France / Suisse July 2017

The best things in life come at some risk. This July we defied our circumstances and took off for the French Alps. The journey may have seemed unlikely in the preceding weeks. It had been a difficult winter in Melbourne: the loss of a dear friend, followed by a period of reduced riding, and a frustrating injury. But seizing a moment of opportunity we moved from the conception of an adventure to its realisation in little more than a week. For the best part of three weeks we would explore the awesome and iconic landscape which means so much to cycling.

Quick links for this post:

Prologue
Ride 1 – Lugrin – Pas de Morgins
Ride 2 – Lugrin – Novel
Transit Day – Lugrin – Col d’Ornon
Ride 3 – Alpe d’Huez
Ride 4 – Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier
Transit day – To Briançon via Mont Aiguille
Ride 5 – Col de la Madeleine
Ride 6 – Spectating the Tour De France
Ride 7 – Galibier Revisited
Ride 8 – Col d’Izoard
Ride 9 – Col de Joux Plane
Ride 10 – Les Diablerets, Switzerland
Ride 11 – Lugrin
Some final reflections

Prologue

With much of Claire’s family in France, it was inevitable that we would travel there at some point. We’d considered the possibility of venturing this year, but the outline of this possibility was vague. A more realistic proposition was that we would make our first trip in 2018. This seemed all the more realistic when I began to experience terrible pain in my right knee in late June.

Probably resulting from riding too hard on a low base one cold weekend, at its worst I could barely walk. When Claire laid out the plan to travel I was in pain but I agreed, assuming my injury was a niggle which would simply disappear. Days later I was struggling and considering abandoning the whole thing. But then I sensed a little improvement and a hopeful visit to Lucas at Cycling Physiotherapy Centre steeled further optimism. The pain became manageable, at least. It was time to move.

Our plan began with a flight into Switzerland before crossing intro France for a stay at Lugrin, on Lake Geneva. Lugrin is a sleepy lakeside holiday town which has an important place in Claire’s family. Claire’s grandfather had a house right on the lake where her mum spent youthful summers after the war.

The view from Lugrin.

We stayed in a holiday house joining what turned out to be an extended family get-together. I was in at the deep end with my French language skills. Duolingo might say I’m 55% fluent in French but in practice this meant I understood 55% of the words in any given sentence – not 55% of the sentences! So mostly I sat there nodding and smiling blandly; occasionally stringing together a painstaking phrase, relying heavily on my translator.

Our veganism proved controversial and our low-fat approach to veganism almost unacceptable! But the long lazy meals overlooking the lake were a pleasure – and somehow we managed to fit in some riding!

Starting from Lake Geneva and heading south, a climbing utopia presents itself. An attempt at filtering interesting Strava segments in Haute-Savoie had me almost overwhelmed. But forearmed with a sense of history and a little internet research I worked out some ride plans.

Ride 1 – Lugrin – Pas de Morgins

After a long breakfast, then a long lunch, we started climbing up away from our accommodation – with Claire’s 75 year old ‘Unky Phil’ in tow on his steel touring bike!

I was gripped by two thoughts – ‘I’m riding my bike in another country!’ and ‘stay right!’ For the most part I avoided any death-defying silliness and adjusted quickly to my new right-sided regime.

Leaving Phil behind after the first hour’s riding we proceeded down the valley from Vinzier towards Châtel for the climb up Pas De Morgins. The mountains resonated with clanging cowbells – it sounds like a horrendous cliché but it really imparted a dreamlike quality to the riding.

Approaching the Pas, the climb first starts as you make your way through Châtel and the ski village of Vonnes. The road pitches up just slightly above a false-flat gradient, the rises gradually. A man stopped at the side of the road cheering me and moments later an old woman put her things down and started photographing me as I passed – it was surreal (though I spoiled the shot for her by dropping my chain – maybe Claire gave her a better opportunity).

Once through the town the climb ramps up properly and heads into a sharp switchback overlooking Lac de Vonnes. I was feeling good and decided to give it a go: Bad idea. Pain in my knee rang out like a rifle shot. I sat back in the saddle and limped to the top of the Pas.

