Chamonix is for Lovers

Chamonix has one of the best views in the Alps and yet it is often decried for its lack of cycling options. As you slog along the only road in and out of town, you cling to the edge as cars stream past, cursing the lack of cycling infrastructure in a town that could be such a cycling centre. Still, there are some spectacular views to be had, even if not much in the way of great loops and if you find yourself in Chamonix with two wheels, it’s definitely worth the ride.

We decided to cycling up the valley, from Passy to the Col des Montets, and were rewarded with perfect spring conditions. Blue bird skies and snow capped peaks. Spring cycling doesn’t get much better.

FullSizeRender 10From Passy, you warm up on an easy 4-5% climb up to Servoz, following by a flat and rolling section before heading up to Les Houches. The road has been improved in the last year. It’s not perfect but it’s a lot better than it used to be, when it was one of the worst roads I’d ridden in France. The climb itself is mostly quiet, and winds up the Route de Vaudagne at 7% for 4km. From the top, it’s an easy descent into Les Houches, where the Mont Blanc massif starts to rise up around you.

Riding through Chamonix itself is pretty, if not particularly cyclist-friendly. But it’s a great place to stop for lunch (or a beer at the microbrewery Mont Blanc – which also serves nachos and veggie burgers). Just be careful in town and also on the road out. The is no cycling lane and no shoulder on the single carriageway route, and plenty of traffic heading in and out of town.

From Chamonix, we decided to keep going up to the Col des Montets –  “minimum effort, maximum views” kind of climb. While the signs say it’s 11km, I’m fairly sure (and strava agrees with me) that it’s significantly shorter. It rarely tops 5% and the strava segment is less than 8km.


The only downside is that many Chamonix rides, it’s an out-and-back. For us, this meant heading back down to town for some nachos and the cruising along the valley back home. A perfect spring Sunday in the Alps.

Tour du Lac (Bourget)

Uninspired by the Tour du Lac Annecy – which is beautiful but we all need a change – we headed over the Bauges to Aix Les Bains for the Tour du Lac Bourget. I’ve often wondered about riding around the lake Bourget, you get a spectacular view from the top of Mt Revard. FullSizeRender 9

One unexpectedly warm March day, I had the chance to find out. Theoretically you could ride from Annecy but it would be a hell of a day so we started (and ended) at Albens, just the other side of the hill from the lake.

From Albens, it’s a gentle climb up to the Col de la Chambotte before a gorgeous descent to the lake itself. From here, you’re climbing again but often in the valleys with no lake views. Unlike the Tour du Lac d’Annecy, where you’re right on the water but left sharing the bike path with 1,000 of yoIMG_8686ur closest cycling/running/roller blading mates, we saw few other cyclists but also often forget we were near the lake at all. The next section is largely rolling, and being a little lower and warmer than Annecy, it was already in the full throes of spring. As you circle around the base of the lake and begin to climb again, you’ll be rewarded with the lake views you came for.

The climb to the Col du Chat is a tease, undulating through the back of the hills and winding back up again. Officially, it’s about 8km at 5% but that feels more like three or four rollers. As an aside, the Col du Chat must not be confused with the Dent du Chat – a gruelling climb of 10%+ for 10km+.colduchat

The sign itself is unassumingly in the trees on the side of the road. Take a photo, post it to strava, and never think about it again. Instead, continue on and enjoy the views on the descent. We took it easy on the way down to take in the lake views and the cruised along the flat in search of a lakeside boulangerie for lunch.

From the eastern side of the lake – Aix les Bains –  you have nIMG_8679umerous options for the return trip. We decided to head back over the Chambotte becuase the descent was so fantastic on the way over. But what I didn’t realise the first time is that you can keep going up for some extra credit – an extra km at 13%+… I had no idea what I was in for and probably would have appreciated a heads up but it was worth it. The view is similar to that you get from Mont Revard behind you.

All in all, a highly recommended “Tour du Lac” with some good little climbs, fantastic views, and none of the crowds of Annecy.


Winter Cross-Training

Winter training can be tough. Every day I open my Instagram feed to a stream of people sweating it out on trainers in their ‘pain cave’, or scroll through Strava uploads, wondering just how superhuman you have to be to spin through 3 hours of Zwift (for the record, I don’t have Zwift but I reckon three hours on a trainer is beyond me under any conditions). Others seem to give up bikes entirely, option for running, hiking, skiing, and other winter sports. Some just keep riding, -7C be damned!

Honestly, I shouldn’t complain. After weeks of seriously freezing temps, even I braved the elements and went for a spin at -4C. And it wasn’t so bad.

Still, there are better ways to enjoy the Alps in winter that don’t involve hours hunched over the home trainer, sweat dripping, eyes blurring, hatred for the bike growing with ever minute. Sure, nothing beats the interval training you get from riding indoors but why not complement it with fat biking in the snow, CX and MTB in the mud, or Nordic skiing if you’re close to the slopes. Or even hitting the track if you’re near a velodrome.


Plateau des Glières – another great summer climb, transformed in winter

For the record, next year I reckon a gravel bike or cyclocross setup is going to seriously help me enjoy the slushy days and frosty temps, while also giving my bike handing skills a boost. But for this year, I tried my hand at e-fat biking (never again) and skate skiing (a serious work in progress).

