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Escape to Arpettaz: France Big Ride

In-depth
28 Jun 2021
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It may not be well known among Alpine climbs, but that only makes the Col de l’Arpettaz the perfect place to plan a getaway

Words: Stu Bowers Photography: Alex Duffill

What gives an Alpine climb legendary status? Stats alone are not enough. A climb only becomes the stuff of legend once it has witnessed epic Grand Tour battles being played out on its slopes.

It’s why Alpe d’Huez is arguably the most iconic of them all, and riders flock there to pitch themselves against it in an attempt to feel what the pros may have felt in those moments scribed in the history books.

It’s so easy to get lost in the romanticism of a classic climb that we often fail to realise that it is not always particularly pleasant to ride one. Alpe d’Huez is a case in point. It is usually quite busy and riding it means brushing shoulders with numerous other cyclists as well as the cars, lorries and coaches serving the ski resort at the top.

The fug of overheating brakes and clutches lingers in the air. Nor is it a particularly pretty road, thanks to all the engineering work that was required to carve it into the hillside. The climb we are starting out on this morning is a world apart from all that.

The comparison to Alpe d’Huez is a fitting one though, because the Col de l’Arpettaz has very similar stats, yet for the simple reason that it has never been visited by the Tour there’s a good chance you have never heard of it.

It sits about 80km north of Alpe d’Huez, in the Savoie region of the Alps near Albertville, and it would certainly be classified as hors categorie if it were to appear in the Tour.

At 16km in length, gaining 1,165m in elevation to its 1,581m summit at an average gradient of 7.1%, it’s not to be sniffed at. And if you like switchbacks, for every hairpin the mythical Alpe has to offer, the Arpettaz has two, making a whopping 42 to tick off on the way up.

Small beginnings

The ascent begins modestly, passing through villages and pastures with gradients hovering at 4-6%. I’m happy about that because we’ve only had a short 5km ride from our start point in Ugine when we arrive at the base of the climb. Getting warmed up today shouldn’t prove too much of a challenge though.

France is in the grip of a heat wave and temperatures over 40°C have been recorded in this region in recent days. We’re expecting more of the same today. It was already 30°C when we left at 9am.

The Col de l’Arpettaz is just a short hop from the southern tip of Lake Annecy and we – that is myself and my riding companions Adrian and Lili from local cycling holiday company Alp Cycles – were momentarily tempted to ditch the ride and just head straight there for a refreshing dip, some ice creams and a spot of sunbathing.

It seemed a lot more sensible than tackling a 100km ride with 2,500m of climbing in searing heat, but after a quick discussion we agreed that today’s route will in fact be the perfect way to savour this bluebird day in the Alps.

The road is little more than a rural lane and its surface has become broken and cracked. We’ve been climbing for around 6km, mainly through forest, and so far the only car we’ve seen doesn’t appear to have moved in a long while judging by its moss-covered tyres and grass-entwined bumpers. We have the road to ourselves and the air is as sweet as Alpine air could ever be.

The only sounds to disrupt the silence are the whirring of our drivetrains, tyres crunching through occasional patches of gravel and the distant melody of cowbells in the pastures higher up the mountain. It’s idyllic.

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With the tree cover blocking the view it’s hard to gauge exactly how much height we’re gaining right now, save for the burning sensation in my legs and lungs. The average gradient belies this climb’s steepness in parts, with pitches kicking up to 12% that force us to momentarily pause our conversations.

When we do eventually get beyond the treeline in the upper reaches of the climb our eyes are greeted by a spectacular vista of the Aravis Alps with a row of jagged peaks serrating the skyline like dragon’s teeth.

The cowbell ensemble has increased in volume and we ride through pastures crowded with cows, goats, sheep and donkeys, although what would usually be lush green meadows are showing signs of the recent heatwave, as areas of grass have been scorched to resemble teddy bear fur.

We too are now at the full mercy of the sun, and it’s definitely the air temperature, rather than our pace, that’s hotting up.

