My companion, Frédéric Magné, asks me if I'm OK - I've barely ridden half this distance before, and the 37-year-old French- man is a seven-times world champion track cyclist. No, Fred, I'm bloody knackered. The boisterous track coach of the World Cycling Centre (WCC) grins at me and, with a spin of the pedals, sets off up to the moun-tain pass ahead, leaving me to ponder what other treats the WCC has in store.
The WCC, on the outskirts of Aigle, a Valais town to the south-east of the Lake of Geneva, is a cyclist's heaven. It is the showcase of the regulatory body for cycling worldwide, the International Cycling Union (UCI), and at its gleaming, four-year-old headquarters you can pursue just about every kind of two-wheeled sport: those you've heard of, such as track cycling, road racing, mountain biking, BMXing; and some you're probably not too familiar with, such as "artistic cycling" and the team game "cycle ball".
And yet, until this year, no English-speaking cycle-touring outfits had teamed up with the WCC to take advantage of its facilities. Then Peter Easton of the New York-based Velo Classic Tours approached the WCC and found it was only too keen to throw its doors open to him and his clients.
Velo Classic Tours' 10-day Swiss Alps itinerary takes in sweeping rides along the shoreline of the Lake of Geneva, and long, 120km-plus rides up to the high-mountain resort towns of Verbier and Chamonix, over the French border. There is also the opportunity to ride in the area's big "cyclo-sportif" event, the Pascal Richard, at the week's end.
But at the trip's heart are the three days spent in and around the WCC. The 8am start in the spotless WCC workshop was not auspicious - Magné pooh-poohed my mountain-biking shoes, handed me a pair of light-weight racing shoes and from a rack of gleaming road bikes selected me a sleek 8kg carbon fibre-frame racing machine. Soon Fred, Peter and I were wheeling along towards Montreux.
According to Peter, the sort of cyclist who would enjoy Velo Classic Tours' WCC trip is "an enthusiast with some amateur race experience, somebody who is after an adventure but realistic about their fitness". He wasn't kidding. Climbing a sharp incline, I flapped at my gear levers and wondered where the hell the easiest gears were. Its "third ring"? It had none. Peter and Fred hunched over their handlebars and said something about 18 gears being quite enough.
I toiled in their wake. We stopped once for a puncture (Fred), once for biscuits and Red Bull (me) and once for a water break (all of us), before we reached the ride's climax, Château d'Oex. Snow-streaked peaks and plunging gorges were picturesque distractions, but after five-and-a-half hours and 135km on a saddle barely worth the name, I was glad to see the lines of the WCC's prow-like entrance hove into view. So ended a ride that Fred told me the centre's best young cyclists used as a morning warm-up...
The UCI department that spearheads the battle against performance-enhancing drugs in the upper echelons of the sport is housed at the WCC, and happy to discuss its campaign with visitors. The WCC itself, however, is an eye-catching attempt to cultivate the sport at a grass-roots level. So, on its indoor velodrome or outdoor BMX track are local recreational cyclists, kids and their parents. But the WCC is also an Olympic hothouse, drawing talented young cyclists from developing countries. As you wander from the WCC's cafe to its library to its well-appointed gym, bright-eyed teenagers of all colours and sizes are practising their BMX starts or brushing up their English-language skills in the lecture theatres. These "young champions", as the WCC calls them, can each train for up to eight months at the centre, half of the costs being met by the IOC.
Besides dragging me around the Alps for 95 miles, Magné has seen a peloton of British track-cycling talent beat a path to his door, including sprinter Ross Edgar and the world sprint champion, Victoria Pendleton. What do they discover in Aigle that they don't back home? "I find British riders have been trained very scientifically," says Fred, "but I try to help them with their psychology."
On my first-ever track session, I readily admit that my mind got the better of me at first. The 200m wooden track is bathed in a soothing natural light, yet its two corners still look like a fairground wall of death: their apexes tilt at 47 deg-rees. But, again, we are in good hands. Robert Dill-Bundi, the centre's public relations manager and the 1980 Olympic individual pursuit champion, is leading us in the track session. The bikes are beautifully simple: drop handlebar, no brakes and with a single, fixed gear. Practically, this means you must always keep pedalling. And to get up on the corners, Robert recommends a speed of at least 35kph.
So off we go, starting gingerly along "le tapis" ("the carpet"), the flat, inner lane of the track; then, tucked in behind Robert, I pick up speed, and after a few laps my bike begins rising up the banking. It's a thrilling experience, leaning into the corners, your neck straining to keep looking ahead of you, before being slungshot into the straights. ("Don't look down!" had been Robert's last piece of advice.) So thrilling, in fact, that I relax for a second and momentarily forget to pedal; my legs yank from beneath me and the whole bike bucks as I wobble down the straight. I feel as if I'm spinning round at 100mph; I'm probably doing 25mph.
Before visions of Olympic glory delude us, however, Peter Easton eases us out of the WCC. At the foot of the Dent Blanche glacier, beneath 4,000m peaks, we dine outside in a meadow restaurant, the region's distinct black Ehringer cows lowing beneath us. Later, we can relax in one of the thermal baths in the valley below. Velo Classic Tours do their best to take the pain out of road-riding: a fully equipped support bus, and small groups with leaders sensitive to all abilities.
But do you know what really takes the sting out of my thighs? When one of the Swiss cyclists who has joined us for the day points to a mountain ridge high above us: part of the route of the Trans Alp mountain-bike race, which he completed the previous year. A 15 per cent gradient it may be, but suddenly the paved, smooth road ahead of me looks rather enticing.
The Swiss Alps/World Cycling Centre tour from 19-28 August costs £2,150 full board, not including flights. For more information and details of other Velo Classic tours: 001 212 779 9599, veloclassic.com. Mike Higgins flew to Lyon with British Airways (0870 850 9850, ba.com); return flights via London Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester from £88.Reuse content