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Big Ride : Haute-Savoie

James Spender
21 Aug 2015

Cyclist takes on Les Lacets des Montvernier made famous during the 2015 Tour de France.

There’s something rather wonderful about France, and it’s not just the landscape or the food – it’s the language. After all, where else would have an official public body to protect the gender assignation of a sandwich, or fine one of its companies €500,000 for publishing a software manual in English only? (That public body is the Académie Française, and among other things it seeks to safeguard the French language from Anglicisation. You say email, it says courriel.) And where else would you hear the delightful phrase Chacun voit midi à sa porte or the charmingly named road Les Lacets des Montvernier?

The former translates as ‘everyone sees noon at his doorstep’, meaning that one’s subjective opinions are often incorrectly professed as fact, while the latter literally means ‘the laces of Montvernier’, a moniker given to the stretch of tarmac that drapes and squiggles its way from the village of Pontamafrey up to the tiny town of Montvernier. Right now, as Les Lacets’ 18 hairpins bask tantilisingly in the early morning sun, this road certainly is noon at my doorstep. And the Tour hasn’t even got here yet. 

Paving the way

Before the world’s greatest sporting spectacle can tackle the roads of France, however, preparations must be made. For the Savoie region, in particular the towns of Saint-Jean de Maurienne, La Toussuire and Modane, that’s meant paying Tour organiser Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) €300,000 apiece for the chance to host the start and finishes of Stages 18, 19 and 20, and bringing local infrastructure up to the ASO’s exacting standards. 

It might seem like a hefty investment for three towns whose combined populations total less than 13,000, but as Céline Guillermin from the Savoie Mont Blanc tourist board is now telling me, ‘The financial impact of the Tour on those towns is almost immeasurable. It will put them on the map, you’ll see.’ 

With that, Céline revs the engine of her white Renault and speeds off to our first rendezvous, leaving my riding partner, Luciana, and me to gently wend our way through the narrow, sleepy streets of Saint-Jean de Maurienne. As we leave the city perimeter Luciana remarks on how lucky we are with the weather today, just blue skies and some wispy halos around the tops of the mountains. I ask her what ‘please don’t jinx it’ is in French. She just throws back her head and laughs. ‘Well, we are in the Alps. Anything can happen,’ she says mischievously.

A few kilometres on, past a landscape that mixes industrial furniture, idyllic houses and babbling rivers, we spy Céline’s parked car. She’s in conversation with a workman in a hi-viz jacket who looks like he sleeps in the bucket of his digger, but as we get closer I realise why. We’re at the foot of Les Lacets, and hanging in the air is the unmistakable tang of drying bitumen. It turns out that far from snoozing, the workman and his crew have been painstakingly filling and patching every wrinkle and pothole in the beaten-up tarmac in preparation for the onslaught of 422 skinny-tyred wheels in a few weeks’ time. When those professionals arrive here they will have already covered 170km from Gap on Stage 18, but for riders vying for general classification supremacy, the last 15km of the stage will be fraught, as they battle up Les Lacets in search of crucial seconds. It’s here Froome’s trademark accelerations might just come into their own. 

For a moment it seems our own make-or-break time has come markedly earlier in proceedings, the gruff workman not looking too impressed at the thought of us riding up his newly finished road, but after a bit of pointing and some well-played hand-on-hip defiance, Céline brokers a deal whereby Luciana and I are granted safe passage up Les Lacets, provided Céline promises not to drive up it.

Three hairpins in and things couldn’t have worked out any better. Save for the waterfall carving its path through the rock alongside us, Les Lacets is gloriously peaceful, the towns below quietly fading away as we near the top.

At 3.4km long and nudging 8% Les Lacets isn’t an easy climb, but our fresh legs and gentle pace make for a relaxed ascent, and we soon find ourselves at the crossroads where Les Lacets becomes the Col du Chaussy. Céline is there to meet us, and explains that, while we might have to shoulder our bikes, a walk across a small grassy field to our right is a must for one of the best lookout spots in town.

We dutifully set off in the direction she’s pointing, and after a less-than-surefooted scramble up a muddy bank and through some trees, we are indeed greeted by a postcard view of the valley below, and the hairpins we’ve just traversed. It’s a mesmerising experience. Only when I look down at my Garmin do I realise just how long I’ve been stood absorbing the view – a spider has begun to spin its web across my handlebars. Sadly it looks like it weighs a few grams and I reckon the drag coefficient of the ensuing web will be high, so I brush it off into the undergrowth. Chapeau, mon petit frère, et bonne chance.

Combination conflation

From here on our ride is set to become a hybrid of two Tour stages to incorporate Les Lacets from Stage 18 into a loop that takes in the best of Stage 19, namely the Col du Chaussy, the Col du Glandon and the Col de la Croix de Fer. The pros will finish Stage 19 with a climb up to the ski station at La Toussuire, but with our planned 100km route already packing 3,100m of climbing, I’ve decided La Toussuire might be a col too far. Not that I’ll admit that to Luciana or Céline. A cyclist’s pride is a powerful thing.

