740km and 16300m ascent in 6 days (22nd -29th July 2011) If someone suggested the idea of cycling from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean in July, the idea might summon up images of long climbs in stifling heat, idyllic alpine pastures and long cool drinks sitting in the shade of cafe verandas . This trip didn’t quite turn out that way, but was memorable for quite different reasons. I rode the Raid Pyrenean with Marmot Tours a few years ago and was keen to compare one great cycling journey with another. Prelude I hate airports, what with the feeling of being processed by a remorseless and inflexible machine and my unshakeable belief that I will get to check in only to find that some vital piece of paperwork is sitting at home on the kitchen table. By the time I’ve got through passport control the fate of my carefully packaged bike comes to the forefront of my mind. Arrival at the other end followed by the retrieval of thankfully complete and undamaged luggage is always a relief. So it was that I met with the week’s riding companions at Geneva airport. After diving in to a bar to catch the end of the Alp d’Huez stage of the Tour, we loaded our bags into the vans and set off through the rushhour traffic to our first hotel in Thonon les Bains. A quick briefing on the next day’s ride was followed by a less than favourable weather forecast. After an excellent meal we built up our bikes and it was time to get some sleep before the first day of the ride. Day One: Thonon to Megeve via the Col des Moises and the Col de la Ramaz: 114km and 2743m ascent No bike ride should start in the rain, particularly one as long and challenging as this one promised to be. Sadly this one was to start in just such a fashion. 18 cyclists gathered together close to a superfluous fountain with a view across a grey and rather unwelcoming Lac Leman . Nervous eyes darted across the group as people tried to assess the relative abilities of the other participants. There was rather too much expensive carbon and too little excess body fat for my liking. Soon we were off, and the road headed uphill, firstly through wet trees and eventually on to an open alp with a scattering of chalets. As we reached the Col des Moises, I looked back to see sunshine on the Swiss side of the lake. The rain had slowed down now and we sped through pleasant wooded country towards our first control at Habere Poche where cards were stamped, and the Raid Alpine was officially under way. Today I forgot that I was on a multi- day trip and rode in my normal punchy way. After a rolling section of ups and downs we started up the first proper col of the Raid. The Col de Ramaz rose quite steeply with a number of hairpins leading us towards a tunneled section before delivering us at the summit. The clouds had drawn back to reveal patches of blue and the views had opened out into something closer to the expected Alpine splendour. Unfortunately it was still cold, and damp lycra doesn’t do a lot for the retention of body heat. We dropped down the hill and stopped at a small restaurant in Praz de Lys, where the unsuspecting proprietor was subjected to the sight of wet cyclists partially disrobing and drying socks, jerseys and shoes by his open fire. After a large and warming meal we set off on the descent and short climb to Arraches.
Another short descent took us to Sallanches. This was followed by a steady climb of about 15k to Megeve. After going wrong a couple of times I arrived at the hotel. As the week went on a pattern developed where the hardest climb of the day always seemed to be the one leading to the hotel. Megeve seemed quite an incongruous place to find in the mountains. It was very chic and full of expensive shops stocking the sort of merchandise where if you had to ask the price, you couldn’t afford it. It was undeniably picturesque though. The hotel was very comfortable and the food was ideal for hungry cyclists. In drier conditions this would have been a fairly easy day but the rain and cold had extracted its price, so I resolved to take it a bit easier tomorrow.
