Our man Simon Hartwell rides 700km from Geneva to Nice with cycling legend Graeme Obree
Geneva Airport. After months of anticipation, training and anxiety, I was dragging my bike case and kitbag into the arrivals hall amid a sea of people holding up handwritten signs of names, none of which were mine. This was the beginning of my eight-day tour across the famous Alpine cols in the company of ex-World Champion and hour record holder Graeme Obree.
I noticed a lady who appeared to recognise my payload, so I made my way over and asked “KE-Adventure trip?” This turned out to be Judith, our support driver, and we were soon joined by ride leader Gavin – tall and tanned, with the type of legs you see on the podium of ProTour races – and a couple more riders.
The ride was to follow the Route des Grande Alpes, a tourist route that runs from the edge of Lake Geneva to the shores of the Mediterranean. It would see us covering around 700km with around 18,000m of vertical ascent.
We put our bikes together and Gavin led us out onto the streets of Geneva. It was a joy to be on two wheels. Gavin spotted a motor scooter up ahead as we were weaving through the weekend traffic, and an impromptu sprint saw him keeping pace behind it. I jumped on too; this was my kind of fun!
As we rode through the suburbs of Geneva, we passed a lay-by with a queue of two or three cars and a uniformed person stood next to a small hut. I thought it was a strange place for a weighbridge, but cycled past. It turned out that it was the Swiss–French border, and I’d bowled through oblivious to the armed policeman checking passports. Still, I was now in France.
We found our hotel in Thonon le Bain, parked our bikes and went inside to meet the riders who’d arrived earlier. Most notable of them was Ben, who had decided that riding across the major cols of the Alps wasn’t challenging enough, so had chosen to do it on a singlespeed.
Graeme Obree was around, but he’d come down with a cold and sounded unwell. He kept his sense of humour though, and after overhearing Ben and I talking about how he had ridden away from Mr Obree on the way to the hotel, he presented Ben with a handwritten certificate to confirm that he had indeed dropped the ex-world pursuit champion, on the flat, on a singlespeed.
Graeme turned out to be one of the funniest and most approachable guys I’ve ever met. He has long been one of my heroes, not just for his cycling exploits, but his courage and honesty in writing The Flying Scotsman, the no holds barred account of his troubled but inspirational life. Meeting your heroes can be a disappointment; the opposite was true with Graeme. I expected an introverted stand-offish person, but discovered a funny, interesting, modest guy who just happened to be one of the fastest men in the world on two wheels.
The route started with a deviation from the standard Route Des Grande Alpes in order to avoid the first busy and relatively flat way out of Thonon les Bain. Instead, we went via the Vallee Verte, which was both beautiful and quiet.
From the hotel we started climbing straightaway, gently to start off with and after 8km we were at the start of the climb to the Col du Cou (1116m). I found myself near the front of the group and got a little carried away; I’d been anticipating this holiday for so long that I was like a caged tiger who’d been released.
It was a wooded climb with my first taste of the many switchbacks to come. We re-grouped at the top and dropped into the first downhill; it was only a shallow descent, which took us to the foot of the next climb of the day, the Col du Perret (963m).
We only gained about 200m in height with the Col du Perret, but bagged col number two for the day, followed by a smooth run down to the shores of the Lac du Mole. We re-grouped and had our lunch on the banks of this stunning lake.
Lunch stops would become a familiar and welcome routine; the support van would stop, unload two or three picnic tables, and Judith would pile them high with baguettes, meats, cheeses and salad, as well as endless cakes, pretzels and fruit. They would then be stripped bare by ravenous cyclists.
Back on the road and it was straight into another short climb, followed by a flowing descent down into Bonneville as we entered the beautiful Gorge de Borne. The road was chopped high into the cavernous wooded banks of the gorge and the views down into the valley below were breathtaking. Over the course of the next 20km we followed the gorge, steadily gaining height. Eventually the gorge opened out as it met another valley at right angles near the village of Saint Jean de Sixt.
We had covered about 75km, ascending around 1400m so far, and I’d spent much of the day riding with Stuart, a very experienced race team rider whose pace suited me. Gavin explained the options at this point; either ride the 5km directly to the hotel, or take a detour in the opposite direction to bag the Col de Colombière. Everybody else chose the hotel; Stuart and I thought the Colombière was the way to go…
The Colombière was a very different beast to the other climbs of the day, and I found myself paying for my earlier exuberance. I had to dig deep on the steep gradient as the road twisted to the top. I caught up with Stuart who had made it up ahead of me by about a minute and we decided not to hang around. It was cold and gloomy and a warm hotel beckoned.
The descent made up for all the hard work though, and following Stuart’s line was an education. He was fast, smooth and could flow past cars and coaches without missing a beat; I watched, copied and learned. We made our way back to the hotel and bagged the Col de Saint Jean de Sixt (956m) into the bargain.
Today’s totals 106km with 2450m of ascent.
This was a shorter day’s riding, with only 60km and two cols scheduled, and saw us going straight from the hotel into the first climb of the day, the Col des Aravis (1486m). The climbs were getting bigger though, and the weather was getting hotter.
The Aravis passed quickly. I climbed with singlespeeder Ben on the first few bends, as much out of curiosity as anything. I wondered how he was going to fare, but he seemed to be able to push a steady – albeit slow – cadence, which saw him out of the saddle for most of the climb.
We descended into the village of Flumet on lovely twisting roads. My speeds into the switchbacks were increasing as I started to hone techniques that I don’t get a chance to use in the UK. The longest descents I ride in the mountains of South Wales are equivalent to the shortest ones here. A cafe stop in Flumet saw me indulging my other passion, coffee. The French not only have the best cycling roads, but make some of the best espresso too.
