Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The Pyrenees...or the Alps?

Having completed this year's alpine challenge, thoughts are already turning to next year...and a dilemma: the Alps (again) or the Pyrenees. The original plan for this year was to go to the Pyrenees, but that never happened. Fortunately, the Alps stepped in and provided some brilliant riding: cols like the Ramaz and Joux Verte I could do again and again. And there were others that Id like to do for the first time, or renew acquaintances with, like:

The Plateau des Saix

The Col de la Columbiere (from Cluses)

The Col de la Croix Fry

The Col de la Forclaz (from Montmin)

And some further afield, like:

The Cormet de Roselend

The Col de la Madeleine

And the Col du Galibier

But the pull of the Pyrenees is strong. Fly to Toulouse, and drive down to Luz St Sauveur from where these delights are all on hand.

Col du Tourmalet

First from Luz St Sauveur

And back from Saint Marie de Campan

Col de Gavarnie

Col d'Aspin

Luz Ardiden


Col du Soulor

So what to do?

Maybe both?

We'll find out in 2015...

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

The Alps 2014

An Alpine Challenge

For this year’s mountain cycling challenge, I headed to Les Gets with cycling partner James Wood. More commonly associated with mountain biking, I’d been skiing in Les Gets many times before as a teenager. The village has changed tremendously since then, but I knew many of the climbs in the area from skiing down them. It was time to experience them in tarmac for the first time.

For cycling, Les Gets is perfectly situated. It may not be on the doorstep of the famous Tour de France climbs, but that’s an advantage. As I explain below, the ‘motorway’ climbs of the Tour are best avoided – the other less famous climbs will still challenge you and provide a superior experience. Still, to the north of Les Gets, lies Avoriaz, to the west the Col de la Ramaz, and the East the Joux Plane to name but a few. It’s a short drive to Cluses, where you can climb the Columbiere, Aravis and the Croix Fry. Or you can head into Annecy for the climbs around the lake. There’s plenty on offer.

Four days, 400ks, and about 9000m climbing provided a range of experiences. We managed these four rides:

Day 1: 

Day 2: 

Day 3:

Day 4: 

But before recounting the best bits, some thank-yous. First to James for not complaining at all, particularly after everytime I said ‘its only a short one’ or ‘its not that steep’. I don’t think I could have suffered as much as James did. Kudos was invented for rides like his. Im sure James would like to thank all the kilometer signs on the climbs which makes judging your effort much easier.

Thanks also to Mark and Caroline whose flat we stayed in at Les Gets. Thanks also to @cyclingalps for the advice on which climbs to use – without him, we’d have never known about the Ramaz, the Encrenaz or gone up the Joux Verte. Also, we’re grateful to the Patisseries of the Haute Savoie. Daniel Friebe’s book’s were also useful, and he also put us in touch with @cyclingalps. Being off-season there wasn’t much open, but the patisseries in Morzine and Faverges filled important holes mid-ride. On Sunday, they were even open when supermarkets weren’t. And lastly, thanks to the French weather. I was worried about travelling so late in the year, but we had perfect conditions, so good I even got a suntan.

The Col de Joux Plane – the hardest climb not in the Tour de France?

In Mountain High, Daniel Friebe wonders whether the Col de Joux Plane is the hardest climb to feature in the Tour de France. The evidence comes from those that have raced up and over it. Most (in)famously, the Joux Plane took issue with Lance Armstrong (who wouldn’t?) handing him a dose of la fringale.

The Joux Plane 

Inoccuous, perhaps, on Strava – around 12km of 7-8%, it doesn’t possess the same aura of similar length climbs like Alpe d’huez or the longer giants like the Galibier or Ventoux. Then again, maybe its character is felt in different ways, rather than raw power and beats per minute?

So how was this climb – was it hard, or was it special?

We made the first ascent on Friday evening, having flown in to Geneva. We opted for the easy side from Morzine as a sort of leg-loosener. And it was easy. Nothing special going on here. Except it did stir some old memories: the last time I was on this road I was skiing down it. In winter, the road becomes a piste. Its only a green run, but the sort of place you can get into a tuck, pretend you’re on Ski Sunday and not worry about wiping out. There’s a jump halfway down as you ski over the hairpins and across a meadow. It had been a while, but those memories were still vivid.

Top of the Joux Plane. Note the recent deposits on the road...

There are two summits to the Joux Plane. The first, the Col du Ranfolly when climbing from Morzine is no more than the top of the ski lift from Les Gets. There’s a descent that follows and another brief climb past a small lake to the real summit. If the climb up was easy, then the descent to Samoens was anything but. Steep, very technical and with a really poor road surface, made worse by cow shit covering the roads. It was October, and cattle were being brought down to the lower slopes. So, it wasn’t the place to be taking risks. I was thankful to catch up with a car and use them to guide me down the rest of the descent.

Halfway down (or up) the Joux Plane. The road surface is better here.