Day Two: Megeve to Tignes La Reculaz via the Col de Saisies the Col du Pre and the Cormet de Roseland 105km and 3079m ascent My recollections of the Col de Saisies are vague, perhaps because the conditions were less than perfect. Arrival at the top meant the donning of several layers followed by a long descent towards Beaufort. My main recollection of the descent is of the cold and of dropping into a long green valley. When we got to the valley bottom we hit a long busy road heading towards Beaufort. I shared the descent with John. As we rode along the valley bottom there was a loud bang and John ground to a halt. His rear tyre had exploded and had a big gash in the sidewall. If this had happened on the fast and technical descent, the consequences could have been serious. As we assessed the damage, Alan arrived in the van and was able to provide and replacement tyre. We were soon on our way again. The next climb was the Col du Pre. On the lower slopes heading towards Areches the weather improved and the narrow road was reminiscent of riding in the Lake District with its varying gradients and twists and turns. On arriving in Areches and getting my brevet card stamped, I felt as if the climb was nearly done. The road then became narrower and steeper. I realised I had been complacent and the last 6km and 670m of climbing proved to be some of the hardest of the Raid. From the top,the views down to the Barrage de Roseland and the slopes of the Cormet de Roseland were in and out of the cloud. The 400m climb from the lake to the top of the Cormet de Roseland would have been beautiful in different conditions, but now the rain had returned with a vengeance.The 20 km descent dropped more than 1100m before delivering us to Bourg St Maurice. The cold and heavy rain meant that we were extremely cold by the time we stopped for a late lunch. Several of us were shivering as we sat down. I seemed to suffer worse than most and this was to be a problem that recurred later on during the trip. Finally, the shivering stopped and the sun came out. The final climb of the day was up the first 20km of the Col de l’Iseran. Everyone was feeling a bit battered by this time, but the sun did a lot to restore morale and the views of the mountains around the Lac du Chevril were outstanding. The hotel was beautifully situated with views across the lake, and food and rooms were excellent. Day Three: Tignes La Reculaz to Cesana Torinese via the Col de l’Iseran and the Col de Mont Cenis 126km and 2620m ascent Contrary to the gloomy forecasts of the previous evening, the day dawned bright but cold. There was new snow on the mountains and we were told that the Col de l’Iseran had been closed for two hours the previous day due to icy conditions. Because of this we set off a little later than normal. The road went through a number of tunnels before reaching Val d’Isere and I was glad that I had remembered to put lights on the bike . Despite the fact that we were climbing, I was glad to have long fingered gloves and a decent base layer under my jersey. After Val d’Isere the gradient increased before we turned right and headed up the mountain side. As we climbed the hairpins, the air grew colder and the surrounding mountains began to assume their full scale. This was the first climb of the trip which really felt Alpine. The hairpins were regular and made the climbing much easier than on some of the earlier climbs. There was a real feeling of being amongst the high mountains. The top was barren, magnificent and above all cold! Everyone scrambled to the van to put on whatever extra layers they had. I was so intent on doing this that I forgot to get my brevet stamped at the hut. (As I write this I’m hoping that the stamp I got in a village on the other side will suffice). The descent was one of the highlights of the trip.
The Val d’Isere side of the col had been beautiful, but grey and forbidding at the same time. The other side was sunlit, colourful and unmarred by the impedimenta of the ski industry.
The descent was fast technical and, again cold. At the end of the steep part of the descent, Pete and I stopped at a cafe and defrosted with the aid of hot chocolate and seats in the full sun. The whole experience of climbing and descending the Iseran had been truly memorable. After the cafe the road continued its descent down a long deep valley towards Bessans and Lanslevillard. We met the van in Lanslebourg and as the sun had come out,disposed of the cold weather gear prior to the ascent of the Col du Mont Cenis. It’s a measure of the way one’s perspective changes in the Alps that Mont Cenis was regarded as being ‘only’ 10km long. It made a real change to be warm on a climb.
At the top we stopped at a cafe for lunch before reaching the Lac du Mt Cenis and following its shore until the road descended by the dam. There were many fortifications around the col and we passed a customs post which marked the Italian border. As we started on the 1600m and 30km descent to Susa the temperature rose and the road became bone dry. The descent was fast, technical and exciting. As we arrived in Suza the streets were full. We later found out that there had been an earthquake a little while earlier. We sat in a cafe and had the best cappucino ever, or maybe it just seemed that way because we were in Italy. The next stretch was along a busy road to our lodgings in Cesana Torinese. Although a little busy the 45km to the hotel went quickly because the climb was steady and the views were impressive. The hotel proved to be the highlight of the week’s lodgings. With 3 stars and accommodation to match it was a real step up.I went for a wander into the village before eating and was impressed by the real difference in atmosphere and architecture from the French ski resorts where we had stayed previously. On arriving back at the hotel we were summoned to the bar where we received a glass of bubbly and were served aperitifs. The meal had no less than 5 courses, By the end, even I was almost, but not quite defeated. Next day’s ride involved an ascent to Sestriere before heading back to Cesane. Maybe it was the wine speaking, but before long a plan was being hatched to