Col de l’Arpettaz: Annecy’s most beautiful climb?

Calling out one climb as the most “anything” is always going to be contentious. You may think the Dent du Chat is the toughest climb in France, or the Alps, or just the Haute Savoie, and someone will always find something tougher. Longer, steeper, gravel, mountaineering with a bike strapped to your back before navigating a glacier on road tyres… That said, I’m going to give Col de l’Arpettaz the title of “Annecy’s most beautiful climb”.

The view from Semnoz is phenomenal but something about climbing a 40-hairpin, single-lane road through a forest before climbing out into the alpine meadows, surrounded by fields of flowers, the rocky face of Mont Charvin rising above you, is simply magical. Add to that 360 degree views of Alpine valleys and mountains, and some of the finest vistas of Mt Blanc on the descent, and it’s hard to beat. Did I also mention that Mont Charvin is the source of the Fier River? And there’s a bistro on top. That also sells beer. Because it’s the French Alps.

But with that introduction, one might ask how has this gem remained off the major touring agendas? My guess is that it’s a little out of the way. If it weren’t the 30km bike path between Annecy and the base, I would climb Col de l’Arpettaz every day.

The climb itself begins below Mont Dessous, approximately 30 km along the bike path towards Ugine, from an unmarked left hand turn. The road first winds up through a couple of little villages but keep an eye out for a sharp left on Route des Montagnes, which is marked Col de l’Arpettaz, where the climb begins in earnest. From here it is around 12 km at 8% average. The road is narrow and windy, a single lane country path with bumps and potholes along its 40+ hairpins bends. For the first 9 km or so, you’ll be winding up through the forest, mercifully free of cars, and out of the sun as the day warms up.


Mont Charvin

It’s once you come out of the trees that the views begin to open out with valleys down to your right and Mont Charvin rising to your left. The vistas are worthy of the high Alps, rocky and snowy peaks high above the distant valleys. I would love to come back in May or even early June when there is more snow on the peaks. Though without the Alpage filled with flowers and inquisitive cows, the final kilometres wouldn’t quite be as magical.
We didn’t have time for a stop at the bistrot – it was warming up and my companions still wanted to tackle two smaller cols on the way home – but I would love to come back one day. Another great reason to come earlier in the season when it’s not so warm and where a cool beer in the sunshine with nothing other a quiet descent to follow, is the perfect lunchtime treat.

Instead, we headed on down, the views of Mont BlaIMG_4897nc rose on our left. There aren’t 40 hairpin bends on the descent but it is technical and it is best to take your time as you wind down through valleys and villages en route to Ugine.

Instead of heading straight back to Annecy, we passed through Ugine and towards Allondaz and the Col de Vorger, a relatively short climb of 4 km at 8%. It was starting to get warm by this point and I wasn’t particularly looking forward to Col de Tamié afterwards but a quick drink of water and we were back on the road for the final climb.

Col de Tamié was actually a pleasant, if not particularly exciting, climb. Around 5.5km at 6.5%, the narrow road winds up through a the cool forest,  a blessing as it approached midday in early July. Unfortunately, there’s no view at the top of the Tamié, just a blip in the tarmac with a sign, before the road winds down once again.

From here, we headed back to Faverges and along the bike path towards Annecy. Given the time of day and the beautiful weather, we decided to try our luck along the Talloires side, staying away from the crowds of roller bladers on the eastern bike path. It was a wise choice and the final 25 km went by fairly quickly. As always, I will happily suck a wheel all the way home.

And after all that, I figured I’d earned a swim so I headed down to the “beach” by the lake. IMG_4899

Lessons Learned in Bike Racing

I’ve waited a week to write a race report from my last Cyclosportive in Grand Bornand (“La Grand Bo”) for several reasons. The main one being that I simply didn’t enjoy it. It came two weeks after  a crash on the bike path that left me covered in bruises and road rash, as well as an AC injury and some tooth trauma. I hadn’t recovered. Yet I think it is important to look at these experiences as lessons learned. About cycling, about racing, and about myself. That said, I will try to keep the moaning to a minimum in the post.