E-fat biking sounds like fun. Motors make slogging up the slopes a breeze, and then you’ll be churning through the powder having a blast. Right? Unless you’re me. We’d picked a fairly easy hill to climb with a stunning view over the Alps from the summit, followed by taking the chairlift up to the top of another slope for a descent… My limited (virtually non-existent) mountain biking skills were apparent before we’d even left the carpark but still it was fairly easy heading up the road … and while riding on the snow was a bit of an odd sensation at first, the joy of spinning at 100+RPM while winding up the hill was fun. Even I’ll admit that. And then things quickly fell apart. The slope ramped up and the snow got soft. On the edges there wasn’t much snow at all, and in other areas it was so soft, the bikes got bogged, and it was virtually impossible to restart.

My companion yelled at me, encouraging me to keep going as I feebly pushed the enormous bike up the hill, cursing the entire day.

Every time I found a flatter section, I turned the pedals and tried to get another start. Sometimes I’d get a few meters, other times I’d just spin into the drift and get stuck again. The pedals were set much wider apart than I was used to on a road bike and I kept banging my inner knee when spinning them around, trying to restart. Large bruises were starting to form and I was feeling pretty defeated. We pushed on for a while but it became clear that it was a hopeless cause. Between the snow conditions and my incompetence, we decided to turn around.


Right before I took a tumble

The descent wasn’t much better – it was terrifyingly steep and again my lack of off-road skills was letting me down The idea of using only the back brake and letting the wheel slide out felt unnatural and unnerving. The drop off the right hand side of the track didn’t make me feel any more comfortable. I basically skidded down each slope, taking one tumble around the hairpin bend,  and another over the front of the bike further down. Once the gradient eased up, I felt a little more confident but it was clear that there was no way I’d be attempting a descent down a ski slope. I decided to sit it out, feeling dejected and defeated.  I doubt anyone will ever invite me to go fat biking again, which is probably best for all involved (!).

But for everyone else out there – don’t let my experience deter you. Grab a fat bike and have a go yourself! Make sure the conditions are good, the snow is hard packed enough to get traction if it’s steep, or just practice your burnouts on the plateau. There is definitely fun to be had, I just wasn’t up to the task.

My other foray into winter activities was Nordic skiing – skate skiing to be exact. It looks great, is supposed to be a phenomenal all-body workout, with a cardio intensity that rivals cycling. Not to mention the joy of skating at near-cycling speeds across a high Alpine plateau, snow-capped peaks on either side or descending through the pine trees in your own private winter wonderland. As someone who loves the snow (though my previous experience essentially comprises snow-shoeing and some downhill skiing about 20 years ago), I couldn’t resist. I wasn’t about to let my complete lack of coordination so apparent in all team sports hold me back.

Perseverance in the face of (my own) overwhelming incompetence is my new motto.


Semnoz – my local HC climb… in winter

But it wasn’t as bad as all that – it’s a tough sport for the coordination-challenged but a few classes and a fair bit of practice and you start to see what people are talking about, even as they still whizz past you. It works the quads and glutes like cycling, plus the core, and upper body (something my spaghetti arms don’t get much of).

Plus, once you get the hang of it, all that aerobic fitness, strength, and power you have on the bike will transfer to your skiing and you’ll be screaming up the hills and along the flats. At least, that’s what they tell me… I’ll report back on that part after a bit more practice.

There are obviously other sports you can also do in the winter but I’m focusing on those that make the best of everything the Alps have to offer. Snowshoeing is also good for keep those legs and glutes active, as well as maintaining endurance, and also doing some weight-bearing, which is what cyclists often neglect and is particularly important for preventing osteoporosis in women. Really, the most important thing is to stay active, get out there and enjoy the mountains.




Go (way) South for the Winter: Riding Down Under

There are many amazing reasons to live in the Alps (or, technically, the pre-Alps here in Annecy). But when someone tells you that they ride all year round, you know they’re either a CX-er, a MTB-er, or very hardy. Me, I went home to Australia for a couple of weeks of pre-dawn sweating.


I need to work on my selfie skills; Dad needs to work on smiling…

One of the reasons I got into cycling was to be able to ride with my Dad, and father-daughter bike time is a big part of every trip home.

Riding in Australian summers is serious business when you’re facing 30C at 9:00am. Add in 90% humidity and eating breakfast in the dark at 5:00am can be sweaty business in the subtropics. But once you’re on the bike and the sun comes up, you quickly forget how early it is (hell, you went to bed at 9:00pm last night so quit complaining).

And so this post is really just a bit of an ode to cycling in my hometown of Sawtell and a quick roundup of great cafés/loops/group rides if you ever find yourself on the Mid-North Coast of New South Wales, a veritable piece of cycling paradise with a seriously impressive bike culture. The village of Sawtell (pop. 1000) has a pumping bike café (Split) with group rides several times a week in collaboration with Rainbow Cycles bike shop in town (Coffs Harbour, pop. 70,000). They also have sweet custom jerseys and sell Maap gear. Because Australia may be the most stylish (and definitely the most trend conscious) cycling nation in the world. Every group ride is a display of the latest kit from Maap, Attaquer, Black Sheep, Bab
icci, La Passione, Pedal Mafia, Ten Speed Hero, and more…Silver shoes, garish socks, and stylish caps topping off the outfits you’d never, ever see in France. My partner likes to say we’re “progressive”, which I think is code for “outlandish” but I’m a fan.

The other big factor I notice is that no matter how big or small the group ride, I’m never the only woman. In fact, there are several strong local women out riding with the blokes, as well as women’s only rides designed to encourage more women to take up the sport (and keep them motivated to stay!).

But enough of my ramblings about cycling kits in Oz – here’s a quick roundup of my favourite places to ride and refuel along the Mid-North Coast, in no particular order but starting with those that head south:

Valla (level – easy):

Ever since the new highway opened, the old highway has become a regular route for fast bunch rides and social sunday-ites alike. The road is smooth and virtually car-free, rolling and flat terrain which makes for perfect coffee cruising. And if the out-and-back nature of the ride isn’t to everyone’s liking, the Beach House café by Valla Beach has exceptional coffee, muffins, and smoothies to please everyone. Tip: head another 200m towards the nature reserve for a beautiful view of the beach and down the coast.

