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