The following day we ascended from Samoens – the ‘hard’ side. To be fair, it was no romp in the park. The descent the previous day had alerted me to the steep sections, and they really were. First out of the village, then about halfway up around a hairpin a ramp to get you hoping that the rest of the climb won’t be so steep. The final kilometer was also hard, but partly down to the road surface as well. Apart from the section out of the village, the climb is in two halves, with the easiest section at the bottom. But, to be honest, I was left wanting more, or wondering what would make it so hard to race up.

The top of the Joux Plane

There’s no doubt that the climb is special, though. It is a challenge. It is hard. But it is also beautiful and quiet, except for consecutive choruses of cow bells. This is no industrial climb to a ski resort. The hairpins are steep and the views spectacular. A hard climb, no doubt; but not the hardest.

The anti-motorway climb: the col de la Joux Verte

Which way up to Avoriaz I wondered? The main road, or an unknown back road known as the Col de la Joux Verte? Fortunately I had some advice to take the back road. It was the best bit of advice I’ve ever had.

We might think of most of the infamous Tour de France summit finishes as ‘motorway’ climbs: wide open roads, industrial, built for purpose and with little character. Alpe d’huez suffers from this, as do the climbs to Flaine and le Deux Alpes. The climb to Avoriaz is the same. Wide sweeping hairpins make for a fast descent: but they are roads for ski-busses not bikes.

The Joux Verte gets to the same place as the main road to Avoriaz, only by a much more spectacular route. Starting in Montriond, the climb is gentle at first until you reach Lac de Montriond. But from there to Les Lindarets it pitches up viciously. Don’t trust the Strava segment: I found it harder than any part of the Joux Plane.

Lac de Montriond. From here onwards it gets harder.

But it was also spectacularly beautiful – I guess its no coincidence its called the Joux Verte. Halfway up there is a stack of hairpins – steep ones – constantly skirting back on each other, the terraces providing an amazing view all the way down to Montriond. Through Les Lindarets I recognized that I had also been skiing here too. A herd of goats partially blocked the road, and the cafĂ© looked inviting. Tourists were milling around – one asking me in French, “c’est facile comme ca?”. “oui oui” I replied. Later on, he came past in his Maserati, blowing his horn, his wife cheering me from the passenger seat.

The steep section is followed by a refreshing flatish section winding its way through the woods, before the final last open kilometres around hairpins again with spectacular views. Truly magnificent: who needs motorway climbs?

Final bends of the Col de la Joux Verte

At the top, the road merges with the Avoriaz road. Fittingly, there’s an additional 1km along a three lane road to the bleak (or monstrous) architecture of Avoriaz. The French guy was there waiting for me, complimenting me on my climbing speed and asking if I raced: “ah oui, il y a vingt ans…”. If the Joux Verte doesn’t get you off the motorways, perhaps nothing will.

Avoriaz architecture

Being Encrenazed

“Riding back from Morzine, you can go via the Col de l’Encrenaz. Its much quieter than the main road if a little harder”, so I was advised. Good advice I thought, although perhaps not after the Joux Plane and Joux Verte. And so was created a new verb: from now on, blowing up, hitting the wall, the bonk etc, shall be known as being encrenazed.

Only a short climb of around 7km, it was steep all the way. There’s a brief downhill section halfway up, but a set of hairpinned terraces at 9%, is topped off with a final km of more 9, 10, 11%. It was brutal; survival mode had kicked in. There is a bar at the top which perhaps is its saving grace, and the descent to the other side of Les Gets is pretty but not fast.

Recovering from being Encrenazed.

From Taninges, there is another climb up to Les Gets to avoid the main road, but there’s no doubt the main road climbs to Les Gets aren’t that great. The main road is 10km at around 4%: a big gear climb if you like that sort of thing. I tried to race up it, and got behind a tractor and trailer at one point, before backing off. But with all of Geneva seemingly headed to their weekend retreats in Les Gets on Friday evening, it wasn’t the best experience. If we’d known about the back way, we’d have taken it.

Finally. The top of the Encrenaz.

On the last day we returned to the Encrenaz. It was pay back time. This time we trounced it. But we came up the ‘easy’ side. Still, it was a good feeling to be on top of the Encrenaz without being Encrenazed.

Descents that make good climbs in Annecy

Trundling along the cycle path on a sunny Sunday in Annecy, I remarked to James that I hoped the locals realized how lucky they were to live there. Lets hope they do, because if you do anything outdoors, this is the place to do it. I know Annecy quite well, but I left with regrets when I rode there last year. The Semnoz, was a soulless grinding motorway of a climb, albeit a hard one. I loved the descent from the top to the Col de Leschaux and wished I’d ridden up that way. I climbed the Col de la Forclaz, but couldn’t do the descent through Montmin as the road was closed. And I rode up the Col de l’Epine, but faffed around taking pictures and wished Id ridden up hard to see what time I could do. Today’s ride was something of a return match.

