Our French Alps Tour in Retrospect
The pictures tell the story. Lots of spectacular scenery, quiet roads, big mountains and smiling faces.
Our tour started at the Cornavin Hotel in downtown Geneva. Our group assembled here and that evening we had a traditional Savoyard welcome dinner to get into the mountain mood. Our riders arrived by plane, train and automobile so the location near the train station, with its easy connection from the airport, made getting to the hotel fairly simple.
Day 2 is the official start of the riding. From the hotel in Geneva it is not necessary to use a van till the ride concludes at the summit of the Alpe d’Huez 8 days later. Geneva is well set up for cycle commuting and we took advantage of the off road/on road cycle paths to quickly get out of the city. Our target was always in sight. The Saleve. Our first day of riding lets us warm up gradually to the big climbs of the coming days. Having said that, the climb to the summit is still challenging. It is farming country at first then it is into the forest. The road is quiet. The climb steady at around 6-8%. Perfect. The views back to Geneva in the west and the Mont Blanc to the east are stunning.
After a coffee break at the cable car restaurant it is a sharp descent to the northern end of the Saleve. On our traverse along the reverse side of the Saleve we stopped for the Diamond Cycle Tours picnic lunch. Lots of cheese, baguettes and all the other essentials to keep riders fuelled up for the day. Then it was on to Annecy, our overnight stop.
Annecy is France’s answer to Venice but on a much smaller scale. We stay in the old town where we settled into a bar on the canal and watched the end of the TdF stage. Then it was tourist time wandering around the shops to the lake and for those with strength still in their legs, a walk up the hill to the Chateau. We all got together again for a dinner overlooking the canal. Talk turned to the next day of riding as we hit the Semnoz.
In 2013 the TdF finished a stage at the summit of the Semnoz and our tour group was there to watch it. This year we climbed roads that were nice and quiet. Most of the climb is in the forest. Finally though we emerge to the open fields at the top which are for grazing and walking in summer and skiing in winter. The hotel is a great rest stop after a pretty tough climb so after coffee comes the descent back to Lake Annecy. This is a different route to the climb and it is fabulous for the views, the quality of the road surface thanks to le Tour and the great twists and turns. The views of the lake are stunning. This is a very big lake and it is surrounded by spectacular mountains. Looking across the lake we can see our second climb of the day, the Croix Fry. First it is a run down the old train track that is now an excellent cycle way, through the well lit tunnel, and around the western tip of the lake before we turn and head back towards the col that is the Croix Fry. After the second summit of the day its a long descent to La Clusaz where we stay the night. La Clusaz is a ski town but of course its history well pre-dates skiing. The town was a centre of the resistance in WWII and plaques commemorating the heroes can be seen at the Mairie.
Our fourth day of riding is one of our biggest and best. From La Clusaz we climb the Aravis. The massif that surrounds us takes its name from this col, or is it the other way around. At the summit we stop and take photos of the simple but very beautiful church. It is not a long climb to the Aravis so we are quickly on our way down the other side. Here we lose a lot of altitude as we make a long descent to Flumet (pictured above). This is a great spot for a coffee and a break. The village is typical of many small towns in France that grew up on either side of a key roadway and of course next to the river. So we make sure to enjoy the streetscape but walking to the other side of the shops the view of the gorge, the stone bridge we are soon to ride over and the surrounding forest makes us think the shops are all facing the wrong way!
The next climb is the Saisie and it really is to a ski field. The gradient is steady, the forest quiet and the roads empty. At the summit we picnic as we need fuel before the penultimate climb of the day, the Cormet de Roselend. But first it is another long and wonderful descent to the town of Beaufort, home of one of France’s most famous cheeses. No stopping to taste the chees though, we roll straight through the town and head to the climb of the Cormet. Initially it is a steady climb following the stream. At the end of a very pretty recreation area the road turns abruptly up as we commence the climb proper with its many switch backs as it wends its way to the first of its summits. The views back to Beaufort are stunning and it is always amazing to see how much altitude we gain on these climbs in a short amount of time. Emerging from the forest we see the hydro dam at what appears to be the summit. Great spot for a picnic lunch. After, we descend around the dam before the final climb to the real summit. Now it is all open pasture. There are cafes if you need a break but we roll past with our eye on the prize of the summit a further 5 kms beyond the dam and with plenty climbing still to be done.
It is a great photo opportunity at the summit. But then it is time to get the wind proof on for the 20km descent to Bourg Saint Maurice. But our riding day is not yet over. Our target is Seez, on the route of Col du Petit Saint Bernard. Our hotel is about 12kms up the route to the col. However it is steady rather than steep climb and we are quickly at the hotel. Here the showers and the bar prove popular. The lure of a pool saw the more energetic in our group diving in for a very quick cool down. Our dinner in the hotel that evening was a highlight with many tales now being told of the riding and other things. The real treat though came in the morning when we set a group to conquer the summit of the Col du Petit Saint Bernard. This is not part of our ‘official’ ride but was encouraged. Our aim was to get into Italy at the summit so we could get a ‘real’ coffee. Gorgeous ride, Gorgeous coffee. Mission accomplished. It was then back to the hotel to re-join the balance of our group and get on the road to Val d’Isere. Pictured below is Tim at the summit of the Col du Petit St Bernard. Our bikes are flanked by the flags of Italy, France and the European Union.