Passing through Montvernier and onto the Col du Chaussy proper, we’re left in no doubt what sporting event is coming to town. Coloured bunting is strung from house to house, and plywood cutouts of cartoon racers painted in yellow, green, white and polka-dot line front gardens and balconies. The sweetly organic smell of cut grass carries on the breeze, as distant farmers scythe the hillsides and unfurl new electric fencing, presumably to keep grazing livestock from becoming bumbling race participants. It’s the epitome of bucolic, topped off perfectly by an elderly gentleman proudly lashing an even more elderly bike to a stake outside his house: hand-painted red and white striped frame to reflect the Savoie region’s flag; yellow handlebars and saddle to reflect his sport’s most prized possession.

Unfortunately there’s not time to stop and exchange pleasantries, as Luciana needs to be back in Saint-Jean du Maurienne at lunchtime to drive to L’Ardéchoise cycling festival in the Ardèche region. As we press on, the road is swallowed up by trees and the vista of the Maurienne valley below disappears in a sea of vibrant green. With little else to concentrate on except the creeping gradient of the road, I can’t help but relay the story of another hapless Cyclist journalist who took on L’Ardéchoise’s gruelling 220km sportive route a few years ago, only to crash and snap his bike clean in half within the first 50km. Undeterred, he called in to the race organiser and borrowed her hybrid bike to complete the remaining 170km. A cyclist’s pride indeed.

Luciana seems worried by the story, so I assure her she’ll be fine, and judging by the metronomic pace she’s set for us both I don’t doubt it, as least as far as climbing is concerned. One of those enviably bronzed, eternally youthful Alpine types that runs a ski school by winter, she says she only
took up cycling four years ago. You wouldn’t know it.

Eventually the treeline breaks, just in time to see a rider up the road stop to extract something from his bulging saddle bag. We get closer and I’m worried to note it’s a jacket, and a look at the skies ahead indicates he – and we – might be needing such garments. No time to stop though, as Luciana’s on a mission, so it’s with light drizzle dusting our forearms and legs that we plough on for the top. 

If the views at Les Lacets were good, the views from near the top of the Col du Chaussy are spectacular. Far in the distance patches of snow melt into slate-grey rock and lush green flora, flanking either side of the valley below and creating a V-shaped gap on the horizon through which Saint-Jean du Marienne is just visible in the haze. Prior to 2015 the Col du Chaussy has not made it into the Tour, largely due to a lack of connecting roads, making it an up-and-back journey. But thanks to works completed in 2012, it’s now ripe for the Tour’s picking, and although it’s unlikely the pros will have much time to take in the scenery, you can bet the camera helicopters and Phil Liggett will have a field day when the peloton rolls through. I’m starting to see what all the fuss is about.

Chic and unique

Like an oasis in the desert, a cafe at the col’s summit creeps into view, heralding the first coffee stop of the day. Despite the continental Europeans’ ongoing love affair with UHT milk and the proprietor’s undisguised mirth at my order of a café au lait (Luciana explains they all drink espressos round here), the coffee is rather good and the caffeine most certainly welcome. Looking around, the clientele is largely made up of two farmers and their collie dogs, so it’s not long before Luciana has struck up a conversation. ‘They say they’re looking forward to the Tour coming through,’ she translates. I nod in approval. They raise two champagne glasses in our direction – not the kind of vessels I’d normally expect to see at midday at 1,500m above sea level – then say something in French before bursting into fits of laughter. ‘He says cheers,’ says Luciana, delighted. ‘And that soon the world will see how chic Chaussy farmers are. Here even ice tea is drunk from champagne flutes!’ By their wide grins I’m not entirely convinced that’s all they’re drinking.

Coffee downed, it’s time to make the descent back towards Saint-Jean du Maurienne to drop off Luciana, which though not quite on my initial course profile I nevertheless welcome. It was a long drag uphill so I figure it will be a rip-roaring descent on the way back down, and within the first few hundred metres I can tell the Col du Chaussy isn’t about to disappoint. Where the Les Lacets’ hairpins were tight and compact, the Chaussy’s are long and smooth, with little more than a few other riders coming up the other way to contend with. Hunkered down with the freewheel fizzing as gravity does its work, this is easily one of the most exhilarating descents I’ve ridden in a long while. 

Baring teeth

After a quick bite to eat in Saint-Jean du Maurienne it’s time to bid farewell to Luciana and meet her replacements for the rest of the ride, Gauthier and Florian. Both men work on the railways, which, explains Gauthier, is a perfect job for a cyclist, ‘because it means we finish early so can go spend the rest of the day riding’. Judging by the size of Gauthier’s legs I dare say he probably spends more time on his bike than on the trains, so it’s with little protest that I let him take up the reins on the front to deliver us to the foot of the Col du Glandon.