From Sawtell, you head out to the old pacific highway and just follow it south till you hit the turnoff to Valla Beach. Pretty simple really. On the way back you can also take a little loop via Hungry Head but at the time of writing, the old bridge was closed for repairs…

[Note: I’ve heard there’s some great riding just west of Valla – if you head inland – but I’m yet to get there.]


On this particular day, we did 86km (we added a very short loop at the end but regularly a Sawtell-Valla return would be around 80km) with less than 800m of elevation. The road condition is exceptional, and there are bike lanes along much of the road, though you won’t see many cars, regardless 

Repton/Myelstom (level – easy): 

This is just a little loop of the old pacific highway that can be incorporated into a Valla coffee ride if you’re keen, or if you’re looking for a short (1 – 1.5hour) easy roll, then this is perfect.

img_5398Take the old highway south (being a small town, there’s essentially one road north and one south, from which you start all rides), and after about 15km, take the road to Mylestom on your left. You’ll have passed a sign to Repton about a kilometre earlier, at the top of Perry’s Hill, which is where you can loop back. From here, you follow the Bellinger River for about 5km into the village of Mylestom. To your right, you’ll see the river open into the estuary, with small hills to the south and west. If you keep following the road all the way to the end, winding around to the left when you reach the picnic ground, you’ll arrive at the beach.

No great coffee here so you’ll have to be content to stop in at Split in Sawtell for muffins or second breakfast (the fritters are great!) on the way back.

Bellingen Loop (level – moderate):

The ride to Bello (Bellingen) might be my favourite short loop in the area. It’s 75km out by South Arm Road and back by North Bank, with many coffee shops to choose from in the middle. South Arm is not the most popular local route by virtue of the fact that it’s a bit rough… but if you’re willing to deal with a few potholes, you’ll be rewarded by one of the quietest country roads around.

[Note: there is also the main road to Bellingen but I would never recommend this unless it’s very early in the morning and you’re trying to make up time on your way to Dorrigo (see below) as there can be a lot of cars and the shoulder is minimal. Follow Australian cycling rules and use a rear flashing light if you do.]

As with the other southern rides, you start by taking the old pacific highway and head south until about 20 km (not long after you turn left onto the newly opened old pacific highway) when you take a righimg_5197t onto Short Cut Road. Technically, the South Arm side of the loop starts here but I always think that it really begins once you descend to the Kalang River. From here, you’d be lucky to see two cars over the next 15 – 20km. It’s a rolling, but rough, ride with the south arm of the river on your left and farms and bush along your right. It’s a shaded route with a few little hills but nothing serious. Once you reach a T intersection, you’ll take a right onto Bowraville towards Bellingen (left to Bowraville is a rough gravel ride), and continue along for another 5km or so until you can climb the last little rise and get a view over the Bellinger valley to your right. From here, you’ll head right at the little roundabout and drop down the smoothest three-bend descent around.

Once in Bellingen, you’ll have your pick of cafés. My favourite cake & brekkie is perhaps Hearthfire Bakery in the alleyway, or Fennel Seed just off the main drag (in fact, it’s directly across the intersection when you cycle into town) is also great. If you find yourself here for lunch, 5 Church Street – just next door – is excellent.

After refuelling, you want to take Hammond Street (one block west of Church St) out of town, cross the Bellinger River and turn right at the roundabouimg_8046t for the first little ramp on North Bank Road. From here, you’ve got another three little climbs (all less than 1km) on a gorgeous, rolling cruise through open pastures. Be warned – this side is sunny and can get pretty hot if you’re leaving the return till late morning. There are one or two rough sections but the worst offenders have been fixed. Still, if it’s been wet, be warned that you will get a fairly healthy smattering of cow poo on your bike, shoes, legs, arms… and if you’re me and riding in the back of the pack, you’ll be lucky enough to get a face full… be sure to give everything a good wash afterwards.

[Note: for those really daring – or in possession of gravel bikes/MTB, there are a lot of really rough gravel roads in and around Bellingen. The scenery is gorgeous, particularly out towards the Never Never and Glennifer, the setting for the book Oscar & Lucinda, as a piece of trivia]. 

Dorrigo (level – difficult):

Honestly, the Dorrigo climb itself isn’t particularly difficult. Depending on where you count the start, you’re getting 8km at a consistent 8% or something more like 6.5% average over 10km. However, it’s a good 45km to the base of the climb from Sawtell (and add 10 – 20km if you’re coming from Coffs Harbour or north of town) and that deters most of us from coming here often. Which is a shame because img_5320the winding ascent has gorgeous views, relatively few cars, and streaming waterfalls after rain. About half way up the climb you enter the Dorrigo National Park, part of the World Heritage-listed Gondwana reserve and the dense, subtropical rainforest. Of course, rainforests also mean rain, so don’t be surprised if you get a little wet on this route (or any rides in the area) but just take care on the descents as leaves and bark make for slippery roads.

Unlike climbs in the Alps, there are no helpful markers with grade or distance to help motivate you on the way up. However, the town of Dorrigo is approximately 4km from the summit of the mountain so if you keep an eye on the small signs on your left, marked “D” with a number below, you can track your progress. You know once you see the D5 you’re only 1km from the top. From here, you can grab water at the rest area and head back home (as we did last time after being rained on most of the previous 50km), or go into town and get some delicious apple pie and a coffee at the café on your right.

