Category Archives: cycling in the alps

Climbing the Joux Plane, bikes, walking in the alps and Golden Eagles.

Walking in the alps in the Haute Savoie. I can think of worse things to do

Normally, the White Horse Challenge, my club sportive and my week in the alps would be the year’s cycling highlights – but I’ve already had the Ride London as a bonus in 2019. Equally, the lake district in January would be the focus of the walking – but now another week in the alps and more of both!

For a few years some friends have, very kindly, invited us to their place in the Lake District in January for some walking. We’ve reciprocated by having them and another couple (who are mutual friends) to stay in Bournemouth. This year we decided to try something different and it was ‘Bournemouth in the alps’.

So it was that, at silly o’clock on a Sunday morning, we left home in a well loaded car, heading for the channel tunnel and the Haute Savoie.

We had many things to take out, plus three bikes. The ladies (although all very competent cyclists) had decided that cycling back to a ski resort at 1150m each day might be a bit much so just the men decided to do some riding along with the walking that we would all do. We took all the bikes and some of our friends’ extra luggage so they could fly out with just hand baggage.

Our thinking was to get to the tunnel early in the hope that the almost inevitable delays might not have built up too badly by the early hours – and to give us a good chance of arriving in the light. It worked and the 710 miles (almost) flew past – and we were at the apartment (somewhat knackered) by late afternoon.

The first two days were hot and we prepared for the arrival of our friends, and relaxed, other than for a quick walk up the mountain to check which walking paths were open. Some are completely shut in the summer in favour of cyclists who have exclusive use of part of what is the ski area in the winter. VTT (vélo tout-terrain) is quite a big thing out there – but I am a little disappointed that so many are electric assist. To me, the hard-core appearance of riders with all the body armour should mean self-propulsion (although, personally, I’d want to take the telecabine up to the top, and I have to acknowledge that they are focused on the descent, not the climb).

The others arrived on Wednesday and the hot weather continued. On Thursday we walked from the apartment (at about 1150m), up to and along a ridge above the village at about 1700m – around 8.5km with 800m of ascent (5.2miles and 2620 feet). It never ceases to surprise me how ski runs that I know so well, look so different in the summer. It’s not just the colours but also the contours and the existence of roads that you’d never guess were there.

Friday was a cycling day. We decided to go for broke early on and we so rode over to Samoëns … and up the Joux Plane. It’s a tough (HC) climb – 11.6km, 989m of ascent at an average of 8.5% (7.2miles and 3250m) – it gave Lance Armstrong (by his own admission) his hardest day riding a bike as he nearly cracked in 2000 under a Jan Ulrich attack. It is also rather infamous as being part of the stage that resulted in Floyd Landis’ expulsion from the 2006 Tour. I believe that it’s been featured on the Tour 11 times.

I must admit that I like the climb which is picturesque and fairly quiet, even though it is very hard.

Our wives drove out to meet us for lunch at the top of the col. I have happy memories of this place as the only one where I have been mistaken for a proper cyclist … a few years ago the lady in charge of the restaurant offered me a newspaper to put under my shirt as I left for the descent in cold weather!

After lunch, we did the return trip with the inevitable climb back up to the apartment. In all, it was a 71km day with 1860m of ascent – a fine day on the bike.

Back to walking on Saturday – we drove about 5km to Les Moliets and walked a 10km loop with another 630m of climbing (6 miles and 2100 feet). Undoubtedly, the highlight was seeing two golden eagles circling low overhead as we sat at the Tête du Pré des Saix at 2100m (c 7000 feet).

We cycled 72km with 1260m of ascent to and back from the cirque at Sixt-fer-a-Cheval on Sunday – the ‘meet wives for lunch’ arrangement again – a beautiful setting I’ve visited many times and never grow tired of.

The main problem with the mountains is the unpredictability of the weather – for my cycling week I’ve been incredibly lucky over the years and if the rain has come in, it’s come in late in the afternoon/early evening. We were chased back from the cirque by the rain – and got caught just minutes before we reached the apartment.

It was a bit wet and murky on Monday too – but we cycled up the Col du Pierre Carree (my everesting hill – how did I ever do that 12 times?), over the top and down into Flaine. It is a purpose built ski resort created in the 1960s with a great snow record but little in the way of summer season – and it was almost completely shut at the very beginning of September.