On reaching the 1,581m summit we’re treated to a panorama of distant mountain peaks dominated by Mont Blanc to the west. Sweat is streaming down my face and I’ve already drained one and a half bidons, but thankfully the mountain refuge is open for business.

We sink into the deckchairs outside the front and soak up the views while replenishing our energy reserves with deliciously cold Cokes.

I can see for miles and miles

No sooner do we begin the descent off the other side of the Arpettaz than it becomes clear those glimpses we had of Mont Blanc back at the summit were only visual hors d’oeuvres. Just a few bends further down, the view suddenly halts us in our tracks.

If a child had drawn a mountain-themed postcard this is how it would look, with forested lower slopes morphing into a perfect row of magnificent snow-capped triangular peaks against a bright blue sky.

‘It’s rare to see Mont Blanc without its cloud hat on,’ says Adrian, snapping a few shots on his phone.

The rest of the descent is superb, winding gracefully through the upper meadows and fields with little farmhouses and neatly stacked log piles. Each corner is a thrill-ride of braking, leaning and accelerating for kilometre after blissful kilometre.

The lower section steepens and gets a little more treacherous as the road surface again becomes scarred and cracked. Some of the splits in the tarmac look wide enough to swallow our tyres, so we check our speed and proceed with caution until we join the main arterial valley road and head in the direction of Flumet.

This quintessential Alpine town feels welcoming, with narrow roads bedecked with bunting, and bars and cafes that spill out onto the street. At the far end is a bassin, a water trough fed by a natural fountain, which is housed within a covered area and provides an opportunity for shade as we refill our bottles.

Adrian plunges his hands in up to his wrists, having read somewhere that this is a good way to reduce body temperature. I go for the full head dunk. The bassin is as big as a bathtub and in truth I’m so hot that what I really want to do is climb right in.

Chilled ascent

Cold water drips from my hair down my neck and back as we head north out of town, giving me goosebumps and with it a welcome sense of rejuvenation before the next big climb looms.

Some might argue the ascent to the Col des Aravis begins here, but the first 4km is little more than a false flat so it’s really at the village of La Giettaz where the climb proper begins, with around 8km to the summit.

Unlike the Col de l’Arpettaz, the Aravis is no stranger to the Grand Boucle. The race has been over this Cat 1 climb 41 times, the most recent being in 2020 when Ineos Grenadiers’ Richard Carapaz was the first to cross the summit on Stage 18.

The gradient is never too severe, hovering around 6% for the most part, so unlike Carapaz we enjoy a relaxed pace that allows us to take in our pleasant surroundings.

The road initially carves through a verdant valley but soon the landscape starts to pinch in from either side, funnelling us towards a V-shaped gap between the jutting peaks at the summit.

As the switchbacks start to stack up more densely in the upper portion of the climb, so my jersey is now fully unzipped and flapping wide open in an effort to get as much cooling effect as possible.

It is sweltering. My computer – what I can see of it in the sunlight – reads 38°C, my sunglasses are streaked with perspiration and I can even feel the sweat pooling in my ears.

It makes the effort of reaching the summit of Col des Aravis at 1,498m harder than it should be, and it’s with relief that we tip over the top and make directly for the shade of a cafe and more iced drinks, this time accompanied by plates of salty chips.

Rockin’ and rollin’

After lunch, with 53km behind us and bidons brimming again, we set off for the third climb of the day. It begins with a short descent down the Aravis for around 5km before a turn-off at Les Étages brings us to the bottom of the aptly named Col de la Croix Fry.

It’s now the middle of the day and the sun is indeed doing its best to cook us, but at least this 4km climb should be but a molehill compared to what we’ve tackled so far.

The Col de la Croix Fry is more usually climbed in the opposite direction, which offers a much tougher 12km ascent to reach the summit, so I’m thankful to be tackling it from the easier side.

Even better, as we pass the sign marking its 1,477m peak we know we have a 12km stretch that will be all downhill, and it proves to be exhilirating.