You can also keep going and do the big loop along the back road to Ulong (see below) but that’s a 140km day with a faimg_8268ir amount of gravel.

To get to the climb itself, you follow the road out to Bellingen (see the note above) and keep heading west through town. If it’s early and you want to save your energy, you can take Waterfall Way directly from the old pacific highway into Bellingen (rather than South Arm or North Bank Roads as mentioned in the Bello write up) but I would not recommend this on the return. Once traffic starts, there are a lot of cars and the shoulder is virtually non-existent. I would recommend taking North Bank Road to return, even if your legs are beat. 

Ulong (level – moderate):

Now if you want to head north of town, there are several good option. Ulong is the closest real climb in the Coffs Harbour area. It’s about 15


Sadly no views at the top of Ulong but the forest keeps it cool on hot days!

km outside Coffs Harbour (or about 25km from Sawtell) and starts just past the village of Coramba, west of town. It’s a steady 4 – 5% for around 11km, which puts it on par with my local climb, Col de Leschaux. It’s pleasant in most conditions, as it’s shaded and the road surface is exceptional. I find the last couple of kms a little vibrating on the descent but otherwise it’s a great place for training or an easy climb to add some elevation. No view at the top, sadly, but if you keep riding another few kilometers into the village of Ulong, you’ll be rewarded with views out over a lush valley and a great little café on your right that serves homemade cake most days.

You can come out and back, do repeats, or combine with Mt Browne or the Big Block loops (below). I used to come out here to practice my descending skills on the smooth, wide corners but it does mean going up a couple of times…

Mt Browne (level – moderate): 

Mt Browne is the best loop north of town in my opinion. It’s often shaded, and is quiet, with beautiful views across the valleys. Like much of the rural area along the Mid North Coast of NSW, this is dairy country, with rich, green pastures and rolling hills. As much as I love the mountains, rolling routes like these are perfect for group rides.

You can do the route either way but clockwise is more comfortable – there’s a slightly rough descent if you do the loop anticlockwise.

Most of the serious riders link Mt Browne with the Ulong climb or even Big Block but me, well, I’d had plenty of cycling by this point, it’s off-season, and frankly, it was bloody hot. With 30C predicted for 9am, I was happy to just join the group for a Mt Brown circuit and get home.

fullsizerenderThe circuit itself is pretty easy to find. Heading out on the road towards Coramba (the same direction as Ulong), you’ll see a sign to Mt Browne on your left. Follow Mt Browne Road along for a few km and then to really get to the prettiest part of the loop, take a left onto Island Loop Road. You can simply follow Island Loop Road along until it rejoins Mt Browne Road if you like or take an optional out-and-back to Friday’s creek. There’s a steep descent to begin (take it as fast as you dare, as the road surface is good and it flattens out nicely at the bottom), and then it’s all flat for 7.5km return. Although that steep drop off will have to be re-climbed!

Enjoy the views, stop to take pictures, keep an eye out for kangaroos, and remember one of the best parts of doing the loop and heading straight back home? You get to descend Red Hill. It’s only 2km but you can really pick up speed on this 7% descent as the road is smooth and wide.

At the end, remember to stop in at Cocoa’s in the main part of town (or Artisti) for a coffee and a muffin before heading home. 

Bruxner Park (level – moderate): 

I’ve labeled this one moderate not because of the climb but because of the descent on the final few kilometers. Warning: it is rough. Like, lose your water bottle, your chain, and the grip on the handlebars kind of rough.

Most of the locals avoid the final 2km up to Sealy’s Lookout after the gentle, 3.5km at 4% climb up to the Bruxner Park turnoff before heading off to do Big Block or another ride. But since they’ve spruced up the lookout and added a skywalk, it’s the closest you can get to real rainforest close to Coffs Harbour. The skywalk may not quite rival Dorrigo National Park but it’s got gorgeous views up and down the coast. Even on the main climb up to the turnoff, be sure to look right as you’ll be granted gorgeous views out over banana plantations and blueberry farms, as well as the Solitary Islands off the coast.


A cloudy Christmas morning but the views were still worth the climb

From here, you can link up with another ride north of town (Ulong, Big Block, Mt Browne) or be lazy like us on Xmas morning and just head home. (my Garmin was on the fritz on Christmas Day so here’s a link to papa Arthur’s route)

Ulong – Dorrigo Loop (level – difficult): 

img_5490Warning: this route is long and it will get hot, and it’s best to do in a group of at least three. There’s plenty of gravel and dirt but it’s passable – indeed, enjoyable – on a road bike.

You can tie the Dorrigo and Ulong climbs together (going up one and down the other) by continuing along Coramba Road at the top of Ulong if climbing up that way. It’s my all-time favourite ride in the Coffs Harbour region. The back road includes about 14km of gravel and is just stunning. Whether riding along the top of the plateau (part of eastern Australia’s Great Dividing Range), or winding through the forest, you’re guaranteed to have this road all to yourself. You’ll see an abundance of wildlife and stunning views. This time, we were unfortunately rained out (do not attempt directly after heavy rain or in rain as the dirt road will become completely impassable on a road bike). In fact, the best conditions are a day after light rain or a couple of days after decent rain fall, which settles all the dirt.

It’s also got two great coffee stops – one at the top of Dorrigo and one at Ulong – to give you two refuelling options on this 140km route. You can also stop and get water at Bellingen and then at the petrol station along the old pacific highway if you’re running out en route home. Be sure to start early in summer as it will get hot.