Our fifth day is somewhat of a rest day. The distance is short as we traverse the valley to Val d’Isere. However the valley isn’t flat so some work has to be done to get up the valley, past the dams and ski resorts to the village of Val d’Isere at the head of the valley. Here we relax and take in the spectacular scenery. Free lifts can be had to the ski fields above the village so some of us went there. Others shopped in the village or enjoyed a beer while watching the TdF. We must have enjoyed our evening meal a lot that night as the decibel rating was definitely on the high side. Needless to say we all slept well.
The next morning it is the Iseran. This is the highest pass in Europe. It is entirely above the tree line. In summer we only see dairy cattle and marmottes. And the occasional snow drifts that let you know how high up we really are. At the summit we re-group take photos and get set for a long descent. Our target at the bottom of the descent is Bonneval sur Arc, a Unesco listed village constructed entirely of the local stone and slate. We have coffee in a local café and enjoy the atmosphere before heading down the Murienne Valley towards our next climb, the Telegraphe. But first we had a long down hill transit. It is not a roll though as there is always a bit of a headwind in the valley. So when we reach the lunch spot at the fort guarding the valley we are all pretty happy for refreshments and a break. Now we start thinking about the Telegraphe. Reaching the foot of the Telegraphe we look up to see the imposing fort/telegraphe building that the mountain is named after. The actual climb is steady rather than steep. It was hot this year so that always adds a degree of difficulty. As the sign below shows it is quite a climb. As riders reached the summit Antony was there to hand out cool drinks and encouragement. The restaurant at the summit was pretty popular. From here we rolled to our stop for the night in Valloire.
Valloire may be a ski and tourist town now but it has been a centre of agriculture for most of its long history. We head for the bar and watch the finish of the Tour stage before going for a wander around the village. It is not big so it doesn’t take long to do the walk. Just as well with our tired legs. It has been an excellent day on the bike. But our thoughts are now turning to the Galibier.
Day 6 and we are climbing the Galibier. From Valloire it is a gentle start as we work our way up the valley. When we reach the Pantani memorial at the end of the valley we know the real climb is about to begin. As with the Iseran there are no trees at this altitude. At times the road ahead is all too visible. Now its time to dig in and knock off bend after bend with the end always in sight. Some of us ride with a buddy, others prefer to ride in their own zone. There are plenty of riders on the mountain and lots of encouragement given. Near the summit there is a car tunnel to the other side and it is tempting to skip through it, but none of us takes that option. The last kilometre is tough. The slope ramps up to 12% or more and at the end of a 17km climb the legs are burning. As one by one we reach the summit and the van the smiles replace the grimaces and all is well again.
After refreshments and photos we head down to the Col du Lautaret. This is our viewing point for the Tour which is making its way up the Valley from Bourg d’Oisins. We position our van in a great spot on the route near the hotel. We then relax over coffee and a picnic lunch as first the publicity caravan and then finally the peloton turn up. By now there are thousands of fans lining the Col with us. We climb up on the roof of the van to get the best view. It is a great sight. First the break away and then the peloton. There goes the yellow jersey! There goes Gerro and the Orica Greenedge boys. Go Gerro. Standing next to us is the BMC helper with bottles and gels for his riders. He managed to give one of his bottles away but the rest he gave to us after lots of revving up on our part. A highlight for Dave our only BMC bike rider.
With the Tour gone we re-assemble on the bikes and start our descent down to Bourg d’Oisans. Once past the Tour traffic it is a scenic ride with hydro dams and towering mountains. There are tunnels so the lights were needed. At Bourg we stopped at a café and watched the finish of the Tour before the final climb of the day, the Alpe d’Huez. The weather was warm and the climb as usual, tough. But there is something about this climb that is indeed magical. Perhaps it is the publicity it gets. Perhaps it is the 21 switch backs each of which is identified by number and named after a former winner. For whatever reason it is still a highlight ride. This is certainly the feeling expressed by our first time Alpe riders. But even for those of us who have ridden it many times it is still a buzz. The trick at the top though is to know where the race actually finishes. With all the cafes at the entry to the village it is tempting to stop at that point. However the real finish is nearly another 2kms on to the top of the village. We had no choice as our hotel was near the real finish line so for us it was all the way. A great way to finish our tour. That night we had our final dinner and it was a beauty.
So that was our ride. About 450kms. Our last day was a van transit back to Geneva. But for some of our group doing back to back tours it was another day on the Alpe to challenge themselves again before heading off to the Dolomites to see what a really big mountain looks like!