The Alpine Challenge: A tour de force

Offering amateur cyclists the chance to tackle a four-stage event in the French peaks, the Alpine Challenge has all the bells and whistles that Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins would expect. Simon Usborne goes along for the ride

I was climbing hard through trees in the French Alps. The air was damp and still, the asphalt glistening -  the only noise the breathing of 30 or so riders and the the whirr of tyres. Until, from behind there came a different soundtrack - Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red, played through the speakers of one of our motorbike outriders.

Perhaps it was a tribute to the guy a few positions back, the rider to my right joked. That guy was Stephen Roche who, if you don’t know cycling or aren’t Irish, is one of the all-time greats. Only Eddy Merckx, perhaps the best of all, has matched Stephen’s feat of winning the Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and the World Championships in the same year.

Roche’s presence among mortals only added to the surreal scene created by his crooning countryman. This was cycling of a sort few amateurs get to experience. Almost 150 riders of various shapes and abilities had descended on Annecy near Geneva to pretend to be pros. Roads were closed, mechanics and masseurs tended to bikes and bodies, and a Tour de France-style general classification tempted us to find our inner Chris Froomes.

The Alpine Challenge is one of a growing number of events tempting sportive fans who want to go that extra mile - or hundred. The cyclist’s calendar already groans with one-off, timed rides across Britain and beyond, including the famed Etape du Tour (the amateur stage of the Tour de France) and newcomer the London-Surrey 100. But now they’re joined by multi-day rides that, in the case of the Alpine Challenge, offers the glorious illusion of professional status.

Each day began at the start village built temporarily on the shores of Annecy’s captivating lake. To be split into four groups according to ability, riders first needed to face off in a time trial up the rain-soaked slopes of the the Col de la Forclaz. There were nerves and then suffering as each of us raced against the clock, climbing the first of the 8,000m (almost an Everest) we would take on over three days.

I set off with a kid called Felix on my wheel. The 19-year-old had been invited to take part after impressing organisers last year. He’d come back skinnier than Bradley Wiggins after a bout of gastroenteritis and, before long, sprinted ahead, dancing on his pedals like a cross between Marco Pantani and a mountain goat. He wore the leader’s red jersey that night and never gave it up.

I later discovered I’d finished fourth and it did something unexpected to my brain. Cycling has given me the drive to challenge myself but I’ve never raced, and traditionally shy away from competition. But as group one - the fastest according to our first results - rolled off again to start stage one proper, I thought, well, let’s see where this goes.

The genius of the event is that it’s competitive as you want it to be - or not at all. Only one climb per stage (four including the time trial) is timed - or less than 30km of racing in total. For the remaining 300km or so, each group rides together, aligned neatly in pairs and marshalled by friendly ride captains. Talking is encouraged, where lungs allow it, and riders regroup after climbs (and for a basic packed lunch) so that there are no lonely stragglers.

Abilities are happily mixed and the personal rewards as rich for world champions (we were also joined by Maurizio Fondriest, the elegant Italian) back to the less whippet-like but equally passionate weekend rider. At the end of each day back in lovely Annecy, where riders are put up in one of several hotels, hungry cyclists were more concerned about the race to the dinner buffet than the sharp end of the leaderboard.

It was also cycling at its most luxurious. Part of me wanted to get a puncture just to see what would happen. A mechanic trailed the group in a van and would leap out with a spare wheel. A ride captain, playing the role of domestique, would then draft me back to the bunch. It would be just like on the telly. And it could be - a cameraman also formed part of our caravan, making a film screened on Eurosport in the following weeks. The outriders, meanwhile, with their various musical tastes, rode back and forth to close the junctions up ahead so that we had clear passage along pristine Alpine roads.

We had come for the climbing, a discipline in cycling that can be brutal yet hypnotic. Britain is home to some of the most challenging uphill cycling I’ve done but few climbs are long enough to offer the rider the chance to develop real rhythm, or the ever-increasing reward that is the view below a long, Alpine ascent. The talking stops as the pulse quickens and lungs and legs pump together, creating a rhythm that can elevate the mind even higher than the road ahead. Ankles flex, thighs work like well-greased pistons. You count the hairpin bends and feel the air begin to thin. Eventually, it starts to hurt and things get ugly as you will the summit to arrive.

The challenge is the brainchild of Sven Thiele, a garrulous, London-based South African entrepreneur who quit the City - and, he admits, the several spare tires hung about his waist - for a new silhouette and career built around biking. Ten years ago, his company, HotChillee, staged the first Londres-Paris three-day ride. Thirteen pioneering cyclists have since become almost 500 and Thiele has added new events, including the Alpine Challenge and the Cape Rouleur, a week-long ride in South Africa.

Thiele now has rivals, too, in the Tour of Wessex and the Ride Across Britain, a nine-day supported ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats. Most fearsome of all is the Haute Route, a masochistic, seven-day Alpine ride with 20,000m of climbing. Trips and training camps for mountain bikers and triathletes also multiply. Stephen Roche himself hosts roadbikers in and around his home in Majorca, where bumping into Team Sky is possible at the right time of year.

Perversely (because they’re not cheap) Thiele credits the recession with fuelling the popularity of such events. “I think for people in the 35-55 age group work is a significant part of their lives in some challenging and frustrating times and they’re saying, I want to get out and do something positive, something healthy,” he told me

These events tend to draw mostly men - there were fewer than 20 women among 150 riders in Annecy - but I’d implore more to sign up. Those who want to can compete for the pink jersey, a contest that proved more exciting than the men’s. My own quest for fleeting glory left me in sixth place on the final morning, with the biggest challenge of the weekend still to come. On the final day, when the sun had come out, we faced a gruelling 11.2km ascent of the Col de la Croix Fry, its winding route still scrawled with chalk exhortations after it featured in this year’s Tour de France. I pushed my heart and weary thighs harder than I ever had during a 42-minute ascent, ending up ninth. And then the final reward - a thrilling descent that offered speeds of up to 50mph if you dared. Finally, a triumphant group ride back into Annecy where, happily, the pretense of pro riding ended. There were no urine bottles or microphones thrust into faces, but rather glasses of Champagne. I flopped into the lake, exhausted, spoilt and - above all - more in love with cycling than ever.

Places on the Alpine Challenge 2014 (3-7 September) start from £995 for entry only, up to £2,079 for a package including four-star accommodation in Annecy on a half-board basis. All entries include full support (mechanics, paramedics, rolling road closures, motorbike outriders, packed lunches and lead cars) as well as event photography and bus transfer from Geneva. Flights are not included. For more information visit TheAlpineChallenge.com

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
Sport
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
football
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
News
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Sport
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
life
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
News
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
i100
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel
travel
Life and Style
The veteran poverty campaigner Sir Bob Geldof issues a stark challenge to emerging economies at the Melbourne HIV/Aids conference
health
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich talk Penguins of Madagascar at Comic-Con
comic-con 2014Cumberbatch fans banned from asking about Sherlock at Comic-Con
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
filmGuardians Of The Galaxy should have taken itself a bit more seriously, writes Geoffrey Macnab
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform