The “impassable” Cormet d’Arêches + Col de Roseland

I had been planning on riding over the Cormet de Roseland for a while but I wanted to do something a little more interesting than just and out-and-back route. After getting a bit lost on a morning ride and ending up below the Cormet d’Arêches on this side, I figured a great loop over the Roseland, across to Col du Pre and then back over Cormet d’Arêches would be ideal. It would also involve some gravel…

In an effort to do some research on the route, I carried out the usual google searches and did a bit of reading online. Most blogs warned that it was “VTT” only, which of course did nothing to deter me. I then asked around locally. The local bike shop told me it was much better on a mountain bike (or VTT) while some other people told me it was simply impassable. I met one guy who was planning to drive over it and asked if he could take some pictures but when he never followed up, I figured I would just have to wing it. In my general experience, where a car can go, a road bike can follow.

Still, I generally don’t like going to potentially isolated gravel roads alone and so I convinced a French friend to come with me. And what a day it was!

From Tessens, we meandered down to the valley floor and took the cyclepath along to Bourg St Maurice. After living in Annecy, the local cyclepath is a dream. Shaded and quiet, meandering along the river Isère. It’s a fall flat uphill on the way to Bourg St Maurice (from Aime) and a slight downhill on the way back. If you were looking to mix things up slightly, there is also a road from Aime to Bourg St Maurice that runs parallel. Simply follow the signs to Macot and then along to Landry and continue north till you reach the turnoff to Les Arcs on your right, where you head across the river to your left into town.

It is a little tricky when you reach the end of the bike path but if you turn left and then follow the smaller road to your right, it will spit you out in the centre of town. From here it is well signposted to the Cormet de Roseland.

The 18km climb is fairly steady, mostly around 7 – 8% with a couple of flat sections along the way. The real highlight comes once you rise to the tree level and the alpine pastures CormetRoselandfall away around you. These final few kilometres are stunning, rocky alpages and hairpin bends wind up toward the Cormet. The famous lake is just a little further over and be sure to take pictures on your way down. On a calm, sunny day, you will be rewarded by reflections like mirrors in the turquoise waters. Mont Blanc is visible in the distance. And the views just keep getting better, particularly along the dam wall.


image1 (2)Stop, take pictures, enjoy the view, stock up on water at any number of restaurants along the road as there aren’t any public fountains (that I noticed) along the route.

From here, we followed the dam wall along to the other side of the

lake and climbed over the Col du Pre. The Col du Pre has a reputation for being a really tough climb and as we descended the “official” climb on the other side, I could see why. From this direction though it is just a few kil
ometres of alpage until you reach a little restaurant on top.

Again, the views down to the Beaufort valley below are worth CormetArechesthe detour but the route is steep and windy, and had a lot of loose gravelly bits when we descended, so keep one eye on the road. About half way down there is a single intersection and a sign off to the Barrage du St Guerin (the St Guerin dam) on your left. This is where you will join the Cormet d’Arêches climb. As you can see in the picture, you will not be climbing all the way from Beaufort but instead joining for the final 12.5km.

The climb itself only averages 7% but it is uneven, and frequently ramps up to double digits. The road is quiet and shaded on the bottom section, with frequent views up to the image1 (1)couloirs around the crêts that line up on either side of the Cormet d’Arêches itself. The valley is steep on both sides and you should be treated with views of waterfalls as well.

Once you reach the St Guerin dam, stop to take some pictures – or enjoy an icecream if you need a break – and then take the road up to your left towards the Cormet. From here, the road narrows and you’ll pass a small farm or two but mostly hikers out enjoying the views.

About 3km from the top, the bitumen ends and you’re faced with some of the worst gravel you’ll ever want to attempt on a road bike. I quite enjoy a bit of gravel and was looking forward to giving French gravel image4roads a go. But there’s a good reason the French don’t ride them and that is due to some pretty poor maintenance. Nothing like the gravel of Australia or the United States.

Large rocks are scattered across the road and you need to weave from side to side to find the best line on the climb. It is also steep and I made full use of my 32 cassette on the back just to be able to roll over it a little easier.