Ride 2 – Lugrin – Novel

This one was meant to be a shorter ride and that’s what we got … . The climb to Novel, on the French / Swiss border 20 km east of Lugrin looked nice on paper. It was truly breathtaking on the ground. Turning away from the lake, the climb pitches up at a constant gradient, first through the village of Saint-Gingolph and then into a more forested zone. It feels a bit like climbing Donna Buang, if you can imagine Donna with stunning lake views, ancient stone arch bridges and the occasional tunnel!

Eventually you emerge to a view of sheer mountain cliffs rising out of the hills and towering over the village. Otherworldly:

After lingering at the top for a few moments we began to barrel down again. I was just thinking how rare random failures during descents are when – bang! My front wheel went into a pothole concealed by forest shade. Straight away I knew something was very wrong. I pulled up and found I’d broken a spoke.

Claire’s uncle Xavier came to the rescue and drove us back to Lugrin. But where did this leave our holiday? An unusable front wheel requiring a specific aero bladed spoke – it was a real worry. I’d have been lost without my translator. Amazingly, after many phone calls, we found a store in Geneva with a single Fulcrum Zero spoke in stock. We rushed across the border and got there in time (also in time to see the finish of Stage 12 of the Tour on the shop’s TV).

Later I received a message from a friend riding elsewhere in France. He’d crashed on a descent and broken his clavicle quite badly. I resolved to descend casually for the rest of the trip.

Transit Day – Lugrin – Col d’Ornon

Claire’s facility with Airbnb scored us an apartment on a mountain! The drive down the valley past Mont Granier revealed increasingly dramatic vistas until a point where I simply struggled to calibrate the scale. But near the Summit of Col d’Ornon we found our accommodation in a beautiful little village where we could feel at home:

Our home on Col d’Ornon

Ride 3 – Alpe d’Huez!

Alpe d’Huez – probably the most famous mountain in cycling, alongside Ventoux and the Tourmalet. Preparing for this climb for the first time carries a unique kind of anticipation. You know you’re going to be following the wheel of a lot of history.

Whilst much of our riding was being done at tempo I knew I wanted to have a dig at Huez to see what I could do. The best riders, fully juiced, have gone up the 12km at 9% in 35mins. The best clean riders go up around 40mins. That puts it in the same league as Mt Buller (longer but less steep where the best riders also go around 40mins). So I figured at full flight I should be able to do Huez in the high 40s. But I was also nursing serious knee pain and coming off a low base – so what to target? On Strava, most people I knew had climbed around the hour. I decided to aim for 52mins with a back-up aim of anything under the hour if I found myself really struggling.

I hit the start of the climb at a solid pace, staying on track for 52mins. But quickly I encountered problems. Unexpectedly I found myself short of breath – something which rarely happens. Was this an altitude thing? Unlikely at the bottom of the climb! I guess I was just out of fitness. After a couple of kms I had to back off a notch. I finished with 55mins, a few mins ahead of Claire who was coming off a similarly low base.

The climb itself was not nearly as striking as I thought it would be. All those famous lacets, the 21 switchbacks which seem so defining on TV, aren’t really visible to you as you climb. It just feels like another winding mountain. I’d built this one up, and was left a little underwhelmed. Still, I’ll be back to go quicker some day.

Some friends had said, ‘when you get to the top turn right and enjoy the views of the Col de Sarenne.’ It was good advice:

One of many gorgeous views on the Col de Sarenne.

Ride 4 – Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Télégraphe, Col du Galibier

We conceived this only a day or so before executing it. Knocking over three famous climbs in one ride seemed like a good idea. Originally I suggested starting from our accommodation, throwing in the descent of Col d’Ornon at the start and finishing with the climb for about 180km and almost 5000m elevation. I was persuaded by wiser thinking that 160km and over 4000m was probably enough …

In the morning sunshine the Croix de Fer was lovely. It’s a varied climb which could be conceived as a couple of shorter ascents. Halfway through you descend from Le Rivier d’Allemont to Lac de Grand Maison before climbing to the summit. At this point I really felt I was doing two distinct climbs – perhaps as distinct as the Télégraphe and Galibier.

