Cycling in the northern Alps

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Sportive

Jo McRae tackles the northern Alps

As the end of the summer racing season approached I was invited on an ‘Ultimate cycling tour’ by Rpm 90, to take in their very own ‘Tour of Mont Blanc’ including rides through three countries in as many days and some legendary Northern Alpine climbs. This journey is not only a classic for cyclists but also a tour made by skiers and ultra-endurance runners around the spectacular Mont Blanc, the highest peak in Western Europe. The snow-capped mountain rises to a majestic 4801m with slopes extending into France, Italy and Switzerland, making it a fantastic focal point for a two-wheeled adventure.

Setting this trip apart from the sportive experience of the same name is the support crew from Rpm90 who provide the elements of luxury that make the experience an altogether more comfortable one for mere mortals like myself. With daily rides averaging around 100km (to include one rest day) together with the epic climbs, the challenge is significant enough without needing to think about anything more than getting from one place to the next each day. Fortunately the Rpm90 team deal with the rest, providing transport for baggage, mechanical back up, extra clothing and food, massage at the end of each day, and the moral support of a spot in the van should anyone’s legs give out en route. Accommodation and meals are provided by a mix of luxury hotels, apartments and chalets waiting to greet the small group of tired, sweaty and hungry cyclists arriving by mid-afternoon.

The starting point for our own ‘petit boucle’ was the Chilly Power Chalet Hotel au Coin du Feu on the road between Morzine and Avoriaz. As our small group gathered in this luxurious setting so did the excitement at the prospect of setting off on the road the next day.  We took our first look at a map and were given our route cards for reference on the road before enjoying a delicious three course meal to charge up our batteries. Francesca our hostess added to the flavour with stories of the Tour de France teams who have stayed there over the years, including tales of Olympic RR champion Vinoukerov flirting with the waitresses, and even a peak at the teams’ breakfast menus.

After our own full breakfast the next morning came our first day of riding, and we rolled out through Morzine to the introductory climb of the Col du Corbier on the way to Switzerland. At a mere 7km and 1230m it was a fairly gentle start but it was still tough enough to give us a chance to find our climbing legs.  The sun shone and as we crossed the border into Switzerland we enjoyed a coffee stop in Morgins where we took in the greenery and scenery of a new country.  I benefitted from a new chain fitted by our mechanic James, and we headed off down the long, sweeping banked bends into Monthey, and then the long windy valley road to Martigny.  Passing local club cyclists hugging the flat we chatted happily as we climbed gently to arrive fatigued but satisfied at La Chablet at the base of Verbier having got a solid 119km under our belts.

Massages to flush through the tired legs were dished out by Rpm 90’s Nick and James and a big bowl of chiili was served at dinner.  Loosening the legs relaxed the atmosphere and we shared anecdotes and stories and got our minds set for a big day of climbing.

Day two was going to be a big one with our longest climb of the trip taking us up for some 30km+ before reaching the summit of the Col du Grand Saint Bernard on the border between Switzerland and Italy.  After a short roll out from La Chablet we began the long ascent with the first 24km a gradual but relentless 5 or 6% gradient most of the way.  We weaved our way steadily out of the valley and through several tunnels as we approached the higher slopes where the climb proper was to start, already having been on the road for close to two hours.

At the turn off onto the more minor road to the pass itself, the road kicks up towards 9% for the last 6 or 7km and you quickly get the sense that you are on an epic climb.  Traversed by Napoleon and his armies in 1800 and for the first time in the Tour de France in 1949 (led over from the Italian side by Gino Bartoli), you realise the risk taken by some of those early travellers and get an understanding of the importance of the refuge and rescue provided by the monks and dogs at the historic hospice on the mountain top.   The palate of the view suddenly changes to multiple shades of grey and those layers of clothing that have been foolishly discarded on the lower slopes suddenly become desirable in the chill wind and contemplative quiet of the higher slopes.  Finally reaching the top of the climb we gathered by the van and pulled on more clothes to prepare for the descent into Italy, and took the opportunity to take on a very welcome hot drink and snack.

A chilly but pleasurable descent into Italy followed, as our small group now relaxed into the curves and bends having started to get a feel for the ups and downs of the terrain. There was a sense of civilisation returning as we approached the sprawling town of Aeosta and the remainder of the day was spent in a steady slog along the relative main road up to Pre-St Didier.  The sky became a heavy grey to match the feel of the legs and the hotel was a welcome sight after 102km on the road and 2219m of climbing.

As we woke the next day we were treated to our first proper view of Mont Blanc itself, with clear skies and more warm weather on the cards. The first climb of the day was the ‘Petit Col du St Bernard’, smaller and kinder than its bigger brother but still a solid 24km of climbing, but with only one short steep section near the top. Now on the third day of significant riding, any agitated egos had fallen away and we all climbed within ourselves to enjoy the views and the sun as we rode steadily through the ski station at La Tuille towards the second half of the climb. The views towards the top are spectacular and expansive with cattle grazing around clustered farm buildings and small patches of blue-green water nestled in the hillsides. The summit of the climb is an open tarmac stretch making for a bit of competitive fun for the ‘king’ or ‘queen’ of the mountains and an ideal stopping point for refuelling with food and drink.

The descent off the top took us thirty eight minutes and was anything but easy. As we passed between the old border buildings the wind blew and the rough road surface made heavy weather of the first few kilometres. As we pushed on into the descent the valley seemed slow to come up to meet us as we caught regular views of our destination at the switch backs of each of the many hairpins. This kind of descending gives you a real taste of what it must be like for the pros to push hard on the descents as well as the climbs.  Both physically and mentally fatiguing, you have to keep your wits about you to maintain momentum and concentration, and we were glad of another sunny lunch stop when we finally reached Bourg St Maurice in the valley.

Our second climb of the day was up the 19km Cormet de Roseland, with a deceptive false flat in the middle before the final punishing 5 or 6 km.  Starting on a narrower more minor road than the others, the first half of the climb was hot work as we crept our way up through the trees before opening out onto views of roughened rock faces, and caves hidden in the scree.  Once again the higher slopes brought in the cold wind and the steady zig zag slog to the top. The Roseland saw our first puncture within the group and our support van running back and forth to make sure everyone had what that needed. For me this was the toughest climb so far, perhaps because of the mileage and metres already in my legs, and perhaps because I rode alone for much of the way.  Either way I was certainly glad to see the summit.

With very little left in the tank even the descent into rural Beaufort seemed like hard work as I reluctantly pushed the pedals round. The views of the deep blue black of the Lac de Roseland helped soothe the pain as we headed into the heart of cheese making country. Our stop for the night was the Hotel du Grand Mont, a truly French experience with their quirky French round pillows and unusual bathroom arrangements. What the lodging lacked in luxury they made up for in hearty local food and a very warm welcome. At dinner we were served a spread of Coq au vin, steak, lamb, vegetables and every type of salty, fatty, carbohydrate option a group of tired cyclists might crave.  And of course there was the ever present (Beaufort) cheese and wine.

Our fourth day of riding was a shorter leg from Beaufort to Chamonix where we would stop for two nights and take a well-earned rest. Tired legs set off on the 85km leg up the Col du Saises, a fairly relaxed climb affording great views of Mont Blanc on another beautiful clear day.

Cycling past the deserted ski resort at the top with its vacant suspended ski lifts, we once again we headed down hill into Flume, and a then continued on a flatter stretch to a picnic lunch stop in Megeve.  The stretch along the main valley road and the climbs up the back roads into Chamonix completed our fourth consecutive day in the saddle.  As we arrived at the Adventure Base apartments that would be our home for the next two days we had our first spectacular view of the glacier, its thick gnarled tongue of ice suspended on the mountainside right outside where we were staying.

An early start for some the following morning made for an even more spectacular view on our rest day. Several of the group got up early to catch the cable car up the Aguille du midi to its peak at 3842m.  This record breaking vertical cable car is not for the feint hearted, but for the brave the rewards are magnificent.

One last brief stop in Megevette allowed us to fuel up for the final climbs and relaxed scenic descents before the burn up finale along the Thonon-Morzine Road. Regrouping at a coffee house in Morzine we felt that sense of smugness that you can only get if you have stretched yourself and come through with flying colours.

Coming full circle both geographically and gastronomically, while we enjoyed another gourmet three course meal at the chilli powder chalet we reflected on what we had achieved and pored over the stats. In five days of riding around Mont Blanc we had covered 521km and taken in over 10 000m of climbing. Quite an achievement. We had wanted for nothing, and we had got lucky with the weather, not seeing a drop of rain all week and seeing more than our fair share of September sunshine.

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