do this in the early morning and return to the hotel for breakfast. Day Four: Cesana Torinese to Vars via Col de Sestriere, Col de Montgenevre and the Col d’Izoard 109km and 3004m ascent The alarm went off at some ungodly hour, cycling kit was put on amid much muttering and a group of 10 or so surprisingly enthusiastic cyclists left the hotel. I quickly opened an energy bar as we started on the lower slopes of the col. It was a bright morning but there was a chill in the air as we set off through the trees above Cesane. Despite the early start I was feeling much stronger this morning. My legs had begun to adapt to the very different style of climbing required in the Alps. My cadence had increased and I was spinning up the hill at my own pace. I heard the whistling of marmots as I went round a bend and then I saw them. I could only describe them as beaver sized meerkats in appearance. They watched as I rode steadily upwards. This was a really enjoyable climb. It struck me that the incongruous modern buildings of Sestriere were well hidden in the landscape and only became visible very shortly before arrival. With the card stamped, it was a rapid descent back to the hotel. The rest of the group were about to set off as we strolled into breakfast. We tried not to look smug at having already knocked off the first ascent of the day. Breakfast was particularly satisfying in the circumstances. A little later we started on the Col de Montgenevre. This featured a lot of tunnels but had good views across the surrounding countryside. It was really getting pretty warm now and I was relieved to see the van after the first few hairpins. I quickly shed some layers and carried on up the road. We reached the village of Mont Genevre and then started to descend towards Briancon and back into France. The one way system seemed to show us a lot of Briancon before we followed signs for the Col d’Izoard. It was very satisfying to be making our way up this iconic climb on such a perfect day. The 21km ascent started fairly gently with gradients of between 2 and 6%. The road followed a green wooded valley. We shared the ascent with cross country skiers who were training on wheeled skis. The fact that they were also climbing the Izoard was fairly humbling. After going through the village of Cervieres the gradient steepened and it really felt as if we were getting to grips with the climb. The climb gradually changed character and the straight sections began to give way to hairpins. As we climbed, the air became cooler, but this was welcome for a change. The van was waiting at the top and discretion being the better part of valour, we put on some warmer layers for the long descent to Guillestre. This was a descent I had been looking forward to. The upper reaches cross the famous Casse Deserte which is a stony wilderness. I set off on the descent in my usual fashion, seeking the thrills that can only be enjoyed on a fast sweeping mountain descent. This time however, I had to stop because the landscape was so dramatic. I knew that i would regret not taking some photographs. It is one of those places where the light and colours seem to change all the time and I suspect that it would seem a completely different landscape on another day. I set off on the descent once again, but found myself compelled to stop at least twice more as the views changed. At the beginning of the day, I had made a decision to ride at my own pace and had settled into a steady rhythm. It finally dawned on me that this was the way for me to ride in the Alps. This sounds very antisocial, but in many ways it was just the opposite. At various times during the day I had found myself riding with different people. I had climbed the lower section of the Izoard with Hylton and the middle slopes with Penny and we had met up again at the top. While I was taking photos she came past me and we descended together. I realised at this stage that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast so ordered a a panini from a cafe on the descent , but it took so long to arrive that I tucked it into a pocket and ate it on the move. The lower reaches of the descent went through some impressive limestone canyons which were reminiscent of the Tarn and Jonte gorges in Aveyron. After Guillestre the route set off up the lower slopes of the Col de Vars. This was the last climb of the day, and as is always the case, seemed like the hardest. After 13km I finally arrived at the hotel in St Marie de Vars. I was amazed to find that I was the second arrival of the day. This had little to do with blinding pace but reflected the fact that I had found my own rhythm and had stopped infrequently. This seemed to suit me as for nearly the first time on the trip I felt as if I had found my legs. After our meal we had the usual briefing and the weather forecast was not good. We were promised storms and heavy rain. The 2802 m of the Cime de la Bonette suddenly seemed a daunting prospect in those sort of conditions. Day Five: St Marie de Vars to Beuill via the Col de Vars, the Cime de la Bonette and the Col de Couillole 132km and 3142m ascent As we set out from the hotel, the predicted storms hadn’t yet arrived, but the skies were greyer than yesterday and clouds flirted with the mountain tops. Today was reputed to be the hardest of the trip so there was a touch of apprehension in the air. The 7km climb to the Col de Vars was despatched without undue effort and was followed by a 14km descent . Rather than wait around in the cool air I set off on my own towards Jausiers. In Jausiers I took the road towards the col. A few days previously the col had been closed with the snow and a subsequent landslip. Although it was dry and clear at this level, clouds could be seen enveloping the higher slopes of the mountains. Of all the climbs on the trip, this was the one which I most enjoyed. I slipped into an easy gear and span my way up the lower slopes. As height was gained the green landscape gave way to sparse grassland, then bare scree as the final hairpins came into sight. During the last few hundred metres of climbing, the cloud closed in and the temperature dropped rapidly. The top of the climb