Passing one group I noticed what looked like an English club name on a rider’s jersey.
“English?” I asked
“Yes”
“Australian” I said with a smile.
I don’t know why – I wasn’t really expecting some Anglospheric solidarity. I suppose I felt we might have connected as two riders being away from home on a famous mountain. But he just looked blankly at me. As it turns out he probably didn’t like being passed. When Claire went by he said to her, ‘I’m usually faster, I’ve gained a stone.’ Sure sure! (what’s a stone?).

Summit of the Croix de Fer.

The descent down the other side was a bit hairy and I was very nearly taken out by an ascending motorhome driver who left us very little room to squeeze through. Then I had an even closer call. We came to a section of descent which was fast and sweeping but the road surface was badly broken in places. I was washing off some speed with a touch of brakes at about 60kph when my front wheel went into a rut. I fell forward and unintentionally gripped the front brake a little too much with a lurch. It all passed safely in a second, but was one of those heart-in-mouth moments. Once you’ve come off a few times you can so easily visualise how these things might play out differently. So I used up a life on that one!

Approaching the Télégraphe I started to get that sensation of traversing history once more. I really enjoyed this climb. Until the top it’s a forested road and not strikingly picturesque. But as you near the summit, views down the valley open up on the right. From an Australian perspective it felt a bit like Tawonga Gap. It’s another climb I look forward to revisiting on better legs.

At the summit of the Télégraphe.

The Tour was rolling over the Télégraphe and Galibier in four days and the sense of anticipation was thick in the air. Motorhome tourists from all over Europe were setting up on the side of the road already – though we saw more signs for Bardet and Barguil than any non-French riders.

After descending into the old town of Valloire we started up the Galibier. This turned into the hardest slog I’ve ever endured on a climb. Even though I’d stayed at an easy pace up Croix de Fer and the Télégraphe my lack of form was showing itself as the distance and elevation wracked up. I slowed to an absolute crawl and could barely turn the pedals over. I started to eat into my rations for the rest of the ride just to keep moving forward. The views on this climb are truly extraordinary but I could hardly savour them. As I fell apart the race tourists lounged idly in front of their motorhomes. It felt cruel. The final ramp up over the old tunnel was torture, but from the 2642m crest the views were magnificent:

 

At the summit I was relieved but also very worried about getting home – another 45km away. Claire gave up much of her food and we stopped several times, but luckily it was almost entirely descending the whole way back.

It wasn’t a race, I hadn’t attempted to set any power bests, and I might have plumbed new depths of fatigue, but this was probably the most special ride I had ever completed.

Transit day – To Briançon via Mont Aiguille

Mont Aiguille

 

Ride 5 – Col de la Madeleine

The drive from Briançon to la Madeleine only proved we should have stayed in Ornon! We ended up spending a lot of time in the car, including driving through Italy and the Mt Blanc Tunnel (warning – it’s €44 each way!). But this effort was rewarded with what was probably our most peaceful ride. There was almost no one out at la Madeleine. For the most part we had the mountain to ourselves in the gentle afternoon light. Not the most challenging or striking mountain (but what can compare after Galibier?) Madeleine is nevertheless very nice. To me it felt familiar, the kind of climb we have in our own High Country. There is even some old graffiti for one of our locals withstanding the test of time:

Of course the climb finishes 160m above any road in Australia with more stunning mountain views. On tired legs Claire did well and set the fifth fastest women’s time on Strava.

Ride 6 – Spectating the Tour De France.

The 17th stage of the Tour was going to be epic – they were essentially going to do our ride from four days earlier. Descending the Col d’Ornon then climbing Croix der Fer, Télégraphe and Galibier, the race would then descend south to Briançon (whereas we descended north back to Ornon).

An obvious spectator stake-out would be the summit of Galibier, but I was still smarting from our depleted attempt and reluctant to go that far. So we decided to go to the top of Col du Lautaret at the base of the descent from Galibier. The riders would have to slow for the turn there, so we’d get a bit of interaction and a good sense of how the stage would be won.

We were enjoying our stay in Briançon, looking after an old mountain house (including cat) while the occupants were away (another Airbnb find). The house was built to long forgotten engineering standards. In some respects it was unclear how it was holding together – everything was all odd shapes and sizes. But we were comfortable and relaxed – perhaps too relaxed.