I spent a lot of time gritting my teeth and despising the route. But would I do it again? In a heartbeat. The views are phenomenal, you won’t see anyone much other than hikers, and there’s a sense of achievement when you get to the top. Not to mention the equal parts encouragement and bemusement from the hikers along the way!

You will also pass the pretty little Lac des Fées en route.


Once you reach the Cormet d’Arêches sign, you can see the Refuge de la Croire down below. It is another 1km or so to the refuge – where I recommend stopping in for a drink and/or meal – but the road is much improved. image3

More road traffic seems to come up from this side and the route is better maintained. After the refuge it is a further 1km down some steep hairpins (I admit I put my foot down in the hairpins because it was pretty rough) and then you’ll be back on some gravelly bitumen before the road improves dramatically at a little bridge.

image1 (3)

It is a steep, windy but fairly fast descent to Granier and then down to our starting place in Tessens. Enjoy the views on the way down, you’ve earned it. It may only be 84 km but the road conditions kept it fairly slow. Still, a fabulous day and a route I would highly recommend.



La Tarentaise – Rosuel Valley

When some good friends of mine put out an urgent request for a cat sitter, I jumped at the chance. The steep mountains flanking the Tarentaise valley give way to some truly stunning riding that was too good to turn down.

I arrived in Tessens eager to explore. While I knew it was going to be hilly, I don’t think I quite appreciated that every single way is up. Even if you were to cruise down the hill from Tessens to the valley, you’d still face a 20 minute climb back at the end of the ride. I found out the hard way as I startled tootling around the local hills that even a 50km ride involved around 1600m of climbing!

With that in mind, I decided to visit the Parc National de Vanoise to Nancroix. From Tessens, I cruised down the hill to Aime and along the bike path to Bellentre and followed the signs to Landry. From Landry, just follow the signs up to Peisey-Nancroix and the Rosuel Valley. I couldn’t find a profile of the climb (but if I do, I will be sure to update this post) but according to my strava file, it’s approximately 12km with an average 6% It’s a lovely climb, well signposted, and brings you out to a wide open meadow at the base of several peaks in the Vanoise National Park. Waterfalls cascade down cliffs, patches of snow still cling to the summit, and the meadow below opens out before you at the end of the climb. The picnic area has good bathrooms and water, while there’s a restaurant close to the top of the hill. Image-1.jpg

From here, I rolled down the hill about 5km before taking a right towards Vallandry, where you can cut across to one of the largest ski stations in France – Les Arcs. The quiet road winds across the side of the mountain and at the end, you’ll be rewarded with views of Mont Blanc. Of course, I didn’t stop and take a picture until the clouds moved across and covered the view!

[NB: Be careful about following my strava at this point if you’re heading out – you’ll see I took a wrong turn and ended up on a 20% ramp that ended at a golf course… ]

Once I hit Les Arcs, I was a little disappointed – it’s just a large ski resort after all – but getting there is well worth the trip and it’s a fast (if a little busy) descent back to Bourg St Maurice.

I decided to head back to Tessens via my favourite local balcony route – the Versant du Soleil. The Versant du Soleil runs from above Bourg St Maurice to Granier. It’s a rolling ride along quiet country roads, with gorgeous views down into the valley. It is also the only way back to Tessens that ends with a descent. You can access it from Aime (via Tessens or the Côte d’Aime), Bellentre, or Bourg St Maurice. Each of these start/end points are also great for making little loops on the western side of the valley.

FullSizeRender (2).jpgWhen I headed up from Bourg St Maurice the road was blocked past Vulmix and I had to walk past the hole in the road but not to worry, it was still a great little way back and I appreciated the short climbs and lively descents.

Getting out and getting a bit lost is sometimes the best way to enjoy a day on the bike.

