The Stelvio Pass, Annecy-Semnoz & Le Tour de France

July 2013 and we are off on holiday for another two-centred stay; 10 days at Lake Garda in Italy and 4 nights at Annecy in France coinciding with a little bike race they have over there.....
Italy first and we were staying in Peschiera del Garda in the same place as last year. I did consider the Gavio Pass this year, but despite being nearer than the Stelvio would probably take longer to drive to. And everyone knows the Stelvio. So an early start for the 2 hour drive to Prato allo Stelvio for the 16 mile climb ascending over 1,800m. There was a bit of high cloud so the temperature in the lower section was more bearable than last year's effort but the clouds were burnt away by the time I reached the middle section of the climb - some punishing ramps between the hairpins through the forest. Finally I was above the tree line and onto the famous stretch of 23 hairpins in the final 7 km. I was suffering from the altitude and had to stop a few times to catch my breath, but I managed what the Giro d'Italia didn't this year and reached the top of The Stevio Pass. The Stelvio ranks alongside Ventoux and the Col du Madeleine as the hardest climbs that I have ridden.

The summit of Passo del Stevio at 2,760m

I had considered returning to the car via Switzerland; dropping to the Passo del Umbrail and Mustair, but it is a long day so returned the way I came. 2hr 48 minutes to get to the top and 39 minutes to descend - though that still represents a lower average speed than Alex Dowsett can manage at Steeple but he doesn't have to contend with hordes of German motorcycles and Italian drivers (like the French, the Italian drivers treat cyclists with great respect, especially those who have conquered the highest climbs).

For more family-friendly cycling, there is a flat cycle path from Pescheira to Mantova, virtually all well surfaced though winter tyres are a great advantage due to some short gravel sections. That is a 56 mile round trip. We also cycled various quiet lanes around the hill-top villages south of the lake, including Volta Mantovana, Monzambano, Ponti sul Mincio, Castellaro Lagusella and Salferino.

Soon the 10 days in Italy passed and we drove via The Grand St Bernard Pass, home to the St Bernard breeding kennels, to Annecy for 4 nights. My original intention had been to drive the hour or so to Samoens to ride the Col de Joux Plane. This has been described by Lance Armstrong as one of the hardest climbs he has done. And he was on drugs (and that is not even allegedly!) but after a long drive from Italy why not just ride the HC climb on my doorstep? I had previously climbed Annecy-Semnoz (or the Cret du Chatillion as it used to be known) by car and motorbike but was surprised by height and steepness of this climb. I took the direct road straight out of Annecy, which linked up with the Tour de France route about halfway up. Annecy is at about 450m, the summit is around 1,700m - this was a climb of around 1,350m in less than 16km at an average of 8.5%. This is a bigger climb than the Alpe d'Huez.

The climb started in a forest, a sign stating that it was the home of the Marmotte but I couldn't see Russel Whitford anywhere. The gradient was constant virtually all the way up, except for a flat section by a school. Despite it being school holidays in France, the parents still pack their kids off to school for various summer activities, seems like a sensible approach to me. This was on Wednesday; there were already some camper vans parked up waiting for Saturday's stage and the campers (virtually all Dutch!) gave me plenty of encouragement. I reached the summit in around 1hr 40minutes which was longer than I was expecting - but I wasn't expecting an 8% average gradient!

The summit at Annecy-Semnoz, 3 days before the main event

On Friday we rode the cycle path from Annecy to Faverges for the Tour de France. The riders had already crossed the HC Cols du Glandon and Madeleine before the lesser known Col du Tamie. After Faverges they had the Cols de L'Epine and the Col de la Croix-Fry before finishing in Le Grand Bornand. We had checked out the vantage point on the previous day - in a bar on a corner as the riders headed from Faverges to Cons Sainte-Colombe. We arrived early for lunch and a drink and to soak up the excitement of the publicity caravan. Never before have I seen so much fighting over worthless pieces of tat - but I managed to grab a polka-dot hat, some fridge magnets and a coupon for a free baguette!

About an hour and a half later the riders started to come through. Off the front was Pierre Roland of Europcar on another doomed solo breakaway. Next was a small group featuring eventual stage winner Rui Costa. Another group included Contador's old climbing buddy Daniel Navarro. The group of favourites came through some way down on the leaders and I was amazed at how close the riders back in the cars are to the vehicles. There were a couple of Grupettos with Griepel and Cavendish, resplendent in his National Jersey. And that was it - the biggest sporting spectacle in the world was gone and we had a manic ride with hundreds of bikes squeezing onto the cycle route back to Annecy. Unfortunately we drove home the next day so missed the GC shake-up on the slopes of Annecy-Semnoz

The Stelvio Pass is up there somewhere
Advance warning of road closures on the Annecy-Semnoz climb
St Bernard dogs are bred at the top of the Grand St Bernard Pass
On the piste-cyclable, cycle path that runs from Annecy to Albertville. Flat cycling in the Alps
The tour caravan features an amazing range of floats and add-ons to cars
Posing with our new hats courtesy of the tour caravan
And finally some riders go through - Jane was a fan of the pale blue Madones of Leopard Trek


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