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Beyond limits: Tour du Mont Blanc review

In-depth
21 Jun 2019
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This article was originally published in issue 85 of Cyclist magazine

The Tour du Mont Blanc sportive is not just tough – it’s an insane 338km of riding and 8,400m of ascent in three different countries

Words Stu Bowers Photography Patrik Lundin

Many regard the 1980 Road Race World Championships, held in Sallanches in the French Alps, as the hardest ever. The 268km course took riders over the Côte de Domancy – a 2.5km climb at an average of 8.6% – a soul-crushing 20 times.

That meant the race amassed a huge 6,000m of climbing. Fittingly it was won by notorious hardman Bernard Hinault. Well, Monsieur Hinault, I’ll see your 6,000m of climbing, and I’ll raise you an extra 2,400m.

And as for that paltry 268km, let’s add another 70km, shall we? Because that’s what I’m facing on a damp, dark morning in July.

Bigger and badder

Few would argue the Tour du Mont Blanc is the most gruelling single-day sportive of them all. The course is loosely based on the two most testing mountain stages of the 2009 Tour de France, run as a single event.

It’s 338km long with over 8,400m of vertical ascent, made up of nine climbs, five of which are hors categorie. Or to put that another way, it’s roughly the equivalent of doing the Marmotte twice.

It’s 3.45am in a hotel in Les Saisies in the French Alps (coincidentally only about 35km from Sallanches) and I’m trying to shovel cornflakes into my mouth at the breakfast buffet. I haven’t had much sleep, partly because of the noise of the rain hammering against the windows all night.

At least the storm seems to have abated, although the forecast isn’t filling me with confidence any more than these soggy flakes are filling me with calories. Unlike most sportives, there’s no throng of thousands at the start. This year’s entry list totals 650, a reflection possibly of the fact there is no short option. In other words, you’ve got to be pretty committed to be here in the first place.

There is no Europop being blasted through massive speakers, no compère to whip up the crowd. The mood is almost sombre as we file out of the car park and onto the road. I still feel half asleep, but not for long.

The first 15km is all downhill, and the sun won’t be up for another hour, so the cold wakes me up as we descend an Alpine road in near-total darkness. I corner tentatively. Looking back up the mountain, the road’s curves are illuminated by a millipede of bright dots snaking down through the blackness.

After 20 minutes of descending, I’m relieved to arrive at the main road that will take us through the valley to Praz-sur-Arly and Megève.

Buddy up

Groups begin to form as the road flattens out. I take shelter in a group of 12 and we forge a good pace, the kilometres ticking past relatively easily. It’s daylight by the time we reach the foot of the first big climb, the Col de Vaudagne, although early morning mist still hangs in the air.

Some riders are eager to test themselves and scamper away up its hairpins, but I resist the urge to chase after them. There is a long day to come. By the top our group has dwindled to five.

One of our number is a woman who seems to be pedalling effortlessly, so I stick close by her wheel for the next two climbs: the Col des Montets, which is followed by a superb descent over the border into Switzerland, and Col de la Forclaz.

On any other day these climbs would be the main course, but today they are merely the hors d’oeuvres.

‘Well, that’s a few down,’ says an English rider as he rolls up alongside me. ‘I’m sticking to this today,’ he adds, pointing at his bike computer. ‘Never more than 200 watts or I’ll never make it round.’

His strategy is actually fairly sound, but I have no such regimented plan. Besides, I’m hoping there will be better things to look at than my Garmin screen today.

The Col du Champex is where things start to get tougher. It’s the first HC climb, coming at around 110km, and the point at which this route begins to unleash its fury. Champex rises from around 650m to just over 1,500m in 12km with ramps up to 10-12%.

My leg-saving tactic of staying seated and trying to pedal a smooth, high cadence becomes almost impossible and I struggle just to keep going. The effect of the steep ramps is to fracture the groups and now the riders are mostly in ones and twos. When I reach the ski resort at the top I’m greeted by a shimmering blue lake and clean mountain air.

The sun is trying hard to peek through the cloud and bring some welcome warmth, but the descent that follows is treacherous. Countless freeze-thaw cycles have left the road surface cracked and rutted, and the hairpins are tight. I proceed with caution.

The hard yards

Things are getting serious. I’ve been riding for just under five hours as I hit the Col du Grand Saint-Bernard, a monstrous 30km long climb with an average gradient of 5.7%, leading to the high point of the day at just under 2,500m. It begins fairly low in the valley too, with a total height gain of nearly 1,800 vertical metres. The snow-capped peaks that until this point have been a picturesque backdrop in the distance now tower ominously above me.

I’m riding alone, but that’s OK. Up ahead I can see a string of riders dotted on the hillside, and I figure I’ll ride at my own pace and see how many I can pick off. The lower section is a busy road, but beyond Bourg Saint-Pierre the traffic disappears into a tunnel towards Italy, leaving us to continue upwards in peace.

The road winds through an amphitheatre of rock, with snow lying in patches on the verges. It’s beautiful, but not quite enough to take my mind off the constant 7% gradient. The 150km in my legs is starting to tell.

It’s midday when I arrive at the summit after two hours of climbing. I’m handed a coffee, and the man serving me says the leader passed here just after 10am. That was French ex-pro Nicolas Roux, who will win in a time of 11h 17min.

With the altitude comes a strengthening wind and a drop in temperature, so I add some layers and get back on the road. I’m still glad to be riding, and ahead of me is the chance for some respite: 40km of non-stop descending to Aosta in Italy. In truth I need it. I’m still less than halfway around the course.