La Bourgui (aka the tough race)

On July 31st I decided to undertake my toughest race yet – 135km with 4300m of elevation gain. The distance may seem fairly insignificant but the climbs were going to be fierce. I set the race as a challenge to myself, the goal was simply to finish. It would take some of the “race” pressure off, I thought. But of course, I was stressed in the lead up to the event, I didn’t know the course at all (let’s be honest, I haven’t reccy’d a single course this season) and I was generally worried about being out there alone for 7 – 8 hours. Unlike other Cyclosportives in the area, there were only two courses in La Bourgui: the short was 77km with 2300 m climbing, so whoever did the short course would be waiting around a very long time for me to come in.

I rode out the night before to stay with friends who were going to ride the next day. I barely slept. Normally, the thought of lying in bed listening to a storm would be wonderful. Instead, it filled me with dread. The alarm went off at 5am and it was still raining. Pouring in fact. And very dark. I got myself organised and had breakfast with Sian – who’d be doing the short course that day. As we drove out through the fog and rain, our spirits dropped. Was it worth driving out to the start? Would we start? What level of rain were we willing to put up with to do the course? It was still raining when we arrived in St Martin Belleville for the start line. We saw fellow riders abandoning the course before they even reached the départ – driving back down the hill or turning around in St Martin Belleville. We decided to pick up our numbers and sit in the café to wait the weather out. Perhaps they would cancel? Or delay the start? The course began with a 22km descent, the kind of start that would ruin a ride before it even began. Not only would it be dangerous but you’d be soaked, your shoes filled with water, and facing a fairly unpleasant few hours in the saddle.

At 7:40, the rain finally stopped. To one side of the valley, it almost looked as though the clouds were lifting. They assured us that the weather report was clear. We’d seen the same but in the mountains you’re sometimes better off trusting your eyes and your instinct.

We made a quick decision to just do it. I would take the short course if the weather was bad and we both agreed that there was no shame in pulling out during the race itself if it hailed (as one guy told us when deciding to turn around).

I’m now even more nervous. I haven’t brought a rain jacket but my friend lends me a wind breaker. I skip the sunnies because you can’t even see to the other side of the road at the start line, and I forget about sunscreen. Hell, I’m wearing arm warmers and a wind jacket. In the middle of summer.

The race pulls out and I’m jittery on the wet roads. The first ramp winds up steeply – the idea is to thin the field a little before the descent – and I get jostled by guys pushing past. I hit the descent and I’m just nervous, avoiding the white lines and taking it embarrassingly slow. “No crashing, no crashing”, I tell myself. I’m usually far more confident in the wet, I’ve descended in the rain dozens of times but today I’m just not on it.

grandparcoursStill, I get to the bottom and hit the first climb up to Doucy. Clearly, I’m not on form and my legs are slow to respond but I just chug away, my friends snapping at my heels on each hairpin. The first climb was fairly steady but without knowing the course, it was difficult to gauge. None of the climbs in the race were particularly well-known and as a result didn’t have those wonderfully motivating signs that tell you how many kilometres to the summit and the average gradient of the next km. Not to mention, when it rains, my garmin gradient monitor completely stops working, to the point where I was climbing but the Garmin showed a gradient of -26% !


Nearing the Doucy summit

But as I topped the summit, riding along with one of my competitors, the sun started to come out. I could do the long course, I thought to myself. I would get away from the race vibe – which wasn’t doing it for me at all – and into the long-haul, solo endurance course that I was actually far better suited to. And even more so when not feeling my best. So as we hit the descent to Moûtiers, I made up my mind. I’d come here to do the long course and I was just going to get through it. I turned left at the roundabout and followed the 137km signs… to my peril, I thought!

The next climb felt longer and tougher but I was really happy to just settle into a pace and ride along on my own, all the pressure was behind me as my friends and otherwise competitors were hitting the 23km final climb to Les Menuires already. The sun was out and the scenery was just spectacular. Of course I didn’t have any sunglasses or sunscreen and I was aware this might be a bit of a problem down the line, not to mention the fact that I hadn’t brought enough food for the grand parcours… I’d be stopping at every ravito today!

Indeed, after 15km at around 7 – 8%, I was NDduPrethankful to reach the food stop at the top of Notre Dame du Pré, where I downed a couple of glasses of orange juice, shoved bananas in my mouth and back pocket, along with some cake, and refilled my water bottle. “The first woman!”, they exclaimed. “The only”, I responded with a smile.

