High Energy: Matt Carroll climbs the Col de la Colombière ahead of the world's top riders
Saturday 25 July 2009
"Are you sure you want to do this? It's very steep," says Yoris, my new cycling buddy. When you're facing the prospect of pedalling more than 16km uphill, these are not the kind of words you want to hear. Especially from a man like Yoris.
Decked out in black-and-white Lycra, his freshly shaven legs looked as though they'd been carved out of solid rock. This was clearly a man who does a lot of cycling, and if he says that something is steep then it's time to start worrying.
I was in the French Alps on a mission to conquer the Col de la Colombière – one of the most notorious climbs undertaken on this year's Tour de France. Last Wednesday, it saw the world's top riders snaking their way up through its impossibly tight hairpin bends before racing over the top to the finish of stage 17. But a couple of weeks ago, it was just me and Yoris – and even he was disappearing into the distance.
It wasn't always like this. Having grown up road-racing for my local cycling club in Gloucestershire, there was a time when I'd have been able to stay with the pace. Unfortunately, my weekly mileage has dwindled over the years, and although I still call myself a cyclist, these days it's more a state of mind than a state of affairs. Nevertheless, riding one of the Alpine climbs had always been an ambition. The way my fitness was heading, it was a case of now or never.
Plus, on the Colombière there was less chance of other riders being around to snigger at my huffing and puffing. Although thousands of cyclists head to the Alps every year on a pedal-powered rite of passage, the majority make their way to the likes of Alpe d'Huez, south of here – hallowed in cycling history as a legendary leg-burner and the first showcase mountain stage of Le Tour. But despite the reputation of the Alpe d'Huez for being tough, it's 3kms shorter than the Colombière – and not a lot steeper. Master this, and I'd have earned the right to hold my head up high.
Located in the Massif des Aravis region, south west of Mont Blanc, the Colombière has a vertical rise of more than a kilometre from start to finish, winding its way up through impossibly green pastures. Lest I got too comfortable looking at the scenery, though, Yoris warned me that the steepest section came right at the end. I couldn't wait.
I'd based myself in the town of Saint Jean de Sixt – the smallest of four picturesque villages that make up the Aravis Massif region. All of them lie within an hour of Geneva, and each is surrounded by cycling routes – making this area ideal for a weekend in the great French outdoors.
You can pick road routes to match pretty much any ability level here. Just head to the local tourist office, grab one of the detailed itineraries and off you go. There are plenty of places to hire bikes, and it's also possible to book yourself your own Yoris for the day who will show you the hidden treasures and give you tips on your riding.
The region is a hotspot for mountain bikers, too, with more than 30 designated off-road routes – many of them aimed at casual cyclists. The best thing about these trails is that there are no lung-busting climbs in order to access them; simply load your bike into the ski lift and head straight to the top.
There was to be no such luxury for me. Ahead lay 80kms of winding Alpine roads, much of it uphill, and as we made our way out of Saint Jean and down towards Les Contamines, I was already wondering what I'd let myself in for.
Mercifully the first 40km were all downhill, which gave me a chance to soak up the scenery. Every few minutes, we passed through yet another beautiful village, all shuttered windows, Juliet balconies and hanging baskets of bright red flowers. With Yoris keeping a lid on the pace, I was able to conserve my energy for the grand finale, which came around all too soon.
Cruising into the town of Cluses, we swung right and began our ascent – the sound of clicking gears signifying the start of the climb. "Only another 16km to the top; you're doing well," said Yoris, trying to gee me up.
It certainly didn't feel like it. A few kilometres in, and my lungs already felt as if they were about to burst through my chest wall. There is a knack to cycling up mountains, however; it's all about sitting back, spinning a low gear and relaxing into it.
Rather than worry about the umpteen uphill kilometres I had left, I decided to admire the view instead. The first third of the climb took us up through wonderful shaded woods, before opening out into high mountain pastures – so green they looked as if they'd been coloured in with felt-tip pen.
After passing through the town of Le Reposoir, things got decidedly steeper, and it was here that my legs turned to jelly. Having come this far, however, I wasn't about to give up – especially as there was a welcoming committee waiting for me, in the form of Yoris's team-mates from Le Grand Bornand cycling club.
With spectators involved, stopping was no longer an option – and around the next corner I finally saw the top. I felt as if I'd won my own private stage of Le Tour.
From there, it was pretty much downhill all the way, as we dropped into Le Grand Bornand and back to the comfort zone of Saint Jean de Sixt.
Maybe I was tired and emotional, but the place looked ridiculously beautiful – a cluster of Alpine chalets sprinkled around the hillsides. And just when it couldn't possibly get any more romantic, the whole lot turned pink as the sun slipped behind the surrounding peaks.
After all that, I needed to recharge my calories. There are only 1,000 or so inhabitants here, so what passes for nightlife mostly consists of sitting around a huge table in a restaurant or chalet, eating as much Reblochon cheese as you can consume. The Aravis Massif is renowned for it, and everywhere you go it makes an appearance. Later that evening, at the Hotel de La Croix Fry in nearby Manigod, I was presented with a parcel of the stuff wrapped in flaky pastry, which signalled the start of an epic, six-course eating session. Now that's my kind of challenge ...
For guided cycling trips with Yoris round the Aravis Massif region, call 0033 6701 196 54 or visit jcsportconcept.com. The Hotel Beau Site (0033 4500 22404; hotelbeausite.biz) in Saint Jean de Sixt has half-board double rooms available from €108. For more information on Le Massif des Aravis, see aravis.com; for more information on Saint Jean de Sixt, visit saintjeandesixt.com
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