It was then back into climbing mode as we started the ascent of the Col des Saisies (1650m). I’d learned my lesson from the day before and had maintained a good, steady work rate on the climbs so far, avoiding going too far into the red early in the day. A beautiful twisting ascent eventually opened out into the summit – a ski village by winter, it seemed oddly quiet now.
It was exposed up there, so we ate our lunch quickly and dressed for the longest descent so far – around 1000m through amazing scenery. I flew through a series of switchbacks as the road plummeted down the mountainside, eventually shooting out onto the valley floor and the bustling town of Beaufort. What a great descent!
We relaxed in the sunshine with yet another perfect French espresso before setting off on the climb to the overnight stop in Arêches. It was a steady ascent of about 5km to our turnoff, but Stuart and I once again elected to add another climb – the Col du Pré (1748m) – rather than follow the rest of the group to the hotel.
This option was quite daunting as Gavin had described it as one of the toughest climbs we would do on the whole trip. It was the first climb for the group the following morning, but doing it that afternoon meant we would get to descend the side of the Cormet de Roselend, which we otherwise wouldn’t do.
The Col du Pré is a tough climb, and my Garmin 705 was regularly telling me the slope was 10-14%. The surface was loose gravel and the road narrow and twisting, but I loved every second. At the summit we had added another 1000m of climb to our total. Our reward was a stunning vista across the Lac de Roselend, an idyllic lake high in the mountains.
We drank a tasty hot chocolate as we sat on the terrace of the remote summit cafe. The view – the high mountains, the lake below us and Mont Blanc in the distance – was worth every pedal turn and the descent to the lake and back down to Beaufort on the Cormet de Roselend was the best yet. We had grins that didn’t fade despite having to repeat the 5km climb to the hotel.
Today’s totals 88km with 2760m of ascent
We were about to go back up the Col du Pré and I couldn’t help but wonder about Ben’s chances of making it on his singlespeed. But he made it up okay, by the power of swearing loudly, he reckoned. The man was really starting to impress me.
We once again dropped to the lake, but this time continued to the top of the awe-inspiring Cormet de Roselend. The road cuts through enormous rock outcrops, weaving around streams and waterfalls to take your mind off the toil of the ascent.
Once over the top, another amazing 1000m descent had Stuart and I in aero tucks on the long straights, and on the ragged edge of grip into the switchback sections. Cars by now were just an inconvenience to be drafted until we could out-sprint them into the bends. Taking a hand off the bars to give a thumbs up to any drivers that got out of our way as we swept past at 50mph-plus was exciting.
We regrouped in Bourg St Maurice for lunch and then set off for the long climb to Val d’Isère. The road follows the river valley as you climb towards the high mountains. It’s a long, mostly straight trawl that gains a lot of height – almost a 1000m – but it doesn’t feel like a mountain climb, so there’s no real sense of achievement.
Val d’Isère would be attractive when covered in snow, but exposed in its summer coat it’s less than appealing. Still, the hotel was okay, the food plentiful, and Graeme Obree treated us to a talk about his history with Francesco Moser – incredibly interesting. Graeme is so down to earth that it is easy to forget quite what he has achieved in his life. What a great way to end the day!
Today’s totals 80km with 2400m of ascent
Today was to see us crossing the highest road pass in Europe, the Col de l’Iseran (2764m), and we started climbing right from the off. You gain height quickly on the staircase of switchbacks that stack above the town of Val d’Isère, and it was here that I saw a marmotte, a strange, land-bound beaver-type creature that lives in the Alps.
The climb opened out into longer stretches that soon crossed the snowline and the temperature dropped enough to make the hard work comfortable. I loved every bit of this climb and even managed a big ring sprint to the summit for the last 500m.
The descent from this glorious mountain was every bit as amazing as the climb. I was hitting well over 50mph on the straights, carving into switchbacks and revelling in it. The road levelled out and I cruised along wishing it hadn’t ended.
This mountain just kept giving though; I was only halfway through. The road once again pointed sharply down, but this time it was much narrower and lacking any barriers or even central white lines. Another flatout descent followed, before I eventually hit the valley bottom. This will endure as one of my favourite moments on a bike.
Gavin gave the group a couple of route options at lunch. We could either go the direct route down a fairly major road into Modane, or go the scenic route, which he described as “a wee bit lumpy”. We chose the scenic route. This taught us a valuable lesson – don’t ever be fooled by Gavin’s descriptions. “A wee bit lumpy” means riding over a small mountain.
On paper, the 25km run to the foot of the Col de Télégraphe should have been easy as it was downhill all the way. The reality was that we were riding into the full force of the wind. We organised our group to ride through and off and started travelling at a good pace.
We were soon at the foot of the Col de Télégraphe (1566m), and a sharp left pointed us straight up the climb. It was quite a busy road which detracted from my enjoyment. So many of the previous climbs were in remote areas with barely a soul around.
Once at the summit we regrouped for an espresso in the obligatory café, then a group descent into Valloire, and our hotel for the night.
Day totals 110km with 2300m of ascent
Join Simon for part two of his Alpine Adventure on Tuesday
Tony has been editing cycling magazines and websites since 1997 starting out as production editor and then deputy editor of Total Bike, acting editor of Total Mountain Bike and then seven years as editor of Cycling Plus. He launched his first cycling website - the Cycling Plus Forum at the turn of the century. In 2006 he left C+ to head up the launch team for Bike Radar which he edited until 2008, when he co-launched the multi-award winning road.cc - which he continues to edit today. His favourite ride is his ‘commute’ - which he does most days inc weekends and he’s been cycle-commuting since 1994. His favourite bikes are titanium and have disc brakes.