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La Resistance sportive: Vive la Resistance

Stu Bowers
24 Aug 2017

It has a blend of Alpine climbs, gravel paths and breathtaking scenery, but La Resistance is more than just a sportive

What: La Resistance
Where: Talloires, near Annecy, France
Next one: 16th Sept 2017
Distance: 90km or 130km or (new for 2017) three-day Tour
Price: from €70
Sign up: laresistance.cc

The scene before the start of La Resistance is unlike any sportive I’ve ever encountered.

For one thing, it’s not pre-dawn. The sun is up and breakfast was enjoyed at an almost sociable hour.

There are no pens full of riders jostling for position near the front. In fact, as I look around barely anyone has even bothered to gather on the start line yet.

Instead most are content to sit on the scattered hay bails or kick back on the grass, sipping a last-minute coffee and chatting.

Just a few metres away the calm waters of Lake Annecy lap against a sandy shore. It’s all very relaxed.

I could just as easily be on holiday, rather than preparing to embark on an epic day in the Alps.

Talking with organisers Adam Horler and Ross Muir over a beer last night, it was clear this is exactly the vibe they wanted for the event’s inaugural running.

Their plan was never to simply create another Alpine sportive. La Resistance was conceived to have a deeper purpose than simply to sort out the fastest riders over a punishing course.

As its name suggests, the aim is to commemorate the men and women of the French Resistance who fought valiantly for this Haute Savoie region to hold back Nazi advances during the Second World War.

Fallen heroes

The Battle of Glières in 1944 was a successful final stand for La Resistance. The death toll was high, but maintaining control of the vast high-Alpine plateau allowed the Allies to parachute in weapons and supplies.

A national monument has stood on the 1,440m plateau since September 1973, created by French sculptor Émile Gilioli, and the climb up to it is a torturous highlight of the ‘full’ La Resistance route I’m about to embark on.

Converging for the final 10km, both the ‘full’ 130km and ‘petite’ 90km courses also visit La Necropole memorial, a combined military cemetery and museum honouring those who lost their lives.

Horler and Muir hope riders will focus on more that just average speeds. They want people to reflect on the past, as well as take time to enjoy the beautiful landscape of the region, which explains the lethargic start to proceedings.

‘And besides, you wouldn’t want to finish so tired you can’t enjoy the traditional La Guinguette after-party,’ says Muir.

It hasn’t escaped my attention that, despite the relaxed atmosphere, there are some extremely trim-looking individuals at the start line, with legs as ripped as pros and tan lines to match.

I suspect that once the gun goes, the competitive spirit will kick in. Experience has taught me that every cycling event is united by one thing: no matter how much you insist it’s not a race, it always is.

Thankfully the pace remains gentle as we roll out of Talloires, heading south along the lake.

It gives me a chance to check out what bike set-ups have been chosen by the riders around me. It’s sure to play its part today as La Resistance’s challenging parcours includes four gravel sectors, totalling 20km.

The longest is the 14.3km long Route de la Soif, coming at around the 45km mark, which is described as a ‘high-altitude mountain track’.

I’ve no idea if that means a well-maintained path of light gravel or a boulder-strewn nightmare, and I’m hoping that the bike options of my fellow riders might offer some clues.

My own chosen steed is the 3T Exploro, a bike that claims to be built for precisely this kind of varied terrain.

It offers plenty of clearance for voluminous tyres so I’m rolling on 700c, 40mm WTB Nano gravel tyres, which I hope will provide the perfect middle ground – not too draggy, but durable, grippy and comfortable enough for both man and machine to stay the course.

Around me I note some riders have simply fitted wider 25mm or 28mm road tyres to their top-end carbon race machines, while others have chosen a far more aggressive gravel set-up.

Knobbly tyres on cyclocross bikes seem to be a popular choice, but as yet no one knows who’s got it right.

Early test

A rider rolls up alongside me aboard a Cannondale Slate, unmistakable with its single-sided ‘Lefty’ front suspension fork.