We did not find a single shop open but managed to track down the one restaurant serving food (almost exclusively to resort maintenance staff) and had a very good lunch. We had an abbreviated walk in the drizzle before riding back – a total ride of 32km with 1045m of climbing (20 miles and 3400 feet), with a 4.2km walk sandwiched in between.

Our friends left on Tuesday and we drove back to England on Wednesday.

A 1500 mile round trip in the car and about 175km of cycling with 4166m of ascent (110 miles and 13700 feet) and 22.6km of walking with 1550m of ascent (14 miles and 5100 feet). No running – but that would simply have been too much. As it was, I returned fitter (but heavier) than I went out.

A great trip in almost exclusively good weather, with good friends, good cycling and good walking. It takes a lot of beating.

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Back from the alps, back to the running (and the little matter of the cricket World Cup)

The lacets (‘laces’) du Montvernier, Garmin style

The cycling in the alps was as good as ever, even if I was rather off the pace after a few months concentrating on running. Telegraphe and Galibier were the big climb highlights but the lacets du Montvernier were such fun.

Having got back late Sunday, it was up to London on Monday for supper with one son, followed by supper with the other on Tuesday. Tuesday also featured a rather annoying trip back to Oxfordshire once I realised that I had not checked the chickens before we left on Monday – annoying but necessary as I found them with almost no food or water!

Wednesday was my 64th birthday which we celebrated at Nathan Outlaw’s new restaurant venture at a London hotel. I’ve no idea whether he is known outside the UK but his big expertise is fish and the meal was excellent.

Back to Oxfordshire again later on Wednesday and down to Bournemouth Saturday to set up the house for one of my wife’s goddaughters who is using it next week.

Sunday morning I had a gentle run with my wife – my first run since 25th May when I tore my calf muscle. The muscle is fine, of course, but while the Achilles tendons are better, they are still not right. Friends over for supper so it will be into next week with good intentions of doing more running and cycling.

The cricket World Cup has reached its climax. After good performances against New Zealand and India to get into the semi-finals, England handed out a bit of a beating to Australia and went on the meet New Zealand in the final.

New Zealand batted first and scored a decent but beatable 241 from their 50 overs. Their opening bowlers in particular were excellent but England just about stuck in there and needed 2 to win off the final ball (of 300) but scored just one and tied the match. That meant it went to a ‘super over’ – six balls each side to decide the World Cup.

As Oasis might have said, a ‘champagne super over’.

Crazy and rather cruel.

We managed 15 from our six balls. New Zealand also managed 15 runs off theirs. In that case the result is decided, first, on boundaries hit in the match. England hit 26 and New Zealand 17.

So, in perhaps the most dramatic circumstances possible, England defied all of my doubts and actually justified their status as favourites by winning (just)!

That makes England the first country to win the Football, Rugby and Cricket World Cups.

Admittedly, not that many countries compete at the top level in all three sports!

… and perhaps we might add Le Tour de France too?

Alps cycling 2 – including Telegraphe and Galibier, some shoelaces and (not) a bombshell conclusion

From the top of Galibier with the road winding below and then visible further away, in the centre and then to the far right

We packed up on Wednesday morning and headed for Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne. We’ve used the apartment for some years now and have climbed just about everything in close proximity so we were stretching our wings a bit.

That afternoon I climbed the ‘Lacets de Montvernier’ (which translates as ‘the laces’) which featured in last year’s Tour. I rode under 22km (13.6miles) but climbed 460m (over 1500 feet). Not too far, not too steep but the sort of ride that puts a broad smile on your face. The others added a second climb but I decided to give that a miss as the queen stage of the trip was on Thursday and I didn’t want to prejudice that.

The Lacets winding down towards the valley floor

That queen stage was the Cols du Telegraphe and Galibier. It was a ride over to Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne and then it’s straight into Telegraphe – about 12km (7.5miles) at an average of 7.3%. After a descent of around 4km into Valloire, it’s back to the climbing with Galibier being another 1240m over about 18km (4070 feet, over 11 miles). The top of Galibier stands at 2642m (8668 feet) – the sixth highest col in France, I believe.

