September is here and that means as the schools go back it is time to
kiss the wife and children/cats goodbye as Nick Khan and I make our way
to St Marie des Cuines in the heart of the French Alps for a week of
cycling the climbs made famous by the Tour de France.
An early start, breakfast on the 7:30 ferry and 600 miles down the autoroute get us to the Arc Valley by early evening, checked into the Ibis hotel and off to the bar for a carb-loading session. A little bit of bad news when we arrived; 'Big Tel' who runs a snack wagon in the hotel car park was on holiday and the mother-and-daughter pizza shed has moved. But not to worry, we have the truckers bar for a Ricard and a twelve euro three course meal.
St Marie des Cuines is at the base of not one but two Hors-Category climbs - the legendary Cols du Glandon and de la Madeleine. Just up the road is the Col du Mollard, Col de la Croix de Fer and the ski resort of La Toussuire, made famous Chris Froome's apparent attack on team leader Bradley Wiggins. A little further up the valley we have the Cols du Telegraph and Galibier, Col du St Denis and the mighty Col de l'Iseran. A short drive over the Glandon will take us to Bourg d'Oisan with the Alpe d'Huez, Col de la Sarenne and Les Deux Alpes to name just 3. And if you fancy a day on the flat, Albertville is a quick drive or train trip away for the Piste Cyclable all the way to Annecy. Is one week enough?
On Day 1 we woke up to some disturbing news from the Meteo-France (the French weather forecasting service); it was going to hit 31 degrees in the afternoon. If it going to be 31 in the valleys it would likely be nearer 20 at altitude of 2000ms o despite the legendary accuracy of Meteo-France (they use military satellites), the gilet and arm-warmers were still packed.
Two years ago we 'only' did the Madeleine on Day 1 but today we started with a brute of the day, sill climbing the Col de la Madeleine but this time via the Col du Chaussy and the legendary Lacets du Montvernier.
The Lacets du Montvernier
You have to wonder what mountain hooch the road engineers were on. This
was the first road built up to Montvernier, rather than build a road up
from St Jean the easy way via Hermillon someone had the bright idea of
building a road straight up a vertical cliff face. When on the road you
don't get the perspective of those amazing helicopter shots when le Tour
went up them in 2015 but this is a marvel of engineering. We even saw a
couple on the Via Ferrata.
The road continues up to the Col du Chaussy at a height of 1533m. This was the first time either of us have been up this road (mainly because the western side was only surfaced for the 2015 tour) and it was a hard climb with constantly changing gradients and increasing temperatures. Meteo-France were looking accurate again.
|The Col du Chaussy is a quiet road leading to a small Nordique skiing area|
|We then dropped down the other side to pick up the Madeleine part way up - we only had 14km to climb rather than the full 20km. The Madeleine is a tough climb with many sections of 8, 9 and 10%. At Chalet 1250 the temperature was showing as 27. The road is also popular with those two icons of middle-age crisis: motorbikes and sports cars. But this is France and all road users respect each other and every passing vehicle seems to give cyclists plenty of space (legally 1.5m). After an hour or so we reached the resort of St Francois-Longchamp. Well actually twin resorts at 1450m and 1650m. With the ski runs mainly between 1500 and 2000m I wonder how reliable the snow here is.|
|St Francois-Longchamp is a more attractive resort than the concrete monstrosities of Les Arcs or La Toussuire|
|The hardest part of the climb was now over and the last 4km to the Col are only at 5-6% rather than the 8s and 9s from earlier. The wind was stronger up here and the temperature finally started to drop. There were very high clouds but Mt Blanc was clearly visible from the top where we had a well deserved lunch.|
|I think the Col de la Madeleine is officially 1997m, but 2000m sounds much better|
|Arm warmers and gilet were donned for the descent but not really needed after St Francois-Longchamp and had to be rolled down on the move to prevent over-heating. Meteo-France had it right, it was showing as 30 degrees back in the valley. This was a 3 bottle day (most hamlets on these roads have source of potable water so refilling bottles is easy). Nick's Garmin showed almost 2,250m of climbing. Not bad for Day 1 - what will Day 2 be like?|