What’s next for the occasional sportive cyclist looking to take their riding up a gear?
Rebecca Miles steps up her training and heads to the Alps, to tackle climbing a col as part of a multi-day trip.
What have I got myself into?
Within three hairpin bends we were well above the roofs of St Pierre d’Albigny, within four - my conversation had slowed to short bursts of two or three words.
Tackling my first Alpine col was not going to be a talkative affair.
Within six - I’d already climbed more than was possible in a single ascent in England and was fearing I wouldn’t make it to the top. Our peloton of five had strung out so far I could no longer see the two men leading and my breathing was irregular, my pedal strokes uneven and my brow needed a good mop.
I’d come to the French Alpine region of Savoie Mont Blanc to push my cycling to the next level, and it was living up to expectations. A group of us had spent the previous two days getting acclimatised, cycling a surprisingly lumpy 25km on the afternoon we arrived near Lake Léman, then 70km along Lake Bourget, France’s largest natural lake, to Chambery the following day, accompanied by our guide Bruno.
This, day three, was the one I’d been bracing myself for – we were tackling the Col du Frêne – a mere blip for the Criterium de Dauphine riders who had come through here two weeks earlier – but for me, a road cyclist of two years from flat East London, it was a huge challenge.
Col du Frêne VS. Box Hill
Col du Frêne - 8% / Box Hill - 4.9%
- Climb Length:
Col du Frêne - 8km / Box Hill 2.5km
Col du Frêne - 600m / Box Hill 123m
We’d be cycling uphill for 8km, covering 700m of altitude and at a gradient of 8%. Bruno said we could expect to be climbing for about an hour. 60 minutes! Compared to the worst that south-east England had to offer, this was Goliath to Surrey’s Box Hill as David.
But then, about a third of the way up, something changed. I slowly but steadily passed the fifth member of our peloton, and the fourth was in my sights. Checking my watch, I was pleased to see that 20 minutes had already passed – perhaps this uphill cycling wasn’t as bad as I had feared – and I began to get into a rhythm of sorts.
The views were magnificent, stretching away to snow-capped jagged peaks in either direction and the air, despite the heat, was fresh. I found myself looking forward to the hairpins and their quickly varied cadence, and was enjoying this never-been-known-before strength in my legs.
Life in the granny ring
The road continued to romantically wind up and up and every so often I’d be passed by a Frenchman – young or old, they seemed to effortlessly glide by. Looking down at my gears, I realised I’d done the one thing everyone with any cycling experience had told me not to – I was already in my lowest gear, so both mentally and physically for when the going got even tougher I had nowhere to go. Through gritted teeth I changed up a couple and thankfully felt the efficiency benefits promptly.
I was either going delirious from the exertion or the girl ahead of me was getting closer – we could shout words of encouragement as we passed each other on the hairpins, and within three more turns we were alongside each other. I was welcome of the company, not that there was much nattering to be done, and when we were passed by another lithe Lycra warrior, asked him, “How much further?" “1km, maybe 500m," came the reply.
A quick glance down at the small screen on my GPS showed there was one more hairpin then a long straight bit ahead – could that be the top? Either way, it spurred us on and as we rounded the hairpin then gently bore left, it looked like there was nowhere higher for the road to go – it had reached its apex between two mountains.
From god knows where we found the energy to sprint for the finish and to huge whoops of elation and cheers we reached the summit. The elation that ran through my body and welled in my eyes was incredible – I wanted to do it all over again, it felt so amazing but also so completely overwhelming.
On top of the world - kind of!
In total, the 8km of climbing had taken 45 minutes. Bruno had said it could take about an hour, so it felt great to have come in under that, and just to add to the challenge the top 2km had been noticeably steeper than the earlier 6km.
The descent, while being comparatively over in the blink of an eye, was almost as tough – I was worried my hands were going to fall off trying to cling on to the brakes, though occasionally I’d tentatively ease off them, soak up the views and enjoy the sense of achievement.
Celebration was top of the menu at our lunch spot, the sun-trapped garden of the rather grand Chateau des Allues B&B. Greeted with a glass of refreshing homemade pink grapefruit cocktail, our understated picnic was a feast of local produce, much harvested from the chateau’s luscious gardens.
It was hard to tear myself away but there was a castle to explore, Chateau de Miolans, where the Marquis de Sade was held prisoner for four months, and a couple more, much smaller, hills to climb before the day was over and a beer could be enjoyed in the grounds of our hotel, La Tour De Pacoret.
The following day’s jaunt to Lake Annecy felt a walk in the park compared with the col, but it was still a not to be sniffed at 45km. It felt great to be back in the saddle and the last thing I wanted to do was return my wonderfully light carbon fibre Willier bike at the end of the trip.
What had started as a daunting prospect – four days of cycling, one of those up a col – had turned into a wonderful adventure and I spent the flight home plotting my next trip.
Cycling in Savoie Mont Blanc in numbers
- - 68 passes and remarkable climbs in region
- - Between 16.06.13 - 24.08.13 '1 jour 1 col campaign'
- - 1 jour 1 col = no motorists allowed on cols
- - 110 cycling itineraries run through region
- - Moderate to long distance routes available
- - Routes include safe, quiet roads, cycle paths & greenway
To cycle a similar itinerary to the above, Cyclo Mundo organises tailor-made cycle tours and self-guided tours including accommodation. For more info and prices, visit www.cyclomundo.com.
For more info on cycling in the Savoie Mont Blanc region, visit www.savoie-mont-blanc.com.