The French Alps, 2014
Martin Harris & Nick Khan

September is here again and the kids have gone back to school, that can only mean one thing. It is time for the now traditional Southend Wheelers Tour of the French Alps. This year the home-cooked comforts of King of the Mountains and Bike Village were replaced by a week in the Ibis Budget Hotel in Ste-Marie-des-Cuines, close to St Jean du Maurienne in the Arc Valley. Although I have ridden a couple of the climbs from this valley before, I have never stayed here before. With the Cols du Madeleine, l'Iseran (the highest true pass in Europe), Mont Cenis, Telegraph, Galibier, Glandon, Croix-de-Fer and Mollard all starting in the Arc Valley, there will be no shortage of climbing.
It is about 600 miles from Calais so we opted for an early start, the 7:35 'breakfast ferry' from Dover and a long drive down the peage getting us to our hotel by 7pm. You could also use Le Shuttle, fly to Lyon or Geneva, travel on the Bike Express Coach or take the TGV straight to St Jean but for me the convenience of having your car more than compensates for the fuel and road tolls.

Day 1 - Col de la Madeleine. 1,993m
Both Nick and I have climbed the Madeleine from the other side when staying in Bike Village a couple of years ago but this was our first experience from La Chambre. The climb starts almost outside our hotel; over the railway line into St-Avre \ La Chambre and then straight up. We did a couple of laps of St-Marie and St-Etienne-des-Cuines first to get the legs going. Climb by bike will tell you that it is a climb of 1,522m over 19km at an average of 8%. That is some introduction to a holiday. This is a tough climb with very little respite and a horrible section about a third of the way up. Often the steepest sections are near the top, but when the toughest kilometre is before half-way it is easy to go too hard and suffer later. Whilst we weren't racing, by the time we got to the final section I had a lead of about 20 yards over Nick and managed to hold him off in the sprint jog for the line to take the first mountain points. We had a coffee at the top in glorious sunshine before descending back to La Chambre, Nick being faster at this discipline. We had noticed a fete in the village so thought lunch would be easily had, but this is France, on a Sunday afternoon outside of the school holidays. Despite a wine festival, some classic cars on display and all sorts of entertainment for the kids, was there anywhere to eat? We rode into St Jean and ended up having a Steak American in the kebab shop. There was not much else open!

Martin Harris Nick Khan

Day 2 - Col du Telegraph 1,566m and Col du Galibier 2,646m
This is a climb I have done a couple of times before by driving over from King of the Mountains; it is probably my favourite climb. Another glorious day greeted us we set off up the valley for St Michel du Maurienne and the 10th highest road in Europe (though it in my eyes it is the 8th highest as the Col du Restefond, Col de la Bonnette and Cime de la Bonnette are all the same road)

The Col du Telegraph may be 'only' 1,566m and treated by many as a warm up to the Galibier, but it is easy to under estimate. You rise over 850m, in less than 12km at an an average of 7.3%. Having said that, the climb is very steady with few changes in gradient to disrupt your rhythm and I was on fine form knocking 5 minutes off my time from last year, though I would pay for this effort later in the day. Time to refuel before the descent into Valloire where Nick once again took over pace setting as we kept up with a Porsche and he took the intermediate sprint into Valloire.

Time for the main attraction of the day and the 1,250m climb from Valloire at 1,400m to the summit of the Galibier at 2,646m. The average may only be 6.9% but there is about 5km at less than 5%. You start with a 9% section out of Valloire before a few km of gentle climbing and then a steady increase to the half-way point at Plan Lachat, an ideal stop for an energy bar and a water re-fill. From here on the gradient does not relent as the road climbs away from the valley floor and up towards the Col. The final few km are tough, I was now paying for my quick ride up the Telegraph but with Nick only a couple of bike lengths behind me I resisted the urge to stop for a photo and willed my legs to turn the pedals a little bit faster. The last km up above the tunnel gets above 10% and with the altitude now greater than 2,500m you have to be careful not to overdue it but I managed to hold off Nick for a second day, though he did get his revenge on the descent to our lunch stop Valloire. Omelette and chips make fine recovery food.