I can’t help thinking it’s a decent choice so I decide to follow his wheel as we make our first foray onto gravel a few kilometres further up the road.

This sector is only 2km, but it acts as an early test of both equipment and nerves. We turn off the main road on the outskirts of Doussard and the quiet of the bunch is traded for alarmed cries as riders fight to hold a straight line in the loose, dusty gravel.

I’ve chosen a good wheel to follow it seems. Cannondale Guy makes decent line choices and we slowly pull ahead of the main bunch, such that by the time we rejoin the tarmac we’re in a select group at the front.

Back on the smooth road all becomes calm once more – but not for long.

The Col de l’Arpettaz awaits us up ahead. It’s a 14.8km hors categorie climb, gaining 1,165m in elevation at an average gradient of 8%.

This is where the wiry riders on their pure road bikes come into their own. They come streaming past me and I have to be strict with myself not to waste energy trying to keep up with them.

For the first 5km the road sticks at 5-6%, but by the middle it has ramped to 7-10%, maxing out at 12%.

There are hairpins galore, and when I emerge out of the tree line in the upper reaches, I’m treated to a spectacular view of the Aravis Alps – jagged peaks set in a sea of green fields, accompanied by the gentle clang of cowbells.

It’s a true gem of a climb, offering similar stats to Alpe d’Huez but with almost twice as many bends and not a single car to be seen.

As I stand at the 1,581m peak of the Col de l’Arpettaz, slightly mesmerised by the vista, I become aware that the climb has put a sizable dent in my reserves.

Thankfully the mountain refuge on the summit is also a feed station, as well as a checkpoint to collect our first road book stamp.

Staying on track

As I munch on fruit cake, my eye is drawn to the ribbon of pale grey snaking away from the refuge.

It is the Route de la Soife, and in the distance I can pick out riders dotted along the rugged track.

There are no groups, just individuals, each having their own personal battles to stay upright and avoid the dreaded hiss from a punctured tyre.

As I make my way onto the track, gingerly at first, it’s not long before I encounter the first of many who have succumbed to the puncture demons, crouched at the roadside fumbling with inner tubes and pumps.

It’s reassuring to know that out on the course are several bright yellow Mavic Service Course motos loaded with spare wheels (just like in the Tour de France), to ensure no one is left stranded.

Already the indications are that they’re in for a busy day.

My 40mm tyres have definitely come into their own. I feel confident riding at the kind of speeds that mean I’m quickly catching and passing those skinny-tyred whippets who had overtaken me on the Arpettaz climb.

Aside from the tricky surface, the track is rarely flat and it can be difficult to control speed on the descents while trying to pick the best line through clusters of rocks.

When the gradient points up, the challenge switches to maintaining rear-wheel traction on the loose surface.

It demands concentration at all times and by the end of its 14.3km my arms and hands have taken as much punishment as my legs.

The ordeal ends at the 1,498m summit of the Col des Aravis, where we rejoin the tarmac road again, and I’m relieved to have come through the toughest part of the course without a glitch.

After an arduous couple of hours, I’m now treated to a long descent to La Clusaz and Saint-Jean-de-Sixt.

Kilometre after kilometre ticks past at speed, and I relish the wide, sweeping curves, although in the excitement of the descent I somehow miss a route arrow and find myself off course and needing to backtrack up part of the climb.

I’m annoyed at my error but equally concerned that this misspent energy will haunt me later, so I chomp on an energy bar as I make my way along the picturesque valley road towards Le Petit-Bornand-les-Glières, which I’m well aware is the last stretch of flat road I’m going to see for a while.

Up next is the second of the two major ascents on the full route. On paper, the 6.8km Col des Glières shouldn’t be as tough as the first climb, but only a kilometre later I’m not so certain.

The path carved into the cliff face is relentlessly steep – 9% average with large chunks over 10%.

At every hairpin I feel certain the gradient must ease, but it never does, and by the time the summit eventually comes into view, I can barely appreciate the towering limestone cliffs that stand like sentries on the skyline.