With about two hours to go until the leaders reached the summit of Galibier we scurried off. I said ‘G’day’ to a rider in a Fitz’ Challenge Jersey as I passed him and got ‘Bonjour’ in response. As we passed the stage’s finish line en route to the Lautaret it became increasingly hard to proceed. About 2km beyond the finish line we were stopped by gendarmes. The road was closed and the race was still 100 minutes away, but we could go no further.

I should have known. It’s not like the Tour Down Under where you can ride around the Adelaide Hills all day and rock up to whichever bit of the race you want to see. The Tour, as it turns out, is a bigger deal. So we settled in at the side of the road and waited.

But first we would have to endure the tawdry spectacle of the Caravan. For more than half an hour the sponsors of the Tour drive past on floats blaring theme tunes and throwing trinkets to eager children and their eager parents. Some reports suggest almost half the French crowd at the Tour turn up for the Caravan. This tacky display brings dissonant incongruity to the Tour’s landscapes; a contradiction which goes to the heart of competitive road cycling as a human experience and as a commercial enterprise.

As much as I would have liked to dance to ‘Bostik, Bostik, Bostik’, I had to duck to avoid being hit by smallgoods. I wasn’t as lucky when the cake sponsor came past. Their crew thought it was great fun to throw about a dozen little cakes at me at once. It might have been funny if one hadn’t knocked my phone out of my hand, smashing the screen on the ground. But we approach cycling knowing it’s a dangerous sport right?

With the excitement of the Caravan settled, we waited a little longer and eventually the Tour’s fleet of aircraft heralded the approach of the race (in addition to the helicopters you can usually spot a fixed wing plane or two at high altitude circling the race and aiding transmissions).

My translator reported that a child shouted ‘they’re coming’ to which his father apparently responded by pointing at me and saying, ‘they’re already here.’ I suppose that’s a compliment to Peak Cycles kit!

Although the internet was patchy we’d followed enough online to know Roglic was off the front. He emerged around the corner – a lone figure surrounded by commissaires, TV bikes and support vehicles.

Not far off came the race for GC. We stood on either side of the road and managed to get some ok images:

I’ve seen Froome racing several times now, after his visits for the Sun Tour, so my eyes locked on to his familiar appearance; and I was happy to see Rigoberto, but I didn’t really register everyone else as they passed. Later Quintana struggled by and I said ‘Bravo Nairo’ before realising that was Italian. Oh well, can’t have done any harm!

With the race over, a torrent of spectators came down the road on their bikes. ‘Let’s go the other way’, I suggested. After all we’d hardly had a ride. Perhaps we could achieve that and avoid the crowds.

So we rolled off in our original direction towards the Col du Lautaret. We got another two or three km before being stopped by gendarmes again. There were simply too many spectators rolling down the road to safely use it any other way. Reluctantly, we joined the crowd and rolled back towards the finish line. But near the line there was a hold up. Hundreds of riders were held at what was quickly becoming an uncomfortable bottle-neck.

Some spectators cut across surrounding paddocks. Most of us waited patiently. That couldn’t be said for the Katusha driver who sat behind the crowd with his hand on the horn. It was a pointless protest – it wasn’t the fans stopping him. But he kept on blaring, with a petulant look of disaffection across his face. Later when they let us move on I saw similar antics from the Sunweb bus driver. I’m a bit more sympathetic if something is holding up the riders from resting, but there was a lot of unimpressive behaviour going around.

By the time we were moving freely we were drained by the whole afternoon, without having made any efforts at all. We rolled back up the hill to our accommodation with the resolve that our spectating was done.

Ride 7 – Galibier Revisited

We rose lazily on the day the Tour would summit the Col d’Izoard. After the experience of the day before we knew we’d do something other than chase the race. But our plans were almost derailed by a very sick cat. The previous night our Airbnb host’s cat began behaving strangely and in the morning he was in obvious distress.

So after a series of phone calls we were trekking off to a Briançon vet with a cat in a cage. Real locals now, we were mixing with crowds heading off to the mountain without that being our concern.