I also started passing the first of many cheer squads of the day – friends and relatives on the climbs and people of all ages in the villages. The kids stretched out their hands for high fives as I rode past, others had horns. “Allez, allez, courage”, they cheered and clapped. And of course “C’est une fille!” they’d then scream, which only encouraged me even more. I love racing in France.

But the best cheer squad of all is your mates. The long course was passing right by Sian place, and Nick and the kids had set up a special ravito station for the weary riders. I’d left a bidon with electrolytes, an energy bar and some gels that I was definitely going to need. But I never expected the full cheer squad, with my name written across the road and a flag all for me! I’ve never been so happy. I pulled over for a quick update on how I was doing and to get some encouraging words from Nick. I also shoved some gels and bars in my pockets, and a few lollies and biscuits from the stand. I didn’t even mind that it wasn’t the summit of Villette, I was just glad for a little refuel.


After Villette, I knew there was a dangerous descent. Nick and the kids had warned me it wasn’t ‘roadbikable’ and at the start of the race there’d been an announcement about the dangers of this particular section. I was wary, particularly as it had rained again and the roads were going to be wet…

I reach the top and all the warning signs are there. In addition to the usual “soyez prudente” signs at the top of any race descent, there was “danger” “racines” and a lot of fluorescent markings on the narrow road. It was steep. Very steep. Narrow – too narrow for a car to pass I would have thought. And the hairpins were very tight. It was also wet. But the real danger were the tree roots that bulged through the asphalt. But I just took it all in my stride. I was cautious and slow around the bends but I just let the brakes off and bumped over the tree roots with glee. What fun! At the bottom, I was almost sad the descent had to end. The volunteer directed me off to the right, down what looked like a gravel path. “Are you sure?”, I asked. He just nodded and assured me this was right. It turned out to be less gravel and more of a run down country path that led off to the next climb. The views were stunning. And I felt invigorated.

The cheer squad at the next corner directed me off up the hill. It was a tight turn and I hadn’t anticipated the climb, so everyone had a laugh when I had to stop to get in the right gear, and they gave me a little push up the hill. From here, it said 5km to the summit. What a relief. Only from the “summit”, it’s actually another 4km climb to Hautcour! Still, those 5km were amazing. A beautiful narrow road along the side of the hill, a steep valley falling down to the left, the path winding in and out of the trees and through the wildflowers. The section from Aime to Hautcour was the absolute highlight of the entire course and I can’t wait to come back.

From here, it was a swift and fairly easy descent but I was flagging. I hit Moûtiers for the third and final time, and was glad to just be nearing the end. I stopped at the next ravito station for more water and a bit of a snack before hitting the final climb. 23 km to the top. I could do it. I’d heard it was ‘only’ 7%. Normally, that would be fine. It wouldn’t phase me. I could ride 7% for hours. But after this day, I was dreading anything. A false flat felt like a slog. I had caught up with an older gentleman who at least knew the route and off we set.

The first several kilometers were 8 – 9% and my legs were reaching their limit. This was an unofficial back route to Les Menuires and of course, no signs. But the organisers had added summit signs to encourage the racers. 22km to the summit, 18 km to the summit, 15km to the summit… and once we hit the main route up to St Martin Belleville, it eased off to the promised 7% with some extremely welcome flat sections. I dropped the older gentleman as I found my rhythm and just settled into the final slog. It wasn’t so bad. I hit single digits – 9 km to the summit – and I just knew it was all going to be ok.