Yellow = 93km; White = 113km; Orange 135km

La Grand Bo was only my second race, and my first “real” race in that it didn’t feature the long neutralised sections that characterise the Time Megève. If my preparation for the Time Megève had been an exercise in doing everything right – a combination of crash training and tapering – then this time around was the antithesis. I was recovering from a crash and hadn’t ridden more than 50km in three weeks. I hadn’t done much research of the route and was aiming to simply finish the 113km route (2620m elevation). But I lined up at the start with my friends and set off with the pack.

I knew there was a short descent followed by a punchy climb and I aimed to stay with the main group as long as possible. No doubt I went out too hard but I was worried about my form and ignored common sense. My legs already felt tired. I look down at my Garmin. 10km. How is that even possible, I asked myself?! Only 100km to go. This was going to be a horrible day.

The first real climb was up to Col de la Croix Fry, from the easier side of La Clusaz. It is a fairly consistent 6 km, averaging 6%. The strongest had long since pulled away by this point. Which is fine.

Lesson one: ride within your limits, particularly when you aren’t competing against those who have left you behind. Conserve your energy for the long, tough climb at the end of the day. 

Again, my limited race experience told me to try and keep up with a group on the descent so that I would have someone to ride with one what was no doubt a flat-ish section coming up. I did my best but I could have done a better job.

Note to self: Must improve descending in groups so I feel more comfortable staying close to the leaders. 

By the time I hit the next climb – really just a small lump by Alps standards – I was very unhappy. The 5km only averaged 4.6% but I couldn’t focus. I felt increasingly low as every new group caught up and then proceeded to drop me. As each new grupetto went past, I laughed to myself a little as I started recognising each one. The old-but-still-fit guys, who couldn’t quite keep up with the front of the peloton but were still giving the younger guys a run for their money. The slightly-and-more-than-slightly-overweight guys who at least dropped behind me on the hills. And then my favourite: the hairy-legs-compression-socks-tri-bikes grupetto. You really feel like you’ve reached the back once those guys pass you by.

But perhaps the most humbling was being passed by older women. To be fair, France has a history of churning out seriously fast older women – female professional cyclists are still racing in the national championships into their 40s and 50s. But it still stung. The worst, however, was finding myself on a long section, first rolling and then completely flat, with limited assistance as I got dropped by the smaller groups going by. I know that my strength is in the hills and that I am relatively weak on rollers and flats.Yet if I had known the route a little better, I would also have made an even greater effort to stick with a group, knowing I was going to face the struggle alone. Having to stop at a train crossing felt like just another blow in my race run.

I remember at one point looking down and seeing the Garmin was still only at 55km. And it just wouldn’t budge. How had I only gone 55km?! How could I be going so slowly?! Why am I doing this race at all?!

Lesson two:  know the route so you can play to your strengths and mitigate the impact of your weaknesses. 

By the time I hit the long, flat main road I was utterly miserableColcolombiereScionzier. I was in pain. My legs were screaming. I wanted the race to be over and yet I knew I still had to get over Col de la Colombière. I had done the climb once from each side and I remembered that this way was long, with a steep final couple of kilometres.

On the plus side, I knew that once I was at the summit, it was all downhill to the finish. I just had to make it to the top. I pass a man, vomiting on the lower end of the climb. At least someone out there was having a worse day than me, I thought to myself. I also stopped for water – my only stop on the route – and another lesson learned.

Lesson learned: take enough water so you don’t need to stop. If possible. 

I generally despise flat sections in long climbs, I’d rather get the suffering over and done with. But today, I was grateful for the relief as I slogged up the road. My heart rate hovered around 163 – under normal conditions this would be a chatting, endurance pace for a long climb but today it felt like torture. A young woman came around me, spinning and smiling as she called out a cheerful “salut”. That’s normally me, I thought! Christ, and she has already completed the longer course and overtaken me! I was ready to quit but as I neared the top, I caught a friend of mine, who gave me the little bit of encouragement I needed to hit the summit.

I had made it. A fast descent and I crossed the line at 4:37. I was exhausted, in pain, and miserable. I had come third, scratch, in the women’s 113km and first in the women’s A category. Unbelievable really but a small turnout. I learned a lot about racing and the course cemented what I already knew 1. I struggle with the rollers and the flats 2. knowledge of the course is critical. 3. think about waterstops in advance. And perhaps there’s no need to race when injured.

Until next time…