Tackling a Montée

It has been a little while since my last post and, quite frankly, I have no excuses. Sometimes it’s tough when riding with others to take the kind of pictures that are ‘bloggable’. Other times, I am simply lazy. But as I arrived back in Annecy last week to see the autumn colours dotted across the hills, I realised that there may be precious few bright days left! More importantly, it was time to look for those long-sleeved jerseys!

And so, for this post, I have decided to do a bit of a round-up about my experience doing hill climb races in the Tarentaise. And also, it gives me a chance to profile three little climbs in the area at once. So this, I guess, is a ‘three-for’ post.

There are numerous hill climb time trials across the Savoie and Haute Savoie in August and September. I think particularly as the cyclosportive season winds down, it is a relatively easy (and cheap) affair for local ski towns and a great way to highlight their summer activities. For climbers they are also short, fun, and relatively cheap (ranging from free to EUR 14) way to keep racing as the hot summer days make long alpine sportives a bit of a drag.

  1.  Les Coches

The first little climb in this series is the 9.2km from Bellentre via Montchavain to Les Coches. Like all hill climbs in this area, it generally ends at a pretty little ski resort somewhere on the Vanoise side of the Tarentaise.

From Bellentre, you head across the river and turn left towards Landry (and toward the Rosuel Valley if you were doing the climb up to the national park) and then a right towards Montchavin Les Coches. I guess it isn’t on anyone’s ‘to do’ list as I couldn’t find a profile for the climb. Based on Strava, however, it is approximately 6.5% average (7% for the first 6km and 6% for the last 3km) the entire way and it is fairly consistent. Nothing much in terms of views but if you were in the area and looking for a quick little training ride, then this is a 30 – 40 minute effort and a nice little 15 – 20 minute cruise down afterward. Good for intervals, low cadence days and other boring training efforts we have to do!

As for the race itself, in case you’re interested. It was a mass start out of Bellentre with a neutralized opening for the first two kms or so until the turnoff where the climb began. There were around 30 of us who turned up for the climb – it was a free event – and lots of familiar local faces. And the odd celebrity – Jeannie Long0 (59-time French National Champion and 13-time World Champion) was there with her husband and the only ones in skinsuits! [note: next year, get skinsuit and scare everyone at uphill time trial events]

Of course I wasn’t expecting too much whenimg_6812 up against the most decorated female cyclist of all time – even if she is 57 years old! – and was fairly content to come in second. Jeannie came down and gave us some encouragement on the final kilometre, defying her reputation of being a bit of a bitch. We followed her down after the race and admired at her ability to fit that enormous trophy into the back pocket of her skinsuit. Definitely something to learn from. BUt you’d also think that someone at her level would be able to keep their equipment in better condition (hello, squeaky brakes!!!).

Still, while I may have been happy with runner up in 2016, next year, Jeannie, I’m coming to get you!!

https://www.strava.com/activities/672472456/

2. Courchevel

Unlike the Montée Bellentre – Les Coches, Courchevel was a far more sophisticated affair. First of all, it cost EUR 10 to enter (a whopping good deal if you do it on the final Sunday and get a fantastic lunch in the village afterwards). Second, there is prize money at the end of the month. Third, there are four dates spread across July and August for you to have a crack. Fourth and finally, it is a real individual time trial where you start on a ramp with two guys holding the bike and counting you down. It all feels very pro.

But really, it was the prize money that lured the pros. I turned up on the final day – a Sunday morning – for the climb and immediately spied three pros. Fanny Leleu – a French woman who came 6th in the Tour de France Feminin who had already raced this one but was back for another crack at the money. She was already in the lead with a 50′ climb. Then there were two Colombian women racing for an Italian pro team, who turned up with their support van.

I actually found this to be positive – it took all the pressure off and allowed me to treat the ride as TT practice without worrying about the outcome. It was funny watching the lead-up to the race. The start time was self-selective as you chose your dossard number by the time you thought it would take you to reach the top. I figured I would take just over an hour and so opted for the 300 group (the slowest). The fastest (an estimated time of under 50 minutes) was reserved for the 100s and I saw many a bloke rocking a number that defied what I would asses were his physical limits. Still, hubris is well-known principle in cycling.

The climb itself is not all that spectacular. Although admittedly I spent the vast majority of my time staring at my Garmin as I tried to work out my new power meter readings, Froome style.

The course is 15.5 km with 1,000 m of elevation gain. This amounts to around 7% average throughout the climb. I miscalculated my effort a bit and was following the signs by the side of the road, thinking it was another two or so kilometres to the end when the TT stopped at the Hotel Mercure. Still, the climb itself isn’t bad and you pass through a couple of nice little villages en route – La Praz and then the Courchevel village – which would have coffee shops and whatnot open even in the summer.

I hope to get back out here again in October as I will be staying in the area and I will update this post with some pictures, accordingly.

https://www.strava.com/activities/683470959

3. La Rosière

La Rosière is a ski town known to many who tackle the Petit San Bernard climb to Italy from Bourg St Maurice (the other end of the Tarentaise valley from Courchevel). But if you’ve only ever climbed up the main road, then you’re missing out.

 

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This is a pic from the Petit San Bernard main road I took in 2015 (cheating, I know)

The La Rosière Montée tackles the alternative route up to the resort. The road is windy and steep, passing through small villages as you climb out of the valley. From Seez, you begin the climb towards the Col du Petit San Bernard before taking a right towards Montvalezan. The road then winds up at around 8 – 10 %, with some pitches into 11 or 12% at times. Once you pass through Hauteville, you will pop out at the main road, with the final three kilometres an easy 4% or so. If you aren’t racing, this is the time to take in the view to your right as the valley floor seems an impossibly long way down.

The entire montée is 15.5km from Seez and beautiful both ways. If you are coming back down the village route, be careful of the technical corners and it’s also a bit difficult to even see the first sharp left hand turn. Or you can just cruise down the main road again, though it is much, much longer.

The race itself was a fun one. Again, it was the final Friday night of the season and there had been I believe six climbs in total. One of the local fast guys – from the Macot La Plagne club – had been there every week and was rewarded with a bottle of wine for his efforts. He also managed to snag second place, which was an impressive feat given the competition.

img_7082The pool was around 30, with three women. I would estimate about one-third of the racers from Macot La Plagne club as most of the racers are based in the area. Another third was made up of the AG2R development team, at least some of whom had competed in the Tour de l’Avenir earlier that day, and already climbed the 50km up Col de l’Iseran plus the rest of the stage. But nothing is too much for a bunch of 17 – 20 year olds and they were out of the start gate like nothing I’ve ever experienced. And then there were around 10 of us who made up the remainder.

It was a mass start, with about 200 metres neutralized at the beginning to get everyone out of the parking lot and then a blistering start by the young pros. I settled into my pace and was fairly happy with making it up in 59 minutes. It could have been faster but then there’s always next year. And I won a vest. Perhaps my most useful racing prize of the season.

I’ll be sure to come back and post more pictures once I’m in the area again but till then, here’s a slightly dark picture on the way down and a podium shot. A beautiful climb and next time I’ll be sure to keep going and have lunch in Italy on top!

https://www.strava.com/activities/689804498

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Go on, crumble that cheese

Two cheese posts in a day. I guess it’s feast or famine Chez Frouleur. This little post is about a little cheese tasting I put together for an American friend in town last week. I wanted to showcase local cheeses, and more importantly, to highlight the diversity of Savoyard fromage.

When eating French cheese abroad, we are often limited to the bries and camemberts of the country plus the odd chèvre thrown into a salad. When I first moved to the Haute Savoie and was faced with rows of tommes, I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. It wasn’t that narrow range of creamy French cheeses I had always found on cheese platters before. But as I have slowly worked my way through them, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the diversity. And so today, I chose a creamy chèvre (a Coeur de Savoie – or heart of Savoy), a Tomme de Brebis (but different from the tommes discussed in my last post), and something entirely new to me – the Persillé de Tignes, from the Savoie alps.Tommecoeur.jpg

We all know what creamy chèvre tastes like – although when shaped like a heart, it certainly adds to the aesthetic – and I’ll get to the tomme later but the Persillé was something I’d never experienced before. Indeed, it’s apparently quite rare, with very few farmers still making the variety.

Persillé de Tignes is named for the area of the Haute Tarentaise where it is produced [aside: Tignes is also a popular ski resort near the Col de l’Iseran and in the same general geographic region] , a region marked by steep valleys and alpine pastures that are covered in snow for several months of the year. This particular Persillé is made from 80% cow’s milk and 20% goat’s milk, and according to the woman in the shop is also a mixture of morning and night milkings but this can’t be verified. The term ‘persillé’ refers to the marbling effect you get from the mixture – it is often used to describe blue cheese – which has a curdled texture that is somehow both smooth and crumbly at the same time.

