hairpins described above provided a different test on the way down: one of nerve, accuracy, and bike handling.
A short spin along the valley floor brought us to the base of the climb to the Chalet de la Vanoise, and a climb of seven kilometres at a gradient of 7.5 per cent. The road to Montchavin continues past the village for a few more kilometres before abruptly terminating. A pathway leads to the Vanoise Express: a gondola service linking the resorts of La Plagne and Les Arcs, but in a literal sense, this is a road to nowhere. This distinction must be its only bar to inclusion in the Tour.
A word on the chalet: there’s a large store area inside the building, which was a bonus to our party, many of whom had brought mountain bikes as well as road, pushing the value of the assembled collection above six figures. The entrance to the sauna also became a temporary bike store. The words Montchavin and ‘crime hot spot’ perhaps don’t belong in the same sentence, but we were glad of the space.
The second of the trio of climbs I tackled during my week in the Alps was the Col de la Madeleine: at 2,000 metres the highest I encountered, but not quite the toughest (the difficulty of an Alpine climb is a matter of opinion if the various experiences of our group are an indication; others considered the Madeleine to be the hardest).
We climbed from the south side, and the lower slopes served as a gentle introduction to a climb that grew steadily steeper. Unlike the road to La Plagne, the ascent of the Madeleine includes a host of features, from long straight sections to tight hairpins, although none of those appeared with the same remorseless frequency of La Plagne.
Having climbed steadily, I cracked in the final four kilometres, groveling my way past the seemingly endless line of caravans arrived early for the arrival of the Tour the following day. Picnics were in full swing, names being painted on the road surface as a I limped past, barely noticing the card thrust into my hand by one of the many roadside photographers.
The ‘lead’ I had gained on some of my companions had all but evaporated as the summit approached, but finding the strength from somewhere to stay with a riding colleague who caught me with metres to go, we crossed the ‘line’ together. Quite a moment.
The south side of the Col de la Madeleine is about 65km or an hour’s drive from Montchavin; not exactly on the chalet’s doorstep, but not totally inaccessible. The north side is closer, about 35km, and may perhaps appeal to those sufficiently strong for a 70km round trip and an ascent fo the Madeleine.
Our trip to Albertville, 55km from Montchavin, to watch the departe, of the Tour’s stage 11, was another made with motorized transport, but far from arduous. The 2013 Tour doesn’t come as close, but stages 19, 20, and the finish of stage 18 on l’Alpe d’Huez are all within range of Bourg and its surrounding villages.
The Cormet de Roselend was the final climb of my trip: at 1967 metres, almost as high as the Col de la Madeline, but very different. The road is extremely narrow in places at the bottom (a mental note made as a fleet of Swiss-registered super cars hurtled toward us) before broadening with the landscape at the top into a long, almost entirely straight drag to the summit. The final three kilometres were, for me, the hardest of the trip.
A swift coffee from a roadside stall at the summit, and it was time to begin the seemingly endless descent, exhilarating at the top on the aforementioned long, straight roads, and demanding of the utmost concentration towards the end, when the road narrowed and twisted in steeply inclined hairpins.
We had lunch in Bourg St Maurice, a pleasant enough town, despite the propensity of concrete apartment blocks, and conveniently equipped with a Super U that met our self-catering needs on evenings when we didn’t head into Montchavin to eat. Bourg also contains a sizable sports shop, which provided a useful source of cycling supplies such as energy gels.
The Chalet de la Vanoise provided a convenient and comfortable base from which to ride. Montchavin is a pretty village with a small selection of bars and restaurants, and a good bakery, an Bourg St Maurice is a 15-minute drive if you need the additional resources of a town. It’s worth considering Montchavin’s location close to the summit of a sizable climb. If you’re new to Alpine riding, the descent to the valley floor will be an eye-opener, and after returning from a day in the saddle, you’ll face another significant climb. We overcame the latter with a support crew largely comprised of partners, and a selection of vehicles, a VW Transporter among them.
The Chalet de la Vanoise is open all year and operates a ‘summer season’ from June 30 to August 25. Seasonal rates vary from £15 to £20 per person, per night. Next summer they are offering catered packages and have partnered with a cycling guide.
We took the Eurotunnel from Folkestone to Calais and drove the 700 miles to Montchavin. Eurotunnel tickets for short stays of five days or less start at £47 each way. We bought a Flexiplus ticket, which allowed us to pitch up at the terminal at any time and board the next train. This ticket costs £199 each way.
Other members of the party travelled by Eurostar from London St Pancras to Paris Gare Du Nord and by TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon to Bourg St Maurice. Prices will vary by season.
Au Mont d’Eden in La Plagne is a new, five-bedroom chalet with accommodation for 15 people, as well as a sauna, Turkish bath, Jacuzzi, and iPad in every room.
Chalet Merlo is located in Miroir, close to the French-Italian border. This three-floor chalet sleeps 12 people, and includes a sauna, hot tub, gym, and massage suite.
The Chill Chalet in Bourg St Maurice can be booked by the night and sleeps 13 people. Food is served, and each room is equipped with free wi-fi. Secure storage for bikes is offered.