18 hours later and after 800 miles in a car with 4 other men we finally arrived at our destination, France’s beautiful region of Haute-Savoie, merely a stones throw away from Switzerland’s Western border.
We located our campsite on the edge of lake Annecy and quickly set up our living quarters, because despite our total lack of sleep for the past day or so we were all very eager to get out on our bikes. No time for rest.
Problem. Whilst reversing a fully laden car out of it’s parking space, Hardy touched a car to the rear which in-turn managed to pull Joe’s rear wheel out of true, quite badly. No problem. A trip to LocationVélo on the west side of Annecy lake meant we could get the wheel repaired ready for tomorrow.
We now have 5 bikes between but only 4 complete sets of wheels. So, rather graciously, Hardy, still extremely tired after our mammoth drive offered to lend Joe his wheels for day one’s riding agenda – A climb of Col de la Forclaz. This would also be myself, Kieran and Joe’s re-uniting of this, the very steep and very tough 12km long Col de la Forclaz, our most favourite local col.
No sleep for over 24 hours had taken it’s toll on me. I had to stop half way up a 14% section of the climb, riding in the hot midday sun I was utterly spent. Physically and mentally drained I lay down on a grass verge at the side of the road, jersey fully unzipped and helmet strewn to the side. I needed to cool down, I felt unwell. Water down my throat and energy gels in my system I finished this leafy climb with the others and at the top we were rewarded traditionally with Beers, Coke and an unforgettable view of the lake.
We Descend the Forclaz and head around the west side of the lake to pick up Joe’s wheel. We chat with the proprietor a while, he talks of “clipping into the wind” and the descent of the Semnoz. We finish up and head back to camp to rest and more importantly to eat. Tonight’s meal will be well deserved.
My mind is on Tomorrow. To ascend Montagne du Semnoz via the Col de Leschaux up to Crét de Chatillon. This route had me shook. Last year I remember I struggled, I had consumed all my food and emptied all the contents of my Bidons into my mouth. I was hungry and thirsty and my shoes were made of Lead. Not again.
Eggs scrambled, bread toasted and coffee brewed we sat down and ate breakfast ready for our day ahead. Hardy and Army ( Adam ) had done a stellar job on the eggs. Cooked perfectly with parsley and bacon, these two boys have set us up and furthermore we now have a full team for today’s riding as Joe’s wheels are back, spinning straight and round. And then (as it was intended) there were five.
No bonkage this time but still not loving climbing this particular ascent, especially after Joe, Hardy and Army had dropped Kieran and I like banana skins on the road. They were gone and I was demoralised. Remind me, why do I do this? I ask myself as I solemnly climbed this baron, silent landscape. I could not answer but there was the Crét so I dug in and got up to be greeted by the happy, salty faces of four friends, a plate of Frites and a cold glass of Coke.
The best thing about the Crét de Chatillon is the descent, the climb is awful, I do not like the terrain but the descent, now that, I love. It starts open with beautiful vistas of Mont Blanc and the ranges out to the East and soon after you go over the highest point of the mountain pass, you immediately find yourself travelling at speeds of up to 60kmh through dense forest. The scenery changes quickly like a natural kaleidoscope of colours green, shadows hurtle past on the tarmac beneath as if one were stationary, my nose exhales breath of excitement and euphoria and in exchange inhales the smell of pine and cool mountain air, a perfect trade. Corners are banked, cars are sparse and apart from the odd mountain cow we are left to trickle down the side of La Semnoz, alone and for what seemed like an eternity. Wheels in motion, man and machine in perfect harmony with these alien surroundings. This place to me is like Heaven.
Fig rolls don’t go down, energy gels taste like shit and that night, Hardy’s Pasta Carbonara with Lemon was to my palette like what a gold medal is to a champion.
The sun rises behind us from over the mountains. It get’s warmer. Map unfolded, we plot a route East heading to the Col de la Croix Fry and Col des Aravis. We seem anxious, these mountains we have never seen and the lines on the map indicate some suffering at 2pm.
We leave Veyrier-du-lac and head up over the bump of a Col du Bluffy. Instantly to your right the precious view of Lac D’Annecy becomes obscured by the sight of La Tournette and Dent du Cruet. Covered in trees growing slanted on their sides these two brother hills have chalky peaks piercing their green coats like shark fins through water. We continue forward, pushing on pedals up the D909 to Thonês and Manigod and begin our long ascent up the Col de la Croix-Fry.
Despite the sun on the back of my neck my cap remains forward, visor directed towards the ground so I can’t see too far ahead. I see what looks like my cat Banton playing in the grass to my right , my concentration is broken and I feel the pain in my legs again, I ask myself the question. Finally I arrive at the top where I join my friends in eating our previously made sandwiches containing a fine slice of jambon and grated Comté fromage. I am getting cold, sitting here in sweat sodden layers, I remove my jersey and put it out to dry next to our table. Eating has made me feel better especially being as it wasn’t another fig roll. We check the map, refill our bidons at the restaurant and get moving towards the Col des Aravis.
After a short decent we meet the base of the Aravis. Stowaways go folded back into jersey pockets and it’s down to business, but business it was not as we had done all of the hard work on the previous climb. Just a few grassy hairpins with white peaks high to my left and to my right and we had bagged another.
I attempt to stretch my legs, cramp. We keep going, dissapearing off the horizon into the valley, one by one we traverse down the mountain into the gorge below. It flattens out a little and I pull over. There are walls of rock cascading up into the sky either side of us and down to my right in the ravine I see the clearest water flowing around massive diagonal shards of slate that look like they had been dropped there just seconds before. I don’t know where I am but right now I don’t care.
What followed was some of the most exhillirating riding I have ever encountered, the Gorges de L’Arondine, the D909 Southbound is otherworldly, like that of a computer game. Space invaders or Mario Kart. Cornering. I hear the sound of running water above and below. A waterfall, we are inside it, yet dry. Magnificent. I have helium in my tyres. Beside me is Adam, behind is Joe, Kieran and Hardy and together we descent slightly, riding maximum to the mouth of the ravine towards Ugine, faverge, Doussard, Talloires and finally Menthon saint-Bernard and home to Veyrier-du-lac.
Tired and wired I go into the lake for the first time to soothe my legs. Tonight we pay for dinner and I’m having the Steak Haché. Kieran forgot his comb, he uses a fork and we realise our camp is a mess. Tomorrow we must clean up, before we drive South to the Giant.
To be continued.
Such an amazing time had by all, I can recommend this region to everyone interested in riding on the continent, it’s quite a journey but so, so worth it.
More photographs and my account of climbing the beastly Galibier up soon.