My bottles are supped dry and my legs are close to cramp. The Col des Glières has drained my physical reserves, and looking around at other riders slumped in chairs at the feed station, or draped over benches stretching out hamstrings, I realise I’m not alone in having found it brutal.

Then I see the sculpted National Monument across the plateau, and my perspective is reset.

All I’ve done is pedal a bicycle up a climb in glorious sunshine, which pales in comparison to the suffering the Plateau des Glières witnessed during the War.

What goes up

The road once more turns to gravel as we make our way across the plateau and past the monument.

Dust kicked up from my wheels is quickly dispersed by the breeze, which is also chilling my sweat-dampened jersey to the extent that I feel the need for my gilet.

The stony surface here is well compacted, a far cry from the Route de la Soife.

Instead of feeling like a pinball, I can get some speed up on a humdinger of a descent that winds down through a series of hairpin turns, losing altitude rapidly to Thorens-Glières.

This may be the final part of the course, but I’m still careful to conserve my energy having learned by this point not to underestimate this event.

When I signed up, 130km hadn’t sounded too difficult. In fact that distance would only warrant the ‘short’ course for many Alpine sportives these days, but the difficulty of the terrain has made La Resistance far more taxing than I was expecting.

Only as I pull up at the final checkpoint back down in the valley at the Necrapole Memorial Museum, adjacent to the cemetery where 105 soldiers of La Resistance are entombed, can I finally begin to feel confident of ending the event in a respectable state.

From here it is 10km to the finish, and I scoff a handful of jelly beans to prepare for the final climb that stands between me and a cold beer.

When I eventually cross the finish line back in Talloires, I don’t stop. Instead, I ride up to the edge of Lake Annecy, drop my bike, strip to my bibshorts and take a running jump off the end of a diving board.

Grasping my knees in mid-flight, I hit the crystal clear water with a mighty splash and sink deep as the cold envelops my body.

As I clamber out of the lake, Cyclist’s photographer, Geoff, tells me he got a great shot of my dive-bomb, but could I do a re-take to be sure?

I’m happy to do it a couple more times. And then maybe once more, just for luck.

 

The rider's ride

3T Exploro Ltd, £3,360 frame, fork, seatpost; £8,100 approx as tested, exploro.3tcycling.com

With such varied terrain, choosing the right bike for La Resistance is vital. The 3T Exploro is purpose built for this kind of adventurous day out.

It combines attributes of a top-end carbon aero race bike with the ability to fit wide 40mm treaded 700c tyres (or even 650b mountain bike wheels with up to 2.1-inch tyres), making it extremely versatile.

The down tube is so vast that there is virtually no flex, making the Exploro quick and responsive on the tarmac.

Once on the trails, it proved to be surefooted over the rough stuff, but all that rigidity did make for a bumpy ride, and I was glad of the wide tyres for the dampening effect they offered.

For me, the only thing lacking was a sufficient range of gears for this event, as my bike came with a 1x set-up (a single chainring up front with a wide-range cassette at the rear), but that’s easily rectifiable.

How we did it

Travel

Travelling from London to Talloires is a quick and easy trip. Cyclist flew from Gatwick to Geneva, which is served by several airlines with plenty of flight options to choose from daily.

Costs are as little as £20 each way. From there, the transfer to Talloires is a one-hour drive.

Accommodation

We stayed at the charming 17th century lakeside hotel, La Villa des Roses, in Talloires (villaofroses.com).

It’s a traditional family-run French B&B and full of character. It’s very convenient for the event as it’s situated just a few hundred metres from the start.

Bike rental

If you’d like to rent a bike similar to that used by Cyclist, then Basecamp (base-camp.bike), situated in Talloires, is set up to provide everything you need, including a great cup of coffee.

Rental prices start at around €80 (£67) a day.

Thanks

We’d like to thank Adam Horler and Ross Muir for their hospitality and help with logistics.

Thanks also to Didier Sarda of La Villa des Roses for being at our disposal and going the extra mile with breakfast, to Rene Wiertz of 3T for providing the bike and finally to moto rider Jean-François Maillard for piloting our photographer.

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