Tour de Suisse Summits – Lac Champex & Val Ferret – July 2016

Secret Climbs, Hidden Summits – Day Seven

We were back to riding straight out the hotel door again today – always a bonus, as I get an extra 30 minutes lie-in! The early miles required another trip across town & a visit to the fast & heavily trafficked Grand St Bernard Pass, however after 25 minutes we reached our turn-off.

The plan today was to explore a couple of ‘secret’ climbs – first up (literally!) was Lac Champex. The early stages of the climb had steep hairpin after steep hairpin, where you could look out across the St Bernard valley. As we climbed higher, we entered a silver birch & pine tree forest, with a strong smell of resin – similar to a newly cut Christmas Tree smell. I don’t think the climb was as difficult as it felt, it was more a case of having legs that are beginning to rebel against a daily diet of adventurous riding!

We reached Lac Champex after just over 2 hours of riding which saw us climb 3,200 feet in 12 miles – time for a coffee stop & some blackcurrent flan that was out of this world! The lake has some stunning views across to the snow-peak covered mountains, where paragliders were doing their thing on the thermals. To add to the occasion, there was a festival of some sort taking place with traditional Swiss dancing taking place. I would have happily whiled away the day here, supping the occasional beer, however, we had things to do & places to see!

It was time to give all those hard-earned feet back & descend the opposite side of the mountain, towards the St Bernard valley again. The road plummeted towards the valley below in a series of hairpins & blind corners, so it provided plenty of opportunities to stop & admire the view – no high speed descents today!

Once on the valley floor, it was time to explore ‘secret’ climb number two – we took a right turn & set off towards La Fouly in the Val Ferret, on another quiet & picturesque road. When I mapped this out, the average gradient for the 7 mile climb was only about 7%, so nothing too severe compared to what we’d already experienced. However, there were lots of fairly flat sections, meaning there were also lots of 9% & 10% sections too & my legs were finally telling me they were……on their last legs! Each day my heart rate has dropped during a climb, we’ve had to adapt our climbing as we’ve become more tired. I usually expect to ascend at about 150 beats per minute, by today this was down to 130 – as soon as I tried to raise my heart rate, my legs refused to co-operate!! Knowing this would happen ensured that I rode well within myself as we continued to climb up a beautiful glacial valley, with yet more paragliders enjoying themselves overhead.

At La Fouly it was time for a final rest stop & an opportunity to marvel at some real athletes – the Verbier / St Bernard X-Alpine race was taking place & the competitors had to run / walk / crawl 68 miles with over 27,600 feet of climbing (& descending). La Fouly was 40km into the race & we saw competitors passing through the feed station during our coffee stop – what incredible athletes!

We had a much simpler challenge ahead of us, the 12 mile descent back to Sembrancher, where we joined the St Bernard Pass again. There was just time to stop & get in some Hay Bale Surfing action – I can’t believe how inflexible I appear in the photo!

Once the high jinks were completed, there was a final sting in the tail as the wind had changed direction & was now blowing us back up the mountain. Sean pointed out he was a skinny mountain goat, so it was my duty as the Domestique to get him back to the hotel in relative comfort – what could I say? I gave it an Eyeballs Out, Full Gas effort into the wind & thoroughly enjoyed the final miles of what has been another awesome Alpine Adventure! I stopped just long enough to take a final couple of photos which summed up Martigny – the Tour de France & stylish art on the roundabouts.

I hope you’ve enjoyed following my progress & as the sun sets on this adventure, I’m already looking forward to doing it all again somewhere new next year.

Tour de Suisse Summits – Mattmarksee & Zermatt – July 2016

A trip to The Matterhorn – Day Six

Up until today, every ride has started right outside the hotel’s front door. However, today we had a 50 mile drive to Visp (which is located 50 miles further up the Rhone valley). The plan today was to explore two valleys that share the same access from the valley floor. The first 5 miles to Stalden was on a very busy main road, but as soon as we crossed the River Vispa (the gateway to Zermatt) we had the tarmac pretty much to ourselves with the occasional interruption from a bus or construction lorry. As we followed the course of the Saaservispa river, we steadily gained height & found ourselves looking back down towards Visp, way off in the background.

