Amazing Alpine Adventures – Day Seven, St Jean de Maurienne.
Today was all about exploring the wild back country of the Maurienne valley, while taking in some epic climbs. We started by heading to what was once the best kept secret climb in the region, Les Lacets de Montvernier (which translates as ‘the shoe laces of Montvernier’).
There are 17 hairpins in the space of 1.5 miles & the single track road (it looks more like a cycle path) rises just over 650 feet. I managed to get one action shot, where there was a motorcyclist on one set of hairpins, while I captured two cyclists further up the ascent. There was still some graffiti from the 2016 Tour de France, which is just visible on the photo below – Adam & Simon refers to the Yates brothers who competed for Mitchelton Scott that year.
Once we reached the summit of the hairpins, I jumped off the bike & headed down a farm track for about 400 yards & then cut through some woodland. I was now stood on the edge of a 1,000 foot vertical drop to the valley floor below (not good for my vertigo), with a stunning view of Les Lacets laid out below & across from me – my photo doesn’t really do the climb justice, but it’s a great reminder of a stunning piece of tarmac. The Tour de France is visiting again this year, so look out for Les Lacets de Montvernier on Stage 12.
After another mile or so, the single track joins the main route up to Col du Chaussy, which is a 9 mile brute of a climb with stretches hitting 13% in gradient for 400 yards or more – plenty long enough to cause me significant difficulty (& pain!). The scenery was awesome at this point, with huge views across to the snow-capped mountains that surround the Cols de Glandon & Croix de Fer. We were heading ever higher & the trees were getting thinner (hence the views) & then we saw a tiny balcony road, threading its way across what appeared to be a sheer faced cliff. As we got closer, we realised that’s exactly what it was & that the only thing protecting us from the 2,000 foot drop would be a concrete barrier!
The road was so quiet, at least we didn’t have to worry about traffic – other than the odd motor bike, the only people we saw until we reached the summit were other cyclists, as they motored past us! Once we’d made our way past the cliff road, it was a steep few miles of climbing through forest, before another change of scenery as we left one valley & joined another. The final 2 miles of the ascent took us through alpine meadow & then finally we could make out the Col du Chaussy sign in the distance – it’s not the greatest of signs!
We stopped at the summit café for a coke followed by coffee & watched in amazement as above us about 25 eagles soared on the thermals looking for their Sunday Lunch – we hoped we weren’t on the menu!! As we headed over the summit we knew we were in for a helter skelter descent of some 6½ miles on narrow farm tracks – we were effectively transitioning over to the lower slopes of the Col de la Madeleine, before our next 9 mile ascent to the summit some 4,000 feet above us.
I’d always known I would be fine climbing the Chaussy, as it was only about 3,500 of climbing although some was steep, however, backing this up with an ascent of a Tour de France legend (it’s referred to in the climbing guides as Mythique because of its difficulty) was going to be completely unknown territory & I genuinely didn’t know if I would be capable of completing the climb – but that’s what challenges are about.
The first of a few acid tests came after less than a mile of climbing, when the roadside marker showed that the gradient for the next kilometre averaged 11% – I couldn’t hang on to Sean’s wheel as my speed plummeted to 3.5 miles an hour! My lack of climbing training was exposed right there & the next 45 minutes were the most painful I can remember on a bike, as the gradient hovered between 8% & 10% while horseflies mocked me by taking bites out of my oversized arse – I couldn’t go fast enough to escape them!! The views were beautiful up towards the snow peaked mountains, but I experienced a very rare crisis of confidence about whether I would see the new summit sign on the Col, some 7 miles further on.
At that moment I stopped to take the photo below & made a conscious decision to ride to the summit, but to do it at my pace & to enjoy every minute of the experience. All of a sudden I was ok – I’d had the opportunity to stop & had made the choice to continue, so I knew I’d complete the climb. It was still an incredibly difficult few miles up to Saint-Francois-Longchamp, the last sign of civilisation before the summit. From here the road twists & turns over cattle grazing land, with huge views all the way down to La Chambre, some 13 miles & 3,500 feet away on the valley floor.
Finally, after 1 hour 50 minutes we’d reached the summit – again Sean rode at my pace all day & never complained about me slowing him down. That made it all the more enjoyable to get a photo together in front of the new Col sign, then head to the café for a massive slice of blueberry tart & coke!!
The first 4 miles of the descent were on twisty & wide roads, but at that point the road was being repaired ahead of Le Tour & there was gravel on almost every corner for about 2 miles. I’d been warned about this yesterday by a group of Oz riders who are staying at our hotel, so at least we were both prepared for it. After that, the road took long sweeping corners ever downwards towards La Chambre & some 25 minutes after leaving the summit, we were back on the valley floor.
All that remained was to cycle the final 6 miles beside the river as we headed back to St Jean de Maurienne. Today was yet another stunningly beautiful day in the saddle, here’s hoping tomorrow brings more of the same!