Col de la Forclaz & Col de la Guelaz – Day Five
The Queen Stage of the Swiss Alpine Adventures trip – the final two climbs from Stage 17 of the Tour de France 2016 (Col de la Forclaz & Col de la Gueulaz up to Lac d’Emosson). This is likely to be a pivotal stage in this year’s Le Tour & the big names of Froome, Contador, Aru, Quintana, Van Garderen & Porte are expected to duke it out for overall victory.
Le Tour will be heading up the St Bernard Pass for about a mile, before taking a right turn up the old road to Col de la Forclaz. We followed this route too & the early slopes took us past vineyards & through small villages – the first surprise was that the gradient was significantly steeper than we expected, as it regularly popped over 12%. The views over Martigny & the Rhone valley below became more spectacular & by the time we joined the new road we’d climbed over 1,000 feet in just under 25 minutes.
The new road has a very consistent 7.5% to 8% gradient all the way from Martigny up to the summit at Col de la Forclaz (narrow gap in French), as it twists & turns up the side of the mountain. A stunning climb that offers huge views from the café at the summit. Although this is the main road between Martigny (in Switzerland) & Chamonix (in France), the traffic today was relatively light, allowing us to enjoy the 4 mile descent to Trient – this included a tunnel that had motion activated lights that came on as we cycled through it!
A right turn onto the D1506 took us over a bridge to the opposite side of the valley & this marked the start of the 7.5 mile climb up to Col de la Gueulaz. The early slopes took us through the quaint village of Finault, which has already started decorating the streets with Le Tour bunting. The region is famous as dinosaur footprints have been found high in the mountains, which helped explain why the village had decked out a dinosaur in a ‘King of The Mountains’ polka dot jersey!!!
The climb started in earnest from this point on – 4 miles where the gradient averages between 9% & 10% the entire way. Thank goodness there were some amazing views over to the Trient Glacier & towards Mont Blanc to take my mind off the gradient. As we approached the summit, the final 1km was having the tarmac re-laid for Le Tour. It’s was stunning & challenging in equal measures, so I can’t wait to see the TV coverage & watch the pros as they bid for glory!!
Just beyond (& below) the summit of the Col is…..a Hydro Electric Dam! The original dam was completed in 1925 & some clever engineering resulted in the new Barrage d’Emosson going into service & flooding the old dam in 1973, to a height of 180 metres. For the brave of heart it’s possible to take a funicular railway from the valley floor – at 87% (yes, 87%!), it’s the steepest two cabin funicular in the world. I thought cable cars were scary until I saw this!!!
Unfortunately there was construction work taking place, so we weren’t allowed to cycle across the dam & as a result, my photo opportunities were limited. This is a stunningly beautiful location, with enormous views across to the Trient Glacier & Mont Blanc in one direction & the Rhone valley way off in the other direction. To get here, we’d already ridden 22 miles & climbed 6,750 feet, so decided that spaghetti bolognaise was in order – tasty & instant energy as all cyclists know!
The descent seemed to be over in no time – that’s the thing with a steep climb, you get the benefit on the way back down. We needed to keep our wits about us, as there were huge trucks & buses coming up the mountain, so it wasn’t a time to be too adventurous. We overtook a couple of riders on the way down, who had set off just as I was taking some photos – they added to the shot, so thank you, whoever you are!
The final climb of the day was the reverse side of the Col de la Forclaz, a tiddler at 4.5 miles that was by far the kindest climb of the day. After a quick espresso to sharpen the senses, it was time to descend the new tarmac back to Martigny – this felt like a fast road on the way up (very few bends & huge views down the mountain) & so it proved to be. I was so busy concentrating that I didn’t check my speeds until I uploaded the ride this evening – I hit a top speed of 48.6mph, but it never felt like I was travelling that quickly.
When I first planned today’s ride, it was all about riding part of the Queen Stage. However, by today it was all about experiencing another glorious day in the Valais – once again we had beautiful blue skies all day, benign conditions & stunning vistas in every direction.