Every time we drive to Geneva we see signs for the autoroute to Oyannax and have been intrigued by the name. This year we finally got to visit as the Forest’Cime, a 3-stage cycling event, started and ended there. In these days of ever more hyped and expensive events, the Forest’Cime is refreshingly old-school. Limited to 175 entrants with accommodation being provided in a variety of sports hostels and local hotels, the event is low-key and intimate. Not that it isn’t challenging, with the course climbing 9000m and covering 400km over three days and the beautifully quiet roads of the Jura and Ain regions.
We spent the night before the event in a B&B called Les Grenouilles which was in a suburb of Oyannax. It was a nice place but unfortunately Oyannax itself did have a bit of a town at the end of the line (or more accurately end of the autoroute) feel to it. We had a decent pizza/salad dinner but there weren’t many other appealing options. However, before dinner though we drove up to the Lac Geni which was an idyllic mountain lake that we would be passing by early in Stage 1.
Stage 1, 132km / 3218m (Arbent – Hauteville Lompnes)
The event centre and start was in another suburb of the town, Arbent. Nearly everyone at the start looked strong, particularly the other women riders. Lillian was worried as was I, as about four or five different people asked me if I was really going to ride the event on my mountain bike. There was only one timed climb today, this one being the Col de la Biche… which sounds a bit like an English word that would be an apt description. There was therefore no need to ride the rest of it particularly quickly. As we all splintered into groups as we hit the first climb out of Arbent, we found ourselves towards the back; either everyone else was much stronger or we were being over-cautious. One of the other riders in our initial group was a Dutch lady, Annette, who looked like a good climber… more about her later.
Nearly all the roads had good surfaces and were almost devoid of cars. There was just us, the hills, forest and meadows; it was a fantastic cycling. The main event of the day, the Col de la Biche, started 90km into the ride. Near the climb Lillian and I passed a white event assistance van which has just driven off the road and was lying at a 45 degree angle with its right hand wheels in a ditch. A lady was clambering out of the back and the driver was struggling to open the door which kept falling back on him as he tried to push it open. We offered to help but they waved us on.
We forgot about it as soon as we started toiling up the col which introduced itself to our legs with some 13-14% ramps. It was hot in the valley so I was soon trying to wipe away the sweat mixed with sun-cream that was stinging my eyes and trying to keep the pressure on the pedals. I overtook a lot of riders but over my shoulder I could see someone in a white helmet initially gaining on me and then holding onto my pace. The gradient eased towards the top and I was able to distance white helmet and then about 50 minutes it was over. After Lillian finished the climb we rolled on to the refreshments stop and found that the water had run out. A nice lady found a bottle of tonic water and gave everyone a few mouthfuls but we started our descent feeling somewhat thirsty.
Luckily we came across a fountain in the valley and were able to rehydrate before the final 15km to the finish. We weren’t sure whether this would involve more climbing but the name of the town, Hauteville, seemed ominous. And so it was, as we had another 400m of ascent before we could roll down to the finish.
We were lucky enough to have a room allocated to us in the sports hall where the finish was located. That meant a shower, followed by a complimentary massage and just a short walk downstairs for a decent canteen-style dinner. The winners for the day were also announced in the briefings outside. The fastest woman up the climb was Annette, who was the wearer of the while helmet and who I only beat by about 20 seconds. Her husband was the winner of the 50-60 year old category, as well as the fastest man. Impressive stuff. Lillian was 7th out of 15 women and I was 21st overall (out of 151 riders who finished).
We also found out why there was not enough water at the top of the hill. Someone told us that the van that we saw half off the road was the resupply van. This explained a lot, as everything else about the event has been very well organised, which a nice touch being boiled potatoes at the food stops as well as bread, salami, ham, cheese, fruit… they were very well stocked.
Climbing out of Arbent
Annette and Lillian on the Col de Richemond
Col de la Biche (Photo: Henry)
Col de La Biche (Photo: Henry)
Col de la Biche
Stage 2, 157km / 3631m (Hauteville Lompnes – Lamoura)
The timed climb today was the Col du Grand Colombier. It’s a climb I’ve always wanted to try after I saw an amazing helicopter shot of the Tour de France peleton descending some tight hairpin bends down the crest of a ridge. This was the way we would be riding up this morning.
My friend Andy had mentioned that the climb was in two halves and there was a downhill section. The first half was steep and sustained but the tight switchbacks were much less spectacular to ride through than I expected but the cuttings in the limestone ridge served to reflect back the heat of the sun, already powerful even though it was only about 9.30am. The steep section ended with a more gentle climb through the forest so I gave a big push hoping to recover on the downhill section I had wrongly assumed was approaching. The only problem was that there was no downhill; we turned left and were again on 12% slopes.
Then, when I thought we were near the top I saw a sign saying 6km to go. Not good, although at least it was not all steeply uphill. Just as I was reaching the final ramps, Annette overtook me. I managed to find some energy – perhaps I hadn’t been trying hard enough – and beat her to the top but she took a couple of minutes out of me on the climb overall. I was 35th fastest up it. I wasn’t riding less strongly than yesterday so I think it was because the mountain bike is at more of a relative disadvantage on the flat sections. And as Andy had promised there had been a downhill, but this was near to the top and only about 100m long! Andy incidentally rode really well and was the second fastest up the climb today.