Big little brother

Beyond Aosta is a relentless energy-sapping drag up through a valley, so my legs are already feeling heavy by the time I make the turn onto the Col du Petit Saint-Bernard that guards the border crossing back into France. Immediately I’m faced with a flurry of tightly packed hairpins.

It might be smaller than its sibling, but this climb is in no way petit. It’s still 27km uphill, rising 1,200m to its summit at 2,188m. It’s starting to spit with rain, so I get my head down and focus on keeping a decent tempo to the top.

Just like its big brother, the Petit Bernard saves its steepest slopes for the upper reaches. As I claw my way upwards, I look back to see a decidedly elderly rider gaining on me rapidly. She soon overtakes me and I realise she’s riding an e-bike. She actually apologises as she cruises effortlessly past while I continue at what is now walking pace.

After the summit I’m grateful for the descent, but the wet conditions mean I have to concentrate hard, and I feel like I have recovered very little by the time I make it into Bourg-Saint-Maurice.

I’m now over 270km in, and I’ve been riding for 12 hours. There’s still 60km to go, and 35km of that is climbing. If I’m lucky I might make it back to Les Saisies before nightfall.

In Bourg-Saint-Maurice I stuff down a bowl of pasta and pray for some kind of rejuvenation, not so much of body as of mind. I’m exhausted but I feel in surprisingly good shape physically.

What’s become wearing is the psychological impact of measuring out my performance, not daring to press too hard on the pedals for fear of blowing up. It’s this that I’m running out of patience with. As soon as I start churning up the Cormet de Roselend, the penultimate climb, my inner monologue switches from saying, ‘You can do this,’ to, ‘Please let this be be over.’

My mental demons are constant companions for the 19km of struggle to the summit, and no number of majestic peaks or azure lakes can ease the burden. Even the 10km descent that follows feels like a battle instead of a relief. 

And so comes the final climb back up to Les Saisies. I’ve been riding for well over 13 hours now and it’s getting close to dusk. It’s a 16km climb to the finish; I know that because I rode it yesterday as a way to give my legs a little run-out. 

I also know it took me more than 50 minutes fresh. I try to calculate how long it will take now and what time it will be when I finish, but my brain can’t do the maths. Mentally, I am broken.

Cyclist’s photographer pulls up in his car and starts taking pictures. I don’t even hesitate. I open the boot of the car and put my bike in. So close to the finish, I know it seems madness not to see it through, but I don’t care. My race is done. My head can’t take another minute of slogging uphill.

We drive to the finish. I’ve no intention of trying to cheat and ride across the line to submit a finish time. I’ve accepted my DNF, but I need to let the race organisation know my whereabouts. I watch a British rider cross the line to the cheers of his family waiting patiently at the barriers. He rolls over and says bluntly, ‘Well, that was f***ing miserable.’

I understand his sentiment. The Tour du Mont Blanc is not an event that you enjoy – it’s simply too long and too hard to ever be described as fun. I’ve never done a ride as tough as this, and I’m fairly certain I never will again.

Of all the sportives I’ve experienced, nothing comes close to testing both physical and mental resilience like this event. But then, for most of the entrants, I guess that’s the point.

The details

It’s a monster!

What: Tour du Mont Blanc
Where: Les Saisies, Savoie Mont Blanc
How far: 338km with 8,400m ascent
Next one: 20th July 2019
Price: €145 (£127)
More information: letourdumontblanc.fr

The rider’s ride

Cannondale SuperSix Evo Hi-Mod Disc, approx £8,500, cannondale.com

When I sat down to consider what bike to use for the Tour du Mont Blanc I narrowed it down to three key attributes. It had to have disc brakes, it had to be as light as possible for the climbing and it had to be comfortable enough for 12 hours or more in the saddle.

I decided to call on an old friend, a bike I’ve ridden a lot before. The SuperSix Hi-Mod Evo proved to be perfect. With Sram Red eTap and Zipp finishing kit (including Zipp’s superb 202 NSW wheels with 28mm Schwalbe Pro One tubeless tyres), it tipped the scales at less than 7kg, extremely light for a disc brake bike.

The solidity of the build shone through both climbing and descending. Uphill I was never left wanting (from the bike at least) and on the several occasions I hit speeds of over 80kmh on descents I never felt nervous thanks to its superbly balanced feel and assured handling.

Do it yourself

Travel Geneva is one of the best-served airports in Europe so you should have no trouble finding flights from anywhere in the UK. Les Saisies is a 1h 45min drive from the airport and a rental car is the easiest way to arrive there, as there’s limited public transport to the ski resort in summer.

Accommodation Cyclist stayed at Chalet Cosy (chaletcosy.com) in the heart of Les Saisies, only a few minutes’ ride to the start line. Comfortable, spacious rooms come with superb views over the surrounding mountain peaks, and the hotel allows bikes in the rooms, too.

Its location means there’s no shortage of excellent restaurants and bars within a short walking distance. The owner even opened the breakfast buffet at 3:30am on the day of the event to facilitate a decent breakfast for the riders staying there.

Thanks A big thank you to Nadine Carle-Edgar and Céline Guillermin of Savoie Mont Blanc Tourism (savoie-mont-blanc.com), who orchestrated the trip and made it such a pleasant experience – at least, the bits when I wasn’t riding uphill. Thanks also to event manager Laura Dufour for our entry.