Martin Harris Nick Khan

A cold and windy, but stunningly beautiful Col du Galibier

Day 3 - Alpe d'Huez 1,815m & Col de la Sarenne 1,999m
Today we drove over the Glandon and into Bourg d'Oisan for the legendary Alpe d'Huez. It was another fine day with stunning views of the snow-peaked Mont Blanc as we drove over the Glandon, only to descend into cloud in the Romanche Valley. I have ridden the Alpe a few times before, but usually on the first day of the holiday, not on Day 3 after the mighty Galibier. I was not expecting to beat my best time today.

I like to get straight into the climbing so after we rode out of Bourg I was straight into the Alpe, whereas Nick preferred a little warm upon the flat roads in the valley before taking on the climb. This is probably a good policy for a climb like the Alpe where the steepest section is at the bottom but I prefer to hit the climb and watch my heart rate soon hit the high 160s. The cloud proved to be at a low altitude only as three quarters of the way up we were back into sunshine and blue skies. The cloud cover helped keep me cool in the lower section of the climb, but despite the cool start, being able to maintain a constant 165 on the heart rate and the adrenalin rush of the sunshine breaking through near the top, either being a year older or the efforts of yesterday meant that I was slower than year with a time of 1hr 14mins. Nick, on his first climb of the Alpe, was a few minutes behind me so he leant me his polka-dot hat for the obligatory podium photo.
Martin Harris

The most famous climb in cycling

After a coffee stop we then waved the crowds goodbye and headed for the Col de la Sarenne. This is another one of my favourite rides. Most of the people who climb the Alpe simply descend the 21 (now 22) lacets blissfully unaware of the treasures awaiting them on the 'other' side, despite it being in the Tour last year. The ride starts with a climb through the resort of Alpe d'Huez, before a descent of a couple of hundred metres on the famous black run of the Sarenne (Terry Butcher has skied this!). The ski run continues down the gorge of the Sarenne, but the road climbs up to an annoying 1,999m before a beautiful descent to Clavans. Nick picked up some KOTM points with a sprint for the line that I was unable to match. Tony Martin was not best pleased with the descent of the Alpe, but when riding for pleasure and in the dry it is not any more dangerous than any other Alpine roads. Yes, you have to take the narrow, tight turns with caution, being careful to watch the road rather than stunning glacial scenery of the Ecrin Mountains. There were no green points on offer today!
Nick Khan

Day 4 - La Toussuire 1,700m & The Foret Communal de Jarrier
Today we went our separate ways with Nick having a rest day to savour some of the other attractions of the area while I chose to ride to La Toussuire. This is a ski-resort up above St Jean du Maurienne, so easily accessible from our hotel. There are a few options to get to the top and rather than take the 'main' road via Le Corbier (outside of school holidays and ski season there is very little traffic away from the valley floors), I took the local road up via Jarrier. This has a steeper start than the traditional Tour de France route but is rewarded with a longer flatter section with great views of the area. Now some of the French ski resorts are not all that much to look at in the summer, but this route took me past some lovely chalets before the inevitable socialism-does-skiing apartment blocks of the main resort. The official route is a climb of 1,150m in 19km at an average of 6%.

This was such a different climb to the Alpe; there was hardly any traffic - indeed I couldn't find anyone to take my photo next to my victory plaque

Struggling to read the top line? - click on the image for higher resolution version
After La Toussuire I spotted a minor road climbing the hill side above Jarrier, so I retraced my route and found a delightful track up into the communal forest. I had to walk over a couple of short sections of gravel and endured a couple of sections approaching 15%, but the road ended at a little hut with delightful views over the valley. I then had a fast descent back into St Jean and then the 9km mostly flat ride back to our hotel.

Day 5 - Col de l'Iseran 2,770m
We couldn't believe our luck, we woke up to another sunny day for our climb to the 4th highest road in Europe - the awesome Col de l'Iseran. Nick and I have both ridden this from Val d'Isere but approaching from Lanslebourg was a first for both us. Thinking that this is the sort of ascent that requires a celebratory beer after, I did look at the train times to Modane but in the end we decided to drive to Lanslebourg for the 33km climb.
The road starts with an immediate climb from 1,400m to the 'other' Col de la Madeleine at 1,750m before quite a long flat stretch to the start of the climb proper at Bonneval-sur-Arc. The last 13km climbs almost 1,000m at 7.3%. I won the intermediate sprint to Bonneval,  but yesterday's rest day did Nick some good as he powered past me to take the Cima Coppi prize by about 5 minutes (I did stop for an energy bar!) for being first to the highest pass of the week.

