With big cycling plans later in the summer to round up our year off – the Haute Route Pyrenees for me, and a Nice to Geneva trip for Lillian – we were looking for a test of our climbing legs and found it in the Time Megève Mont-Blanc. This contained hardly any flat road with the long course consisting of 3,800m of ascent over four big cols in the French Alps: the Aravis, the Croix Fry, and the Saisies from each side.
On a clear day you can see Mont Blanc from the top of the Col des Aravis, which I guess justifies the ‘Mont Blanc’ in the name. Sadly there was only a view of clouds from the Aravis on race day (Sunday 5 June) but given the weather in the previous few days we were just grateful it wasn’t raining.
Winding back the clock to Wednesday the week before, Lillian and I had travelled out to St Gervais well aware that the forecast for the coming few days was poor. That evening we squeezed in a quick ride to Les Contamines. This was the last dry ride that we did and the following two days saw repeated false starts when it looked like the drizzle was stopping. In the end we accepted we were going to get wet and even managed some recces of this year’s Tour de France route, which will make it more interesting to watch on TV. This included riding up the individual time trial route which climbs to Megève from Sallanches. There were signs by the road on the start of the climb, the Côte de Domancy, saying that this was where Bernard Hinault attacked and won the 1980 Cycling World Championships.
Lillian and I had much debate about which of the conflicting weather reports to believe; the results of Accuweather, championed by Lillian, seemed to be better than my preference, Meteofrance. On Sunday we were relieved when we looked out of the window and saw some patches of blue sky with the valley below being filled with cloud.
The format of the race was unusual with the descents being neutralised (i.e. not timed) due to a fatality in the event a few years ago. This changed the whole dynamic of the event in what I think was a positive way. Unlike in most sportives/races there was not much jostling to get near the front of the start pen. We probably were a little too laid back however, and found that we were almost at the back of the line up (see the featured image for this post).
I don’t think I have ever done as slow a roll out from the start. After a 10km descent to Flumet, we reached the beginning of the first climb, the Col des Aravis, and had to remind ourselves that this was actually a race rather than a gentle spin in the mountains. Lillian had opted to do the short course, which took in the first two cols of my course and the uphill grind from Flumet back to Megève. At 86km and with 2,000m of ascent this was still a big day out and Lillian decided to go ‘full gas’ on the two climbs and see what happened.
I was riding with a friend, Andy who we met at the Grandfondo Saint-Tropez earlier this year. He seems to be my cycling twin, having a similar mix of power, endurance and weight. We are both in the same team in the Haute Route Pyrenees later this summer and this event was a good opportunity to see what our relative speed was like over a long day in the mountains. We stopped to take off jackets before the first timing mat unlike Lillian who rolled on. She didn’t stop at all, whereas Andy and I stopped at the top of bottom of each climb to put on and take off clothing, etc. for a total of 20 minutes over the duration of the race.
We caught Lillian some way up the Aravis.
I let Andy set the pace with me going to the front if he slowed or if it was windy and I felt I should do a turn.
Our pace on the Col des Aravis (c.600m of ascent, 38 minutes) felt relatively easy. Our effort was well judged and we managed to maintain a similar normalised power (NP) on all the subsequent cols; however keeping that power was progressively harder on each climb. (My NP on the climbs was around 85% of my FTP.)
After the Aravis we descended to Thônes. Everyone seemed to have forgotten that bit wasn’t being timed and I found myself riding at 70kph and at some points putting out more power than I had on the climb!
The second timed section was up the Col de Croix Fry followed by a short, fast descent and then up the north side of the Aravis (c.1100m of ascent, 68 minutes).
By the third climb, the Col des Saisies, my legs were starting to hurt. By now the field was thinning and we found ourselves duelling with some familiar faces. There was Man with Black Rucksack (yes, a rucksack!) who had the annoying habit of slowing but then speeding up and half-wheeling when we overtook him. We eventually dropped him and tucked in behind a strong Man in Blue and Yellow for the final push up to the top of the Saisies (c.800m of ascent, 51 minutes).
The medium course turned around here but the long course continued over the col down to Beaufort… home of the eponymous cheese.
As we started descending we saw the first riders on the long course climbing back up which put them about an hour ahead of us. The Beaufort valley and the town itself are well worth visiting being in an idyllic setting amongst lush pastures and surrounded by steep wooded hillsides.
At the bottom we passed the only accident we saw on the day which was a sole rider who had crashed on a straight flat road. There were already a couple of people looking after him so we didn’t stop. We speculated that he may have been trying to take off his jacket while riding with no hands on the bars… feel free to come up with your own theories.
We were reunited with Man in Blue and Yellow at the bottom of the climb back up the Saisies. He turned out to be Mike who ran a skiing and cycling business in Chamonix. Like some other people I have met who have moved to the mountains because of skiing he said in winter he didn’t have much time to ski and therefore he now enjoyed the cycling in the summer more.
We left Mike behind as the gradient kicked up. Andy and I were both climbing well and passed a lot of very tired riders. We overtook another guy, Gilles, who then sped up and proceeded to ride and chat with us for about half an hour until he too said he was cooked.
His 17 year old son had come 24th in the French junior road race champs the previous day so there were definitely some good cycling genes in his family. As we crested the Col des Saisies for the second time (c.920m of ascent, 60 minutes) it started to rain and we were given a good soaking on the top section of the descent to Flumet. However, as thunderstorms had been forecast for that afternoon I think we got off lightly.
Back in Flumet, with the legs having recovered somewhat, we smashed it up the valley (c.150m of ascent, 15 minutes) in a two-up TT back to the finish. It turned out we had the 20th fastest time of the day on what was the final timed section for all the courses.
We finished in 5 hours 50 minutes riding time (for 147km) with an average speed of just over 25kph. I was 50th overall on the long course with a cumulative time on the climbs of 3 hours and 54 minutes. However, the winner (also in the 40 to 49 year old age category) did it in 3 hours and 6 minutes… which puts our efforts in perspective.
Lillian met us at the finish having also had a good ride.
She beat her previous PBs on both the Aravis and Croix Fry and rode the first climb nearly at her FTP and the second at over 90% intensity, so I think she suffered more pain than we did even though she was riding for less time. Her overall time for the three climbs was 2 hours 26 minutes giving her 7th place in her age category and 12th woman in the short course which was completed by 405 riders, 46 of which were women. Around 450 people did the medium course and 205 did the long one.
The event finished with an excellent post-race meal that even included a plastic cup of wine!
As well as the route, I liked the more relaxed atmosphere caused by only the climbs being timed; this eliminated some of the more maniacal descending that one sees in Alpine sportives, and gave us a chance to stop and appreciate being in such spectacular surroundings.
The following day Lillian and I were finally rewarded with beautiful weather and a view of the high mountains. We rode into the Chamonix valley and then followed a small road climbing 500m in 5km up to the Merlet Animal Park. This is worth mentioning as it is not an obvious road but is a nice bike ride. The photo shows Lillian half way up with the Mont Blanc range behind her. The snowy peak that looks like it might be Mont Blanc is the Dôme du Goûter.
Also worth mentioning is the fact that the last two kilometres include some 12+% sections. The photo below shows Lillian too tired even to berate me for picking such a climb on a day when we were meant to be having a relaxed ride.
The joys of riding in the mountains!