The time we did it as a group (also recommended as you may well get a couple of flats, plus, safety in numbers in isolated areas) – we stopped short of the full descent at the bottom of Dorrigo and took Somerville Road back to Bellingen. Another great gravel grinder, there was one section where the gravel was too deep and too steep, leaving everyone to walk up the ramp. But otherwise, we all made it through with minimal punctures (only one on the gravel in a group of 5), and I was genuinely disappointed to miss out on this one last time I was in town.

For those who want more:

Big Block is another local ride that can be combined with Mt Browne or Ulong, or done on its own. It’s not my favourite as I find the scenery on Mt Browne to be prettier, plus it can get really hot. But it’s a good, fast ride with plenty of rollers to keep those quads burning. The turnoff is to the right as you head out towards Coramba (past Mt Browne and before Ulong). There are a few plick-a-plank bridges (on this ride and one in particular follows a fairly fast descent.These are old wooden bridges with nasty big metal bolts sticking up at awkward angles. SLOW DOWN before you hit them as they can do you/your bike a lot of damage if hit at speed. And in the wet, they can be very slippery. Rear derailleurs and a lot of skin have been lost on these bridges so scrub  your speed before rolling onto them.

Check it out as a Ulong/Big Block combo at  I remember this particular day. It was hot. It was humid. It was horrible. Enjoy!

There are also lots of really, really long rides out to Tyringham, Bostobrick, Taylor’s Arm (and the Pub with No Beer). When local racers are training for the Grafton-Inverell (at 240km, the longest one day race on the Aussie calendar), they put in serious miles. You can even ride all the way to Armidale – another 130km from Dorrigo and well out into the New England Tablelands – but I’d recommend having organising a ride back…

Winter in Provence

As the mercury dropped to permanent below-zero status, we decided to seek warmer climes for my final week in France for 2016. The “pic de pollution” hanging over Annecy provided some added incentive to head out of the basin and into some clearer, fresher, and hopefully warmer air. Luckily France has mountains across the country and after a short drive south, we found ourselves with clear, sunny skies and views of Mont Ventoux. img_7971

We headed out from Beaumes de Venise  with clear skies and warm (ish – 9C) weather for a tour of the Dentelles de Montmirail. The  rocky outcrop just west of Mont Ventoux is flanked by world-class vineyards and medieval Provençal villages, making for the perfect winter exploration. We were virtually alone as we wound our way up the the gentle Col de Suzette for our first real view of the mythic peak.

The summit of Ventoux was still shrouded in clouds and col_de_suzette_beaumes_de_venise_profileI was starting to feel overdressed in my Alps winter gear but there’s no complaining about good weather. Sweating is good practice for Australia, I figured. Also, this was the only real climb of the day, with the rest of the ride a gentle rolling ride through the countryside. From Suzette, it was an easy descent into Malaucène. Given the number of flash bike shops and cafés, I can only imagine it’s hopping in the season.

fullsizerender-3After a quick coffee – because winter riding is all about coffee stops – we headed off to continue the little circuit, winding through quiet country roads, vineyards and rocky mediterranean valleys on either side.

We meandered along to Vaison-la-Romaine and decided to explore the medieval village. Now this is cycling touring at its best. I admit, we often spend so much time worrying about power, Strava segments, average speed, or whatever your poison (we all have one) that it can be difficult to justify the time to simply ramble around the village. Instead, we followed cobblestone alleys around the village, weaving past the occasional tourist along the narrow pathways.

From there, it was an easy rolling route back to Beaumes de Venise, via Seguret and Vacqueyras – serious wine country. Some have called Vacqueryas the ‘poor man’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape’ but there are plenty of smaller areas to explore in these dry valleys known for producing the popular Côtes du Rhône. As we rounded the return side of the loop, we enjoyed views back towards the Dentelles, Mont Ventoux looming above.


All in all, a perfect little 60 km ride, with plenty of coffee stops en route: 

Day 2: Mont Ventoux … (or not) and the Gorge de la Nesque

Today was colder. Perhaps not winter Alps cold but still 0C as we pulled into Bedoin, at the base of Mont Ventoux. The col would be at least 10 degrees colder on top, plus wind chill. Plus it was closed, at least officially. We decided to climb as far as Chalet Reynard, about halfway up the climb and about 3km short of the official road closure.

Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, a persistent hacking cough had me turning around just a few km up from the base. It was steep, cold, and unwise to continue climbing. I reluctantly headed down, determined to come back to take care of unfinished business… A quick hot chocolate and I was ready to try something else – we had come all the way to Provence, after all.

fullsizerender-4Instead, we headed over to the Gorges de la Nesque, a beautiful winding road that
reminded me a little of southern California. Dry, rocky, scrubby, with not a village or town in sight, and virtually no cars. Other than a single hunting party and a couple of lonely cyclists, we saw little other life on this stunning stretch of road.

In the end, we were unable to complete the full circuit via Monieux but climbed for around 17km up the gorge before heading back to Villes-sur-Auzon. A gorgeous route, and despite a little ice in the shade, definitely rideable in December. In fact, best enjoyed completely and utterly off season

Returning to the Bauges

After a cold snap in the mountains, I found myself back in Annecy with 14C days. Snow melted, I figured it was time to revisit one of my favourite places to ride – les Bauges. Dominated by the Semnoz/Cret de Chatillon, the Bauges Massif feels a world away from the crowds on the Aravis chain or along the Annecy bike path. Even on the most beautiful summer days, you’d be lucky to see more than a handful of riders, and if you seek out the most quiet roads, you’ll ride for miles seeing no-one at all.