There was a final ravito stop in St Martin de Belleville – where the race had begun – and I grabbed a bottle of water. Gulped half and threw some over my head. 5km to the summit. I was mashing on the pedals, rocking in the saddle, and just willing the end to come. As it flattened out, I imagined I could see the col at the end of the road, indeed, it was only a few kilometres to go! As I reached 1km, I began to wonder if my friends would still be there. I was making good time, I was on track for close to 6:30 and I was hoping they would be waiting around for the podium and prizes. A few hundred metres from the end and I hear Sian call out, “Alexis!!” . I was at my limit. My stomach had started to feel awful – I think 5 gels might be my race limit – and I was exhausted, hot, sunburnt, and my eyes were red from the sun. As Sian ran along beside me, I could see the Arrivé. Passing under the red arch, I was just so glad it was over. A few congratulatory hugs and everyone helped me grab my bag and head to the showers. There was still time for food before the podiums.

What a day. I was glad to have made it. There were only about 40 people crazy or foolish enough to do the long course and I was the first of two women. The second was about 45 minutes behind. I was proud of myself for getting to the end, in a decent time, and in decent form. What a day.



Col des Annes

A couple of weeks ago, I found myself waking up at an ungodly hour to go for a ride. Hardly unusual, except in this particular case, I’d vastly overestimated the time I needed to get from Annecy to Thônes and so waking up at 5:15am was probably a little unnecessary. Still, the opportunity to ride with the best local amateur cyclist – and winner of the 2016 Etape du Tour – Tao Quemore, was too good to pass up. And so we met at 7:30am at a bakery outside Thônes to try a little climb he’d never done on a road bike  – and probably one of the toughest locally… Col des Annes.

From Thônes, we took the back roads through the villages to avoid the main drag into St Jean de Sixt, a far more pleasant route than what I would have taken on my own. Then it was back on the main road into Le Grand Bornand, a gorgeous little ski town at the base of several iconic climbs in the Chaîne des Aravis, including Col de la Colombière. Not far away are Col de la Croix Fry, Col des Aravis, and the grueling Col du Plan Bois. As a side note, since I last climbed Plan Bois, they’ve apparently resurfaced the road (one section on the descent was completely washed out) so I
need to get back out there.


The town is also host to a popular local Cyclosportive – La Grand Bo – in late June (and which I covered in an earlier post).

From Le Grand Bornand, we headed off down a little windy country path, with no apparent signs to anything much at all. Not that I should have worried, my accommodating host knew exactly where we were going and was seemingly happy to trundle along at my pace.

Soon enough, we passed through the cow fields and hit the climb. And boy did it jump up. Every time I looked down at my garmin, it said the gradient was 12% . And road surface isn’t always brilliant, which can make it seem all the steeper. After a couple of kilometers, it eases off. Single digits. Of around 8 – 9 % . But luckily the view is distracting as you climb steadily towards the mountains. The uneven surface and drainage canals in the middle of the road ensure you keep paying attention to where you’re going, and not just to the rocky outcrops around you as you near the base of the Pointe Percée – a popular local hike.

Coldesannes_gradientOnce you can see the top, it’s only a kilometer or two to go but again it ramps up to 12, 13, 14% and you’re grateful the entire climb is less than 7 km long because you’re not sure how much more of this you can take. But the view, as Tao had promised, is remarkable. Like much of the high areas in this part of the world, the summer alpages are filled with flowers, the sound of cow bells rings through the hills and the chalet at the summit sells local cheese. It’s the kind of alpine scene that just never gets old.

On the way up, I see a couple of guys coming down. They’re significantly older and also look less fit, some are riding really old bikes and I admit, I say to myself “if they can do this, I can”. For the record, this kind of talk generally doesn’t hold true in the Alps, where old guys (and girls) regularly rip the legs of cocky youngsters.

After admiring the view, and realising that Tao was going to be late for work after crawling up the hill at my pace, we scooted back down. The bumpy, windy, steep descent was almost as difficult as the climb, not to mention avoiding the drains. But we made it, and I was off on my way back to Annecy, bidding farewell to my gracious host.

On the way back, I took the main road down to Thônes (it’s not so bad when you’re a single cyclist, descending) and then turned off at La Balme-de-Thuy to take the back road via Dingy-St-Clair to Annecy-le-Vieux. As I turned back onto a main road after Dingy, I noticed to my right, a steep incline up the Voie Romaine – a fun little route I’d taken during La Grand Bo race. I made a note to come back and try that one again.