At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it the cheese and almost dismissed it’s slightly dry taste. But after a second bite, and a third, I realised that the delicate flavour lingered on my tongue just as the cheese wanted to cling to the roof of my mouth. I gave up on the bread and tried eating it plain. It was delicious. img_7111But then on a whim, I crumbled it on top of a salad (I rarely eat salad so this was an unusual occurrence on many levels) and it took it to a new level. The avocado and dressing brought out the saltiness in the cheese, while the sweetness of the fresh figs balanced the flavour.

As I mentioned in my last post, taking fine, rare French cheese and putting it on a salad might have me swiftly booted from France but I stand by my actions. This cheese is divine on its own but why not also crumble a little on some lightly seasoned garden tomatoes with quality olive oil? In fact, it was so good, I made a bit of a Persillé Bruschetta the next day and it was unbelievable.

The cheese itself apparently changes as it ages, becoming less creamy and more musty with age. I will report back if I find some. Regardless, this little-known lactic gem is a worthy addition to any cheese platter and one to impress your snobbier friends (the rarity alone will win you kudos).

 

How do you milk a sheep?

While this was supposed to be a blog about cycling and cheese, my laziness has resulted in a lot of photos of cheese without a lot of writing. And of course one tends to forget the subtleties of each individual cheese a few days after eating and so any post-hoc blogging would probably be limited to “this cheese was great”. A description my sister would turn her nose up at.

As a result, I will start again with the most recent cheeses and will simply have to repurchase all other cheeses in order to post. A tough job but someone has to do it.

I am starting with the sheep’s milk cheese mostly because ittommedebrebis.jpg is what I purchased at the market today. I’m not sure why I went with the Tomme de Brebis today. I’ve had it once before and found it to be pretty unexciting. But last week’s Tomette de Brebis (confusing, I know), was just so deliciously, subtly sheepy without wandering into the pecorino range of bitterness, that I was tempted to give the regular tomme another chance.

I am sorry to say that it is just as I remembered. A little bland. But for those who are less enamoured of sheep’s milk – or a little scared of the flavour – it’s a great place to start. The texture is smooth, unlike the cow’s or goat’s milk tommes, and it has a rather delicate flavour. Like other tommes, feel free to skip the preservative white rind. In its favour, I will say it went pretty well with the white nectarines I also picked up at the market this morning.

However, it does not – in my opinion – match the far more exciting Tomette de Brebis. The tomette, sold as a long block rather than the round tomme, is also towards the more delicate end of the flavour spectrum when it comes to French cheese. But it has more of a characteristically sheepy taste, a slightly less smooth texture, and just enough bitterness to make it exciting. I added to to some avocado on toast on a whim (and a million Frenchmen gasp) and it was delicious. It also complimented some lightly salted and peppered tomatoes.

Sometimes it feels sacrilegious to take the cheese away from its pure setting but while I would agree melting it or adding it to a pizza, say, would be a waste, enjoying a hard cheese with fresh fruit is delicious. Try it.

I have sadly not taken a picture of my Tomette de Brebis on avocado toast but I will be sure to rectify the situation (and update this post, accordingly) after the Friday market.

The moral of this cheese-tasting/post was really just to look at two seemingly similar cheeses and note that one is not always like the other. Also, I’ve always wondered, how do you milk a sheep? I’ve never even been close enough to a sheep to see a teet! I’m sure I could google the answer but I’m not sure I’d like what else I find…

Until the next cheese post – enjoy!!

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.

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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.

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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.

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https://www.strava.com/activities/685957853 

 

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.

 

https://www.strava.com/activities/679191471

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% !

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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.

Mcloughlin_cheersquad

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.

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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.

GrandBornand

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.

https://www.strava.com/activities/647129634

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.

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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.

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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…

From buttery to trop fait

In a fit of pique and pre-emptive depression after the Brexit vote, I decided there was only one way to cope. As an Anglo-Australian woman living in France, I needed cheese. Thankfully, it was the Friday market, and my favourite cheeseman would be there.

I have a bit of a special relationship with my cheeseman and his sidekick – let’s call her the young cheeselady – or at least I like to think I have a special relationship. I see him at least once a week and he recognises a fellow cheese lover. Every Tuesday – and frequently Friday – I waltz up and ask the same question “what’s good today”. And they respond “everything is good”. With a laugh. They’re both honest about their likes and dislikes, and they have a fine memory for what I’ve tried and what I’ve not. It has become one of my favourite weekly rituals – the waltzing, the asking, the tasting, the eventual purchasing of pretty much every cheese they suggest, generally in larger quantities than I really need.

When one thinks of French cheese, brie is generally the first thing that comes to mind. But there is so much more, particularly in the Alps where Beaufort and fondue is about all anyone things of. Instead, there is a wide range of soft and hard cheeses, from cow, sheep, and goat’s milk, most of it raw.