I last wrote about riding in the Bauges in the springtime and the joys of watching the green valleys give way to alpine meadows, that would come to life from one week to the next. In early spring, there was still snow up on the Féclaz – and I had one particularly horrific ride where I got snowed on the entire climb up to Mont Revard – but within weeks, the plateau was green, alpine flowers springing up along the side of the road.

And then I discovered the magic of the Bauges in autumn, where quiet roads through green valleys were flanked by bright red and orange hillsides and cliffs. This is when I really began to explore some of the smaller Bauges roads, each outing it became a mission to go a slightly different route until I had the perfect circuit for any length of ride. And today, I went out for a wintry Bauges ride (the top temp was 2C) but the sun was shining and I didn’t see a soul. Perfection.


Particularly if you live on the Semnoz side of Annecy, the Bauges is the perfect place for an afternoon of quiet rolling around away from the Aravis traffic and bike path crowds. My only warning – the tranquility of the Baugues is matched by a decided lack of coffee stops. My favourite is the Cusy bakery and depending on the day, you might find a bar or restaurant open in Le Chatelard or a cafe in Bellecombe en Bauges but otherwise I wouldn’t bank on it. Also, it is frequently at least 5C colder in the Bauges than in Annecy so take an extra layer, regardless of whether you think you’ll need it.

Here are some of my favourite little loops.

Getting into the Bauges – from Annecy there are essentially two ways I would recommend. Either via Col de Leschaux or via Quintal. For me, this is the difference between doing the loop clockwise (along the bike path to Sevrier or even St Jorioz and up to Leschaux) or anti-clockwise (you can head up to Quintal through the suburbs of Seynod or climb the first 9km of Semnoz and descend to Quintal).

From Leschaux, you could head straight down the main road to Lescheraines for the popular local “Tour du Semnoz” but I prefer to take the road slightly less traveled and take a left at the intersection followed quickly by a right-hand turn towards the village of Bellecombe en Bauges. Regardless, you’ve now got miles and miles of quiet country roads and rolling green valleys to ride in for hours.

From Bellecombe en Bauges, you can either head left towards Le Chatelard for a quiet, winding descent, or take the slightly more direct route to Lescheraines before heading up the 2km climb to Arith. As you descend – look to your right, those rock columns at the base of the hills are just above the Pont de l’Abime, which you’ll cross en route back to Annecy.

The climb to the village of Arith is short and punchy at 6%  . From the top you could take a left if you wanted to head towards St Francois les Sales and into “Les Deserts” (which includes the climb up to the Col de Planpalais IMG_7265.JPGand Mont Revard) or if you’re looking for a shorter circuit (around 60km), then take a right and enjoy one of the prettiest little autumn descents in the area. As you wind down the quick 3km descent, be sure to glance right for some autumn colours against the cliffs.

At the bottom of the hill, you could go either right or left but personally I prefer to head towards Cusy as a) there’s a great bakery to stop for pastries, sandwiches, and quiche; and b) you get to cross the Pont de l’Abime. From the bottom of the hill, it’s a few kms towards Cusy and it’s worth going the extra 500m into town if you need a pitstop but otherwise you’ll turn right towards Gruffy before you reach the village (all well sign-posted).

pontdelabimeThis is one of my favourite little roads in the area. The suspension bridge with vertigo-inducing drops into the gorge, the spectacular hills rising above you, and the cycling-holiday-brochure-worthy little climb to Gruffy. Stop and take a photo on the bridge before you head up the windy little 2km climb to Gruffy and be sure to hug the cliffs on your right in case a car is coming the other way.

From here, most of the hard work is done. It’s an easy rolling ride through Gruffy and a gentle climb into Quintal. The final decision about how to get home is up to you. Descend through Quintal and the suburbs of Seynod into Annecy old town, or earn that cream-filled patisserie and tackle the 4km climb up towards Semnoz before enjoying a fun, 9km descent into town. Warning, with an 8% average and hairpins hitting 14% it’s a fun little climb but I never said it was easy.

And you can also do the whole loop backwards

Winter Riding in the Alps

Just because winter is upon us, it doesn’t mean we should stop riding. As long as the roads are dry, I plan to keep getting out there – plus adding some skiing to the mix in the new year. Fat bikes, gravel, CX, and MTB are one way to get around the problem. Unfortunately, with only one bike in my current arsenal, I’ll just be following the sun and hoping for the best.

Mid-November surprised us with an early snow dump in the Tarentaise, and we got several inches on the ground as low down as Fontaine. But with bluebird skies, I couldn’t resist a morning spin in the sunshine, even if the thermometer read -2C.  But I kept it to the sunny side of the valley, where the roads were dry and snow melt had evaporated, rather than turned to ice.


Cycling in the winter in many ways is not so different from riding at any other time of the year. As they say, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” This means:

1. insulated tights: leg warmers are fine if it’s not particularly cold but they won’t insulate your bottom, and they can be uncomfortable, and they’re pretty unstylish (like most winter cycling gear), and I find that any splash-back from wet patches immediately penetrates the thin summer lycra. Or get some thermal bib shorts to match!

2. insulated, waterproof gloves: and for me, with any descents longer than a kilometre or two, I would probably need to add a merino glove underneath as well to keep my thumbs from freezing up. There is nothing worse than having bad gloves. One particularly terrible day on the bike, I was so underdressed that when it started snowing and I was only in shorts and thin, long-fingered spring/autumn gloves, I had to stop three times on a descent to warm up my hands enough to brake. I was also shivering uncontrollably and borderline hypothermic. Lessons learned.

3. buff: handy for descents to keep your neck and mouth (and even nose if you’re particularly chilly and your breath doesn’t steam up your glasses like me). You can double up on the thin buffs or get fleecy ones for colder days. Some also come with holes to increase breathability and avoid the fogging problem. img_7802Personally, I just let my nose get cold.