I waited for Lillian and we descended to a well-stocked food stop. Everyone was hanging around chatting and eating; a very different vibe from yesterday. However, we still had 95km and 2000 of ascent to deal with before the finish. Lillian and I mainly rode alone having dropped off the back of the ‘grupetto’ as it was going a bit too quickly up hill. After 20km our pleasure at the endless rolling meadows and forests was starting to sour, not helped by 30 degree temperatures, melting tarmac and at times a lack of any cooling breeze. At the next food stop (34km after the first) the contrast was marked. It was almost totally silent with riders trying to find the few spots of shade available. Little did we know but this was just the beginning of our suffering.
A descent to the valley and crossing of the autoroute to Geneva took the temperature up a few degrees and us onto a vicious climb ascending 800m up a forest road. This was scenic, single track, and we saw no cars in 20km. It certainly lived up to the name of the event, unfortunately it was also very steep at times (12+%), hot and seemingly endless. Even where it levelled out it still seemed to sap our strength (and Lillian’s enthusiasm). The road was what one could call ‘grippy’ meaning that I think it was probably the slowest 20km I have ever ridden. We eventually made it onto some larger roads and the final food stop. More potatoes, salami and ham put us in better spirits, and the final 20 or so km though the farmlands of the Haut Jura was much more enjoyable. It was amazing too the psychological difference of being on roads where we could see where we were going and feel the speed at which we were covering ground.
We reached the event centre near to Lamoura just in time to hear the cheers as France beat Argentina in the World Cup. Not surprisingly Annette is still the leading lady. Her husband is the fastest man. This meant that they both were asked to dress up in cow costumes, complete with udders, for the prize-giving. Apparently cows are the mascot of the Jura, which also explains why the helpers at the last two feed stations today were also wearing the same outfits… which we did think were somewhat bizarre though at the time we were too tired to ask.
As it was the Queen Stage we all wore the event jersey, personalised with our names on the collar
The top of the Col du Grand Colombier (Photo: Henry)
Final effort from Lillian
The lake by Aix-les-Bains a long way below (Photo: Henry)
Lillian confused everyone by changing her top on the top of the Grand Colombier; the black event jersey was not ideal for a scorching day
Hot roads between through the Ain to the second food stop
This looks a lot like “Here, it is Pain” to me
The second food stop – super hot and devoid of chat
We didn’t know what was coming but one look at the sky and we knew it was going to be hot
On the ‘Forest Road’ once it had levelled off
Our mood was lifted though by coming across two nice dogs
Dinner – tastier than it looks
Stage 3, 125km / 1900m (Lamoura – Arbent)
The temperature was forecast to hit 34 degrees today and we even heard the word canicule on the radio later that day; having experienced a few days of a canicule (heatwave) a few years ago in Annecy it’s a piece of French vocab we have never forgotten. As a consequence of the heat the organisers decided to change the route to avoid the final climb, thereby reducing the distance and vertical climb of the stage by about 10km and 400m respectively.
The day started with a mainly downhill 30km to the northern shores of Lake Geneva. I didn’t have the time to whip out the camera as we sped through the customs post but the villages seemed different, though I am not sure if that was because we were in Switzerland or it was a prosperous commuter zone for Geneva. Some up and down meandering led us to Gex and the start of the final timed climb, the Col de la Faucille. This 10km long 600m climb is the ‘Box Hill’ of Geneva and I’ve seen regular Strava postings of training efforts on it from my friends in Geneva. I met one of them, Phil, on his way down as I was climbing. We had a brief chat before he headed for home; it was just as well, as I didn’t have the mental capacity to talk and push myself. It was a great climb and at an angle where I could push hard while mainly staying seated. I’ve found on the mountain bike that out of the saddle climbing, my preferred style, is less efficient, presumably because the suspension even if locked out, absorbs some of the force.
After the col we enjoyed a 20km gentle descent with Jelle, a Belgium guy who had been also staying in Les Grenouilles, and a local couple. The lady, Florianne, was a similar climber to Lillian, but on the next few ascents I could see Lillian wilting as the day became ever hotter. She really does not like the heat and later said that at one point she was actually hallucinating! Having been gradually dropped by Florianne et al, Lillian and I rode the rest mainly alone but it was pleasant riding save for the heat. We descended to Arbent down the road we had first climbed up three days ago. A nice way to finish.
As with the rest of the event, the organisation was excellent, with showers and a volunteer to look after our bikes while we had one. There was a large prize presentation, in which all the women participants were given flowers. Annette (Pronk) won, as did her husband (Paul Romkens). Lillian was the 9th woman (out of 16). Andy was 4th and I was 27th overall. Interestingly my position on the climbs become worse with each passing day (I was 37th today); I guess the steep and unrelenting Col de la Biche suited me.
It was an enjoyable three days. The event was superbly organised with a friendly atmosphere though the course was hard and the field generally strong (the broom-wagon was paced at 18kph, the same as it would have been on the Haute Route). The region was pretty but not spectacular (compared with the Alps) and it will be a long time before Lillian wants to ride on another ‘forest road’. However, I am keen to return to take part in La Forestière in September, a much more famous sibling which is a UCI XC mountain bike marathon and the day before there is a road sportive. So we may be returning soon…
For anyone interesting in learning more about the background to the race, an interview with the organiser is here (the second picture also happens to feature Lillian and I).
About to be dropped by Lillian and the boys in blue as we ride beside Lake Geneva
In the original A Bloc kit on the Col de la Faucille (Photo: Henry)
Lillian showing off her new Ale jersey
Jelle and Lillian on the long descent from the Faucille
Lillian and Florianne on another hot climb
A hill with a crown of cows
The final col, about 15km from the finish
All the organisers, volunteers and most of the women competitors