A few weeks ago, five friends and I went cycling in the French Alps for 3 days. It was a self-planned and operated trip, for which all of it was due to my friend Nick, who found the location, a place to stay and recc’ed the climbs. He is also the founder member of the Mountain Goat Velo Society (MGVS).
Everyone wanted to take their bikes so this year we drove (3 of the guys went to Mont Ventoux last year on an organised trip with flights). It was a 3:30 am departure on Thursday for Nesh, Geoff and I, to catch a 6:00 am train to France from Ashford. At that time of night through Surrey and Kent was uneventful. We met the other car with Nick, Dan and Skill in over a quick coffee and bacon sandwich at the terminal. We jumped back into the cars, boarded the train and chatted away in the 35 minutes it took to travel under the English Channel.
We were staying in a town called Barcelonnette in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. If that sounds a long way, it is. It’s 1050 km from Calais and 10.5 hours of driving. We shared the driving and stopped for snacks and petrol and made good time down to Grenoble listening to various Spotify playlists. Following that there were 3 hours and another 180km of twisty mountain roads to go. We arrived at our Airbnb at 8 pm, collected the keys from the neighbour, dropped our bags and bikes and head into town for dinner.
Day One – Col de Vars and St Anne de Condamine
Everyone was used to the group activity holiday, as we have all been snowboarding together several times. But with cycling, there be is a whole new level of faffing. Even though everyone was up at 7 am and jumped on the coffee and the porridge, the 8 am departure slipped 30mins as suncream, nutrition, hydration, tyre pressures and general bike maintenance were all wrestled with.
We rolled out of the driveway and were instantly cycling along the Ubeye River up the valley. Within the first half km, I knew today was not going to play out very well. My legs had felt dead for some weeks, and they still felt the same. We trundled up the 16km to where the pass to the Col de Vars started.
As you can see from the graphic above 14.6km climb, with a 796 elevation gain averaging 5.5% and peaking at 11.5%. This was my first alpine climb, only ever having done the popular climbs around the Surrey Hills. The first 6kms were a nice introduction with 2% and 3% pitches. The sun was already warm and sweat was already pouring off me. I stayed with the group, but fell off slightly as the pitches when up to 9%, and caught them as they stopped in the shade for gels and fluids.
Setting off again there was a brief rest bite before the average slope went up to 8.8% for the remaining 4km, which was several long drags and switchbacks. A few friends came past me and I caught a few others on the climb. One guy was weaving all over the place and I thought to myself ….at least someone is having a worse day than me. I then passed him to see a guy with white hair, twice my age possibly in his 70s or even 80s. I put my head down and “kicked” to the top, thinking ….that was tough but not too bad. I had a few lessons still to learn before the day was over.
We all made it. Nesh and Dan had stopped to fix Dan’s puncture and we basked under parasols drinking coffee and Coke. After a couple of photos, we headed down the descent on which I felt a bit shaky.
We started to head back towards Barcelonnette before taking a left at La Condamine-Châtelard towards what I would soon find out to be a ski resort.
The graphic above suggests this is a punchy little climb that we would knock off and head home for a beer. It started hard and stayed hard. It was relentless. It was now past midday and the sun was getting hotter and hotter. I lost the other guys quickly and only caught up as they rested out of the sun.
I suffered a lot. It was purgatory for my relaxed attitude to preparation. My friends had banged on about it for weeks. I thought they were going over the top about training. They weren’t. It took me nearly an hour to cover the 6km. I later discovered a broken spoke and badly buckled wheel that didn’t help. I reached the top, drank and ate a chocolate chip Clif bar, a little embarrassed by my performance. The views were immense (as they were over the whole stay) and following more pictures, we headed off home, which was downhill all the way as beer and the pool beckoned.
As I mentioned, I discovered a broken spoke and badly buckled wheel and headed off the local bike shop for a repair. On my return, I found everyone in the pool or on the edge of the pool enjoying stubbie beers.
I’m not sure if it was the salt we craved or our love of crisps but we damaged a fair few packets. The rest of the afternoon was relaxing in the shade with crisps and a few more beers, before a fair quiet evening dinner in the town square as everyone was wiped out. We all went straight to bed once home to prepare for tomorrow.