consists of a loop which was built in the 1960s in order to lay claim to the title of the highest road in the Alps. As I ventured along this section the road was decorated with a variety of sharp stones. The visibility was so poor that they were difficult to avoid. The freezing fog made things very uncomfortable indeed. I kept moving until I arrived at the van and put on as many layers as I could muster and a pair of winter mountaineering gloves. At least it wasn’t raining! As I left the summit I dropped out of the thick cloud into a storm. The rain was bouncing off the road and was hitting me from all directions. Memories of the descent are a blur of twisting hairpins, wet rocks and uncontrollable shivering. Half way down the 52km descent the rain petered out and I dropped into the village of St Etienne de Tinee where there was a cafe. I staggered in to find a number of the party tucking into pizzas. I ordered a hot chocolate and a pizza , but it was a good twenty minutes before I was able to control my hands enough to hold a cup or wield a knife and fork. I have never been so cold in all my life. The cafe was now a chaos of arriving and departing cyclists and the waitress was in a state of complete confusion. At one stage she tried to land me with the bill for all the cyclists in the room. I might have been cold but I’m also a Yorkshireman and so that was never likely to happen. As we left the cafe the heavy rain had arrived again to accompany us down the rest of the descent. I added a spare fleece from the Marmot van to my many layers, and a small group of us headed towards St Sauveur. Although we were descending, the gradient was slight and so we were able to keep warm by pedalling. A right turn before St Sauveur led us to the foot of the final col of the day. The Col de La Couillole was a 17km climb alongside a beautiful limestone gorge. Even in the grim conditions the views were spectacular and on a more usual August afternoon they would have been outstanding. As it was, the climb ended up as a test of character which was just about passed when the top was reached. A short descent into Beuil led us to our hotel for the night. There was a palpable feeling that the end of the raid was in sight. The forecast for tomorrow suggested an improvement and although there were149km between us and Antibes, the hardest climbing had been done. Day Six: Beuill to Antibes via the Col de St Raphael, the Col de Blaine, the Col de Castellaras, the Col de la Sine, the Col de Ferrier and the Col du Pilon 149km and 2051m ascent As we rode out from Beuill, the sky was blue and the air was clear. As we were starting the day with a 22km descent it was still a morning for wrapping up. We soon reached the Gorges de Cians. James had likened the descent to one of the flying scenes from Star Wars. I soon knew exactly what he meant. The road plummeted between towering walls which started off as a pinky red rock at the top (hence the name of the gorge) and changed to limestone lower down. I’m afraid I let my thrill seeking side have the upper hand on here and didn’t stop for photographs. About half way down I saw a number of cyclists from our group standing at the side of the road. I didn’t think any more of this and headed on to the foot of the descent and waited for the van so I could dispose of some layers. The van soon arrived followed by the rest of our party. It turned out that Rob had misjudged a corner and slid across the road. He stopped when his head hit one of the concrete blocks guarding the steep drop to the river below. Amazingly his helmet was cracked, his shorts and jersey were torn and his new Sidi shoes were scuffed, but he was relatively unscathed. It takes a lot to unsettle an ex tank commander and he was back on his bike and ready to continue! The rest of the day’s ride consisted of steady climbs over wooded hills as we headed into Provence. By the afternoon the warm breeze carried the scent of wild lavender and it felt as if we had arrived in the South of France. After one final rise the sea was in sight and the road headed inexorably downwards towards Antibes. The nearer we got to the coast, the more traffic we encountered until we hit standing traffic on the coast road. This felt so different from the wilderness we had left behind. Finally we arrived at the hotel. After packing up the bikes, everyone headed out into Antibes for a final meal and a successful attempt at lowering the tone among the self proclaimed ‘beautiful people’. In truth, Antibes was rather magical at night and provided an incongruous but suitably relaxing backdrop to our final evening. Postscript The next morningI arrived at Nice airport and was soon back home. Two weeks later I am still amazed at some of the extreme weather that we encountered through the week. The weather made the ride considerably more challenging than it would have otherwise been. I can honestly say that I have never been as cold as I was on the descent of the Cime de la Bonette. I will certainly invest in a better quality shell jacket before my next trip. I did learn some lessons on the Raid. As someone who spends a lot of my time on the steep climbs of Cumbria and the Yorkshire Dales, it took a couple of days for me to settle into a higher cadence spinning rhythm on the climbs. By day three I was riding at my own pace and felt comfortable . Once I realised this, I stayed aerobic on all the climbs and felt little discomfort during or after the last couple of days of the Raid. I was however physically tired by the end and I put a lot of this down to the extreme cold of some of the descents. I started the Raid Alpine wondering whether it would be easier or harder than the Raid Pyrenean. I can only say that this Raid Alpine complete with adverse conditions was more of a challenge than the Raid Pyrenean which I completed in good weather. Despite or perhaps because of the conditions this was one of the most exciting and memorable weeks I have ever spent on the bike. The professionalism of Marmot Tours and the low key but efficient support and encouragement of James and Alan was instrumental in getting us to the finish. I will now start saving up for my next trip!