The first 15 miles were among the easiest we’ve ridden all week – a very welcome rest for the weary legs, as well as providing plenty of ‘action’ photo opportunities. We stopped for a quick coffee at Saas-Balen, before continuing on our way in high spirits.

We were so busy chatting, we missed our turn – not only did we miss the turn, we didn’t even realise until we’d reached the top of an unexpected climb into Saas-Fee. It’s a lovely pedestrianised town that I would have enjoyed exploring if only it was where we planned to visit!! We re-traced our steps having taken the correct turning, spent the next 6 miles heading up an ever steepening road, until the final ½ mile straight stretch hit 14% – a real leg stinger after 5 days of hard riding!!

We’d reached Mattmarksee – a climb of just over 5,000 feet (including our detour!) in 25 miles.

After another lunch of Spag Bol we set off back towards Stalden – remember that steep last ½ mile I mentioned above? By the time I took that first corner I’d already hit 51.3 mph & braked to safely negotiate the corner…a stunningly fast piece of road! It took about 35 minutes to descend the 15 miles back to Stalden – this completed part one of our adventure.

For part two, we headed up the Vispa valley towards Tasch (& ultimately Zermatt, at the base of the Matterhorn). It was 3.30pm when we started this section, so didn’t have any great expectations of exploring very far, however, we followed the course of the river, meaning the gradients were always very friendly to us. The Gotthard / Matterhorn Railway also runs through the valley – I recognised the trains from a previous trip to Andermatt. The track hugs the river, with towering cliffs on either side.

At one point, there wasn’t space for river, train track & modern width road, so a new 2.4km road tunnel had been built. The good news for pedestrians & cyclists is that the narrow, old road is reserved exclusively for their use – it would have been a bit of a slog cycling uphill in the tunnel, especially with vans & lorries whizzing through too.

Due to the friendly nature of the route, we managed to get all the way out to Tasch, where we stopped for a quick ice cream (size XXL) & coffee, while watching Roger Federer lose the 4th set in his match against Milos Raonic.

By now it was about 5.30pm, so time to do an about face & head back to Visp. The journey back to the car took a little over 40 minutes – it’s been another thoroughly enjoyable & fun day in the saddle, under glorious blue skies. I think I may even have a small bit of sunburn on my bald patch!! It’s now time to get some rest before the final day of Alpine Adventures tomorrow.

Tour de Suisse Summits – Tour de France Stage 17 – July 2016

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.

Tour de Suisse Summits – Barrage du Mauvoisin – July 2016

Dam Busting Stage 2 – Day Four

Another Epic day in the saddle up to Barrage du Mauvoisin – another hydro-electric dam, however, today the road was either climbing or descending (so no flat miles to pad out the distance) once we left town. In addition to the main climb of the day (4,850 feet of climbing in 25 miles), I’d also identified a couple of bonus climbs in case our legs felt strong….

The first 12 miles followed Sunday’s route to Le Chable, at which point we turned off the main roads & headed towards the snow covered mountains way off in the distance. The views continued to get ever more impressive as we climbed higher & deeper into the mountains – physically as well as metaphorically, as we passed through a couple of tunnels! For the first time this trip we got to see a marmot, rather than just hear them squeaking as we approached.

We made a quick stop for Tarte Tartin with ice cream & a cappuccino in the middle of nowhere, before the final push.

As we rounded the very next corner after our stop we saw our target for the day – the Barrage du Mauvoisin, as it towered 250 metres above us! It’s the 11th tallest dam in the world, took 6 years to build & spans 520 metres from side to side.

After taking in the majesty of the dam, lake & surrounding area (Mont Blanc was visible in the distance), we descended back towards Lourtier, taking in a cliff road detour on the way to view the valley below.

We still felt good, so took the decision to climb a back road (including a 3km gravel section along the summit balcony) towards Verbier. The climb was always ‘comfortable’ & as we gained height the views widened until we again got to see paragliders as they soared on the thermals above us.

We took the same descent as on Sunday until Le Chable, where we stopped for lunch. Our legs still weren’t totally cooked (although well on their way!), so we threw in yet another bonus climb – the Col des Planches. This was on a deserted road that took us high above the main road we cycled this morning, with stunning views towards Col de Grand Saint Bernard in one direction & Mont Blanc in the other. The climb ascended 2,100 feet in 5 miles, so averaged about 8%, but with a couple of short stretches up over 13%.