We started off by going up the Col de la Forclaz. A friendly argument had raged in the days beforehand about which was the best side. I like the Annecy side mainly because the southern side looks just too steep. It also has quite a big flat/downhill section: I always think that’s a bit of a cheat for any decent climb. From Annecy, the climb is not too long, but hard at the top. You get a fantastic view from the top, and then its time for the descent.

Top of the Forclaz looking down the descent.

I maintained the Annecy route is best until I had done the descent through Montmin which, frankly, is amazing. Steep, technical and beautiful; its rare that you can appreciate how good a climb can be from just doing the descent, but this was one of those moments. People coming up looked to be suffering: that’s always a good sign. So, another return match looks like its needed. In fact I’ve already planned the route: from Thones up the Croix fry and Aravis, then the Epine and Montmin before the Bluffy and back to Thones.

This way for pain.

Descending the Semnoz though was a different story. We’d climbed from St Jorioz to Saint-Eustache, before a little descent and the start of the Semnoz, or the Cret de Chatillon, at the Col de Leschaux. From St Jorioz it’s a long gradual climb on quiet roads. There was a sportive on, and riders were racing towards the finish. It started to rain near Saint-Eustache, but nothing major. That climb must have been around 13ks, so when James asked how far to go when we reached the Col de Leschaux, I said it couldn’t be much longer – around 7ks I thought. It turned out it was another 14kms.

You can see the climb zig-zagging up the mountain, the road scarring the forest. I could hear James’ reaction when I pointed it out to him. But once on to the slopes, I was left a bit underwhelmed. It wasn’t as hard as it looks and has a significant flat section you can big ring at 4ks to go. It lulled my into a false sense of security: it wasn’t over yet, and the last 2kms kicked up again.

View from the top of the Semnoz. Last time I was here it was a white-out.

But what was really hard was the descent. On paper it looks straightforward: long straight sections with only a few hairpins to worry about at the top, before a very tricky run into Annecy. The trouble was it had got cold and wet, and the light was starting to fade. The top two hairpins were taken like Bradley Wiggins in the 2013 Giro: cautious in the extreme. Putting those nerves to one side, the long straightish section to the Quintal junction was taken flat out. In the dry with good visibility, it would be great.

The speed of the descent left me cold and the road conditions were deteriorating. As I approached the hairpins near Annecy, the road was soaking and covered in a carpet of fallen leaves. I was shivering and the bike was shaking. There would be no sprinting out of these hairpins: lines had to be picked cautiously. Next time you hear someone moaning about Wiggins’ descending skills, get them to try the Semnoz in October.

Cold and scared after the Semnoz descent

Romancing the Ramaz

Reblochon is the cheese to eat when in the Haute Savoie. A cheese whose history lies in tax-dodging demands respect, particularly as it makes for excellent Tartiflette or Raclette, traditional Savoyard cuisine. The cows that produce Reblochon – usually Abondance or Montbeliardes – live high in the alps, complete with bells so they can tell you where they are. Some of these can be found on the Col de la Ramaz, and if the Joux Verte doesn’t stir you, the Ramaz most certainly will.

mmm, Raclette

Still feeling the effects of the Raclette scoffed the night before, we made our way to the Col de la Ramaz for our last col. At 13kms and an altitude gain of 970m its a similar challenge to Alpe d’huez. Only better. Much better. Again its not a motorway climb, but wends its way through pastures, forests and cliffs before emerging on to a high mountain plateau. 

Heading up the Ramaz

Unlike the Joux Plane, you can see where you are headed. From the lower slopes you can see the tunnel that you pass through before reaching a magnificent amphitheater – a vast open meadow around which the climb circles. Our views were slightly limited; the morning fog was still lifting, but climbing through the cloud line added to the atmosphere.

Towards the tunnel

A new tunnel was recently built on one of the steepest parts of the climb. Its an interesting experience riding through a tunnel. After tiring of shouting just to hear the echo, I became aware of a rumbling sound growing ever louder. There was no sight of any vehicle, and as I prepared to leave the tunnel I thought it must be an air conditioning unit. But then it appeared. A powerful Klaas tractor with trailer, heading to the top of the Ramaz. 

Tractor struggling up the Ramaz

What a commute. It was struggling against the gradient as much as I was. I thought about jumping on the back, but decided against it, and watched as it chugged past the chairlifts, up and around into the distance.

The vast open section near the top of the Ramaz

If you haven’t been seduced by now, the last kms of the Ramaz surely will. Kinking its way through some rocky outcrops, the last steep section rounds to the right and onto the finishing straight. 

Final bends towards the top

You might notice the finish line; most will be captivated by the view of Mont Blanc. The one blot on the landscape is the enduring tour graffiti for ‘Vino’. Its stained and dirty, but ultimately it doesn’t break the romance of the Ramaz.