4. headgear: fleecy cycling beanies and merino caps with ear covers are all the rage and will keep your ears from freezing off.

5. thermal booties: depending on the style of cycling shoes you have, all that lovely summer ventilation will lead to frosty toes in the winter. Make sure they’re tight around the ankles and if you can only have one pair of booties in your entire wardrobe, get thermal & waterproof ones that will do for most conditions. Cold, wet feet are just the pits.

6. layers: keeping your core warm is important but personally, I find that unless it’s supremely cold, then layers are more comfortable as I tend to still get hot on the climbs. In the mountains, you’re going to have more variability (warm on climbs, cold on descents) than if you’re cycling somewhere that’s flat or rolling. Go for merino base layers, fleecy jacket or thermal long-sleeved jersey, and a wind or rain jacket in the back pocket for times when sleet catches you unawares.

Still, the roads can be icy and dangerous. Black ice is often invisible and skidding off the edge of the mountain is a sure way to ruin your off-season enjoyment. So if in doubt, just stay out of shady, wet roads in frosty conditions, stay off the brakes if you can’t avoid rolling through an icy patch, or just head a little lower to where conditions are more favourable. Being outside is always preferable to a day on the trainer in my opinion. And you might find that you actually enjoy being out in the winter. Go on, explore!

The hidden valleys of the Trois Vallées


The Trois Vallées (or Three Valleys) region of the Savoie are mostly known to English winter holiday makers where the three stations join to form the largest ski resort in the world. But the area has so much more to offer year-round, with winding roads leading you to hidden valleys deep in the Parc Nationale de la Vanoise. As with all rides in this region, be sure to take the time to stop for photos en route!

Warning: regardless of sunny skies and optimistic weather reports, the descents from Champagny le Haut, Pralongon, and Bozel are often shady, the roads can be wet and even icy so pack that extra layer of clothing.

With my latest hideaway not fimg_7538ar from the spa town of Brides-les-Bains, I was eager to explore what this micro-region had to offer beyond the out-and-back routes to Courchevel, Meribel, and Les Menuires. And in peak fall, I wasn’t disappointed.

Starting from Moutiers, climb the montée des Frasses – included in the 2016 Criterium du Dauphiné – to get you out above the valley above the Doren de Bozel river, which remains shaded much of the day thanks to the steep valley walls. The 8km, 6.5% climb brings you up to the village of Montagny, rewarding you with views of the Grande Casse along the way. After a cold snap in early October, the peaks across the Vanoise were already white with snow.

From Montagny, enjoy a gentle descent to Bozel – and img_7562be sure to enjoy the view of the typical alpine church on the way. [Note: there’s a little montée up to the hamlet of La Cour on the left that I will see if I can fit in before it closes and will update accordingly].

Once in Bozel, I like to do the following loop clockwise, starting with the climb to Champagny en Vanoise but it could also be enjoyed counter-clockwise. Also, between seasons, the only place with any cafes or shops open will be Bozel, so be sure to refuel here if you need it.

img_7561From Bozel, it’s a 4km climb up to Champagny en Vanoise, averaging 7%. Once you reach the village, keep your eyes peeled for the first turn on the left, signposted to the Vallon de Champagny le Haut, which will take you through the center of town. And up the remaining 3km or so to the valley. You will see the road wrap around the mountains further up as you approach the turnoff. There are some steep sections but overall it’s still an average 7% to the top.

In peak fall, the hillsides are resplendent with orange, yellow, and red hues. These fade away as you head above the treeline and a small valley stretches out before you. A waterfall streams down the left flank, a small hamlet with tiny church is dwarfed by the snow-capped peaks of the Vanoise behind. In the winter, this nordic skiing hideaway must be magnificent.


The road dead-ends after the village but it’s only a few kms back to Champagny en Vanoise from where you can either loop back around to Bozel via La Villard, or if you have the time, it’s worth heading up to the ski town of Pralgonon en Vanoise.

Compared to the climbs up to Champagy en Vanoise and Champagny le Haut, the road to Pralognon en Vanoise is a breeze. Often around 3 – 4%, you’ll slowly wind up a couple of shady hairpins before reaching the village. Pralongon is not the prettiest town but you feel as though you’ve reached the high mountains as a steep, rocky cirque surrounds you. [Note: if you also enjoy hiking, there’s a stunning walk up to the Col de la Vanoise just above Pralongnon]

Again, nothing will be open in town between-seasons so make sure you bring a snack for a stop or be prepared to wait till you get back to Bozel for a coffee .

From here, you’ve just got an easy, winding descent back to Bozel, with stunning autumn colours and relatively few cars. Enjoy a coffee/hot chocolate on the terrasse in Bozel before heading back to Moutiers. The San Roch is the local hangout – fondly called The Red Lion for all the Brits that frequent the terrasse – but the view is worth the stop for coffee, hot chocolate, or even a beer!

One note, the descent from Bozel is not only cold and shady but also filled with impatient drivers en route to/from Meribel and Courchevel. Also, I would advise returning via Brides-les-Bains as the main road after the turnoff is downright dangerous. From Brides, you can rejoin the Frasses montée and descend more safely to Moutiers.

Le Col du Petit Saint Bernard (or why you should ride to Italy for lunch)

The Col du Petit Saint Bernard is an Alps classic. The almost-30km climb, while long, will reward you with sweeping views down the Tarentaise valley and lunch in Italy at the top. If spending two hours trundling up the <5% grade isn’t for you, then there is a steeper, more interesting, and frankly prettier, route via the villages.