As we started the descent towards Martigny this was all forgotten, as incredible views up & down the Rhone valley showed themselves.

We popped into town to celebrate another awesome day in the saddle & to take in some of the Tour de France reminders & to top up the calories ahead of tomorrow’s adventure!

Tour de Suisse Summits – Barrage de la Grande Dixence – July 2016

Dam Busting – Day Three

Today’s adventure was a monster climb up to the world’s fifth tallest dam (it was 2nd tallest until 2010), the Barrage de la Grande Dixence.

The day started in a similar fashion to yesterday, the first 20 miles or so followed the River Rhone through fruit orchards (apples, pears & apricots to name a few), vineyards & fields of vegetables. For once I had a bit of a nightmare getting us to the start of the climb, but luckily we were still in high spirits, so it didn’t matter, plus it added to the adventure!

The early part of the climb is on a relatively busy road, but this only affected us for the first four miles until we reached our coffee stop of Vex. After an invigorating slice of apricot tart & a cappuccino, we turned onto an almost deserted road, as we continued to climb towards Dixence – everything was hunky dory, my training had prepared me for just this sort of challenge…..

At which point we turned a corner & there some 5 miles in the distance was the Barrage de la Grande Dixence & it was still several thousand feet above us! I can only assume that the engineers that planned & built the road were sadists, as the gradient never dipped below 10% from this point on & the majority of it was between 11% & 13% – my training hadn’t prepared me for this.

It was even more challenging than the hardest bit of the Sanetsch yesterday, so it was time to look in the suitcase of courage – sadly I’d only packed a rucksack of despair!! After a quick energy bar it was time to man-up & get on with it & a mere hour of pain later we’d reached the car park at the foot of the dam.

A few statistics for you;

At 285 metres, the Barrage is 9 metres higher than the top platform of the Eiffel Tower.

The dam took 14 years to complete & was finished in 1964.

This is part of the Cleuson-Dixence complex, which provides hydro-electric power to 400,000 Swiss households per year.

At peak capacity the reservoir can hold 400 million cubic metres of water.

The top part of the descent required total concentration, as the steep road we’d previously climbed now dropped in a series of tight hairpins & the price of getting it wrong was too severe to consider. Once we’d negotiated this tricky start, the remainder of the descent back into Vex was easy. After a quick baguette for lunch we continued to descend on a fast, open road back to Sion – look away now if you’re family…. I maxed out at 45 mph as you got such a great view of what lay ahead, which included a posse of horse riders crossing the road!

From Sion, we reversed the route along the cycle path into a tough head/side wind, but we made really good time as it was also very slightly downhill. All in all, another day that was fully worthy of being called an Alpine Adventure & deserved to be celebrated in style with a slap up meal in town!!

Tour de Suisse Summits – July 2016

Lac de Sanetsch, Col de Pillon & Col de la Croix – Day Two.

An EPIC day in the saddle – this is one of my favourite five rides & one of the hardest. The numbers by themselves don’t tell even a part of the story – 75 miles with 9,750 feet of climbing. Once again the weather gods smiled on us, as we were greeted with blue skies & light breezes as we set off on the day’s adventure. The Tour de France is visiting Martigny for a couple of stages this year, so there are reminders all over town.

The majority of first 15 miles were on a cycle path that hugged the edge of the River Rhone – the valley is glacial in origin, so there’s agriculture all along the valley floor & on the lower slopes. Helicopters buzzed overhead throughout these early miles, as they sprayed the crops – amazingly we rode past just as one was refuelling & preparing to take off. This gentle introduction finished after about an hour of leisurely riding – the day’s main event was a climb up to Lac de Sanetsch, one of many hydro-electric dams in the Valais region.

This was a brute of a climb – 16 miles long with 6,200 feet of ascent. The views back down to the valley floor helped to take away some of the pain, as did the fact that we were riding a road that ‘dead-ended’ at the summit. As a result the road was pretty much deserted.