I loved the climb. I didn’t do it fast but felt good, despite it still being in the mid 30s℃. Standing at the top was about the only time in the whole trip that I felt cool out on the bike – and I was grateful that I’d taken a light jacket to put on for the descent.

In all, the day was a shade under 100km (60 miles) with 2428m of ascent (nearly 8,000 feet). It’s a lovely climb – a lot of it is between 7 and 10% but it also some flatter sections here and there. What a good day on the bike.

After Galibier it was back to the hotel and straight back to Les Carroz for the Plaine Joux on Friday (not to be confused with the Joux Plane – how could it be?). Not what I would call a recovery ride – it was tough at 64km and with 1473m of up (40 miles and 4830 feet) – but rewarded by a decent restaurant and great views of Mont Blanc at the top.

Saturday was back to the Cirque – a recovery ride at last – but with a pretty quick return trip to round off the week in a little bit of style.

The journey back was good until the tunnel which was suffering big delays thanks to the French border people deciding to show the French government how long it could take to process travellers post-Brexit (or, for the cynical) showing how they need more money/resources and taking it out on the Brits.

So, a week with 460km and 9100m of climbing (285 miles and nearly 30,000 feet). I was at the rear of our group but did all the big climbs and enjoyed it enormously.

I’d been wondering whether my plank exercises and gym sessions could cover for my lack of cycling over the last 8 months.

I have the answer – I learned it the hard way. The planks and gym would be a good addition to cycle training but are no replacement for it.

Alpine cycling part 1 – Solaison, Colombiere, the Cirque at Sixt Fer a Cheval

Le Cirque du Fer-à-Cheval

Off to the alps – a highlight of the year. This time no everesting and I was driving, not cycling, out. All positive, apart from almost no cycling this year due to April’s Marathon. How hard could it be … ?

Two friends arrived for supper and to stay over on Friday night to give us an early start on Saturday morning. We got away just after 5.30 am and had a decent run to the tunnel, getting on an earlier train to Calais. The drive down to the alps was another 545 miles and it passed by slowly, without incident, but in temperatures that got above 35℃ (about 95℉), blessedly below the previous week’s record highs of up to 47C).

Arriving in Les Carroz it was straight to one of the bar/restaurants where the other 3 were waiting for us (2 had flown and one had driven from where he lives in Germany).

We were treated to a great thunderstorm that night, fairly typical for the mountains after particularly hot days.

The Sunday ride was relatively short but with a hard climb up to the plateau at Solaison for lunch – altogether 76km with 1658m of ascent (42miles and 5440 feet). The col itself is about 1000m at an average 8% and it was still 35℃ down in the valleys so although the climbing was pretty tough, at least it was a little bit cooler once we got high up in the mountains.

It was obvious early on that my terrible lack of cycling in 2019 was going to be an issue. I’d probably ridden about 300 miles (500km) all year, having been concentrating almost exclusively on running while I trained for the Rotterdam marathon in April. I fell behind on the first climb and adopted the lantern rouge position – and kept it for the week.

Monday’s ride was a gentle trip to the Cirque at Sixt Fer a Cheval – another 71km but with just 960m of ascent (39 miles and 3150 feet) in much the same baking temperatures. That night we were treated to another huge storm. Somewhere about 2 am I was conscious of it getting pitch black and tried the light switch – which did nothing. I got up later to see if it was merely a case of the apartment trip switch being triggered … but it wasn’t.

A quick look outside revealed no lights anywhere so it was back to bed, completely helpless.

Waking on the Tuesday morning the position was unchanged – we breakfasted (without tea or coffee) and after a bit of a recce outside I discovered that an electricity sub-station had been taken out by the lightning and that a large area was blacked-out – including Flaine, Les Carroz, Araches and Magland down in the valley below. It all seemed to be a bit appropriate, given the almost complete lack of power in my legs.

We rejigged the planned ride to avoid having to detach the motor operation on the garage door to get any cars out, instead we cycled down the mountain road where it was clear that a good number of trees had been brought down across it and, at least partially, cleared.

We climbed the Col de la Colombiere on the opposite side of the valley up as far as Le Reposoire – only to find that it too was without electricity thanks to the fallen trees having taken out a number of power lines. With coffee withdrawal symptoms, we returned to Cluses which did have power and we found a very good lunch.