  Nick Khan Martin Harris

The blue skies had gone by the time we reached the summit but the views from here are just superb. A fast descent was followed by a proper climbers lunch in Bonneval (Tartiflette for me , Lasagne for Nick). We had considered riding the 10km up from Lanslebourg to the Col de Mont Cenis but in the end drove up instead.

Only the Cime de la Bonnette is higher in France - the 2015 Tour may be taking in the Bonnette

Day 6 - Col de la Croix de Fer 2,067m via the Col du Glandon 1,924m
Just like that, it was our last day with another ride straight from our hotel. The skies didn't look too good today so the Glandon did not look quite as nice as Tuesday when we drove it on the way to the Alpe. I don't know whether it was yesterday's Tartiflette or the extra coffee at breakfast but I was on fire today. The Glandon is a tough climb; 1,400m ascent in 19km is an average of almost 7.4%. Given that there is a 3km flat section through the village of St Colomban, the 16km of actual climbing is at an average of 8.75%. No matter, my legs were good today so by the time I reached St Colomban , rather than following the usual pattern of waiting to re-group, I carried on. A bit anti-social but there was also the risk of rain.

No matter how well you start, the top 3km of the Glandon are tough. They average 10%, 11% and 10% again. But I got to the top and then into the cafe just before the rain started. After a coffee stop we chose to continue the ascent to the Col de la Croix Der Fer. The original idea was to descend the Croix de Fer and climb the Col du Mollard before dropping back into St Jean, but the rain look set so we decided to drop back down the Glandon and the quickest route back to the hotel. It was a slightly disappointing end to the week, but we had 5 great days before. Mountain weather is always at risk of cloud and rain and to get 5 great days from 6 is always a good return. Nick was fastest down the descent but with my glasses all steamed up I took it very steady.

Martin Harris

Another great week was had in the mountains, the Arc Valley being a great addition to previous tours to Bourg d'Oisans and Bourg St Maurice. The Ibis Budget may not be to everyone's taste but there are plenty of other options around. I certainly missed the home-cooking and cycling camaraderie of King of the Mountains and Bike Village; after all riding in the mountains is all about eating and drinking - or nutrition and hydration as us athletes call it. The Ibis offered a decent buffet breakfast and with a supermarket opposite, a snack-van in the car park, a mother-and-daughter run Pizza Shed and a Trucker's Bar and Restaurant in the vicinity we did not go hungry. Unfortunately there was no Eurosport to follow the Vuelta but we did have Canal+ for the All French Petanque Championships. What more could you want....
All I can do now is look forward to next year's trip, perhaps back to KotM or maybe to Barcelonnette to explore the Southern Alps.  The crowds will probably follow the tour to the Bonnette, Allos and Cayolle leaving the Alpe, Galibier and Croix de Fer a little emptier.

Highest Paved Roads in Europe

1. Pico Valeta, Sierra Nevada, Spain. 3,380m. A track over the peak, paved until at least 2,500m with a climb possible all the way from Grenada. Pity it is covered in snow most of the year.

2. Otzal Glacial Road, Southern Tyrol, Austria. 2,830m. This is where the ski-ing season starts. In October. It has to be high to have snow that early.

3. Cime de la Bonnette, Southern Alps, France. 2,802m. A loop around around the summit makes this the highest road that you don't have to drop back down the same road. I climbed this a few years ago.

4. Col de l'Iseran, Central Alps, France. 2,770m. High above Val d'Isere, the highest true pass in Europe. I have ridden this 3 times.

5. Stevio Pass, Northern Alps, Italy. 2,760m. Famous for the 49 hairpin bends I have ridden this a couple of times.

6. Kaunertal Glacial Road, Southern Tyrol, Austria. 2,750m. Another route up to the same massif that makes up the Solden ski area.

7. Col d'Agnel, Southern Alps, France / Italy. 2,744m. Europe's highest border crossing.

8. Col de la Bonnette, Southern Alps, France. 2,715m. The pass below the Cime.

9. Col de Restefond, Southern Alps, France. 2,680m. On the same road as the Bonnette, the 2,715m pass can be avoided by taking the un-made road over the Col de la Moutiere. You would have thought that in a sensible country the Bonnette would have been avoided and the Moutiere Route paved, I'm glad they didn't.

10. Col du Galibier, Central Alps, France, 2,645m. My personal favourite



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