As I stood before the cheese counter yesterday, I found myself suddenly uninspired. I selected a local tomme de chèvre, a creamy St Felicien, a buttery Morbier, and truly vile St Nectaire. Perhaps “trop fait” would be a more diplomatic term. When I tasted it at the market, I grimaced and mumbled that it was strong. But I purchased it anyway because I like a challenge. And I refuse to be defeated by a cheese.

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Clockwise from top left: St Felicien, Tomme de Chèvre, Morbier, St Nectaire

After that introduction, it is worth starting with that one. The smell, as soon as I open the fridge, is overpowering. It only gets stronger as the St Nectaire sits on the shelf, warming before lunch. I slice a side off the wedge and remove the rind. Sometimes I eat the rind on the cheese but in the case of these Alpine varieties it is neither obligatory nor generally recommended. It is hard to describe the smell. Sometimes when cheese is a little over, it has almost a mouldy smell as if it has lost its flavour. Other times, you get that sour, acrid scent that burns into the back of your nose. As I write this, I am waving the cheese to my nose in an effort to narrow down the stink. It is almost rotten, like the durian of the cheese world. Like old gym socks left in the bottom of the washing basket, only to be discovered 3 months after a particularly sweaty soccer match. Played in the mud. it smells like a sweaty saddle pulled off the back of dying horse. I am rarely defeated but this is too much. I pair the cheese with a slice of ripe summer heirloom tomato and bread, which helps it go down. Perhaps in the end, the bark is worse than the bite.

Generally, when I find the cheese not particularly to my liking, I hide it in a quiche or tartiflette, where melted its flavour is more tolerable. Or if the cheese is especially boring, I might also use it to cook. But in this case, I am not quite sure what to do with the odorous offender.

But perhaps I simply had a particularly bad example of the St Nectaire, which may well be quite pleasant. The cheese itself comes from the Auvergne region in central France. The smell – sometimes more pungent than others – is described as straw and mushrooms, the fragrance derived from an ageing process in an old cellar. A classic ‘farmers’ cheese, it should be buttery and soft, with a slightly sour taste. The cheese has a long and rich history, having been apparently served to and admired by King Louis XIV. Anyway, if you see it, give it a go, but perhaps have a couple of glasses of wine first if you can smell it from across the room.

The second cheese, the St Felicien, is the opposite. A crowd

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St Felicien is hard to stop eating once you start…

pleaser with its creamy texture, while raw milk makes it just interesting enough to place it above brie on the adventure scale. It doesn’t have a rind like the bries or camemberts of French cheese fame and it is absolutely delicious. It melts in your mouth, spreads perfectly on fresh bread or toast, and has a far more complex flavour than I expected.

Apparently, it was originally made from goat’s milk in the 13th century but now this Rhone-Alps cheese is made from raw cow’s milk. It is related to the particularly pretty St Marcellin, which is about half the size and served in little terracotta pots at the local cheese shop to preserve the shape. Left out, the cheese will ooze over the counter as the flavour improves. If you are a soft cheese lover then keep this one on your list.

The next cheese, the Morbier, has an interesting story if not a particularly exciting taste. The Morbier is from modern-day Jura, north of Geneva and was originally a layered cheese. The dark line splitting the cheese comes from the original way it was produced. When farmers reached the end of the day, they often did not have enough curds to make a new cheese so they poured what was left in the mould and covered with ash to preserve it. In the morning, they poured a new layer of cheese on top. Today the cheese is generally made in one sitting.

The cheese itself is semi-soft with a buttery, delicate flavour. I find it almost a bit like a havarti, which is probably a sacrilege. Anyway, it is delicious if in my opinion a little unexciting. Or perhaps only in comparison to the first two.

The final cheese was what I almost treat like a comfort cheese after over two months in the Alps. A Tomme de Chèvre – indeed any Tomme – is always delicious, easy to pair, and agreeable to almost anyone. It is mildly adventurous without being too overwhelming. And I always find it satisfying. In fact, I often just slice it off and eat it alone, without bread. I find its substance satisfying. Perhaps this is what I like most about the local semi-soft cheeses. The sheep’s ones are a little more delicate while the chèvre is, for want of a better word – a bit squishier. Sometimes they have air bubbles that somehow just make it more fun. If you really want to piss off the French, this is a good cheese to play with … if you dare.

It also tastes fabulous with tomatoes, fig jam, honey, and pretty much anything else. The longer I live here, the more I can appreciate the subtle differences between them, and delight at finding a new one from the Aravis or the Bauges.