I really like not having to get the cars out to get to the start of a ride – but the downside is that the day gets bigger from a climbing point of view because of the climb (about 500m) back to the apartment. This was a relatively short day even with the climb back – in all 58km but with 1172m of ascent (36 miles and 3850 feet) and when we got back to the apartment just before 4pm we were just a few minutes ahead of the return of the power and the all-important ability to boil a kettle and cool some beers.

To be continued … heading up to over 2600 metres.

Perfectly trained, well prepared, all systems go, all pigs flying

Ready or not, mountains, here I come

No cycling for 10 days, so with the trip to the alps looming I’m tempted to make up for lost time. However, with marathon training, trying to cram in too much too late is likely to be counter-productive. I guess the same is true of cycling?

On Tuesday I did the daily plank exercises and then an hour at the gym. Almost at the desperation stage I was tempted to use the turbo in the evening but, happily, my legs talked me out of it.

Planks again on Wednesday (I’ll stop mentioning them as they are a daily feature) followed by another enjoyable cycle training session at the local junior school. It was back to the gym on Thursday and lunch out with friends, with another hour in the gym on Friday.

No great success with the weight either – currently about 68 kg – more than I’d like and a lot more than I need to have.

I’m going to have to accept that I’m hopelessly under-cooked for the trip and live with that, without doing anything now to make it worse. I suppose someone has to be the red lantern. On the bright side I might find out how useful planks and the gym are by way of cycle training, in the absence of actually getting on a bike.

As the final refuge of the scoundrel, I’ve started to think about excuses.

True, my Achilles are still painful (even after a month without running because of the calf muscle I tore), my left knee protests frequently – and (one reason for not riding this week) I made a real mess of the middle finger on my right hand last week with a sledge hammer and fence post, while working at the cycle park.

Perhaps I won’t be able to hold the handlebars.

Oh yes, the cricket One Day World Cup continues to frustrate if you are an England supporter – defeats by Sri Lanka and Australia (the most painful defeat as it comes from our oldest cricketing foes) have put English qualification for the semi-finals in doubt. Situation normal.

An alpine reality check … Galibier here I come?

Mt Blanc from Le Bettex last year

After a day of hobbling around with the calf pull (or as I like to think of it, ‘calf tear’ which may be the same thing but sounds more dramatic) I did my turn leading the club Sunday ride. Probably not wise as I still couldn’t walk properly but it’s an easy and short ride (this one was 13 miles, 21km) aimed at families, new cyclists and those returning to riding.

I took a mountain bike and made sure I cycled with the pedal under the arch of my right foot to avoid flexing the ankle. Very much a case of do what I say, not what I do – on Wednesday’s training session I’d been telling the school children to ride with the balls of their feet on the pedals.

It worked pretty well – except that I had to take my right foot off the pedal when going over bumps as otherwise the shock through the leg rather hurt. We had a new chap cycling with us – he’s a relatively new cyclist but looks like a really good recruit for the Saturday rides too.

After reading up on matters on the internet, I think I’ve managed a grade one (or possibly one and a half) tear to the right calf muscle as I was able to run (slowly) back to the flat after I did it on Saturday. It was a real shame (to say the least) as I’d just run a 5:05 km before it went, which is quite quick for me.

The calf is both painful and swollen – if both my calf muscles were this size normally, I’d be a proud man.

It’s all a bit stressful – I never seem to injure myself cycling (subject to the very occasional falling off) but the running has given me 6 months of painful Achilles tendons every morning, an unhappy knee ligament and now a pulled muscle. The answer looks like stopping the running and going back to the cycling … but I enjoyed the Marathon last month, I do like running – and want to do another marathon. What should I do?

With our sons home over the weekend they helped in the garden and, once I had progressed from hobbling to limping (and with me wearing a very fetching green surgery-strength compression sock) we went for a couple of great (slow) walks before they went back to London on Monday.

Looking to the mountains

The annual cycling trip out to the alps is starting to loom large on the horizon. This year we are incorporating a night away from the apartment to open up some new climbs. My vote has gone in for the Col du Galibier and Col du Télégraphe duo. It’s a combined climb of 1859 metres over the course of 34.5km (6100 feet in 21.5 miles).

I think Galibier is the 6th highest climb in the alps and features a monument to Henri Desgrange, the man responsible for the creation of Le Tour, so it has to be done. The two Cols together are only just over a fifth of my ‘everest’ climb so how hard can it be … (I rather wish I hadn’t said that).