From Bourg St Maurice, follow the regular route up towards Séez and follow the signs for Montvalezan, which will be on your right after the first few hairpins. You’ll climb up through the picturesque hamlets of Montvalezan, Le Chatelard, and Hauteville, the valley spreading out below.


The road is simple enough to follow, take the first sign to La Rosière but not the second. You will eventually join the main road about 2 km below the ski station, which is another 7km from the summit. Once you reach the main climb, the gradient will ease off, giving your tired legs some relief from the 8 – 12% grades you’ve been crawling up for the last 10km or so.

And once at La Rosière, the final 7km are a breeze, with gradients varying between 3 – 5%. I’ve been up here once before, in early summer, with walls of snow on either side of the road as you neared the 2188m pass.


The main climb, while a classic, can be long and slow

The alpine landscape in autumn is perhaps even more beautiful. Wild, exposed, and windswept, with jagged rivers of red. As we approached the top, the summit was quiet. Many of the refuges had already closed for the season, a family hiked across the plateau, accompanied by an enormous Saint Bernard dog. The ultimate cliché. By this time, we were starting to feel pretty chilly & more than a bit peckish so no time to stop for photos!


Once at the col, we continued on for the extra kilometre across to Italy, where we ducked into the restaurant to escape the cold and windy weather. After a sticky hot chocolate, panini, pasta, and coffee, we weren’t particularly looking forward to stepping out into the weather, which seemed to be getting windier and colder.

Luckily, we were sufficiently distracted by the view and once we hit La Rosière, the wind died down and the sun warmed us on the long descent to Bourg St Maurice.

An out-and-back is not generally my favourite, but the sun was shining, and sometimes it’s worth the slog for lunch in Italy. 

Sometimes you just buy the cheap cheese

Perhaps a better title for this post would be ‘when my cheese man tries to offload the cheap cheese [on me]’. Not that I am complaining. As a lover of all cheeses, I will happily take the offcuts and the oddballs that he clearly needs to be rid of. At the stall, my beloved cheese man could see the distrust in my eyes as he tried to sell me a tomme with cumin. At a great price, he promised. “Sure, why not, go on”, I replied, as he rung it up, with a quite delicious Tomme de Perseille for a total of EUR 3,00.

The week prior, I had insisted on trying the cheap French blue and an Haute Savoie brie – the two hefty slabs coming to just EUR 2,80. And so I have decided to lump these four cheeses together in the same post, united by their cheapness, if nothing else.

It reminds me a bit of when I lived in Washington, DC, and I would buy the little cheese tidbits from Wholefoods. Small scraps, that always sold for about $1.50, they seemed like such a bargain and you never knew what fun you would discover. Or so I thought. Now, I can obtain approximately 10 times the amount of cheese that is approximately 100 times the quality, at approximately the same price. France, I love you.

As he handed me the entire slab of Tomme de Cumin, I tried to get him to slice it down. “No, you’ll eat it really quickly,” he assured me. I’m not sure if something was lost a little in translation, or if I should just accept it as a compliment. As always, I was happy to rid him of the bizarre he couldn’t otherwise sell.


The blue & brie


Starting with the “brie”, perhaps because it was the least inspiring. Soft cheeses are not a local speciality. And whether it is the climate or the culture, they tend not to be particularly good. For sure, the brie was edible and would not be out of place on a cheese plate in Australia. It was superior to many bries I’ve eaten outside France. But I’ve come to expect a little more locally. It was smooth and mild flavoured, with a taste that was improved by the addition sun dried tomatoes. I would describe the overall feeling as ‘pleasant’ but I was disappointed that it didn’t have that runnier texture I associate with some other bries, not matter how long I left it sitting on the counter.

Perhaps that is a quality that would make it the perfect hiking brie or sandwich-for-a-long-train-ride brie. It is less likely to spoil, maintains its integrity, and is still pleasantly ‘brie-like’ at the end of the day. Not to mention seriously cheap. The poor (wo)man’s traveling brie.

Next was the blue, which I actually quite enjoyed. I tend to eat almost anything but have never been a particular fan of roquefort, the sheep’s milk cheese from the south of France. Perhaps the combination of mould and tangy sheep’s milk is just a little too bitter for my tastes. The other blue – in fact, I have no real idea where it came from, so apologies if you’re out looking for it – was milder without being supermarket-y. It was smooth and tangy, without any of that chalkiness you sometimes get. It was perfect with bread and would have been complimented well by fresh fruit. Which of course I didn’t have.


Spot the cumin

As for the Perseille, it is not the first time I have tried a Tomme de Perseille (you can find my review in a previous post) but this one was completely different. It still had the goat/cow’s milk mix but where the first was crumbly, this one was smooth. The first one I tasted was tall and firm, where this was stout and creamy. With so few makers of this cheese left, I wondered if perhaps they had a little more artistic licence. I have no idea which was closer to an ‘ideal’, but both were absolutely delicious in their own way. This perseille, though, just melted in the mouth, almost spread onto the bread, and had a delicate flavour that was delicious even on its own. Both get the thumbs up from me.

Finally, the cumin. I don’t know if it’s even worth giving this cheese a review. It was mostly as advertised – like a tomme with a stack of cumin seeds. It may be popular in Italy, it may have digestive or other health benefits, but frankly I prefer my cumin and my cheese to be separated. Preferably by at least one meal. Still, I of course plugged away at it. The flavour was so intense, and the cheese so hardy and filling that I just ate chunks on its own, as I procrastinated instead of working on one of the many writing assignments I had that week. Verdict: a hardy, procrastinator’s cheese that will tingle your taste buds but you may not rush to purchase again.