To begin with things are looking fine weather-wise, but by the second kilometre I realise I’m alarmingly underdressed, and by kilometre three I’m soaked through. Rivulets of water cascade down the sodden tarmac and large drips plop off the trees onto my helmet. Gauthier seems to be having the time of his life though, and ploughs ahead like a freight train. I’m determined not be shown up, so I force an extra stomp on the pedals, shift up a gear and try to match his pace. He’s clearly noticed I’m gassing, so with a cheeky look in his eye he turns and asks what gear set-up I’m running. I tell him it’s a compact with a 32 on the back. He laughs and points to his drivetrain: ‘53/39 and I think maybe a 26 sprocket today. It’s OK though, the first 10km of the Glandon is very easy like this. The next 10, not so easy, but we will be fine, hey Florian?’ I look back at Florian, who’s smiling as well. 

I’m forced to grimace and bear it. If there’s one saving grace, however, it’s that the considerable effort is keeping me nice and warm, despite my drowned rat appearance. On the one hand the weather seems a shame – a clearer day would offer some pretty special views – but then again I don’t think I’d have much energy to take them in. Even on the early slopes this is stem-chewing territory.

Like all good cols in the Alps, the Glandon is furnished with little stone bollards that display the gradient and number of kilometres to the top. Depending on one’s mood and the proximity to the summit these can either be a massive motivational help, or a jarring, regimented reminder of the reality of suffering on a bicycle. As we approach the portentous 10th kilometre bollard, I’m definitely in the latter camp. If you really enjoy climbing – and I often doubt those that claim to – then the Glandon is for you. It’s the col that just keeps on giving. 

As if on cue, a false flat gives way to a vicious spike and all thoughts of single-digit gradients are washed away almost as quickly as the torrents of water flowing down the road. I’m somewhat comforted to note that none of us has spoken for a good few minutes, but no sooner do I start to believe we’re all suffering to the same degree, such that we might even ease off the pace a touch, than Gauthier turns round and cheerfully points out a local landmark. ‘Look, it’s a football pitch, way up here! How great would it be to play there?’ I want to tell him that I don’t have any spare energy for neck craning or eyeball rotation, but my body can barely muster a grunt.

Eventually we reach what I assume is the top, and indeed it is – of the Glandon. Apparently there are still a few hundred metres of road to go before we reach the real pinnacle in these parts, the Col de la Croix de Fer. 

Descending for a moment before hastily punching our way to the top, I’m not sure what I’m more grateful to see – the infamous iron cross on its concrete plinth or Céline sitting in her car in the layby. Taking pity, she hastily pops the boot and I hastily busy myself with putting on more layers in order to shelter from the rain under the hatchback roof. 

I can’t recall quite who said it, but I remember reading an interview once with a pro rider who explained how perverse he found the amateurs’ obsession with suffering. The reason, he explained, was that suffering on a bike just isn’t very nice, and the only reason the professionals go through it is because someone’s paying them to. So why, if it’s not your job, do us amateurs seek it out so readily?

Over the last few kilometres I was dwelling on this and thinking how right the pro’s argument was. Yet, strangely, now I’m here at the top it all makes sense again. Bedraggled and empty, yes, but the sight of the Croix de Fer set against the gnarled mountainous terrain suddenly trips my brain into a wonderful sense of wellbeing. I made it. I’m seeing it. I pedalled it. And the only way from here is down.

Down and out

With a sodden road and heavy skies it seems Gauthier and Florian feel they’ve done their work for the day, and frankly I don’t blame them. If it was another day and if I didn’t feel duty bound to complete the ride – as much to save face as anything else – I might well jump in the car with them, but I figure I’ve come this far, so why stop now? Below me stretches out a twisting path over which the road drops from nearly 2,000m to a little over 400m. Admittedly the going looks treacherous given the conditions, but bolstered by warm clothing and the anticipation of such a descent, I opt to go for it, and it’s the best decision I’ve made all day.

The road surface is poor, the corners greasy and the weather is getting worse, but somehow all these factors come together to a make the perfect storm of a ride. It’s as if the world is conspiring against me, yet so long as I keep a cool head and a firm grip on the bars, I know I can beat it back. 

The rain is stinging my cheeks and my forearms are beginning to ache, but there it is again, that palpable sense of fulfilment, of a mind dedicated solely to the now, of a body railing desperately close its limits. What discomfort there was on the climb up has been totally consumed by the thrilling excitement of this journey down, and along with that, any other thoughts, worries and stresses have been scattered to the whistling wind. Just me, my bike
and the rushing road ahead. Suffering? Bliss.

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