There was a 4 mile stretch where the gradient didn’t drop below 10% & at one point my Garmin was showing a 17% incline – no amount of training in the UK fully prepares you for these kind of climbs, so I chose to admire the views & tried not to look at the slope!!! We needed a couple of espresso stops, so we could keep our water bottles topped up – the temperature was now in the 80’s, so staying hydrated was essential.

As the steep stuff relented, we rounded a corner to meet our next challenge – a ½ mile tunnel with fairly basic lighting. If I’m honest, these are the sort of things I love being confronted with on my trips – if I wanted a simple pootle on a cycle path, I could go to Bath & back!

Finally after just over 3 hours of climbing, we reached the summit, before dropping down a couple of hundred feet to the lake. Time for lunch & mushroom risotto looked like a great choice……well actually it was the only choice! Two main courses & two cokes set us back an eye-watering £45.

You may remember me saying the road runs out at the lake, yet we did a loop – how so, I hear you ask. By taking a cable car down to Gsteig on the other side – this gains in significance when I share the fact that Sean hates heights. In spite of this fear, he still got in the cable car & lay on the floor so he didn’t have to look out at the 2,000 foot shear drop!!!

From here, it was a straightforward climb up the Col de Pillon, before descending to Les Diablerets.

This was decision time, continue the descent back to the valley floor, or take a detour & add in the climb of Col de la Croix. Foolishly we chose the detour, as I’m sure you knew I would!!

Another brutal climb, rising just over 2,000 feet in a little over 5 miles. It was a steady 8% all the way & a real struggle after all the steep climbing we’d already completed. However, there were stunning views once again to distract me from the pain.

Once we summited, we were rewarded with a glorious descent, as the road twisted in & out of tiny towns & villages on its way back to the Rhone valley. All that remained from there was a 15 mile ride home along as we headed up the Rhone valley once again.

Tour de Suisse Summits – July 2016

Verbier & Back – Day One.

A 3.30am alarm call means it’s time for another Alpine Adventure to commence – this time a 7 day expedition to Martigny in Switzerland. The flight to Geneva to us over Lac de Leman with huge views across to Mont Blanc which dominated the horizon. Having landed on time, we were ready to pick up the Ford Mondeo estate from Thrifty at 11am local time. Unfortunately, our car wasn’t ready & wouldn’t be for at least another hour – initial disappointment was quickly turned to happiness however, as the Reps friend at Hertz was able to rustle up a BMW 216 Estate instead. I hope our luck holds for the rest of the trip too!

We reached our hotel by 1.30pm, so we were able to check in immediately, having the bikes re-assembled & ready to ride by 2.30. Martigny is a major town in the Rhone Valley, so there are mountains everywhere – as a result, I had planned more rides than we had days available & this seemed like the perfect opportunity to use one of them! I’d read about the climb from Martigny up to Verbier, as it regularly features in the Tour de Suisse & is also where Alberto Contador blew the 2009 Tour de France wide open. This was the perfect opportunity to go & try it for myself!

The early couple of miles took us out of town & past several temperature gauges, which confirmed we were in for a warm afternoon – 31 degrees centigrade & blue sky everywhere. The road from Martigny to Sembracher is the start of the Grand St Bernard Pass (the main route into Italy from the Valais valley), so is relatively busy. However, once we got off the main road, the fun really started – while the serious part of the climb is only 5 miles long, it regularly ramped up to 9 & 10% as it twisted & turned up the sheer face of the valley. The heat & severity of the gradient meant it was a real challenge, even if it wasn’t particularly long – just under 2 hours to ride 18 miles & climb 3,750 feet from the base to summit.

The views from Verbier were stunning – views across the valley to snow covered peaks were made even more spectacular by paragliders, as they flew the thermals.

Like many ‘out of season’ ski resorts, most of the cafes & bars were shut & those that were open didn’t have any cake! We stopped long enough to grab a quick espresso & a few photos, before what should have been a fast & lazy descent back to Martigny.

The wind had other ideas, as Ed Wind blew so hard, we had to pedal on some of the downhill stretches, otherwise we would have ground to a stop! An unexpected bonus was that we got to see all the scenery, as we were travelling so slowly!

What a great first day, fingers crossed the rest of the week follows the same pattern!