The wide, smooth road helps us carry plenty of speed, but there’s still sufficient time to take in the views across to the towering peak of La Tournette in the distance.

From the village of Les Clefs the only way back is via the Col du Marais. It is really just a final bump in our route profile, but with legs now weary even this 4km climb at 3% feels a lot tougher than expected.

Before we set off this morning Adrian and I discussed the possibility of adding another loop of 25km to the route that would take us over the Col de Tamié (957m) and Col du Vorger (714m).

With the sun still burning we unanimously decide to drop that plan and instead take the more civilised (yes, easier) way to end the day: 10km of flat pedalling on the cycle path connecting Annecy and Ugine.

And what a path it is. Forget any images of cycle lanes in the UK, this is practically a private road for bikes: completely separate from the main road, beautifully maintained, smooth and free of broken glass, potholes and parked vehicles. It’s how cycle lanes should be.

When we arrive back in Ugine after 103km of riding and 2,512m of climbing we simply unclip, dismount and slump down onto the kerb by the side of the road. All that’s required now to make a perfect ending is another ice-cold cola. And maybe some ice cream.

Let’s off-road!

Try swapping skinnies for knobblies

For a different perspective on this picturesque region of southern France, bring a gravel bike to open up a plethora of new routes. The off-road trails can take you right into the heart of the Aravis mountains, offering views arguably more impressive than those available from the road.

One of the best sections of gravel can be found at the summit of the Col de l’Arpettaz. It is 14.5km long and wends its way along the line of the impressive Aravis mountain peaks, eventually connecting with the summit of the Col des Aravis.

It’s used in the La Resistance sportive (laresistance.cc), a multi-surface event with 130km and 90km route options, held (Covid allowing) in September.

Alternatively the climb from Le Marteray (just south of Flumet on the D1212) turns to gravel trails after Chaucisse and is another superb way to view the spectacular peaks by gravel bike, and also eventually delivers you to the summit of the Col des Aravis.

The rider’s ride

Trek Émonda SLR 7 Disc, £5,950, trekbikes.com

The Émonda SLR 7 Disc was created for exactly this kind of mountainous ride. Trek’s lightest ever road disc frame paired with a Sram eTap AXS HRD groupset and Zipp 202 Firecrest wheels helps to bring the whole build in at just 7.11kg – pretty impressive for a disc brake bike.

Those tubes may look skinny but they are unrelentingly stiff to ensure minimal wasted energy, and this pays noticeable dividends on the climbs, yet the Émonda never felt too flighty or unstable on the fast and sinuous descents.

It’s not just a climber’s bike, it’s a superb all-rounder with ample comfort afforded by the highly flexible seatmast that takes the sting out of the road buzz – so you don’t need to be a pro with a butt of steel to ride one. You’ll want for nothing, except to go and ride another climb (unless it’s 40°C, in which case go for an ice cream).

Buy the Trek Emonda SLR 7 Disc now

How we did it

Travel

Cyclist flew with Swiss airline from London Heathrow to Geneva. Expect to pay £90-£130 each way. Swiss is one of the few airlines that still provides complimentary drinks and snacks (plus Swiss chocolate) on board, and Geneva is one of the best-served airports in the world so there’s an abundant choice of airlines and flight times. Ugine is around a 1.5-hour drive by car.

Check flights to Geneva now with Expedia

Accommodation

We stayed at the superb, cyclist-friendly Hôtel les Chalets in Brides-les-Bains (brideslesbains.com). There’s a secure garage with workshop facilities for bikes and a breakfast that caters for hungry riders.

Book your stay at Hotel les Chalets now at Booking.com

Thanks

Huge thanks to Adrian and Shelley of Alp Cycles (alpcycles.com) for helping to organise this ride, and especially Adrian for looking like he was suffering on climbs when really he had plenty left in the tank. Also to Nadine Carle-Edgar and Montagnes Representation in the UK (montagnes.uk.com) for their support, without which this trip would not have been possible. Thanks to Lili Mclean too for being great company.