Some of the European cycling clubs get about chanting like football fans. It was a bit of culture shock for me, but these sounds from the street provided a backdrop while we sat in the vet’s consultation room. Eventually we left the cat behind to recover, and we were later informed he did.

With that bit of drama behind us we took stock of our fresh legs and decided we had unfinished business on the Col du Galibier. It was a little overcast with a hint of rain, but the kind of hint you’re willing to defy. We drove up the mountain from the south side, taking the tunnel that cuts under the crest of the col. I was feeling pretty good and I could only improve on the terrible performance of my first ascent. After a quick warm-up on the back of the Télégraphe we were off.

I was still a bit wary of the climb and didn’t go flat out but maintained a steady pace. Despite ominous weather everything felt good. As if to provide some symbolic confirmation of this I looked up on one corner and found a marmot frolicking in the flowers beside me. ‘Hello there!’

A marmot.

The road echoed the previous days events, freshly painted with graffiti but with barely a motorhome to be seen.

The final ramp up over the tunnel was a pleasure and in the final hundred metres I playfully chased down and passed a relatively fit looking rider. I’d done the climb under 1:08 – more than 20mins faster than the first time.

I’d just got talking to the rider I’d passed, a really nice guy from Belgium, when I looked up and saw Claire powering up the last rise. The QOM is 1:11 so Claire was having a good day too. I managed to film the last moments of her climb:

@racing_claire powers over the summit of #coldugalibier

A post shared by Alain H (@allezalain) on

In the end she got just over 1:12 – the third fastest time recorded by a woman and only 39s off the QOM. I feel responsible for her not getting the QOM – I’d given her a virtual partner for her Garmin with a time of about 1:30 and she was happy just to see she was motoring away from that. I have no doubt she could have got it. Oh well, next year. Claire will get the QOM and I’ll go under the hour. Maybe during La Marmotte?

Ride 8 – Col d’Izoard

Friday would be our transit day back to Lugrin. But with the Col d’Izoard rising straight out of Briançon we figured we could squeeze it in before leaving.

Like the Télégraphe, the north side of the Izoard is mostly forested and concealed from any vistas too dramatic until its upper slopes. As we paced our way up the first few kms my knee began to bite. I had to drop off and spent most of the rest of the ride trying to catch back up to Claire without stressing myself too much. It was fun to watch her pass men who would raise their tempo to stay with her, only to realise they couldn’t maintain it. She was having another good day and finished with the 5th fastest time for the north side of the mountain, and this awesome photo:

Ride 9 – Col de Joux Plane

Back in Lugrin there were three big rides I still wanted to do. But it became clear that I’d likely only accomplish two and one of those would be solo. So Saturday I rode alone while Claire hiked with her uncle. I chose between a 140km ride to Col de Joux Plane or a 160km ride to the Col de la Colombière. Given my knee was complaining a little I opted for the Joux Plane route.

It was strange riding alone when so much of the trip had been a shared adventure. But I was excited to be exploring. The route I’d plotted took me along the lake before turning inland and onto a fast stretch of road. A sign suggested cyclists weren’t permitted and there were some uncomfortable stretches of tunnel, but I saw plenty of cyclists going in the opposite direction. I assumed the gendarmes would go easy on this barely lingual foreigner!

After the High Alps the terrain of the Pre Alps felt much more like home with bushy forests and rolling hills. I hit the start of the mountain and was surprised and just how far the surrounds remained residential. Half way up the mountain I was still passing people unloading shopping or chopping wood in their front yards.

The climb is the same gradient and distance as Alpe d’Huez but in more modest surrounds. Like my ascent, I suspect it is typically a much quieter mountain too. Graffiti on the road singularly supported Bardet … as far as cyclists went anyway – there was some graffiti supporting Frexit.

The views were restricted and then comparatively modest from the top. A much more Australian High Country feel:

On the way back I stumbled upon the Col du Corbier. I hadn’t even realised I’d be doing this climb and had nothing left in the tank. But it was a lovely col and definitely one to revisit.