It’s made me realise that, since the Rotterdam Marathon in early April, I’ve cycled 5 times: 1×13 miles; 1×20 miles; 2x50miles; and 1x70miles. To put in an entry for the understatement of the month, it’s probably not enough!

Backside to saddle time – once the calf is up to it.

Targets – on and off the bike, and no-Sky thinking

Blue Sky No Sky thinking

Well, no Sky sponsorship for the all-conquering cycle team after next year. Perhaps not a huge surprise after Sky was taken over and recent questions raised over the team’s integrity – but all that seemed to have calmed down in recent months, with the overall image being boosted by Geraint Thomas’ Tour win, a man who appears to be really popular both in and outside the peloton.

In the current economic climate it’s hard to see anyone wanting to dig quite so deep into their pockets as Sky did so it will be interesting to see how the team cuts its cloth in rather less affluent times.

It looks like the British domination is more under threat now than it has been for years – I just hope that road cycling has gained a sufficiently strong support base here in the UK to withstand a possible period of lower success in the pro ranks. Surely we are not that shallow?

No doubt, Sky will be rushing to pass on the saving to subscribers (an academic point for me as we only have ‘proper’ television).

My own cycling for next year looks to be built around the White Horse Challenge on 28 April, and my usual week’s cycling out in the alps in July.

White Horse Challenge

I’ve entered the WHC again but with some apprehension as it’s only three weeks after the Rotterdam Marathon. I have no idea whether that’s enough time to recover from the run and then get back on the bike properly, but I guess I’ll find out. The WHC is about 90 miles with anywhere between 1400 and 1750m of climbing, depending whose Garmin you use. 

This will be my 8th attempt and I’m still wanting to break the 5 hour mark – pb so far 5:05. I guess 2019 will not be the year to go under 5 hours, unless marathon training has some miraculous benefit to my cycling.

Haute Savoie, 2019

The alps trip is nearly finalised with all 6 of us being present and accounted for in 2019. I have no plans to ride out there like I did this year so I’m hoping I might perform better on the mountains than was the case with knackered legs this summer.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been out there – it’s becoming a challenge for the routemeister, although I doubt I’ll ever get tired of the Col de la Colombière, the Plaine Joux, the Joux Plane and the Col de la Pierre Carrée (‘my’ Col having being the first, and still only, person to ‘everest’ it!).

Rotterdam Marathon

Although it’s early in the training I was thinking about target setting for April’s marathon in Rotterdam.

Initially, my main aim was to break 4 hours, as I did (just) when I ran my two previous marathons in 1998 and 1999. However, the first four weeks of training are making me reassess that. 

The current London Marathon ‘good for age’ for a 44 year old male is 3:05. I don’t suppose that’s changed much since I ran in 1999 as a 44 year old, but I was probably 50 minutes outside it then. Although I’ve kept reasonably fit through cycling over the last 8 years, what on earth makes me think that I might now be within 15 minutes of the ‘good for age’ time for me as a 63 year old?

I’ve never been particularly hung up on the age thing – but that doesn’t feel like a sound basis for ignoring it completely. I seem to have been assuming that I will run the same time as if the intervening 20 years just haven’t happened!

They might change but, for now, the targets are:

  • Minimum target is to run all the way and finish without injury or undue trauma
  • Beyond that, sub 4:15 is a realistic(?) target
  • After that, sub 4:00 would be great
  • Next, it would be setting a personal best – but that’s a tricky one because I cannot remember what time I did in my second marathon in 1999. My official finish time was 3:56:42 but I can’t remember whether that was an individual time or whether that was from the gun. In 1998 I got an individual finish time, but not start time, and I know that it had taken me nearly 9 minutes to get over the start line – but I can’t remember if that changed for 1999. Let’s say 3:56 will be a pb as I have no evidence for anything better than 3:56:42.
  • The extreme wishful thinking would be 3:45 – my London Marathon ‘good for age’ time (though to me it feels way beyond just ‘good’).

The biggest factor will be staying fit, healthy and injury free (including the Achilles tendons) – but, even with all that working in my favour, 4:00 looks like much more of a stretch target than I’d assumed.

Damn.