Ride 10 – Les Diablerets, Switzerland

You can’t stay near Lugrin and not hear the Swiss mountains beckoning. Near the entrance at Lugrin a relief map hung on the wall. I would pour over it, imagining where we could ride on the other side of the border. Claire’s uncle Xavier said a spot known as Les Diablerets was very pretty so we set off to find it.

As much as we’d joke about the Swiss whilst staring out at them over slow meals I have to credit them for having lovely roads. And I dare say the drivers were a touch more careful too. The climb up to Les Diablerets was an excellent quality road though we contested heavy traffic until near our destination.

The vista at Les Diablerets itself was reminiscent of the sheer mountainside at Novel, but several orders of magnitude greater. Photos don’t really capture it, but the structure at the upper right in the image below was a sheer rock face that towered over the town:

My trip was nearing its end and the alpine landscape was still finding ways to take my breath away.
It was bitter-sweet descending back to our home in Lugrin, knowing it would be some time before we’d be climbing here again.

As we approached the border check point I was shouting, ‘quick, let’s escape Switzerland!’, and ‘sprint points at the border!’ We started to accelerate then noticed a border guard. As we slowed he looked quizzically at us, obviously our hesitation was unnecessary, and we rolled on.

Ride 11 – Lugrin

Bad weather had been threatening to set in and by my last full day in the country it was cold and wet. An ironic send off from my European summer. We spent the morning hiking – the sound of rain on the canopy of the forest evoked long forgotten and happy memories from my childhood, playing in Sydney bushland.

Later back at Lugrin I hope for one simple last opportunity on the bike. I wanted a break in the rain to roll along the lake for 10km to clock over 800km for the holiday. 800km over 11 rides might not be massive, but compared to what my body had felt up to a few weeks earlier I had really gambled and won. We got our break in the rain and rolled on wet roads, past the childhood summer house of Claire’s family and the cypress tree her grandfather planted:

And with that my European season was over :)

Some final reflections

I was really very happy in France and felt a deep connection to the mountains.

Returning to an Australian winter was made more difficult by having Claire in France a further two weeks, but made easier by having Claire’s mother to speak French with. In this way I retained a bridge to the world I departed reluctantly.

More disappointing was being reacquainted with the dangerous and absurd attitudes of too many Australian motorists. We rode 800km without issue on French roads. On only my second ride back in Australia I was abused twice by motorists. On neither occasion was I posing an inconvenience – indeed the second instance was from the oncoming lane; they just hated the sight of me. I can’t tolerate this indefinitely. If attitudes don’t show signs of changing it may be the final straw for my residing here.

It’s worth dispelling some myths about French driving. We weren’t always shown consideration and we got our share of close passes. From our hire car we saw downright frightening driving on alpine roads. The difference was: our cycling was a non-issue. Close passes were made but without a hint of animosity. In contrast, my first close pass back here had me ready to shout out. It made me wonder how many of the close passes from Australian drivers are also without animosity. But with everything we endure here it’s impossible to give Australian drivers the benefit of the doubt.  In any case, the French road environment is a better place for cyclists and should be the envy of Australian planners and governments:

In a plus for Melbourne, however, being around European amateurs made me realise what a strong road cycling scene we have here. To be fair, we were around a lot of recreational cyclists and fans who wouldn’t regard themselves as relevant to such a discussion. Nevertheless, I did sense more empty space there between elite and recreational cycling which is filled here by strong club riders. Next time around I hope to go in better shape and test the local competition.

I’d also offer a piece of advice for following the Tour: I wouldn’t bother. But riding a mountain the day after the Tour has climbed it is very nice. Perhaps intercepting the Tour in a small town or on a less climactic stage could work out better than our experience.

For me this trip was essential, even life-changing. It might be the first of many such excursions. It might be the start of a more fundamental shift.

The High Alps, central to the history, philosophy and mythology of cycling have to be experienced. This is the kind of pilgrimage that any non-continental road cyclist must make. Be sure that you do.

 

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2 thoughts on “France / Suisse July 2017

  1. Welcome home Alain and Claire, and thanks for a really special piece of travel writing. Your observations are crisp and convey the excitement and pure joy of your rides up those iconic mountains. Hope you see you soon to hear more tales from France.

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